On Reading the Signature: A Response to Stephen Meyer

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January 29, 2010 Tags: Christian Unity

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

On Reading the Signature: A Response to Stephen Meyer

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 The BioLogos Foundation. He transitioned into Christian higher education 25 years ago and has given numerous talks about the relationship between science and faith at many universities and seminaries. He is the author of Coming to Peace with Science.

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hmm - #3583

January 29th 2010

Darrel Falk wrote:

“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…”

and

“The universe of biology is full of examples of random processes giving rise to specified information. “

I supposed that Meyer was speaking about origin of the information necessary to produce the first living cell. I thought that he maybe tried to just say that undirected chemical process has never demonstrated the power to produce information necessary to produce the first life from.

The universe of biology may be now full of examples of “random” processes giving rise to information, but the question was about showing the power to produce “functionally specified information” for the first cell. Your counterexample presupposes existing life forms.


Darrel Falk - #3584

January 29th 2010

Sorry, Hmm.  This is not what Dr. Meyer is saying.  His book is very clear on that as was his response to my review.

Darrel


Mike Gene - #3585

January 29th 2010

IMO, Dr. Falk scores big points by moving the specified complexity/information discussion to antibody production.  Remember folks, you are not born with an immunity to the chicken pox virus – you acquire it through a process biologists have long called ‘specified immunity.’  You acquire this specified immunity because B lymphocytes have the amazing ability to recode their antibody genes to synthesize millions of different gene products and a process of selection is involved to choose the right one for a particular infection.  An antibody (and its gene) would certainly qualify as ‘specified complexity’ and ‘information’ that carries out a specific function important for your survival.  And the actual process of making antibodies, so that you acquire immunity to various pathogens over your life, does not itself require intelligent intervention.


Mike Gene - #3586

January 29th 2010

cont…

I would part company with Dr. Falk on a subtle, but important point.  He observes that “undirected chemical processes”….produce functionally specified information.”  I guess it all depends on how one interprets ‘undirected.’  If we mean “no intelligent intervention required,” okay, no conscious entity has to tinker with the genomes of B cells.  But the process of antibody production is *facilitated* at several levels. That is, the architecture of the whole system is an example of mutations and selection that are under CONTROL.  And a closer look at the nature of this control comes with teleological echoes.


hmm - #3592

January 29th 2010

Darrel, I’m not so sure. He emphasized in his book that he was speaking about getting specified information from nonbiological source:

“Experience shows that large amounts of specified complexity or information (especially codes and languages) invariably originate from an intelligent source – from a mind or a personal agent. 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)


hmm - #3593

January 29th 2010

And in his response to your review the context was (also) the question about origin of the information needed for the first cell:

“The central argument of my book is that intelligent design… best explains the origin of the information necessary to produce the first living cell. I argue this because of two things… 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… explanation for the origin of the information necessary to produce the first life from simpler non-living chemicals.”


Gregory Arago - #3597

January 29th 2010

“The universe of biology is full of examples of random processes giving rise to specified information.” - Dr. Falk

“The central argument of my book is that intelligent design… best explains the origin of the information necessary to produce the first living cell.” - Dr. Meyer

[Bolding in quotes is mine]

So Darrel is speaking about ‘processes,’ while Stephen is speaking about ‘origin[s]’?

If so, it might be hard to build bridges between them.

p.s. I don’t agree with Dr. Falk that Dr. Dembski is a ‘master’ at communicating with audiences. Dr. Meyer is much better!


pds - #3598

January 29th 2010

Darrel #3584,

I think Meyer’s book is quite clear that he is talking about specified information to create the first life. hmm is right.

Mike #3585,

Darrel does not score points by claiming that Meyer is talking about something he is not talking about.


pds - #3600

January 29th 2010

Darrel you said

“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.”

Nowhere does Meyer say this.  He claims that ID is the “inference to the best explanation.”  That implies to me that the best explanation may change over time, and Meyer even discusses how it has in his book.  But that is not a reason not to make any inferences at all or to try to explain things.

You seem to be saying, “Unless there is a non-design natural explanation, don’t explore any explanations at all.”  That is just not good science, and it makes no sense.


Mike Gene - #3601

January 29th 2010

Hi pds,

Hmm quotes Meyer as saying, ““Experience shows that large amounts of specified complexity or information (especially codes and languages) invariably originate from an intelligent source – from a mind or a personal agent.”

Antibodies are examples of specified complexity /information that do not originate from a mind or personal agent.


Nathan - #3603

January 29th 2010

“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.”

Dr. Falk, isn’t this conceding that Meyer is right about our experience telling us that there is an Intelligent Designer?  In other words, we look at this dizzying array of complex stuff and we conclude that a Mind established (i.e. designed) the system…  By focusing on the fact that there are no known natural processes that we can see (maybe we can conceive of them, but none have played out over 50-60some years) that could produce the building blocks for the first life - and the corresponding positive evidence that we know information must have an architect - it is responsible to conclude that all of this is designed and to proceed accordingly… even if on ocassion one posits “undirected, purposeless causes” when it proves itself useful (i.e. it may serve as a “useful fiction” to think about these laws in terms of them being “undirected” and “purposeless” in the sense that they seem rather autonomous, given their consistency, non-arbitrariness, and seemingly impersonal nature).


pds - #3605

January 29th 2010

Mike,

The full quote in his post on Biologos:

The central argument of my book is that intelligent design—the activity of a conscious and rational deliberative agent—best explains the origin of the information necessary to produce the first living cell. I argue this because of two things that we know from our uniform and repeated experience, which following Charles Darwin I take to be the basis of all scientific reasoning about the past. 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.

