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Among Theistic Evolutionists, Still No Consensus on What's Wrong with Stephen Meyer's Argument

robert_bishop_bio_new.jpgIn reviewing Darwin's Doubt, even now almost a year and a half since it came out, theistic evolutionists can't seem to agree on what Stephen Meyer got wrong. As David Klinghoffer has written, when Darrel Falk reviewed Darwin's Doubt for BioLogos back in September, he agreed that Stephen Meyer is right to point out that leading evolutionary theorists are rethinking important neo-Darwinian claims. Most fundamentally, they are reconsidering whether the standard model can account for large-scale macro-evolutionary change. In noting this, Falk (a biologist) explicitly disagreed with a critical review of Meyer's book posted at BioLogos by Wheaton College philosopher Robert Bishop (pictured at right), who claimed that the neo-Darwinian paradigm was doing just fine.

BioLogos subsequently posted the text of a speech by Alister McGrath, framed in the headline so as to suggest that Meyer was guilty of making a "God of the gaps" argument. I responded here. Now Bishop has co-authored another critical review of Darwin's Doubt and Signature in the Cell in Christianity Today's review journal Books & Culture.

Bishop's latest review is noteworthy for its concession that Meyer does not in fact make a "God of the gaps" argument. He also acknowledges that Meyer's is not an "argument from ignorance." Along with Wheaton College philosopher Robert O'Connor, Bishop writes that "Meyer deftly dispatches...the misconception that [intelligent design] engages in crude god-of-the-gaps reasoning or presents a simplistic argument from ignorance."

That basically defeats the previous attempt over at BioLogos to portray Darwin's Doubt as a gaps-based argument. Bishop and O'Connor also deserve credit for avoiding some common traps among critics of Meyer's work. Beyond that, unfortunately, their review is marred by serious errors.

They accuse Meyer of "begging the very question at hand," that is, whether there might be other unknown material causes that could produce complex and specified information (CSI) in life. They write:

[T]his phrase, "only one known cause," is crucially ambiguous. It might mean that, among all the possible causes, there is only one that we have good reason to believe is capable of producing specified complexity. This point, however, poses (could there be others?) rather than answers the question.
By appealing to unknown causes to block the design inference, they effectively commit a materialism-of-the-gaps fallacy. That is, they assume that material causes will be discovered to explain all things and thus we can never infer design.

But why are Bishop and O'Connor so concerned about unknown causes in the first place? It seems to be because they misread Meyer as saying that "we have positive knowledge that no other causes are adequate." In other words, they think Meyer is affirming that no other possible causes, known or unknown, can explain life's high CSI. But that's not at all what Meyer says. In fact, in arguing his case, Meyer nearly always inserts the word "known" before "cause." For one of many examples:

But philosophers of science have insisted that assessments of explanatory power lead to conclusive inferences only when there is just one known cause for the effect or evidence in question.

(Darwin's Doubt, p. 349, emphasis in original)

Here's another:
Only if the Cambrian event and animals exhibit features for which intelligent design is the only known cause may a historical scientist make a decisive inference to a past intelligent cause.

(Darwin's Doubt, p. 352, emphasis in original)

Indeed, Bishop and O'Connor's review includes multiple citations from Meyer where he inserts "known" before "cause," yet they misrepresent Meyer's argument as saying the opposite. Meyer doesn't claim to have exhaustive knowledge of all possible causes, even those presently unknown. He only claims to refute known material causes.

Moving along, Bishop and O'Connor claim that Meyer offers "very little substantive support for mind having unique causal properties" other than the fact that mind is "immaterial." Again, you could cite many passages from Meyer's writings that clearly show their characterization is wrong. This time, let's take an example from Signature in the Cell:

[O]ur uniform experience affirms that specified information -- whether inscribed in hieroglyphics, written in a book, encoded in a radio signal, or produced in a simulation experiment -- always arises from an intelligent source, from a mind and not a strictly material process. So the discovery of the specified digital information in the DNA molecule provides strong grounds for inferring that intelligence played a role in the origin of DNA. Indeed, whenever we find specified information and we know the causal story of how that information arose, we always find that it arose from an intelligent source. It follows that the best, most causally adequate explanation for the origin of the specified, digitally encoded information in DNA is that it too had an intelligent source. Intelligent design best explains the DNA enigma.

(Signature in the Cell, p. 347)

Clearly Meyer provides strong positive reasons to understand why intelligence, a goal-directed cause, can produce the kind of language-based information we see in life. This argument is not grounded solely in the fact that intelligence is "immaterial," but primarily in the fact that intelligent agents are able to think with an end-goal in mind and quickly find unlikely solutions to complex problems.

