Preliminary Thoughts about Stephen Meyer’s Signature in the Cell, Part 2

Re-reading Theism and Explanation by Gregory Dawes suggested another potential logical problem with Stephen Meyer’s argument in The Signature in the Cell.  Remember that Meyer explicitly provides the logical form of his argument.

Premise One: Despite a thorough search, no material causes have been discovered that demonstrate the power to produce large amounts of specified information.

Premise Two: Intelligent causes have demonstrated the power to produce large amounts of specified information.

Conclusion: Intelligent design constitutes the best, most causally adequate, explanation for the information in the cell.

To be precise, the problem I have in mind is not with the above argument per se, but with an implied, second argument which would allow us to move from the above conclusion to the truth of intelligent design.

Let’s assume, but only for the sake of argument, that the above conclusion is correct: intelligent design constitutes the best, most causally adequate, explanation for the information in the cell. Does that conclusion, by itself, justify the further conclusion that intelligent design is or probably is true? No. To suggest otherwise is to assume “that the best explanation of some fact is the true one. And as van Fraassen has reminded us (3.1.1), this assumption is indefensible: the best explanation available may well be a false one. So the fact that it is the best explanation cannot warrant the conclusion that it is true.”

Dawes points out that we can, at least in some cases, justify belief in the best explanation for some fact. Whether we are justified in doing so for a best explanation depends on whether that explanation displays certain explanatory virtues. So now let us go back to the conclusion of Meyer’s argument: intelligent design constitutes the best, most causally adequate, explanation for the information in the cell. Unfortunately for Meyer, even if we grant (but only for the sake of argument) the truth of Meyer’s conclusion, intelligent design as an explanation does NOT display many of the explanatory virtues. Why? See my previous post: it is an incomplete explanation; it relies upon a mysterious mechanism; and theistic explanations in general have a very poor track record.

Meyers is a philosopher of science, so I am sure he is familiar with this objection. I need to keep reading the book to see if and how he responds to it.

About Jeffery Jay Lowder

Jeffery Jay Lowder is President Emeritus of Internet Infidels, Inc., which he co-founded in 1995. He is also co-editor of the book, The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond the Grave.

  • peter

    “Premise One: Despite a thorough search, no material causes have been
    discovered that demonstrate the power to produce large amounts of
    specified information”

    and there I thought that the ongoing process of evolution creating information through mutations and lateral gene transfer even between unrelated species and the survival of those best adapted after the process of natural selection show a mechanism of material causes creating information. How stupid of me to think that.

    • http://secularoutpost.infidels.org/ Jeffery Jay Lowder

      That reply is irrelevant for two reasons. First, Meyer’s argument doesn’t dispute common ancestry; his argument disputes naturalistic accounts of the origin of life. Second, my OP is about a potential logical problem with Meyer’s argument, not the empirical accuracy (or inaccuracy) of its premises.

      • peter

        My reply is irrelevant for pointing out the premise is wrong to begin with? The premise does not specify the initial creation of information of the first replicator, it contents that no material causes have been discovered in spite of the fact that environmental stressors i.e. radiation, chemicals, mistakes in the replication process itself can create new information.

        And – what does “specified” information mean? Information that leads to beneficial changes? Neutral changes? Detrimental changes?

        • http://secularoutpost.infidels.org/ Jeffery Jay Lowder

          I don’t know how to be any more clear than what I wrote in the original post. I’m assuming (but only for the sake of argument) that the premises are true. I’m focused on the move from the premises to the conclusion, and the implied move from the stated conclusion to a further, implied conclusion (that the best available explanation is true).

          If one or more of the premises of the argument are false, then great! That’s one additional objection to the argument. That’s just not what the OP was about.

