Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Detecting God's Signature

Stephen Meyer has two main objectives. He wants to prove that Intelligent Design Creationism is the best explanation for the origin of information in the cell and he wants to prove that Intelligent Design Creationism is genuine science.

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:
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 information in the cell.
Or, to put it more formally, the case for intelligent design made here has the form:
Premise One: Causes A through X do not produce evidence E.
Premise Two: Cause Y can produce E.
Conclusion: Y explains E better that A through X.
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.
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,
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.

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

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.

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

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.

Conclusion
Intelligent design constitutes the best, most causally adequate, explanation for the information in the cell.
This conclusion does not follow from either of the corrected premises.

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.

15 comments :

  1. Don't forget that "specified complexity" is an inchoate and bogus concept:

    http://recursed.blogspot.com/2009/10/stephen-meyers-bogus-information-theory.html

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  2. Jeffrey Shallit said,

    Don't forget that "specified complexity" is an inchoate and bogus concept: ...

    You mean it's possible that philosopher Meyer isn't an expert on information science either?

    But ... but ... he even has photographs of Claude Shannon and William Dembski.

    And none of you!

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  3. P.S. I added a link to Shallit's review of Signature in the Cell.

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  4. What Jeff said. Claiming the existence of a poorly-defined (and likely incoherent) quantity as "evidence" qualifies your claim to get summarily dismissed.

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  5. Hum, but if we go back to the first premise, and even if Meyer is lying or not does to matter:

    Larry said:
    he's trying to refute the accusation that Intelligent Design Creationism is nothing more than an argument from ignorance

    First premise as quoted from Meyer is:
    Premise One: Despite a thorough search, no material causes have been discovered that demonstrate the power to produce large amounts of specified information.

    (Bold added by myself)

    Now, how on Earth is that not an argument from ignorance? Premise two does not change the fact that Meyer relies on the ignorance about "material causes" for "specified information." Thus, his refutation fails at the try first premise. No need to continue.

    Everything else is just candy for the skeptic:
    If he is referring to origin of life, how does he know that such first life(s) required "large amounts" of "specified information"?

    I could continue, but that's giving them more to "refute" which means more positions for them to add red-herrings ...

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  6. I think ... that things simply didn't need to happen the way they think they needed to happen. If you're looking for a way to get 'information' in the form of DNA, you have to recognise its physical constraints, and its liikely origin - RNA. DNA is tightly constrained by stereochemistry, is chemically rather inert, and it's 'code-like' nature a derived state. This isn't an 'OOL' molecule!

    RNA ribozymes aren't a 'code', they are chemically active units, just as much as proteins. There could be many more bases in 'ancient RNA'; it is not constrained by stereochemistry in the helix, nor by the need to offer a restricted coding set for protein synthesis. But as the move is made towards DNA synthesis from RNA, only a restricted set will actually work - not for informatic reasons, but for physicochemical ones. The DNA code 'crystallises' out of a prior, non-code arrangement, which needed to replicate, but not to code for anything.

    So I think the 'informatic' approach is weak at best. RNA, proteins and DNA are real, chemically interactive 'stuff', not abstract symbols.

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  7. ...no undirected chemical process has demonstrated the capacity to produce the information necessary to generate life in the first place.

    Meyer hoists himself by his own petard with this response. We can just as confidently state that no unspecified intelligent agent outside of currently known intelligent agents has ever demonstrated the capacity to produce the information necessary to generate life in the first place. In fact, neither has any unspecified intelligent agent outside of currently known intelligent agents ever demonstrated the ability to produce the information necessary to modify life after it began.

    Meyer wants to use a sleight of hand to leap from what we know about intelligent agents within the system to knowledge of a completely unspecified intelligent agent external to the system. But this is pure question begging.

    Remember, the question is whether or not an external intelligent agent is necessary to "start" the system. So if we assume for a moment that the answer is no, then intelligent agents within the system necessarily will have arisen through undirected processes. Thus, the truth of Premise 2 negates the validity of Premise 1 and the logical structure of the argument completely breaks down.

