August 1, 2005

The Search for Scientific Cover – "Intelligent design's" use of the SETI analogy

"To say intelligent causes are empirically detectable is to say there exist well-defined methods that, based on observable features of the world, can reliably distinguish intelligent causes from undirected natural causes. Many special sciences have already developed such methods for drawing this distinction—notably forensic science, cryptography, archeology, and the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI).” (1)
A favored rhetorical strategy among advocates of “Intelligent Design” theory is the attempt to present ID as a methodology analogous to those scientific disciplines in which the actions and effects of intelligent agents are studied. In the hope of gaining scientific cover for what is, at its core, a philosophical and political movement proponents have opined that ID is comparable to sciences such as archeology and forensics.

[Note: The following is not an attempt to refute ID as an idea, but simply to expose the proposed analogy with legitimate scientific disciplines as specious. As such, it will not deal specifically with concepts such as “Irreducible Complexity”(2) and “Specified Complexity”(3) which have been evaluated, and found wanting, elsewhere.(4,5) For the purposes of this article I will simply accept that IC and SC are components of ID methodology.]

Incommensurable Methodologies

Dr. William Dembski, perhaps the leading proponent of “Intelligent Design,” has, on many occasions, offered the aforementioned analogy with scientific endeavors such as archeology, forensics, and the SETI project as powerful support for his efforts to create a methodology for identifying intelligent design. To many this analogy seems reasonable enough at first. But there are adverse nuances within the argument, some of which Dembski has graciously emphasized in the following passage from one of his essays, “Five Questions Evolutionists Would Rather Dodge.”
“If an extraterrestrial intelligence communicated with Earth via radio signals, we would have no more experience of the extraterrestrial intelligence than we do of any intelligence responsible for the formation of life. In each case, we would know nothing about the actual workings, motivations, and purposes of the intelligence.” (6)
It’s not often that one finds an argument and it’s own refutation delivered neatly wrapped but that is indeed what Dembski has provided for us with this quote. Granted this is not nearly so beneficent a gift as a disavowal of “Intelligent Design” itself, but, to tweak an old aphorism, it’s a good thing even if it comes in a small package.

In the very first phrase Dr. Dembski posits an ET civilization employing radio signals. Contrary to his assertions which immediately follow, we can gain a wealth of information from these data. We can derive inferences regarding the level of technological progress for this unknown civilization. We can make observations regarding the kinds of natural resources to which they likely have access, which in turn leads us to speculation as to their environment. We can propose inductions regarding the structure of their sciences. And most simply, but perhaps most importantly, we can observe that these are beings that exist within the context of natural processes (unless we wish to consider the rather outlandish notion that supernatural beings might communicate via radio signals).

Further, while certainly we are on firmer ground when drawing inferences as to “workings,” we can reach tentative conclusions about “motivations, and purposes” as well, if nothing grander than the observation that the extraterrestrials wish to communicate.

Clearly, then, we can know far more about an ET species using radio signals than we could hope to know about “any intelligence responsible for the formation of life” (i.e. God). This alone is enough to invalidate a comparison of ID with a science-based investigation of ET phenomena.

But there is more. The procedure used by SETI is not merely some unstructured surveillance of the radio spectrum. SETI searches for specific kinds of signals (narrow band) based on specific assumptions about the intelligence that might send them.
“There is relatively little background static from galaxies, quasars, and other cosmic noisemakers in the microwave part of the spectrum. This makes faint signals easier to pick out. Additionally, the microwave band contains a naturally-produced emission line, a narrow-band "broadcast", at 1,420 MHz due to interstellar hydrogen. Every radio astronomer (including extraterrestrial ones) will know about this hydrogen emission. It may serve as a universal "marker" on the radio dial. Consequently, it makes sense to use nearby frequencies for interstellar "hailing" signals.” (7)
We can see, then, that any investigation of an extra-terrestrial intelligence makes assumptions in its methodology that have no analogs within ID theory. At least two of these are, a) that the putative intelligence is a natural agency, operating within the context of natural processes, and b) that the intelligent agency operates such that its detection is possible based upon an inference of parameters analogous to those of the only other natural intelligence of which we know, humans. Cornell astrophysicist Loren Petrich makes this point clearly and simply, pointing out that SETI methodology is
“…an attempt to predict what an extraterrestrial broadcaster is likely to do, using the fact that they live in the same kind of Universe that we do.” (8)
In other words, SETI research is about much more than simply receiving a signal and concluding that “design” of some sort is responsible. It is precisely about the “workings, motivations, and purposes of the intelligence.” Not surprisingly this is something which, as it applies to their “theory,” Dembski and other ID advocates have been reluctant to address.
"What a designer intends or purposes is, to be sure, an interesting question, and one may be able to infer something about a designer's purposes from the designed objects that a designer produces. Nevertheless, the purposes of a designer lie outside the scope of intelligent design." (1)
Unfortunately for the proposed analogy with science, purposes lie very much within the scope of the SETI project, as well as other scientific disciplines studying intelligence. An exemption from these conditions amounts to a forfeit of the claim to be science.

