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For SETI Researchers, Here Is a Guide for Handling Fallacious Objections

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A recent story making the rounds, "Space anomaly gets extraterrestrial intelligence experts' attention," claims that the Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) project has found "a strange star" that "could mean alien life." As David Klinghoffer noted in an earlier post, the raw data entails odd fluctuations in the intensity of light coming from a star. CNN reports:

The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence Institute has its eyes -- and soon possibly one of the United States' premier telescopes -- focused on an anomaly that some astronomers can't quite explain.


"What was unusual about that was the depth of the light dips, up to 20% decrease in light, and the timescales (of light variation) -- a week to a couple of months."

So what's the explanation? Could it be from a swarm of comets? Some sort of intergalactic phenomenon that Earthbound scientists haven't discovered? Or an effect of planet-sized structures built by some sort of alien civilization?

Comparisons between SETI's methodology and the theory of intelligent design (ID) have been made since ID's earliest days. Both SETI and ID seek to detect the signs of intelligence in the world around us. SETI focuses on looking for evidence of extraterrestrial civilizations far away in the universe. ID looks for signs of intelligent agency in the origin of living organisms and the universe itself.

SETI and ID share something else: they both try to be very conservative and cautious, invoking intelligent causation only when it is clearly warranted by the evidence. Here's how one SETI scientist handles this:

Jason Wright, a Penn State astronomy professor, saw Boyajian's data and can't quite explain it. But in a post Thursday to his website, he cautioned against jumping to conclusions -- as some apparently have -- that intelligent beings far away are behind this oddity.

"My philosophy of SETI," Wright wrote, referring to the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, "is that you should reserve your alien hypothesis as a last resort." He also cited "Cochran's Commandment to planet hunters ... Thou shalt not embarrass thyself and they colleagues by claiming false planets.

That's a good philosophy, and ID takes a similar approach. ID proponents only conclude in favor of design when it's clear that known material causes cannot explain the observed phenomena and when the data is best explained by intelligence.

So far, SETI hasn't found a case that is clearly explained by some extraterrestrial civilization. This recent find of a star with flickering light is nowhere near enough evidence to conclude that aliens are the best explanation -- in fact Tech Insider reports that the data could be explained by a "lopsided star" wherein its irregular shape "creates patches of darker and lighter regions within these kinds of stars, so the light curves that make it back to Earth won't look completely uniform."

But suppose SETI were to one day discover strong evidence of some extraterrestrial civilization -- enough to warrant a design inference. They might expect to face some of the same fallacious objections that ID faces. They might like some friendly tips on handling them. Here's a little guide for SETI folks if that day ever comes:

Who Made the Aliens?

As soon as you claim you've detected aliens, skeptics will say "How can you claim there are aliens when you haven't explained who made the aliens?"

The answer to this is very simple: We don't need to be able to explain the origin of the aliens to recognize evidence of them. For example, let's say that Chewbacca, Spock, and ET were standing right in front of you. Would you say to them, "Look, I'm not going to believe any of you actually exist until you tell me where you came from"?

(I should add that it could be very fair to ask where the aliens came from because in an ultimate sense they require an explanation -- but it's not a fair question to ask if your only purpose is to question whether those aliens exist.)

Where's Your "Alien-O'Meter"?

Some critics might reply "You need some kind of an 'alien-o-meter' to show that these aliens really exist before you can claim that you've detected evidence of an extraterrestrial civilization. After all, how do we know that aliens were behind the evidence you've discovered if we don't know the aliens exist?"

The answer to this one is a bit more complicated. But a little explanation shows this objection to be nonsensical and based upon a complete misunderstanding of how we make scientific inferences.

Some ID critics mistakenly think you have to directly witness the designer in action with your own eyes in order to detect design. Sometimes misguided creationists make an analogous critique of evolution, saying that you can never infer evolution if no one was around to see it. Both groups misunderstand the nature of historical sciences.

Historical sciences operate under the principle of uniformitarianism, which assumes that the way the natural world works today is similar to how it worked in the past. In other words, "the present is the key to the past." If we see certain causes at work in the world as we know it and we learn to recognize their known effects, then when we find those same effects in the historical record, we can infer that the same causes were at work. As I have explained before:

Recently an atheist student emailed me to ask how it's reasonable to claim that an "unobserved designer" is responsible for complex features of nature, like high CSI (complex specified information) and irreducibly complex structures. In reply, I explained that first we must ask the question "What does it mean to 'observe' or 'detect' something?" Here's a start:
  • Our eyes can help us observe objects in nature by seeing light reflected from those objects.
  • Our ears can help us detect objects in nature by receiving sound emitted from them.
  • Our nose can help us detect objects in nature by receiving emitted chemicals which we register as a "smell."
  • Our skin can help us detect objects in nature by receiving signals that tell us about shape, texture, and even temperature.
So when we see a campfire, how do we "observe" it? Our sense organs receive patterns of light, sound, smell, and heat, which our brains recognize and match to fires we've seen in the past. Our brain thinks, in effect, "Okay, as in the past, when the eyes receive a particular pattern of yellow and red light, the ears hear a crackling sound, the nose receives the smell of smoke, and the skin feels heat, that's a campfire." So we recognize and observe something by receiving a pattern of information through our sense organs and then matching it to a pattern we've seen in the past.

Our senses also make another set of observations about a campfire: the morning after a campfire, we observe that there's a bunch of blackened and charred wood, ash and soot, and smoke rising from within a circle of blackened stones. We smell the smoke and ash, and it might be slightly warm from remaining embers from the night before.

