I wrote this article in 1998 for EWNIForum, Newsletter of Eastern Washington/Northern Idaho/Montana Mensa. It was actually read by “Mr. Seti” and some suggested a debate between us, which he declined.
A SKEPTIC LOOKS AT SETI
The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, i.e. Carl Sagan’s vision, has made headlines recently. Last year we were treated to the movie from his book, “Contact.” For some strange reason the bad guys in this movie are the Christians, and the script (as well as the book) lets no opportunity go by to depict them as irrational and superstitious, violently hostile to scientific enterprise.
I’m sure this would be news to Isaac Newton, one of the greatest scientific minds of the modern era and a gifted Christian and Bible study author. After all the Bible is where you will find that the world is round and is suspended in space, and that the Universe is governed by predictable laws which humans have a license to study, because a sincere effort to appreciate the wonders of creation leads to worship of the Creator.
Except, of course, with most scientists after Darwin. Combined with the doctrine of Uniformitarianism supposing a great age of the Earth, his theory of Evolution removed the Creator from his Universe, instead appealing forever and always to the power of the human imagination and the elegance of human logic about large numbers increasing the likelihood of small odds.
Even so, SETI’s assumption is that life here is by evolution, therefore making it logically possible life elsewhere exists, either having evolved prior to ours, perhaps to “seed” us (panspermia theories), or in conjunction with ours, or perhaps just starting. With “billions and billions” of stars, some of whom might have planets, the logic further leads to billions of potential planets, some of whom might have “conditions for developing life” just like ours did (never mind we have no scientific clue what those conditions might be).
But before we start assuming that it’s necessary that we should seek whatever evolved on a distant planet, we skeptics would like to see some science done. First off, humanity has had telescopes since Galileo, and in this way has explored all visible stars. None of them have planets in orbit. The only way other planets are “observed” is by figuring they must be responsible for the irregularities of rotations of stars only extremely powerful telescopes can see and not very well. They are no more than a logical construct unconfirmed by actual observation.
If none of the billions of stars we have catalogued and studied have planets, it is far more logical to conclude that our sun seems to be an exception in this respect than it is to assume that billions of star systems not yet explored will render us but a common event in the Universe. Only our sun has planets as far as we know for sure, and only this one, at the right distance, with the right elements, has a biosphere. It is therefore not likely at all that this unique position and situation exist elsewhere in the universe, judging from the evidence at hand.
And even in this “just right” condition, that life on this planet is the natural consequence of circumstance and possibility, i.e. theoretical constructs of evolution such as spontaneous generation of life and development of more complex life forms out of the simple by mutation and random selection, is far from proven. To express the nature of this extraordinary claim in machine analogy, a collection of electronic precision parts in a garbage bin would have to assemble by themselves into a working TRS-80, and in five billion cycles of operation turn into Data the android. Plus two to three million different kinds of non-human robots of all shapes and sizes, with different electronic parts and precise software programming not found in a TRS-80 or each other’s systems.
Granting for the sake of argument that evolution did happen, that it would again develop intelligent life with desires for exploration and sociability like humans is unlikely, for even evolutionists say that we are who we are is astonishing in its unlikelihood, that if the merest thing had gone unnoticed by random selection life wouldn’t exist at all let alone get this complex.
On what basis then do we fund SETI so that all over the world they can build radiotelescopes and staff them so as to seek for intelligent life elsewhere? Don’t they need to give just a little evidence of the likelihood that a. their assumptions about life arising here are correct and b. from them logically follows the existence of intelligent life on planets we can’t see? And just how long should we “listen” before the negative results are accepted as evidence that the hypothesis is false?
The work by Sagan, “Contact,” is nothing but his fantasy scenario of the vindication of atheist assumptions and beliefs (hence all the digs at religion). The most glaring failure of all this to add up to something profound is that ultimately the extraterrestrials don’t show us anything new (they even speak English) and have no answers. And besides, the real builders remain a mystery. All that construction and travelling past Vega, for nothing.
Defending this debacle to a Congressional investigation, the movie’s heroine speaks with emotional zeal of a vision in an atmosphere of unbelief, supposing herself Galileo, but completely unaware, like her creator Carl Sagan, just how much SETI scientists resemble religious fundamentalists. As for financial support of SETI in the real world, that would be just about as reasonable as sending one’s pension to televangelists. Let me hear you say, Ay-MEN!