Ideas have consequences. If your idea is that life on Earth is nothing special, it follows that life should be plentiful in the cosmos. If you believe life and intelligence are accidental byproducts of matter and energy, you would probably want to communicate with others like us — that is, unless (like Stephen Hawking) you think aliens might be as dangerous as we are to each other. Optimists in the SETI community outnumber pessimists. So they search.
And search. Half a century later, no signal has been detected. Astrobiologists (those who look for any kind of life beyond Earth, intelligent or not) can’t even find microbes within our own solar system.
People are certainly free to pursue their own dreams. SETI only gets controversial when taxpayers have to pay for it. Search enthusiasts are chagrined that astrobiology gets NASA money, but they do not. Ever since Congress laughed it out of chambers with jokes about little green men, SETI advocates have had to raise their own money. With help from billionaires like Paul Allen and Yuri Milner, the search has continued. But even with technological innovations allowing the monitoring of a million channels simultaneously (far beyond Frank Drake’s single-channel search of two stars in 1960), no signal of intelligent origin has yet turned up.
The true believers have one point in their favor; the search space is too vast to expect success in just 56 years, given our current search technology. But other possibilities exist. Life is rare; we are alone; or, perhaps, alien life is so different from what we know, we have no idea how to find it. From another direction, molecular biologists have continued to uncover unexpected complexity in even the simplest life, leading some to conclude life is rare.
These and other ideas are discussed in a paper by Nathalie A. Cabrol in the journal Astrobiology. A senior research scientist for the SETI Institute, Cabrol feels it’s time for a major new interdisciplinary effort to look for intelligent aliens (see also Elizabeth Howell’s write-up at Space.com, with video clip, “Are We Alone in the Universe?”). To succeed, Cabrol argues, we will need to expand our search to “life as we do not know it.”
The evolutionary pathways that lead to complex life on Earth strongly suggest that advanced life as we know it may be rare in the Universe and unlikely to be in a state of advancement that is temporally synchronous with us. However, that does not mean that other types of advanced intelligences are as rare. Limiting our search to something we know and can de facto comprehend is, probabilistically, a constraining proposition, one that leaves no room for an epistemological and scientific foundation to explore alternate hypotheses. To find ET, we must expand our minds beyond a deeply rooted Earth-centric perspective and reevaluate concepts that are taken for granted. [Emphasis added; italics in the original.]
One way we can expand our minds is to play Mr. Spock and do a kind of “mind meld” with the aliens, using imagination. Here, Cabrol runs the risk of eliciting more Congressional guffaws:
Rather than constraining the search, SETI efforts must involve the most expansive exploration tool kit possible. If we unbind our minds, it should not matter whether ET looks or thinks like us, has a logic that makes any sense to us, or uses familiar technology for interstellar communication. ET is likely to be very different from us and completely alien to our evolutionary processes and thought processes, which may be deeply connected (see Section 5.2.3). Ultimately, to find aliens, we must become the aliens and understand the many ways they could manifest themselves in their environment and communicate their presence.Such an intellectual framework not only moves the Drake equation forward toward the existence of drastically different probabilistic civilizations, it also brings us to consider alternate evolutionary pathways, including life as we do not know it and do not yet understand. Further, such a framework allows us to look at evolutionary pathways in our own biosphere and question the emergence of complex, intelligent life with a different set of eyes. For that to happen, we must conceptualize something we do not know, which can be approached in a number of different ways. One is by trying to access unknown concepts and archetypes that are literally alien to us (i.e., not part of our own evolutionary heritage) through imagination and discourse. This is what science fiction attempts to do in its depictions of alien worlds and civilizations. Not surprisingly, this process results in more or less elaborate versions of ourselves, since these representations are generated by neural systems wired to our own planetary environment. To conceptualize a different type of life, we have to step out of our brains. [Italics in the original.]
