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Denying the Signature

Published at Evolution News

Most readers of Evolution News likely know the central thesis of Stephen Meyer’s bestseller, Darwin’s Doubt: The Explosive Origin of Animal Life and the Case for Intelligent Design. Meyer argues that the functional biological information necessary to build the Cambrian animals is best explained by the activity of a designing intelligence, rather than an undirected, materialistic evolutionary process. Most reviews of Darwin’s Doubt curiously omitted to address or even to accurately report this central claim. However, a review by philosophers Robert Bishop and Robert O’Connor in Books & Culture was a welcome exception. In this series, adapted from Debating Darwin’s Doubt, edited by ENV‘s David Klinghoffer, Dr. Meyer responds to their critiques. This article combines that series.

I. A Response to Bishop and O’Connor

(Originally Part I)

They seek to refute the central information-based argument for intelligent design of my books. Nevertheless, they do not provide a scientific refutation to the main thesis of either book. Continue reading at Evolution News & Views

Writing in Books & Culture, a sister publication of Christianity Today, philosophers Robert Bishop and Robert O’Connor offer a cleverly titled joint review of Darwin’s Doubt and Signature in the Cell (“Doubting the Signature“). They seek to refute the central information-based argument for intelligent design of my books. Nevertheless, they do not provide a scientific refutation to the main thesis of either book. In particular, they do not offer a better (or even an alternative) causal explanation for the vast amounts of novel genetic (and epigenetic) information that arises in the Cambrian period — i.e., the subject of Darwin’s Doubt. Nor do they provide an alternative explanation for the origin of the information necessary to produce the first living cell — the subject of Signature in the Cell. Instead, they lodge various philosophical objections to my argument for design. They either dispute (a) the validity of the argument for intelligent design as an explanation for the origin of biological information, or they dispute (b) my characterization of what needs to be explained.

Disputing the Validity of the Argument for Design

Bishop and O’Connor acknowledge that Darwin’s Doubt and Signature in the Cell “deftly dispatch” the “misconception that [ID] engages in crude god-of-the-gaps reasoning” — a misconception that scholars associated with the BioLogos Foundation such as Bishop and Alistair McGrath have frequently promulgated.

Oddly, though Bishop and O’Connor concede that Darwin’s Doubt and Signature in the Cell do not make arguments from ignorance (or commit the “god-of-the-gaps” fallacy), they critique the books as if they did! True, they use slightly different terminology in developing their objection. Instead of saying my case for intelligent design is based on ignorance or gaps in knowledge, they claim the books are guilty of “begging the question” about what we may learn in the future. But the substance of the objection is the same. I argue that intelligent design provides the best explanation for the origin of the biological information necessary to produce the anatomical novelty and complexity that arises in the history of life. They respond that my argument begs the question, because some as-yet-unknown cause — one of which we are presently ignorant — may eventually be discovered that will explain the origin of biological information.

Of course, in the books I readily concede this as a possibility. Clearly, we do not know anything about causes that we have yet to discover or observe. Nevertheless, Bishop and O’Connor claim that Darwin’s Doubt and Signature in the Cell argue that “we have positive knowledge that no other causes” (emphasis mine) could in principle explain the origin of life’s information-rich systems. Yet neither of my books anywhere claims exhaustive knowledge of the causal powers of all possible material processes, including unknown or not-as-yet-postulated causes. The books only claim to demonstrate the inadequacy of known (or postulated) materialistic processes and the adequacy of intelligent agency based upon uniform and repeated human experience to this point. That is why I repeatedly insert the word “known” before “cause” in my arguments. I also claim to infer intelligent design as the best explanation based upon our present knowledge, rather than trying to prove the theory of intelligent design with apodictic certainty.

As I note in the books, critics if they like may choose to characterize this as an argument from ignorance (or “begging the question” about what we may discover in the future, as Bishop and O’Connor do), but all scientific arguments, especially competing evolutionary arguments about the causes of past events in the history of life, have a similar logical structure and are subject to similar limitations. Indeed, it is an unavoidable aspect of the human condition that we can make no claims about the adequacy of causal processes that we have neither observed nor imagined. Scientists can only make inferences based upon our past and current knowledge of the causal powers of various entities and processes. Alas, we have no other kind of scientific knowledge.

Moreover, my arguments do not have the logical structure of a fallacious argument from ignorance. Arguments from ignorance have the form:

  • Premise One: Cause X cannot produce or explain evidence E.
  • Conclusion: Therefore, cause Y produced or explains E.

Critics of intelligent design commonly claim that the argument for intelligent design takes this form as well. Michael Shermer, for example, insists that “intelligent design… argues that life is too specifically complex… to have evolved by natural forces. Therefore, life must have been created by… an intelligent designer.” In short, critics claim that ID proponents argue as follows:

  • Premise One: Material causes cannot produce or explain functional (or specified) information.
  • Conclusion: Therefore, an intelligent cause produced functional (or specified) biological information.

