Stephen Meyer Answers his BioLogos Critics

dd pictureStephen Meyer, Intelligent Design proponent and author of Darwin’s Doubt and Signature in the Cell, just posted a response to a Biologos series that critically reviewed his work. I think that the exchange represents a great example of constructive and respectful debate and I’m very interested to see how the conversation develops. Meyer puts his finger on what he believes to be the central issue: “In particular, . . . the central issue dividing the BioLogos writers from intelligent design (ID) theorists concerns a principle known as methodological naturalism (MN). MN asserts that scientists must explain all events and phenomena by reference to strictly naturalistic or materialistic causes. The principle forbids postulating the actions of personal agency, mind, or intelligent causation in scientific explanations and thus limits the explanatory toolkit of science to strictly material processes or physical causes.” My response:

  1. I agree with Meyer that current evolutionary theories seem inadequate to address the explosion of diverse new life (and the huge increase in information) associated with the Cambrian event. No current scientific theory sufficiently explains this (i.e., tells us precisely how this happened, or could even have been possible, in terms of clear causal mechanisms and links that account for the diversity and rapidity of the event). However, that’s not to say that no such explanation is possible or forthcoming. Also, contemporary scientists believe that multiple evolutionary mechanisms are at work (e.g., symbiogenesis, developmental constraints, and epigenetics; see Deb Haarsma’s response to Meyer here), not just one.

    On the issue of ID as a “scientific” explanation:
  2. So much depends, it seems to me, on how we are defining terms. Is “science” a body of knowledge or is “a science” a particular discipline related to a particular domain of knowledge, carrying along with it specific methods intrinsically related to its object of study? Or, is it in some sense both? If the first, then it seems to me that notions such as intelligent agency should be included in our discussion about what we might, with good warrant, infer from the “big picture” produced by scientific observations. But I think it should be noted that this is a kind of “meta-science”: It seems to me to be more like a scientifically grounded philosophy, which ties together various lines of observation and argumentation into a unifying philosophical framework. If we think of “science” in the second sense, we have to ask: what do appeals to non-physical explanations look like in particular scientific disciplines, such as physics or chemistry or biology? Does the rejection of methodological naturalism endorsed by ID only work with the broader “big picture” meta-questions related to origins and evolution, or does it also promise to provide useful knowledge within the particular disciplines and how they operate on a day-to-day basis, as they contribute incrementally to their respective domains of inquiry?
  3. Moreover, a potential problem for ID here is: what do we mean by intelligent agency? Meyer argues (in the words he quotes from Nelson) that “intelligence or mental activity is the only known cause of the origin of large amounts of functional or specified information.” O.K. (whether or not that’s true, I’ll leave to the scientists and information theorists), but granting that’s true, we know about agency of this kind always and only in relation to the physical beings that we observe carrying it out. It seems to me that Meyer is here conflating agency as we experience it (connecting intentions and purpose with the actual physical beings that perform actions) with an abstract notion of agency as a something attributed to a non-identified and non-physical Being. Philosophically, I’m quite comfortable with this, as an inference from what we observe to a (limited) metaphysical and theological explanation. But I wonder, once we move from agency associated with knowable, nameable, physical beings to an abstract notion of agency associated with an unnamed, invisible, and (probably) spiritual being, are we still within the domain of the sciences? And “sciences” in what sense? So, the move is not just from “agency as the only observed cause generating functional or specified information” + “functional or specified information actually in the world” to the inference of intelligent design, but “agency as the only observed cause generating functional or specified information” + “functional or specified information actually in the world” + the positing of an abstract notion of disembodied, unidentified, unnamed agency (which is fine theologically and philosophically, but perhaps not scientifically), leading to the meta-scientific inference of an intelligent designer.

An intriguing discussion for sure – I look forward to the responses and ongoing discussion. You can read Meyer’s post on the BioLogos website here. For the BioLogos series criticizing Meyer’s work, see here.

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