Intelligent Design and SETI

So, one of the things I hear Intelligent Design proponents say is that just as SETI looks for a signal that indicates intelligence, they see complexity in DNA, cellular interactomes, the beginning of life and many biochemical processes that indicate an intelligent source. They say just as SETI uses the standard that certain codes are vastly improbable via natural processes at work (e.g. say getting a signal revealing Pi, etc.), Intelligent Design says that natural processes are not sufficient to produce things/events like abiogenesis, interactomes, etc.

In essence, they ask why is it ok for SETI to determine that a signal is from an alien because it has the markings of intelligence (e.g. a highly improbable arrangement), and yet when Intelligent Design folks say that interactomes, abiogenesis, DNA, etc. are too improbable on natural processes they are perceived as being anti-scientific or not taken seriously.

I just saw a discussion involving those points and was wondering about it.


Usually because the ID folks calculate the probability that DNA spontaneously assembled into the exact sequence that it takes now, rather than calculating the probability that DNA would have evolved into some sequence over billions of years.


Is there a reason, do you think, why it is that all of the things you ask about which you see remarked upon elsewhere are “arguments” rather than evidence for creationist views? I always find that quite interesting. If I had a compelling scientific case to make, I suspect that I wouldn’t choose a series of weak analogies, but would instead focus on the evidence in my possession.

I recognize that this doesn’t answer your question. But perhaps this is the meta-question you should be asking. Why always the analogies, e.g., “DNA is a code!” rather than evidence in support of an alternative hypothesis? Is it possible that the people who keep raising these things really have absolutely nothing, evidentiarily speaking, to work with? Does that carry any suggestion as to the merit of their views?


As far as I know, the SETI people have not yet reached any conclusion that a signal indicates intelligence. It seems that this kind of ID argument is rather premature.


Very interesting point.

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This is much like the Intelligent Design claim that archeologists “Infer design” in the same way as ID claims. The misconception here is that archeologist assume that humans were the creator of the artifacts - they do not make any inference to unknown intelligence.

It is much the same with SETI. The SETI assumption is, if other life exists and has a civilization like our own, then it may be possible to detect them from radio signals. A positive result from SETI would indicate life like our own.

Note that IF an Intelligent Designer wished to be known, they could easily make their existence known unequivocally. There should be no need to rely on pareidolia.


Well, they’d need to have an actual scientific hypothesis, which they still lack, despite giving many of their group the title “theorists.”

They do have their many misrepresentations of the objective evidence, I guess. :wink:


@Mercer and @Puck_Mendelssohn I just thought of a question and it’s not related to the ID part of this thread. You have both alluded to the lack of evidence, the presence of arguments and the lack of a scientific hypothesis.

So my question is this: early in the process of a new approach or new discovery isn’t it normal that “evidence” is lacking and that argumentation is the first step? I am thinking here about something like the discovery of RNA for example. At first, there only “evidence” for RNA was a gap between DNA and proteins (or something like that). The individuals who inferred the existence of RNA were, as usual for new discoveries, seen as being wrong and lacking any actual evidence for it (and some just thought they were just plain crazy). Now, in fall fairness, I believe the RNA proponents did hypothesize that a molecule like RNA existed so that was the clear target for which they looked - and found. However, early in highlighting a new discovery, approach or framework, it seems sometimes all you have are arguments until you can provide something more concrete.

Second, how would we know when something is pointing to phenomena that are real even if they exceed the descriptive power of science? It seems it would be circular to think that truth about reality can only come from scientific processes or methods, and the way we know this is via scientific processes and methods. So, how would we know that new discoveries await us that require a vastly different science or epistemological framework? Are we missing something by trying to cajole all phenomena into a scientific framework? For example, imagine if, because a metal detector is so good at detecting metal, we decide that everything that exists must be a form of metal and we try to explain it as such. Is that what we are doing?

I think about this question a lot, though not regarding ID. I think about this question regarding things like Dark Matter and Dark Energy and the Hard Problem of Consciousness. I wonder if there is something we are missing about the universe if indeed 95% of the mass or something like that is not visible. I am also aware that there is a view in the scientific community that doesn’t think that Dark Matter or Dark Energy are real. Nonetheless I do think about that a lot. Regarding consciousness, I wonder if the fact that the contents of consciousness (qualia, perceptions, logic, reason, beliefs) do not have a material account or representation as they are experienced, I wonder if that fact means we are missing something about the universe and reality that requires us to come up with more and better frameworks for understanding reality that exceeds the capabilities today’s science.

I want to be crystal clear about something. I have absolutely no idea on how to answer these questions. LOL! :joy: I just think about them a lot. So, I have no particular point of view to defend regarding any responses. I just enjoy learning what scientists think about these questions.

Any thoughts are welcome.

Referred, not alluded. Alluded would be indirect reference.

You seem to be confused. Discovery of RNA? RNA was known a long time ago, before the role of DNA in organisms was known. I have no knowledge of anyone ever having been seen as being wrong for inferring the existence of RNA.