If proponents of intelligent design were arguing in the preceding manner, we would be guilty of arguing from ignorance. But the arguments for intelligent design in Signature in the Cell and Darwin’s Doubt do not have this form. Instead, they assume the following form:

  • Premise One: Despite a thorough search, no material causes have been discovered with the demonstrated capacity to produce the functional (or specified) information present in living systems.
  • Premise Two: Intelligent causes have demonstrated the power to produce large amounts of functional (or specified) information.
  • Conclusion: Intelligent design constitutes the best, most causally adequate, explanation for the functional (or specified) information in the cell.

As one can see, in addition to a premise about how material causes lack demonstrated causal adequacy, my arguments for intelligent design as a best explanation also affirm (and demonstrate) the causal adequacy of an alternative cause, namely, intelligent agency. As I explained in Signature in the Cell:

We also know from broad and repeated experience that intelligent agents can and do produce information-rich systems: we have positive experience-based knowledge of a cause that is sufficient to generate new specified information, namely, intelligence. We are not ignorant of how information arises. We know from experience that conscious intelligent agents can create informational sequences and systems. To quote [Henry] Quastler again, “The creation of new information is habitually associated with conscious activity.” Experience teaches that whenever large amounts of specified complexity or [functional] information are present in an artifact or entity whose causal story is known, invariably creative intelligence — intelligent design — played a role in the origin of that entity. Thus, when we encounter such information in the large biological molecules needed for life, we may infer — based on our knowledge of established cause-and-effect relationships — that an intelligent cause operated in the past to produce the specified information necessary to the origin of life.1

Thus, my argument does not just demonstrate the inability of one type of cause to produce biological information and then fallaciously infer, on that basis alone, that another cause did so. In other words, my arguments do not fail to provide a premise offering positive evidence or reasons for preferring an alternative cause or proposition as critics say. Instead, my arguments specifically include and justify such a premise.

Bishop and O’Connor claim otherwise, stating that “Meyer offers very little substantive support for mind having unique causal properties.” In fact, both of my books cite numerous examples from (a) ordinary experience, (b) computer “simulations” of evolutionary processes, and (c) origin-of-life simulation experiments showing that conscious and rational agents have the causal power to generate functional or specified information.

My argument for intelligent design not only includes a premise affirming the positive causal powers of an alternative cause (i.e., intelligent agency); it also justifies that premise with multiple examples of those causal powers at work. Therefore, it does not commit the informal logical fallacy of arguing from ignorance. Neither does it beg the question about what we may discover about causal processes in the future; instead, it makes no claims about such as yet unknown processes. It claims only that intelligent design provides the best explanation based upon what we know now.

It’s worth noting that none of the reviews of Darwin’s Doubt or Signature in the Cell have refuted (and few have even challenged) either of the two key empirical premises in my arguments for intelligent design as a best explanation — as, indeed, Bishop and O’Connor themselves have not done. For obvious reasons, critics have not disputed my claim that intelligent agents have demonstrated the power to produce functional information and information-rich processing systems. (Bishop and O’Connor merely claim — mistakenly — that I did not justify that assertion.) Nor, perhaps surprisingly, have critics attempted to demonstrate that standard evolutionary mechanisms can account for the origin of biological information and information processing systems. Indeed, biologist Darrel Falk, one of O’Connor and Bishop’s fellow theistic evolutionists (and with Bishop a BioLogos website contributor) has graciously conceded that Darwin’s Doubt correctly claims that the neo-Darwinian mutation/selection mechanism has failed to account for the origin of major macro-evolutionary events such as the Cambrian explosion of animal life. Falk further concedes that none of the other more recently proposed models of evolutionary theory has yet succeeded in this endeavor.

Secular scientific critics of the argument in my book, for their part, have typically either (a) begged the question about the origin of genetic information by assuming the existence of other unexplained sources of information in order to account for specific informational increases in the history of life;2 or (b) simply ignored the central question posed by the books and quibbled about secondary scientific issues or philosophical matters.3

Though they do attempt a philosophical refutation of the main information-based argument of the books (as we have seen), Bishop and O’Connor conspicuously avoid offering, or even citing, an alternative scientific explanation for the origin of biological information during the history of life. Instead, in addition to their philosophical critique, they mainly attempt to deny my characterization of what needs to be explained. I will turn to this latter line of attack in the next installment.

II. Functional Information Is the Fact to Be Explained

(Originally Part II)

Philosophers of science analyzing scientific arguments make a clear distinction between what needs to be explained (the relevant facts in question) and the competing explanations of those facts. They call the former the explanandum and the latter the explanans. Bishop and O’Connor do not offer a competing explanation (another explanans) for the origin of biological information. Instead, they dispute my characterization of what needs to be explained (the explanandum). They do so in several ways, which I will discuss in the next two articles in this series.

