Stephen Meyer, Director of the Center for Science, and a leading proponent of intelligent design spoke at the Heritage Foundation with Jay W. Richards, Director of the DeVos Center for Life, Religion, and Family on August 10. He explained why intelligent design should be regarded as science, and the implications the recognition of a universal designer has for law and politics.
Richards said that America’s “founding consensus” involved belief in God, and his role as creator and source of the natural laws of physical science and the natural law of humanity (or moral law governing human nature). Natural law was held to ground positive (or human) law. This was the “background culture that was embedded with particular assumptions.” This was “not just a sectarian belief, but a public truth.” This reality remains American history, but from the late nineteenth century on it was incrementally repudiated by intellectuals and opinion leaders, until by the late twentieth century, it was generally repudiated by America’s leadership class.
But “the natural world … has continued to testify to something else … In the last few decades, a group of scholars, philosophers, natural scientists, lawyers … have been very interested in this question of public evidence … for existence of design generally, and for the existence of a creator in particular.”
Meyer has advanced intelligent design as essential for life for many years. His most recent book Return of the God Hypothesis develops “a more explicitly theological argument” concerning the design of life than he has previously.
Richards asked Meyer to define intelligent design. Meyer said that “intelligent design is the idea that there are certain features of life and the universe that are best explained by the action or activity of a designing intelligence or agent rather than as the result of an undirected material process, such as for example natural selection, or random mutations in the biological realm.” Importantly, “the activity of the designing agency is detectable by certain features that we see in nature.”
This is not “per se” an argument for the existence of God, but “an argument for the existence of a mind of some kind.” The question remains, however, whether or not the intelligence is “immanent,” (i.e., exists within the universe), or transcendent (beyond physical reality). The “panspermia” hypothesis holds that the source of design in biological reality is immanent to our universe.
A Transcendent Designer
In Return of the God Hypothesis, Meyer makes clear his belief that the designing intelligence transcends the universe. It is the source of design in inanimate as well as biological reality. Only in the twentieth century was there firm scientific evidence that the universe began to exist. This poses a problem for scientific materialism both from the standpoint of the lack of a physical cause for the universe, and by its fine tuning – the inconceivably precisely balanced physical constants at the moment that the universe began. Not one, but several of these are independently finely tuned. “No being within the cosmos could be responsible for the finely tuned conditions that would have made its later evolution possible.” Thus, the beginning of the universe, the fine tuning of the physical constants of the universe, the origin of life, and its later complex patterns all point to a transcendent designer. This evidence taken together “unequivocally supports a theistic design hypothesis.”
This is very different than the scientific picture of reality coming out of the late nineteenth century. That held that “the physical universe is eternal and self-existent.” This cosmology was upset by the discovery of the red shifting of light from other galaxies, which requires an expanding universe. Further, general relativity taught “that space itself is expanding.” Matter is not expanding “into a pre-existing space.” Looking at this in reverse, the universe must have had a limit in a point of infinite curvature of space and zero volume at the beginning of time.
Attempts to get around the origin of the universe have not been very successful, Meyer said. One thought is that models of the early universe near its beginning “privilege mathematics,” and that mathematics itself seems to generate the universe. But this in turn suggests a non-material beginning to the universe. Atheistic cosmologies are becoming increasingly bizarre, increasingly involving special pleading, Meyer said.
Identifying Design in Nature
With the appearance of design theorists, there has been the challenge of finding a clear indicator of design beyond the general impression of design in nature. Earlier scientists and philosophers groped to find such an indicator, although they sensed the presence of design. One indication of design is a case of overwhelming improbability, in which an intelligent source is the only reasonable alternative. He said that William Dembski’s 1998 book The Design Inference first proposed that “one of the functions of intelligence, of rational activity is to detect the activity of other rational agents.” Dembski’s example was the faces appearing on Mt. Rushmore. Similarly, written text, or parts in an engine show the presence of intelligent activity. Not only the improbability of the faces themselves, but the improbable arrangement of rubble below the mountain showed intelligent activity.
But another indicator of rational activity is what Dembski called specification. Here one looks for a “pattern match” that matches “tightly” with other experience, showing copying. It is not the kind of improbability of “a giraffe shaped cloud,” but a clear indication of the intentional copying of a pattern. On Mount Rushmore, “we recognize… the pattern of Jefferson or Lincoln or Washington or [Theodore] Rosevelt.” Meyer said that Dembski “has also been able to characterize that pattern-matching in a way that is more generalizable.” One can clearly see some purpose in design. Seeing the parts and arrangement of an internal combustion engine clearly shows its purpose. Similarly, the parameters necessary for life to be possible, and their agreement with the exquisitely fine-tuned physical constants of the universe show an intention to provide for life.
