Reasoning to the Best Explanation for Life

Whether the universe, which has the appearance of design, was actually designed is the question that is begged by modern science.

I recently read the book, Darwin’s Doubt, by Stephen C. Meyer, a Cambridge University Ph.D. in the Philosophy of Science. The book uses Darwin’s acknowledgment that the Cambrian Explosion posed a potential problem to the evolutionary paradigm as a springboard to explore that “problem” in detail. Thus, the title of the book is aptly named “Darwin’s Doubt”.

I have summarized the first ten chapters of the book in a different Blog, Perspective, starting with a summary of the first four chapters of the book. Read my blog if you want a summary description of the detail that Meyer explores without buying the book, though I strongly suggest buying the book if your are interested.

In this blog, I want to explore the basis for Intelligent Design, which is ultimately the theory that Meyer espouses. For Meyer, the key bases for Intelligent Design are 1) the argument from biological or genetic information and 2) the argument from physics or cosmology. Both arguments can be summed up in the statement that we live in a world so finely-tuned for life that it could not have happened by chance or unguided “natural law”.

If you are reading this, you may have encountered these fine-tuning arguments before. Biological fine-tuning focuses on the complex biological machines that exist for which, as the argument goes, prior information is necessary. Any discussion of that complexity begs the question: where did that information necessary to build the protein parts out of which the complex structures are made come from in the first place?

The evidence in physics and cosmology is the “fine tuning” that we observe in the constants and initial conditions of the universe and the “fine tuning” of the conditions necessary to make life on planet earth possible, fit for habitability and fit for scientific discovery. He calls this last observation (a planet fit for human scientific discovery) the “Privileged Planet Hypothesis”.

Meyer focuses, in particular, on the question: What cause is capable of generating that information? To answer that question, he takes instruction from Darwin. Meyer argues that we can use the same scientific method Darwin used to infer that the cause had to be conscious mind or intelligence. I will try to summarize what I think he means below.

But Meyer’s focus is biology. He contends that the attempts to define origins by chance or necessity (natural laws) fail in light of the last 20-30 years of discovery. The sub-theories conceived to explain “Darwin’s doubt” have all led to dead-ends. The new evidence that has been discovered and continues to be discovered has only expanded the yawning gap between theory and reality. We need another paradigm

Darwin recognized the “appearance of design”, but he tried to show that design we think we see is really the product of an undirected, unguided mechanism which he called natural selection. Darwin analogized natural selection to the power that human breeders exhibit in changing the attributes of an animal population, like sheep or dogs.

Darwin thought that nature could do what the human breeder could do, that nature could select what human invention and thought was able to do. Natural Selection was presented as a “designer substitute”. Darwin replaced human human (“artificial”) selection with natural selection.

Most scientists, like the atheist, Richard Dawkins, still recognize the appearance of design today as they carry on the evolutionary paradigm made famous by Darwin. That paradigm has become modern scientific dogma, many scientists, Dawkins, double down on that paradigm at every opportunity.

In contrast to the modern dogmatism of Neo-Darwinists, however, Darwin was rather modest and candid. He acknowledged the problem of the Cambrian Explosion and recognized it as a legitimate objection to his theory for which he had no explanation. Darwin speculated, however, that subsequent discoveries would fill in the gap and shore up his evolutionary theory.

Far from it, subsequent discoveries have only exasperated the problem and widened the gap, leading some scientists to conclude that a different model is necessary to explain the origin and history of life (even while most of the scientific community holds religiously to the original premise).

This line of thinking doesn’t necessarily reject the evolutionary paradigm altogether. That paradigm has been used successfully by scientists for a long time now to yield many discoveries, but modern knowledge and discovery is pushing the limits of that paradigm in many ways.

I won’t get into the limits and issues with the evolutionary paradigm here. Literature is available for the person interested to dig into it, including Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False by Tomas Nagel. Nagel’s critique is not borne out of religion, but science.

One of the criticisms leveled against admitting actual design in the universe is that it opens the door for religious influence in science. On the other hand, shutting the door to the study of what appears to be design may just be shutting the door on truth that science should not shun.

Stephen Meyer postulates that the design see in nature is not an illusion. Meyer approaches the appearance in design in nature with the same logic and method Darwin used to engage the same question Darwin designed his theory to engage.

All biologists recognize that living organisms give the appearance of design. Richard Dawkins says, “Biology is the study of complicated things that give the appearance of having been designed for a purpose.” He would say, however, that the appearance is an illusion because there is an unguided process behind it – natural selection acting on random mutations.

Darwin postulated the evolutionary process as a theory, but modern scientists like Dawkins take it as a proven assumption. And not just one axiom among others, modern scientists like Dawkins assume the evolutionary paradigm is the only underlying assumption that explains all of life, from beginning to end.

People like Meyer and Nagel are questioning whether we have gone too far with our faith in the evolutionary paradigm. Maybe we have been too quick and too eager to accept it as the only explanation. Maybe we have been to slow and too reluctant to consider other possibilities and have ignored some obvious weaknesses – and obvious strengths in other approaches.

