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C. S. Lewis Unmasks the Pretensions of SETI

David Coppedge
Photo: C. S. Lewis, by Asar Studios/Alamy (Photo by Hans Wild/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images).

As I wrote here yesterday, SETI, the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence, is on a roll again. (See, “SETI Activists Still Don’t Get the Irony.”) Since we have not yet heard from the intelligent ETs, we could do our part and send a message out into the darkness with hope and a wish. This was the point of the old Arecibo Message of 1974 and the golden records attached to the twin Voyager spacecraft that launched in 1977. The strategy is sometimes called METI: Messaging Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence. 

Matthew Sparkes, writing at New Scientist, shows a new, updated radio message conceived by Jonathan Jiang at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory that could be beamed up for the 50th anniversary of the original Arecibo message. (Anecdote: the Arecibo telescope suffered catastrophic damage in 2020.) Jiang calls his message “Beacon in the Galaxy” (BITG). It would contain 121 times as much information as the Arecibo message, including the naked human figures from the Pioneer 10 and 11 plaques of 1972-1973 (but this time more egalitarian, with both sexes raising their hands in greeting). Stephanie Pappas at Live Science likes the idea, echoing another old assumption of SETI advocates: it’s too late to avoid detection, so we might as well try to be friendly to our intellectual superiors. Stuart Taylor, co-author of the BITG message, does the talking:

“It would probably be better, since they’re going to listen to us anyway, to send a positive message,” Taylor told Live Science. The hope, he said, is that an alien civilization advanced enough to reach for the stars would be highly cooperative — the “bonobos of the galaxy” — and have good advice for Earthlings on how to reconcile our differences, Taylor said, referencing the relatively peaceful primate relative of chimpanzees. [Emphasis added.]

The BITG message would also contain the rules for chess. What better way to make friends with space aliens than to invite them to a chess match? Unfortunately, even at the speed of light, earthlings would have to wait tens or hundreds of thousands of years to hear the reply, “Your move.” Such are the constraints of the laws of physics.

All Against All

Which brings up another common theme in SETI: beings who have had much more time to evolve than we have would appear to us as gods. Having survived through their Darwinian war of all against all, they could teach us how to use intelligence to evolve out of our war-like nature and learn to peacefully coexist.

The aliens — our friends — would surely want to help us. The late Stephen Hawking, though, was aghast at such plans. He preferred keeping our location secret, feeling that the Darwinian struggle for existence would surely lead any snooping alien beings to invade and conquer the earth. Martin Rees, emeritus professor of astronomy at Cambridge University and the former Astronomer Royal of Britain, thinks such worries are unfounded. At The Conversation last year, he opined that “extraterrestrial intelligence is more likely to be artificial than biological.” The trend of human artificial intelligence (AI) can be extrapolated far into the future, he surmises:

AI may even be able to evolve, creating better and better versions of itself on a faster-than-Darwinian timescale for billions of years. Organic human-level intelligence would then be just a brief interlude in our “human history” before the machines take over. So if alien intelligence had evolved similarly, we’d be most unlikely to “catch” it in the brief sliver of time when it was still embodied in biological form. If we were to detect extraterrestrial life, it would be far more likely to be electronic than flesh and blood — and it may not even reside on planets.

A Shooting Gallery of Cosmic Rays 

It’s a bit surprising that such a distinguished astronomer has not thought about rust. Machines and electronic parts do tend to wear out. And if they don’t reside on planets, outer space is a shooting gallery of cosmic rays that would tear through computers as readily as flesh. Those details can be solved by a few auxiliary hypotheses, such as assuming that futuristic AI will also have mastered the foresight to detect and mine materials, manufacture replacement parts, and incorporate them into their artificial instantiations, whatever they may be. But must they even be physical at all? Will AI someday be able to simulate physical reality? 

From there, Dr. Rees leaps wholeheartedly into computer games:

How do we know that we aren’t living in such a simulation created by technologically superior aliens? Maybe we are no more than a bit of entertainment for some supreme being who is running such a model? Indeed, if life is destined to be able to create technologically advanced civilisations that can make computer programs, there may be more simulated universes our there than real ones out there — making it conceivable that we are in one of them.

This conjecture may sound outlandish, but it is all based on our current understanding of physics and cosmology. We should, however, surely be open-minded about the possibility that there’s much we don’t understand.

How do we know, indeed.

This brief excursion into the thinking of SETI and METI advocates illustrates the extent of Darwinian saturation in their worldview. Everything evolves: galaxies, stars, planets, chemicals, cells, organisms, animals, intelligent beings, artificial intelligence, simulated universes. Even if there is a “supreme being” (notice the lower-case initials, meant to preserve materialism) who created us, it/he/she/zhe (pick your preferred pronouns) evolved. Not all the SETI people go as far as Rees, but they all build on Darwin’s materialistic worldview.

A Fundamental Break

And yet is there not a fundamental break in the continuum? Even if one accepts the other materialistic transformations, is intelligence really more of the same? At some point, the random mutations have become non-random, and intelligence has co-opted the path of progress toward godhood. Variations are no longer naturally selected, but artificially selected. Darwinism has morphed into intelligent design. To believe that it is possible to infer intentional radio signals or technosignatures requires belief in the reality of purpose, foresight, and design. A signal, or signature, stands out from the void of particles behaving according to mindless laws. Mind has intervened. We infer it from the activity of our own minds.

How can METI / SETI advocates repudiate intelligent design while depending on the design inference for their work? The rationale goes like this: since intelligence “evolved” here on Earth, it must have “evolved” on many other habitable planets where life “evolved.” They think, therefore, that since their reasoning is evolution-based, it has no need for a Designer. Evolved things with intelligence can design things.

The Argument from Reason

This is where the argument from reason can unmask the pretentions of SETI with devastating clarity. Explicated from multiple points of view in John West’s book The Magician’s Twin, the argument from reason exposes the self-refuting nature of the materialist enterprise, because to think about materialism requires exercising an immaterial reality: logic.

We can let C. S. Lewis masterfully express the materialist’s dilemma in a few cogent thoughts.

The Naturalists have been engaged in thinking about Nature. They have not attended to the fact that they were thinking. The moment one attends to this it is obvious that one’s own thinking cannot be merely a natural event, and that therefore something other than Nature exists. The Supernatural is not remote and abstruse: it is a matter of daily and hourly experience, as intimate as breathing.

And in another place, he said:

A theory which explained everything else in the whole universe but which made it impossible to believe that our thinking was valid would be utterly out of court. For that theory would itself have been reached by thinking, and if thinking is not valid that theory would, of course, be demolished. It would have destroyed its own credentials. It would be an argument which proved that no argument was sound — a proof that there are no such things as proofs.

And again:

The answer is that at least one kind of thought — logical thought — cannot be subjective and irrelevant to the real universe: for unless thought is valid we have no reason to believe in the real universe. We reach our knowledge of the universe only by inference. the very object to which our thought supposed to be irrelevant depends on the relevance of our thought. A universe whose only claim to be believed in rests on the validity of inference must not start telling us that inference is invalid. That would really be a bit too nonsensical. I conclude then that logic is a real insight into the way in which real things have to exist. In other words, the laws of thought are also the laws of things: of things in the remotest space and the remotest time. This admission seems to me completely unavoidable and it has very momentous consequences.