Thursday, December 10, 2009

Signature in the Cell by Stephen C. Meyer

My friend, Stephen C. Meyer, has recently published a book, Signature in the Cell: DNA and the Evidence for Intelligent Design (Harper One, 2009), that has drawn praise from the philosopher, Thomas Nagel (in the Times Literary Supplement), a compliment that, unsurprisingly, has drawn the ire of others.

I just reviewed the book on I gave it four stars, though not without voicing my deep reservations about the joint project with which Steve has aligned himself, the intelligent design movement. What follows is my review.


I carry no brief for Intelligent Design as defended by its leading advocates, Stephen C. Meyer, William A. Dembski and Michael Behe. In fact, in a forthcoming article in the St. Thomas Journal of Law and Public Policy--"How to Be An Anti-Intelligent Design Advocate"--I offer criticisms of the approaches of Meyer. Dembski, and Behe.

The ID advocate tries to detect instances of design in nature by eliminating chance and necessity (or scientific law). This implies that one has no warrant to say that the latter two are the result of an intelligence that brought into being a whole universe whose parts, including its laws and those events that are apparently random, seem to work in concert to achieve a variety of ends. But this is precisely the position advanced by Thomas Aquinas and most classical theists. In response, someone could say that an ID advocate who accepts a cosmic fine-tuning argument does in fact have warrant to believe that chance and necessity are the result of intelligence as well, since both function as parts of the Creator's plan for the universe's fine-tuning.But then, what happens to irreducible and specified complexity as criteria by which to eliminate non-agent causes of apparently designed effects in nature? Perhaps this is why some ID advocates are reticent to call their "designer" God, since it would mean that God creates everything ex nihilo and then returns now and again to tidy things up a bit when they seem to be going awry.

But, as Brad S. Gregory writes in the Fall 2009 issue of the journal Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture, this puts the ID advocates in the ironic position of sharing a philosophical assumption with the New Atheists, the latest apologists for Darwinian evolution who claim that it entails unbelief: "Advocates of intelligent design posit that ordinary biological processes of natural selection and genetic mutation can account for much but not everything in the evolution of species, the remainder requiring recourse to God's intervention. Insofar as proponents of intelligent design posit normally autonomous natural processes usually devoid of God's influence, they share important assumptions with the New Atheists...." Gregory points out the fallacy in this understanding of God's relationship to nature: "[P]erhaps in the past Darwinism wasn't explanatorily powerful enough to drive God out, but recent, further scientific findings no longer leave room for God." The result is a strange parallel of ferocious posturing between ID advocates and the New Atheists. Writes Gregory: "The intelligent design proponents scramble to find remaining places for supernatural intervention; the New Atheists claim there are none left. Both assume that God, conceived in spatial and quasi-spatial terms, needs `room' to be God--which is precisely what traditional Christian theology says God does not need."

Having said that, I do believe that Dr. Meyer's work ought to be taken seriously. It is not a defense of "creationism," or the grotesque neologism, "Intelligent design creationism." It is a critique of a materialist understanding of the origin of living organisms. And so in that sense, it is not even a critique of evolution, since the evolution of living organisms from a common ancestor by secondary causes is not inconsistent with living organisms having an intelligent primary cause.

There seems to be among the most vociferuous ID critics a case of the "guilt by association / genetic fallacy" tourrettes, a malady that manifests itself in the irrational practice of pointing out, like an involuntary vocal utterance, the religious beliefs and affiliations of some ID advocates, as if such revelations (pardon the pun) have any bearing on the quality of the arguments such advocates offer for their point of view. Consider just this example (though this "insight" can be multiplied many times over): "At heart, proponents of intelligent design are not motivated to improve science but to transform it into a theistic enterprise that supports religious faith." (Barbara Forrest, "The Newest Evolution of Creationism: Intelligent Design is About Politics and Religion, Not Science," Natural History 111.3 [Apr. 2002]: 80). It is bewildering to me why any serious person would think that what we teach our students is a logical fallacy ("the genetic fallacy") should have a place in our public conversation on such divisive issues. Just as it would be wrong for anyone to dismiss the arguments of ID critics because a disproportionate number of them are aggressive atheists and social liberals in comparison to the general population, it is wrong for these ID critics to dismiss the arguments of ID supporters because most of them are theists of some sort or another.

