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.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Stephen Meyer's Central Argument... Is Wrong

Stephen Meyer has received a good deal of attention for his book Signature in the Cell. He summarizes his position here, and below I reprint his summary with my comments interspersed. What I show is that his theory is not at all supported by the facts in the way Meyer claims. (Meyer's comments are in bold):

The central argument of my book is that intelligent design—the activity of a conscious and rational deliberative agent—best explains the origin of the information necessary to produce the first living cell. I argue this because of two things that we know from our uniform and repeated experience, which following Charles Darwin I take to be the basis of all scientific reasoning about the past.

This is a very clear statement of the intelligent design hypothesis, and about what constitutes scientific evidence.

First, intelligent agents have demonstrated the capacity to produce large amounts of functionally specified information (especially in a digital form).

That is obviously true. However, it appears that conscious thought per se is not sufficient for intelligent agency, because according to our uniform and repeated experience, intelligence is invariably a property of exceedingly complex physical systems with machinery to process data input, store and retrieve memories, reason, generate plans, and output functionally specified information (FSI). Nothing in our experience can output FSI without using these FSI-rich mechanisms, and we have no theory of intelligence that does not involve such mechanisms. One can imagine something which can do accomplish these feats without complex physical mechanism, and we have no way of knowing if something like that might exist, but it is certain that nothing like that exists in our uniform and repeated experience.

Moreover, it is unsure that consciousness is even a necessary component of intelligence. Science is as yet unable to determine whether or not consciousness plays a causal role in cognitive functions (as opposed to being our perception of them); what we experience as conscious choice may actually be determined by unconscious brain function. Both non-human animals and humans acting without conscious awareness or intent are capable of producing FSI.

Second, no undirected chemical process has demonstrated this power.

If by "undirected" Meyer means "undirected by conscious thought" then this statement is demonstrably false. Our bodies are full of systems that routinely produce FSI without conscious thought; the production of antibodies designed by our immune systems to disable specific pathogens is but one example.

Furthermore, nobody knows if conscious thought itself arises from nothing else but "undirected chemical processes" in the brain (in fact most neuroscientsts believe that it does). For all we know it is nothing but the physical events in our brains ("undirected chemical processes") that account for all of our cognitive skills, including our ability to design complex machines.

This is not to say that science has solved the mind/body problem and shown that materialism is true; rather it is to point out that there is no good scientific case for dualism either. Since the question of mind/body dualism is currently undecidable by scientific inquiry, it remains in theological or philosophical debate - just as it has been for many centuries. Therefore it is untrue for Meyer to suggest that we know "undirected chemical processes" cannot produce intelligent behaviors.

Hence, intelligent design provides the best—most causally adequate—explanation for the origin of the information necessary to produce the first life from simpler non-living chemicals.

No, it is a particularly poor explanation. Every intelligent agent in our uniform and repeated experience is a living thing (i.e. a complex physical organism containing large amounts of FSI), and obviously the first living thing could not have been created by another living thing. Thus, ID necessarily refers to something for which there is no good evidence at all: An intelligent agent that is not itself a living thing.

If ID wishes to be taken seriously as a scientific explanation, it needs to address this directly, and come up with some way of demonstrating that such a thing exists (or at least could exist in principle). The relevant discipline here is usually called "paranormal psychology", but Meyer does not mention anything about paranormal phenomena even once in his book.

In other words, intelligent design is the only explanation that cites a cause known to have the capacity to produce the key effect in question.

Meyers' conclusion is simply false, because ID is not citing a known cause at all. Instead it cites a cause which is very much unknown, and which violates our experience-based understanding of what is required for intelligent agency to exist. As far as our uniform and repeated experience goes, there is no such thing as a non-living entity with the same sort of mental and physical abilities as we see in living things. We need not believe in materialism, or evolutionary theory, in order to see that ID is inconsistent with the facts of our experience.

my space counter