Internet Goosing the Antithesis

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Darwin vs. Design: Stephen Meyer

Stephen Meyer was the second presenter of the day, following Jay Richards. For anyone familiar with his 2004 review article, "The origin of biological information and the higher taxonomic categories," published in the Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington, his talk was a rehash of the same, albeit with some amusing visual aids (snap-lock beads, Scrabble tiles, and the above-shown magnetic letters). Again, Jason Rosenhouse's description and criticism of the talk is applicable here, so I'll try to avoid his points.

Meyer is a likable, charismatic guy who exudes an air of intelligence, without question. It's not hard to see why he's risen to his position within the Discovery Institute (Director of the Center for Science and Culture). Like Richards, Meyer also has his doctoral credentials in philosophy, not science, but in my opinion, he seemed to handle the science of his presentation much better than Richards, although it was obvious to me that both were philosophers outside their element.

As with Richards, Meyer's talk was really a philosophical appeal couched in scientific language, but unlike Richards, Meyer also provided something more than a superficial explanation of science. It's possible that I'm just impressed by the 3-D animated movie that he showed to illustrate the process of mRNA transcription and polypeptide translation, but I have to say that his explanation of the basics of molecular biology was completely accurate. The problem was that his discussion of science moved imperceptibly into a discussion of philosophy, a transition which I doubt most people were able to grasp.

This transition took place whenever Meyer began to talk about information. Following William Dembski's work (Dembski figured as prominently in Meyer's presentation as he did Richards'), Meyer defines it as "specified complexity," which conceptually describes any data which exhibits a pattern distinguished from other patterns by its functional capacity. On it's own, there doesn't seem to be a big problem with this, even though it's fairly ambiguous and difficult (if not impossible) to measure. For example, Meyer used the example of Mount Rushmore as something which is both specified and complex, whereas the pile of rocks at the bottom of the mountain may be complex, but it has not been specified for a purpose. That's all well and good, but let's say that I've come along to visit the monument, and wanted to add my own stirring tribute to our nation's presidents. Let's say that my vision for this tribute happens to look a lot like a random pile of rocks, and that I spend a great deal of time collecting various rocks from the area and arranging them into a grand patriotic pile, the sight of which evokes nothing more than random assembly in the mind of the average passer-by. If that passer-by was Meyer, he's walk right past my arduously-constructed but natural-appearing cairn, and dismiss it as perhaps complex, but not obviously specified for any particular function. To the contrary, however- I have intended a function for that pile, but it is not one that is readily apparent to Meyer, as he is busy looking for something with more obvious human genesis. This failing of the specified complexity model, that it can only "detect" design that strongly parallels human design, makes it scientifically worthless. It's like having an assay which can only detect signal from the positive control.

This is why, I believe, that the analogy is made of DNA to human language. In his 2004 paper, Meyer cites Michael Denton's book, "Evolution: a theory in crisis," to argue that DNA is like a language. This can be a helpful metaphor at times, particularly for those who have a hard time grasping DNA conceptually- I've used it myself in my podcast. But Meyer goes further- just as we understand that the information in a sentence comes from a conscious mind- therefore, the information in DNA had to have come (at least, originally) from a conscious mind. I'll see if I can't simplify his argument here:
  1. If any medium contains specified complex information, then it was designed by a conscious mind.
  2. DNA contains specified complex information.
  3. Therefore, DNA was designed by a conscious mind.
The problem here is, again, the ambiguity of the phrase, "specified complex information." If you recall, what makes something specifically complex is the presence of a functional role to that information. The problem with this definition is that we can conceive of many examples of things that are both complex and have a function, but which are clearly not the product of a conscious mind. For example, let's say that a bolt of lightning strikes a tree, leaving a blasted, hollow stump in its place. This stump fills with water and is soon filled with microorganisms swimming about. The stump is now performing a function (microorganismal habitat), but nobody would argue that it was "designed" to be (unless one made the argument that Zeus or a similar deity threw the original lightning bolt with the well-being of Paramecium or Daphnia in mind).

Therefore, since function can be found with and without conscious intent, there is no reason to assume that the functional outcome of DNA (life as we know it) in any way originated from a conscious mind, even if it is both specified and complex.

Finally, I'd like to mention the end of Meyer's talk- he made several references to the practice of "multiple competing hypotheses." According to Meyer, when trying to make sense of events which occurred in the past, one has to posit several hypotheses and then whittle away at the group until one remains. In his talk, he presents several scientific hypotheses for the origin of life, as well as Intelligent Design. Throughout the second half of this presentation, he attacks each one of the scientific hypotheses he mentioned as insufficient, and then concludes that since Intelligent Design is the only one left standing, it should be accepted.

This would seem to be an obvious appeal to the "God of the Gaps" approach (or the "Designer of the Gaps", as the case may be). Meyer assured us that this was not the case, even though the only "positive evidence" he had submitted in support of Intelligent Design was the argument I summarized above. Unfortunately, an argument is not evidence, and I'm afraid that I'll have to dismiss Meyer's special plead to ignore his God of the Gaps appeal.

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At 4/19/2007 7:07 PM, Blogger John Pieret declaimed...

... Meyer used the example of Mount Rushmore as something which is both specified and complex, whereas the pile of rocks at the bottom of the mountain may be complex, but it has not been specified for a purpose.

Another counterexample to that would be this. The Old Man in the Mountain even served the same "purpose" as Mount Rushmore (drawing tourists). Unfortunately, it is a pile of rocks at the bottom of the mountain now.

The Old Man is a nice demonstration that simply because something can be thought of as similar to something else, like DNA can be thought of as like a language or a code, doesn't mean it had purpose or was intended.

At 4/19/2007 7:14 PM, Blogger Zachary Moore declaimed...

Actually, Meyer brought up the Old Man of the Mountain as an example of something that appeared to have function, but really didn't.

But he missed the point of it- just like the human-designed pile of rocks in my counterexample, how does he know that some older civilization didn't carve the Old Man, albeit not as sophisticatedly as Mount Rushmore was accomplished?

He doesn't, and that's my point- it's worthless to guess about the "design" of any phenomenon that lies outside of human experience. Even if it was true, it couldn't be measured or evaluated today.

At 4/19/2007 9:33 PM, Blogger John Pieret declaimed...

Yes. They are caught in the dilemma of depending on "it looks designed to me," as John West put it:

When we see Mt. Rushmore, for example, we know that an intelligent cause is sufficient to explain its existence, while an unintelligent process of wind and soil erosion probably isn't.

... but not being able to give any sort of objective standard to tell whether of not The Old Man is the result of an unintelligent process of wind and soil erosion.

Not that they have the good grace and honesty to be embarrassed in any way by that.


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