I listened to an episode of the Unbelievable! podcast from 2011 that was rebroadcast recently. Stephen C. Meyer was on with Keith R. Fox MA, MPhil, PhD, professor of Biochemistry, Principal Investigator (Nucleic Acids) at University of Southampton in the UK and Associate Director of the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion, Cambridge. The topic was Meyer’s groundbreaking book, Signature in the Cell, and the origin of life.
Keith Fox and Stephen Meyer are both professing Christians. Fox holds dogmatically to the evolutionary paradigm and does not believe intelligent design is an appropriate framework for scientific inquiry. Meyer maintains that intelligent design is a better explanation and is warranted by the science.
I will not attempt to explain everything they discussed, as I would require much more space than a blog article and more time than my schedule might allow at the moment. I encourage you to listen to the whole discussion if this article piques your interest. (You could also read the book.)
I want to focus on one point Steven Fox made about the intelligent design argument. Fox objected that intelligent design is a “science stopper”.
He explained that he believes the promotion of intelligent design as an explanation for the origin of life would stop further scientific inquiry and frustrate science. It will effectively inhibit further inquiry as to how the origin life occurred, says Fox, if we conclude that “intelligence did it”. (A kind of God of the gaps argument)
Meyer didn’t address the point immediately or directly. The discussion went off in a different direction, but I found myself unwilling to let it go.
“Why would intelligent design be a science stopper?” The statement begs for a response.
Fox claims that invoking the intelligent design explanation stops the process of asking questions, but he didn’t explain why. I have heard the statement before, but the statement is conclusory. Does it really follow?
I understand the anecdotal evidence of certain people who have advocated a kind of blind faith approach to Bible and science issues, but that’s only a segment of the population of people who call themselves Christians. It’s not the majority, and they don’t have any influence over people who do science (Christian or non-Christian).
Implicit in that response is, perhaps, the thinking that we have done biological science very well on the evolutionary paradigm for about 150 years. It works. Let’s not mess it up. I can appreciate that.
A person might also observe, correctly, that the focus of science narrowed many years ago purely on natural processes, eliminating divine agency from consideration in science. Let theologians think about God, but the scientists should focus on the science (the “non-overlapping magisterium” approach).
I understand that science is limited to the study of nature and natural processes. Science has nothing to do with theology (though theology was once considered the Queen of the sciences). Science has nothing to do with philosophy (though many scientists don’t appear to know the difference).
I am only speculating that these kinds of thoughts are behind the resistance against considering intelligent design as a competing paradigm to evolution. I understand them, but I would like to push back.
The objection to intelligent design seems to be an extension of the “God of the gaps” argument.
It incorporates the same assumption – that belief in God stifles and stymies science, but I don’t believe it’s a good assumption, and I don’t believe that the evidence warrants that conclusion.
Meyer addresses the charge that intelligent design is a God of the gaps position. I won’t do it justice, but I will try to describe his response before I move on to the real point of this article.
Meyer explains that he uses the same inference to the best explanation protocol that Darwin used for developing evolutionary theory. Darwin’s protocol sought explanation based on processes we can observe and (therefore) study, preferring them over processes (explanations) that we can’t observe – ones that are purely hypothetical.
At issue is the biology of life, which is based on DNA, RNA and epigenetic materials that we now know are driven by highly sophisticated information. Meyer’s analysis focuses on what we know about the origination of information. What do we now about how information originates?
Meyer asserts that we only know of one cause for the origination of information and the implementation of information. That cause is a mind.
Meyer challenged Fox to identify another source that we can observe or the origination of information. Fox responded that we see information originating “in nature” (in DNA, RNA, etc.). Meyer challenged that answer as a non-answer.
Do we know of any specific source for the generation of information other than a mind?
The short answer is, “No.” Minds generate information. In all our experience, information always comes from a mind.
The fact is that we have no competing hypothesis based on processes we can observe (at this point in time) for the generation and development of information other than an intelligent agent. If we should prefer basing our assumptions on processes we can observe, then intelligent design should be considered.
We might speculate that natural processes can generate and develop information, but we have never observed information generation and development apart from information generated and developed by minds. Thus, on the same principals that led Darwin to develop the evolutionary paradigm, Meyer says we would be reasonable to consider an intelligent design paradigm.
We have no evidence that anything other than an intelligent agency generates and develops information. Computer code is created by agents with minds. Books and libraries are created by agents with minds. Engines, architecture, machines, bridges, spaceships, and other sophisticated designs developed by the manipulation of information are all products of agents and minds.
Thus, the only scientifically reasonable conclusion, says Meyer, is to assume information (and sophisticated design), wherever we find it, is the product of agency and mind.
