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Stephen Meyer's Rebuttal to Robert Asher's "Mechanism" Argument that ID is "Anti-Uniformitarian"

DebatingDDsquare.jpegIn his recent article for the Huffington Post, University of Cambridge paleontologist Robert Asher argued that, despite Stephen Meyer's claims to the contrary, Dr. Meyer does not use uniformitarian reasoning to support his arguments for intelligent design. In a 2012 book, Evolution and Belief, Asher wrote that he found Meyer's argument deficient -- and allegedly "anti-uniformitarian" -- for two reasons.

First, Asher asserted that if Meyer's arguments were truly uniformitarian in character then he should be able to point to incidental attributes or by-products of known intelligent agents (such as teeth, bones or trash) in the fossil record. Because those things are not found in association with the activity of the designing intelligence responsible for the first life or the first animal life, Asher argues that Meyer cannot, on uniformitarian grounds, properly infer intelligent design. I responded to this objection soon after Asher first published it in his book here and here. Yesterday, after Asher repeated this objection in his HuffPo article, I responded again in more detail here.

Second, in Evolution and Belief Asher has offered another, and arguably less facile, objection to Meyer's argument -- to which Meyer responded in detail in Darwin's Doubt. But since Asher has again made the claim that Meyer's argument is "anti-uniformitarian" I thought I would excerpt here the section (pp. 392-398) from Darwin's Doubt in which Meyer explains Asher's main objection and responds to it. See what you think:

Since the publication of Signature in the Cell, Robert Asher, a University of Cambridge paleontologist, has offered another reason to contest my characterization of intelligent design as a scientific theory. In his book, Evolution and Belief, he challenges my claim to have used the uniformitarian method of Lyell and Darwin to develop the case for intelligent design. Since his objection is new, published only in 2012 by Cambridge University Press, it deserves discussion.

Asher characterizes my thinking as follows: "The processes we know and observe today are relevant to explaining the phenomena of the past, and we know that particularly complicated things we see today have an intelligence behind them."34 He notes that I argue certain complex technologies, such as computer software, have "only one source: human ingenuity."35 It follows, according to Asher's paraphrase of my argument that "a similarly complex device we observe in the geological past must also have arisen as a result of something like human ingenuity, i.e., intelligence." 36 Asher doesn't seem to understand the importance of specified information, as opposed to "complicated things," as a key indicator of design. That aside, he does claim to recognize the role of uniformitarian principles of reasoning in my argument for intelligent design. In spite of this, Asher elsewhere disputes that I employ the uniformitarian method of reasoning. Why? According to Asher, the inference to intelligent design is actually "anti- uniformitarian" because it doesn't provide a "mechanism." As he puts it, "by attempting to replace a causal mechanism (natural selection) with an attribution of agency (design), ID advocates such as Meyer are decidedly anti- uniformitarian. What process of today could possibly lead to his understanding of the past?"37

The answer to Asher's question seems pretty obvious. The answer is: intelligence. Conscious activity. The deliberate choice of a rational agent. Indeed, we have abundant experience in the present of intelligent agents generating specified information. Our experience of the causal powers of intelligent agents -- of "conscious activity" as "a cause now in operation" -- provides a basis for making inferences about the best explanation of the origin of biological information in the past. In other words, our experience of the cause- and- effect structure of the world -- specifically the cause known to produce large amounts of specified information in the present -- provides a basis for understanding what likely caused large increases in specified information in living systems in the past. It is precisely my reliance on such experience that makes possible an understanding of the type of causes at work in the history of life. It also makes my argument decidedly uniformitarian -- not "anti- uniformitarian" -- in character.

Asher confuses the uniformitarian imperative in historical scientific explanations (the need to cite a presently known or adequate cause) with a demand for citing a material cause, or mechanism. The theory of intelligent design does cite a cause, and indeed one known to produce the effects in question, but it does not necessarily cite a mechanistic or materialistic cause. Proponents of intelligent design may conceive of intelligence as a strictly materialistic phenomenon, something reducible to the neurochemistry of a brain, but they may also conceive of it as part of a mental reality that is irreducible to brain chemistry or any other physical process. They may also understand and define intelligence by reference to their own introspective experience of rational consciousness and take no particular position on the mind- brain question.