This evidence for design, Meyer said, “is very public.” At the level of this publicly available evidence, “you don’t even need to know … who the designer is,” Richards commented.
Meyer said that while Dembski was concerned with philosophical questions of how design can be detected, he was more concerned with information theory. By mid-twentieth century, many scientists believed that the transmission of hereditary characteristics “had something to do with DNA.” Francis Crick and James Watson discovered that in the interior of the “twisted ladder” of DNA there are subunits called “nucleotide bases.” In 1953 they suggested “that the molecule was set up to carry information in some way.” Crick, who was a World War II codebreaker, advanced the “sequence hypothesis” in 1957. The arrangement of nucleotide bases was proposed to be in accordance “with an independent symbol convention” which came to be known as the “genetic code.” It is this code that transmits instructions for the characteristics of an organism’s offspring. This hypothesis was confirmed by scientists over the next eight years. With this confirmation, “the information revolution comes to biology.”
Consequences for Materialistic Evolution
From this point on, information theory seems on a collision course with biological evolution. A conference at the Wistar Institute in 1966 attempted to reconcile what was now known about cellular biology with evolutionary theory. The latter depends on random mutations, which only degrade code. At the origin of life, Meyer said, the problem “is even more acute.” For there to be a living cell, there must be proteins, and for there to be proteins, there must be information coded in DNA. This resulted in an “impasse” in “origins of life research.” Richards commented that there is also the question of how “reproducing populations” developed. Additionally, new coded information is needed for evolution to proceed to more complex forms, which appear suddenly in the geologic sequence.
Random mutation and natural selection are not inconsequential. They do contribute to the life forms we see today. But “they do not do anything like a complete job of explaining” life as we see it. “Small scale variations or optimization of pre-existing systems” are well explained by natural selection, Meyer said. “But that mechanism does a poor job of explaining the origin of new forms of life.” This is called “morphological innovation.” A new function or a new form of life requires a new code. The problem of the origin of information occurs again and again as one proceeds through contemporary accounts of natural history.
Meyer said when he first considered the design inference as a student in the mid-1980s, his Ph.D. dissertation concerned historical science, or how scientists reconstruct the past in the absence of the ability to do experiments. He said he found that they use a method of “multiple competing hypotheses.” This involves using “the best explanation,” a method “commonly used … especially in historical sciences.” He found that the nineteenth century geologist, Charles Lyell, worked out this method. It is the explanation “which uniquely posits a cause which is known to produce the effect in question.” A good example is “where there’s smoke, there’s fire.” With genetic coding, we must look for the cause for the “production of digital information.” Mutations degrade information but are not able to generate new code. He said that while this is a severe problem in the evolution of life, it is even more acute in the origin of life. All attempts “to get from chemistry to code … have failed.”
He cited Henry Koffler, a microbiologist “who used the tools of information science” in his discipline, to say that “the creation of new information is habitually associated with conscious activity.” Meyer said that from words in a book, to information in a radio signal “we know of no exception” to that rule. “We always come to a mind, not a material process.” Thus, “using this method of inference to the best explanation, I developed a positive argument for intelligent design – that the digital code that we see in the DNA … is best explained by a prior intelligence because there’s only one known cause of the production of information, and that’s mind.”
Meyer observed that Bill Gates has developed extremely complex programs using programmers. Similarly, there must be a “master programmer” to account for the extreme design evident in the universe and the biosphere.
Meyer said we should then look for a “master programmer.” While genetic code could be explained by an immanent programmer, a cosmic programmer requires a transcendent one. Biological codes also show activity long after creation, pointing to theism rather than deism. Only theism is adequate to explain the “ensemble of evidence that we now have about biological, physical, and cosmological origins.”
Intelligent Design as Public Knowledge Relevant for Law and Politics
Richards said that this brings the possibility of an intelligent origin of life into the area of public truth. Meyer emphasized that the design inference is information that is available both to believers in particular religions and unbelievers. He said that in fact he used the same methods of reasoning (inference to the best explanation) to the natural past as Darwin used in the formulation of his theory of evolution.
