Science and the Question of God, Part 3

| By Randy Isaac

Today’s blog is the third entry in a five-part series, which has been adapted from a new Scholarly Article found here. All references have been removed for the blog series but can be found in the full paper. In his previous entry, Randy Isaac outlined the rise of Creationism in the United States and the response of mainstream scientists. Today, Isaac introduces Intelligent Design and points out some flaws with Stephen Meyer’s argument from information.

Intelligent Design

The detection of the trademark of a designer has been a major theme in natural philosophy for centuries. Many people accepted William Paley’s early nineteenth century concept of detecting the divine designer until Darwin published his theory. Design lost favor until it was revived in the late 1980s and 1990s when it blossomed into a widely publicized movement known as Intelligent Design (ID). The essential principle of ID is that there are patterns in nature that are best explained by the action of an indeterminate intelligent designer.

A specific case of that argument is made by Stephen Meyer as an argument from information. He points out that DNA in a living cell operates as the source of information for the production and operation of all proteins and other functioning biomolecules in that cell. By studying other sources of information like computer code, he concludes that information can only be generated by intelligent agents. Hence, he concludes that there must have been some intelligent agent that generated that information. That agent is indeterminate but he reasons that it is logical to think of that agent as God, the Creator. The ID argument therefore only makes a weak claim for answering the question of God. Nevertheless, it makes the claim that there are scientific inferences for the existence of some agent outside of our normal scientific purview.

Responses to Intelligent Design

The ID argument has moved rapidly into the Christian community, appealing to a number of disparate groups. Young-earth creationists eagerly adopt the ID argument because they see it as a powerful addition to their arsenal of apologetics. Old-earth creationists are uncomfortable with flood geology and a claim of a young age of the earth. For them, ID is a most attractive alternative to young-earth creationism that still provides the apologetic base. Some scientists who are uncomfortable with the randomness and purposeless nature of evolution also embrace ID as a means of restoring meaning in life, independent from the theological implications.

Why hasn’t the mainstream scientific community embraced ID’s line of reasoning? The ID community claims the fundamental reason is an unwillingness to allow consideration of the existence of an indeterminate intelligent being, especially that which could indicate a deity. Why then do many Christians in science also reject ID? The ID community claims it may be because they desire the approval and support of their non-Christian colleagues in order to gain funding, publications, and perhaps tenure. The scientific community has a different answer, including Christians who firmly believe that all that exists was created by an Intelligent Designer. For them, the ID argument simply is not scientifically valid and has no logically coherent basis.

Importantly, the scientific community does embrace the concept of design detection. It is a common practice in many fields of science. However, the use of design to argue for the existence of an otherwise undetectable intelligent being is a very different matter. Stephen Meyer himself points out that historical causal analysis requires the demonstration of causal existence and causal adequacy before one can confidently assert the historical reality of that causal agent.

In the case of an indeterminate intelligent agent being postulated as a cause for the origin of life, Meyer pleads an exception to the requirement for causal existence on the basis of causal uniqueness. But he fails to establish uniqueness, in part because uniqueness still requires independent evidence of existence before it can be a legitimate causal agent. Furthermore, he has not convincingly ruled out evolutionary causes. Evolutionary processes can easily be observed to increase, decrease, or modify DNA and epigenetic information in living cells. This occurs in different ways in the development of every organism, in the reproduction process of every species, and in specific biological processes such as antibody formation.

Though humans have developed the capability of some degree of genetic engineering, the dominant mode of information change that we observe in living cells is either through development from embryo to adult or through reproduction and selection. Thus an intelligent agent is not causally unique as an agent of information change in living cells even if it were to exist.

Information and Intelligent Design

As for causal adequacy, Meyer asserts that since we know human intelligent agents are necessary to generate information in examples like computer code, therefore an intelligent agent must be able to generate the DNA information in a living cell. However, the small amount of genetic engineering that humans have accomplished is not easily extended to the generation of life from non-life. In addition to intelligence, skillful techniques of biotechnology, which have not existed in the past, are required to modify any DNA information. While it remains to be shown whether there are natural processes adequate for generating life from non-life (akin to those shown to be adequate for increasing, decreasing, or modifying DNA information), such a possibility cannot be ruled out.

In his argument, Meyer relies on the “identicality” of the nature of information in computer code with that in living cells. He reasons that since an intelligent agent is required to generate computer code, therefore such an agent is required to generate the information in living cells. However, he fails to acknowledge the significant differences between those two types of information. The significance and meaning of computer code depends on the abstract, or symbolic, significance attributed to physical states of the computer by an intelligent agent. In sharp contrast, the significant functionality of the information of a living cell depends on physical survival and not on abstract significance. Hence, the information in a living cell can be selected for functionality by physical processes without an intelligent agent whereas computer code cannot.

Though we live in an information age, the concept of information is often misunderstood. In my next post, I’ll outline three different uses of the term and continue my critique of Stephen Meyer’s argument from information.

Note: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and not of the American Scientific Affiliation.

The next entry in Randy Isaac’s series can be found here.


About the Author

Randy Isaac

  Randy Isaac is a solid-state physics research scientist and executive director of the American Scientific Affiliation (ASA), where he has been a member since 1976 and a fellow since 1996. Isaac received his bachelor’s degree from Wheaton College in Illinois and his doctorate in physics from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He joined IBM to work at the Thomas J. Watson Research Center in 1977 and most recently served as the vice-president of systems technology and science for the company.