But to your broader question: intuition will often play a useful role in the scientific process, but it is a PRELIMINARY role. “Golly, this enzyme does something similar to the unexplained function in this cell. I wonder if a related enzyme might exist which explains it.” That’s thinking by analogy and it might play a role in forming the hypothesis for the guy who then does the research to find that enzyme. But this analogical thinking is not in itself “science.” It does not have the weight or credibility of science. It is a thought – a mere beginning-point of investigation.

If one proposes that truth about reality can come from other methods then it would be incumbent upon that person to show that that works, and that it produces something more than mere speculation. It must produce, in some meaningful sense, CONFIRMATION.

Maybe. But how to not miss it would then be the question. And the questions you are asking do not come from people who are doing that. Your questions relate to people who are claiming the scientific merit of ideas that have none.

The best way to exceed the capabilities of today’s science has always been to get up the next morning and do tomorrow’s science. That we don’t yet understand HOW consciousness emerges from material objects and processes doesn’t really obscure the fact that it does.


Actually, I was thinking about transfer RNA and Crick’s adaptor hypothesis: Adaptor Hypothesis - an overview | ScienceDirect Topics

Though my question is posed in this thread, the question is not related to ID, as I stated.

“If one proposes that truth about reality can come from other methods then it would be incumbent upon that person to show that that works, and that it produces something more than mere speculation. It must produce, in some meaningful sense, CONFIRMATION.”

On the one hand I completely agree with you. Following in the footsteps of Maxwell and Popper, I believe that experimentation and falsification can be bedrocks of any epistemology. I further agree that anyone proposing a new framework needs to have observable phenomena and confirmations that we can interrogate.

On the other hand, don’t we already see truth about reality with other epistemological frameworks such as math and logic. I mean science depends on both - especially logic. Besides, humans created science so it’s not as if we found science in the dirt somewhere with all its properties fully formed. Consider, for example, Popper’s brilliant insight about falsification. He didn’t do a scientific test in physics or chemistry to determine that falsification should be critical to science. He noted that social observers could always explain every outcome as consistent with their theory and there was thus no way to see if their theory was false. Whereas, Popper noted, Einstein made a specific prediction that could be tested. He called this a “risk”. At any rate, the point is that people have created science and its standards. So science itself is not based on science but on the decisions humans have made about what defines science and does not define science. The process that developed science and what it is, is itself an example of how to discover truths about reality from processes that are not themselves scientific.

“The best way to exceed the capabilities of today’s science has always been to get up the next morning and do tomorrow’s science.”

I fully agree with this statement. This is why I said I don’t have any idea about the answers to these questions. An answer, though, would be to do what you referred to earlier.

By the way, how do we quote multiple parts of a statement? I don’t see that button. Thanks.

Not at all.

No, there was nothing like that.

The existence of RNA was never inferred.

In all fairness, “RNA proponents” are a figment of your imagination. Empiricism leads and theory follows.

No, hypotheses are almost always based on data in biology.

I want to be crystal-clear in pointing out that your case of RNA has no basis in reality. People found functions for these molecules after they were known to exist.

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I made a mistake.

Actually, I was thinking about transfer RNA and Crick’s adaptor hypothesis: Adaptor Hypothesis - an overview | ScienceDirect Topics

In the movie Contact, the extra terrestrial intelligence signaled by repeating a series of prime numbers.

This is not the same as ID. Proponents have never offered a DNA sequence which code the first one hundred digits of the square root of two, or Genesis chapter one, or any such thing. What they offer is not evidence of intelligent design, but of life. With SETI, that which can be explained as a natural process does not signal alien civilization. ID perpetually attempts to advance natural process as signaling intelligence. In principle, there may be some statistical technique overlap in distinguishing signal from noise and sequence spaces and the like, but I do not think that these are really successful. Nor have they succeeded in demonstrating any feature in nature which is inexplicable without an intelligent designer. So ID and SETI are not the same.


I’m not sure we actually do. The reason we see certain conclusions as following from math and logic is that observable reality confirms that math and logic work. If one plus one equaled two in mathematical theory, but routinely equaled three in common experience, we would have to revise our mathematical understanding to conform to observation. Meanwhile, “logic” in the purely formal sense – the only sense which does not correspond to real physical phenomena – doesn’t easily apply to complex real phenomena.

So math and logic are basically explanatory/descriptive constructs which are useful ways to characterize certain types of problems. That doesn’t mean they are independent means of accessing reality.

First, yes, science is a social process, and it is a human-defined process. But is it really true that the processes which developed it are non-scientific? In a strictly formal sense, perhaps. But observation of phenomena has always been the basis, and the scientific process itself is the result of testing: what methods have we found which are reliable? If we have an experimental method which turns up results which are routinely irreproducible, we conclude it’s not a very good experimental method. The origins of empiricism lie less in abstract philosophy than in praxis. When it becomes evident that scientific methods of inquiry do not work, we will undoubtedly be inclined to discard them. But that’s not happening.

There is a tendency, especially in creationist circles, to say that because science is a social process, and because it is a human-constructed process, it goes in the great relativism wastebin: no better or worse than any other method of proceeding. But this both misunderstands what science is and what relativism is good for. The observation that science is a social process created by humans, like the principles of, say, cultural relativism is a CAUTION: it is a reminder that we must always scrutinize our method as well as our results.