Asher assumes that intelligent design denies a materialistic or "physicalist" account of the mind (as I personally do, in fact) and rejects it as unscientific on that basis. But he offers no noncircular reason for making that judgment. He cannot say that the principle of methodological naturalism requires that all genuinely scientific theories invoke only mechanistic causes, because the principle of methodological naturalism itself needs justification. And asserting that "all genuinely scientific theories must provide mechanisms" is just to restate the principle of methodological naturalism in different words. Indeed, to say that all scientific explanations must provide a mechanism is equivalent to saying that they must cite materialistic causes -- precisely what the principle of methodological naturalism asserts. Asher seems to be assuming without justification that all scientifically acceptable causes are mechanistic or materialistic. His argument thus assumes a key point at issue, which is whether there are independent -- that is, metaphysically neutral -- reasons for requiring historical scientific theories to cite materialistic causes in their explanations as opposed to explanations that invoke possibly immaterial entities such as creative intelligence, mind, mental action, agency, or intelligent design.

In any case, he confuses the logical requirement of citing a vera causa, a true or known cause, with an arbitrary requirement to cite only materialistic causes. He confuses uniformitarianism with methodological naturalism.38 He then critiques my design argument for rejecting the former, though it only rejects the latter. In so doing, he imposes an additional requirement on explanations of past events that leads him to mistake my argument as anti- uniformitarian and to miss the evidence for intelligent design. His implicit commitment to methodological naturalism makes the evidence for intelligent design -- "the postman," as it were -- mentally invisible to him.

Nevertheless, the concern that he raises about the theory of intelligent design not citing a mechanism still troubles people. In fact, I frequently get questions about this issue. People will ask something like this: "I can see your point about digital code providing evidence for intelligent design, but how exactly did the designing intelligence generate that information or arrange matter to form cells or animals?" Or: "How did the intelligent designer that you infer impress its ideas on matter to form animals?" As Asher puts it, "How could a biological phenomenon, even if designed, be simply willed into existence without an actual mechanism?"39

To help clear things up, several points need to be considered. First, the theory of intelligent design does not provide a mechanistic account of the origin of biological information or form, nor does it attempt to. Instead, it offers an alternative causal explanation involving a mental, rather than a necessarily or exclusively material, cause for the origin of that reality. It attributes the origin of information in living organisms to thought, to the rational activity of a mind, not a strictly material process or mechanism. That does not make it deficient as a materialistic or mechanistic explanation. It makes it an alternative to that kind of explanation. Advocates of intelligent design do not propose intelligent causes because they cannot think of a possible mechanistic explanation for the origin of form or information. They propose intelligent design because they think it provides a better, more causally adequate explanation for these realities. Given what we know from experience about the origin of information, materialistic explanations are the deficient ones.

There is a different context in which someone might want to ask about a mechanism. He or she may wish to know by what means the information, once originated, is transmitted to the world of matter. In our experience, intelligent agents, after generating information, oft en use material means to transmit that information. A teacher may write on a chalkboard with a piece of chalk or an ancient scribe may have chiseled an inscription in a piece of rock with a metal implement. Oft en, those who want to know about the mechanism of intelligent design are not necessarily challenging the idea that information ultimately originates in thought. They want to know how, or by what material means, the intelligent agent responsible for the information in living systems transmitted that information to a material entity such as a strand of DNA. To use a term from philosophy, they want to know about "the efficient cause" at work.

The answer is: We simply don't know. We don't have enough evidence or information about what happened, in the Cambrian explosion or other events in the history of life, to answer questions about what exactly happened, even though we can establish from the clues left behind that an intelligent designer played a causal role in the origin of living forms.