    Thus, from a logical perspective, proposing an external intelligent agent as a system starter has no logical advantage over not proposing one. Rather it has the distinct disadvantage of violating Ockham's Razor

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  8. In Premise One Meyer says no material cause can produce information.

    In Premise Two he says intelligent causes can produce information.

    This implies that the intelligent cause must be non material which puts the boots to IDiot claim that ID does not have a religious agenda.

    And what's with the "large amounts" ?

    Is there a threshold value for amount of information where material causes can produce information ?

    His argument, such as it is, is incoherent mumbo-jumbo.

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  9. ============
    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.
    ============

    ...and this is precisely why Stephen Meyer usually avoids the caveat that there are lots of examples and theory about how natural processes can produce new information/new specified complexity. If he mentions that point very much, his whole "uniformatarian" and "only explanation is intelligence" rhetoric falls apart.

    So, he puts in the caveats in just a few places, usually doesn't mention them, and then only drags them out in playing defense when the critics point out that, no, intelligence is not the only known cause of information/specified complexity.

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  10. Meyer's underlying assumption that intelligent agency is non-material is another can o' worms altogether.

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  11. This implies that the intelligent cause must be non material

    Actually the use of "material" in Meyer's premise isn't necessary to restrict the answer to immaterial causes. The requirement of intelligence to cause the origin of life does that all by itself. It seems most likely that Meyer adds the word "material" in his first premise just because he is so damned anxious to load the dice in favor of GoddIDit.

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  12. As far as I can tell, he presents no description of an alternative to evolutionary explanations.
    Much less any reason to accept that alternative.
    At best, he has an argument against evolutionary explanations.
    What is needed is an exposition of what "intelligent design" is like, and of the reasons that things that are "intelligently designed" turned out in such-and-such a way.
    For example, why does ID result in the human body being most similar (among all of the things that are "designed") to the bodies of chimps (and other apes)? Or, more generally, why does the variety of life have the appearance of being related by common descent with modification?

    TomS

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  13. Hi:

    I think that all of the ID arguments can be distilled in the claim that "prescriptive information/specified complexity cannot arise by an undirected process". They seem to believe that this is an absolute assertion that trascend the material world.

    I've been trying to tackle that claim, and that's why I made the following application:

    MolBox

    The purpose of this application is to test the claim that "prescriptive information" cannot arise from undirected natural laws.

    For this purpose, I provide an environment for simple molecules called "molboxes", which interact each-other according to some physical laws that can be either user-defined or random. The still unfulfilled main goal of the simulation is to achieve a set of "natural laws" that result in the formation of some self-replicating structure.

    Hopefully, if this application is available for a large number of users, eventually someone will get the right combination of natural laws (ideally, by mere chance).

    Among my influences to develop this application is this site

    Currently, MolBox is in a less-than-alpha status, yet it's already functional.

    MolBox can be downloaded from here:

    Executable

    Source Code

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

    Replace "Stephen Meyer" with "a natural philosopher from the early nineteenth century" and you will get basically the same statement. The whole point of evolution is to explain how a process of mixing and matching can generate massive amounts of new information. In making this statement Meyer seems to have basically ignored two hundred years worth of biology.

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  15. Even if specified complexity were uncontroversial, there is no reason natural selection could not create it and put it into the genome. Dembski's Law of Conservation of Complex Specified Information is disproven, on at least two grounds, not counting the issue of whether SC is ill-defined. So Meyer's assertion that Dembski's work is somehow a problem for origin of life studies is totally off base.

    In addition, as you note, Meyer seems to switch back and forth between thinking that there is no way to explain the information present in the first living organism, and thinking that there is no way of explaining the information that accumulates in the genome after that point. He constantly switches back and forth between these two (totally different) assertions without making this clear to his readers.

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