SETI: A Critical History
Part II Expanding the ETI Discourse
For millennia participants constructed the ETI discourse around a single
question: whether ETIs exist. Contributors to the discourse did not question
the "nature" of ETI's intelligence; they assumed it to be essentially like
their own. SETI's architects conceived their project within this traditional
ETI discourse. At almost that same moment of conception, however, the ETI
discourse began to change dramatically. By adding a second question –
about the form that ETIs' cognitive structures, consciousnesses, and intelligences
might take – the ETI discourse suddenly stopped being simply a constitutive
context for SETI and became, instead, a source of challenges to it. The
possibility of plausible non-humanoid ETIs threw SETI's ability to communicate
with, or even detect, ETIs into question.
Evolutionists from a variety of disciplines paved the way for this expansion
of the ETI discourse by asserting that humanoid ETIs were unlikely, while
at the same time pointing out that non-humanoid ETIs represented a credible
evolutionary possibility. Ironically SETI itself bore some responsibility
for the expansion of the ETI discourse. By simply suggesting a feasible
way to communicate with ETIs, SETI inspired experts in a number of fields
to wonder about the possible nature of the beings that might be composing
and sending us messages.
The emergence of cognitive science played a major role in the expansion
of the discourse to include the consideration of ETIs' "nature." Behaviorism
dominated experimental psychology during much of the first half of the 20th
century, and it shunned discussions of a being's "mind" as unscientific.
Raised in that intellectual milieu, SETI's architects exhibited a blind
spot toward questions about ETIs' cognition, consciousness, and intelligence.
The multi-disciplinary field of cognitive science began to supplant the
behaviorist paradigm around the same time SETI appeared, and its concepts
and methods made a scientifically rigorous discussion of how beings construct
realities possible for the first time. Scientists, science writers, and
philosophers of science used these tools to imagine possible forms of extraterrestrial
intelligence. At the same time, advances in a wide variety of fields, from
entomology to weapons-systems research,
provided what might be called a new analogical base from which to construct
plausible hypotheses about ETI forms. To take a simple example, once scientists
discovered that some insects "see" ultraviolet wavelengths, contributors
to the ETI discourse analogized that ETIs might exist that are able to "see"
different segments of the electromagnetic-radiation spectrum than humans
and to imagine how doing so might produce consciousnesses and intelligences
that differ from a human's.
Thus, at the same time the weight of expert evolutionist opinion increasingly
came down against the possibility of humanoid ETIs, other experts discussed
the possibility of non-humanoid ETIs with increasing rigor. Concern grew
that SETI looked for an improbable kind of ETI, and would struggle to communicate
with, or even detect, other kinds of ETIs.
Part II briefly reviews the significance of cognitive science for SETI and
then examines three of these nature-based critiques in detail: those of
Soviet SETI scientists, evolutionists, and philosophers of science. It closes
with an overview of the plausible non-humanoid ETIs suggested; these stood
as a kind of mute challenge to SETI's assumptions that ETIs are like us
and are, as a consequence, relatively easy to communicate with.
(3. SETI as popular science) | NEXT
(4. The rehabilitation of "mind")