The SETI Project, Falling “Floppy Discs,” and A Major Missed Implication
SETI is the acronym that stands for the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence. For some time prior to 1981, the Federal Government pumped millions of dollars into the construction of high-tech satellites overseen by NASA that were designed to scan the skies in an effort to detect messages, codes, signals, or signs from intelligent life forms on other planets. In 1981, however, federal funding for this program ceased, but this roadblock in the search for alien intelligence did not stop the program. Currently, the Planetary Society stands as the major player in the SETI project. Thousands of volunteers all over the world have put their desktop computers to work, equipped with a program that filters information and radio signals from satellites. These computers are looking for patterns in signals that would suggest the existence of intelligence in outer space. Such prestigious institutions as Harvard and the University of California at Berkeley have joined the search. In the past, renowned scientists like Carl Sagan adamantly pushed for the funding and expansion of the SETI project (McDonough, 2004).
What, then, are these scientists and volunteers hoping to find in the data collected from their satellites, observation equipment, and computer analyses? They are hoping to find patterns or codes in radio or laser signals that contain some type of communication from an extraterrestrial intelligence. On the Planetary Society’s Web site, under the heading of Frequently Asked Questions, the question is posed: “How could we possibly understand signals from another civilization?” The answer given to this question is:
Even though we and an alien civilization would not have a language in common, there are ways to communicate that should be understandable to intelligent beings. Mathematics, physics, chemistry, and astronomy contain fundamental laws that provide a common “language” throughout the universe. Television pictures are a way of communicating that do not even require a common language to understand (“Frequently Asked Questions...,” 2001).
We can see that mathematical patterns, codes, languages, algorithms, and various other “fundamental laws” would be accepted as evidence that some type of intelligence did exist. The premise that can be surmised from the SETI program is that intelligence could be recognized and distinguished from non-intelligent, natural explanations; the required criteria for this recognition being some type of code, mathematical sequence, physical patterns, etc.
Suppose we were to send a man to the moon, and tiny floppy discs started falling to the moon’s surface. Upon inspection of these discs, the astronaut discovers they contain intricately coded information. Suppose further that he is able to decipher this code. Upon doing so, he discovers that the instructions contained in the code, if followed precisely, would produce a machine that could convert sunlight and minerals into food edible by humans and animals. Such an amazing find would receive world-wide recognition to say the least. And there would be no doubt that these discs had originated from an advanced intelligence. Yet, this hypothetical lunar scenario has a terrestrial equivalent.
In his book, The Blind Watchmaker, Richard Dawkins purports to show how life in this Universe could have evolved over millions of years. He claims to present information that shows that complicated life forms such as humans could have arisen from non-living substances by tiny, gradual steps over eons of time. In chapter five, he begins a discussion on DNA, and attempts to explain how such amazing codes of information could have arisen through natural processes. In his introduction to that chapter, however, he makes a startling admission that, to the honest reader, is impossible to explain in terms of naturalistic evolution. He discusses a willow tree that sits in his garden, shedding its “cottony” seeds through the air, to the ground and the passing water in the canal. In his discussion of the seeds, he explains that each seed contains DNA that, if allowed to grow, will produce another willow tree. He then explains briefly some of the coding capabilities of DNA and the instructions found in it for growth. Referring to these seeds and the DNA they contain, he makes the following statement: “It is raining instructions out there; it’s raining programs; it’s raining tree-growing, fluff-spreading, algorithms. That is not a metaphor, it is the plain truth. It couldn’t be any plainer if it were raining floppy discs” (1996, p. 111).
It is ironic, is it not, that the very coded mathematical information that, if found on the Moon, would be hailed as proof for the existence of extraterrestrial intelligence, when found on the Earth, is viewed by many as the product of a mindless, multi-million-year random process. How is it that such prestigious academic institutions such as Harvard and the University of California at Berkeley spend thousands of man hours and millions of dollars searching the skies for mathematical codes, radio signal patterns, etc.? And yet when they find such patterns, in biological, terrestrial organisms, they attribute them to non-intelligence. The logical implication in this situation continues to be missed by many of the major players in the scientific community: if complex coded information is found anywhere in the Universe, it proves that it was put there by a superior intelligence. If such is not the case, why waste time scanning the skies for these patterns? Dawkins’ book attempts to explain away this implication when it comes to coded information found on Earth, but it fails completely. Such an obvious, logical implication cannot be explained away. In truth, the coded information found in the DNA of living organisms points overwhelmingly to the fact that these organisms were design by an intelligent Being.
Dawkins, Richard (1996), The Blind Watchmaker, (New York, NY: W.H. Norton and Co.).
“Frequently Asked Questions About the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence,” (2001), [On-line], URL: http://www.planetary.org/html/UPDATES/seti/SETIFAQS.html
McDonough, Thomas (2004), “Two Decades of SETI,” [On-line], URL: http://www.planetary.org/html/UPDATES/seti/seti-history.html.