First, they question my characterization of DNA and RNA as molecules rich in functional digital information and my characterization of the gene expression system as an “information processing system” — in so doing, presumably raising questions about the need to explain the origin of these features of living systems. Specifically, Bishop and O’Connor assert that “talk of ‘genetic codes’ and ‘information processing’ with respect to the origin of life… can be very limited if not misleading.”

They argue that “abstracted notions of programs and processing seem inadequate to capture the exquisite precision and reliability of these processes.” In order to describe the process of protein synthesis more accurately, they argue that I should abandon an “information processing metaphor.”

Bishop and O’Connor are correct that, if not carefully defined, the term information can be misleading and lead to equivocation. But in both of my books I not only acknowledge this, but take great pains to avoid such confusion. I carefully define the type of information that reliably indicates the activity of an intelligent agent (functional or specifiedinformation, also known as specified complexity) and distinguish it from a type of information that does not, namely, Shannon information (or mere complexity) — in the latter case, information that may not perform a function. I also distinguish functional information generally from a special type of functional information (semantic information) in which meaning is conveyed to, and perceived by, conscious agents. (See Signature in the Cell, Chapter 4, and Darwin’s Doubt, Chapter 8, for definitions.)

In so doing, I make clear that DNA contains functional information but definitely not semantic information. Bishop and O’Connor completely ignore this crucial discussion in their review and, consequently, express unfounded worries about the use of the term information as a “metaphor” in biology. Indeed, had I implied that the information in DNA conveyed semantic meaning, my description would have been inaccurate — and, at best, metaphorical. Nevertheless, both books clearly state that DNA contains functional or specified information and argue (based upon our uniform and repeated experience) that such information, as opposed to Shannon information, reliably indicates the activity of a designing intelligence.

As my colleague Casey Luskin has established, no serious biologist post-Watson and Crick has denied that DNA and RNA contain functional information expressed in a digital form — information that directs the construction of functional proteins (and editing of RNA molecules). Thus, contra Bishop and O’Connor, my characterization of DNA and RNA as molecules that store functional or specified information is not even remotely controversial within mainstream biology.

Nor is my judgment controversial that the gene expression system (the system by which proteins are synthesized in accord with the information stored on the DNA molecule) constitutes an information processing system. That is what the network of proteins and RNA molecules involved in the gene-expression system do: They process (that is copy, translate, and express) the information stored within the DNA molecule. The information processing systems present in the cell may well be much more precise than those that human computer engineers have designed, but that does not mean that describing the gene expression system as an information processing system is inaccurate. Describing the gene expression system as an information processing system is not to employ a metaphor. It is to describe what the system does — again, to process (or express) genetic information.

Bishop and O’Connor’s second objection to my characterization of what needs to be explained is that I have “presuppos[ed] an engineering picture of design.” Instead, they think I should have described protein synthesis as a “teleological process.” As they put it:

Given the length of time over which developmental processes stretch, or the length of time over which self-replicating molecule must have formed in a pre-biotic environment, the abstracted notion of programs and processing seem inadequate to capture the exquisite precision and reliability of these processes.

They also argue that describing the process of protein synthesis as an information processing system implies “rigidly deterministic” processes, rather than a teleological process, at work inside the cell. And they regard a teleological description of this process as “more effective and reliable as a picture of how the nucleus’ processes work so well over such extended periods of time in the face of myriad contingencies.” They further insist that “the more basic self-replicating molecular processes sought by origin of life researchers would also be goal-oriented,” which they think is “why so many biologist have continued using teleological vocabulary and explanation in genetics.”

Here Bishop and O’Connor misrepresent my characterization of the information processing systems at work in cells and create a false dichotomy, among other confusions. In fact, I do characterize the information processing system of the cell in teleological language, and I also reflect on the paradox of Darwinian biologists using “incorrigibly teleological language”1 to describe processes they believe arose through an undirected and purposeless process. As I wrote in Signature in the Cell:

Molecular biologists have introduced a new “high-tech” teleology, taking expressions, often self-consciously, from communication theory, electrical engineering, and computer science. The vocabulary of modern molecular and cell biology includes apparently accurate descriptive terms that nevertheless seem laden with a “meta-physics of intention”: “genetic code,” “genetic information,” “transcription,” “translation,” “editing enzymes,” “signal-transduction circuitry,” “feedback loop,” and “information-processing system.” As Richard Dawkins notes, “Apart from differences in jargon, the pages of a molecular-biology journal might be interchanged with those of a computer-engineering journal.” …[Thus] the historian of biology Timothy Lenoir observes, “Teleological thinking has been steadfastly resisted by modern biology. And yet in nearly every area of research, biologists are hard pressed to find language that does not impute purposiveness to living forms.”2

