Science & Faith
11/2/13 at 03:31 PM 47 Comments

Meyer's Design Argument: Crippled by "God of the Gaps" Flaw?

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We are making progress here interacting with comments under "Science & Faith" blogs. Thanks everyone for participating. See, for example, the comment dialogue under my last coverage of Charles Marshall's review in Science vs. Stephen Meyer's book Darwin's Doubt. The objection and reply section of my last post could have discussed the "god of the gaps" charge against Meyer that Marshall (and comment authors here at CP) have launched. We shall address that charge in today's blog instead, as I had promised. In so doing, I shall weigh in on some of the comments under my last few blogs on Meyer vs. Marshall.

Marshall's third paragraph in his eight-paragraph review of Meyer reads:

Meyer's scientific approach is negative. He argues that paleontologists are unable to explain the Cambrian explosion, thus opening the door to the possibility of a designer's intervention. This, despite his protest to the contrary, is a (sophisticated) "god of the gaps" approach, an approach that is problematic in part because future developments often provide solutions to once apparently difficult problems.

Meyer explains how this "god of the gaps" characterization of the argument in Darwin's Doubt is entirely inaccurate. (I quote from this piece by Meyer here and throughout my blog).

First, although I do acknowledge in the last chapter of Darwin's Doubt that the case for intelligent design has implications that are friendly to theistic belief (since all theistic religions affirm that the universe and life are the product of a designing intelligence), the scientific argument that I make does not attempt to establish the existence of God. Instead, I attempt merely to show that key features of the Cambrian animals (and the pattern of their appearance in the fossil record) are best explained by a designing intelligence -- a conscious rational agency or a mind -- of some kind. Thus, my argument does not qualify as a God-of-the-gaps argument for the simple reason that the argument does not attempt to establish the existence of God.

Intelligent design, as a scientific theory, is incapable of providing an argument for the existence of God as depicted in the Bible or other candidates for divine revelation. One can, of course, offer a cumulative case for God's existence, such as is found in many of these resources, in which scientific evidence plays a role. However, such a cumulative argument is only possible if we include what we know from other fields such as history and philosophy.

Meyer then takes up another aspect of Marshall's "gaps" challenge:

By claiming that my approach is a purely negative one based solely upon "gaps" in our knowledge or in the evolutionary account of the Cambrian explosion, Marshall implies that Darwin's Doubt makes a fallacious kind of argument known to logicians as an "argument from ignorance." Arguments from ignorance occur when evidence against a proposition X is offered as the sole (and conclusive) grounds for accepting some alternative proposition Y. Arguments from ignorance make an obvious logical error. They omit a necessary kind of premise, a premise providing positive support for the conclusion, not just negative evidence against an alternative conclusion. In an explanatory context, arguments from ignorance have the form:

Premise One: Cause X cannot produce or explain evidence E.

Conclusion: Therefore, cause Y produced or explains E.

Marshall claims that Meyer's book is merely an argument of this fallacious form. In Marshall's own words: "He [Meyer] argues that paleontologists are unable to explain the Cambrian explosion, thus opening the door to the possibility of a designer's intervention." Marshall hints that design advocates use our present ignorance of any materialistic cause of the new functional information that appeared in the Cambrian explosion as the sole basis for concluding that an intelligent cause was responsible for the origin of such biological information. Meyer paraphrases Marshall's argument this way:

Premise: Materialistic causes or evolutionary mechanisms cannot produce novel biological information.

Conclusion: Therefore, an intelligent cause produced specified biological information.

Meyer corrects this common misconception of ID:

But the inference to design as developed in Darwin's Doubt does not commit this fallacy. True, the book does offer several evidentially based (and mathematically rigorous) arguments against the creative power of the mutation/natural selection mechanism (none of which Marshall refutes). And clearly, this lack of knowledge of any adequate materialistic evolutionary cause of, for example, the biological information necessary to produce novel forms of animal life, does provide part of the grounds for the inference to intelligent design presented in Darwin's Doubt. (However, it is probably more accurate to characterize this "absence of knowledge" as knowledge of inadequacy, since it derives from a thorough assessment of causal powers -- and limitations -- of various materialistic evolutionary mechanisms). In any case, the argument presented in the book is not, as Marshall claims, a "purely negative" and, therefore, fallacious argument based on the inadequacy of various materialistic evolutionary mechanisms (or gaps in our knowledge).

