January 1999, rewritten November 7, 2001, including update of May 23, 1999
(Old page)

Nowhere have I ever seen criticism of what should be the very
central informational construct of the SETI (Search for
Extraterrestrial Intelligence) effort.  Officers of the SETI Institute and
others never give you a straight answer on this issue when you pin
them down on it.  Let the matter be laid out and discussed here.

Update of May 23, 1999

Update of April 18, 2004


I'm sure there are many others better qualified than I to present this discussion, but I've never heard anyone else raise this issue, at least in the manner I wish to, so here goes.  The issue here is not directly that of whether or not extraterrestrial "intelligences" exist, however one wants to define them, although any decision on this issue would likely cause one to reflect on how such entities should be defined.  For the moment, let us assume such things exist in some form that would be generally recognized as intelligences, either immediately or after extended scrutiny, should they appear on your front lawn.  A prominent zoologist, Ernst Mayr, states his biological rationale here as to why such entities, conceived as carbon-based organisms, likely don't exist elsewhere in the universe.  Dr. Mayr blames the fantasy of ETIs on the fact that most of the searchers are "astronomers, physicists and engineers," and that they are "simply unaware" that the success of SETI depends, not on physical laws, but on "biological and social factors."  I don't know about that, but what I, who have an engineering background, argue here doesn't depend on  biological or social thinking at all; and I consider the basic mathematical-informational argument here to be much more fundamentally threatening to SETI than Mayr's thoughts of life and living as we know it.


I have seen, in the past, elaborate formalizations of when and how SETI people would announce to the general public, or to some more restricted group, the verified reception by them of whatever sort of "signal" they feel marks it as having come from an "intelligence" (or whatever lesser entity they are momentarily settling for).  Apart from those who simply accept the word of the gods of science as unresolvable TRUTH on the face of it, one would expect the public to demand two explanations in such announcements from any successful searchers -- 1) the nature of the signal and how it can be concluded that it came from an intelligence, and 2) what physically implements that "intelligence".  The SETI boys and girls could probably successfully argue against having to extrapolate an answer to '2)' right away, but '1)' drives to the essence of what they keep trying to sell the public (and more especially to those with considerable cash unprotected from their curiosity).

It appears to me that -- although the scientists and engineers associated with the SETI Institute are quite sophisticated in their thinking at levels of physical science and radio-electronic and optical engineering -- like many other scientists, engineers and other sorts of specialists, they can retain a very unsophisticated view of a crucial element in whatever exciting adventurous endeavor they decide to hop into.  It appears elsewhere on the Web that prime numbers constituted the signal sent by the aliens in the movie Contact, as a signal that could not arise by any "natural" phenomenon of which we on earth are aware. It is my impression that the SETI people generally are soaring on an intuitional feeling of what is natural versus what is artificial -- in the simple way anyone would be apt to naively make this distinction as to very earthly matters, where this mode of distinction would normally be productive to one's application of it.  Physical science and the mathematics that makes it work just don't define the distinction 'natural' versus 'artificial'.  Physics and science on up through biology take a quite un-observer-centric view of the world, a view that fully holds that people, including observers of phenomena they interpret, are part of the natural world, the only world these disciplines recognize.


I claim the only concepts even a virtual traveler around the universe can hang onto are complexity and degree of uniqueness, neither of which measures cares a hoot for the anthropocentric distinction natural/artificial.  Things have a particular relative order of complexity based on recognized common components in their makeups.  Of course, we can calculate the level of complexity for the abstract mathematical production of a prime number of any size and also the complexity of any minimal mechanism that would be required to do the same, relative to other mechanisms built of the same components, and even pretty good estimates of the relative level of earthly organisms that would have any given probability of doing same -- whether they looked like us or whether they claimed to be of the "natural" or of the "artificial" persuasion.

I suppose we can assume we can decipher how any gismo, "artificial" or "natural", and of any order of complexity, represents prime numbers, Fibonacci numbers, or whatever else be chosen as the inter-stellar-system handshake. Evolutionists might claim such number sequences have no survival value and that only "intelligences" could produce them, as unavoidable artifacts; but certainly, an inadvertent logic-network, formed as a byproduct in an organism, could evolve for at least a limited time -- in similarity to the correlate human pastime that has arisen in some geek human intelligences.