After examining the case of SETI, dealing with the analogy to other sciences is mostly a matter of iteration. Archaeologists, forensic investigators and others (Dembski sometimes includes cryptography in his analogy) involved with empirical study of putative intelligent phenomena all make the same assumptions as part of their methodology as do SETI researchers. They assume the phenomenon in question is natural and can be detected and understood. Additionally, they go beyond SETI parameters by assuming that if there is intelligence involved, it is human intelligence. “Intelligent Design” theory assiduously avoids these constraints.

As with SETI, consideration of workings, motivations and purposes is integral to the prosecution of archeological investigations. Indeed it is hardly possible to imagine these researches being productive without such appraisal. As an archeologist examines a stone fragment he looks for clues, evidence of intelligent operations. Understanding that natural processes can flake and smooth a piece of rock, an archeologist must hypothesize a context within which the piece might have been deliberately worked. This is possible only if assumptions are made regarding the artifact’s supposed designer. Determination of design can only take place after consideration of methods and motivations allows a chain of logic linking evidence with cause. Absent this, serendipity is as reasonable a finding as intelligence. A stone fragment may in fact be nothing more than a stone fragment.

Forensic science requires even less evaluation. The same assumptions are involved, and the same considerations of methods and motivations are often employed. There is no comparison with ID because there is no comparable methodology.

Therefore, it can be suggested that underlying the empirical methodology of scientific (SETI, archeology, forensics) investigations into intelligence we'll find some basal assumptions,
  1. Putative intelligent phenomena are natural and empirically quantifiable.
  2. Putative intelligent phenomena are understandable by way of known intelligent referents (the logic underlying this being that the putative intelligence occupies the same universe and is subject to the same natural laws as are humans).
  3. Putative intelligent phenomena can be classified as “designed” providing something of the designer’s methods and motivations is understood.
Evaluating ID in this light we see that,
  1. ID phenomena are not specifically assumed to be natural (curmudgeons might rejoin that they’re actually specifically assumed to be supernatural).
  2. ID theory does not specifically rule out design by natural intelligence, but neither does it provide a structure whereby a distinction between natural and supernatural intelligence can be adduced. This implies either epistemological goals that differ from those of science or extraordinarily poor experimental design skills, or both.
  3. ID theorists are not inclined to discuss any methods or motivations that might be attributed to a proposed designer.

Incommensurable Results

The results of any research activity depend critically on the methodology employed during the investigation. Accordingly the results of scientific investigations of intelligent phenomena, constrained by the previously mentioned assumptions, can be expected to be empirically qualified and referentially understood. What’s more, replication of the investigation can be expected to reinforce previous conclusions. If design is adduced, it is because this is consistent with observable evidence as to the workings and motivations of the designer. It’s important to keep in mind that the kind of intelligent agency that can be inferred is limited by the methodology. This means that SETI can conclude only that natural intelligent agency, its effects and motivations constrained by physical law, is or is not responsible for a particular phenomenon (e.g. narrow band signal). Similarly, terrestrial archeological studies can infer only that an artifact is the product either of human intelligent agency or undirected natural processes. And forensic investigations that search for intelligence can discover only that humans were involved or were not. All of these endeavors are constrained by naturalist methodology and are thus capable of producing results that have some utility within the context of observable and measurable reality.

