Forgot your password?
typodupeerror
Space Sci-Fi Science

Excluding Intelligent Design Principles From the Search For Alien Life 308

Posted by Soulskill
from the irreducible-simplicity dept.
KIdPanda writes "Prompted by pictures of man-made structures in the Utah desert, a SETI astronomer explains the sometimes-ambiguous difference between seeing the hand of God, alien intelligence, or nature. 'In my photographs, Shostak's SETI-trained eye — standing in for a pattern-crunching computer program — searched for an unexpected increase in visual order (or, in thermodynamic terms, a decrease in entropy caused by the rebellion of life against universal decay). A road or a tended field is mathematically simpler than a mountainous jumble or naturally varied vegetation. ... But there's an obvious problem: nothing is simpler than a sweep of blue sky, or the inky blackness of space. If simplicity is the benchmark, space itself is evidence of design."
This discussion has been archived. No new comments can be posted.

Excluding Intelligent Design Principles From the Search For Alien Life

Comments Filter:
  • What? (Score:2, Insightful)

    by navtal (943711)
    "But there's an obvious problem: nothing is simpler than a sweep of blue sky, or the inky blackness of space. If simplicity is the benchmark, space itself is evidence of design." What? I don't understand how something not being simple enough for our limited intelligence to understand constitutes divine creation?
    • Re:What? (Score:5, Informative)

      by qbzzt (11136) on Friday November 28, 2008 @03:53PM (#25918069)

      Objects that are designed by people (and, presumably, other intelligences) tend to be simpler than those created by nature. For example, compare the straight lines of a road with the wavy shape of a river.

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        Is "more orderly" the same as "simpler"? Is higher entropy less simple than lower entropy? I would answer "no" to both questions.

        • Re:What? (Score:5, Informative)

          by ceoyoyo (59147) on Friday November 28, 2008 @04:24PM (#25918329)

          The math would agree with you.

          The article fuzzily jumps between concepts like "simple" and "complex" and low-entropy, high-entropy.

          An intuitive way of thinking about entropy is considering how likely a particular arrangement is to give you the overall appearance you observe. Take a forest seen from the air and imagine cutting little bits of it out with Photoshop and moving them around. You can do that quite a bit and the result isn't all that terribly different from the original appearance. Now imagine doing it with the Nazca lines, or a pattern of roads. Big difference. The cases where you see a big difference are low entropy states -- they're special and random fiddling destroys them. The forest is a higher entropy state. Randomness doesn't have as much effect.

          Now consider a plain blue sky. Do the same Photoshopping. No effect at all. The sky is an even higher entropy state than the forest.

          • Re:What? (Score:5, Interesting)

            by Jeff Hornby (211519) <jthornbyNO@SPAMsympatico.ca> on Friday November 28, 2008 @04:34PM (#25918401) Homepage

            I tend to agree with you in that a scrambled roadmap is very different from an unscrambled roadmap and a scrambled forest is the same as an unscrambled forest. But then we've probably been raised in similar circumstances.

            Would a monkey or a hypothetical tree dwelling civilization find the scrambled forest the same as the unscrambled? Probably not because to these people each tree is unique. I would say that your distinction between low entropy and high entropy is very anthrocentric. From what I have observed, much of the natural world (or universe) has low entropy, we just discount the orderlinesss as unimportant because we didn't create it ourselves and we have no use for it.

            • Re:What? (Score:4, Interesting)

              by Evil Pete (73279) on Friday November 28, 2008 @06:26PM (#25919255) Homepage

              No. This has a very strong mathematical and physical basis. In Statistical Mechanics [wikipedia.org] one can start with looking at the number of possible combinations there are of objects in a physical system and then derive the likelihood that any change will maintain the properties or is a significant departure. A road is small set within the phase space of possible states of the system, random changes will usually end up in a set of objects that no longer define the concept of "road". This leads on directly to the concept and measurement of entropy. So the road / forest comparison is quite reasonable. The blue sky, well how many microstates are there in blue sky: one. So no matter how you permute it it will always be a blue sky.

              • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

                by im_thatoneguy (819432)

                This is an outright falsity of your visual cortex though. Your visual cortex says a sky is "blue" but it's actually a huge variety of hues, saturations and values.

                I dare you to take a wideish angle photo of even a blue sky and try reorganizing it. It'll look senseless.

                Even a blue sky has a pretty vast dynamic range from the horizon upward.

                Photoshoping a sky is harder than photoshoping a forest because your mistakes get covered up in the forest very easily due to so much detail. That's the reason a forest

            • by ceoyoyo (59147)

              I gave the hand wavy explanation. Entropy is very firmly anchored in math, and that mathematical definition seems to be a very basic feature of the universe. I see someone else has already given an excellent reply, but I'll just add the standard book example:

              Imagine tearing the binding off a book so you just have a bunch of loose, numbered pages. Initially the pages are in numerical order. Now, throw them up in the air and collect them together. It is overwhelmingly probable that the pages will NOT be

          • The math would agree with you. [...] entropy

            If we take the radio waves or terrain features we observe to be the outcome of random variables, then we're on soft ground here.

            Entropy, in the mathematical sense (and specifically Shannon entropy), is a property of a random variable--that is, of a distribution function. Specifically it's defined as - sum_{all i} of (p_i * log p_i). If we've sampled the variable and observed event i, what does that tell us about p_i? About p_j for j != i?

            We might take the n-pixel picture to be a random variable instead o

        • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

          by MightyMartian (840721)

          I'd say the real problem here is that identifying design is an incredibly difficult task. The Intelligent Design scammers would have us believe there's some sort of algorithm that could reliably pick intelligently-produced artifacts from natural ones. Of course, they have no such thing, and those sciences that have to deal in trying to figure out what was designed as opposed to what was made by non-intelligent beings is incredibly difficult.

          SETI is making a basic assumption. It seems a reasonable one, bu

      • compare the straight lines of a road

        Straight roads? [dmu.ac.uk] Are you from a country that makes cars that corner like sacks of wet sand, by any chance?

      • Straight lines of a road? You've obviously never been to St. Paul.

      • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

        by SuchiRu (675808)
        No, straight lines are just simpler for US to understand. Many things in nature, if you take a step back from it, are based on the spiral. It's more complicated, but still ordered.
      • Objects that are designed by people (and, presumably, other intelligences) tend to be simpler than those created by nature. For example, compare the straight lines of a road with the wavy shape of a river.

        Which is funny, because the IDologists infallibly invoke complexity as evidence of design.

    • Hear, hear. So logically, anything that appears complicated does not show evidence of design? God is a simpleton? Eyeballs are complicated, so therefore they were not designed? What the hell does that statement mean?

      I know I'm beating up on a bad summary, but this is just too trippy. Pass the bong.

    • Re:What? (Score:4, Interesting)

      by davolfman (1245316) on Friday November 28, 2008 @04:49PM (#25918511)
      I think he's arguing that we're looking at one gigantic false positive.
      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by lysergic.acid (845423)

        if by "he" you mean the author of the summary, then perhaps yes. but if you're referring to Seth Shostak, the SETI guy, then that isn't what he's arguing at all. here's the excerpt FTA:

        But there's an obvious problem: nothing is simpler than a sweep of blue sky, or the inky blackness of space. If simplicity is the benchmark, space itself is evidence of design. And leaving aside this uncomfortable implication, it would mean ignoring a piece of skywriting, or an overhead flying saucer, if it contains more visu

    • by earlymon (1116185)

      "But there's an obvious problem: nothing is simpler than a sweep of blue sky, or the inky blackness of space. If simplicity is the benchmark, space itself is evidence of design." What? I don't understand how something not being simple enough for our limited intelligence to understand constitutes divine creation?

