Science, wonder and the search for extraterrestrial intelligence

Science caught hold of me early on in life, as is often the case for those who go on to become professional scientists. But, as is also often the case, the science that first captured my childhood mind was markedly more fantastical than the science to which I am now devoted. That's not to say that science practiced is necessarily prosaic, but rather that it more often finds sources of wonder in the quotidian than in the exceptional.

Among my childhood champions of science, astronomer Carl Sagan loomed large. In a media market saturated with films like E.T., Sagan's advocacy for the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) easily captivated young minds while lending scientific credibility to the notion that we could make contact with extraterrestrial life. Yet, revisiting SETI 30 years later, I find it outside the mainstream of astronomical research with a future threatened by uncertain funding.

Carried out in large part under the auspices of the nonprofit SETI Institute, investigations most famously comprise searching for messages from intelligent life by computationally sifting through signals received by the 42 radio telescopes of the Allen Telescope Array that are part of the University of California Berkeley's Hat Creek Observatory.

Unlike most astronomical research, this analysis of radio signals receives no federal funding. Instead, SETI Institute relies on private funding - often from wealthy donors - to support its work. In the spring of last year work at SETI Institute came to a halt when shortfalls forced a temporary shutdown of operations at the Hat Creek Observatory, only to resume again this past December after an influx of donations.

Those watching the fiscal drama unfold are left to question the wisdom of helping SETI Institute achieve, albeit temporarily, a bittersweet victory. Is such an effort a wise use of funds that might be spent elsewhere? Might the talent of those personnel at SETI Institute be better directed toward other scientific goals?

As a scientist witnessing cuts in federal funding for science and a dearth of graduates qualified to work in more immediately demanding problems, I am sympathetic to such concerns. Yet, my childhood self would find little need to cultivate such doubts.

In modern times, science has come to be understood as a means through which nature is harnessed toward practical ends rather than as the contemplative study of nature. While serving ends is often a moral good, solely focusing on it is symptomatic of a peculiarly fallen perspective that idolizes humankind while denying their unique status as bearers of the imago dei. Theoretical contemplation of nature, as practiced by David in Psalms, is a unique means of worship that, like all worship, cannot be reduced to the ends is it serves.

Among the sciences, astronomy is the one perhaps most detached from practical ends and most associated with the cultivation of wonder. And while astronomy must often postulate hypotheses on the grounds of theoretical speculation, SETI takes this approach further yet, building hypotheses that rely on layers of estimated probabilities.

The framework for such hypothesis development is codified in the Drake equation. Astronomer Frank Drake,reasoned that the number of civilizations with which communication is possible could be estimated as the product of seven terms. Many - and, until recently, nearly all - of the terms required are subject to significant uncertainty since scientists lack significant empirical or theoretical basis from which to estimate them. Even so, a number of estimates have suggested that the probability is far from negligible. This leads to the Fermi-Hart paradox, which asks why, given such estimates, no detection of extraterrestrial life has been forthcoming.

Attempts to resolve the paradox and best estimate the terms of the Drake equation require a mixture of philosophical and scientific thinking and necessarily evoke, whether overtly or not, elements of religious belief. And religious views differ greatly on the question of extraterrestrial life, even within religious traditions.

Such a lack of objectivity may seem to toll the knell for scientific investigation in SETI. But, in reality, such underlying subjectivity is common to all practice of science and science, as a process, resolves these conflicting bases for theorizing by conducting experiments in the universal world we all experience. For SETI, the paucity of data is such that the questions remain unresolved. But, at least for now, experiments continue.

What Do You Think?

  • Is the scientific search for extraterrestrial life a worthwhile effort or a waste of talent and resources?
  • Do you consider astronomy to be an act of worship, akin to the wonder David expressed in Psalms?
  • Does your understanding of Christian theology allow for the existence of extraterrestrial life?


Comments (5)

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I believe funding for programs like SETI is critical. As you mention in your article, this is type of research that captures talent. The side benefit is that we may actually discover something. I do not agree that this type of low-probability science is akin to worship (religion). The research is based on facts with a provable hypothesis. Yes, there is a lot of estimation, but this is true of all areas of science, while religion relies on absolutely no evidence and is not testable (which is why we have faith). Finally, my understanding of Christian theology does allow for extraterrestrial life. However, I don't have any great logical argument to support this belief, I just take in on faith.
I just want to say that the search for extraterristrial life is worthwhile. Because it does exist. I cannot help but think about angels etc. Are they ETs or do we count them?
D, The expressed interest of most SETI work is the search for other corporeal intelligent life - meaning life that is matter-based like people. Typically factors in the Drake equation are calculated on that assumption, and sometimes further on the assumption that life will be carbon-based, and so forth. Of course, looking for radio signals indicating intelligence doesn't necessarily assume a specific physical form the intelligent life will take, just that it is able to generate signals in the radio spectrum. js
Derrick, I'll clarify that it's not because there are probabilistic elements that I equate science with worship. I'm more referencing the idea expressed in some old Teilhard de Chardin quotes: “I want to dedicate myself body and soul to the sacred duty of research,” and “Less and less do I see any difference between research and adoration” (from The Divine Milieu and The Phenomenon of Man). It's the notion that theoretical contemplation of nature is inherently religious in character. I think that's a good thing. At the same time, while I think that religious belief is properly basic in the sense that belief arises out of perceiving the self-evident truth of particular claims (cf., I'll disagree with you that religion as a whole relies on absolutely no evidence and is not testable. I'm not willing to draw so thick a line between these two epistemologies. I don't find basic religious claims to require evidence to be rationally acceptable (i.e., I think they are properly basic), but, at the same time, religion makes many testable claims and I don't exempt these from scientific analysis. There is a middle ground here between Aquinas and Kierkegaard made possible by reframing the question of "evidence." js
I will have to recuse myself from commenting on whether SETI is a worthwhile cause. I have mixed opinions on that. But I will say this: my theology certainly does allow for the possibility of extraterrestrial life, and one thing that SETI has ironically done for my faith (so far) is to confirm my assurance that the Genesis accounting for the uniqueness of humankind in the created order is, well, absolutely true. And one way I account for that is my faith in biblical statements concerning humankind uniquely among all creatures--including, presumably, any extraterrestrial creatures--bearing the Imago Dei. Even if SETI someday yields fruit, I am highly skeptical that it will dethrone biblical antrhopology. I expect it would only affirm it. Thanks for this excellent discussion.
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