31 May 2010

Bread and circus: Signature in the Cell at Biola (Part III)

Here I'm continuing my discussion of the Signature in the Cell book-signing event at Biola University on 14 May. You'll want to read Parts I and II before reading on.

My second question to Steve Meyer was the one question I most wanted to ask him, both out of personal curiosity and because I thought the answer would help demystify many of his claims. The exchange that resulted was memorable – on that, everyone seems to agree. But the nature of my comments has been profoundly misrepresented by Meyer's hired guns. I hope that this will be crystal clear when I'm done here.

It's probably best to start with my explanation of the question I asked, because Meyer mistook it for something else. (That's not his fault, as near as I can tell.) My question can be paraphrased as follows:

I'm a Reformed Christian, and I think you are too. I'm a biologist, who knows a lot about the science you discuss; in fact, I know a lot more about it than you do. And yet I disagree with you. I reach a completely different conclusion, despite the fact that I'm perfectly well-qualified to understand the scientific issues, and religiously inclined in similar directions as you are. Why do you think that is?
Meyer took this to be a "baited" question that was designed to get him to admit that his case is weak. His case is laughably weak, that's for sure, but that wasn't the point of the question. After he dealt with what he thought was the "bait" he started to discuss the real issue, concluding that "people are different." This was exactly what I was aiming at, in hopes of helping the audience to see that Christians disagree concerning views of the world, and that such things can be decisive when weighing the merits of natural explanation. (That, I assert, is quite different from the "my explanation is better" claim that Meyer illegitimately advances.)

That was the point of the question, and the only point of the question. And Meyer and I did indeed agree to disagree, even agreeing on "the locus of our disagreement" (which is our "philosophy of science").

But in the course of the discussion, I attempted to explain why Meyer's reasoning process is just as easily applied to natural/material explanation as it is to intelligence/design. Meyer's argument is that the "specified complexity" in the digital code of DNA is the kind of thing that we regularly see created by minds (he uses the metaphor of computer programming, for instance). He continues like this: because we don't have a complete natural explanation, and because we know that minds today can create that kind of "complexity," then we are justified in extrapolating our current explanation into the past, and concluding that a mind could well explain the origin of genetic information systems. My response to this can be paraphrased as follows:
Your claim that a mind could explain the origin of genetic information is a sound explanation, and it is irrefutable. But your reasoning works just as well for natural explanation. Because natural explanation is highly successful in the present, we might assume that it will be similarly successful when extrapolated into the past. The reasoning is the same – it's exactly the same. The only difference between us, then, is our preference for particular patterns of explanation.
Now, I don't think I was very successful in making my point clear. Some who were there did understand it, but they report (accurately) that the audience overwhelmingly did not. (Links at the end of this post.) And this was apparent when they burst into laughter and applause when Meyer inaccurately remarked:
Which, in a strict sense, concedes that the [explanation] I've offered is currently best.
Well, that's not right at all. I never claimed that his explanation is best. I asserted that it can explain what Meyer wants it to explain. Later in the exchange I referred to design as an "excellent and irrefutable explanation," my point being that a superintelligence will always work as an explanation, for anything, anytime. I've asserted as much on several previous occasions, and I think it should be obvious that this is a problem for design explanations, not a strength. If you're offering an irrefutable explanation, you're in danger of offering a vacuous explanation. It is for such scenarios that the concept of Last Thursdayism was invented.

I think that captures the substance of our conversation. Now some comments.

1. You can go to my Google site to listen to audio of the exchange. You will note that it differs somewhat from the transcripts that have been discussed in the blogosphere, but there's no substantive change that I can see. I'm eager for comments, and I think that you'll find the exchange to be different from how it has been portrayed.

2. The first report of the exchange appeared the following Monday on a Seattle-based propaganda website. The author, who I assume works for Steve Meyer, wrote this:
Meyer met two of his critics head-on, one of whom essentially conceded that intelligent design is a better explanation than an unguided process like Darwinian evolution.
And this:
Matheson basically conceded that ID is the best explanation currently on the table, but not one that he likes.
That first one, especially, is pretty close to an all-out lie. The poor guy who wrote it must not be used to openness and candor at his workplace, since he described my words as "amazingly candid" while referring to the exchange as "amazing" and "incredible." Secret message for Robert: this is the price of living in an intellectual ghetto.

I'm not sure what else to say about the quote mining, which was repeated on the sites of a couple of other ID bottom-feeders. One ID defender has decried (in comments here on the blog) the naked duplicity of these culture warriors, and I'll be happy if a few honorable folks like him will take the hint and read a little more widely. As for Meyer's role in the ongoing dishonesty of his movement, I'll address him directly in my next and final post on the event.

3. Although Meyer mocked the idea of "waiting for a natural explanation," he is happy to wait for a design explanation when a coherent one is currently inferior. I made this point in my response to his zinger, and I was referring to one of the twelve predictions of ID at the end of his book. Meyer predicts that "bad designs" in biology will someday be shown to be... not bad. Does this mean that he's conceding that the Darwinian explanation is currently best?

4. Some links to comments in the blogosphere:
  • One person who was there said it better than I did. See first comment on this post.
  • Kent commented here (he found the Q&A unsatisfying) and describes the scene in a comment at Jim Kidder's blog.
  • Josh Rosenau gets it, though he focuses on whether ID is "outside science," which I don't care as much about.

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