by Brad Nelson 10/13/14
It’s taken a while for me to wrap my mind around the idea of intelligent design. Some of this has had to do with many of the things (prejudices/assumptions) that Meyer cites in Signature in the Cell, such as the attitude that intelligent design is not science, it’s just a way to sneak religion in the back door. This weekend I did a little more reading of a few sections I had skipped over before (it’s a long book) such as his excellent epilogues. And I re-read a few other sections as well.
It’s easier for me to believe in a sort of “out there” god who remains but a theoretical construct. But wouldn’t that be typical? If the people who claim to believe in God actually believed in God, would they act as they do, vote as they do, believe as they do? So I’m hardly unique in this regard.
What I’m foolish enough to do here at StubbornThings is tell you what is on my mind. This is unusual for the human animal because typically we are motivated by anything but just stating what’s on our mind. We typically use words and ideas to hide behind, for misdirection, to verify and ratify our identity, and simply to puff up our egos and sense of worth.
Well, imagine for a moment that our bodies were not only built by the micro-machines of an intelligent designer but those nanobot-like things are busy doing their metabolism thing inside us right now, and by the trillions. This is a difficult fact to get one’s mind around. A Creator who is “out there” is easy to ignore. But what if, as Meyer’s book title asserts, there is indeed a “signature in the cell”? What if, as it seems likely now, that no amount of chemical evolution or chance can ever account for this type of complexity?
The culture we now live in is a materialist culture which has ready-made (that is, “stock” or “canned”) answers for how things supposedly are. These ideas (fully expanded into a system of myths, in my opinion) permeate the culture and rarely are they given a second thought. They are (as is normal for cultural ideas) just absorbed — believed without much thought at all. And to some extent, that is fine, for no generation could function without the information-forwarding and archival aspects of culture. If would not be workable if we had to completely reconstruct the world from scratch starting with each generation.
The downside, however, is receiving “received wisdom” that isn’t always so wise or so true. And I believe our materialist culture is full of received myths, and often to our detriment.
In Signature in the Cell, Meyer deals nicely with the many superficial, disingenuous, or just plain “out there in the culture” arguments against the idea of a designer, particularly the objections such as “Then who designed the designer?”
As Meyer notes about that argument in particular, nowhere else regarding the subjects taken up by science (including Darwinism) is one expected to supply an answer for this infinite regression. Let me admittedly stretch fair use and present one of Meyer’s arguments, in full, to show how thoughtful this man is and how, via his refutations, many of the various “canned” or parroted objections of materialists tend to fall by the wayside if one approaches the topic with an open, but still suitably skeptical, mind:
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Once when I was explaining the theory of intelligent design on a radio talk show, a caller challenged me with another, now common, objection to the design inference—one that the caller clearly considered a knockdown rebuttal: “If an intelligence designed the information in DNA,” he demanded, “then who designed the designer?” I asked for clarification. “Are you arguing that it is illegitimate to infer that an intelligence played a role in the origin of an event unless we can also give a complete explanation of the nature and origin of that intelligence?” Yes, he said, that was exactly what he meant. I then answered as best I could in the available time, but I remember thinking later how facile I thought the objection was. It reminded me of the three-year-old child in the neighborhood where I grew up who used to follow older children around asking them “why” questions. “Why are you going swimming?” “Because it’s hot.” “Why is it hot?” “Because the sun’s out.” “Why is the sun out?” “Because there are no clouds today.” “Why are there…” No matter how you answered, he would ask “why” again, as if in so doing he had somehow invalidated the answer you had just given.
But does the ability to ask about the cause of a cause of an event invalidate a causal explanation? That had always seemed such an obviously flawed idea that I never bothered to refute it in print. Imagine my surprise, then, to learn that Professor Richard Dawkins, holder of the Charles Simony Professorship in the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University, had advanced precisely that argument as the centerpiece of his case against intelligent design in his bestselling book The God Delusion. 26
There Dawkins argues that the design hypothesis fails to explain anything, because it evokes an infinite regress of questions. If complexity points to the work of a designing intelligence, then who designed the designer? According to Dawkins, the designer would need to be as complex (and presumably as information-rich) as the thing designed. But then he argues, by the logic of the ID advocates, the designer must also be designed. But that would settle nothing, because we then would have to explain the origin of a designing intelligence by reference to a previous designing intelligence, ad infinitum, always leaving unexplained something as mysterious as we started with. Thus, “the design hypothesis” fails, says Dawkins, because it “immediately raises the larger problem of who designed the designer. The whole problem we started out with was the problem of explaining statistical improbability. It is obviously no solution to postulate something even more improbable.”27
When I read Dawkins’s version of this argument, I could see why it sounded plausible to some people. As I thought about it more, I became intrigued by the fascinating philosophical issues it raised. I realized that Dawkins had posed a serious philosophical objection to intelligent design, even though his objection failed for several obvious and fundamental reasons.
