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On Reading the Signature: A Response to Stephen Meyer

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January 29, 2010 Tags: Christian Unity
On Reading the Signature: A Response to Stephen Meyer

Today's entry was written by Darrel Falk. You can read more about what we believe here.

Dr. Meyer is a philosopher, not a scientist. He is eminently qualified as a philosopher. He has studied at one of the world’s greatest universities and has earned its highest degree. Dr. Meyer is also an expert in communication. Like a number of his colleagues—Phillip Johnson, Michael Behe, William Dembski and, dare I say, Ben Stein—he is a master at communicating with his audiences. His book, Signature in the Cell, is a communicative masterpiece. It is because of his skill as a communicator that he and his colleagues have been able to move mountains.

I do not believe, as Dr. Meyer asserts, that he is unqualified—quite the opposite. He is likely more qualified as a philosopher than I am as a scientist. Furthermore, I guarantee you that if I was venturing into his discipline, I would have little of value to say. Dr. Meyer has ventured into my discipline, biology. He is not highly qualified as a biologist, but he’s ventured in anyway. Fair enough. Since he is a great communicator, we should be able to analyze the quality of his arguments.

This brings me to my next point. I believe that Dr. Meyer and his colleagues are sincere. P.Z. Myers, Jerry Coyne, and John Kwok notwithstanding, these people are not out to deceive, they sincerely believe that the mountain they are trying to knock down is a figment of our imagination. The evolutionary paradigm has come about, they believe, through methodological naturalism. When scientists investigate natural processes assuming there is nothing else at work, Meyer and his colleagues believe the scientists get an incomplete picture of how the natural world works. Again, fair enough. Let us be fair too. Let’s keep an open mind.

Are you ready for my next point? Dr. Meyer and his colleagues have a view of reality which is very similar to my own. I assume, for example, that the following Scripture is as central to their existence as it is to mine:

For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. - Romans 8:38, 39

So even if I disagree profoundly with what Stephen Meyer and his colleagues conclude, I must be careful. If this Scripture is true for them too, and if they really are never separated from the love of God, then I must not separate myself from them. If I did, if I pulled away, I would be separating myself from that which matters most of all in life, staying close to God’s love. Dr. Meyer and his colleagues are smart, they are sincere, and we are all bound together within the love of God.

All of this just brings me to my next point: You can be smart, sincere, and loved, but you can also be very wrong about the interpretation of scientific data. Even smart people are sometimes wrong, especially when they venture into a new discipline, such as would happen if I, heaven forbid, tried to venture into philosophy. On page 107 of Signature in the Cell, Meyer describes “specified complexity.” DNA, he says on page 109, contains “specified complexity” because

it contains “alternative sequences or arrangements of something that produce a specific effect.” Although DNA does not convey information that is received, understood, or used by a conscious mind, it does have information that is received and used by the cell’s machinery to build the structures critical to the maintenance of life.

In Meyer’s response to my review, he made a very strong statement. I am amazed that someone who is really smart and equally sincere could make it, but here it is

First, intelligent agents have demonstrated the capacity to produce large amounts of functionally specified information (especially in a digital form). Second, no undirected chemical process has demonstrated this power. Hence, intelligent design provides the best—most causally adequate—explanation for the origin of the information necessary to produce the first life from simpler non-living chemicals. In other words, intelligent design is the only explanation that cites a cause known to have the capacity to produce the key effect in question. (Emphasis added)

What is he saying here? First of all he says that intelligent agents are known to produce specified complexity. Of course. But look at what he says next: “no undirected chemical process has demonstrated this power.” Surely he doesn’t mean this. Consider the generation of antibody diversity for example. When a bacterium invades the body, a process results in a whole lot of random rearrangements of DNA sequence, and this eventually produces trillions of highly specific antibodies which specifically recognize and bind to the invading bacterial cells. The antibodies are highly specified. They bind only to that one type of bacteria. We go from a state of lower complexity to higher complexity—higher specified complexity! The process that generates this specified complexity is pure chemistry. A set of random processes have generated the highly specified information required to fight the bacterial infection. Surely none of us would believe there is a little “intelligent being” in the body directing the body step-by-step to make the correct antibody. We know it doesn’t work that way. The universe of biology is full of examples of random processes giving rise to specified information. Interested readers are referred to the outstanding book, Complexity: A Guided Tour by Melanie Mitchell for a marvelous discussion of how complexity, including specified complexity in living and non-living systems can emerge without the specific design-input of an intelligence.