In contrast “Intelligent Design” theory allows inferences unconstrained by scientific methodology. The intelligent agency inferred from a set of observations can be natural or supernatural. There are no qualities of the intelligence that can be adduced, in fact it is considered immaterial to know anything of the workings or purposes or of the intelligent agent. It's casually assumed that intelligence can be inferred without any of these considerations. An inference of design by ID methodology offers nothing beyond a yea or nay as to whether a phenomenon meets limited, arbitrary criteria. In the end, an inference of ID is non-rigorous, non-specific and of little utility as regards empirical matters.

This can be demonstrated by the following thought experiment. Imagine scientific methodology applied to all known and proposed instances of intelligent design (including SETI, archeology, forensics, cryptography, and all reputed examples of biological ID systems). Then imagine ID methodology being applied in the same manner. The standard empirical approach allows us to either, a) infer meaningful distinctions, i.e. intelligent or not, human intelligence or not, human intelligence or other natural intelligence, or b) in the absence of evidence, to allow a conclusion of “not enough data.” In other words, “Intelligent? Maybe, maybe not. We can’t know yet.” Knowing that one does not know, and operating within a context that predicts that there is more to know, are powerful tools for contextual understanding, as well as an integral component of empirical investigations.

However ID methodology, while able to provide a basis for only one of the previously mentioned distinctions (intelligent or not), is entirely infertile as regards stimulation of further research. Due to its lack of empirical content, there are only limited conclusions to be drawn and there exist no imperatives for further research. Data must be interpreted as being due to intelligent agency or not, leading to forced determinations in areas of research that science would consider only provisionally understood, if at all.


What a comparison of the respective methodologies of science and ID “theory” shows is that proponents of “Intelligent Design” wish to lift a portion of the scientific process out of its historical and methodological context in order to broaden the scope of possible conclusions.

Although scrutiny has revealed that the concepts of Irreducible Complexity and Specified Complexity are hardly scientific they do have empirical analogs. There are legitimate empirical indicators of intelligence but these are entirely context-dependent. They rely upon methodological scientific assumptions, i.e. that phenomena are natural and can be understood. They also depend, and are built upon, what we already know of intelligence, including its empirical indicators.

Consider for a moment a portion of the investigative process regarding, say, relativity, lifted from the contextual constraints of the science of physics. If supernatural concepts can be inferred, if it is not necessary to accommodate Newtonian mechanics as part of the investigation, then the Eddington experiment studying light bent by the sun’s effect on space becomes superfluous.(9) Nearly any preconceived notion can be affirmed using this truncated methodology.

Because the methodologies are not compatible and the results that obtain are not empirically comparable, it seems reasonable to conclude that the analogy of ID with SETI and other sciences is spurious. Although to many it may seem perverse that someone would blithely ignore the qualitative differences between natural intelligent invention, and supernatural intelligent invention (or intervention), it is important to understand that “Intelligent Design” theorists have largely forsaken the pursuit of establishing an actual intelligent design research program. Likewise, the development of a useful rubric for inclusion of supernatural cause within the purview of methodological naturalism remains unrealized. What is left, then, is a political enterprise, one that requires cover in order to successfully encroach onto scientific turf. Tactics that employ such rhetoric as “teach the scientific controversy,” or pleas for “academic freedom,” as well as the specious comparison of ID with legitimate scientific disciplines must be continually evaluated and exposed if we are to keep the end of the wedge blunt, and ineffective.


1) Dembski, William.. 2003. Intelligent Design.

2) Behe, Michael J. 1996.Darwin’s Black Box, the Biochemical Challenge to Evolution. Touchstone, New York, NY.

3) Dembski, William, 2002. No Free Lunch, Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, pp. 28-30.

4) Scientists on IC -

5) Scientists on SC -

6) Dembski, William, 2004. Five Questions Evolutionists Would Rather Dodge.

7) SETI Institute Research/Technical Information.

8) Petrich,Loren. 2003. Animal and Extraterrestrial Artifacts: Intelligently Designed?

9) Eddington, A. S. Space, Time, and Gravitation: An Outline of the General Relativity Theory. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1987.


Blogger Barron said...

Good discussion. I didn't have that much background into the details of HOW SETI did the Search, so that was illuminating. The purpose side is too often over looked. The assumption of SETI is that people are trying to communicate. So we look in logical places, we don't assume encryption of the signal or whatever. We assume that these entities WANT to be heard. That's a pretty potent imputation to the "designing" intelligence. To apply that to IDC that would have serious theological impact... I know, they don't really care, it's political not theological.

12:18 PM  

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