Paul Sutter, an astrophysicist at Ohio State, writes occasional articles for lay people. Recently he put out a challenge to his readers. He wants to keep them from falling for media hysteria about space aliens. His reasoning poses an indirect challenge to any kind of explanation positing a hidden designer.
In “Aliens are never the answer” on Live Science, he begins by talking about recent reports of unusually strong signals from a sun-like star. Here’s another one: physicist Carole Mundell asks, “Are aliens trying to tell us something? Brightest burst of radio waves detected” (The Conversation). The particular incident doesn’t matter, because “mysterious radio signals from outer space are almost always in the news,” Sutter says. What he doesn’t like is the rush to attribute mysterious signals to the work of aliens. He recounts other incidents over the decades. The point he wants to make is that science demands better explanations. An appeal to aliens is useless, because it can explain anything.
Here’s the thing: The hypothesis that aliens are causing a mysterious radio signal is almost always useless, because intelligent creatures can create almost any signal they want. Hear a bleep-bleep-bloop? Maybe aliens did it. Whoops! I meant bloop-bloop-bleep. Well, aliens could have done that, too. There’s no predictive power in the “aliens did it” hypothesis. We can’t ever disprove it. [Emphasis added.]
Of course, proof that “aliens did it” is the holy grail for SETI, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. Sutter mentions SETI a couple of times, but he doesn’t make clear whether he feels their quest is justified. He’s mainly concerned about the rush to judgment.
When a natural astrophysical explanation is weak or not very convincing, there’s often a temptation to wonder if aliens are behind it. After all, we can’t rule out aliens! Exactly. We can’t ever rule out aliens, because intelligent actors are capable of pretty much anything. We can’t rule them out, so it’s a scientifically useless position.
He’s right, to a certain extent. Intelligent actors are sly. They can throw paint on a canvas, drive over it, and call it art. They can hide messages in noise. They can cough a certain way to signal a friend that the prison guards are coming. We can’t rule out intelligent actors. So is the appeal to intelligent design a scientifically useless position?
It’s a very, very, very big leap to go from “We don’t know what’s causing this signal,” to “Maybe aliens are causing this signal.”
Sutter is onto something. He’s basically arguing that we need a design filter. And ID theory provides one. ID advocates agree that you don’t infer intelligence until there is sufficient reason to reject chance and natural law. When other astronomers jump to conclusions about space aliens, they haven’t done their homework. Proper use of the design filter would prevent invalid design inferences. The best-trained SETI folks will certainly want to rule out natural causes before running to the press.
Sutter cannot, however, rule out all intelligent actors, otherwise he would have to beat his head against a brick wall. Brick walls don’t arise by natural causes, once you rule out columnar basalt and other cases of natural self-organization. We know of a cause that can build brick walls firm and straight, with right-angle corners, as part of buildings reaching tens of meters high. The walls don’t even have to be straight. Consider Stonehenge. If Sutter were to rule out all intelligent causes as useless, he would have to beat his head against that wall for a lifetime trying to explain it by natural causes. That would be the “scientifically useless position.”
Intelligent actors are indeed “capable of pretty much anything.” That’s why we can be fooled by false negatives, claiming something isn’t designed when it really is (as in the modern art case and the hidden message case). But ID theory can protect us against false positives (calling something designed when there is a natural explanation) by using the design filter properly. Once you set up the “rejection region” appropriately (see Dembski, No Free Lunch, Chapter 1), the Design-Specification Criterion becomes so robust, there comes a point when refusing to acknowledge design is absurd.
If Paul Sutter detected a series of bloops and bleeps from space tapping out the first 100 prime numbers in a row, he would likely concede the point.