      It doesn't - and TFA article goes on to explain and agree, which the flaming summary does not:

      That's true, agreed Shostak. But the key is comparison. Against a low-information background, one looks for life in complication; and against a complex background, one searches for simplicity. In either case, it's the degree of unexpected variation that matters. That's where Intelligent Design falls short.

      And also from TFA, Shostak of SETI sums up how we might recognize life elsewhere:

      "Another answer is that given by Supreme Court justice Potter Stewart, in a case on pornography," said Shostak. "It's become a famous answer to all these questions: 'I'll know it when I see it.'"

  • oops (Score:5, Funny)

    by girlintraining (1395911) on Friday November 28, 2008 @03:48PM (#25918055)

    They assume intelligent life on other worlds would be trying to reduce chaos. I wonder how they arrive at this conclusion, since the only known intelligent life we've found so far seems to rather enjoy creating it in great quantity.

  • If you create a sand castle it'll become a flat surface. If you have a clear blue sky and start up a coal plant it'll initially become patchy and black and then hazy gray. The evenness of our blue sky is an example of entropy in action.

    Given nothing but erosional forces eventually the earth would be a flat sphere.

    Disrupting patterns is the signal of counter-entropy entities such as life. We look for disruptions in the background 'blue sky' of the radio spectrum for something 'different'.

    Different is the

  • Yeah...except not (Score:5, Insightful)

    by paiute (550198) on Friday November 28, 2008 @03:55PM (#25918097)

    The "inky blackness of space" is only simple if interpreted by a spectrally-limited human eye seeing only a tiny part of it from a distance. Space is crammed with a chaotic mess of strange crap on the macroscale and a lot more weird junk on the micro. Quasars, dark matter, nebulae, dark energy, black holes, virtual particles, gluon soup, quarks....

    I will, as they say on the Internets, fix that for you:

    If simplicity is the benchmark, space itself is in no way evidence of design.

    • Space is crammed with a chaotic mess of strange crap on the macroscale and a lot more weird junk on the micro. Quasars, dark matter, nebulae, dark energy, black holes, virtual particles, gluon soup, quarks....

      Space is only chaotic if you don't yet know the math. In time, regardless if there is a God or not, the cosmos will be much like a simple clock.

      People from times past seen comets and meteor shows as chaotic because they didn't understand the math and the mechanism. We have that today as well but as
      • by melikamp (631205)

        In time, regardless if there is a God or not, the cosmos will be much like a simple clock.

        Just like the atom? We are so lucky that the foundations of physical world lack uncertainty [wikipedia.org]. Waaaait a second...

    • True that. Take any point in space that "seems" empty. In reality, it's crammed with a hell lot of rays, waves, particles, and that's what WE know. If we could produce a device that converts all those waves into sound, we would be listening to a chaotic mess.
      • > If we could produce a device that converts all those
        > waves into sound, we would be listening to a chaotic mess.

        It is just my own opinion, but I think that it'd rather be a progressive rock masterpiece.
    • If simplicity is the benchmark, space itself is in no way evidence of design.

      If there can be no evidence against the existence of the designer, there can be no evidence in support of the designer either.

      Let the existence of the designer and making an observation be random variables. We say that x is evidence for y if p[y|x] > p[y]; that is, observing x makes y more likely than y is a priori. It's seen that if x is evidence for y, then x is evidence against (meaning s/>/</) the complement of y.

      Let o1..on be the possible outcomes of the observation (all happening with posit

  • by Anonymous Coward

    Sometimes stuff that looks artificial can actually be natural. Telling the difference can be hard sometimes.

    Throw in references to intelligent design to get a bunch of people in a tizzy and drive page hits.

    • Sometimes stuff that looks artificial can actually be natural. Telling the difference can be hard sometimes.

      Ultimately, SETI and ID would like to have the same thing: a rule or formula that can be applied to an observation to determine rigorously whether it is the byproduct of an intelligent agency.

