Friday, April 15, 2005

More ID : The E-T example

Paul Nelson creates a philosophical impasse, where there really is none.

In his scenario, we are SETI researchers, and we detect a narrow band amplitude-modulated radio signal carrying the prime numbers. And one of us wants to interpret it as the signal of a extraterrestrial intelligence, and the other wants to keep looking for a natural mechanism. Since we have no information either way, how do we decide what to do next? Paul Nelson believes we are at a philosophical impasse.

Actually, we are most definitely not at an impasse. The reason is, that as SETI researchers, we believe that the ET intelligence is some kind of physical-chemical life, with perhaps a very long life span, but a finite one; as limited by physics as we are, that the effort to broadcast a narrow band signal to distant stars and to deal with the possible outcomes would be beyond the capabilities of an individual ET, and would need the resources of a great civilization. The very first hypothesis would be that ET is planet-bound like we are. We would immediately announce the signal we've found, state that it could possible be a sign of a ET civilization, and we would turn our largest telescopes towards the source of the signal. We would look for signals in the other parts of the spectrum, residues of their other uses of electromagnetic waves. We would look for other signals, and if we found none, would wonder greatly at an ET that announces itself, but that doesn't provide any other information. The search to rule out natural mechanisms would continue, too, especially if corroborative evidence wasn't found.

We do not need to invoke entities very different from ourselves (some type of intelligent life, with a technological civilization) to explain the received signal. We would indeed be at an impasse, if one of us required that ET be unphysical. This is like the ID position, which does not want to touch on the nature of the Intelligent Designer and where the postulated Intelligent Designer really can only be the Biblical God. (To recap: we fall into the infinite regress of who designed the Intelligent Designer unless the Intelligent Designer was around even at the earliest instants of the Big Bang. The reason ID falls outside science and is unlike the radio signal from outer space is because the Intelligent Designer is outside of physics.)