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The Search for Terrestrial Intelligence – An Exercise in Intelligent Design

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We humans take our own intelligence for granted. We know when we make things on purpose, and we use “folk psychology” to attribute similar intentionality and motivation to our fellows. Most of the time, we have an intuitive sense of design for human artifacts, even if we didn’t observe them coming into existence. Can we project that kind of reasoning onto extraterrestrials? The question may sound strange, but playing along with it might illuminate some principles of intelligent design.

In Live Science, Sarah B. Puschman showed a picture of crop circles that she says look like “alien” works of art. She’s not talking about those elaborate artworks created in the middle of the night by hoaxers, but by the rather ordinary circles standing out in the desert due to farming practices (see the photo above).

To make the circles pictured, water is drawn to the surface and sprinkled onto crops through slowly spinning pipes using a process called center-pivot irrigation.

The water “is drawn” — by whom? By human beings using intelligent design, obviously. Pipes don’t create themselves. Pipes don’t rotate from a pivot by themselves. Humans took natural materials — metal, water, and seeds — and arranged them in a way that yields crop circles. They can really stand out from the surroundings when seen from an aircraft. How strong would the design inference be for alien intelligences, if irrigation circles were the only things they saw?

Circles can be made naturally: for instance, volcanic craters, calderas, and impact scars. There’s a large circular lake in Canada formed from a meteorite. Any geological process on earth that spreads material out from a center could form a circle. What makes the irrigation circle different? An artesian well might spread water out in a circle on a very flat plain, after all, allowing plants to grow within its reach. Looking at these crop circles, though, one knows immediately they were designed.

For one thing, there are lots of them laid out with regular spacing. For another, they are too perfect; no irregularities. Radioisotopes can create perfect circles (actually spheres) in rock, but those are not equally spaced. It’s highly improbable that volcanoes or meteorites would form circles in a regular grid pattern. While one crop circle might leave the design inference open to question, a lot of them with regular spacing clinches it, for humans at least. But could aliens, without knowledge of human practices, arrive at the same conclusion?

Some things obvious to us might not be obvious to sentient beings unfamiliar with human technology. We would have similar challenges on alien worlds. Visiting aliens might need a little more evidence at ground level. But even if they couldn’t find someone to ask, it seems likely they would arrive at a robust inference (if we assume that logical reasoning is universal among intelligent beings).

Are these circles, and the ingredients making them, natural occurrences on our strange planet? Alien design theorists might try to see if pipes are found in other locations, such as in forests, in random orientations. They might investigate whether water normally springs out of devices that are regularly spaced along the pipes anywhere else. Natural geysers might give them pause, but only temporarily, when they contrast their variability with the high degree of regularity in the irrigation pipes. They might consider whether the plants growing in the circles, whether wheat, potatoes, or chamomile, grow naturally outside circles or in the occasional oasis. And if math and geometry are available to all intelligent minds, as the human designers of the Voyager Golden Records assumed, we would expect aliens to be impressed by the extreme regularity of the geometry of crop circles. They might suspect functional coherence in the crops, that they are being grown for a purpose — even if the aliens can’t eat them. Lastly, they might find aesthetic beauty in the patterns.

We’re assuming a lot about alien minds, but we already know the answer as humans: Yes, these crop circles are designed for a purpose. If SETI believers expect to be able to distinguish alien artifacts from natural causes, they can certainly also expect aliens to decipher ours.

Crop Art

Puschman ends with a discussion of the artistic crop circles that appear within corn or wheat fields in the morning. When the crop-art fad first caught national attention, there were some who tried to find natural causes. Others wondered if we were being visited by UFOs, or whether aliens beamed microwaves to flatten the crops. As the patterns became more intricate, few were the observers who did not attribute them to intelligent design.

She refers to an August 2011 article in Popular Science by Rebecca Boyle about crop art. By then, when designs had become extremely elaborate, most people had given up on natural causes.

In the collective modern imagination, crop circles are usually attributed to either aliens or a vast human conspiracy; possibly both. Some circle-watchers believe the designs are landing strips, maybe, or some kind of communiqué from outer space. Others argue crop circles are the result of secret government tests, or perhaps secret codes meant to convey information to satellites and aerial drones.

Boyle turned from the origin question to the how question. How were they made? She talks to a scientist, who speculated that they required advanced technology to make, to an actual crop art maker, who says it’s easy to do with simple materials, a GPS device, and a portable computer.

The “how” question, though, lies outside of intelligent design theory, as does the “who” question. We just want to know if the circles are designed.

Using Dembski’s design filter, we can formulate a robust design inference by first ruling out chance and natural law. Chance can accomplish some pretty improbable events, but if we decide the probability is low, our work is not done. Laws of physics might bring circles about (like the volcano, meteorite, or artesian spring). If the circle had to happen, given a meteor strike, then it’s no longer a contingent phenomenon, so natural law is the preferred inference for a crater.

Contingency allows our minds to progress to the final stage of the design filter: Is there an independently specified pattern? Perfect circles in regular grids have low probability. They are also contingent; no known natural law requires them to form that way (even the natural “fairy circles” we’ve discussed previously lack that degree of geometric specificity). We know, however, from every other instance of regularly spaced set circles, such as in parking lot bump strips, corrugated sheet metal perforations, or polka dots in fabric, that human intelligence was the cause.

If aliens are intelligent enough to design space ships, they most likely understand math and logic to a high degree. There may not be any such aliens. We certainly haven’t detected any yet. But by projecting what we know about intelligence onto theoretical intelligences in a “reverse SETI” thought experiment, we learn whether a Search for Terrestrial Intelligence justifies a design inference.

Finally, let’s consider aliens encountering two spacecraft beyond Earth: Voyager and Cassini. The twin Voyager spacecraft were launched with the express intention of communicating to alien intelligences, even though we know nothing about such intelligences. Presumably, a craft with that high a degree of complex specified information (CSI) would easily pass the design inference, even if aliens could not decipher the inscriptions or functions of the craft. It would certainly stand out from all the asteroids they know!

All the molecules of Cassini, however, were disrupted on September 15 as it burned up in the atmosphere. Cassini isn’t “gone” but it has become a part of Saturn. The CSI of all its exquisitely sensitive instruments, its onboard computers, its subsystems, has been obliterated. The chance that aliens could detect anomalous molecules in the atmosphere of Saturn seems remote; that would be the only possible way now to determine that something unusual happened in the planet’s atmosphere. From this we learn that it is far easier to destroy CSI than to create it.

If they ever locate the intact Huygens probe on Titan, though, that’s a different matter. They might deduce that an object with those characteristics could not have flown itself to its location. By observing the probe carefully, they would know not only that it was designed, but there must have existed a craft capable of delivering it to Titan that was also designed. If they determined that it came from planet Earth, they might even be able to reverse-engineer some of the design requirements for the mother ship.

In short, we have seen that role-playing alien intelligences is not only idle speculation. It can help us reason our way through principles of intelligent design about real-world phenomena. Perhaps somewhere out there, extraterrestrials reading this — if they could — would signal their agreement.

Photo: Were these crop circles created by a terrestrial intelligence? By NASA Earth Observatory, via Live Science.