      However, SETI knows that no such rule exists, and though they have software that flags 'interesting' stuff for their attention, they are still left with ordinary scientific procedures for determining what the cause of the observation actually is. (And in one case we got pulsars rather than 'aliensdidit'.)

      ID pretends t

  • by cromar (1103585) on Friday November 28, 2008 @03:56PM (#25918105)
    Obviously, ID fails to impress us with its (lack of) logical hypotheses. I would like to see the ID crowd come up with an actual science that could predict whether something was created by an intelligence (and predict what "level" of intelligence created it). At least it would lend them some credence and provide a factual basis for their (and our) arguments.
    • by arminw (717974)

      ...with an actual science that could predict whether something was created by an intelligence....

      How about predicting how a junkyard full of car parts can spontaneously, randomly become a running Ferrari or even only a Toyota automobile.

      • Stick a naked singularity next to it, anything's possible!
      • How about predicting how a junkyard full of car parts can spontaneously, randomly become a running Ferrari or even only a Toyota automobile.

        I'm curious who you think makes that prediction.

        If you're thinking that's an analogy for biological evolution, you're wrong. Automobiles and their precursors don't reproduce themselves via error-prone self replication.

        • by arminw (717974)

          ...Automobiles and their precursors don't reproduce themselves via error-prone self replication....

          We humans think that self-replicating cells arose randomly from the "primordial soup" of the early oceans. Yet, despite science and technology's efforts we have not come even within light years of building any sort of machine that can take bare elements and make a copy of itself, which in turn copies itself etc. How is it that we can intelligently attribute to chance and time what we cannot do ourselves? Maybe

          • by Black Parrot (19622) on Saturday November 29, 2008 @05:21PM (#25927741)

            We humans think that self-replicating cells arose randomly from the "primordial soup" of the early oceans. Yet, despite science and technology's efforts we have not come even within light years of building any sort of machine that can take bare elements and make a copy of itself, which in turn copies itself etc. How is it that we can intelligently attribute to chance and time what we cannot do ourselves?

            God, what a stupid post.

            1) What are you going to do in a few years when the artificial life people do get their self-replicating metabolizing systems working. (Somehow I doubt that you've seen the literature on the topic.)

            2) We can't do lots of other stuff that happens naturally; what's the problem with us not being able to create life in a test tube (yet)?

            3) Whence the argument, "we smart guys can't even do it, therefore some intelligent designer must have"?

            Don't you creationists ever think?

      • As far as something like that randomly happening there is no difference between a Ferrari appearing or "even only a Toyota automobile." Unless of course there are more parts in one or the other.

        But that has nothing to do with evolution. Those who make the argument as you have simply have not even the most basic understanding of evolution. We did not spontaneously come together out of a "junkyard" of parts. The incredibly slow process of evolution is all about incremental steps. Did I mention incredibly

        • by arminw (717974)

          ...We did not spontaneously come together out of a "junkyard" of parts....

          I was thinking not so much about what happened AFTER a living cell "somehow" appeared, but about the random molecules in "the primordial soup", the junk yard of elements, came to make the first living cell. Darwin did not have the foggiest idea about how complex a single living cell is. We OBSERVE and experience that any moderately organized pile of atoms becomes less organized over time. This a a manifestation of the second law of th

    • If probability theory is a reasonable model of the existence of the ID and the outcome of observations, you can't have evidence for unless you allow evidence against.

      See my proof at http://science.slashdot.org/comments.pl?sid=1045125&cid=25918745 [slashdot.org]

    • Predicting whether something was created by an "intelligence" first requires a definition of intelligence, and then (apparently) some way of discriminating between different "levels" of it. Unfortunately, the only "intelligence" we have to base any of this on is our own, so it fails the empirical test. And of course, there's the bias of seeing ourselves -- that is, our human intelligence -- as the best or most refined kind.