I’m all for the investigation into non-material phenomena, as soon as someone can produce a method for so doing. We’ve not had trouble studying invisible forces before: magnetism and electricity and radiation, and things too small to see with the naked eye (and things too small to see optically at all!) have all yielded to scrutiny, not because they are easily seen but because they produce results which we can reproducibly examine. N-rays and poltergeists, not so much. And if someone wants to say that N-rays and poltergeists do exist, he will have to demonstrate the method by which this can be ascertained. Science can have no a priori objection to these things, but the data can fail to confirm them.

If you highlight the passage you wish to quote in the message above, a box will pop up with the word “quote” in it. Click that and it pastes the quote into your draft. Make sure your cursor is in the right position in the draft, or the quote will wind up in the wrong place.


The process of mathematical and logical truth though does not proceed with hypotheses about physical realities, experimentation with physical realities, then confirmation. While math in its early formulations was developed to track and describe calculations that people were making, mathematic work and advances are not empirical sciences. For example negative numbers, imaginary numbers, the square root of negative numbers, etc. do not have correlates in physical reality. There is nothing in physical reality that is -22 or the square root of -93. In fact, pure mathematics is not developed with any empirical or applied considerations. This is what led Eugene Wigner to be amazed at how mathematics is so applicable in physics. Sure math definitely has applications, but mathematics is developed in a manner where it must simply be consistent with existing mathematical laws. Consider that pure mathematics regularly finds applications in empirical sciences. Pure mathematics, and mathematics in general, does not seek nor change its determinations based on empirical discoveries.

The rules of logic are very similar. There is nothing in nature that is deductive or inductive logic. There is no chemical reaction or physics test that is “deductive” or “inductive”. Logic is a result of rational reflection.

Given the aforementioned, math and logic certainly seem to be independent ways of describing and understanding reality that precede science or science’s formal existence.

Can you provide an example of where logic doesn’t apply to complex formula? Logic seems to be a basic component of conscious perception of reality.

I fully agree with you here. It makes sense that we focus on what we know corresponds with reality, observations, tests, experiments and predictions. In that sense there is an empirical feedback to our methods. I think this is good.

I also agree with you here. The fact that science is created by humans to me doesn’t suggest that something is wrong with it. It simply suggests that we must always remain grounded. For me, it also suggests that perhaps we can also create something better too. However, for me, I am fine with science, evolution, cosmology, etc. I see no reason to throw away successful theories.

I 100% agree with you here. Any proposed reality or phenomena needs confirmation and observable evidence that can be repeated and repeatedly interrogated. Period.

Thanks. I also had to learn the hard way to have the cursor where you want it.

Pretty big mistake, but my answer remains the same. If you read Crick’s original paper, he did not offer the adaptor hypothesis in an evidentiary vacuum. It was all about describing the possibilities suggested by data. Most of those were wrong and only one of which was correct–which we learned from the data.

ID pseudoscience is nothing like real science.

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I’ll give my take on this (as a mathematician).

As best I can tell, mathematics does not play any role at all in the cosmos. However, scientists find it useful to construct models of aspects of reality. And mathematics is very good as a modeling tool.

Mathematics works well in some sciences, because those mathematical models work very well. In fact, they work so well, that there is a tendency to conflate the model with the aspect of reality that it models. And that’s what make it look as if the cosmos is mathematical.

If you owe your bank $22, try telling them that your debt does not exist.

We model monetary transfers with mathematics, and the model works very well with negative values corresponding to debt.

Electronics models what happens with complex numbers, and imaginary numbers turn out to be very useful in those models.


Sure, but I was responding to your claim that:

So we’re not talking about truths that are intrinsic to math only.

Sure. But if what we are talking about is truths about reality, again, rather than math as an abstraction, then the math must have some referent in reality.

I don’t think I said logic doesn’t apply to complex formulae. Logical reasoning about complex phenomena tends to be problematic because of the linguistic problems – words being inherently ambiguous – and because we often have not characterized complex phenomena in the right way. The “logic” can be unimpeachable AS LOGIC but apply poorly because of the characterization of the problem.

Agreed, but what I do find in practice is that sometimes people say that and their notion of what “something better” looks like is immensely problematic. So you’ll get creationists railing against methodological naturalism, without any proposal for what the alternative is other than a pat answer of “God did it” or “God musta done it” as a replacement for the more conservative “we don’t yet understand this.”

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It’s ok, it’s not the end of the world. I don’t claim to be an expert, I just enjoy reading about these topics and discussing them.

I agree here too. It was the fact that the data suggested possibilities that were not at first observed.

I never said ID is like real science. I also stated that this line of discussion was not related to the original ID question but the larger question of scientific epistemology in general, and how we can know things. Also, I stated that this is an interesting line of thought and inquiry, not a statement or outline of any particular position. At this point, I have far more questions than answers.

Curiosity is the first step.

Science is not investigating what there is (ontology). It is investigating how things work (causality, to a first approximation). Along the way they may stumble into what could be considered an ontological discovery. But the primary concern is how things work. And, sure, they sometimes make guesses, but they then try to thoroughly test those guesses.