Home » Extraterrestrial life, News » Tom Bethell reflects on ET’s no-show, and what it means for popular culture

Tom Bethell reflects on ET’s no-show, and what it means for popular culture

They never write, They never phone …

In “Extraterrestrial Intelligence and the Search for God” (American Spectator, November 2011) , Tom Bethell reflects on ET’s fifty-year no-show:

A week doesn’t go by without the announcement of new planets. “Week Brings Hail of Planets” was just the most recent report. It capped a week of “new findings about worlds beyond our own solar system,” according to the Wall Street Journal. The latest marvel, 200 light years distant from Earth, has two suns. The reporter quoted John Knoll of Industrial Light & Magic as saying that this shows “science is stranger than fiction.” Actually, science fiction started this whole ball rolling, but that’s another story.

The search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) has gone on for more than 50 years. In 1960 Frank Drake, a Cornell University astronomer, cobbled together the Drake Equation, supposedly quantifying the likelihood that intelligent life started up on its own. Nothing has yet been found and the search is getting harder to fund. Microsoft billionaire Paul Allen put up some money which was used to build the Allen Telescope Array in northern California, but now it is “in hibernation.” The University of California was supposed to operate the array, but they’re broke too. Government money has dried up. Three years ago I tried to visit the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California, and, on a Wednesday, found the place locked up at midday. A night watchman came to the door. “Closed,” he said.

In the absence of aliens, the mood has turned to the much cheaper method of conjuring the possibilities from billions of billions of planets, using a current sample size of … one.

… Yet if SETI draws a blank, as I believe it will, we may have to confront the idea that we are the only intelligent life in the Cosmos. We could hardly be more unique than that. Maybe God put us here alone amidst all those planets, stars, and galaxies — a nightmarish thought for our modern atheists.

But surely they will just turn that into an Atheist-Message-of-the-Day too, Tom? When was atheism ever confuted by mere facts?

But still, what’s better for them for now is: THEY just gotta be Out There!!

Note: Apparently, there are over 200 responses so far at Spectator. Join the fun!

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37 Responses to Tom Bethell reflects on ET’s no-show, and what it means for popular culture

  1. NEWS:

    “But still, what’s better for them for now is: THEY just gotta be Out There!!”

    ——

    Agent Fox Mulder:

    “I want to believe”

  2. Another in a seemingly new tradition of Uncommon Descent taking delight in critcising SETI.

    But surely they will just turn that into an Atheist-Message-of-the-Day too, Tom? When was atheism ever confuted by mere facts?

    But still, what’s better for them for now is: THEY just gotta be Out There!!

    I’m at a loss as to why the author of this article seems to think that the existence or otherwise of aliens bears any relevance at all to atheism?

  3. Bethell seems to think it does. If you read carefully you will see that we think that an atheist message could be got out of any circumstance to do with SETI.

    The failure of the SETI search is not a reflection on the characters of those involved, and the criticism is directed at those who keep the nonsense going regardless of the fact base – we’ve been saying that for years, as a search through the files will show.

  4. It is certainly the case that Uncommon Descent has in the last 12 months or so become increasingly hostile to SETI. But it hasn’t always been the case….

    Here’s O’Leary in April of this year suggesting some kind of merger…

    http://www.uncommondescent.com.....e-with-id/

    Gil Dodgen….

    http://www.uncommondescent.com.....with-seti/

    William Dembski….

    http://www.uncommondescent.com.....gy-no-way/

    http://www.uncommondescent.com.....continues/

    So SETI has at some point fallen out of favour with Uncommon Descent. What caused this shift in attitude?

  5. AFAIK the SETI researchers have not claimed to have already discovered a signal from an alien civilization, then demanded they be allowed to ‘teach the controversy’ in astronomy classes.

  6. Perhaps there’s a bit of ill-will because for years SETI has been funded to operate on the premise that an intelligent signal could be distinguished from background noise, while ID has been routinely mocked for proposing essentially the same premise.