But at a much less sophisticated level, decades ago, when I spoke with Jill Tarter at a Mensa meeting, and a couple years ago when I inquired of Frank Drake at an IEEE meeting -- in regard to the necessary criteria for "artificial" signals -- these people tended to back down very far from SETI's having to receive something that could be interpreted as a significant set of prime numbers in order to announce their success to the world.  In fact, Dr. Drake seemed to be content with just some signal that looked more "regular" than any that have been seen from space to date -- supposedly just a little more regular than those from pulsars or whistlers.  And, as I recall, Dr. Tarter would slip down from a prospective claim of having found "intelligence" to that of having found only "life".  Well, of course, the line between an intelligence and a live form without it is quite arbitrary (cf. Mensa and IQ tests in general) -- except in respect to criteria, as expressed in earthly terms, as to what sort of matter can modulate sufficient power to emit signals receivable on earth.  And today the line between life and inanimate matter is pretty blurry at the level of various sorts of viruses and separable subprocesses of organisms.  But whatever, the ' I ' in ' SETI ' doesn't stand for 'life', which, in English, begins with 'L'; so I won't SETL for that.  (OK, granted that life that does that with symbolism ought probably to be removed from earth.  ;-)  )


Although SETI searches the sky for "intelligent" signals out to quite considerable distances, it appears to conceive of such signals as being possible only under the control of the sort of carbon-based ("living") organisms we find controlling such emission of signals here on earth.  Must we assume only such critters must exist at such location in space as from which SETI should receive, with whatever degree of probability, whatever degree of complexity of signal it should decide to announce as having come from one of "them"?  Could we not consider extraterrestrial evolution to have produced something like an organism that would have, built into its anatomy, an organ that could transmit such amount of modulated radio or light energy as would permit some of it to be receivable on earth within our era?  Could we not consider something very unlike a carbon-based organism, say a rather organized gas plasma, that could do the same?  Call these sorts of things 'alive' or 'dead', 'natural' or 'unnatural'; I don't care -- and you and the appropriate problem space shouldn't either.


Consider that such a "recognition" channel is extremely narrow as a tool for observing what it was that sent whatever should be interpreted as a "signal" from an extraterrestrial inhabitant.  In light of such a narrow information channel, what kind of tiger can SETI possibly say it has by the tail?  At least I have no confidence that the first public announcement of an ETI is going to communicate much of anything to any reasonable accuracy.  I claim, in general, one can say that, as one attempts to verbally describe things at extreme distances over either time or space, all common concepts used in such a task approach complete uselessness/inaccuracy.


Last month I went to a meeting of the Bay Area Skeptics, where David Anderson and Dan Werthimer spoke on SETI@home.  In response to a question along these lines, that I put to them, I got only the "I'm not sure I understand" approach and a lot of beside-the-point positive fill-in on SETI.  Afterwards, a BAS officer asked me if I thought there was something improper (I can't remember the exact word used) about SETI.  I certainly wasn't taking any moral stance against SETI.  As far as I know the US government isn't supporting any of it at this point and I doubt any foreign governments are.  SETI does appear to be presently infiltrating the UC system of the State of California somewhat, in the form of Serendip IV, but I'm not railing on the politics of the quest's financing and certainly don't deny private parties the right to support such an effort, whether or not they understand it in any sense.  But the stance at BAS didn't seem to be skeptical at all; the atmosphere seemed to regard it as mom or apple pie, and thus above criticism.  I thought skepticism critiqued pretty much anything that attempted to expand the current limits of science or claimed to apply science in an unclear manner.  In any case, I feel SETI is open to the sort of criticism which I haven't done a very good job of wording in this discussion -- simply on an intellectual basis.  Hey, science has long accommodated to such criticism; it's not exactly religion.

UPDATE -- May 23, 1999


NASA has now set up a division for the exploration and study of what it labels as "exobiology" -- anything found beyond the atmosphere of earth that relates to the formation of carbon-based life in terms of the physics and biology we understand on earth and which NASA chooses to attribute to the whole universe.  It has been questioned as to whether this effort is not a metaphysical venture outside NASA's mission.  However, this pursuit is different from that of SETI, which seeks to relate modulations of physical parameters from sources outside our solar system to subjective human-modeled meaning.  The latter task is something much more worthy of an accusation of unscientific metaphysics.

