SETI and the Search for Design

  Maybe you've seen it on a friend's computer -- the colorful screensaver of the "SETI at home" project. SETI is a research project that takes data from the giant Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico and parcels it out in small packets to personal computers all over the world. Those computers then use their idle processing time to search for signals. Anyone with a PC can join, and millions have. Science fiction? Maybe not. Historically, nearly all Christian theologians have argued that human beings are unique in the universe -- so I'm not suggesting that E.T. is really out there, signaling to us. But SETI, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, is important for two reasons, both of which provide good opportunities for Christians to engage the culture. The first reason is the basic logic underlying the research program. Imagine going out to the Mojave Desert with millions of other people. Each person is given an acre of ground to search carefully. "Look for something," you're told, "that could not have been produced by natural forces." Eventually, someone finds a bottle cap; another person finds an old tire; and so on. Why are these objects special? Because they display the hallmarks of intelligent design. Bottle caps and tires cannot be produced by any combination of natural forces. Obviously someone created them, deliberately. Exactly the same logic motivates SETI. If you set the tuner of your car radio between stations, what you hear is static -- random noise lacking any pattern. But, at some points on the dial, a strong, narrow- band signal occurs, carrying information -- like my voice speaking these words. That's what SETI is looking for -- a pattern that could only have been produced by an intelligence. To qualify as a genuine signal, the SETI Declaration states, "the most plausible explanation for the evidence is the existence of extraterrestrial intelligence rather than some other natural phenomenon." But if it's possible to find intelligent design in the data gathered by radio telescopes, couldn't we also find design in biological objects? Is it possible that even bacteria display the hallmarks of intelligent cause? The logic is precisely the same. And this forces scientists to acknowledge the basic presuppositions we hold as Christians. The worldview implications here are enormous. And that's the second reason SETI is significant. Anyone who has read astronomer Carl Sagan's novel Contact, a fictional account of the discovery of extraterrestrial intelligence, knows how that story is permeated by openly religious concerns. Physicist Paul Davies writes, "underlying the narrative is the sub-theme that the universe as a whole is a product of intelligent design, and the aliens hint at how the hallmark of this design is written into the very structure of the universe." The separation between the "scientific and religious aspects" of SETI, Davies continues, "is really only skin-deep." Sagan believed that if there's intelligent design in the universe, we should be able to detect it. His life-long disagreement with Christians turned, not on whether design could be detected, but on the character of the designer. SETI is important to us because the whole research program would be impossible apart from the logic of intelligent design. The fact that scientists are openly pursuing it gives us a chance to point out to our neighbors that there is a basis for intelligent design and that the only compelling source of that design is the God of the Bible. For further reference: SETI Declaration of Principles: Davies, Paul. Are We Alone? Philosophical Implications of the Discovery of Extraterrestrial Life. New York: Basic Books, 1995, p. 136.


Chuck Colson



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