Dawkins’s objection fails, first, because it does not negate a causal explanation of one event to point out that the cause of that event may also invite a causal explanation. To explain a particular event, historical scientists often cite or infer past events as causes (see Chapter 7). But the events that explain other events presumably also had causes, each of which also invites a causal explanation.28 Is the original explanation thereby vitiated? Of course not. Pointing out that the past event cited in a causal explanation also has a prior cause—typically, another event—does not render the explanation void, nor does it negate the information it provides about past conditions or circumstances. It merely raises another separate question. Clearly, the young inquisitor in our neighborhood could decide to ask why it was hot after I told him I was going swimming on account of the heat. But his decision to do so did not negate the information he received about my reasons for going swimming or my prior state of mind. A proximate explanation of one event is not negated by learning that it does not supply a comprehensive or ultimate explanation of all the events in the causal chain leading up to it.
Nevertheless, Dawkins’s objection to the design hypothesis presupposes precisely the opposite principle, namely, that causal explanations of specific events count as explanations only if there is a separate and comprehensive causal narrative that explains how the cause cited in the explanation itself came into existence from something simpler, and only then if the narrative does not involve an infinite regress of other past causes. Yet Dawkins cannot seriously apply that principle in any other case without absurdity. If applied consistently, Dawkins’s principle would, for example, prevent us from inferring design in cases where no one, not even Dawkins, questions the legitimacy of such inferences.29 One needn’t explain who designed the builders of Stonehenge or how they otherwise came into being to infer that this complex and specified structure was clearly the work of intelligent agents. Nor would someone need to know how the scribes responsible for cave markings in my opening parable came into being in order to attribute those inscriptions to a designing intelligence.
Imagine you have traveled to Easter Island to view the famous Moai statues. A child beside you asks no one in particular, “Who carved these statues?” A man standing next to the kid looks over the top of his glasses and asks, “Why do you assume they’re sculpted?” Dumbfounded by the question, the kid has no reply, so you rush to his aid. “The carvings manifest a pattern that conforms to the shape of a human face. The match in the patterns is too close and the figures are too intricate, for it to be mere coincidence.” The man scoffs. “Don’t tell me you’ve been reading intelligent-design propaganda, all of that rubbish about specified complexity? Let me ask you this: Who sculpted the sculptor? Who designed the designer? Do you see the problem? Your reasoning leads to an infinite regress. Who designed the designer’s designer’s designer’s designer’s…” The child, appropriately unimpressed by this display of erudition, rolls his eyes and mutters under his breath, “Yeah. But I know someone carved these.” And, indeed, some one did.
The absurdity that results from consistently applying Dawkins’s implicit principle of reasoning has invited parody from various quarters. In a popular YouTube mock interview, the fictional Dr. Terry Tommyrot argues that Richard Dawkins is himself a delusion, despite the extensive textual evidence for his existence in his many books. As Dr. Tommyrot asks his interviewer, “If Dawkins designed the books, then who designed the Dawkins? Just tell me that!”30
Of course, Dawkins insists that the problem of regress does not afflict properly scientific (read: materialistic) explanations, even explanations involving ordinary human designers. Why? Because as a scientific materialist, Dawkins assumes that physical and chemical processes provide complete materialistic explanations for the thoughts and actions of human agents, and that Darwinian evolution can provide a comprehensive and fully materialistic account of the origin of Homo sapiens from earlier and simpler forms of life. Thus, the materialists’ answer to the question, “Who designed Dawkins?” is, “No one.” Dawkins descended by material processes from a series of human parents, the first of whom evolved by natural selection and random mutation from lower animal forms, which in turn did the same. Further, the evidence of intelligence in Dawkins’s books that points proximately to the activity of a mind, points ultimately to simpler physical and chemical processes in his brain. These processes make his conscious mind—like all human minds—either an illusion or a temporary “epiphenomenon” that has no ability to affect the material world. Material processes can explain everything simply and completely without any appeals to mysterious immaterial minds and without any regress equivalent to that implied in appeals to intelligent design.
