THE SEARCH FOR EXTRATERRESTRIAL INTELLIGENCE

the appearance of life and that of intelligence, nor between the appearance of intelligence and that of an advanced technological civilization’ (ibid.: 7).

Other critics have raised epistemological objections to SETI, arguing that its methodology is not as sure-footed as it sounds. Anthony Weston (1988) argues that SETI’s reliance upon radio astronomy combines speculation with anthropocentrism; that it draws selectively from the evidence we have on how intelligence developed on Earth; that radio communication might not be as obvious a means of communication for ETs as it is for us; that magic frequencies, such as the hydrogen frequency, might not be their obvious choice, and that mathematically representable signals, such as a series of prime numbers, are not the most obvious candidates for an ET message.

It is, of course, conceivable that intelligent beings might not share our conceptions of logic and mathematics. John Taylor (1974) speculates on the existence of intelligent beings of only molecular proportions in a world which would have to be experienced in a radically different way than we experience it. For example, due to quantum mechanical effects it would be a probabilistic  reality for them. Our logic, with its law of excluded middle – either it is or it is not – which is clear-cut, would be meaningless to them, as they would experience reality as a wide range of possibilities. They would never experience single occurrences, but only probabilities. Moreover, they would never produce a science or technology like ours. They could never produce a Newton, unless they grew to a size with which they could be affected by gravity.

According to Weston, when SETI scientists draw analogies between human intelligence and ETI they frequently ignore the past history of human ‘contact’ with other humans. Europeans discovered new lands which they perceived to be unpopulated, whereas in fact they were populated by civilizations of consider-able standing. Not having experience with horses, the Incas saw  mounted Europeans as one animal, akin to the centaurs of  ancient Greece. Each generation of anthropologists accuses its predecessors of ethnocentrism. The history of human encounters with intelligent life, concludes Weston, is characterized by misperception.

Assuming that ETs have developed radio communication, how, asks Weston, can we separate their messages from other transmissions? The search must, nevertheless, be capable of distinguishing between intentional messages from advanced civilizations and leakage radiation from emergent civilizations. Consider the stars in Project Phoenix’s ‘target search’, some of which are about 80 light years away. About twenty years from now they will be tuning into our leakage radiation consisting of broadcasts of the Goons and the first episodes of I Love Lucy, commercial TV, and eventually Neighbours, EastEnders and the fall of Margaret Thatcher. What conclusions will they draw from this? How will they separate reality from fiction? What kind of conclusions could we draw if the situation were reversed?

Probing SETI’s assumption of an affinity between terrestrial and extraterres-trial intelligence, Weston raises questions concerning the preference for magic

 

 

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frequencies, like the hydrogen frequency or the Waterhole. Why should they share our ideas about what is general and simple? Although radio is a universal medium it might be limited to human culture. And even if ETs use radio, they might not wish to use it to communicate with us and might employ a code which prevents us from understanding their own internal communication.

Like Munévar, Weston stresses the contingency of Earth’s scientific culture. Radio astronomy, he says, is contingent upon the  military pressures of the Second World War for the development of radar. Intelligence testing was devised to meet military requirements in the First World War.

Suppose a message was received on the hydrogen frequency, in a code consisting of prime numbers that was translated by mathematicians. This, argues Weston (1988: 93), would be more astonishing than finding extraterrestrials: ‘It would be the most startling confirmation possible of the non-relativity of modern scientific culture.’ It would go against massive research and evidence that science, its status and meaning, is structured by its social setting.

Both Weston and Munévar see the evolution of science as akin to the evolu- tion of a species which occupies a territorial niche. Pursuing the biological analogy Weston argues that science, like any other species, is ‘conditioned by a vast number of unpredictable and for all we know unduplicated events’ (ibid.). In biology it is a truism that, given similar selection conditions, many distinct life-forms will evolve in the same niche. Homo sapiens shares the same terrain with bacteria, mosquitoes and various other mammals. Even within Homo sapiens cultural variation is such that many societies will not evolve into a scientific culture. The appeal to evolutionary contingency and diversity leads both Munévar and Weston to a sceptical attitude towards SETI. It can be summa-rized as follows: there are no sure grounds for SETI’s assumptions about ET civilizations which are capable and willing to communicate with us by radio. There is no reason to suppose that intelligent life has evolved anywhere else as it has here; that another scientific culture like ours exists anywhere; no guarantee that it would discover radio, and if it did, there is no guarantee that it would use it to communicate with us. To this, Weston adds that SETI’s preoccupation with radio astronomy might even prevent us from recognizing a truly alien life-form.

But is Munévar and Weston’s scepticism as damaging to SETI as it first appears? Their arguments draw attention to epistemological problems arising out of SETI’s assumptions about the universality of science and radio communication. But they do not undermine the overall legitimacy of SETI or demonstrate that ETI cannot be found. A distinction between a strong and a weak sense of SETI might be helpful when assessing the damage inflicted by Munévar and Weston.

A strong interpretation of SETI involves the assumption of a universal and inevitable evolution from the primeval slime to radio astronomy in any environment similar to Earth. This model is demonstrably vulnerable to the Munévar–Weston critique.

 

 

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