Meyer's parenthetical qualification is consistent with a point I make in my Reasoning course each fall by quoting our Power of Critical Thinking textbook that is authored by an atheist (Lewis Vaughn). Vaughn correctly observes that if we engage in a careful and thorough search for something that would likely be found if it existed as theorized (e.g., unicorns, or life "poofing" into existence without intelligent design from a nonliving collection of chemicals), then “the failure to find what we're looking for can show that it probably isn't there.” Vaughn agrees with Meyer about this general methodological procedure: that in some cases it is more accurate to characterize an "absence of knowledge" as "knowledge of inadequacy." In what cases would this apply? Although Vaughn does not apply this to the case at hand, Meyer's book demonstrates that part, but not all, of the case for ID derives from a "thorough assessment of causal powers -- and limitations -- of various materialistic evolutionary mechanisms"--a search that finds such unintelligent processes woefully inadequate to explain the Cambrian explosion of animal life.

How does Meyer go beyond making a negative argument against Darwinism (even though that is legitimate on its own), and also develop a positive argument for intelligent design?

The book makes a positive case for intelligent design as an inference to the best explanation for the origin of the genetic (and epigenetic) information necessary to produce the first forms of animal life (as well as other features of the Cambrian animals such as the presence of genetic regulatory networks that function as integrated circuits during animal development). It advances intelligent design as the best explanation not only because many lines of evidence now cast doubt on the creative power of unguided evolutionary mechanisms, but also because of our positive, experience-based knowledge of the powers that intelligent agents have to produce digital and other forms of information as well as integrated circuitry. As I argue in Chapter 18 of Darwin's Doubt:

Intelligent agents, due to their rationality and consciousness, have demonstrated the power to produce specified or functional information in the form of linear sequence-specific arrangements of characters. Digital and alphabetic forms of information routinely arise from intelligent agents. A computer user who traces the information on a screen back to its source invariably comes to a mind -- a software engineer or programmer. The information in a book or inscription ultimately derives from a writer or scribe. Our experience-based knowledge of information flow confirms that systems with large amounts of specified or functional information invariably originate from an intelligent source. The generation of functional information is "habitually associated with conscious activity." Our uniform experience confirms this obvious truth.

Contrast the scientific inference to intelligent design as Meyer describes it with the way NYSkeptic (one of my comment authors here) misunderstands it in his satire:

The POOF THEORY must be considered for a Nobel Prize. It has amazing explanatory value as it explains EVERYTHING. Explanatory power is the bedrock of science and the POOF THEORY certainly meets that criteria. It can explain everything and anything no matter what. No data no problem "poof" can explain it. Strange experimental result? No problem "poof" can explain it. It also should be considered because it can do two opposite things at the same time - as it explains everything and nothing at the same time. Nobel worthy stuff indeed!

NYSkeptic himself is an intelligent agent who produced the paragraph above, which constitutes an example of what Meyer called "digital forms of information" or "linear sequence-specific arrangements of characters." DNA carries this sort of information too, and this (and epigenetic information) is needed to provide the instructions to build new animal body plans, such as those that first appeared in the early Cambrian period. Intelligent agency can produce such effects, and this is not magic or "poof" phenomena. The generation of functional information (such as NYSkeptic's paragraph) is routinely traceable back to the conscious activity of intelligent beings like NYSkeptic.

Remember that jolting disconnect (documented here) between Marshall's speculation (as expressed in a review of Meyer's book that NYSkeptic and a few other commenters here claim was devastating) and our vast knowledge of developmental biology. No developing animal embryo that we have observed has the kind of significantly variable developmental gene regulatory network (dGRN) that the evolution of new body plans requires (as Darwinists like Marshall have stated). Those, like Marshall, who speculate about significantly variable dGRNs in the early Cambrian period are offering an argument from ignorance, and yet they often accuse ID theorists of arguing from ignorance. Ironic. The most reasonable conclusion, based on what we now know about dGRNs, indicates that these functional control systems were crafted by a designing intelligence to direct embryological development with a very tight level of control in order to maintain the functional integrity of each animal embryo.

So, Marshall and like-minded advocates like NYSkeptic seem driven by their own deep beliefs to engage in the following sort of non-evidential gap filling procedure: "the tendency to affirm as true what evolutionary theory requires, even if that contradicts what we know from experiment and observation about how biological systems actually work." This approach does not inspire confidence among critically thinking people, whether they are scientists or ordinary folks.

