Denying the Signature: A Response to Bishop and O'Connor
Editor's note: Most readers of Evolution News likely know the central thesis of Stephen Meyer's bestseller, Darwin's Doubt: The Explosive Origin of Animal Life and the Case for Intelligent Design. Meyer argues that the functional biological information necessary to build the Cambrian animals is best explained by the activity of a designing intelligence, rather than an undirected, materialistic evolutionary process. Most reviews of Darwin's Doubt curiously omitted to address or even to accurately report this central claim. However, a review by philosophers Robert Bishop and Robert O'Connor in Books & Culture was a welcome exception. In this series, adapted from Debating Darwin's Doubt, edited by ENV's David Klinghoffer, Dr. Meyer responds to their critiques. This is Part 1 of the series.
Writing in Books & Culture, a sister publication of Christianity Today, philosophers Robert Bishop and Robert O'Connor offer a cleverly titled joint review of Darwin's Doubt and Signature in the Cell ("Doubting the Signature"). They seek to refute the central information-based argument for intelligent design of my books. Nevertheless, they do not provide a scientific refutation to the main thesis of either book. In particular, they do not offer a better (or even an alternative) causal explanation for the vast amounts of novel genetic (and epigenetic) information that arises in the Cambrian period -- i.e., the subject of Darwin's Doubt. Nor do they provide an alternative explanation for the origin of the information necessary to produce the first living cell -- the subject of Signature in the Cell. Instead, they lodge various philosophical objections to my argument for design. They either dispute (a) the validity of the argument for intelligent design as an explanation for the origin of biological information, or they dispute (b) my characterization of what needs to be explained.
Disputing the Validity of the Argument for Design
Bishop and O'Connor acknowledge that Darwin's Doubt and Signature in the Cell "deftly dispatch" the "misconception that [ID] engages in crude god-of-the-gaps reasoning" -- a misconception that scholars associated with the BioLogos Foundation such as Bishop and Alistair McGrath have frequently promulgated.
Oddly, though Bishop and O'Connor concede that Darwin's Doubt and Signature in the Cell do not make arguments from ignorance (or commit the "god-of-the-gaps" fallacy), they critique the books as if they did! True, they use slightly different terminology in developing their objection. Instead of saying my case for intelligent design is based on ignorance or gaps in knowledge, they claim the books are guilty of "begging the question" about what we may learn in the future. But the substance of the objection is the same. I argue that intelligent design provides the best explanation for the origin of the biological information necessary to produce the anatomical novelty and complexity that arises in the history of life. They respond that my argument begs the question, because some as-yet-unknown cause -- one of which we are presently ignorant -- may eventually be discovered that will explain the origin of biological information.
Of course, in the books I readily concede this as a possibility. Clearly, we do not know anything about causes that we have yet to discover or observe. Nevertheless, Bishop and O'Connor claim that Darwin's Doubt and Signature in the Cell argue that "we have positive knowledge that no other causes" (emphasis mine) could in principle explain the origin of life's information-rich systems. Yet neither of my books anywhere claims exhaustive knowledge of the causal powers of all possible material processes, including unknown or not-as-yet-postulated causes. The books only claim to demonstrate the inadequacy of known (or postulated) materialistic processes and the adequacy of intelligent agency based upon uniform and repeated human experience to this point. That is why I repeatedly insert the word "known" before "cause" in my arguments. I also claim to infer intelligent design as the best explanation based upon our present knowledge, rather than trying to prove the theory of intelligent design with apodictic certainty.
As I note in the books, critics if they like may choose to characterize this as an argument from ignorance (or "begging the question" about what we may discover in the future, as Bishop and O'Connor do), but all scientific arguments, especially competing evolutionary arguments about the causes of past events in the history of life, have a similar logical structure and are subject to similar limitations. Indeed, it is an unavoidable aspect of the human condition that we can make no claims about the adequacy of causal processes that we have neither observed nor imagined. Scientists can only make inferences based upon our past and current knowledge of the causal powers of various entities and processes. Alas, we have no other kind of scientific knowledge.
Moreover, my arguments do not have the logical structure of a fallacious argument from ignorance. Arguments from ignorance have the form:
Premise One:Cause X cannot produce or explain evidence E.
Conclusion:Therefore, cause Y produced or explains E.
Critics of intelligent design commonly claim that the argument for intelligent design takes this form as well. Michael Shermer, for example, insists that "intelligent design... argues that life is too specifically complex... to have evolved by natural forces. Therefore, life must have been created by... an intelligent designer." In short, critics claim that ID proponents argue as follows:
Premise One:Material causes cannot produce or explain functional (or specified) information.