DebatingDDsmall.jpegBut we haven't yet addressed what I believe to be the most off-base critique from Bishop and O'Connor. They object to Meyer's arguing that life has properties "like computers," further saying "talk of 'genetic codes' and 'information processing' with respect to the origin of life or the nucleus can be very limiting if not misleading." This is a surprising criticism. Many leading scientists have recognized the computer-like, information-rich properties of DNA's language-based code. Bill Gates observes, "Human DNA is like a computer program but far, far more advanced than any software we've ever created"1. Craig Venter says that "life is a DNA software system"2 and is "the software of life,"3 " containing "digital information" or "digital code," and the cell is a "biological machine" full of "protein robots."4

Richard Dawkins has written that "[t]he machine code of the genes is uncannily computer-like."5 Even Francis Collins -- perhaps the most famous and influential theistic evolutionist of them all -- notes, "DNA is something like the hard drive on your computer," containing "programming."6

Many scientists similarly acknowledge that DNA uses an information-rich "code" -- a digital one in fact. As a Nature paper titled "The digital code of DNA" explained: "DNA can accommodate almost any sequence of base pairs -- any combination of the bases adenine (A), cytosine (C), guanine (G) and thymine (T) -- and hence any digital message or information."7 MIT engineer Seth Lloyd elaborates on how DNA carries digital information:

DNA is very digital. There are four possible base pairs per site, two bits per site, three and a half billion sites, seven billion bits of information in the human DNA. There's a very recognizable digital code of the kind that electrical engineers rediscovered in the 1950s that maps the codes for sequences of DNA onto expressions of proteins.8
Here we have leading scientists in agreement that DNA uses a code that undergoes computer-like information processing. Indeed, just about every single molecular biologist on earth would accede that genetic codes and computer-like information processing are at the heart of life. Yet when Stephen Meyer observes that life involves "genetic codes" and "information processing," he's accused of being "misleading." The double standards that ID proponents face -- even from theistic evolutionists writing in the pages of Christian journals -- are one of the most unfortunate peculiarities of the evolution debate.

Bishop and O'Connor seem to miss another point: Meyer never simply equates life with computers, although the computer-like properties of life indeed require an intelligent cause. Incidentally, where life's properties aren't exactly like computers, they are typically more complex than human technology, making the need for design even more apparent.

Finally, Bishop and O'Connor provide a helpful clarification, arguing that "mechanisms such as mutation and natural selection are not, in fact, 'wholly blind and undirected.'" They're entitled to believe that God guided the processes that created life in such a way that they appear unguided. I wonder, though, if these reviewers can provide an explanation for how God might guide an unguided process. Certainly, they should not object if few find their position compelling: The notion that mutation and selection really aren't blind and undirected is a faith-statement for which they can provide no supporting evidence.

In fact, they admit this, stating: "On the evolutionary creationist account, the work is signed using invisible ink." This is an important clarification. These two theistic evolutionists believe we cannot empirically detect God's handiwork, an idea at variance with the Apostle Paul's statement that God is "clearly seen" in nature (Romans 1:20). Thus, while their review opens with the statement that "All Christians affirm design because the entire universe is the creative work of God," they have no way to back that up.

Crucially, Bishop and O'Connor's review never addresses the central question in Darwin's Doubt or Signature in the Cell: What material causes can produce life's information-rich systems? They provide no answer, but the theory of intelligent design does. And ID's answer gives people what "evolutionary creationism" cannot: scientifically sound reasons to believe that life is the result of intelligent design.

References Cited:

[1.] Bill Gates, Nathan Myhrvold, and Peter Rinearson, The Road Ahead: Completely Revised and Up-To-Date (New York: Penguin Books, 1996), 228.
[2.] J. Craig Venter, "The Big Idea: Craig Venter On the Future of Life," The Daily Beast (October 25, 2013).
[3.] J. Craig Venter, Life at the Speed of Light: From the Double Helix to the Dawn of Digital Life (Viking, 2013), 7.
[4.] See Casey Luskin, "Craig Venter in Seattle: 'Life Is a DNA Software System'" (October 24, 2013).
[5.] Richard Dawkins, River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life (New York: Basic Books, 1995), 17.
[6.] Francis Collins, The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief (New York: Free Press, 2006), 91.
[7.] Leroy Hood and David Galas, "The digital code of DNA," Nature, 421:23 (January 23, 2003).
[8.] Lloyd, Seth. "Life: What A Concept!" Edge (August 27, 2007).

Image credit: Robert Bishop/BioLogos.