Now at this point, Dr. Meyer might step in and remind me of our common belief that there is a Mind who established life’s processes, a Mind whose presence is necessary to sustain the laws of the universe. Sure. We both accept that. But that’s beside the point. There are “undirected chemical processes” that produce functionally specified information. If he wants to beg the question by saying that there is a Mind that created the DNA which would ultimately cause the random processes—fine. But, if he does this, I would go back further and argue that if he is going to beg the question this way, he needs to be willing to beg the question all the way back—there could also have simply been a Mind who established the system so that DNA arose through natural undirected processes. We just don’t know how it worked. And that’s my point. The data is simply not in yet. I emphasize again, all that Dr. Meyer has done is identified an area of science that still has many unanswered questions. For sure, it is simply far too early to jump in and say: “Stop the game. You’ve lost. We’ve won. Game’s over!” This, in my opinion, is silly. Let’s just wait and see.

Just because I believe Steve Meyer and his colleagues are really smart, really sincere, and really have integrity does not mean that they cannot also be really wrong. My one hope and prayer—given that they have the first three qualities—is that the day will come when they admit the fourth holds true as well. In the meantime, I will hold them up in prayer and I know they’ll do the same for us.

I would like to thank my colleagues, Kathryn Applegate at The Scripps Research Institute, and John Oakes of Grossmont Community College for helpful comments in my preparation of this response.

We will soon publish a second response from Stephen Meyer. This one will be a follow-up to Francisco Ayala’s post of several weeks ago.

Darrel Falk is former president of BioLogos and currently serves as BioLogos' Senior Advisor for Dialog. He is Professor of Biology, Emeritus at Point Loma Nazarene University and serves as Senior Fellow at The Colossian Forum. Falk is the author of Coming to Peace with Science.

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Nick Matzke - #3862

February 3rd 2010

Again, you need to actually take a look at the math.  If natural selection adds 1 bit of information at a time to a genome, and does so each day for 20 billion years, at the end of it you will have 42.7 bits of information (because it is an order-of-magnitude measurement).

So apparently your counterargument relies on 1+1 not equalling 2.  Or the specified functional DNA sequence “AT” not having twice the information of the specified functional DNA sequence “A”.  This is where I get to declare victory.

Douglas - #3863

February 3rd 2010

Jonathan. you are just using meaningless combinations of words. Since it is mathematically trivial to demonstrate how evolutionary processes create new information, anti-evolutionists have to resort to “oh, that’s the wrong sort of information” type arguments. Neither Dembski nor Meyer appears to actually understand information theory. I’ve have seen Meyer specifically say that its use is to determine whether something was caused by intelligence. That’s not what information theory is at all, not even in the slightest. That is only how it is misused by pseudoscientists with a religious agenda.
If Demski’s or Meyer’s claims were even slightly accurate, and had some real-world value and application, they would be used by mathematicians in other areas. However, they aren’t. The terms thrown around by them have no rigorous mathematical or scientific definition, and aren’t used anywhere else. They are only used by religious apologists to argue against evolutionary theory.

Douglas - #3864

February 3rd 2010

I might as well make my own obviously equally fallacious argument using meaningless terms.

Only natural processes are known, from our uniform and repeated experience, to produce ‘functional chaotic interdependence’.
Living organisms possess functional chaotic interdependence.
Therefore living organisms were produced by natural processes.


Jonathan Bartlett - #3867

February 3rd 2010

“you are just using meaningless combinations of words.”

The difference between syntax (combinations of tokens) and semantics (functional definitions) is not meaningless.

“Since it is mathematically trivial to demonstrate how evolutionary processes create new information, anti-evolutionists have to resort to “oh, that’s the wrong sort of information” type arguments.”

With Shannon or algorithmic information (both syntactical measurements), the quantity of info increases most if I add functionless, random garbage.  Therefore, according to these measurements, I would be “increasing the information” if I killed the organisms with junk.  Clearly, these measurements aren’t measuring the same thing that we are interested in when we want to know how much info has been created by evolution.