So let's say now that we're taking a morning stroll and come upon a circle of blackened stones, charred wood, ash, and soot. There's a little smoke rising from the center, and it's slightly warm. We didn't see a fire directly with our eyes. But our senses tell us that there is evidence that a fire was there. In this case, the most reasonable inference to make is that there was a campfire, even though we can't directly observe it.

Thus, just because something is "unobservable" by our eyes at this exact moment, doesn't mean we can't find compelling evidence that it exists, or that it was present. We must not toss out the word "unobservable" as if it somehow blocks the design inference. We regularly make inferences to unobserved objects and events (like a campfire) by using our senses to detect evidence that reliably indicates that a particular object or event was present (like finding a circle of blackened stones, charred wood, soot, and smoke).

We can use exactly the same method of reasoning to detect design at the heart of biology. In all of our experience, high CSI and irreducible complexity ONLY come from intelligent agents. Thus, based upon our experience of the cause-and-effect structure of the world we observe around us, we are justified in inferring that a mind was at work. ...[W]hen we find high CSI entities like language-based digital codes or irreducibly complex molecular machines, we are justified in inferring that an intelligent agent was at work. Why? Because, in our experience, these things always trace back to a mind. We might not directly see that mind, but we can infer that a mind was present to create the known observed effects.

This is the positive argument for intelligent design, and it is just like inferring that a campfire was present based on remaining physical evidence. One need not directly see the fire, or know who tended it, or why he or she or they did so, to draw a reasonable inference that a fire was present.

So to the critic who asks "Where's the alien-o-meter," SETI's response might go like this: We have an alien-o-meter, but it's not what you think it is. We don't need to Skype with ET to potentially know he's there. If we find in space the kind of evidence that, in our experience, only comes from intelligent beings, then we can infer that ETs exist.

Aliens of the Gaps

A last objection the SETI researcher will face goes like this: You're never allowed to conclude that aliens are responsible for anything because someday we might find a fully material, physical explanation other than ETs for the evidence you claim demonstrates an extraterrestrial civilization. As materialist explanations advance, your "alien" theory will just retreat into the gaps of our knowledge.

Now this objection might have a little more traction than the others. Nobody wants to invoke intelligent aliens only to have them later explained away by some unintelligent material cause. As SETI proponent Jason Wright said, it should be a "last resort." And indeed, in this case that's a good philosophy since the "lopsided star" theory seems to explain the observed data quite well.

But does the fact that some cases aren't best explained by intelligence that mean you can never invoke intelligent causes? Of course not! It just means one needs to be careful and cautious about invoking intelligent design.

What the gaps fallacy really says is, "While your explanation may seem correct today, new evidence may be revealed tomorrow to provide a material explanation and show that intelligent causes aren't the best explanation." That's a fair point, but the reality is that every type of explanation -- material or intelligent -- is subject to the same problem.

Indeed, any explanation could be subject to the "gaps" charge. This is a problem that every kind of explanation in science potentially faces. That's why scientific explanations are always held tentatively and never asserted with complete finality or absolute certainty. Scientific explanations are always subject to revision if newly uncovered data shows they are wrong. This is true whether we're dealing with Darwinian evolution or intelligent design, aliens or standard stellar dynamics.

So at the end of the day, what the "gaps" objection really ought to say is "Today X is the best explanation, but let's hold it tentatively." Nothing wrong with that -- that's how all science ought to work.

What the gaps charge often indicates is that some kind of explanation is assumed to be the default, privileged answer, and that we can only deviate from that default answer under extraordinary circumstances. In the case of intelligent design or SETI, it's material causes that are being privileged. Many who make the "gaps" charge want material causes to have an absolute privilege that precludes making a design inference in all circumstances. But given that we can detect intelligent causation, why should material causes enjoy such an absolute privilege?

Unless we are to privilege material causes on principle and deny our ability to ever infer intelligent causes, the gaps objection fails. But since we know what intelligent causes can do, and because we can reliably detect the prior action of intelligent agents, we can't say that in all cases it's wrong to detect design. We can detect design, and so long as we hold the conclusion of design tentatively, the gaps objection isn't fatal.

Don't Miss the Irony

Now I personally don't object to SETI researchers doing their thing, but I'm highly skeptical that they're ever going to find an extraterrestrial civilization. But my reason for writing this isn't to rant against SETI. It's just to point out the irony. People make a lot of fallacious objections against intelligent causation. We in the ID movement get this all the time. It sounds like, "Who designed the designer?" or "Where's your theo-meter?" or "This is just God of the gaps." If SETI claimed to find some extraterrestrial intelligent civilization, most likely the analagous objections would never come up, at least not with much force.

Why is that? Most materialists would see extraterrestrial life as proof that a naturalistic origin of life is possible, and that perhaps life is therefore common in our universe. After all, what drives many materialists to look for evidence of extraterrestrial life is a misguided assumption that if aliens exist, it would somehow validates their worldview.

But they are mistaken about what SETI means. If we found evidence of an alien civilization, that wouldn't be evidence that life evolves naturally. It would just be evidence for an extraterrestrial civilization. That's it. How it arose would be an entirely different question. And all indications we have so far show that life could not arise naturally, whether on earth or anywhere else. For all we know, finding evidence of extraterrestrial life could end up being yet another piece of evidence pointing to intelligent design.

Image: Starburst Galaxy Messier 94, via European Space Agency/NASA.