From Justin Brierley’s “Unbelievable” podcast.
Stephen Meyer is a leading proponent of Intelligent Design who directs the Centre for Science and Culture at the Discovery Institute in Seattle. His most recent book “Signature in the Cell” claims to show that the DNA code is the product of intelligent mind, not naturalistic processes. Keith Fox is Professor of Biochemistry at Southampton University. He chairs the UK Christians in Science network but disagrees strongly with ID. They debate how life could have originated and whether design is allowed as an explanation in science.
Summary: (stuff in italics is my snarky paraphrase)
- background and how he got interested in intelligent design
- his research focus is on the origin of life – the first replicator
- summarizes the history of origin of life studies
- authored the book “Signature in the Cell”
- the DNA enigma: where did the information in DNA come from?
- naturalistic explanations of the DNA information have failed
- but intelligent agents are known to be able to produce information
- the best explanation of the information in DNA is that an intelligent agent authored it
- Meyer’s book was named by atheist philosopher of science Thomas Nagel as a Times Literary Supplement Book of the Year in 2010
- why is design so controversial? Many people think that Darwin explained why nature appears design
- the Darwinian view is that nature can create the appearance of design using mutation and selection
- however, Darwinian mechanisms cannot explain the origin of the first living cell, it assumes replication, and the origin of life is about where the first replicator comes from
- Meyer’s argument is not about the evolution of life after the first cell
- Meyer’s case for design is about the origin of life
- naturalists do not know a naturalistic explanation for the origin of life
- there are a number of naturalistic hypotheses for the origin of life, like the RNA-first hypothesis
- maybe in a few years one of them will turn out to be correct
- what intelligent design is arguing from a gap in our current naturalistic knowledge to infer that God intervened in nature
- that’s not what intelligent design is at all
- the approach ID theorists use is the inference to best explanation
- you evaluate all explanations, non-intelligent causes and intelligent causes
- you prefer the best possible explanation
- we know that minds are capable of producing information just like the information we find in DNA
- living cells replicate, so they have the ability to introduce mutations as they replicate and then some of those mutations can be selected
- so maybe the process of replicating that living cells do created the first living cell
- maybe the first living cell created itself, X brought X into being, self-creation, what’s irrational about that?
- the issue is the origin of life – where did the first living cell come from?
- you cannot appeal to the operations that a living cell can perform to explain the origin of the first living cell
- there was no first living cell operating before the first living cell
- there was no replication, mutation or selection before the first living cell
- in fact, in my book I show that there is no known naturalistic mechanism that is able to produce the information needed for the first living cell
- nothing can create itself, that is self-contradictory
- Well, you are just saying that because something is complex that God did it
- Sadly, no. What I actually said needed to be explained was the information, not complexity
- And we know from software engineering that the process of adding information to code is performed by programmers
- in the absence of any adequate naturalistic explanation for information, we are justified in taking the explanation that we are familiar with – namely, intelligent agency – based on our uniform, universal experience of what causes information
- well, maybe we can appeal to the mutation and selection in existing living cells to explain the origin of the first living cell
- maybe there were living cells before the first living cell, and then these other living cells created the first living cell
- we can’t keep invoking mutation and selection when those processes are not operating prior to the origin of the first living cell
- well maybe some bare-bones self-replication molecule was a precursor to the first living cell
- even to generate very limited replicator would require a large amount of information
- the argument I am making is – where does the evolution come from?
- well, maybe we will think of an explanation for information that is naturalistic in 20 years
- we’ve thought of explanations to things that were NOT information before
- so maybe we will be able to think of something to explain information based on our ability to explain NOT information before
Moderator: Change topics: the Dover decision
- the Discovery Institute opposed the policy that causes the trial
- the wording of the statute was poor
- the judge was completely wrong in his decision
- young earth creationists used the phrase “intelligent design” to cover their agenda
- intelligent design is an inference using the normal methods of science
- intelligent design is a science stopper because it stops looking for a naturalistic explanation
- everything in nature must have a naturalistic explanation
- everything has to be explained using matter and time and chance
- it just has to be that way!!!!
- well, what luck would you have explaining an effect like Mt. Rushmore?
