We posted a review of Stephen Meyer’s book, Signature in the Cell. His thesis is that the traditional science which seeks to understand the origin of cellular information has reached a dead-end. As Meyer sees it, the alternative—cellular information is produced by an intelligence— is firmly grounded in science, not faith. But what is science, and how does it differ from other approaches to obtaining knowledge? To address this question we have asked Dr. Steven Benner, to respond to Signature in the Cell. Fortunately, he had already read the book, so he responded quickly.
Dr. Benner is a Distinguished Fellow in the Foundation for Applied Molecular Evolution at The Westheimer Institute for Science and Technology, Gainesville FL. He is the author of Life, the Universe, and the Scientific Method. Steven Benner's work at the Foundation for Applied Molecular Evolution seeks to join natural history to the physical sciences to address "big" questions in science (Where did we come from? Are we alone? What is our future in the cosmos?) and in technology, including the management of complex human diseases such as cancer, hypertension, and alcoholism.
Whatever "science" is, one of its characteristics is clear: It is empowering. In this respect, modern science is different from all thought, philosophical, religious, and metaphysical, that occurred in the 36 centuries of human civilization that preceded Galileo. It implies no disrespect to Euclid, Archimedes, Moses, or the builders of the pyramids to observe that models from philosophy, religion, and metaphysics did nothing for the human condition analogous to what modern science has done. The ancients could not, and we can, identify the virus that causes AIDS. Construct a nuclear power plant through the fission of synthetic elements. Extract resources from the Earth's crust using models for the history of our planet.
By the end of the 19th century, as the power of modern science became evident, people attempted to understand what science did that philosophy, religion, and metaphysics had not done. A "brief history of thinking about thought" would mention efforts to construct formal attributes that distinguished "scientific" from "non-scientific" propositions, proposals of testability and falsifiability as examples of these attributes, and the recognition that these attributes do not robustly characterize successful science.
Instead, those who study science, in particular, those who study science from the vantage of themselves being practicing scientists, have come to focus on the relation that successful scientists have with their communities, authorities in their communities, and their own desires to believe. Scientists, of course, are taught by authorities. Further, in their careers, scientists often come to want to believe certain propositions, most often the proposition that their own theories are correct. Scientists, like attorneys or other advocates, can easily cherry-pick data to defend propositions that they want to defend, ignoring data that contradict those cherished propositions.
To be successful, scientists must practice an intellectual discipline that denies them these wants. They must begin by understanding that authorities can be wrong. They also must understand that their desires to believe can corrupt their own abilities to distinguish reality from fiction. Accordingly, they understand that they need an intellectual discipline that might allow the outcome of a scientific process to be, if necessary, something other than what their communities have always believed, or what they personally might want to believe.
Different scientists have conveyed this deep understanding of scientific process with pithy aphorisms. For example, Richard Feynman, the noted Cal Tech physicist, told a convention of high school science teachers in 1966 that "science is the belief in the ignorance of experts." My recent book entitled Life, the Universe, and the Scientific Method shows how different sciences, although different in subject matter and methodologies, all have developed ways to prevent scientists from deceiving themselves. "Science is an intellectual process that embodies a mechanism to prevent scientists from believing what scientists want to believe."
This intellectual discipline allows scientists to uncover reality better than lawyers, politicians, or advertisers. These professionals decide first what they want their conclusions to be ("my client is innocent," "re-elect me," or "buy my product"). They then select data to support their preselected conclusions. They allow themselves any trick to do so, suppressing opposing data, manipulating the media, and destroying opponents through ad hominem attacks. Only a robust system of controlled advocacy, where both sides must argue before a neutral authority (a jury, electorate, or free market), can prevent such an intellectual process from going bad (and often not even then).
Unfortunately, the intellectual discipline needed to support successful science is difficult to teach. It goes against powerful sociological forces, including the need to have authorities in one's field approve grants, grant tenure, or award awards. Accordingly, scientists themselves practice this discipline imperfectly, sometimes very imperfectly. Especially in matters of public policy, one can often see scientists being advocates for their theories with skills equal to the best of attorneys.
