How Meyer lost the Ward/Meyer debate

At the recommendation of my good friend Mr. Admin at the Manawatu Christian Apologetics society, I’ve looked up the transcript of the debate between Stephen Meyer, of the Discovery Institute, and Peter Ward (whom Mr. Admin refers to as “Peter May” for some reason), a paleontologist at the University of Washington. Mr. Admin claims that “Your guy lost” (according to the Discovery Institute, anyway). But ID fans are easily impressed by anyone who stands up and agrees with them. My question is, did Meyer present any actual scientific support for his position? Let’s look at Meyer’s arguments (plus some of Dr. Ward’s remarks).

When we argue for design, we’re not arguing based on a negative assessment of the powers of various naturalistic mechanisms—natural selection, for example. It’s not just a critique of natural selection: this is so complex natural selection couldn’t produce it; therefore, it was designed. That’s not our argument… [We’re] making a positive case for design based upon our knowledge—not our ignorance but our knowledge—of the cause and effect structure of the world.

This is a key component of the “spin” ID’ers use to make their argument from ignorance sound like it’s not an argument from ignorance. “We’re not arguing from ignorance,” they claim, “we’re arguing from what we do know.” Except that what they’re saying about “what we do know” is that it does not [currently] contain detailed information about how natural processes might go about producing evolution. By saying that “what we do know does not tell us anything about X,” they’re just saying, in a roundabout way, that we don’t know about X, we’re ignorant about X. Whether you argue that X is false because it’s part of what we don’t know, or because it’s not part of what we do know, you’re still arguing ad ignorantium. Meyer is just trying to put enough spin on his argument to make it sound like something it’s not.

It is part of our knowledge that there is a cause that is sufficient to produce digital code. We know that that cause is intelligence. From our own experience—Bill Gates, for example, has said that DNA is like a software program only much more complex than any that has ever been written. Now we know from experience that when you build things that function like software code, inevitably there’s a mind or an intelligence involved… The key methodological maxim that [Darwin and Lyelle] enjoined upon historical scientists was a very much commonsense idea, which is that if you’re trying to explain the past, you shouldn’t invent exotic causes of the sort we’ve never seen in operation. But rather you should invoke causes that are known to produce the effect in question. Lyell’s way of framing that was to say we should be looking for “presently acting causes.” Well, I asked the question: what’s the presently acting cause of digital code? We know of only one; that’s intelligence. So we’re not arguing from our ignorance of cause and effect process but rather our knowledge of it.

In his introductory remarks, Meyer made an appeal based on the argument by analogy: because we can compare certain cell structures to machines and digital information, those cell structures are machines and digital information. And by “machine,” of course, he presumes that the structures in question were artificially designed, an assumption that turns the cell structures into evidence that the structures were artificially designed. (See begging the question.) But look how he artfully re-arranges the facts so that they look like something they’re not: Today, there is a known cause sufficient to explain the origin of digital data in electronic media. We also know that this intelligence did not exist at the time life began.

We also know that the “digital data” we find in living cells is data that is, in fact, generated by purely natural, biochemical processes. The genetic and developmental data that specifies you as a unique individual is data that did not exist before your conception. Undirected, natural processes assembled simpler components into more complex structures and processes that ultimately produced the unique, non-pre-existent data that specified what characteristics you were going to have.

If Meyer is serious about explaining things in terms of what we do know, then he ought to be basing his explanations on the natural processes we already know about, that are already being observed to create what he calls “digital data,” instead of appealing to an alleged “intelligence” about which we know pretty much nothing and for which there is no evidence.

Meyer does grudgingly concede one point:

WARD: You’re an old-earth creationist.

MEYER: Well, whatever you want to call it.

No comment. Let’s look at Meyer’s claim that ID is scientifically testable.

I think there are a number of key tests of intelligent design. All historical theories are tested in two ways. The first is in their ability to explain already-known facts… The test is what theory best explains the information embedded in DNA? Where “best” is determined by what we know about the cause and effect structure of the world.

Now here is a key point. What’s the difference between explaining something scientifically, and merely attributing it superstitiously to some magical cause? The difference is that the scientific explanation starts with a specific description of the proposed cause, then describes how the proposed cause produces the observed effect, in sufficient detail that we can determine the specific, measurable consequences we would be able to observe if that particular cause existed/operated in the real world. The superstitious attribution, by contrast, merely attributes an observed effect to an unobserved/unobservable cause, without the part that provides us with enough real-world detail that we can verify the hypothesis (or disprove it) by checking whether or not the associated consequences can be found in the real world.