    It’s accepted that if we get a code from outer space full of instructions to build a giant machine that launches Jodie Foster into contact with an ancient intelligence, no one will argue that it couldn’t be intelligent because we don’t know who sent it, we’ve never observed an intelligent agent designing such a machine, etc.

    Science has one set of arbitrary, capricious rules for inferring design in biology and different set for message from outer space.

    What’s astounding is that they are inferring design for messages that haven’t even been received! It’s not that I can fault that logic, but it’s 180 degrees from the approach to investigating biological information.

  7. Perhaps there’s a bit of ill-will because for years SETI has been funded to operate on the premise that an intelligent signal could be distinguished from background noise, while ID has been routinely mocked for proposing essentially the same premise.

    It’s not quite like that.

    SETI looks for a signal never observed from a natural source. Finding it would trigger a search for natural sources or processes. We know this because this cycle has already played out several times, most notably in the discovery of pulsars.

    ID denies the existence of a natural cause that has been observed and exploited for thousands of years.

  8. “ID denies the existence of a natural cause that has been observed and exploited for thousands of years.”

    Okay. So from one end of OOL to the other, there has been the general and specific idea that we need a natural cause for the rise of recorded information – since it is information that drives the organized machinery of life. As Kuppers said, “The problem of the origin of life is clearly basically equivalent to the problem of the origin of biological information.”

    What exactly is the natural source of recorded information that ID is denying?

  9. Petrushka,

    Again, begging the question.

    ID denies the existence of a natural cause that has been observed and exploited for thousands of years.

    You refer to the natural cause that changes the colors of cichlid fish and makes antelopes’ teeth and size vary.

    The cause that makes cichlid fishes and antelopes and their cells and their DNA remains unobserved. What observation are you referring to? This invariably circles back to fossil records and phylogenetic trees from which the cause you refer to, natural selection, cannot be derived.

  10. It’s not SETI, Jello. It’s the baggage. With the main research effort cut back, the ghosts of Drake and Sagan rise, and data – however disappointing – give way to hype and spin, not necessarily coming from the SETI folk themselves but from whoever needs to keep the dream alive in a halfway world between fantasy and reality.

    We think Bethell is right to ask a critical question: What if we are in fact alone? What if, for all practical purposes, we are alone?*

    Apparently, the combox at the Spec is pretty lively. Why not join in?

    *We have evidence for other civilizations we can never learn anything about.

  11. What exactly is the natural source of recorded information that ID is denying?

    The environment, the ecosystem, and biochemistry are the source of the information. The process is called learning.

    Populations learn what works by trial and error and trial and success. It’s an unprogrammed result of differential reproductive success.

  12. Evolution is about the accumulation of change. The process has been observed.

    No one has ever observed a creation event, but there are plenty of observations of genetic change in populations. All of our most important food crops are the result of variation and selection.

  13. Petrushka,

    You’re equivocating.

    Evolution is about the accumulation of change. The process has been observed.

    The process has been observed. Change has been observed. But the extent of accumulation attributable to evolutionary mechanisms is very small. Whenever the changes are macroevolutionary and usually even when they aren’t, the actual mechanisms of evolution, particularly selection, disappear from the explanation or are added after the fact, and at best are hopelessly vague.

    No one has ever observed a creation event

    Obviously not true.

    You’re applying one standard when referring to evolution (unwarranted extrapolation to an unobserved effect) and another when referring to design (no unobserved events allowed, no inference from observed creative events allowed.)

    Double standards are a reliable indicator of biased reasoning.

  14. Petrushka,

    Populations learn what works by trial and error and trial and success.

    You are merely asserting your conclusion.

  15. Petrushka:

    ‘Populations learn what works by trial and error and trial and success.’
    ****

    Scott Andrews:

    “You are merely asserting your conclusion.”
    ====

    It’s called speaking in generalities about one’s faith. Probably came to his conclusions by whatever his Pastor pimped from the Pulpit.

  16. Scott

    You are merely asserting your conclusion.

    Not really. It’s a logical consequence of the ability of things to die or to be out bred.