Nevertheless, I am not convinced that the sort of design detected by ID advocates defeats materialism, since, as I noted above, ID advocates appear to be offering a more sophisticated version of one of the bad side affects of the Enlightenment: gaps in laws and chance are the very places in which God (or a non-natural intelligent agent) may enter. I can, however, see why someone may find this approach promising. But, as a Thomist, I think it accepts too many of the assumptions of the approach to philosophy that gave us the problems in the first place.


For more on Thomism and intelligent design, go to my October 2, 2009 post for links and references.


Latenter said...

This viewpoint, though, seems at odds with the God of the bible. In the bible we see God leading the Israelites in a cloud, sending stone tablets, sending Himself to die, revealing himself, etc.

Can't we level the same criticism against all this? Namely, that it conflicts with a God who could have made the universe to serve his purposes in one fell swoop. Couldn't he have made us to just no Him, etc.? He seems very much to be returning "now and again to tidy things up a bit when they seem to be going awry."

I'm probably misunderstanding, but this seems to be a problem.

Latenter said...

And even if I grant (which seems fair enough) that the difference is the fall, what does the Thomist make of the Genesis account? Does it not at least teach progressive creation rather than one creative moment? And if it does that, what's so wrong with the ID approach?

Unknown said...

Ever since I came across your and Ed Feser's critiques of ID this fall I've been fascinated... it's prompted me to actually start reading my copy of "The Last Superstition", as well as get a copy of IP's republication of Gilson's "From Aristotle to Darwin and Back Again" and to wait rather impatiently for the online publication of your own article that you referenced here. That, and read some of the other articles you've linked to previously.

As I said... fascinating!

Unknown said...

Dr. Beckwith,

Have you read the books, _Finding Darwin's God_ and _Only a Theory_, the content of which more than a few Catholics use to bludgeon the ID-sympathizer-heretics among them for whom their scorn is palpable, the books Gregory so approvingly cites?

I've asked questions that echo those Bert Power has asked you of the Catholics who find every opportunity to sneer at ID / ID sympathizers, but I have NEVER been given a responsive answer.


Latenter said...

I now see that Prof. Beckwith writes:

"It would be one thing if the ID advocates were only offering their point of view as a mere hypothesis subjected to the usual give and take in scientific and philosophical discourse. (In fact, my earlier work on ID assumed as much). But that in fact is not the case. It has over the years morphed into a movement that treats the soundness of its arguments as virtually essential to sustaining the rationality of theism itself. Steve Meyer, for example, suggests that before the 20th century’s advances in biochemistry and microbiology, immaterialism and teleology were down for the count. But now ID stands ready, Meyer contends, to triumphantly procure these advances to help restore “some of the intellectual underpinning of traditional Western metaphysics and theistic belief.” Who knew?"

If all Prof. Beckwith is saying is that design does not stand or fall with irreducible complexity, then I have no gripe.

But I think Profs. Feser and Beckwith sometimes give the impression that irreducible complexity is somehow at odds with Thomistic design; and I would like them to be clear that this is not so.

Thomists like John Haldane, for example, are very clear in saying that there is design in both places. That irreducible complexity is a sufficient but not necessary indication of a designer.

Is that the position Prof. Beckwith takes as well?

Latenter said...

One other thing. For those of you (unlike me, I must admit!) who have actually read *Signature*, isn't this very in line with Thomistic Design? Much more so than miraculous mutations that an irreducible complexity ID person might support?

Isn't the argument essentially that DNA carries so much information and whatnot that if it were not somehow fundamental to the universe it couldn't have come about? I.e. if the universe were not designed from the start life wouldn't have evolved? Or maybe even that DNA reeks of final causality? Maybe I'm wrong, but this seems Thomistic to me!

And, on a tangential note, Thomas Nagel seems disposed to this in The Last Word where he concludes:

“the capacity of the universe to generate organisms with minds capable of understanding the universe is itself somehow a fundamental feature of the universe.”

And while admitting that this “has a quasi-religious ‘ring’ to it, something vaguely Spinozistic,” maintains that “one can admit such an enrichment of the fundamental elements of the natural order without going over to anything that should count literally as a religious belief” (p. 132).

Still, he admits that “if one asks, ‘Why is the natural order such as to make the appearance of rational beings likely?’ it is very difficult to imagine any answer to the question that is not teleological” (p. 138 n)

Sorry about how disparate my posts have been!

Martin Peter Clarke said...

I really don't know why people bother.

Materialism wins hands down until it refutes itself in Fermi's paradox.