Meyer’s “test” of ID is merely an appeal to superstition. ID specifically avoids giving any kind of detailed description of the Designer to whom they attribute the things they claim are “explained” by ID. What’s more, they not only fail to provide evidence that the design process occurred, they can’t even describe what such a process would consist of, let alone giving us enough real-world detail that we could reasonably determine what measurable consequences would result from such a process occurring in the real world.

Meyer “tests” ID the same way a publisher “tests” a science fiction story to see if it’s good enough to publish. Does it sound plausible? Is it appealing? Is it the sort of thing that a lot of people would be willing to buy? Notice, too, that Meyer brings in his argument from ignorance, disguised as an argument from knowledge: “‘best’ is determined by what we know about the cause and effect structure of the world.” This is a code phrase meaning that if scientists cannot give a molecule-by-molecule description of how natural forces produce evolutionary results, then God did it. Science’s ignorance is ID’s “knowledge”–where science says “we don’t yet know, ” ID says “therefore we do know.” But they’re not arguing from ignorance, nooooo.

WARD: But Steven, to answer that question, is that the test you’re going to do? Is it ribozyme . . . ?

MEYER: The key test is this: show me a process that generates information, and large amounts of specified information, without the guidance of an intelligent agent.

“Because if you, Dr. Ward, do not know the exact process, then your ignorance gives me the argument I need in order to support ID. But I’m not arguing from ignorance, nooooo….”

I think, first of all, there are many things that Darwinian evolution can explain, okay? But there are some very key things that Darwinian evolution, and in particular chemical evolutionary theory of the origin of first life, cannot and has not explained… [T]he fact that these evolutionary theories have not been able to explain the origin of the first information is not a minor anomaly.

“And the lack of current Darwinian knowledge about how such things work, the current Darwinian ignorance regarding the origin of life, is evidence for ID. But I’m not arguing from ignorance. Gosh, no. Heck.”

Bruce Alberts had an article in Cell saying that to be effective cell biologists in the age of molecular machines, we need to be training our students as design engineers. And my colleague Jonathan Wells has taken that up with some seriousness. And he says, he’s interested in a particular form of cancer. He has a hypothesis about what has caused it, and he is applying principles of design engineering to understand the functioning of centrioles. He hypothesizes that they are functioning on the same principles as turbines. They not only look like turbines but they actually are turbines. He’s had a Boeing engineer help him work up some of the mathematical calculations, and he’s now able to explain some of the effects that may be responsible for a particular form of cancer. So he’s using an explicitly design theoretic framework to guide his research in the hopes that we discover some new things that wouldn’t have otherwise .

This, at least, is an attempt at decent science. Too bad Wells’s ID-based hypothesis turned out to be completely wrong.

Well, I think we’ve got about the tone of this debate. Meyer is a spin doctor, and he’s good at spinning things so that they look like what they’re not. In a way, though, he does give us some very substantial evidence: as an old-earth creationist, Meyer believes in God, believes that God is real. And yet look at what he’s doing. He’s going on and on, offering superstitious attributions as though they were scientific explanations, making arguments from ignorance while denying that he’s arguing from ignorance, looking up research papers to quote from, making vague, scientific-sounding predictions, etc. etc–all in an attempt to prove that billions of years ago, something that in some respects was somewhat like God might have actually done something in the real world.

Now I ask you, if there really were an all-wise, all-powerful, all-loving God who so badly wanted a personal relationship with each of us that He was willing and able to die and rise again so that we could be together, would Christians need to resort to trying to argue that there might be some genuine evidence that something similar to God might have done something tangible in the real world in the long-gone mists of ancient pre-history?

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: it’s an undeniable fact that God does not show up in the real world, and the ID debate gives us a huge corroboration of the fact that this is true. If the Gospel were really true, there would be no need to make such obscure, technical arguments about what might or might not have taken place billions of years ago, because God would be showing up to participate in the relationship He allegedly did so much to make possible. The fact that Christians even need to resort to an ID-based apologetic is itself powerful evidence that their Gospel is not consistent with real-world truth.

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