SETI, Spore and Intelligent Design

I’ve just posted a fascinating video discussion between high-profile SETI researcher Jill Tarter and legendary game designer Will Wright, who has just released the new hit game, Spore (Amazon US and UK). You can also read a transcript of the discussion at Seed Magazine’s website, which has a little extra content that seems to have been edited out of the video (and helps to give a bit more context to some of the changes of topic).

The subjects covered include the evolution/intelligent design debate, machine intelligence and the singularity, the definition of life and intelligence, and whether the discovery of an ETI has a quantifiable reward. On the Intelligent Design topic, I can’t believe that Tarter (along with others previously) takes issue with Spore’s gameplay – namely, that players have the ability to direct the evolution of the creature. It’s….a…game! The word “players” is a hint to what’s needed in a game, and it’s not random genetic variation with no outside influence. Sort of has that underlying theme of “don’t let the people learn about that!” which seemed apparent in yesterday’s post about the resignation of Professor Reiss. I shudder to think what Dr Tarter would think about the Lovecraftian beasties in the Quake world…

I found the short section where Will Wright discusses the definition of life and intelligence to be one of the more interesting parts of the video:

WW: I think you’re dealing with two very fundamental questions in your work. Number one, what is the definition of life? And number two, what is the definition of intelligence?

JT: Actually, I don’t deal with either. Life, I assume, is a precursor to some technology. And the technology or the intelligence is something that modifies its environment in ways that we can sense, with our emergent technology, over interstellar distances. I really don’t care for any more profound definition than that. I’m just very pragmatic.

WW: So when you’re looking at signals, you’re basically sorting what would be considered an intelligent signal from a natural signal.

JT: Right, an engineered signal from a natural signal. If we’re successful we detect technology, from which we infer a technologist, who may or may not still be around.

I would argue that this is precisely the flaw with SETI, in that they don’t look for possibilities beyond the paradigm of human technology in the 21st century. Now, they’re scientists, and as such they do have to restrict their speculation. But how do you search for an alien civilisation/technology, without really asking deep questions about what life is, what intelligence is, and I would also say, what consciousness is. The research of scientists such as Jacques Vallee might suggest we are already being contacted, though not through the modality that SETI scientists would expect. Or perhaps not – but certainly worth thinking about if your job is to search for alien life. To stay too “pragmatic” is to limit your ability to do that particular job, in my opinion. To quote the Webster’s definition of ‘alien’: “Wholly different in nature; foreign; adverse; inconsistent (with); incongruous”…

Given her past dismissal of investigation of the UFO phenomenon – she is a CSI(COP) fellow after all – I also had to chuckle at one of Jill Tarter’s final comments:

…like Jocelyn Bell with the pulsars, when we come up with anomalies, we ought not to totally ignore them. If you can’t say that it’s black holes colliding or some other phenomenon, then let’s go back to thinking about some technologist somewhere who figured out how to do this.

There’s further discussion about SETI and its ability to define a message from ‘intelligent’ extraterrestrials at, of all places, the Uncommon Descent blog (perhaps the premier blog for discussing….Intelligent Design!). The article goes on to use SETI’s (apparent) ‘negative filter’ approach as an analogy in support of Intelligent Design researchers.

Isn’t it lovely when a post goes full circle…

  1. LOL
    Excellent post, Skipper. Now I wonder if Richard Dawkins will make a campaign to ban Spore from British videogame stores 😉

    Seriously now, from what Jill Tarter stated, it seems that the old phrase “If all you have is a hammer, everything starts to look as a nail” is still very valid; but in this case instead of a hammer it’s a radiotelescope.

    Maybe the SETI guys should borrow some of that Salvia Divinorum their teenager kids keep hidden under their bed. It might broaden their expectations a bit 😉

    PS: The last comment both made, about how maybe we won’t be able to recognize our future descendants, but they should be able to recognize themselves in us (i.e. a fruit fly & a human being and the similarities they share), kind of makes you wonder if her job at SETI is fundamentally moot if you apply the argument to alien technology. Because that would mean we have no means to recognize a truly advanced alien technology, and can only hope that they would pity us and send some chewed-up message specifically designed for us to understand.

    Hence, we’re at their mercy, the same way a fruit fly is at the mercy of the human scientists studying it… and using it for some experiment to which the poor fly has not control or saying whatsoever 🙁

    It’s not the depth of the rabbit hole that bugs me…
    It’s all the rabbit SH*T you stumble over on your way down!!!

    Red Pill Junkie

  2. Sporious logic
    Having played SPORE, I can tell you the irony is that the game is Creationism! The player chooses the body parts their creature will have, which cost DNA points. The fancier the body part, the more DNA points it costs. You earn DNA points by running around, dancing and singing with other creatures, or eating them, etc. There’s no evolution involved in the game at all. The player gets all the building blocks without any evolution, by collecting them from skeletons that litter the landscape! There’s no ‘evolution’ involved in the gameplay at all. It’s marketing hype, and more than a few people have been duped.

    As for SETI — I can not take them seriously until they point their vast radio telescope array at the binary Zeta Reticuli star system. Two Sol-like suns, only 38 lights years from Earth… and SETI has never had a listen. Stanton Friedman has documented SETI’s irrational refusal to examine these stars. Regardless of the Betty & Barney Hill alien abduction history, the Zeta Reticuli system is a PRIME CANDIDATE for SETI, an absolutely perfect example of the stars they should be investigating.

    But they won’t.

    1. Marketing’s bogus…
      But, did you have fun??? 😉

      Admit it, playing God is cool.

      It’s not the depth of the rabbit hole that bugs me…
      It’s all the rabbit SH*T you stumble over on your way down!!!

      Red Pill Junkie

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