Let's look at the form of argument he uses in Signature in the Cell: DNA and the Evidence for Intelligent Design. This is from Chapter 17 where he's trying to refute the accusation that Intelligent Design Creationism is nothing more than an argument from ignorance.
... the argument made in this book ... takes the following form:Scientist are often accused of picking on the most idiotic of the IDiots and avoiding the really big guns who have all the best arguments for Intelligent Design Creationism.1 See A Reason to Doubt the Real, Rather than Pretended, Confidence of Darwin Advocates, where David Klinghoffer asks,
Premise One: Despite a thorough search, no material causes have been discovered that demonstrate the power to produce large amounts of specified information.Or, to put it more formally, the case for intelligent design made here has the form:
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 information in the cell.
Premise One: Causes A through X do not produce evidence E.In addition to a premise about how material causes lack demonstrated causal adequacy, the argument for intelligent design as the best explanation also affirms the demonstrated causal adequacy of an alternative cause, namely, intelligence. This argument does not omit a premise providing positive evidence or reasons for preferring an alternative cause or proposition. Instead, it specifically includes such a premise. Therefore, it does not commit the informal fallacy or arguing from ignorance. It's really as simple as that.
Premise Two: Cause Y can produce E.
Conclusion: Y explains E better that A through X.
How about answering the arguments of a real scientist who advocates intelligent design on scientific rather than Bible-thumping grounds -- a Douglas Axe or Ann Gauger, for example? How about a thoughtful critique of The Myth of Junk DNA or Signature in the Cell? A response to serious science bloggers like ENV's Casey Luskin or Jonathan M.?So, here's my response to the very best that the IDiots can offer.
On the surface this looks like a purely scientific statement. I'm sure that most creationists accept it at face value since the leaders of the movement have been saying for years that evolution can't account for specified complexity or irreducible complexity.Despite a thorough search, no material causes have been discovered that demonstrate the power to produce large amounts of specified information.
Stephen Meyer is a philosopher but he's confident that his knowledge of biology is sufficient to establish the truth of this claim. He says on page 341 ...
Undirected materialistic causes have not demonstrated the capacity to generate significant amounts of specified information.This is an important point since the logic of his argument depends on establishing that specified complexity can never arise from natural (materialistic) causes. You might think that a large part of this book would be devoted to backing up his premise. You would be wrong. Turns out, the real premise isn't exactly how it appears above.
Dennis Venema has written a critical review of Signature in the Cell and one of his criticisms is that there are many excellent examples of new information evolving by entirely materialistic mechansims that not violate the laws of physics and chemistry [Seeking a Signature]. We're all familiar with the examples of gene duplication and divergence but he might just as well have used dozens of other examples where specified complexity evolved. The wings of birds are for flying but they evolved from legs and fins. The irreducibly complex citric acid cycle evolved from simpler pathways.
These examples establish beyond a shadow of a doubt that there are perfectly reasonable, materialistic explanations for the evolution of specified complexity. That seems to negate Premise One.
Hang on. Meyer responds to the Venema criticism by pointing out that he was not referring to the origin just any specified information. He was only referring to the kind of specified information that appeared when life first formed. It's an origin of life problem.
The balance of [Venema's] review is spent refuting an argument that Signature in the Cell does not make and, thus, the evidence he cites is irrelevant to the main argument of the book; in short, Venema "refutes" a straw man. ... I happen to think -- but do not argue in Signature in the Cell -- that there are significant grounds for doubting that mutation and selection can add enough new information to account for various macroevolutionary innovations. Nevertheless, the book that Venema was reviewing, Signature in the Cell, does not address the issue of biological evolution, nor does it challenge whether mutation and selection can add new information to DNA. That is simply not what the book is about. Instead, it argues that no undirected chemical process has demonstrated the capacity to produce the information necessary to generate life in the first place. The book addresses the subject of chemical evolution and the origin of life, not biological evolution and its subsequent diversification. To imply otherwise, as Venema does, is simply to critique a straw man. [Stephen Meyer Resonds]Meyer is correct. The book is about the origin of life and the problem of getting information into DNA 3.5 billion years ago, before there were cells, and before evolution. Meyer isn't always clear about this distinction but the argument that he frames above is about the origin of life.
Here's how he should have expressed Premise One ...
After decades of research, biologists have good explanations of how specified information can arise by evolution but they do not have a good explanation of how life began 3.5 billion years ago.
He's referring, of course, to the fact that bees make beehives and beavers make dams. There are hundreds of examples where animals produce complex structures full of specified information. That's what he means by "intelligent causes." All of this creation obeys the laws of physics and chemistry, therefore the explanation is entirely materialistic.Intelligent causes have demonstrated the power to produce large amounts of specified information.
Don't forget that the argument is not about the creation of specified information throughout the history of life. It's about the ultimate origin of the information. Animals can create complex structures just as living cells can create new genes. What Meyer really wants to know is where do animals get this ability? Where did the information to create more information come from?
Animals evolved from more primitive ancestors. It's quite reasonable to postulate that all animals evolved from a common ancestor that had very rudimentary intelligence and that intelligence evolved from primitive neurons. Thus, the ability of intelligent animals to create complex structures—like pocket watches—ultimately traces back to the origin of life.
We can re-word Premise Two ...
Intelligent animals can produce large amounts of specified information by purely materialistic means. The ability to do this depends on the evolution of animals from the first living cells that arose 3.5 billion years ago.
This conclusion does not follow from either of the corrected premises.Intelligent design constitutes the best, most causally adequate, explanation for the information in the cell.
Here's a better conclusion.
All of the information we see in biology, including the ability of beavers to make dams, can be traced back to the information present in the first cells. We don't currently have a good explanation for how DNA and cells arose.It's difficult to see how you can squeeze a supernatural intelligent designer into this conclusion. Whenever we have good explanations for the origin of specified complexity, those explanations involve materialistic actions and not actions that require violation of the known laws of physics and chemistry. Beavers do not wave a wand to poof their dams into existance and bees don't get their beehives by praying for them
Therefore, it seems quite reasonable to assume that all examples of biological information arise by natural means, including the very earliest examples of DNA in the first cell.
(I don't address information theory, which takes up a significant part of the book for some unknown reason. See Jeffrey Shallit's take-down on Stephen Meyer in: More on Signature in the Cell.)
1. Atheists have the same problem. We're always going after the most stupid theists and avoiding the really sophisticated arguments for the existence of God. You'll find a list of those arguments at: A Challenge to Theists and their Accommodationist Supporters.