As the above quotation implies, an engineering picture of life is a teleological picture because engineers who design complex systems, including complex information processing systems, do so purposively. By pitting engineering design and teleology against each other, Bishop and O’Connor create a false dichotomy. They do the same by treating determinism and teleology as opposites. When an engineer imposes constraints on a physical system to achieve a particular functional outcome, he has an end in mind — thus, he is creating a teleological process. But the end he hopes to achieve will only occur if he can count on the reliability of the laws of nature — i.e., deterministic processes. All designed objects take advantage of determinist laws in order to achieve specific outcomes starting from specific sets of constrained (by the engineer) initial conditions. Teleology and determinism are not necessarily opposites because purposive agents can harness deterministic processes to achieve their desired ends. On this point, Bishop and O’Connor simply seem confused.

They make a third argument in this vein, which I will address at length in the next installment.

III. Was My Argument Subjective?

(Originally Part III)

In the last installment in this series, I addressed two objections that Robert Bishop and Robert O’Connor made to my description of living organisms as systems in which functional information is present. Bishop and O’Connor have a further objection to that description, which will take more space to address. They contend that my characterization betrays an “objectionable” subjective element. In order to illuminate this problem as they see it, Bishop and O’Connor first attempt to distinguish between the objective and subjective aspects of my argument. They acknowledge first that some objective facts are clear:

Biologists agree: The structure of DNA, however contingent, serves well to produce a functional outcome. There is nothing subjective in this. In spite of the complexity inherent in the coding regions of DNA, the specific arrangement “hits a functional target.” That is, from among the vast array of possibilities, a DNA sequence that renders possible or enhances the life of an organism betokens the intentional activity of intelligent agency.

Somewhat surprisingly, Bishop and O’Connor sound there as if they accept the heart of my argument. They concede that complex sequences in the coding regions of DNA hit a “functional target” — that is, those sequences code for functional proteins (among a vast array of possible non-functional peptide sequences) and, thus, aid in the survival of living organisms. They even sound as if they are conceding that the presence of complex sequences containing functional information would reliably indicate intelligent design.

So what is the problem? They claim there is no objective, scientific basis for privileging, or focusing on, “life” in my analysis and that absent the assumption that life represents “a distinguished outcome,” I have no objective criteria for deciding whether DNA or other bio-macromolecules represent functional outcomes, and thus, presumably that they contain functional information.

As they put it, “inherent in the notion of a functional outcome is the presumption that life constitutes a distinguished outcome.” To them, interest in life as a significant outcome reflects an objectionable and subjective value judgment. “Since life has value — to us — we naturally insist that any means conducive to life has distinctive value. But that’s an interpretation we supply.” (emphasis in the original). By contrast, they argue, “An objective observer will realize that, if life is the goal, then that arrangement [of bases in a coding sequence of DNA], however improbable, functions magnificently. If some other outcome were the goal, however — say the more modest goal of replication — then that outcome would have no particular value.”

Bishop and O’Connor repeatedly claim that my argument depends upon a subjective value judgment about the importance of life. But their claim is not quite accurate. My argument does not depend upon a judgment, whether subjective or objective, about the value of life. Instead, it simply treats life as a phenomenon in need of explanation. It presupposes, as all biologists do, based upon a whole host of observations and comparisons, that life and non-life are different modes of existence and that the nature and origin of living things, therefore, requires explication and explanation.

Bishop and O’Connor are right, of course, if what they really mean is that all such observationally based judgments in science are made by human subjects — by the scientists whose subjective interests guide scientific investigations. Scientists are, after all, human beings who make judgments about which of the things they observe in the natural world seem important or unexpected or unusual or interesting and, consequently, are worth studying. In that sense, judgments about which observations and phenomena warrant special interest, or require explanation, are indeed subjective.

“A Serious, Incurable Case of the Humans”

But all scientific endeavors are motivated by subjective human interest and are guided by the perceptions humans have, and the judgments and observations they make, about natural phenomena. All scientific investigations depend upon what human investigators think interesting, and thus, upon that kind of subjectivity. But this is inescapable in the practice of science for the simple reason that it is humans interested in the natural world who do science (and, indeed, humans showing interest in the living world who do biological science). As philosopher of science Del Ratzsch has quipped, “Science has a serious, incurable case of the humans.”1 And one thing human scientific investigators do is try to explain phenomena that, for one reason or another, seem unusual, special, curious, or unexpected to them. For almost all biologists life is one such phenomenon, “a distinguished outcome” as Bishop and O’Connor put it.