Objections on this page to the scientificness of SETI are not directed to any activities attempting to establish the existence of entities of such levels of complexity in matter/energy outside our solar system, which entities should behave in manners we characterize here on earth as those exemplifying organismic individuals or "societies" we label as 'life', even should such be found to be based on other than the common carboniferous compounds composing life here on earth -- so long as an establishing transmission have a bandwidth-time (information) product of sufficient magnitude.

But the ' I ' in ' SETI ' stands for 'intelligence'.  The notion of 'intelligence', most abstractly and in objective terms, arises out of an organism/society's ability to model portions of its environment in such manner as to aid its persistence and proliferation.  But the methods of SETI are not able to allow more or less "direct", wide-channel experiencing, by its observers, of its target entities.  Thus, no communication of a level sufficient to establish a legitimate empathy of its observers with any extraterrestrial matter/energy complex they might conceive to be "intelligent", to such level, can possibly occur; and communication with lesser such complexes is not really conceived by SETI as part of its goal, and thus its protocols are not suited to this task.

Even if SETI wanted to attempt communication with, say, a conceivable organization of matter/energy of an environment-modeling level of say a flatworm -- but which organization had found survival value in communication with others of its kin outside its own sun system -- SETI's extremely narrow-band methods of observance of the signals, today, of any such communication would be vastly inadequate to any conventional scientific understanding of what, on the other end, was accomplishing the communication.  SETI appears completely geared to what I would term the 'little-green-techie-men' outlook -- that any matter/energy complex in the universe that be announceable as an ETI must have evolved to or beyond the complexity of our human-plus-artifact extraterrestrial-communication-reception-and-scoring-technology complex in two very distinct stages, first an organic one, followed by an inorganic energy-transmission-implementing one, resultant from evolution of an extremely complected central nervous system in the organic stage of such complex.  Besides this limiting assumption, SETI appears more or less restricted to considering communication with only a carbon-based organicotechnological source of extra-star-system communication so evolved in its complexity.

I'm not sure of what can be established to exclude the existence of limitedly-communicable-with entities which have evolved in what we would consider either only the one "organic" stage or otherwise only such an inorganic stage, or even in what we would see as having done so in more than two such paradigmatically different stages.  Of course, factual evidence -- supporting the dominance, throughout at least our galaxy, of our local mode of top-level material/energic coevolution of complexity -- would strike out significance of the above considerations.

It seems to me in general that, as one extends one's powers of observation to extremes of either space or time, one necessarily has to to gradually devalue the rules of one's local paradigms of understanding -- depending, of course, on indications of possible causes for decrease in robustness of these models at these extremes.  One can approach logically consistent epistemic considerations from two quasi-origins:  one can synthesize from some assumed solid ground of knowledge, or one can analyze from complete ignorance -- both in the context of observation, of course.  A concrete analogy of this might be the striking of tuning forks of different fixed fundamental frequencies versus the blowing of sonic white noise while juxtaposing various resonant vessels.  SETI people, while flailing their antennae madly around in attempt to touch entities tens to hundreds of light-years away, appear to do more striking of their own provincial gongs than subtle blowing on Coke bottles in subtle resonance with the universe.  (Apologies to Pepsico.)

One might claim that Frank Drake's equation tries to resonate very noisy but useful available data tending to establish environmental requirements of "living intelligences" outside our solar system, in such a way as to justify the probability of such entities within the reach of SETI microwave and light sensors, but I hardly think many feet-on-the-ground mathematicians and physicists would consider his equation legitimate applied mathematics -- since the multiplication of factors known only within certain accuracies simply results in a value known only to a much worse accuracy, an outcome that results from an accumulation of the inaccuracies of those factors even if the factors are independent -- and in the case of the Drake equation, no one knows all the significant factors and the degrees of their independences anyhow.  But the issue here is not whether or not environment-modeling complexes of matter/energy of any nature exist outside our solar system, but rather that present SETI people do not have an information technology at their disposal which can span the required light-years outside this system and detect whether or not what it would choose to call a signal from an "intelligence" comes from anything like what they visualize as such and has symbolic "meaning" empathizable by humans -- or is just the result of a highly improbable instance of an uncoagulated collection of disparate natural phenomena.

