Debating Darwin’s Doubt – he’s still doubting

new blog post by the Intelligent Design author Stephen C. Meyer, where he defends his book Debating Darwin’s Doubt against the accusation that it’s a sophisticated form of the God of the gaps approach.

Meyer’s argument is that the so-called “Cambrian explosion” of new life forms in the geological record – which gave us everyone’s favourite marine fossil, the trilobite, as well as the bizzare Burgess Shale – cannot be explained solely in terms of naturalistic science, but requires crucial input from a designing intelligence. This is what Meyer says in the post:

“I attempt merely to show that key features of the Cambrian animals (and the pattern of their appearance in the fossil record) are best explained by a designing intelligence — a conscious rational agency or a mind — of some kind. Thus, my argument does not qualify as a God-of-the-gaps argument for the simple reason that the argument does not attempt to establish the existence of God.”

Meyer goes on to explain in the post that his argument for an intelligent designer isn’t based on gaps in our scientific knowledge – which would make it a kind of negative argument – but rather, he claims that he’s arguing in a positive direction, pointing out that the evidence for the Cambrian explosion in the fossil record is consistent with what we know of the way that guiding/designing intelligences work. It’s all rather like the Rosetta Stone, he thinks: no rational person (and presumably no scientist either) thinks that was produced by the materialistic forces of wind and erosion, but by an intelligence who inscribed it with information.

Meyer’s right in a nit-picking sense: to suggest a whole new kind of explanation where there’s currently scientific uncertainty is to argue in a positive direction. But if the explanation works by redefining science so that it includes the supernatural, then that’s surely a negative explanation, since it works by suggesting that mainstream science (committed to materialism/naturalism) is inadequate. For this is what Meyer (and ID-ers more generally) seem to do: to argue that they’re doing science, not theology. The trouble is that it’s a science that mainstream scientists don’t recognise, because it has to jettison the materialist/naturalist philosophy which Darwin and others did so much to establish, and which has served mainstream science so well since. From the mainstream point of view, this leaves Meyer’s arguments floating in a kind of intellectual never never land – they’re not modern science, and they’re not theology in any sophisticated sense of the term either, more God of the gaps by the backdoor.

There are theologically-cogent ways of arguing that the materialistic philosophy of science is not the final answer to all there is, but for my money this is not one of them.

16 thoughts on “Debating Darwin’s Doubt – he’s still doubting

  1. Pingback: Debating Darwin's Doubt - he's still doubting | Science and Religion @ Edinburgh

  2. My understanding of the book is the premise that the most rational explanation for the emergence of specific complexity in terms of new biological function and digital information (which is the building block of any form of life in its most basic form ) is that the source of the information is from an intelligent cause . Put to one side the wider implications if this is true. What should be discussed is whether or not there is any evidence that can scientifically demonstrate that information and complex specific and progressive coding such as DNA can arise purely by materialistic means. If the present science cannot demonstrate this then we have to look at what other causes that we can demonstrate produces this level of information. It seems perfectly reasonable to me that an argument of intelligent design based upon the scientific evidence we see is at least a reasonable argument . We know both intuitively and in practice that information in every conceivable variation whether that be literature computer coding programming is always caused to the agency of intelligence . Materialists to counter this argument ,would have to demonstrate cogent examples where this is not so ,and at this point no examples are been provided.

    • Thanks, but I would have to disagree with nearly everything you say here, especially your penultimate sentence: “We know both intuitively and in practice that information in every conceivable variation whether that be literature computer coding programming is always caused to the agency of intelligence”. I do not accept this claim, but in any case it is to make an argument by analogy.

      • So long as you think of it as an argument by analogy, you have not yet correctly understood the argument.

        When I read your article, the functional information doesn’t tell me whether the source is natural or supernatural. It does tell me that the source of the information is an intelligent agent. That is an inference to intelligent design (or equivalently one could say to intelligent agency).

        Notice that I did not say that it is “analogous” to an ID inference or that it is “like” such an inference. It *is* such an inference. That inference is a member of the set of all such ID inferences. Intelligent agency is the best explanation for complex functional information, wherever and whenever it is found.

        The reason that one can infer intelligent agency is because the act of creating complex functional information depends upon choice that is able to pursue an intention or goal or future target. The information sequence is neither random nor required. It is chosen according to conventions. There is no observed or clearly described undirected mechanism of chance plus necessity that produces that effect. On its own, mindless chance plus laws doesn’t produce complex functional information.

        (This is highlighted by the way critics fail to engage directly with Meyer’s central argument. No one is proposing an adequate undirected source for the information needed.)

        Nothing about this line of reasoning from observed effect to sufficient cause assumes or requires that the intelligence is supernatural. The relevant distinction to this reasoning is not natural vs. supernatural, but rather natural vs. artificial.

        • Thanks, but which bit are you saying isn’t an argument from analogy? It’s certainly working by analogy to claim that ‘complex functional information’ can only be created by intelligent agency, and that there’s no alternative explanation. On the contrary, the evolutionary paradigm claims that information in the form of DNA arose through natural mechanisms, not intelligent or purposive agency. The combination of ‘chance plus necessity’ can produce many startling cases of order from disorder in science, and I see no reason to be pessimistic that we might not one day have a reasonable working model of the Cambrian explosion that works by such means, without calling upon purpose and a guiding intelligence.