For those of us preferring to keep inside our brains, we see that ET can become an obsession to believers, like Richard Dreyfuss in Close Encounters, who would not take no for an answer. The silence does not mean aliens are not out there. They are just so alien we can’t use the scientific method; we have to imagine them. We have to become them. Whether Cabrol’s appeal will rouse support remains to be seen.
Cabrol is not alone. Fact-challenged as it is, SETI is a running theme in the popular science media. And there’s a lot of money being thrown at it.
- Ian O’Neill from Discovery News reports on a “targeted SETI” approach, using the Allen Telescope Array to listen for signals from candidate planets discovered by the Kepler Spacecraft. (Space.com)
- China has just completed the world’s largest radio telescope, in hopes of “finding new worlds and alien life.” Though built for traditional science, “it can also eavesdrop on distant worlds to search for intelligent life,” says Elias Brinks at The Conversation.
- English scientists are practicing searches for exotic life deep in a salt mine, hoping to transfer what they learn to searches for life underground on Mars. (New Scientist)
- New Scientist reports that several scientists are upset that NASA is not doing enough to search for alien life. They want more attention on the search in the Mars rover programs and the James Webb Space Telescope goals. Why? “As well as many other scientists who support the search for life elsewhere, it tops the lists of the most exciting questions driving science today for people outside the field,” Shannon Hall writes.
- At Live Science, Mindy Weisberger explores the fascination with “little green men” by examining the historical roots of the familiar icon that has persisted for decades.
- Last month, a Cornell student, Evan Solomonides, presented “A Probabilistic Analysis of the Fermi Paradox,” excusing the silence on the “Mediocrity Principle” wrongly attributed to Copernicus (see The Privileged Planet for refutation). Solomonides was inspired by Carl Sagan’s view that humans are nothing special in the vastness of space. With that as his guide, he calculated (with no data on aliens) that it will be 1,500 years before aliens contact us. (Cornell Chronicle)
To appreciate how scientifically groundless these speculations are, imagine for a moment that a cult of religious fanatics controlled the reins of science. Convinced that ghosts are real, they search diligently for decades, creating more and more elaborate devices to find them. They refuse to take non-detection as an answer. Speculation joins imagination to explain why they are not found. Some of the true believers propose becoming ghosts to understand them. Others propose that ghosts are so clever, they are purposely concealing themselves. Another group speculates that they are so weird, we cannot even begin to imagine what they are like. Go ahead; use all the SETI speculations for this scenario. Even if these searches understood quantum physics and relativity and used sophisticated engineering, would that rationalize the ideology?
In the history of science, some searches for “occult phenomena” (referring not to spiritual entities, but to suspected-but-as-yet-unobserved realities) have borne fruit; recent examples include the Higgs Boson and gravitational waves. Other searches have not (caloric, phlogiston, alchemy). The search for dark matter is currently in crisis, failing the most sensitive search to date (Space.com). At some point, a quest must acquire data to justify its claim to be scientific.
Despite continued failures, SETI is unlikely to cave anytime soon. Its motivations are too deeply grounded in evolutionary ideology. The believers think it too incredible to imagine humans as unique or exceptional in such a vast universe. To be sure, this “gut feeling” extends outside evolutionary circles. But where is the evidence? While the complexity of life and the uniqueness of Earth have become more apparent, the aliens have remained silent.
Here are two points to note about this undying fascination with aliens in the SETI community and in the science media. One is its dependency on the materialist, Darwinian worldview. Cabrol’s paper contains over a hundrew references to evolution in the text and references.
The second is the inherent inconsistency of this perspective. The SETI community is almost entirely composed of people who attack ID as unscientific. Yet over and over we see them using a framework of intelligent design, though not by that name, in their searches! SETI rests on the premise that intentional, purposeful signals can be distinguished from natural processes. They speak effusively about communication channels, signals, and intentions of beings that they don’t even know exist. Remember this next time someone levels the charge against ID that it points to a designer outside of science.