It is also true, of course, that biologists determine whether a DNA sequence performs a function by assessing whether that string will code for a protein (or an RNA) that will in turn help an organism stay alive. So the criterion “helps sustain life” does ultimately underlie judgments about the functionality of information-rich sequences in DNA, RNA, and proteins.

But, so what? To deny the relevance of this criterion is to treat life as something insignificant and not in need of explanation; and no scientist, especially one interested in the origin of life, does that. In any case, neither my argument, nor the validity of science itself, depends upon insisting that our collective human interest in life is entirely objective if by “objective” we mean somehow independent of our own interest, judgment, observations, or perceptions.

The choice about whether or not to regard life as significant and in need of explanation may well reflect a subjective (i.e., human) interest in living things, and a similar recognition or perception that living things are different than inanimate rocks or chemical compounds. But that perception only renders the concept of functional information meaningless if the distinction between life and non-life is also meaningless and, again, no scientist interested in the origin of life (on any side of the debate about it) holds that view.

Bishop and O’Connor may as well object to the whole field of origin-of-life research, or the entirety of the discipline of evolutionary biology, or all of biology itself, as well as to my arguments for intelligent design, since all practitioners of those fields make the same objectionable assumptions about life as “a distinguished outcome.”

Regardless, determining whether cells contain functional or specified information does not require anyone to make a judgment about the value of life, but instead only a factual judgment about whether sequences of chemicals (functioning as digital characters) build protein or RNA molecules that aid in the survival of living cells. Indeed, once one has decided to regard life as a phenomenon of interest (as all evolutionary biologists do), it is objectively true that only certain arrangements of nucleotide bases, and not others, will produce proteins that perform tasks that allow cells to stay alive — a fact that Bishop and O’Connor themselves concede.

Instead of rendering the concept of functional information meaningless, Bishop and O’Connor’s observation (in essence) that humans make scientific judgments about what needs explanation only makes clear that the notion of functional information depends upon a wider context of inquiry and interest that human scientists necessarily help to define. Bishop and O’Connor themselves recognize this but regard it as problematic for my argument, asserting that the assumption that life requires special explanation begs the question in favor of the design hypothesis from the start. As they put it: “[C]an one assign a function, an intended role, to a natural phenomenon without first supposing that the broader context has a specific function? To speak of the function of particular phenomena is already to have provided an answer to this global question in favor of design.”

A Case of Bias?

But is this really true? Does describing a biological system — a polymerase or DNA molecule, a beak or a wing, a fin or a gill — by reference to its function bias the discussion of biological origins in favor of intelligent design? Does presupposing a distinction between a functioning organism, on the one hand, and its non-functioning remains or an inanimate object, on the other, do the same? I doubt many evolutionary biologists, all of whom accept these same distinctions and functional descriptions that I do, would accept that judgment.

To describe the functional information in a living system, and to treat it as something in need of explanation, is not to say anything about how that system originated one way or another. There is no a priori or logically necessary reason that an explanation either involving, or precluding, agency must be true simply because the description of the thing to be explained includes functional language (or simply because it presupposes that life is a “distinguished outcome”).

Since 1859, Darwinism and neo-Darwinism have attempted precisely to show that the appearance of design (apparent teleology) could be explained as the result of an undirected process that merely mimics the powers of a designing intelligence. Thus, it does not follow that even if some of the functional features of living organisms appear designed that they necessarily are designed — as our Darwinian colleagues have long insisted.

Instead, it is at least logically possiblethat a materialistic evolutionary explanation, or some purely natural process, can account for the functional features of living organisms, including their functional digital information, without recourse to a designing intelligence. If not, what has evolutionary theory been about since 1859? Most evolutionary theorists are committed to the idea that some materialistic process with sufficient creative power to generate the complex functional features of livings systems does exist or will eventually be found.

Clearly, describing the cell as a system rich in functional information, or assuming that life as a phenomenon warrants explanation and scientific interest, does not logically entail the conclusion of design. Instead, the conclusion of design arises from a thorough search for, and evaluation of, the causal powers of competing possible causes and processes and the a posteriori discovery based upon such an examination (which my books undertake) that only one such cause, namely, intelligent agency, has the demonstrated power to produce the key effect in question: functional digital information.

Since every evolutionary biologist believes that life represents a “distinguished outcome” in need of explanation, and that living organisms have functional features produced in part as the result of genetic information, it hardly seems question begging to make the same assumption in the process of arguing for a particular theory (intelligent design) as the best explanation of those features. All theoretical contenders must do the same. Moreover, since all known forms of life require genetic (and epigenetic) information as a condition of their existence, origin, and maintenance, leading evolutionary theorists have increasingly defined the problem facing evolutionary theory, just as I do, in functional and informational terms. As Bernd-Olaf Küppers, the distinguished origin-of-life theorist, has explained, “The problem of the origin of life is clearly basically equivalent to the problem of explaining the origin of biological information.”

