Feature Article - May 2010
by Do-While Jones

Searching For Intelligence

The SETI program is searching for evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence to discover if intelligent life has evolved elsewhere.

Space exploration has been a hot topic lately. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) began a little more than 50 years ago. President Obama’s controversial changes to NASA’s mission have inspired discussions about what the goals of space exploration should be, and how we should achieve those goals. The Search for ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence (SETI) project 1 has been in the news recently because it just celebrated its 25th anniversary.

Founded in November 1984, the SETI Institute began operations on February 1, 1985. 2

While SETI is trying to gain support for its electronic version of space exploration, Stephen Hawking has been urging people to try to avoid contact with whatever extraterrestrial intelligent life-forms may have evolved out there somewhere. 3

Coincidentally, Chet Ellis sent us an email asking us to comment upon his presentation regarding SETI and its implications relative to evolution and intelligent design. His presentation was too mathematical for a general audience like ours, but it did contain an interesting point, which inspired us to present our own perspective on the issue, without the math.

Agreement, With Differences

Evolutionists and creationists share some views about intelligent life existing anywhere other than Earth. When we talk about “evolutionists,” we are talking about atheistic evolutionists who insist that there are no supernatural forces, and that all life originated and evolved through purely natural phenomenon. We are explicitly excluding people who believe in Theistic Evolution. When we talk about “creationists,” we are talking about Biblical Creationists who insist that creation happened exactly as described in the Bible. We are explicitly excluding people who believe in Intelligent Design.

Despite the fact that these two groups are as far from each other as possible, they do agree on some things.

Evolutionists tend to believe that there is intelligent life outside of Earth. They believe this because there are so many other stars, many of which presumably have planets capable of supporting life. It is generally believed by evolutionists that life will evolve anywhere the conditions permit life to exist. They use the Drake Equation 4 to calculate how many advanced civilizations may exist throughout the universe. There is nothing special about Earth in general, and certainly nothing special about mankind, that would restrict intelligent life to Earth. One of the driving factors behind the SETI project is the belief that finding life beyond Earth will prove that since life has evolved elsewhere, it must have evolved here on Earth.

Creationists also believe that there is intelligent life outside of Earth. They believe this because the Bible says there is. The Bible calls these beings, “angels,” “seraphim,” “demons,” and even names some of them (Gabriel, Lucifer). Of course, creationists believe these intelligent life forms were created by the ultimate extraterrestrial intelligence, namely God. They believe that proof of angels, or any other extraterrestrial intelligent life, will prove that the Biblical account of creation is true.

So, evolutionists and creationist both believe that intelligent life must exist outside of Earth, but for different reasons. Both believe that proof of extraterrestrial life will prove their own position is right. This is not surprising because evolutionists believe that life on Earth is proof that life evolved; and creationists believe that life on Earth is proof that God created life. So, moving the argument away from Earth doesn’t really change anything.

Ask the Aliens

Evolutionists think that if we discover intelligent life beyond Earth, we might be able to communicate with it. If so, they are eager to ask that all-important question. They expect the extraterrestrial answer to be, “Jesus Who?” Evolutionists believe that extraterrestrial life will be far too intelligent to believe in anything as foolish as religion.

Creationists also expect to hear the answer, “Jesus Who?” because Matthew 24:24 says that in the last days, “there shall arise false Christs, and false prophets, and shall show great signs and wonders; insomuch that, if it were possible, they shall deceive the very elect.” What could be a more powerful delusion than a false prophet from another planet saying there is no God?

So, again, evolutionists and creationists believe the same thing, but for different reasons; and both think the same thing (an extraterrestrial denial of God) would confirm their opposite beliefs.

Evolutionists believe that there is intelligent life out there, somewhere, trying to communicate with us. They think the only reason we haven’t heard it is that SETI isn’t sophisticated enough to receive those communications. Creationists also believe that there is intelligent life out there, somewhere, trying to communicate with us, and has already done so. They believe The Angel of the Lord did communicate with Abraham, Moses, and others. The only reason some people haven’t heard it is that they aren’t faithful enough to recognize it.

Only One Interpretation

So, again, we have the same facts, but with different interpretations. It seems like we aren’t ever going to get anywhere. The key has to be to discover some way to recognize evidence of communication that can only be explained satisfactorily one way or another. We must be able to absolutely identify genuine information flow from one and only one possible source.

Chet argues that it is possible to do this; but his presentation is comprehensible only to people with a good understanding of mathematics and information technology. So, let’s try to present his argument our own way, without using any math.

How Communication Works

When people communicate with each other, there are certain common elements. There has to be a sender who is transmitting the information and there must be someone to receive the information. The philosopher asks, “If a tree falls in the forest, and there is nobody there to hear it, does it make a sound?” From an information transfer point of view, it doesn’t matter whether it makes a sound or not. If there is nobody to hear the sound, information was not conveyed. Communication didn’t happen.

But simply having a sender and a receiver is not sufficient. One must also have a communication channel to carry the information from the sender to the receiver. The transmitter must encode the information in some format that the communication channel is capable of delivering to the receiver, and the receiver must know how to decode the information to make sense of it. This is true of every communication system.