    What part of this “conclusion” do you dispute?

    Do you dispute that if a novel trait arises in a population which causes a difference in reproductive success that that trait will tend to spread if it increases reproductive success?

    If not, then already you agree with Petrushka.

  17. Is the idea that populations learn disputed then? Frankly I’m amazed.

    Has nobody here heard of antibiotic resistance then?

  18. 18

    BIPED: “…we need a natural cause for the rise of recorded information – since it is information that drives the organized machinery of life. What exactly is the natural source of recorded information that ID is denying?”

    The environment, the ecosystem, and biochemistry are the source of the information.

    How does the environment cause the rise of recorded informatrion?

    How does the ecosystem cause the rise of recorded informatrion?

    How does biochemistry cause the rise of recorded informatrion?

  19. Onlookers,

    Kindly cf here on on the a priori imposition of evolutionary materialist philosophy dressed in a lab coat on science and science education. Pay particular attention to the official statements of the US NAS and NSTA here, and the thinly veiled threat they made as noted here.

    GEM of TKI

  20. please cf 2.1.1.1.1

  21. How does the environment cause the rise of recorded informatrion?

    How does the ecosystem cause the rise of recorded informatrion?

    How does biochemistry cause the rise of recorded informatrion?

    By causing differential reproductive success. Those changes that result in more offspring are kept. The population records the change simply because those members that have the success supporting change tend to outnumber those that don’t.

  22. 22

    Petrushka,

    Assuming that differential reproduction performs the macroevolutionary miracles you ascribe to it, the living things that reproduce differentially still require recorded information. That’s a non-answer.

  23. It’s one of the most studied processes in science. Your reference to recorded information doesn’t even make sense.

    Differences among vertebrates, for example, require no new proteins, so they don’t even violate Behe’s edge. So it’s not surprising that Behe accepts common descent and invokes the designer only in a few cases.

  24. Petrushka:

    Differences among vertebrates, for example, require no new proteins, so they don’t even violate Behe’s edge.

    Evidence please.

  25. Petrushka,

    While learning is there in principle as a possibility, I’d be cautious to put all eggs into one basket. Chances are if left to blatant trial and error, life would not have emerged in 10^17 seconds. It is just tremendously unlikely. We cannot afford to be out of touch with reality. Yes, there are schemes of behaviour that allow cooperating agents in nature to extremely quickly reach a common goal (cf Huberman’s work). However, to get to the point of intelligent actors playing together according to the rules that they instinctively work out for the common benefit (ants, termites, birds &c) by trial and error within this time frame is just unrealistic. I am not even mentioning the alleged emergence of consciousness.

    Life is not reducible to physics and chemistry and needs intelligent guidance to kick off the orchestrated highly complex intercommunicating processes of metabolism and replication.

  26. Petrushka,

    You still don’t seem to get it. Apparently the problem has not revealed itself to you as it virtually everyone else. Without a method of recording information, there is no “differential reproductive success” as we know it. There are no populations tending to outnumber others among them.

    Recorded information only happens within a system. You simply assume what must be explained.

  27. The traditional view has been that related species differ in their repertoire of individual “genes.” But a more contemporary Evo-Devo perspective is that much of morphological change in evolution occurs by modification of expression through alteration of enhancers and other transcriptional regulatory signals, as well as distinct patterns of epigenetic formatting

    Comparing mice and men, the “genes” stay largely the same, but their deployment differs. The bones, ligaments, muscles, skin, and other tissues are similar, but their morphogeneses and growth follow distinct patterns. In other words, humans and mice share most of their proteins, and the most obvious differences in morphology and metabolism can be attributed to distinct regulatory patterns in late embryonic and postnatal development.

    Shapiro, James A. (2011-06-08). Evolution: A View from the 21st Century (FT Press Science) (Kindle Locations 2224-2227). FT Press. Kindle Edition.

  28. Life is not reducible to physics and chemistry and needs intelligent guidance to kick off the orchestrated highly complex intercommunicating processes of metabolism and replication.