An illustration from archaeology helps explain how this can be so (see Fig. 19.2). Years ago explorers of a remote island in the southwestern Pacific Ocean discovered a group of enormous stone figures. The figures displayed the distinctive shape of human faces. These figures left no doubt as to their ultimate origin in thought. Nevertheless, archeologists still don't know the exact means by which they were carved or erected. The ancient head carvers might have used metallic hammers, rock chisels, or lasers for that matter. Though archaeologists lack the evidence to decide between various hypotheses about how the figures were constructed, they can still definitely infer that intelligent agents made them. In the same way, we can infer that an intelligence played a causal role in the origin of the Cambrian animals, even if we cannot decide what material means, if any, the designing intelligence used to transmit the information, or shape matter, or impart its design ideas to living form. Although the theory of intelligent design infers that an intelligent cause played a role in shaping life's history, it does not say how the intelligent cause affected matter. Nor does it have to do so.

There is a logical reason we cannot without further information determine the mechanism or means by which the intelligent agent responsible for life transmitted its design to matter. We can infer an intelligent cause from certain features of the physical world, because intelligence is known to be a necessary cause, the only known cause, of those features. That allows us to infer intelligence retrospectively as a cause by observing its distinctive effects. Nevertheless, we cannot establish a unique scenario describing how the intelligent agent responsible for life arranged or impressed its ideas on matter, because there are many different possible means by which an idea in the mind of an intelligent agent could be transmitted or instantiated in the physical world.

There is another even more profound reason that intelligent design -- indeed, science itself -- may not be able to offer a completely mechanistic account of the instantiation of thought into matter. Robert Asher worries about how "a biological phenomenon, even if designed," could be "simply willed into existence without an actual mechanism." In Asher's understanding, the uniformitarian principle asks for a precedent, a known cause that not only generates information, but translates immaterial thought into material reality, impressing itself on and shaping the physical world. Asher complains that the argument for intelligent design cannot cite such a precedent and is thus "anti-uniformitarian."

Yet a precedent comes very readily to mind, an intimately familiar one for us all. At present no one has any idea how our thoughts -- the decisions and choices that occur in our conscious minds -- affect our material brains, nerves, and muscles, going on to instantiate our will in the material world of objects. However, we know that is exactly what our thoughts do. We have no mechanistic explanation for the mystery of consciousness, nor what is called the "mind- body problem" -- the enigma of how thought affects the material state of our brains, bodies, and the world that we affect with them. Yet there is no doubt that we can -- as the result of events in our conscious minds called decisions or choices -- "will into existence" information-rich arrangements of matter or otherwise affect material states in the world. Professor Asher did this when he wrote the chapter in his book -- representing his ideas impressed as words onto a material object, a printed page -- attempting to refute intelligent design. I am doing this right now. This example, representative of countless daily experiences in life, surely satisfies the demands of uniformitarianism.

Though neuroscience can give no mechanistic explanation for consciousness or the mind- body problem, we also know that we can recognize the product of thought, the effect of intelligent design, in its distinctive information- rich manifestations. Professor Asher recognized evidence of thought when he read the text in my book; I did so when I read his; you are doing so right now. Thus, even though it remains entirely possible that we may never know how minds affect matter and, therefore, that there may always be a gap in our attempt to account for how a designing mind affected the material out of which living systems were formed, it does not follow that we cannot recognize evidence of the activity of mind in living systems.

References Cited:

[34.] Asher, Evolution and Belief, 32.

[35.] Asher, Evolution and Belief, 32.

[36.] Asher, Evolution and Belief, 32.

[37.] Asher, Evolution and Belief, 32.

[38.] Oddly, also Asher observes that overall "Meyer professes a low regard for naturalism, but high regard for uniformitarianism" (Evolution and Belief, 32). If by naturalism, he means treating the principle of methodological naturalism as normative for all scientific inquiry, his characterization of my position is, in this respect, accurate.

[39.] Asher, Evolution and Belief, 32.