SO, I’ve been reading Stephen Meyer’s Signature in the Cell, I’m about three quarters through, and I have to say that it’s been an enjoyable read so far. Just as fun has been my reading group for this book with two biology majors, a biochemistry major, and a biological engineering major; they help explain the biology concepts to me.
The book’s undergone a lot of controversy; I was motivated to read it primarily by Thomas Nagel’s (in)famous recommendation. There’s a lot to criticize about the book, and people have pointed to possible errors in biology that I’m currently not in the position to assess. There are also some little errors. For example, Meyer writes, “It follows that mind–conscious, rational intelligent agency–what philosophers call “agent causation,” now stands as the only cause known to be capable of generating large amounts of specified information starting from a nonliving state” (341). Of course, this is not what philosophers call “agent causation”, so it’s an error, but it’s a “little error” because nothing of significance falls on it. (In my opinion, most of the critical blog posts on the net that I’ve read so far focus on little errors and not at all on Meyer’s overall argument for ID.) Also, the book is longer than it needs to be, although I often enjoy his excursions and illustrations.
But like the Buddha said, don’t just look at the finger, but at the awe-inspiring beauty that the finger is pointing to. And awe-inspiring the cell is with its magnificent complexity; DNA’s ability to replicate itself — through the whole exquisite translation/transcription process, which requires the existence of proteins, which in turn require the existence of DNA — is remarkable and defies summary.
And from what I can make of things, Meyer shows (or summarizes how others have shown) that none of the current theories that appeal only to non-intelligent causes can account for the existence of ‘specified information’ in such systems. We know that intelligent causes can account for such ‘specified information’. In fact, Meyer writes that intelligent design stands as “the only known cause of specified information-rich systems and, therefore, that ID provides the best, most causally adequate explanation for the origin of the information necessary to produce the first life” (330). I’ll say that I’m not convinced that the overall argument works, but I do find the discussion very interesting.
(Btw, I wonder if appealing so much to ‘information’ and ‘specified information’ and ‘specified complexity’ might distract. Why not just say, “THAT system, THAT process we see in the cell, THAT requires an explanation, no nonintelligent cause can account for those systems, and we know that intelligent causes can.” This might help the ID argument avoid some of the criticisms raised by Jeff Shallit. However, I suppose we would want to specify what property of those systems needed explaining, and we might get sucked back into appealing to specified information again. But isn’t it clear that some property X — even though we’re not sure how to specify X — of those systems needs explaining? Yes. And even though we don’t know how to carefully define X, isn’t it clear that the best explanations appealing to nonintelligent causes are failures in explaining the instantiation of X, and intelligence is known to be a causally adequate explanation of other instantiations of X? Yes. Again, it’s not obvious to me that we should infer intelligent design (even if we answer all of my rhetorical questions with ‘yes’), but I wonder whether it’s necessary to specify that property so long as we have a solid intuitive grasp.)
ALL THAT said, I was wondering what people thought about this little thought experiment Meyer uses.
Imagine a team of researchers who set out to explore a string of remote islands near Antarctica. After many days at sea, they arrive on an icy windswept shore. Shouldering their packs, the team hikes inland and eventually takes shelter from the bitter cold in a cave. There, by the light of a small campfire built to cook their freeze-dried rations, they notice a curious series of wedgelike markings vaguely reminiscent of Sumerian cuneiform. It occurs to them that perhaps these scratches in the rock constitute some sort of written language, but dating techniques reveal that the markings are far more than five hundred thousand years old, far older than any known human writing and, indeed, far older than anatomically modern human beings.
The researchers investigate other possibilities. Perhaps the markings are animal scratchings. Perhaps they were left by some sort of leeching process or by glacial action, perhaps in conjunction with winds bringing sand through gaps in ice at high speeds. After extensive research by investigators with a broad range of expertise, these and other explanations invoking purely mindless undirected causes fail to explain the evidence. An additional discovery reinforces this conclusion. In a broad cavern farther inside the cave, the explorers find a series of drawings on the wall of various fish, birds, and mammals… In the process of their painstaking investigation, the explorers make an inference. They note that, although the markings do not reveal the identity of the scribes, they do point to intelligent activity of some kind. (pp. 373-374)
In these cases, is it plausible to infer intelligence? Let’s stipulate that the investigators know that these markings had to have occurred before human language and drawing abilities developed. Would it still be plausible?