The Subjectiveness Trap

The (London) Sunday Times of February 2nd 1998 hastens to inform us that ‘Britain lends an ear to the search for ET’.
As part of Project Phoenix, two of the world’s largest radio telescopes will be linked together, the 250ft Lovell Telescope at Jodrell Bank in Cheshire, and the 1,000ft telescope at Arecibo in Puerto Rico. The largest single-dish radio telescope in the world, the latter is located in the natural hollow of a mountain and utilises the Earth’s rotation for its scan of the skies.
For the next ten years, they will listen for ‘artificial’ (I find that term rather odd, I would have said ‘coherent’) radio messages from ‘2,000 Sun-like stars within a range of 150 light years from the Earth’ using computers to scan 50 million frequently channels simultaneously.
This endeavour is part of the SETI project (Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence). According to the Times, ‘At present the California-based SETI Institute operates from a relatively small 140ft radio telescope at Greenbank, West Virginia’. Make what you will of this rather curious bilocational claim.

The SETI Institute States that its research is ‘designed to answer the question: Are we alone in the Universe?’, while Project Phoenix ‘is the world’s most sensitive and comprehensive search for extraterrestrial intelligence. It is an effort to detect extraterrestrial civilizations by listening for radio signals that are either being deliberately beamed our way, or are inadvertently transmitted from another planet. Phoenix is the successor to the ambitious NASA SETI program that was cancelled by a budget-conscious Congress in 1993’.
The Times quotes Richard Davis, a senior lecturer in physics and astronomy at Manchester University, who was chiefly responsible for bringing SETI to Jodrell Bank: “People often wonder why SETI hasn’t been successful, but a serious search has not been made to date. This is the first time we’ve had a system that’s really up to the job. If there are any transmissions out there, we’ll find them.”
The late Carl Sagan, listed on Ufomind as ‘Astronomer, Author, SETI Proponent, Prominent UFO Skeptic’ told us, in his book ‘Cosmos’ (apparently the best selling science book in the English language), “There are 400 billion stars in our galaxy alone. If just one, out of a million of those had planets, and if just one out of a million of those had life, and if just one out of a million of those had intelligent life. . . there would be. . . literally. . . millions of civilizations out there.”
This enthusiastic approach is all very endearing, but one has to wonder about the potential futility of it all, the phenomenal cost of running such a project, and the patience of its various funding bodies. As noted above, Sagan was a devout SETI proponent (and author of ‘Contact’ recently made into a movie), yet he was a notoriously vocal skeptic of UFOs, and a founding member of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal.
I find this juxtaposition rather interesting – you might expect members of the SETI project to be at least *tolerant*, but CSICOP are rather notorious for their lack of clemency, and for that matter, their lack of investigation. I wonder if I’ll catch flak from them for this my comment?
Since reading the Sunday Times article, my copy of Magonia 62 arrived, containing an interesting SETI related book review on page 14. Peter Rogerson views the SETI question from a not dissimilar perspective to myself.
I would suspect that the chances of receiving a broadcast from an extraterrestrial culture are not only dependant on technical or cultural issues, but are subject to a horde of other factors too. Compared to the the suspected age of the universe, the SETI project has been running for a relatively short space of time.
As Rogerson says, ‘Of the millions of species on our planet, only one has developed articulate language, or developed art and technology’. Quite so, and I wonder how the evolutionary odds were stacked against us down at the creation betting office.
Consider a similar evolutionary scenario, on another planet in perhaps a different galaxy — assuming of course, that our evolutionary theories apply to other planets. How likely is it that another lifeform could evolve in a manner similar to ours, enabling it to send or receive radio messages coherent to us?
If there is life of a similar form of intelligence to our own, are they likely to value radio as we do? They may not have developed it yet, or perhaps long ago decided that such was technology was obsolete. They may use something akin to the media corpses exhumed by Bruce Sterling’s Dead Media Project — or they may not.
It’s worth realising that our perception of intelligence is potentially chauvinistic and very subjective — if it doesn’t seem intelligent to us, it’s just not intelligent. The perceived intelligence of another lifeform seems dependent on its ability to communicate with us sophisticated passengers of spaceship earth. It’s the subjective trap we’re caught in, and one which I’ve discussed at length before, in an Artificial Intelligence context.
I would also go as far to pseudo-objectively propose the possibility that two ‘intelligent’ lifeforms may well be incapable of recognising of each others presence. This meandering of mine could of course be interpreted as my just being a self-effacing cogno-intellectual pedant, but that’s another kettle of worms.
Rogerson comments that ‘only 500 years ago, the idea of a superior technology would have been bigger and better cathedrals’. Will the SETI project be running in 500 years time?
Blather regrets that we couldn’t bring you more on the ‘Roscommon Crash’ this week – we haven’t gotten our hands on the necessary documents yet – early next week is the promise.
Dave (daev) Walsh
5th February 1998

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