  3. So, it is either a “God of the gaps” hypothesis that scientists reject,, OR “science of the gaps” assumption.
    I do believe that science has limitations, it is always changing and evolving. What makes it hard for scientists is trying to answer questions where science has no tools to deals with..
    A sand castle on a beach tells us that there is an intelligent designer behind it,, but HOW? because of the complexity lies within it.
    Can i know WHO is the designer? Well,, i can assume some of his characters from the design itself, but i will NEVER be able to know its full identity UNLESS he chooses to tell us..
    OR, scientists have to prove “scientifically” that we could get a beautiful sand castle without an intelligent designer.

    • Yes, it’s in the nature of science that it will always have gaps. It’s also in the nature of science that many of its gaps close while others open up. This is how the basic criticism of the ‘God of the gaps’ approach arises: sooner or later the gap where the intelligent designer is said to work closes up (i.e. we discover a naturalistic explanation for the ‘sandcastles’), and then there’s no longer room for intelligent design there. This is why so many have thought it better to build a theology of science which makes explicit use of the God of revelation who works in and with known scientific processes over an ‘intelligent designer’ who works in areas of scientific ignorance.

      • If you claim that every time we infer intelligent design that this is “god of the gaps” then you are committing a materialism of the gaps fallacy where you presume that every explanation will ultimately lie in material causation.

        Also, Meyer doesn’t appeal to the supernatural, so you’re misstating his argument. Rather, based upon his observations of intelligent agents and the type of information they produce, he appeals to intelligent causation.

        Meyer makes no secret of the fact that he’s a Christian and he believes the designer is God. But Meyer isn’t saying we can scientifically conclude God is at work. He’s just saying that we can scientifically conclude that an intelligent agent was at work. And he does this using our experience of the natural world–meaning he’s not trying to change how science fundamentally works.

        So you might be rejecting Meyer’s argument but you’re rejecting a straw-man version of it.

        • I wouldn’t call materialism a fallacy (although I’d prefer to call it ‘naturalism’). It’s the basis of the natural sciences, and it’s served very well so far to assume (hope?) that even where there is no adequate naturalistic explanation for something then it might emerge one day.

          I agree that Meyer doesn’t say that his designer is God. He is very explicit about this in the post I referred to. However, this seems to me to be clutching at straws, since the designer (whoever or whatever that thing is) is way beyond what science can begin to conceive of, and is by definition a ‘supernatural’ agent.

          • Just for the sake of clarity…

            1) It is not true that the designer of biological life is “by definition a ‘supernatural’ agent.” Sir Fred Hoyle held a design inference and also that the designer was an intelligence within the universe.

            2) While some ID proponents (including Meyer) believe that the designer is in fact God, they are also clear that the science alone cannot distinguish between a supernatural or natural designer for life. They draw their personal conclusion by including other additional considerations beyond science, such as from history and philosophy.

          • Thanks for continuing to press the point. I’m afraid that I find such arguments implausible, even if they come with Fred Hoyle’s name attached to them. Indeed, it seems to me that we are definitely in Erich von Daeniken territory now. To posit a “natural” but supreme intelligence of this kind is to invoke a being that is way beyond our current scientific understanding, and is therefore still “by definition supernatural”, although “science fiction” might be more appropriate here.

  4. Moreover, Meyer’s argument is not mere analogy. He’s saying that in our experience, only intelligent agents generate high levels and complex and specified information. But he’s also saying that we find in biological systems high levels of complex and specified information.

    This is not an analogy. This is an identity.

    You say that “for all your money” ID is wrong. I would encourage you not make to that bet until you can at least accurately describe Meyer’s argument.

    • I have just gone back to look at Meyer’s piece, because I couldn’t think how I could have mis-read him as badly as you say. As I thought, it is shot through with analogy. Your ‘identity’ works off the assumption that ‘only intelligent agents generate high levels and complex and specified information’. I would dispute that, and would continue to press the point that the only reason you or Meyer feel able to claim it is because of an argument from analogy.

      • To Mark Harris . I hear you Mark but you have only made a statement of faith . Rather than just a blank statement of faith disputing the Meyers argument that intelligent agency is the only reasonable cause for complex specified functional information , it would be really useful if you knew of and could provide just one example of how information of the type Meyer has contended can come about by naturalistic causes only

        Surely this would blow away Mr Meyer’s hypothesis ? As things stand today no one has provided a clear cogent argument for Howell this level of information could have involved. Natural selection as I understand it does not work before the information contained within cells exists .

        • If I’m articulating a position of faith here (and I would dispute that), it’s faith in the naturalistic worldview of modern science. Mainstream scientists would contend that ‘information’ can be explained in naturalistic ways, without needing to cal upon a designer. By and large they have made a great deal of progress about the origins of life through maintaining that assumption, although the pre-Cambrian fossil record is such that this will always be a very difficult area. There has been a great deal of work on the origins of DNA, for instance, suggesting an evolutionary mechanism for the transition from RNA to DNA.

          Hence, I would disagree that ‘no one has provided a clear cogent argument’. I think that, if you look into the science that’s actually being done at the moment, then you will find many clear and cogent arguments.

Comments are closed.