Returning to Meyer, we read:

Thus, the inadequacy of proposed materialistic evolutionary causes or mechanisms forms only part of the basis of the argument for intelligent design. We also know from broad and repeated experience that intelligent agents can and do produce information-rich systems and integrated circuitry. We have positive experience-based knowledge of a cause sufficient to generate new specified information and integrated circuitry, namely, intelligence. We are not ignorant of how information or circuitry arises. We know from experience that conscious, rational agents can create such information-rich structures and systems. To again quote information theorist Henry Quastler: "creation of new information is habitually associated with conscious activity."7 Indeed, whenever large amounts of specified 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 a large discontinuous increase in the functional information content of the biosphere as we do in the Cambrian explosion, we may infer -- based on our knowledge of established cause-effect relationships -- that a purposive intelligence operated in the history of life to produce the functional information necessary to generate those forms of animal life.

This is not a fallacious form of argument in which design is inferred solely from a weak negative premise. Instead, Meyer's case for intelligent design takes the following form:

Premise One: Despite a thorough search and evaluation, no materialistic causes or evolutionary mechanisms have demonstrated the power to produce large amounts of specified or functional information (or integrated circuitry).

Premise Two: Intelligent causes have demonstrated the power to produce large amounts of specified/functional information (and integrated circuitry).

Conclusion: Intelligent design constitutes the best, most causally adequate, explanation for the specified/functional information (and circuitry) that was necessary to produce the Cambrian animals.

I explain to college freshman each fall that there are three major classes of inductive arguments used in the natural and social sciences:

  1. Enumerative induction
  2. Analogical induction
  3. Inference to the best explanation

The argument for the intelligent design of the major kinds of animals developed in Meyer's Darwin's Doubt takes the form of an "inference to the best explanation" based upon our best available knowledge. In order to establish an explanation as "best," a scientist who is studying the history of nature (e.g., origin of animal body plans) must provide positive evidence for the causal adequacy of a proposed cause. Meyer explains how to do this.

Unlike an argument from ignorance, an inference to the best explanation does not assert the adequacy of one causal explanation merely on the basis of the inadequacy of some other causal explanation. Instead, it asserts the superior explanatory power of a proposed cause based upon its established -- its known -- causal adequacy, and based upon a lack of demonstrated efficacy, despite a thorough search, of any other adequate cause. The inference to design, therefore, depends on present knowledge of the causal powers of various materialistic entities and processes (inadequate) and intelligent agents (adequate).

This is standard scientific methodology, folks. The argument to design from biological information also exemplifies the routinely applied uniformitarian method employed within the historical sciences (theories about the history of nature). Meyer's PhD work at Cambridge University (now very mature decades later) explains it this way:

The uniformitarian method affirms that "the present is the key to the past."9 In particular, the principle specifies that our knowledge of present cause-effect relationships should govern how we assess the plausibility of inferences we make about the causes of events in the remote past. Determining which explanation, among a set of competing alternatives, constitutes the best depends on knowledge of the causal powers of the possible explanatory entities, knowledge that we acquire through our repeated observation and experience of the cause-and-effect patterns of the world.10 Such knowledge, not ignorance, undergirds my inference to intelligent design from the features of the Cambrian animals. It no more constitutes an argument from ignorance than any other well-grounded inference in geology, archeology or paleontology -- where present knowledge of cause-effect relationships guides the inferences that scientists make about events in the past.

This is not "poof" theory or "god-of-the-gaps" argumentation. ID might seem unsavory to those like Marshall and our own NYSkeptic who tacitly presuppose that materialistic causes will ultimately be capable of explaining the entire history of life, and that only such explanations count as scientific explanations (which is a philosophical assumption imposed on science). Yet, as Meyer patiently explains to many who have troubles understanding or accepting it:

 We know from our uniform and repeated experience that some types of phenomena -- in particular, information-rich sequences and systems -- do not arise from mindless, materialistic processes. For just this reason, no rational person would, for example, insist that the inscriptions on the Rosetta Stone in the British museum must have been produced by purely materialistic causes such as wind and erosion.

Meyer concludes with this:

Yet Marshall and many other evolutionary biologists maintain an a priori commitment to purely materialistic explanation for all events in the history of life, even events such as the Cambrian explosion that necessarily involve the generation of massive amounts of new functional information. By privileging prior commitments to a purely materialistic account of evolutionary history over our present knowledge of cause and effect -- in particular, our knowledge that intelligent agents, and only intelligent agents, produce information-rich systems and structures -- Marshall and others disregard the methodological imperatives of the uniformitarian method, privileging what we don't observe (about what happened in the evolutionary past) over what we do observe (the causal powers of various entities and processes). Thus, ironically, Marshall does precisely what he thinks he sees me doing: he allows his own prior commitment to a belief system -- evolutionary materialism -- to trump objective analysis of the observational evidence.

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