“If Demski’s or Meyer’s claims were even slightly accurate…they would be used by mathematicians in other areas”

Dembski’s ideas are actually used in the development of ideas of randomness in mathematics.  If I remember, Eagle’s treatise on randomness relies on Dembski quite a bit.  Dembski and Marks are being published in computer science journals which deal with adaptive systems - because their work does apply.

John Mulholland - #4046

February 7th 2010

The Templeton project on “The Emergence of Biological Complexity” and similar studies are suggestive.

The central killer problem for evolution is entropy.  How do we go from something simple to something complex - from fluids and dirt to increasingly complex creatures?  Entropy says we could never go this direction -  i.e., energy is lost at every stage, and degradation and chaos follow.

However, scientists studying the Big Bang find a cosmos that has spun off increasingly complex entities and systems from a tiny bundle of energy and a few elements.  Polkinghorne, Gingerich,  and others encourage us to have greater confidence in God,  go on doing our science, not racing to insert “an iintelligent designer” whenever we run up against a puzzle that baffles us

Stephen Meyer seems to have “jumped the gun” with his theories of “iintelligent design”.
John Mulholland

On Biological Complexity - http://www.templeton.org/what_we_fund/core_funding_areas/science_and_the_big_questions/life_sciences/11737.html
http://www.vcu.edu/csbc/  ,  etc

Moshe Averick - #4094

February 8th 2010

Falk writes, . “The data is simply not in yet.”

To state that the data is simply not in yet, is in my opinion, a gross misrepresentation of state of Origin of Life research. 

As Dr. Klaus Dose stated in 1988, “More than 30 years of experimentation on the origin of life…have led to a better perception of the immensity of the problem of the origin of life on earth rather than to it’s solution” .  If anything, the problem has grown exponentially since then, as new discoveries are made about the “simple” microbe and it’s fully digital genetic code.

Meyer has simply stated the obvious; namely, that super-sophisticated digital codes are the product of intelligence.  Falk disagrees but provides no reasonable alternative except “MAYBE,  it arose through an undirected process” .  The “MAYBE”  argument is dangerously close (if not identical) to the “if pigs could fly” argument.

I would be curious to find out how long Dr. Falk is prepared to wait, before coming to the obvious conclusion.

Pedro M. Rosario Barbosa - #26654

August 22nd 2010

I may disagree with Dr. Falk regarding Dr. Meyer.  Yes, he may have studied in the best universities and may have a PhD in philosophy, but as a philosopher (especially in my field which is epistemology and philosophy of science), we can recognize in Meyer’s statements non-sequiturs.  Dr. Falk showed one example of this non-sequitur reasoning, and how Meyer’s statements beg the question.  I may also add that any good philosophy of science student, even with BA degree, will see the huge problems of introducing any sort of supernatural explanation in science as being destructive of the field.  In fact this reply has shown that Dr. Falk is more capable of dealing this subject philosophically than Stephen Meyer.

A really good and eminent philosopher would have been far more careful than Meyer in making such statements.  Not only would he be criticized by biologists, but by philosophers as well.

Lee - #50620

February 9th 2011

“Since intelligence is the only known source of specified information (at least starting from a nonbiological source), the presence of specified information-rich sequences in even the simplest living systems points definitely to the past existence and activity of a designing intelligence.” (p. 343)

This is confusing: since when was the brain a nonbiological source?  Isn’t this statement either prejudging the mind-body problem, or asserting the possibility of non-biological intelligence?  Since have no evidence of “non-biological intelligence”, it seems reason enough to brand this argument ‘mere speculation’.

glsi - #63619

August 1st 2011

Dr. Falk,

You say “the data is simply not in yet” and “Let’s just wait and see”, in your final remarks.  Obviously, you are correct about the data, and it’s a very reasonable attitude to withhold making hasty conclusions before the facts are available.  This is very surprising however.  I have had the strong impression that you are the president of an organization that has largely drawn a foregone conclusion about the ultimate ability for lifeless chemicals to somehow gather themselves into living cells via some kind of “naturalistic” process.  Am I wrong in that impression?
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