But is this true? Is there really such a seamless and fully materialistic account of reality available? Oddly, Dawkins himself has admitted that that there is not. As noted in the previous chapter, Dawkins has acknowledged that neither he nor anyone else possesses an adequate explanation for the origin of the first life.
Yet the Darwinian explanation holds that every living thing ultimately evolved from the first self-replicating life-form. Thus, by Dawkins’s own logic, one could vitiate the entire edifice of Darwinian explanation simply by demanding an explanation for the cause of the cause it cites—that is, the cause of the process of natural selection itself, the origin of the first self-replicating organism. If human life evolved from simpler forms of life, and if biological evolution commences only once a self-replicating organism has arisen, couldn’t the skeptic ask, “What evolved the evolver? How did the first self-replicating organisms arise?”
Of course, the lack of a materialistic explanation for the origin of life does not invalidate Darwinian explanations of the origin of higher life-forms. Logically, it’s perfectly possible that some unknown, non-Darwinian cause produced the first life, but then natural selection and random mutation produced every living form thereafter.31 But Dawkins’s criterion of a satisfying explanation seems to imply otherwise.
There is an additional problem. Suppose scientists did formulate a completely adequate materialistic explanation for the origin of life. Couldn’t a skeptic of Dawkins’s materialism still ask for an account of the origin of matter itself? If every material state arose because of the laws of nature acting on a previous material state, then materialistic causal narratives would seem to have their own problems with infinite regress. From whence came the first material state? No physical cosmology now provides a causal explanation of how matter and energy came into being. But suppose one did. How would it do so without invoking a regress of prior material (and/or energetic) states? But what then would become of Dawkins’s insistence that causal explanations of particular events fail unless all such regresses are eliminated?
There is still another difficulty with Dawkins’s argument. Part of the force of his objection lies in its implicit accusation of inconsistency in the case for intelligent design. If specified complexity always points to intelligent design, then the existence of a designing mind in the past would, by Dawkins’s understanding of the logic of the design inference, necessarily point to a still prior designing mind, ad infinitum. In asserting this, Dawkins assumes that designing minds are necessarily complex (and, presumably, specified) entities (itself a questionable proposition).32 He then argues that advocates of intelligent design can escape the need for an infinite regress only by violating the rule that specified (or irreducible) complexity always points to a prior intelligent cause. Inferring an uncaused designer, he seems to be arguing, would represent an unjustified exception to the principle of cause and effect upon which the inference to design is based.
But positing an uncaused designer would not constitute an unjustified exception to this principle, if it constitutes an exception at all.33 In every worldview or metaphysical system of thought something stands as the ultimate or prime reality, the thing from which everything else comes. All causal explanations either involve an infinitive regress of prior causes, or they must ultimately terminate with explanatory entities that do not themselves require explication by reference to anything more fundamental or primary. If the latter, then something has to stand as the ultimate or primary causal principle at the beginning of each causal chain. If the former—if all explanations inevitably generate regresses—then all explanations fail to meet Dawkins’s implicit criterion of explanatory adequacy, including his own. Since, however, most cosmological theories now imply that time itself had a beginning, and further imply that life itself first arose sometime in the finite past, it seems likely that every chain of effect back to cause must terminate at some starting point. Either way, materialistic explanations as well as those involving mind are subject to these same constraints. If so, why couldn’t an immaterial mind function as the ultimate starting point for causal explanation just as well as matter and energy?
In Dawkins’s worldview, matter and energy must stand as the prime reality from which everything else comes. Thus, Dawkins simply assumes that a material process must function as the fundamental explanatory principle or first cause of biological complexity and information. His “who designed the designer” objection shows this. Why? Dawkins assumes that explanations invoking intelligent design must either generate a regress of designing minds or that such explanations must eventually account for mind by reference to an undirected material process. Either way, Dawkins simply presupposes that mind cannot function as the ultimate explanation of biological complexity and information. For Dawkins and other philosophical materialists, matter alone can play this role. But that begs that fundamental question at issue in the debate about the origin of life.
A more philosophically neutral way to frame the issue would be to simply ask: What is a better candidate to be that fundamental explanatory principle, the thing from which specified complexity or information ultimately comes? What is a better candidate to be the first cause of this phenomenon: mind or matter?
