Thursday, February 4, 2010

Stephen Meyer's Argument: As Confused as it Sounds

In my previous post, I showed that Stephen Meyer's claims regarding scientific evidence supporting the intelligent design hypothesis were mistaken, essentially because his assumptions about intelligent agency were based on philosophical speculation rather than on the facts of our experience. Here I make an even stronger case against Meyer's argument.

Recall the second premise of Meyer's central argument:
Second, no undirected chemical process has demonstrated this power [to create functionally specified information].

As I pointed out, Meyer is assuming that human intelligence does not arise from the chemical processes in our brains, a claim that can neither be supported nor definitively refuted by the scientific evidence. But there are other examples of "undirected" (that is, presumably unconscious) chemical processes which do demonstrably have the power to create functionally specified information (FSI).

A very good example of this is the adaptive immune system found in vertebrates, which is a reasonably well-understood mechanism that is discussed frequently in the context of intelligent design. According to ID proponents, the immune system is "irreducibly complex" and cannot have evolved by step-wise functional improvements. I'm perfectly willing to accept arguendo that evolutionary theory fails to adequately explain how the immune system came to exist; this has no bearing on the argument I am making here.

I believe it is uncontroversial that the immune system is itself an example of an "undirected" chemical process (i.e. we do not direct its operation with our conscious minds, nor are there any other conscious beings directing its functioning within our bodies). It is also uncontroversial that this unconscious chemical process routinely produces FSI, in the form of targeted antibodies. This would seem to be in direct contradiction to Meyer's claim that "undirected" processes are incapable of generating FSI.

Why doesn't Meyer see that his claim is so obviously refuted? For ID proponents like Meyer, the immune response mechanism itself shows signs of being designed, and this is taken to mean it is not the unconscious chemical processes that are responsible for the FSI in our antibodies, but rather the intelligent agency which supposedly designed the immune system in the first place that should be credited. The situation is supposed to be analogous to a computer program which produces FSI by mechanical means; the capability derives from the intelligence of the (human) programmer rather than from the operation of the machine itself.

Put another way, Meyer's argument is this: The immune system is an undirected chemical process which produces high levels of FSI. But the immune system must be the result of conscious design, because undirected chemical processes cannot produce high levels of FSI.

Yes, this argument really is exactly as confused as it sounds. Let's take it step by step.

Meyer argues that whenever we know the cause of FSI, it invariably turns out to involve intelligent agency. Therefore, when we don't know the cause of FSI (as in the case of the origin of the immune system) we ought to conclude that intelligent agency was behind that too. But in the case of FSI-rich antibodies, we do know the cause... and the cause is the unconscious chemical process of the immune system.

Rather than admitting that this presents a counterexample to Meyer's claim, though, ID enthusiasts skip this inconvenient fact and shift the focus to something where we do not know the cause, which is the immune system itself. In other words, ID asks "Who designed the designer?" of these antibodies, and proceeds to make claims about another designer which supposedly designed the immune system which in turn designed the antibodies!

And what if we discovered that whatever designed the unconscious process of the immune response was yet another unconscious process? No problem - ID would simply claim that something still farther up the causal chain must have been conscious. For every instance of an unconscious processes which designs FSI, ID asks who designed the designer, and simply assumes that the answer is a conscious designer.

But of course once ID posits a conscious designer, nobody is allowed to ask who designed that designer.

Obviously, since we can see that both conscious and unconscious designers produce FSI, the fact that Meyer refuses to consider that the original cause was an unconscious design process shows that Meyer's project cannot be considered as evidence-based. Instead it reflects Meyer's a priori beliefs. The question of whether the universe began with FSI or with a conscious mind which proceeded to design it is ancient, unsolved, and unsolvable by recourse to scientific inquiry. Whatever is true about these philosophical conundrums, it should be clear that Meyer's attempt to infer intelligent design based on a claim that FSI never arises from undirected processes is an exercise in futility.

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