In a subsequent installment, I will turn to the “evolutionary creationist” approach that Bishop and O’Connor advocate in their review.

IV. Methodological Naturalism and Materialism-of-the Gaps

(Originally Part IV)

Despite their multi-pronged critique, Robert O’Connor and Robert Bishop offer no evolutionary mechanism as an explanation for the origin of the information necessary to produce novel forms of animal life. Neither do they think it necessary to defend the creative power of the natural selection/random mutation mechanism, even though many leading evolutionary theorists now question its ability to generate fundamental innovation in biological form and/or information. To Bishop and O’Connor, it is enough to affirm that God uses (or could use) the natural selection/mutation process, though, they hasten to add, He necessarily does so without leaving any trace of His handiwork behind. “On the evolutionary creationist account, the work is signed using invisible ink,” they aver.

In truth, the “evolutionary creationist” account that Bishop and O’Connor articulate in their review, and that they critique me for not taking seriously enough, has no empirical content beyond neo-Darwinism — although, of course, it can be accommodated to other versions of evolutionary theory as well. For example, in his BioLogos Forum review of Darwin’s Doubt, Bishop (writing solo) acknowledges the incompleteness of the neo-Darwinian mechanism, but affirms, without much elaboration or explanation, that other unspecified evolutionary mechanisms have compensated (or, at least, will eventually compensate) for any deficiencies as part of an “extended synthesis.”1

The biological details here seem unimportant to Bishop. What is important to proponents of evolutionary creation (EC) or theistic evolution (TE) such as Bishop and O’Connor is affirming that God works through, and only through, secondary causes. Whether there is presently any such evolutionary process that has demonstrated the capacity to generate functional digital information or biological novelty generally matters less than affirming that some such process will eventually account for the exquisite complexity of living things. However, in expressing this confidence in the inevitable success of some naturalistic explanation, proponents of EC (or TE) commit what one might justly characterize a kind of “materialism of the gaps” fallacy. Indeed, the great virtue of Bishop and O’Connor’s Books & Culture review is precisely the way in which it reveals their a priori commitment to finding naturalistic explanations for all events and features of the natural world regardless of what the evidence itself might indicate.

The discovery of digital code, hierarchically-organized information processing systems, and functionally-integrated complex circuits and nano-machinery would in any other realm of experience immediately and properly trigger an awareness of the prior activity of a designing intelligence — precisely because of what we know from experience about what it takes (i.e., what kind of cause is necessary) to produce such systems. But Bishop and O’Connor seem entirely unmoved by discoveries showing the existence of such informational and integrated complexity in living organisms, not because the existence of functional digital code or the nanotechnology in life is in any way in doubt, but because they have committed themselves to viewing the world as if it were the product of materialistic or naturalistic processes regardless of the evidence. (Of course, they conceptualize those processes as modes of divine action, that is, “secondary causes” in theological parlance, even when those same processes clearly lack the creative capacity necessary to explain the origin of the features of life that are attributed to them.)

Both Bishop and O’Connor are Christian defenders of the principle of “methodological naturalism” — a principle that specifies that scientists must explain all events by reference to materialistic (non-intelligent) causes whatever the evidence.2 For this reason, their affirmation that God designed the universe, but signed His work in undetectable “invisible ink,” should be taken with a grain of salt. True, the “signature” of design in nature can only be seen by those with eyes to see. But an a priori commitment to methodological naturalism ensures that we will never perceive (or at least acknowledge) design in nature whatever the evidence, and it codifies our innate tendency to avert our eyes from what is “clearly seen” — and from what modern biology has made increasingly clear — in “the things that are made.”3

V. Of Minds and Causes

(Originally Part V)

In their Books & Culture review of Darwin’s Doubt and Signature in the Cell, Robert Bishop and Robert O’Connor not only claim that I provide no justification for the idea that minds have causal powers that unconscious, non-rational, material processes don’t; they also claim that my “analysis assumes that… mind is fundamentally immaterial” and yet they note that I offer “very little substantive support for mind having unique causal properties inasmuch as it immaterial.”1 In other words, Bishop and O’Connor seem to say that I don’t justify the idea (1) that minds are immaterial entities distinct from physical brains; and (2) that such immaterial minds possess causal powers that material processes do not.

