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.