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Denying the Signature: Was My Argument Subjective?

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Editor's note: 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 3 of the series. Look here for Parts 1 and 2.

Meyer series.jpgIn the last installment in this series, I addressed two objections that Robert Bishop and Robert O'Connor made to my description of living organisms as systems in which functional information is present. Bishop and O'Connor have a further objection to that description, which will take more space to address. They contend that my characterization betrays an "objectionable" subjective element. In order to illuminate this problem as they see it, Bishop and O'Connor first attempt to distinguish between the objective and subjective aspects of my argument. They acknowledge first that some objective facts are clear:

Biologists agree: The structure of DNA, however contingent, serves well to produce a functional outcome. There is nothing subjective in this. In spite of the complexity inherent in the coding regions of DNA, the specific arrangement "hits a functional target." That is, from among the vast array of possibilities, a DNA sequence that renders possible or enhances the life of an organism betokens the intentional activity of intelligent agency.

Somewhat surprisingly, Bishop and O'Connor sound there as if they accept the heart of my argument. They concede that complex sequences in the coding regions of DNA hit a "functional target" -- that is, those sequences code for functional proteins (among a vast array of possible non-functional peptide sequences) and, thus, aid in the survival of living organisms. They even sound as if they are conceding that the presence of complex sequences containing functional information would reliably indicate intelligent design.

So what is the problem? They claim there is no objective, scientific basis for privileging, or focusing on, "life" in my analysis and that absent the assumption that life represents "a distinguished outcome," I have no objective criteria for deciding whether DNA or other bio-macromolecules represent functional outcomes, and thus, presumably that they contain functional information.

As they put it, "inherent in the notion of a functional outcome is the presumption that life constitutes a distinguished outcome." To them, interest in life as a significant outcome reflects an objectionable and subjective value judgment. "Since life has value -- to us -- we naturally insist that any means conducive to life has distinctive value. But that's an interpretation we supply." (emphasis in the original). By contrast, they argue, "An objective observer will realize that, if life is the goal, then that arrangement [of bases in a coding sequence of DNA], however improbable, functions magnificently. If some other outcome were the goal, however -- say the more modest goal of replication -- then that outcome would have no particular value."

Bishop and O'Connor repeatedly claim that my argument depends upon a subjective value judgment about the importance of life. But their claim is not quite accurate. My argument does not depend upon a judgment, whether subjective or objective, about the value of life. Instead, it simply treats life as a phenomenon in need of explanation. It presupposes, as all biologists do, based upon a whole host of observations and comparisons, that life and non-life are different modes of existence and that the nature and origin of living things, therefore, requires explication and explanation.

Bishop and O'Connor are right, of course, if what they really mean is that all such observationally based judgments in science are made by human subjects -- by the scientists whose subjective interests guide scientific investigations. Scientists are, after all, human beings who make judgments about which of the things they observe in the natural world seem important or unexpected or unusual or interesting and, consequently, are worth studying. In that sense, judgments about which observations and phenomena warrant special interest, or require explanation, are indeed subjective.

"A Serious, Incurable Case of the Humans"

But all scientific endeavors are motivated by subjective human interest and are guided by the perceptions humans have, and the judgments and observations they make, about natural phenomena. All scientific investigations depend upon what human investigators think interesting, and thus, upon that kind of subjectivity. But this is inescapable in the practice of science for the simple reason that it is humans interested in the natural world who do science (and, indeed, humans showing interest in the living world who do biological science). As philosopher of science Del Ratzsch has quipped, "Science has a serious, incurable case of the humans."1 And one thing human scientific investigators do is try to explain phenomena that, for one reason or another, seem unusual, special, curious, or unexpected to them. For almost all biologists life is one such phenomenon, "a distinguished outcome" as Bishop and O'Connor put it.

It is also true, of course, that biologists determine whether a DNA sequence performs a function by assessing whether that string will code for a protein (or an RNA) that will in turn help an organism stay alive. So the criterion "helps sustain life" does ultimately underlie judgments about the functionality of information-rich sequences in DNA, RNA, and proteins.

But, so what? To deny the relevance of this criterion is to treat life as something insignificant and not in need of explanation; and no scientist, especially one interested in the origin of life, does that. In any case, neither my argument, nor the validity of science itself, depends upon insisting that our collective human interest in life is entirely objective if by "objective" we mean somehow independent of our own interest, judgment, observations, or perceptions.