In this latter respect they are right. I do not provide a justification for what philosophers of mind call “substance dualism” — the theory of mind-brain interaction that affirms the mind is an immaterial entity distinct from the physical brain. Instead, I make clear that my case for intelligent design does not depend upon holding a particular view of the mind-body question or holding that the mind is an immaterial entity. As I explained in Darwin’s Doubt:

Proponents of intelligent design may conceive of intelligence as [ultimately] a …materialistic phenomenon, something reducible to the neurochemistry of a brain, but they may also conceive of it as part of a mental reality that is irreducible to brain chemistry or any other physical process. They may also understand and define intelligence [or mind] by reference to their own introspective experience of rational consciousness and take no particular position on the mind-brain question.2

It is true, as Bishop and O’Connor note, that I do in various contexts contrast the causal powers of minds or agents, on the one hand, with “strictly material processes” on the other. And by pointing this out, Bishop and O’Connor seem to be posing a philosophical dilemma for me. They seem to be suggesting, on the one hand, that because I have contrasted mind with strictly material processes, my argument presupposes that mind cannot ultimately have a materialistic basis. Thus, they assert that, “If material processes lack such causal powers [as Meyer argues], then intelligent agency cannot be material.”

It seems to follow for them that I cannot allow the possibility of a materialist (or physicalist) account of mind without effacing the distinction between mind and matter (or materialistic processes) that would make an inference to intelligent design significant. On the other hand, if I presuppose an immaterial conception of mind, they fault me for failing to provide a justification for such a conception (including the idea that mind conceived as an immaterial substance possesses unique causal powers).

They also argue that any potential justification for dualism would necessarily have to be philosophical, rather than scientific, in character — thus, in their view, rendering the theory more philosophical than scientific. As they explain, “any way you look at it, what support might be available [for the idea that for mind is immaterial] must certainly be regarded as philosophical rather than scientific. At least on this side of the ledger, ID looks more like philosophy than science.”

The Horns of a Dilemma

There is a straightforward way to split the horns of the dilemma that Bishop and O’Conner pose. Rather than defending substance dualism, on the one hand, or treating mental and material phenomena as indistinguishable, on the other, the case for intelligent design can be made utilizing a more philosophically minimalist or pre-theoretical conception of mind. And both my books make use of such a conception.

Indeed, by making a distinction between minds and strictly material processes, I am not committing to full-blown substance dualism as a condition of being able to make design inferences (as my disclaimer above indicates). Instead, I assume a more philosophically minimalist (or pre-theoretic) conception of mind or intelligence that acknowledges a distinction between physical states and mental states (such as desires, thoughts, beliefs, and emotions), but one that does not insist that the distinction between these two types of phenomena necessarily derives from two different types of substances, one material and the other immaterial.

Thus, my books implicitly distinguish minds from “strictly material processes” by reference to precisely those mental attributes such as “consciousness, will, deliberation, foresight and rationality” that we know minds possess as the result of introspection. As such, my argument depends only upon a distinction that nearly all people recognize as a result of their own direct awareness of mental phenomena and conscious experience.

Bishop and O’Connor acknowledge that I equate intelligent agency with “self-conscious mind in possession of thoughts, will and intentions.” Hence, they seem to recognize that I define mind by reference to specific and distinctively mental properties of which we are all aware. Nevertheless, they seem to think that I need to go further and demonstrate that these properties derive from an immaterial substance in order for us to be able to detect intelligent or mental activity. Though I personally think that substance dualism has a lot of merit, I don’t think that follows.

Indeed, many investigators make design inferences without having an account of the origin of the mind or the mind/brain interaction. Forensic scientists and archeologists, for example, neither presuppose substance dualism, nor reject physicalism — nor do they necessarily have any opinion on these matters — in order to infer that some objects, structures, or events are the product of a mind.

A Mess in the Kitchen

Put differently, when forensic scientists or others make a design inference based on their (presumably) pre-theoretic distinction between the causal powers of agents and material processes, they do not also thereby commit themselves to any other particular view of mind-body interaction. When a mom finds a huge mess in the kitchen and infers that her kid did it (as opposed to some “natural” cause such as, perhaps, a tornado!), she can clearly do so without also justifying some substantive position in the philosophy of mind.

Similarly, a materialistically minded scientist might infer — based upon the information-bearing properties of DNA and knowledge of the unique causal powers of intelligent agents — that a designing agent or mind of some kind played a role in the history of life. Yet that same materialist could conclude (as Richard Dawkins has allowed as a possibility) that the designing agent in question evolved, and evolved its powers of agency, by some strictly materialistic evolutionary process.

I find this possibility extremely implausible, not only because I doubt that consciousness, rationality, imagination or mental qualia have been (or can be) explained by reference to brain chemistry, but also because this view begs crucial origins questions. If evolutionary theory has failed (as my books show) to explain the origin of the genetic information necessary to produce living systems on this planet in the first place, positing that life — and/or complex conscious life — first evolved somewhere else in the cosmos hardly solves that problem. Nor would the postulation of a wholly materialistic designing agent residing within the cosmos explain the origin of the fine-tuning of the universe itself. Clearly, no such immanent agent within the cosmos can account for the design parameters built into the very fabric of physical laws and the universe itself.

