Signature in the Cell 8

Stephen C. Meyer has published a (very long, but readable) book, Signature in the Cell: DNA and the Evidence for Intelligent Design, outlining his argument in favor of intelligent design. We will wrap up this series today looking at Ch. 17 “But does it explain” and move on to new topics next week.

In this chapter Meyer answers his critics – those who say claim among other things that ID is an argument from ignorance, and uses failed analogies. I will put forth some of his argument, a critique, and open the floor for comment.

Is Meyer’s argument for ID an argument from ignorance?

Meyer claims that it is not an argument from ignorance (pp. 378-379):

In short critics claim that ID proponents argue as follows:

Premise One: Material causes cannot produce or explain specified information.

Conclusion: Therefore an intelligent cause produced specified biological information.

If proponents of intelligent design were arguing in the preceding manner, they would be guilty of arguing from ignorance. But the argument made in this book does not assume this form. Instead it takes the following form:

Premise One: Despite a thorough search, no material causes have been discovered that demonstrate the power to produce large amounts of specified information.

Premise Two: Intelligent causes have demonstrated the power to produce large amounts of specified information.

Conclusion: Intelligent design constitutes the best, most causally adequate, explanation for the information in the cell.

According to Meyer, ID is not an argument from ignorance because it includes a premise providing a positive reason for preferring design (premise two). (added later – and it takes the form of inference to best explanation because of the way premise one and the conclusion are reworded.)

Meyer sidesteps the problem with his argument for ID. The problem isn’t with the logical structure or form of the argument. None of us doubt that intelligence can produce “specified information.” We write books and computer programs, and design combination locks. Some – such as Dawkins – will argue against the presence of a supernatural designer, against the existence of God. But Meyer and I stand on the same side in that argument. Meyer’s case fails because premise one is not correct. Meyer’s case for ID is fundamentally an argument from ignorance because of premise one not because of the presence or absence of premise two.

Premise one has two major problems:

First, the concept of “specified information” is ill defined in the context of DNA in the cell. Meyer uses analogies to make comparisons with texts and computer programs. But these analogies are of limited value, there are similarities and dissimilarities.  Meyer realizes that arguments by analogy are weak – and goes on:

Although a computer program may be similar to DNA in many respects and dissimilar in others, it exhibits a precise identity to DNA insofar as both contain specified complexity or specified information.

…The argument does not depend upon the similarity of DNA to a computer program or a human language, but upon the presence of an identical feature in both DNA and intelligently designed codes, languages, and artifacts. (p. 386)

Meyer’s argument fails in part because the “identity” he asserts does not exist in any meaningful way.

Second, Meyer’s argument for ID fails because he has not demonstrated that purely physical and chemical processes cannot generate the kind of “specified information” found in the cell performed a thorough search to discover material causes having the  power to produce large amounts of specified information and he has ignored evidence that contradicts his premise. We can divide this into two parts – the growth of “specified information” and the origin of the “specified information” in the first cell.

Meyer did not look explicitly at the growth of  “specified information” in this book – but the case for evolution is overwhelming. There is no reasonable doubt but that natural chemical and physical processes can result in an increase in the amount of “specified information” in a cell. This alone breaks the identity relationship with human languages, and artifacts. It leaves only an analogy with certain kinds of computer programs.

On the question of the origin of the first cell, Meyer has not carried out a thorough search evaluating the evidence – he has presented a cursory search and he has not done justice to the current state of knowledge and understanding. His book contains more loosely related analogies and anecdotes than detailed consideration of the data and the ideas. But more importantly the field is not at a dead end – or anything near a dead end. For this reason the negative assertion inherent in the argument for intelligent design, that purely physical and chemical processes cannot generate the kind of “specified information” found in the first cell, is unfounded. Now I don’t think Meyer is looking for a gap and then inserting God into the gap – I think he is trying to construct a positive argument for design but has failed to do so.

And a final reflection. The post on Tuesday asked why Intelligent Design is an intriguing idea. I didn’t give an opinion there – but I will here. I think ID is popular for several reasons …

It is viewed by some as a way to undermine evolution and leave open the door for old earth progressive creationism or even young earth creationism. If Meyer and Dembski are right – and specified information cannot grow – then evolution cannot account for the diversity of life we see. This is an unfounded hope. The origin of life is an open question. We are still learning more about the mechanisms of evolution. But there is no reasonable doubt but that there is an evolutionary history that connects all organisms in a “tree of life.” Common descent is not an open question, nor is the general scheme of evolution.

It is viewed by some as a way to combat the scientific secular naturalism so pervasive in our educated society. But the way to combat ontological naturalism is not by concocting weak arguments for design or against evolution. These have the opposite effect, and a devastating effect upon many who continue on to study biology and chemistry and the other sciences.

As a Christian there is nothing wrong with approaching the problem of the origin of life with a mind open to the possibility that God may have acted in direct fashion. Because we believe that God exists and acts it must remain a possibility. But I don’t see how it influences the practice of science. The practice of science by necessity approaches the problem assuming that the natural laws of chemistry and physics will hold. The search is not for any natural explanation – no matter how improbable, but for a probable explanation. Personally I think that when the problem is solved (if the problem is solved) our response will be along the lines of “of course, it had to be” and it will leave us marveling at the elegance of the inevitable process that produced life. We are not contingent accidents.

Finally I don’t think that God planted the seed and then stood back and watched it unfold (a deist view). Nor do I think that God is continually intervening to give supernatural nudges to creation. Both of these ideas have serious theological flaws. Rather God created and creates, everything is through Him and in Him. We detect the presence of God through relationship, awe and wonder, not through empirical evidence for design. Miracles, supernatural interventions, when they occur, are for a specific purpose as part of this ongoing interaction of God in relationship with his creatures.

What do you think?

Is Meyer’s argument for intelligent design convincing? Why or why not?

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