Meyer then went on to say that the significance of God as a public truth in our world today is its bearing on the theories of the legal philosopher John Rawls. His doctrine of “public reason” held that justice requires the exclusion of comprehensive worldviews, especially religious worldviews, from law and politics. The government must be based on premises everyone agrees to. Broad agreement that fetal pain exists is thus one reason that late term abortion is widely banned. But the more general idea of freedom and human rights derives “from a specific worldview context.” Human rights come from the idea of human dignity, because human beings are made in the image of God. He noted that the Enlightenment political philosopher Thomas Jefferson spoke of “nature’s God.” It was believed in Jefferson’s day that “we know of God by examining nature.”
Today, people want to keep “the fruit of the tree” (human rights), but not the tree (the Christian worldview). Intelligent design, however, revives the tree. Rawlsian liberalism, on the other hand, proposes that all courses of action are illegitimate unless they are based on premises agreed to by everyone, an impossible standard. “The public square cannot be naked,” Meyer said. There must be a set of premises “that most people agree on at a deep worldview level. And that’s why the American experiment worked so well for so long.”
Intelligent design is thus extremely controversial, Richards said, precisely because it shows a transcendent intelligence to be public knowledge. Meyer observed that the philosophical definition of knowledge is “justified true belief.” Is it possible to have knowledge of God, Meyer asked. He said that intelligent design shows that it is indeed possible to have knowledge of God. This then can be a basis to begin to argue for human dignity and “universal human rights.” One can have a “scientifically informed worldview that involves theism, and that has positive consequences for our public life.”
A questioner asked if information “is what is primary in the universe and ourselves.” Meyer responded that nineteenth century science said that there are “two fundamental realities, there was matter, and there was energy.” He said that “the great discovery of the second half of the twentieth century,” aided in considerable measure by the computer revolution, but also by microbiology, is that there is a third fundamental reality, and that is information. Information, he said, “is necessary to make life possible, it’s necessary to make the universe possible.” What we know from uniform human experience is that “information always comes from the mind.”
Another questioner asked why God’s reality can’t be taught in public schools, if it was the basis for the American founding. Meyer that there is a sharp conflict between our rights and liberties which are based on belief in a transcendent God who gives human beings dignity, and the late twentieth century secularization of law and politics which has adopted a Rawlsian idea that religious ideas must be excluded from the public square. Even ideas that are implied by religious doctrine “can’t be discussed in the public square,” Meyer maintained. He said “our system of rights and liberties is based on a worldview that can no longer be discussed.” But if transcendent intelligence is a public reality, then a “theistic pluralism” (recognizing a deity active in the world without commitment to a specific religion) is possible. Thus, differences are possible in society, but without “certain basic principles, we can no longer exist as a free people.”
It was also asked: “Is there incompatibility between the ‘God of the gaps’ hypothesis and the inscrutability needed for open political debate?” Meyer said that he did not concede that his thesis of God as a public reality was a “God of the gaps” hypothesis. He said that a “God of the gaps” hypothesis is speculation from ignorance. If A is determined not to cause X, it does not follow that B causes X. Scientific inadequacy on some issue does not mandate any particular belief instead. We know enough about the origin of life to know that natural processes did not cause it, but we also in fact know that information is needed for life, and that information is always caused by a mind. This is not an argument from ignorance, but “from knowledge of the cause and effect structure of the world.” Regarding inscrutability, an argument from ignorance indeed causes a clash between a theistic basis for society and free and open debate, but if there is a strong rational basis for the existence of God, then there is no conflict between the theistic base on the one hand and rights and freedoms on the other. Rather, theism secures rights and freedoms.
Another objection concerned the criticism that with an infinity of opportunity, a well ordered world somewhere is bound to result (often expressed as a monkey on a typewriter eventually typing a Shakespearean sonnet). Meyer said that this is the multiverse response to the problem of fine-tuning. He said it is now the “go-to” materialistic explanation for the origin of the universe. But Meyer said that postulating other universes does not make anything happen in our universe. Consequently, atheists have had to postulate “universe generating mechanisms” to establish the probability that a life and intelligence possible universe is probable or inevitable. But such a mechanism would itself have to be fine-tuned. To use the typewriter example, there must be a typewriter correctly assembled with a good ribbon even to have the possibility of a monkey typing the works of Shakespeare. A fine-tuned mechanism, Meyer reminded the audience, has “multiple improbable parameters, that jointly work to accomplish a functional outcome.” All fine-tuned systems we know “arise from intelligent agents, so if there’s unexplained fine tuning with the multiverse hypothesis, it takes you right back to the need for an intelligent designer.”