Nevertheless, I do not need to foreclose or reject the possibility of such a designing agent a priori in order to show that meaningful design inferences can be made or that the past activity of a designing agent of some kind provides the best explanation for the origin of functional biological information. We don’t need to know how minds came to be, or all the necessary and sufficient conditions of mental phenomena, to infer the presence or past activity of mind from evidence that we know only minds produce.

Moreover, a meaningful distinction between mind and matter (or “strictly material processes)” can be justified by reference to what we know from observation and introspection about the differences between minds and material processes without such a defense. Indeed, we have ample reason for thinking — and plenty of observational evidence supporting the idea — that minds have attributes that rocks, waterfalls, chemical reactions, electromagnetic forces, genetic mutations, and tectonic plates do not.

We can, of course, theorize (as materialists do) that ultimately some material process — perhaps involving neurochemistry — can explain how our conscious experience arises from the material substrate of the brain. Similarly, materialists can theorize that somehow some evolutionary mechanism initially produced the attributes we associate with minds such as consciousness, will, reason, imagination, foresight, and the like.

But positing such materialistic explanations to explain the nature and origin of conscious experience and the other known capacities of minds does not efface the distinction between mind (or mental phenomena) and matter (or material processes) that we know and observe on the basis of our ordinary experience. Indeed, it is precisely those distinctive attributes of minds, known from uniform experience and introspection, that physicalists (or epi-phenomenalists) seek to explain. To get any theory of mind off the ground, including physicalist theories, the theorist assumes the same prima facie distinction between mental attributes and material attributes that I presuppose in my books.

For this reason, I do presuppose a distinction between material and mental phenomena without defending, and without needing to defend, the idea that the mind is necessarily an immaterial substance. And if I don’t need to justify that the mind is necessarily an immaterial substance, then it follows that I also don’t need to justify the claim that the mind as an immaterial substance has unique causal powers that material processes lack. Strictly speaking, I need only justify the assertion that minds (as we conceive of them based on our direct pre-theoretic introspective and observational experience) have causal powers that material objects and processes do not. And both of my books certainly do that.

Although I don’t need to justify substance dualism for my argument, I will turn to a discussion of the subject in the final installment of this series


Part I

  1. Stephen C. Meyer, Signature in the Cell: DNA and the Evidence for Intelligent Design(New York: HarperOne, 2009), 376-377.
  2. See Charles Marshall, “When Prior Belief Trumps Scholarship,” Science 341, no. 6152 (September 20, 2013):1344.
  3. For example see Nick Matzke, “Meyer’s Hopeless Monster Part II,” Panda’s Thumb, June 19, 2013; John Farrell, “How Nature Works,” National Review, September 2, 2013.

Part II

  1. Signature in the Cell, 22.
  2. Signature in the Cell, 21-22.

Part III

  1. Del Ratzsch, Nature, Design, and Science: The Status of Design in Natural Science (State University of New York Press, 2001), 90.
  2. Bernd-Olaf Küppers, Information and the Origin of Life (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1990), 170-172.

Part IV

  1. See my discussion of Bishop’s ideas on this point in Chapter 40 of Debating Darwin’s Doubt.
  2. Regarding Robert Bishop’s commitment to methodological naturalism, see the discussion by Paul Nelson in Chapter 37 of Debating Darwin’s Doubt; regarding Robert O’Connor’s commitment to methodological naturalism, see Robert C. O’Connor, “Science on Trial: Exploring the Rationality of Methodological Naturalism,” Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 49 (March 1997): 15-30.
  3. Romans 1:20.

Part V

  1. Robert Bishop and Robert O’Connor, “Doubting the Signature: Stephen Meyer’s case for intelligent design,” Books & Culture, November-December 2014.
  2. Stephen C. Meyer, Darwin’s Doubt: The Explosive Origin of Animal Life and the Case for Intelligent Design (New York: HarperOne, 2013), 394.

Stephen C. Meyer

Director, Center for Science and Culture
Dr. Stephen C. Meyer received his Ph.D. from the University of Cambridge in the philosophy of science. A former geophysicist and college professor, he now directs the Center for Science and Culture at the Discovery Institute in Seattle. He is author of the New York Times-bestseller Darwin’s Doubt (2013) as well as the book Signature in the Cell (2009) and Return of the God Hypothesis (2021). In 2004, Meyer ignited a firestorm of media and scientific controversy when a biology journal at the Smithsonian Institution published his peer-reviewed scientific article advancing intelligent design. Meyer has been featured on national television and radio programs, including The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, CBS's Sunday Morning, NBC's Nightly News, ABC's World News, Good Morning America, Nightline, FOX News Live, and the Tavis Smiley show on PBS. He has also been featured in two New York Times front-page stories and has garnered attention in other top-national media.