      Lastly, here's an example of just how innane this line of thinking is: Cars are creat

      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by cromar (1103585)
        There are certainly "levels" of intelligence - we measure this with (arguably flawed) IQ tests in our own species. We can measure the intelligence of animals relative to us. Even, I think a microorganism or an integrated circuit could be said to possess some level of intelligence. Obviously, the answer to what intelligence is would need to be part of the hypothesis.

        It's an interesting intellectual question, and it has been touched on in many areas of science, most notably pattern recognition, as the sum
    • Obviously, ID fails to impress us with its (lack of) logical hypotheses. I would like to see the ID crowd come up with an actual science that could predict whether something was created by an intelligence <snip>

      That's exactly what their 'intellectual' leaders (Behe, Dembski, Gonzalez, etc.) profess to be doing.

      Of course, their claims don't stand up to the most casual scrutiny.

      (Though for some reason creationists tend to find them convincing. Wonder why...)

    • ...is that *we* are the "intelligent designers", who are constantly, 24/7, unconsciously creating the world we're facing (as in "what you think becomes what happens to you"). At least my own experience seems to prove that to me. Sadly, it's something that is virtually impossible to objectively measure -- assuming the theory to be true, when you want it to be false, it would turn up to you to be false (and a paradox -- that would prove it to be true for that certain circumstance).

      What keeps bothering me, is
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by tyme (6621)

      cromar [slashdot.org] wrote:

      I would like to see the ID crowd come up with an actual science that could predict whether something was created by an intelligence

      The ID/Creationism folks can't ever produce such a thing because they don't believe that there are any examples of things that were not intelligently designed! They literally believe that everything that exists was created intentionally by an intelligent being, even apparently random processes that we can contemporaneously observe (as opposed to apparently rand

  • Just keep watching for prime numbers and bad sitcoms with aliens in them.
  • All this is going to do is fan the fires of further ignorance.

    I do not dismiss religion in and of itself. That being said, if it makes your day to think that order is a sign of God than feel free to take comfort in that, I have no real problem with it. But at the same time don't think that it's ultimate proof (as in science), there are enough explanations without needing to raise the name of a deity to defend what appears as order to you.

    For me? I think things work well in their proper frame. I'd like to
  • by syousef (465911) on Friday November 28, 2008 @04:17PM (#25918265) Journal

    Look at fractals. If you found a Madelbrot set sitting somwhere in space, had a bias toward ID, and didn't realize the pattern behind it wsa simple, you'd be tempted to conclude it was intelligently designed.

    Just as you can look at life and argue ID, when in fact some molecules, simple rules and a lot of time can in fact be responsible for the variety we see.

  • What if the universe happened by chance or an error and God has no idea how to put it back in the box?

    • by db32 (862117)
      Whoa whoa whoa now. I think the physics and whatnot that drive all of creation are very well "designed" and seem to interoperate quite nicely. If there was any mistake it was the whole hairless talking monkey creation part. (Incidentally, for those of you who don't do your research before opening your mouths for or against religion it is noted that creating man WAS indeed a mistake. "He is only capable of evil thoughts and evil actions" is the Christian supplied reason for God doing the whole whole worl
      • > I think we have more than enough biological strangeness
        > to us to pretty much discount any intelligent designing.

        IMO, just because you can't see a purpose, doesn't mean that the creator didn't see one. Or the evolution, or both (or maybe they're the same?).
    • Then I guess it's our job to sort it out.

      I believe that things sometimes seem fuxx0red from our perspective because they were intended as a lesson for us, and it's not the things that go wrong but our perception of them. Sometimes I even stop asking myself all the silly questions about the meaning of life, universe and everything, and just try to appreciate the moment, think of everything as being right here and right now solely to make me happier. And I think that this is what actually could bring me close
  • sky is blue because of a star and some leftover accumulations of what mostly became that star. So some order and organizing there, by gravity and the other forces, on both the formation and continuation of sun and earth. We're of the same origin as the blue sky.