Another, possibly arbitrary, methodological bifurcation apparently assumed by SETI separates the recognition of an ETI carrier signal from that of semantic modulation thereupon.  While SETI seems to require that only the latter process be associated with the concept of 'intelligence', it apparently intends to announce all instances of the former as detections of "artificial" signals that are of extraterrestrial intelligent origin, where such have been filtered as non-terrestrial.  Mathematics, physics and biology do not distinguish the "natural" from the "artificial" -- humankind and its objectively described behavior being included within biology and seen as emerging out of physics via chemistry, with the help of mathematics.  Only subjective studies such as sociology, anthropology, etc. distinguish nature from artifact.  Amusingly, after saying in its online FAQ that it is going to announce all detections of verified, not-otherwise-assignable extraterrestrial EM (microwave or light) data regularities as having come from extraterrestrial intelligences, SETI Institute then says that it might have to have "new instruments" to record any messages superimposed on such a carrier.  And then it admits that, if the "message" it has received wasn't "intentionally" sent for comprehension here on earth, it might be "impossible to [ ] unravel" it.  Undaunted, however, SETI would, in such cases, still claim that such signal had established "another intelligent civilization [ ] out there."

Another corker in this FAQ, under "Why do SETI at all?", states that one answer to this is "technological spin-offs".  On the assumption that any "civilization" discovered by SETI will be "far more advanced than ours," our delightful FAQ writer next suggests that, in such case, we might get invited to join "a galactic network of intelligent beings."  As mascots no doubt. . .if not simply as self-reproducing organic robots or even exotic nutritional entries on their menus (after chemically modified for extraterrestrial consumption).  I forget the nature of the argument in favor of the superiority of our expected communicators, but I seem to recall that argument also escaped my credence.  All right, so maybe we won't end up as mascots or in their stew, but will you be happy serving in their army?

And then, it is a real riot, amongst all the hype on the SETI Institute's and others' Web pages, to note what these thoughtful terrestrial beings with big microwave ears cite as general intellectual support of their yearnings from the general scientific community.  In regard to "[w]hat [ ] other scientists think" of SETI, only three comments are mentioned and quoted.  All of these are from the Report of the Astronomy Survey Committee of the National Academy of Sciences", published in different years.  They do seem to have at least one friend of national significance.  Tomorrow the world. . .er. . .the galaxy. . .at least.

It is of very significant interest that, while the SETI Institute provides separate pages for several of the factors of the Drake Equation, in order to explain the particular Fi factor -- the one that is uniquely specific to the SETI requirement of "intelligence" -- it links to a page of philosopher William H. Calvin, who gets his books and magazine articles advertised for free on the psychiatric department of the U. of Washington School of Medicine's Website.  Prof. Calvin is one endless, unbelievable source of word packets, a metaphysical world quite independent of science, but full of cultural quotes, mostly explaining (?) how brains like his think.

Oh, yes, and when asked why SETI has no pictures of UFOs or aliens, SETI Institute claims no ETs are coming within camera range yet.  Well, what the heck, why stick one's neck out with purported wide-band data establishing aliens when you can convince a significant number of investors that a signal of much less than morse-code bandwidth can establish the existence of an alien?

And then we can look at the SETI@home "science" FAQ:

In answer to Q 3.4, it is commented that, on getting a carrierwise ETI hit, "it may require experts in linguistics or mathematics to decipher" any message in the communication.  Linguistics is mostly nonscientific, cultural stuff, indelibly tuned to homo sapiens.  Look how long linguists had to wait until someone found how to cheat with the Rosetta Stone.  Linguistic archeologists didn't do much better with Mayan writing.  SETI seekers better have some excellent mathematicians.

In re Q 3.7, 10-times-increased signal sensitivity is advertised as possible with SETI@home's "coherent integration" algorithm, but no description of it is given.

In re Q 3.8, "pattern-detection" algorithms are mentioned as used for discriminating for the "most interesting signals".  But what patterns are the "most interesting" is not stated.

The answer to Q 3.9 appears to dare hackers to become Alpha Centaurians or whatever.  'What are your galactic coordinates, Xsaireuhwielk?'  'Er. . .well. . .two km SW of Tel Aviv. . .and well. . .I incorporated a terrestrial-signal-filter-defeating algorithm into my transmitter.'

Raymond A. Chamberlin