November 9, 2014


Preliminary Thoughts about Stephen Meyer's Signature in the Cell (Jeffery Jay Lowder, 6/03/13, Patheos: The Secular Outpost)

I've been reading Stephen C. Meyer's massive book, Signature in the Cell. For those who are unfamiliar with the book, it is a sophisticated defense of the intelligent design (ID) hypothesis. Meyer argues that intelligent design is the best explanation for the origin of biological, functionally specified information. In other words, Meyers is not arguing against biological evolution (including common ancestry). Rather, he argues that intelligent design is the best explanation for the origin of life itself.

I find the topic interesting and I'm enjoying the book, including Meyer's ancedotes of his interactions with various ID theorists. So far I've read chapters 1-12 and then skipped ahead to read chapter 17, where Meyer responds to three philosophical objections against intelligent design as an explanation.

We are fortunate that Meyer explicitly provides the logical form of his argument.

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.

Meyer defends his first premise by considering various alternatives to design. These alternatives may be summarized as chance, necessity, or some combination of chance and necessity. Regarding chance, Meyer considers two chance hypotheses, which I will call the "single-universe chance hypothesis" and, you guessed it, the "multiverse chance hypothesis." Turning to necessity, Meyers considers at least four hypotheses about physical-chemical necessity, including what I will call "Kenyon's and Steinman's biochemical predestination hypothesis," "Prigogine's and Nicolis's energy hypothesis," "Kauffman's 1993 metabolism-first hypothesis,"and "Kauffman's 1995 self-organizational model." Finally, Meyer considers 6 hybrid or combination theories: the "Classic Oparin Model," the "Revised Oparin Model," Quastler's DNA-first hypothesis, Eigen's Hypercycles Model, various genetic algorithms, and the RNA World Hypothesis. Meyer concludes that all of these alternatives to design fail.

Since I am a philosopher, not a scientist, I am going to assume (but only for the sake of argument) that the scientific facts are exactly as he claims and that all of these alternative hypotheses are indeed failures. What I want to do is to see what he does with the evidence. Specifically, I want to ask the following question.

Is ID the best explanation for the specified information in the cell?

At the outset, I want to state three areas of agreement with Meyer. First, I agree with Meyer that it would be a mistake to dismiss his argument as an argument from ignorance. Despite the appearance given by Meyer's formulation of his argument, I believe that his argument can be modified to avoid the appearance of an argument from igonrance. We should consider the possibility that the origin of life is a source of potential evidence for intelligent design (and for theism). Second, I tentatively agree with his response to the objection about analogies between humans and non-human intelligent agents. That isn't an objection I've made or (I think) would make. Third, I'm not impressed by Dawkins' "who designed the designer" objection.  In fact, I publicly criticized that argument on my blog a couple of years ago. So I'm inclined to agree with the general sort of "you don't have to an explanation for the explanation" response which Meyer provides.

But there is another objection to ID as an explanation which is independent of those three. I was hoping to find a discussion of this objection in Signature, but, so far at least, I have not found it. The objection I have in mind is this: the design hypothesis is not an explanation because, well, it doesn't explain. Regarding the origin of biological information, it still isn't clear to me what Meyers believes the design explanation is. I don't find in the book a description of how an intelligent designer created / designed / programmed -- not sure what the right verb is -- the first biological information. In order to explain biological information, it's not enough to posit the existence of an intelligent designer as a potential cause of biological information. In addition, it seems to me that a design explanation must also include a description of the mechanism used by the designer to design and build the thing. In other words, in order for design to explain something, we have to know how the designer designed it. If we don't know or even have a clue about how the designer did it, then we don't have a design explanation.

...just an equally plausible alternative, at which point, choosing amongst Darwinisn, Design and Creation can be recognized as nothing more (nor less) than an act of faith..

Posted by at November 9, 2014 7:26 AM

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