27 February 2010

Signature in the Cell: Chapter 7

The chapter is called "Of Clues to Causes" and it's about scientific explanation. That's an interesting and important topic, one that opponents of evolutionary theory rarely understand. Meyer's summary is predictably fluffy but not inaccurate. Those seeking an introduction to philosophical questions pertaining to scientific explanation should look elsewhere, since Meyer says little in the 22-page chapter. His main points:

  1. There are indeed legitimately scientific means of understanding and seeking explanation for past events.
  2. These approaches validate ID as a "possible scientific explanation for the origin of biological information."
I don't disagree with either assertion. But neither is particularly helpful to ID in its quest for explanatory relevance. (Well, the main quest of the ID movement is to undermine naturalism by any means necessary, but its scientific challenge is to demonstrate that it can provide useful explanation.)

The first point should look strange to most readers of this blog. "Well, duh." Ah, but it's there for a good reason: many of Meyer's readers, like Meyer himself as a younger thinker, will be under the influence of the kind of approach advocated by creationists like Charles Thaxton, who crudely separated "historical science" from "operations science" and thereby created an automatic niche for ID in OOL explanation. Meyer defends "historical sciences" as distinct from "experimental sciences," but just as important scientifically, and notes that their modes of reasoning are intellectually ubiquitous. It's basic stuff, really basic, but Meyer does a good job. (As does Gordon Glover in Beyond The Firmament, but with a lot more flair; Meyer uses a boring old wet driveway to illustrate the vetting of competing explanations, while Glover memorably considers "levitating snow machines" as a possible explanation for the appearance of snow in a nearly-identical example.)

The second point strikes me as similarly obvious, but as long as Meyer and his friends face simplistic dismissals of ID as "not science," then we'll have to read pages and pages and pages of simplistic rebuttal. ID is, I think, clearly a possible scientific explanation for just about anything. Human intelligent design explains all sorts of stuff, and alien intelligent design remains a possibility in at least a few arenas. Since appeals to human design (in the case of, say, crop circles) and to alien design (in the case of, say, messages from other galaxies) are not reasonably ruled to be "non-science," I just don't see how superhuman or superalien design can be excluded from the realm of scientific explanation. Could the intervention of a highly intelligent alien explain the conception of Stephen Meyer, but not of Stephen Matheson? Sure. Could the intervention of a highly intelligent alien explain the origin of genetic information? Sure.

The question, it seems to me, is not whether superintelligent beings could have done this or that. It's whether we expect that they could have done this or that. And specifically, whether and when we are warranted in seriously considering their action as we formulate explanations. That's more tricky than most people seem to understand. On the one hand, superalien (aka supernatural) activity has a poor reputation as a scientific explanation, for very good reasons. On the other hand, there are situations we can imagine wherein superalien activity really is the only reasonable explanation at hand.

Anyway, Meyer lays out his strategy for establishing ID as a good scientific explanation. First, he must establish ID is a possible cause of the origin of biological information. Whatever "specified information" is, we know that intelligent agents can and do create it. He thinks that's just plain obvious, and so do I.

Now, this book is awfully bloated, easily three times longer than it needs to be (so far). But do you really think Meyer wrote 500+ pages to argue that ID could explain the OOL? No, of course he wants to do more (or, more accurately, he wants his audience to think he has done more). And so his conclusion, on page 172:
But is intelligent design the "only known cause" of the origin of specified information? [...] If intelligent design turned out to be the only known or adequate cause of the origin of specified information, then the past action of a designing intelligence could be established on the basis of the strongest and most logically compelling form of historical inference – an inference from the effect in question (specified information) to a single necessary cause of that effect (intelligent activity).
This means that Meyer has to rule out "other possible causes," and he knows it.

Miscellaneous observations on the chapter, then our traditional Meyer vs. Darwin vignette.

1. Counting an epilogue and two appendices, the book is roughly 510 pages long. We've finished 172 pages, almost exactly a third of the book. And we have nothing. Long, yes, but "one long argument?" Hard to see.

2. From the "Just how carefully was the blueprint for 21st-century biological science proofread?" file, enjoy these bloopers:
Not only was it was possible to conceive of the purposeful act (or repeated action)... [page 171]
Or read the fourth chapter of Cambridge paleobiologist Simon Conway Morris's book on the Burgess Shale and you will be taken on a vivid guided tour of an ancient marine environment teaming with exotic life-forms. [page 151]
3. Here is Stephen Meyer, on page 172, at the end of the chapter.
These studies convinced me that intelligent design was a possible – a causally adequate – explanation for the origin of biological information. But to determine whether intelligent design was the best – the only causally adequate explanation – I would need to know more about other scientific possibilities. I would need to follow Scriven's directive to "make a thorough search" for and evaluation of other possible causes. Over the next several years, as I assumed my duties as an assistant professor, I set out to do exactly that.
And here is Charles Darwin on page 172 of the Origin of Species, 6th Edition:
With respect to plants, to which on account of Nägeli's essay I shall confine myself in the following remarks, it will be admitted that the flowers of orchids present a multitude of curious structures, which a few years ago would have been considered as mere morphological differences without any special function; but they are now known to be of the highest importance for the fertilisation of the species through the aid of insects, and have probably been gained through natural selection. No one until lately would have imagined that in dimorphic and trimorphic plants the different lengths of the stamens and pistils, and their arrangement, could have been of any service, but now we know this to be the case.
(Meyer's reference is to Michael Scriven, philosopher of science, and Darwin is responding to a critique of natural selection by botanist Carl Wilhelm von Nägeli.)

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