          • Stig K Martinsen

            I think the reason naturalists don’t find the problem Meyer is trying to solve here very damning, is that we already have plenty of “how-possibly explanations”* for a natural origin of life, we’re just not sure which one is right. I was impressed by Cairns-Smith’s clay theory as presented by Dawkins (The Blind Watchmaker) and Dennett (Darwin’s Dangerous Idea), to my mind it removed any doubt that life could possibly have arisen from non-life by natural processes. I still feel that way even though that’s now unlikely to be the actual explanation of the origin of life. Last time I read anything about this, the “RNA world” theory was the front-runner.

            So Meyer’s first premise is problematic, though I realize that’s not what the post was about. The point about the current “best explanation” not necessarily being true or even an especially good one is important, and it seems that naturalists are often more content than theists to say of various mysteries that we just don’t know enough about them yet to make bold metaphysical statements, and take that as a challenge rather than a huge problem.

            There’s a tendency in the history of science that the less mysterious some part of nature becomes, the harder it becomes to support theism with arguments from that particular area. Not a good sign for theism.

            As an aside, have the “intelligent causes” we know about, i.e. humans, demonstrated the power to produce the relevant kind of specified information yet: creating life from non-life? I don’t know that we have, but then I don’t follow abiogenesis research.

            *A term from O’Hara, R. J. (1988). Homage to Clio, or Toward an Historical Philosophy for Evolutionary Biology. Systematic Zoology 37:142-155.

          • http://secularoutpost.infidels.org/ Jeffery Jay Lowder

            Stif — Thanks for the thoughtful comment. I especially liked this:

            There’s a tendency in the history of science that the less mysterious some part of nature becomes, the harder it becomes to support theism with arguments from that particular area. Not a good sign for theism.

  • Blue Devil Knight

    This concern comes off a bit as a quibbling philosophy of science argument, a mere logical possibility that that isn’t particularly persuasive. A retreat to irrealism should only embolden the antimaterialists. Put it this way: iIf, in 200 years ID provided the best, in particular most causally adequate, explanation, then materialism will be in serious doubt to the majority of reasonable people in the world. Despite the few that cling to van Frassen type philosophical views…

    • Wes McMichael

      I agree. Not only do I worry about a retreat to constructive empiricism (a minority view in philosophy of science), but it also seems to amount to a rejection of abductive arguments, which have served us well in the philosophy of science.

      • http://secularoutpost.infidels.org/ Jeffery Jay Lowder

        This comment also puzzles me. Keep in mind that I am a Bayesian while Meyer appears (?) to be an explanationist. As a Bayesian, my preferred style would be to express my point in terms of prior probabilities. But since Meyer seems to be an explanationist — repeatedly referring to Peter Lipton’s book, Inference to the Best Explanation — I want to meet Meyer on his own terms and present the objection in terms of explanatory virtues, which I take to be sympathetic to an explanationist approach.

        So I am baffled that anyone would interpret my post as a “rejection of abductive arguments.”

    • http://secularoutpost.infidels.org/ Jeffery Jay Lowder

      I’ve re-read this comment several times. It has me scratching my head. It seems to be a reply to my post, but I don’t identify with what you’re writing or its relevance to my post. I’m afraid I need you to spell out your point more. In particular, this phrase: “a mere logical possibility that that [sic] isn’t particularly persuasive.”

      I’m not suggesting we should never move from “X is the best available explanation” to “X is probably true.” All I suggested is that whether such a move is justified depends on whether certain explanatory virtues apply to X. For example, if X happens to fall into a class of explanations which has a poor track record, then, everything else held equal, the move to “X is probably true” strikes me as unjustified. In the case of theistic explanations, this is not just a “logical possibility” but in fact the actual situation. As I wrote:

      Unfortunately for Meyer, even if we grant (but only for the sake of argument) the truth of Meyer’s conclusion, intelligent design as an explanation does NOT display many of the explanatory virtues. Why? See my previous post: it is an incomplete explanation; it relies upon a mysterious mechanism; and theistic explanations in general have a very poor track record.

      So, again, I don’t understand the relevance of your comments to my post.