Fox, of course, charged Meyer with assuming God (the God of the gaps argument), but Meyer says, “no.” He isn’t necessarily saying that the intelligence or mind is God or any kind of god. The intelligent design paradigm doesn’t assume “divine” agency or a supernatural being.
Some proponents of intelligent design are Christian and might attribute the Christian concept of God to that intelligence, but not all intelligent design proponents are Christian. Some are not even theists.
This is not a God of the gaps argument – an argument from ignorance – either. Meyer is not saying, “We don’t know; therefore, God did it” (with no observable evidence entering into the equation).
Meyer says the conclusion is warranted from what we do know – that information is always the product of mind wherever we encounter it in our experience. It’s an inference to the best (or most likely) explanation based, not on what we don’t know, but precisely on what we do know.
In fact, can point to no other observable source by which information arises. We cannot identify any other process that generates information in the observable universe other than an agent with a mind.
But, that isn’t why I write today. I want to deal with Fox’s hesitation to accept intelligent design as a viable paradigm and explanation for the origin of life because it would be a “science stopper”.
Fox claims that intelligent design stops people from asking the questions that drive science – specifically he “how” question”. He seems to fear that attributing the generation of the information we find in DNA, RNA, etc. intelligent science would inhibit us from digging into asking how that information arose.
He might have a point. If we answer the how question with the answer that intelligent design did it, we might be tempted to inquire no further. (Of course, we might, then, develop other questions.)
While the point is well-taken, the same can be said of the evolutionary paradigm. On this point, Meyer countered that intelligent design is no more of a science stopper then natural selection acting on random mutations. Having come to the determination that evolution is the basis for life, science has moved on (stopped inquiring) – especially on the origin of life issues.
If we consider the history of biological science, we have to admit that natural selection acting on random mutation has become the only acceptable paradigm. The inquiry has gone no further in since the 19th Century. The evolutionary paradigm has become the backstop of the biological sciences.
In effect, scientists stopping inquiring and simply assumed the evolutionary paradigm as the “backstory” to the origin of life. Any discussion that pushes against that paradigm is met today with dogmatic responses. The consensus response is, “We don’t go there!”
I wonder what questions we stopped asking as a result?
Once someone posits a premise like that, and once it becomes part of the unquestionable foundation of science, it stops science from going beyond that point. Unless we are willing to accommodate other paradigms into our science, our science ends at the threshold to evolutionary theory.
If intelligent design is a science stopper in that way so is the evolutionary paradigm for the origin of life. If the evolutionary paradigm is a gatekeeper to science in the area of biology, it is a science stopper.
If anyone is worried that belief in God or intelligent design, whatever that might mean, inhibits the motivation of people to do science, I suggest a short review of history. There was a time when most (if not all) scientists were theists who believed God created the universe and was behind its operation.
Belief in God didn’t inhibit past scientists from inquiring about the how the universe works. Far from it!
Far from inhibiting them in any way, far from quashing their inquiry and stopping science, belief in God inspired many people to do science! They did science because they believed the universe was the product of a rational God and could, therefore, be understood.
Many people did science, in the first place, because they believed that God created the universe and that studying the universe would help them know God, understand His ways, and worship Him. It didn’t stifle their inquiry; it inspired them to inquire!
Why would it be any different today? In fact, it isn’t any different today. Many scientists today do believe in God, and they work side by side doing science with scientists who don’t believe in God.
James Tour is one of those scientists who is on the cutting edge of biochemistry. Tour often makes the point that origin of life research on the evolutionary paradigm has long failed to provide any progress on the proof.
Perhaps, scientists will one day find the path to further progress, but the failure raises other questions: Should we not pursue other possibilities? Should we not ask other questions?
If the answer ultimately is that intelligence is the cause of information that formed life, why would we want to keep asking questions that looking for different answers?
We can’t say that intelligent is the actual answer, of course, . The truth is, though, that we also can’t definitively say that the evolutionary paradigm is the right explanation for the origin of life, either.
We may never know the actual truth. We may be too limited in our ability to know and understand what took place billions of years ago to determine with mathematical precision the correct answer.
Meanwhile, we should not write off intelligent design. It is not more of a science stopper than evolution. it is warranted for consideration by what we know about the origin of information.
If intelligence is a viable candidate for the cause of the information by which life originated and developed, shouldn’t we explore it as far as we can take it?
Maybe intelligent design changes the questions we ask. Maybe intelligent design poses new questions we might not think to ask on the evolutionary paradigm. In the spirit of science, shouldn’t we be open enough to ask those questions rather foreclose them dogmatically?