Carrier Waves

AM radio and FM radio are two common ways to transmit information. Both use a carrier wave as the communication channel. Just imagine waves rippling out across a quiet pool of water after a stone has been dropped into it. The waves are the same height, and are evenly spaced. A carrier wave is simply a series of waves having the same height and same spacing.

Information is impressed on the carrier wave by modulating (that is, changing) it. In AM radio, Amplitude Modulation is used. That means some of the waves are higher than other waves. The height of the wave contains the information. In FM radio, Frequency Modulation is used. That means the waves are all the same height, but the spacing between them varies. The information is contained in the distance between the waves.

In every communication system known to man, there is always some regular pattern which is varied in some way to impress information on it. Random noise (static) has no pattern and contains no information.

Look at the words on this page. There are a series of letters, one right after the other. Information is impressed on this stream of letters by carefully selecting which letter comes next. You can understand what I am saying because you understand the English language and can decode the series of letters into words representing thoughts.

You probably can’t read hieroglyphics. But, if you go to an Egyptian temple and see rows (or columns) of similarly sized symbols, you instinctively know that the symbols mean something. You may not have a clue what they mean, but you know there must be information in those rows of symbols. They didn’t just happen by accident. You can recognize that hieroglyphics contain information, even if you don’t know what that information is. Looking at those hieroglyphics, subconsciously, you recognize a regular sequence that has a meaningful pattern impressed upon it.

SETI is listening for radio waves that seem like hieroglyphics. They are listening for radio waves having unmistakable regularity with clearly intentional differences. They are looking for a limited number of patterns, just as there are a limited number of letters in an alphabet, and those patterns must be repeated in a non-random way.

The problem is to differentiate random patterns from non-random patterns. I could just randomly hit the keys on the keyboard and it would produce a series of different letters conveying no information. How would someone who doesn’t read English tell the difference?

Our cop-out answer is that there are mathematical ways to differentiate random events from non-random events. SETI depends upon the existence of these ways. One can certainly argue about whether or not SETI is using valid mathematical ways, but that’s not really where this essay needs to go.

The point we are simply trying to make is that whether we are talking about radio waves, characters on a printed page, electrical impulses streaming over the Internet, or any other form of communication, it always comes down to a regular sequence of things modified in a limited number of specific ways which convey information from a sender to a receiver. That’s what the folks at the SETI Institute are looking for. If they find it, it will be unmistakable evidence of information sent from an intelligent source, intended for a receiver for some definite purpose. More to the point, it will be absolute proof of the existence of an intelligent source.

Chet’s presentation is based on the notion that SETI is looking for the right thing, but in the wrong place. There is a regular sequence of things modified in a limited number of specific ways that conveys information from a sender to a receiver. A form of communication that did not originate from a human source has already been discovered. It is the DNA molecule.

DNA

The DNA molecule is a series of four chemical bases abbreviated A, C, G, and T, strung together along a spiral helix. These four genetic letters tell living cells how to build the protein molecules they need to construct functional structures.

Clearly there is a receiver (the cell), and clearly there is information encoded in the DNA molecule that the cell knows how to decode. Some questions naturally arise. What is the sender? Did a random process somehow generate this information and encode it in the DNA molecule? Did the cell just accidentally figure out how to decode the information?

Chet’s presentation describes the “WOW! Signal.” It is a 72-second radio signal identified by Dr. Jerry Ehman on August 15, 1977, that some people believe was something other than just static . 5 Chet compares the probability that this signal really was just static to the probability that the information found in the DNA molecule is just random static.

People with a strong mathematical background would certainly find his analysis fascinating, but, for most of you, it really comes down to this: If one is willing to believe that a radio signal with an apparently non-random pattern (which might possibly have some unknown meaning) is proof of an intelligent source, one must also believe that the clearly non-random patterns in the DNA molecule (which certainly do have some meaning) are proof of an intelligent source.

Let’s state the same thing slightly differently. Suppose SETI discovers a non-terrestrial radio signal that contains information. That will be considered to be irrefutable evidence of an intelligent source because it could not possibly have been randomly generated. It logically follows that a DNA molecule containing information could not have been randomly generated, and must be irrefutable evidence of an intelligent source.

Contact

In the fictional movie, Contact, SETI received a signal containing the blueprints for a functional vehicle. It clearly came from an intelligent source, not a random process.

In real life, DNA molecules contain the blueprints for living creatures. These blueprints clearly could not have come from a random process. Despite this obvious truth, evolutionists fight to prevent public school students from considering the possibility that DNA is the result of intelligent design.

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Footnotes:

1 The SETI Institute website is http://www.seti.org.
2 http://www.seti.org/Page.aspx?pid=234
3 Disclosure, May 2010, “Dangerous Aliens
4 http://www.setileague.org/general/drake.htm
5 SETI Institute, December 5, 2002, “Interstellar Signal from the 70s Continues to Puzzle Researchers”, http://www.seti.org/Page.aspx?pid=867