Specified Complexity and SETI

18 07 2008

Note: I am not writing this because I’m an EVOL EVOLUTIONIST ATHEIST. I’m not an atheist, although I am an evolutionist. See my About page for more details.

I’m still in caffeine withdrawal, so, again, please forgive any grammatical errors.

Young-earth creationists have a distinct animosity towards SETI, for obvious reasons. The project is contrary to their whole understanding of biology, and it receives what probably looks to them like an obscene amount if money for an endeavor doomed to failure. This is understandable. However, when coupled with a fundamental misunderstanding of natural selection, it leads to intense hilarity. For some reason, Jonathon Safarti, author of the popular Answers in Genesis book Refuting Evolution, seems to be under the impression that there is an implicit conflict between the two ideas espoused by SETI that, on one hand, life can increase in complexity via evolution, and on the other, that complex signals are likely to have originated from an intelligence. Here’s the quote:

People detect intelligent design all the time. For example, if we find arrowheads on a desert island, we can assume they were made by someone, even if we cannot see the designer. There is an obvious difference between writing by an intelligent person, e.g. Shakespeare’s plays, and a random letter sequence like WDLMNLTDTJBKWIRZREZLMQCOP. There is also an obvious difference between Shakespeare and a repetitive sequence like ABCDABCDABCD. The latter is an example of order, which must be distinguished from Shakespeare, which is an example of specified complexity. We can also tell the difference between messages written in sand and the results of wave and wind action. The carved heads of the U.S. presidents on Mt. Rushmore are clearly different from erosional features. Again, this is specified complexity. Erosion produces either irregular shapes or highly ordered shapes like sand dunes, but not presidents’ heads or writing. Another example is the SETI program (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence). This would be pointless if there were no way of determining whether a certain type of signal from outer space would be proof of an intelligent sender. The criterion is, again, a signal with a high level of specified complexity—this would prove that there was an intelligent sender, even if we had no other idea of the sender’s nature. But neither a random nor a repetitive sequence would be proof. Natural processes produce radio noise from outer space, while pulsars produce regular signals. Actually, pulsars were first mistaken for signals by people eager to believe in extraterrestrials, but this is because they mistook order for complexity. So evolutionists (as are nearly all SETI proponents) are prepared to use high specified complexity as proof of intelligence, when it suits their ideology. This shows once more how one’s biases and assumptions affect one’s interpretations of any data.

I don’t see how one can write two books concerning the scientific validity of evolution and not understand natural selection. Perhaps it was simply a moment of confusion. But regardless of why it’s been set forth, it has. The error is here: there is no natural selection process that drives signals towards complexity. They don’t reproduce in the same way that organisms do, there’s no incentive for them to develop greater complexity in order to better survive. Therefore, the overwhelming probability is that a complex signal was created by an intelligence. The same applies for sand dunes. If sand dunes in forms that resembled presidential heads could better survive the ravages of time, then they would most likely be in these forms. Sadly, they don’t, and therefore, none are known to have formed via natural processes. This is also applicable to arrowheads and cars. Seriously, guys, if you’re going to write about evolution, please understand its basic premise.

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5 responses

18 07 2008
James Brown

Good post.
In fact SETI is looking for a signal of *minimal* complexity – not maximum.
See my explanation at:
http://www.setileague.org/editor/srch4us.htm
Regards……. Jim

19 07 2008
Linus

That’s fascinating, thank you. So Safarti was wrong on every level? 🙂

20 07 2008
jeff

“a signal with a high level of specified complexity—this would prove that there was an intelligent sender”

how high is ‘high’?

26 07 2008
Linus

Erm… I’m not quite certain. Perhaps on the level of the Arecibo message?

3 03 2009
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