When they do, however, scientists lose for themselves the empowerment of modern science. When scientists cease to be more critical of data that support their own hypotheses than data that contradict them, they soon lose the ability to distinguish reality from non-reality.
Nowhere is this intellectual discipline more important than when addressing "big" questions, those that concern subject matter that is not readily available for direct observation. These are not the work-a-day questions that a practitioner must answer to solve a technological problem ("Doc, why am I sick?") or that a parent might field from an inquisitive child ("Mom, what makes the sky blue?").
No, these are questions like: "Do alien extraterrestrials exist?" Or: "How do galaxies form?" Or: "How did life originate?" It implies no disrespect of the ailing patient or the inquisitive child to say that "big" questions are more interesting than the work-a-day questions. Or to suggest that their pursuit is more likely to uncover more fundamental reasons why experts are ignorant. Or to expect the pursuit of "big" questions to be more likely to ignite new beacons to guide our exploration of the cosmos. Including the life it holds.
On this matter, Stephen Meyer recently weighed in with his book, Signature in the Cell. Meyer evidently views his 508 pages (with additional pages of notes) as a "scientific" argument for intelligent design. In addition, Meyer offers autobiographical digressions showing how he learned of many of the conclusions that modern science has delivered. He provides personal stories describing how he learned of the challenges in distinguishing scientific statements from non-scientific statements, how he learned why scientists view living systems as complex, and how he learned about questions current among those who seek to understand the origin of life.
Absent, however, from Meyer's narrative is any evidence that he learned about the intellectual discipline that gave science the power that it needed to arrive at these conclusions. On the contrary, Meyer is an advocate. He knows the final result that he wants (intelligent design). He cherry-picks conclusions provided by modern science to support it (mostly of the "irreducible complexity" type). He reaches his final result with no indication that he considered (or would consider) evidence that might prevent him from believing what he wants to believe.
But it is worse. Not only is Meyer ignorant of the intellectual discipline that gives science its power. He is evidently ignorant of his ignorance. He gives no indication that he knows that by being an advocate, he has denied himself the empowerment that scientific processes might have delivered to him.
In one sense, Meyer cannot be faulted. He is trained in the philosophy of science, a field that does not have many methods to prevent its practitioners from arriving at the results that they want. He is also surrounded in his culture by pseudo-scientific debate. As Feynman observed, "we live in an unscientific age in which almost all the buffeting of communications and television are unscientific. As a result, there is a considerable amount of intellectual tyranny in the name of science."
This observation remains true today. One cant hardly turn on the television without hearing that some "science" or other is "settled," from trans-fats in the food to the role of human carbon dioxide emissions in global climate change. This despite the fact that anyone who declares that a science is "settled" has lost the intellectual discipline needed to be empowered by science.
Why does Meyer write a book that puts his ignorance on such display? He answers this question on page 450. Meyer wants to believe in intelligent design because he wants to avoid an "absence of meaning in modern life." He writes, "the theory of intelligent design … affirm[s] that the ultimate cause of life is personal."
One can certainly be sympathetic with Meyer's suffering as he becomes aware of the Faustian dilemma presented by modern society. One might also object to the cheapening of modern culture, the disaffection of the youth, or the high level of teenage pregnancy. For any of these reasons, one might hope that a belief that life emerged through the hand of an intelligent designer would be mitigating, especially if it is presented as an article of faith as a mandate from a divinity.
And indeed it might. But this is not what scientists should be doing. More to the point, if they started doing so, they would stop producing what we value from science.
And so we turn to another of Meyer's interests: Education. If what experts know today about biology, chemistry, and physics were all that is to be known, then Feynman's aphorism would no longer be correct. We should not only want to believe what we are taught in school by experts, but we should believe. Indeed, we might take a short-cut directly to knowledge by believing without having reason to believe; we should have "faith." Any intellectual discipline that might disrupt our beliefs is no longer needed; indeed, it might lead us astray.
But if there is something left to be learned about the world around us, then it is appropriate to teach the intellectual discipline that is necessary for science to be empowering. Our children will almost certainly need the power of that intellectual discipline to manage the next generation of problems that they will confront. And, as Meyer's book makes clear, there is much to be learned, especially about the origins of life.