(cont.)


pds - #3606

January 29th 2010

(continued)

We need to ask Meyer what he means by “produce large amounts of functionally specified information.”  I am sure that he would agree that Darwinian processes can rearrange the information in DNA.  My DNA is different from my parents.  Was my DNA “produced”?  Was it “large amounts”?

Unless we ask Meyer what he means by those phrases, we should not presume that he is talking about anything but the origin of life.  In his book, I think he is pretty clear that the “large amounts” he is talking about is what is required for the first life.


Nathan - #3610

January 29th 2010

I had said: “even if on ocassion one posits “undirected, purposeless causes” when it proves itself useful”

And if I understand what the I.D. folks are saying, they would say that sometimes, even in science, methodological naturalism does not serve as a useful fiction, but more of a harmful one, for example, when it is too broadly applied, or when it is seen as only method by which we can construct theories that are able to explain and predict, i.e. be fruitful.

I like this quote:

“Convergent problems relate to…where manipulation can proceed without hindrance and where man can make himself ‘master and possessor,’ because the subtle, higher forces – which we have labeled life, consciousness, and self-awareness – are not present to complicate matters.  Wherever these higher forces intervene to a significant extent, the problem ceases to be convergent”
Schumacher, E. F. A Guide for the Perplexed. New York: Harper & Row, 1977, 125.


Nathan - #3611

January 29th 2010

This man also said:

“Justice is a denial of mercy, and mercy is a denial of justice.  Only a higher force can reconcile these opposites: wisdom.  The problem cannot be solved, but wisdom can transcend it.  Similarly, societies need stability and change, tradition and innovation, public interest and private interest, planning and laissez-faire, order and freedom, growth and decay.  Everywhere society’s health depends on the simultaneous pursuit of mutually opposed activities or aims.  The adoption of a final solution means a kind of death sentence for man’s humanity and spells either cruelty or dissolution, generally both… Divergent problems offend the logical mind.”
Schumacher, E. F. A Guide for the Perplexed. New York: Harper & Row, 1977, 127.

Re: the idea that “Everywhere society’s health depends on the simultaneous pursuit of mutually opposed activities or aims”, perhaps we might include “thinking that uses methodological naturalism AND methodological design”?

-Nathan


Nathan - #3612

January 29th 2010

“when it is seen as only method”

should say

“when it is seen as the only method in science”


hmm - #3613

January 29th 2010

Mike,

> “Experience shows that large amounts of specified complexity or information
> (especially codes and languages) invariably originate from an
> intelligent source – from a mind or a personal agent.”

“Antibodies are examples of specified complexity /information that do not originate from a mind or personal agent.”

Meyer didn’t claim in the quoted sentence that there couldn’t be any examples of specified complexity /information that do not originate from a mind or personal agent. But he claimed (in the next sentence) that intelligence is the only known source of specified information “at least starting from a nonbiological source”. Antibodies (and their specified complexity/information) are not produced from nonbiological starting place.


G - #3624

January 29th 2010

Some may think this is just semantics, but I think that there is a difference between what Stephen Meyer is referring to as “information” and the “complexity” that Falk interprets it as. Falk uses examples of specified complexity, such as the antibody example, but that is still a very different example than what Meyer refers to as “information” in the genetic code. The information in the genetic code that Meyer is referring to is almost entirely responsible for the complexity seen in the antibody example, yet the antibodies don’t carry information in terms of Meyer’s interpretation. Meyer’s argument is concerning the underlying cause of the antibody complexity itself, so I think that that example is easily undermined.


Jonathan Watts - #3625

January 29th 2010

The antibody is a great biological example - and much of the debate above has centered on the fact that it is biological.  So let me give an example of a non-biological example of this. 

In the lab I can put a random mixture of nucleoside phosphoramidites in a vial, and chemically synthesize DNA of a random sequence.  Then I carry out a selection - for example, which of my compounds can bind to a given protein?  All of the sequences that bind are amplified (by PCR) and then I do the selection step again.  After several rounds of selection, I can do sequencing and one or several motifs emerge that specifically bind my protein (under whatever conditions I do the selection).  So I have new specified information generated from a random sequence… it is the “survival” of the chemical species that caused the specified sequence to be separated from all of the other sequences.

For more on this, look up “in vitro selection” or SELEX on Wikipedia or other sources.


Jesse - #3628

January 29th 2010

I think the concept of “methodological naturalism” is sometimes misunderstood. It’s not a restriction applied to science, but rather inherent in science itself. Let me explain.

The scientific method defines “nature” as “anything science can investigate.” It doesn’t matter if that’s bacteria, atoms, ghosts, or whatever; if the scientific method can be applied, then it is considered “natural.” So then, whatever science CAN’T investigate is not part of nature.

Therefore, scientists aren’t saying “Intelligent Design is not a natural process, so we aren’t going to study it,” but rather, “Since ID is not falsifiable, the scientific method can’t be applied, so science has no way to study it.” Or something like that.


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