Meyer maintains the theory of Intelligent Design is based on science. Scientific method when it comes to studying something like the origin of the universe or the origin of life requires a different approach from science in done in a lab where experiments are performed under controlled conditions. Historical scientific method relies on inductive reasoning, or the hypothetical deductive method. Scientists reason from effects back to causes. Clues are left behind, and we have to trace those effects back to causes. We use a form of inference called abduction or retrodictive – going backward in time.

Intelligent Design is commonly confused and conflated with young earth creationism. They are not the same. Creationism is based on scriptural interpretation and deduction from scriptural text. Intelligent Design is an inference from biological, cosmological and other physical evidence. The starting point is completely different.

The basis of Intelligent Design is scientific evidence, not scripture. Intelligent Design is an age-neutral theory, making no claims about the age of the earth. It is agnostic, in that makes no religious claims.

Intelligent Design accepts the appearance of design at face value, and assumes that it is not mere illusion; that the design we is real; the appearance of design is actually what it appears to be – the result of actual design, not apparent design.

The “stop press moment in biology,” says Meyer, was the discovery of the structure of DNA in 1953 by Watson and Crick. From that discovery, Francis Crick proposed the Sequence Hypothesis in 1957: the DNA molecule has chemical units along the interior of the spine of the DNA molecule that function just like alphabetic characters in language or digital characters in machine code that store information in an alphabetic or digital form for constructing the proteins and protein machines that cells need to stay alive.

What “runs the show” in biology is information (like text or digital code). Bill Gates says, “DNA is like a software program, only much more complex, more complex than anything else that has been created.” Richard Dawkins recognizes that the information in DNA is “uncannily machine like”.

The focus, then, becomes what we know about information systems. In that context, Meyer asks his college students what is needed in a computer system to give it a new function. They will quickly answer that a new program, new digital code, is what is necessary to create new function.

Where does this new program or code come from? The same place it comes from in the first instance: from human beings who have intelligence and creative agency.

What about the “code” we find in DNA? We have come to realize that changes we have traditionally attributed to evolution take place in the DNA, DNA sequences, RNA and epigenetic materials, which all work in chorus together.

The character of DNA is similar to and works on similar bases as computer code created by human beings. Could not the same thing be true of biological life as it is true of a computer? To build a new animal from a pre-existing animal, new code or information may be needed. 

Essential to the Darwinian method is the assumption that we should conceive of mechanisms we do not see in nature in place of mechanisms we do see. The mechanisms we see in operation in nature should drive our science mechanisms we can merely imagine.

A primary evidence for design is the digital information stored in the DNA molecule. It has the same attributes of a written language our digital code created by human beings exercising intelligence and creative agency.

Can you think of another source of complex, interrelated information that is manipulated to create complex, interrelated designs? In our world, that kind of design is observed only as the produce to intelligent agency.

To build life in the first place from chemicals, the chemicals need to arrange themselves into informational sequences that are capable of building the proteins and protein machines necessary for life. Where does that information come from? What causes exist that are capable of producing information in sequences to create function?

Meyer uses the “inference to the best explanation method” that Darwin used to analyze all the competing explanations, all the possible causes, in his book, Darwin’s Doubt. Meyer explains in detail what he calls “the big story in origin of life research over the last 20-30 years” which is the deepening impasse in the field of evolutionary study. All of the various explanations invoke chance or law-like necessity, or some combination of both, but all of those explanations based on these Neo-Darwinian models fail to explain the origin of the information necessary for life.

That is the unsolved problem for materialistic, evolutionary theory. Where did the information come from that is necessary for life? The complex information systems that we see at the foundation of living organisms?

That is where Intelligent Design comes in. Experience tells us that intelligence and creative agency is the one thing that we know that is capable of generating information and information systems as complex as DNA, RNA, and epigenetic material. Intelligence has the “known casual power” to produce the effect in question (the arrangement and orchestration of information into sequences that produce function).

Meyer points out that basic scientific method requires making an inference to the best explanation of what caused something in the remote past by invoking causes that are known in the present to produce the effect in question. Darwin used this same method to come up with the theory of evolution, which he learned from his mentor, Charles Lyel, who said we must look for “causes now in operation”.

What is the “cause now in operation” that produces digital information? There is only one cause we known of – intelligent agency. Do chance, necessity or some combination of the two really produce that result? Our laboratory experiments have been wholly incapable of proving this connection.

Our best efforts actually suggest that any success, and quite nominal success at that, is generated only with enormous intelligent and creative effort – by scientists who set the parameters, introduce the ingredients, cull out the unwanted byproducts, and direct the process. Our experiments suggest the necessity of intelligent design and creative agency.

We can speculate that change and necessity are capable of producing functional information, but we can’t prove it. There is a cause, however, that we know does produce functional information: that is mind or intelligence.

“Information is habitually associated with conscious activity.” When we find information at the foundation of life, the natural thing is to infer, based on our knowledge of cause and effect, that conscious intelligent activity, produced that information.

This is the very method that Darwin used in the Origin of Species. Meyer uses that same form of reasoning to come to the conclusion of Intelligent Design. Darwin pioneered the method that Meyer uses, and Darwin’s method today, given almost a century and half of additional research and information, produces a different result, says Meyer.

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