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Desperate for Company, SETI Ratchets Up the Design Inference


Have you ever run across this anti-ID argument? “We know humans design things, but we have no experience with non-human super-intelligences. You can’t extrapolate from one to the other.” That line flies out the window with the latest SETI proposition.

Behold “Project Hephaistos” — it’s SETI on steroids. The intelligent designers in this project may as well be gods. Advocates even admit that their aliens’ accomplishments meet the conditions of Arthur C. Clarke’s third law: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

The project comes out of Uppsala University, where Beatriz Villaroel defends her “crazy idea” that advanced intelligences can modify whole galaxies. It’s an idea that has been “gnawing at her since her first year of graduate studies,” according to Shannon Hall reporting for New Scientist. Would any ID supporter be able to get away with the lack of evidence to support a design inference?

It’s a cosmic game of hide-and-seek. A team of astronomers say that the next search for advanced extraterrestrial civilisations should look for stars — or even galaxies — that have vanished without a trace, as anything so unexplainable could only be due to life far more intelligent than us. [Emphasis added.]

At least ID has a pile of observational evidence to support the design inference. Design advocates don’t say it has vanished without a trace.

Notice the reasoning behind Project Hephaistos, offered on their “About” page. It stems from utter frustration at the lack of evidence for Old SETI.

The scientific search for intelligent life in outer space represents one of the most compelling quests that humanity has ever undertaken. In recent years, astronomers have discovered large numbers of exoplanetary systems, and if one entertains the notion that intelligent life may not be unique to our planet, the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) would seem like a promising endeavour. However, astronomers have now been scanning the skies for more than 50 years, without detecting any communication signals from alien civilizations. While signal-based searches should certainly continue as new and better telescopes (like the Square Kilometer Array) come on line, alternative strategies should also be considered.

Those aliens just have to be there. The evolutionary worldview demands it. Villaroel and team introduce “New SETI” — new and improved for discouraged SETI researchers on the verge of throwing in the towel. One doesn’t know whether to compare this to New Coke or Jolt Cola.

What if the nearest extraterrestrial civilization is too far away to contact us? Or what if we are simply considered too primitive to warrant contact? Could we then still somehow detect the existence of other civilizations? Possibly. An alternative to the classical, signal-based approach is to search for signatures of alien technology – like large-scale engineering projects, interstellar propulsion mechanism and industrial pollution in the atmospheres of exoplanets. Searches of this kind (sometimes called “new SETI”) make no assumption on the willingness of extraterrestrial civilizations to contact us directly, Moreover, non-detections resulting from suitable designed searches of this kind can yield meaningful upper limits on the prevalence of civilizations using the assumed technologies.

No human has encountered space aliens yet, mind you, but we can infer their motivations by their silence — according to this line of evidence-free reasoning:

  1. There must not be any aliens close enough to detect their signals.

  2. The Fermi Paradox (“If they’re so smart, why haven’t they visited us yet?”) implies they are not interested in primitive humans.

  3. Given their distance and disinterest, the only way to find them is to look for really big effects.

  4. Big effects would require the ability to modify entire stars and galaxies.

  5. Advanced technology this grandiose would be indistinguishable from magic.

And that’s where the vanishing act comes in. These aliens are so smart, they can make stars, or even galaxies, vanish without a trace. How’s that for a magic act? No wonder any alien[s] able to pull off that trick would have to be “far more intelligent than us,” almost godly. Hence the name of the project — Hephaistos.

Project Hephaistos, named after the Greek god of blacksmiths who crafted much of the magnificent equipment of the Olympian gods (chariots, weapons and even automatons), belongs to this class of “new SETI” endeavours, focusing on the search for signatures of extraterrestrial technology rather than looking for signals deliberately sent our way.

A Greek god… a craftsman… tempting as it is to push the point, we know they are just using it as a figure of speech. Their “god” (alien civilization) is not omnipotent or omnipresent. (We charitably overlook the godlike image in their logo — “It’s full of stars!”) According to ID principles, the nature of the designer is a secondary question. A design inference is justified by the effects, not from direct knowledge of the intelligent designer.

Villarroel and her colleagues are searching for things that seem impossible. If they confirm a star that has vanished without an accompanying supernova explosion or a galaxy that has disappeared from view, there’s simply no physical explanation – save for aliens.

For all that ID dares to infer, space aliens could have designed biological life. It would take other evidence beyond ID to justify a supernatural or any other designer.

This leads to the startling realization that the backers of Project Hephaistos, including its researchers, funders and supporters, are de facto advocates of intelligent design. Their membership card in the ID movement is already in the mail.

It’s doubtful, however, they would welcome our…welcome. Like Richard Dawkins or the movie Contact, they would probably assert that the aliens evolved by Darwinian mechanisms, but just got a head start on us. If Uppsala is like most other universities, saying otherwise would be a CLM (career-limiting move). The preprint on the arXiv server doesn’t indicate their position.

Nevertheless, one notices Villaroel using something like the Design Filter in her search for stars or galaxies that might have disappeared between one sky survey and the next. From the news release:

Even if the disappearance is real, there could still be an astrophysical explanation. Quasars — the bright centres of galaxies powered by supermassive black holes – can shut down in less than a decade and drop drastically in brightness. Stars, too, can be highly variable.

They agree, in other words, that chance or natural law should be preferred until the probabilistic resources are exhausted.

That’s why Villarroel and her colleagues plan to search for this missing object (and any others found in the future), on the largest telescopes. If it is still not visible, then they will be able to rule out most astrophysical phenomena and say with more likelihood that it has vanished. Only then will they begin speculating about extraterrestrial causes.

Says Jay Olson at Boise State in Idaho, “I think it’s a very reasonable thing to do.” Indeed. That’s why intelligent design theory uses the same line of reasoning to infer an intelligence behind DNA, animal body plans, and the fine-tuning of the universe. ID doesn’t ask who the designer is. It only seeks a vera causa (true cause) able to account for the effects. Only in ID’s case, the effects have not vanished; they are plain for all to see.

Photo: Temple of Hephaistos, Athens, via Wikicommons.

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