      • staircaseghost

        I’m not suggesting we should never move from “X is the best available explanation” to “X is probably true.”

        I believe many people are certainly getting that impression when you do things like calling such a move “indefensible”.

        Granting for the sake of argument the (very plausible) empiricist contention that acceptance of a theory involves only acceptance that it is empirically adequate. This applies to common descent by natural selection and every other scientific theory you accept as well, but you seem quite sanquine about this allegedly “indefensible” move whenever you’re not operating in defensive apologetic mode.

        Maybe I’m wrong, and maybe I just haven’t read enough of you to know that you’re actually quite scrupulously consistent in chastising book titles like ‘Why Evolution is True’ for their anti-empiricist naivete. But on a first pass it seems a bit opportunistic to single out this highly-technical distinction just in the case where you might otherwise have to admit the supernaturalist has won the argument.

        Are you really prepared to take a page out of Plantinga’s book and assert bare logical possibility as a trapdoor to escape extreme empirical plausibility?

        • http://secularoutpost.infidels.org/ Jeffery Jay Lowder

          I didn’t call the move “indefensible.” I quoted Dawes who called the “assumption” that the move is always justified “indefensible.” Do you see the difference?

      • Blue Devil Knight

        This is not the actual situation, because ID does not provide the best explanation. If ID ever does provide the best, most causally adequate, explanation, then you could say the situation is actual.

        If it things ever did evolve to where people like me would concur that ID provides the best explanation, this will be because of its theoretical virtues. Hence, [insert previous post here].

  • watcher_b

    We can give Meyer the premise that an Intelligent Design is “the most likely explanation” but all that gives us is the best hypothesis. It might give us a direction to look for proof of such a hypothesis; but like you said, theism doesn’t have the best track record.

  • Richard_Wein

    I reject Meyer’s Premise One, and consider the ID concept of “specified information” to be a misleading red herring. But for present purposes I’ll accept the premises for the sake of argument. I still have the following objections to the argument:

    1. Meyer conflates “best” with “causally adequate”. But (as you say) there are other explanatory virtues to be considered.

    2. The premises and the concept of “causal adequacy” are quite vague, potentially calling into question whether even Meyer’s conclusion about causal adequacy is justified (given the premises). But I haven’t read Meyer’s book, so I must allow that he may have clarified these issues there.

    3. Meyer’s premises refer to “large amounts of specified information” while his conclusion refers to “information” simpliciter. The premises seem to be irrelevant to the conclusion unless we replace “information” with “large amounts of specified information” in the conclusion. But then the conclusion presupposes the unstated premise that cells contain large amounts of specified information. You might say that that this premise is uncontroversial. But given the objections that have been made to the concept of “specified information”, I don’t think we should let this pass uncommented.

    4. Even if we grant, for the sake argument, that ID is the best explanation for the specified information in the cell, it doesn’t follow that it’s the best explanation for the cell all things considered.

    • Richard_Wein

      Oops. I meant to say: 1. Meyer conflates “best explanation” with “most causally adequate explanation”.

  • Paul King

    I think that you’re heading off in the wrong direction.

    First, if an intelligence itself constitutes a large amount of specified information, as I would argue, the explanation is heading for an infinite regress, which makes it rather less satisfactory.

    Second, the first premise seems to amount to a claim that biological evolution cannot do what is claimed for it. This would seem somewhat controversial to say the least. And if that is an assumption underlying the premise then it would be circular to use it to argue against evolution. This would seem to be a real weakness in the argument as presented.

  • janbaker

    As far as I read it, that’s not what he said. He said do the math, which he proceeded to do, and see that random interaction of the elements of the cell could have produced that particular design with a one in a trillion chance. He disproved that it could have happened by chance, in other words, not that he proved that it happened by design. Of course intelligent readers will infer that, just like when it is disproved by mathematics that the bookbags that blew up in Boston could not have assembled themselves by chance, we’d start looking for some perps.


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