Based upon what we know from our own experience, as opposed to deductions from materialistic philosophical doctrine, the answer to that question would seem to be mind. We have first-person awareness of our own minds. We know from direct introspection what attributes our minds possess and what they can do. Our uniform experience shows that minds have the capacity to produce specified information. Conversely, experience has shown that material processes do not have this capacity. This suggests—with respect to the origin of specified information, at least—that mind is the better candidate to be the fundamental explanatory entity, the thing from which such information comes in the first place.
In any case, explanations invoking intelligent design do not necessarily imply either an infinite regress or the need for further reductionistic accounts of intelligence as a cause. A self-existent immaterial mind might well function as the ultimate cause of biological information, just as prior to the acceptance of the big-bang theory matter functioned as the self-existent entity from which everything else came for philosophical materialists. Intelligent design—defined as a choice of a rational agent to actualize a possibility—might well be a fundamental cause that requires no prior explanatory cause of itself. Agents have the power by their choices to initiate new sequences of cause and effect. Most human agents reflexively assume (and intuitively know) they have this power. Perhaps an uncaused agent with similar powers generated the first biological information. Dawkins cannot foreclose that possibility without first assuming an answer to the question at issue, namely, whether mind or matter stands as the ultimate explanation of biological information. Thus, his “who designed the designer” objection commits, among other errors, the logical fallacy of begging the question. It, therefore, fails as an objection to the design inference based upon DNA.
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Note that it takes only a moment to repeat a practiced canard such as “Well then, who designed the designer?” And it’s a fine question, as far as it goes. But as Meyer points out, this same question is not asked regarding where matter came from. In fact, the materialist explanation (at least prior to the discovery of the Big Bang) is that “It always was.” That is, it is eternal (and is still accepted as a self-existent primary, Big Bang or no Big Bang). So material eternality is allowed but not immaterial eternality. At least we can see where the prejudices lie. And sorry, Stephen, for using such a long excerpt. Hopefully I can sell a few books for you.
But in understanding any complex issue it must be understood that it takes a parrot but a moment to offer his canard (which may or may not be true, for as they say, even a blind chicken may find a grain). But it takes a lot of thought (as it should if one is trying to establish something of importance) to refute or explain a sound byte. And our culture is full of such sound bytes.
One more sound byte to knock down. Pete Chadwell made an apt SETI analogy in his article on the subject. I found a nice passage from Meyer’s “Signature in the Cell” that also reasons this out in a clear way:
Similarly, the scientists searching for extraterrestrial intelligence do not already know that extraterrestrial intelligence exists. Yet they assume that the receipt of specified information or complexity from an extraterrestrial source would indicate the existence of an intelligence in space. In the science-fiction novel Contact, scientists detect extraterrestrial intelligence in radio signals carrying the first one hundred prime numbers. In actual SETI research, scientists are looking for more subtle indicators of intelligence, namely, unnaturally modulated and focused radio signals.12 Either way, SETI does presume that the presence of a complex and specified pattern would provide grounds for suspecting the existence of an intelligence. Moreover, SETI seeks precisely to establish the activity of an intelligent cause in a remote place and from a remote time in which intelligence is currently unknown. If scientific methods can—in principle, at least—detect the presence of an extraterrestrial (and nonhuman) intelligence in a faraway galaxy, why can’t methods of design detection be used to establish the activity of nonhuman intelligence in the remote past as the cause of the specified complexity in the cell?
I’m still trying to wrap my mind around these issues. Is the specified information found in DNA, and as also represented in the cellular machinery external to DNA, incapable of being made by simple repeating laws such as in the laws of chemistry and physics? So far there is exactly zero evidence that such laws are capable of any such thing. There is only the parroted phrase “Things evolve” which, as I believe John Lennox notes, functions as a sort of “Darwin of the gaps” argument.
Well, indeed things do evolve. But how and to what extent? And what provided the material and information so things could evolve (at the very least on the micro level) in the first place?
My mind is open, but it’s one that requires a reasonable (perhaps even excessive) amount of persuasion. I don’t do cults readily. And digging one’s way down to the facts is difficult. There are so many pre-canned canards and parroted phrases that function to stop thought. And, really, when you have enough of these that function in this way, it is a sign of cult-like thinking. But as I said, I don’t do cults, so I will continue to ponder the questions and keep as much cracker-crumbs off of my brain as is possible.
Brad is editor and chief disorganizer of StubbornThings.
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