The choice about whether or not to regard life as significant and in need of explanation may well reflect a subjective (i.e., human) interest in living things, and a similar recognition or perception that living things are different than inanimate rocks or chemical compounds. But that perception only renders the concept of functional information meaningless if the distinction between life and non-life is also meaningless and, again, no scientist interested in the origin of life (on any side of the debate about it) holds that view.

Bishop and O'Connor may as well object to the whole field of origin-of-life research, or the entirety of the discipline of evolutionary biology, or all of biology itself, as well as to my arguments for intelligent design, since all practitioners of those fields make the same objectionable assumptions about life as "a distinguished outcome."

Regardless, determining whether cells contain functional or specified information does not require anyone to make a judgment about the value of life, but instead only a factual judgment about whether sequences of chemicals (functioning as digital characters) build protein or RNA molecules that aid in the survival of living cells. Indeed, once one has decided to regard life as a phenomenon of interest (as all evolutionary biologists do), it is objectively true that only certain arrangements of nucleotide bases, and not others, will produce proteins that perform tasks that allow cells to stay alive -- a fact that Bishop and O'Connor themselves concede.

Instead of rendering the concept of functional information meaningless, Bishop and O'Connor's observation (in essence) that humans make scientific judgments about what needs explanation only makes clear that the notion of functional information depends upon a wider context of inquiry and interest that human scientists necessarily help to define. Bishop and O'Connor themselves recognize this but regard it as problematic for my argument, asserting that the assumption that life requires special explanation begs the question in favor of the design hypothesis from the start. As they put it: "[C]an one assign a function, an intended role, to a natural phenomenon without first supposing that the broader context has a specific function? To speak of the function of particular phenomena is already to have provided an answer to this global question in favor of design."

A Case of Bias?

But is this really true? Does describing a biological system -- a polymerase or DNA molecule, a beak or a wing, a fin or a gill -- by reference to its function bias the discussion of biological origins in favor of intelligent design? Does presupposing a distinction between a functioning organism, on the one hand, and its non-functioning remains or an inanimate object, on the other, do the same? I doubt many evolutionary biologists, all of whom accept these same distinctions and functional descriptions that I do, would accept that judgment.

To describe the functional information in a living system, and to treat it as something in need of explanation, is not to say anything about how that system originated one way or another. There is no a priori or logically necessary reason that an explanation either involving, or precluding, agency must be true simply because the description of the thing to be explained includes functional language (or simply because it presupposes that life is a "distinguished outcome").

Since 1859, Darwinism and neo-Darwinism have attempted precisely to show that the appearance of design (apparent teleology) could be explained as the result of an undirected process that merely mimics the powers of a designing intelligence. Thus, it does not follow that even if some of the functional features of living organisms appear designed that they necessarily are designed -- as our Darwinian colleagues have long insisted.

Instead, it is at least logically possiblethat a materialistic evolutionary explanation, or some purely natural process, can account for the functional features of living organisms, including their functional digital information, without recourse to a designing intelligence. If not, what has evolutionary theory been about since 1859? Most evolutionary theorists are committed to the idea that some materialistic process with sufficient creative power to generate the complex functional features of livings systems does exist or will eventually be found.

Clearly, describing the cell as a system rich in functional information, or assuming that life as a phenomenon warrants explanation and scientific interest, does not logically entail the conclusion of design. Instead, the conclusion of design arises from a thorough search for, and evaluation of, the causal powers of competing possible causes and processes and the a posteriori discovery based upon such an examination (which my books undertake) that only one such cause, namely, intelligent agency, has the demonstrated power to produce the key effect in question: functional digital information.

Since every evolutionary biologist believes that life represents a "distinguished outcome" in need of explanation, and that living organisms have functional features produced in part as the result of genetic information, it hardly seems question begging to make the same assumption in the process of arguing for a particular theory (intelligent design) as the best explanation of those features. All theoretical contenders must do the same. Moreover, since all known forms of life require genetic (and epigenetic) information as a condition of their existence, origin, and maintenance, leading evolutionary theorists have increasingly defined the problem facing evolutionary theory, just as I do, in functional and informational terms. As Bernd-Olaf K�ppers, the distinguished origin-of-life theorist, has explained, "The problem of the origin of life is clearly basically equivalent to the problem of explaining the origin of biological information."

In a subsequent installment, I will turn to the "evolutionary creationist" approach that Bishop and O'Connor advocate in their review.

References:

(1) Del Ratzsch, Nature, Design, and Science: The Status of Design in Natural Science (State University of New York Press, 2001), 90.

(2) Bernd-Olaf K�ppers, Information and the Origin of Life (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1990), 170-172.