    I’m not sure what you mean here. Are you reasserting vitalism?

    Or are you disagreeing with Michael Denton?

    I would agree that the origin of life is unknown, but I was discussing the diversification of vertebrates, which doesn’t even require new protein domains. So it shouldn’t run afoul of Behe or gpuccio.

    Most evolution is microevolution. Most genes were invented by microbes. Most predate multi-celled organisms.

  29. Yes, we are aware of the story. However until that story has some supporting evidence it doesn’t belong in science.

    Evo-devo is the great evo-hope but it ain’t panning out so well.

  30. 1. Taking life for granted, macroevolution is a highly unlikely scenario for two reasons:
    (a) it is too slow;
    (b) the amount of new information that can be achieved is limited to states reachable from a given state in the config space. In a config space a lot of parameter combinations are non-functional and there is a good deal of reason to believe that those functional states are for the most part isolated tiny islands.

    2. Spontaneous OOL is even less likely than macroevolution.

    3. Finally, I think that reductionism does not always work. Information transfer processes use the physical/chemical medium but are not reducible to it.

  31. Its comforting to know that butterflies learnt their chrysalis.

    ;)

  32. 3.1.3.1.1

    For completeness, To this I should add the possibility to jump over one island to another via gene duplication. However, this possibility in practice is also limited. There are known tight upper bounds on the number of simultaneous mutations in paralogs you can have (for the case of neutral mutations it is something like 6, if I remember rightly, and for deleterious mutations it is only 2). This in turn leads to the requirement of having a cluster of islands reachable one from another by gene duplication.

  33. But it is not too slow. Withing the recent history of humans, incremental changes and known mechanisms like duplication have produces teacup poodles from wolves, not to mention nearly all the plants and animals that make up our food supply.

    That is why knowledgeable ID proponents like Behe don’t argue against the common descent of vertebrates or invoke intervention except in a few cases.

  34. Petrushka,

    When I say too slow, I mean the works of Chaitin. As far as your examples, I think that they might have been a result of a cluster of functionality I mentioned. Often fine-tuned systems are not robust (i.e. you slightly change one parameter and apart it falls). Behe, for example, argues that Darwinism is incapable of adequately explaining things like vision and blood clotting just because it is highly unlikely to overcome those non-functional states by blind search.

    I agree your examples are valid. However, in general between different taxa, there is an increasing information gap one needs to close (going bottom up from species to phyla). While I can concede to speciation being plausible (obviously, depending on the definition of new species), I find the explanation of emergence of new phyla under Darwinism far from convincing.

    It is interesting if your poodles will remain poodles when let go in the wild or they will eventually drift back to wolves. I am not a specialist in selection, but my general impression is that you have to keep selecting desirable traits. Interestingly, others on this blog argued that artificial selection is an example of ID.

  35. I suppose your concern for the emergence of phyla is safe, since most emerged before hard parts to make fossilization more likely.

    This seems to be a trend in evolution denial, push the problems back to the point where evidence has been erased by time.

    We have sequenced maybe a tent of one percent of existing species. the more sequences we have the more obvious it becomes that all living things are cousins. And the more obvious it becomes that most of the inventing of proteins has been cone by microbes.

    Which is what you would expect statistically. What is interesting is that the designer apparently managed to make most multi-celled plants and animals out of available parts and scarcely had to invent anything specifically to differentiate one mammal from another.

  36. 3.1.3.1.5

    If there is no evidence it is hardly science, do you agree? If the evidence has been erased then there is no point discussing what it must have been. Generally I like your argumentation but that one is a very weak point. Similarity of genomes brings us back to the issue of relative importance of various metrics. As far as I know, there are metrics showing that mice and people are more closely related than two given species of fruit flies to each other. But putting this aside, to me it is as likely evidence for a common designer as for common descent. There are “engineering” issues of discontinuous functionality in config spaces that precludes macroevolution.

    Don’t you find a whale and a kangaroo vastly different while both are mammals. Speaking of this, are you a biologist?

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