  • Intelligence set (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Prof.Phreak (584152) on Friday November 28, 2008 @04:30PM (#25918375) Homepage

    There exists (in imagination land) a set of all things we (supposedly intelligent beings) would consider `intelligent'. This set does not (and cannot) include everything. In fact, it will not include -all- `intelligent' things that could exist---just ones we would consider intelligent.

    We cannot escape this bias. It's not enough to spot intelligence... we also have to recognize it as intelligence.

    (ie: is our planet intelligent? is jupiter intelligent? how about our sun? how about our solar system? is an electron intelligent?; consider that the universe may be playing out all the synapses of a brain on a much grander scale)

    Right now, when we look for intelligent life, we are looking for signs of our intelligence set. Problem is, we do not know what this set is---which is why this question came up. Easiest way to answer it right now: If it looks intelligent (stuff looks like ``roads'' and ``cities''; no other reasonable explanation) then it is intelligence.

    Very likely (I hope), one day, AI field may lead us to a definition of what this intelligence set is for us.

    • by cdrguru (88047)

      I think you misunderstand. Intelligence - at least meaningful intelligence - can be represented by a few things. One of them is clearly exercising control over the environment or habitat. You mention roads. Well, yes, that is an example of such control. But control extends to shelter, exclusion of things that are harmful (pests, vermin, disease, etc.) as well as many other things. Use of tools is a clear sign of intelligence because that shows control over environment.

      Radio transmissions are a seconda

      • I think you misunderstand. Intelligence - at least meaningful intelligence - can be represented by a few things. One of them is clearly exercising control over the environment or habitat.

        Thank you for listing some -characteristics- of what you think our "intelligence set" is (ie: things that we would likely recognize as intelligent). This is exactly the bias I've mentioned, and it's unavoidable.

  • by Geoffrey.landis (926948) on Friday November 28, 2008 @04:33PM (#25918393) Homepage

    This argument seems to get the Intelligent Design argument backwards. The ID people argue that complexity can't arise from simplicity, and thus complexity is the signature of design. This guy seems to be arguing that simplicity is the signature of design.

    Neither one is particulary a good argument. Complex things can arise from simple ones-- a snowflake can arise from water vapor. And simple thing can arise from complex ones: water vapor can arise from a snowflake.

    In either case entropy increases, and heat, ultimately, is dissipated into space.

  • by tftp (111690) on Friday November 28, 2008 @04:52PM (#25918539) Homepage

    The Forge of God [wikipedia.org]

    It's all there.

  • > If simplicity is the benchmark, space itself is evidence of design."

    Wrong. There exist very rigorous standards for simpilicity and complexity, having to do with how complex the calculations necessary to describe the phenomenon being examined. But in keeping with the tone of TFA, we'll stick with the acceptable generalizations.

    As in TFA, the SETI-d00d was standing in for software doing pattern matching. For there to be a pattern, there had to be something less than random presentation of components of t

  • The words "life" and "intelligence" are a like the word "planet". What seems obvious gets messy and debate-ridden once you have enough data to actually have to formalize the definition of where to draw the line.

    Looking for unusual patterns in the entropy will tell you where to look for new things to explain, but it isn't going to magically cancel out all possible explanations short of civilization.

    (by the way, could slashdot please, please cut back on the apparent quota of ID references - sure it's driving

  • So that's why Nature abhors a vacuum. Proof of competition.
  • The problem is that humans are hard-wired to see patterns in the world around us, even where there is nothing but chaos. So the whole question of finding intelligence in the patterns around us is moot.

    The intelligence is more in the mind of the perceiver than in the design itself. There's no one out there, they're not coming.

  • by EWAdams (953502) on Friday November 28, 2008 @07:33PM (#25919843) Homepage

    One word: cancer.

    The human body is clear proof that God is an idiot.

Nature, to be commanded, must be obeyed. -- Francis Bacon

Working...