- can you explain that using matter,time and chance?
- Mt. Rushmore was the product of intelligence, not wind and erosion
- similarly, there is information in the cell, and we know that intelligence causes information
- So you are saying that we don’t understand and therefore an intelligence is necessary?
- no I am saying we DO understand and we are making an inference based on that understanding
- you are the one who is insisting on a material explanation because you pre-suppose materialism
- we know that minds have causal powers, and we can infer mind as an explanation from information
- well nature is a seamless chain of material causes and effects
- agents can act without violating the laws of nature
- even humans can act as intelligent agents to create information in books, and they don’t violate the laws of nature
- intelligent causes are real, and they explain effects in nature
- you’re trying to impose on science something to do with meaning and purpose
- no that’s not what we’re doing, we’re inferring from from the fact that we ourselves are known causes of information to the fact that an intelligence cause is the best explanation for information in the cell
- but I am a materialist, I need a materialist explanation
- mind IS an answer to the how question
- we infer to mind in many other scientific disciplines, like cryptography, archaeology, etc.
- a materialist might accuse an archaeologist of engaging in a “scribe-of-the-gaps” argument, but the best explanation of an artifact with information is a scribe
- we are inferring that mind is the cause from the nature of the effect: information
- well DNA is just a molecular polymer, any reference to information is just by analogy
- DNA is a molecular polymer, but it also exhibits the property of specified complexity
- the arrangement of bases, which function as machine instructions in a software program, for performings task in the cell
- we have observed that the property of specified complexity always comes from an intelligence
- well, maybe there are other sequences that would work, so maybe it’s really not uncommon to develop functioning sequences by chance alone, without an intelligence
- you can measure how precise the functional specificity is in DNA and proteins
Moderator: is Shannon information the same as functional information
- Shannon information refers to the sequences of digits or symbols that do not necessarily have any function, i.e. – a four character string QSZX has as much Shannon information as WORD. However, only the latter is functional against the pattern of the English language. There are arrangements of DNA bases and amino acids that have the same number of symbols/characters as a functional sequence would have, but they have no biological function – they do not exhibit specified complexity
- Well, maybe there are lots and lots of sequences of DNA and proteins so that it is fairly easy to get a functional one by chance
- DNA sequences that are functional are extremely rare, protein sequences are even more rare
- this is not my opinion, this is what the research shows – functional protein sequences are rare
- well maybe there are other functional sequences that are occur before the first functional sequence that are precursors to the first functional sequence
- maybe there are billions of years of replication, mutation and selection before the first replication, mutation and selection
- you can’t get to the first selectable functional sequence by appealing to precursor selectable functional sequences – there are no selectable functional sequences before the FIRST one
- you have to get the first selectable functional sequence by chance alone, because there is nothing to mutate or select before the first replicator
- the chance hypothesis has been rejected because the minimal amount of information for the simplest replicator is too high to get by chance alone, given the resources, including time, that are available
Moderator: Keith are you confident that naturalism will be able to substantiate these naturalism-of-the-gap speculations that you offer in response to Meyer’s actual science that we have today?
- well, it is hard to know for sure because it was just a fluke event
- but there’s nothing irrational or unscientific or miraculous about it – the fluke would have a material explanation
- there is nothing that we can detect that would implicate God, my speculations about a fluke which I cannot observe or measure or test would all be compatible with an atheistic worldview that omits God as a causal entity
- where are those material processes that could account for this fluke then?
- the whole point of this argument is that the information in DNA transcends the material components in the sequence
- it’s the arrangement of the material parts/letters/characters/symbols/instructions that needs to be explained
- Well, I just have a different philosophy of science that rules out intelligent causation a priori
- Yes, that’s the difference between us – you pre-suppose that all explanations of natural phenomena must exclude intelligent causes
There is a bit more where Meyer talks about how parts of the cell are implementations of various design patterns (Gang of Four design patterns) that are used by software architects who design software.
You may also be interested in Keith Fox’s previous debate with Michael Behe. I think Fox did better in this one than in that one, so I didn’t make fun of him as much. Find more posts on Stephen C. Meyer by me here.