Conclusion:Therefore, an intelligent cause produced functional (or specified) biological information.
If proponents of intelligent design were arguing in the preceding manner, we would be guilty of arguing from ignorance. But the arguments for intelligent design in Signature in the Cell and Darwin's Doubt do not have this form. Instead, they assume the following form:
Premise One:Despite a thorough search, no material causes have been discovered with the demonstrated capacity to produce the functional (or specified) information present in living systems.
Premise Two:Intelligent causes have demonstrated the power to produce large amounts of functional (or specified) information.
Conclusion:Intelligent design constitutes the best, most causally adequate, explanation for the functional (or specified) information in the cell.
As one can see, in addition to a premise about how material causes lack demonstrated causal adequacy, my arguments for intelligent design as a best explanation also affirm (and demonstrate) the causal adequacy of an alternative cause, namely, intelligent agency. As I explained in Signature in the Cell:
We also know from broad and repeated experience that intelligent agents can and do produce information-rich systems: we have positive experience-based knowledge of a cause that is sufficient to generate new specified information, namely, intelligence. We are not ignorant of how information arises. We know from experience that conscious intelligent agents can create informational sequences and systems. To quote [Henry] Quastler again, "The creation of new information is habitually associated with conscious activity." Experience teaches that whenever large amounts of specified complexity or [functional] information are present in an artifact or entity whose causal story is known, invariably creative intelligence -- intelligent design -- played a role in the origin of that entity. Thus, when we encounter such information in the large biological molecules needed for life, we may infer -- based on our knowledge of established cause-and-effect relationships -- that an intelligent cause operated in the past to produce the specified information necessary to the origin of life.1
Thus, my argument does not just demonstrate the inability of one type of cause to produce biological information and then fallaciously infer, on that basis alone, that another cause did so. In other words, my arguments do not fail to provide a premise offering positive evidence or reasons for preferring an alternative cause or proposition as critics say. Instead, my arguments specifically include and justify such a premise.
Bishop and O'Connor claim otherwise, stating that "Meyer offers very little substantive support for mind having unique causal properties." In fact, both of my books cite numerous examples from (a) ordinary experience, (b) computer "simulations" of evolutionary processes, and (c) origin-of-life simulation experiments showing that conscious and rational agents have the causal power to generate functional or specified information.
My argument for intelligent design not only includes a premise affirming the positive causal powers of an alternative cause (i.e., intelligent agency); it also justifies that premise with multiple examples of those causal powers at work. Therefore, it does not commit the informal logical fallacy of arguing from ignorance. Neither does it beg the question about what we may discover about causal processes in the future; instead, it makes no claims about such as yet unknown processes. It claims only that intelligent design provides the best explanation based upon what we know now.
It's worth noting that none of the reviews of Darwin's Doubt or Signature in the Cell have refuted (and few have even challenged) either of the two key empirical premises in my arguments for intelligent design as a best explanation -- as, indeed, Bishop and O'Connor themselves have not done. For obvious reasons, critics have not disputed my claim that intelligent agents have demonstrated the power to produce functional information and information-rich processing systems. (Bishop and O'Connor merely claim -- mistakenly -- that I did not justify that assertion.) Nor, perhaps surprisingly, have critics attempted to demonstrate that standard evolutionary mechanisms can account for the origin of biological information and information processing systems. Indeed, biologist Darrel Falk, one of O'Connor and Bishop's fellow theistic evolutionists (and with Bishop a BioLogos website contributor) has graciously conceded that Darwin's Doubt correctly claims that the neo-Darwinian mutation/selection mechanism has failed to account for the origin of major macro-evolutionary events such as the Cambrian explosion of animal life. Falk further concedes that none of the other more recently proposed models of evolutionary theory has yet succeeded in this endeavor.
Secular scientific critics of the argument in my book, for their part, have typically either (a) begged the question about the origin of genetic information by assuming the existence of other unexplained sources of information in order to account for specific informational increases in the history of life;2 or (b) simply ignored the central question posed by the books and quibbled about secondary scientific issues or philosophical matters.3
Though they do attempt a philosophical refutation of the main information-based argument of the books (as we have seen), Bishop and O'Connor conspicuously avoid offering, or even citing, an alternative scientific explanation for the origin of biological information during the history of life. Instead, in addition to their philosophical critique, they mainly attempt to deny my characterization of what needs to be explained. I will turn to this latter line of attack in the next installment.
(1) Stephen C. Meyer, Signature in the Cell: DNA and the Evidence for Intelligent Design (New York: HarperOne, 2009), 376-377.
(2) See Charles Marshall, "When Prior Belief Trumps Scholarship," Science 341, no. 6152 (September 20, 2013):1344.