Thursday, February 25, 2010

Is design an inference?

Steve Matheson is blogging his way through Meyer's new book Signature in the Cell chapter by chapter, and in his most recent post, he asked for my opinion on chapter 7. So here are my thoughts on a single chapter of Signature in the Cell. This is not a review or a critique but rather an expansion of what Meyer wrote. Think of it as "The Rest of the Story."

To start with, I want to say that I generally agree with Meyer about the origin of life (OOL) problem. Given what I know of the issue (and as a biochemist, I think I can give an informed opinion), a naturalistic OOL seems quite intractable. I think there are certain issues (e.g., homochirality, phospholipid bilayer assembly) that are insurmountable without outside "help." From what he's written, I think Matheson would say something like, "Hey, science has figured out so much in the past using naturalistic explanations, why just give up on OOL?" (Perhaps that's an oversimplification and Steve will correct me.) Ultimately, we'll have to agree to disagree, because I just don't care all that much about OOL, and I'm not going to bother arguing about it. Yes, that's right, I don't care about the origin of life. I'll explain that later, but first, chapter 7.

My first impression of the book was that it was HUGE. By huge, I mean 500 pagesof text with an extra hundred pages of copious notes and bibliography. I skipped the first six chapters and read only chapter 7. Oddly enough, I felt like I missed nothing. Chapter 7 has several pages of material that describe Meyer's graduate experience. I guess that material is there to make the book more readable? Or to make it accessible to the public? I don't know. What I do know is that I felt kind of intimidated as I read it. Meyer went to Cambridge after all, and he described here several witty little anecdotes about his run-ins with Nobel prize winners. OK, I met James Watson once, and I heard a lecture from Stanley Miller in grad school. Otherwise, I'm pretty much nobody in the world of science. If Meyer's intention was to dazzle me with his credentials, it worked. At least until he got back to the actual content of the book. Then I wasn't so dazzled anymore.

What about the content? Well, I didn't have much to say at first. I think Steve Matheson was fishing for possible errors or distortions on Meyer's part, but I didn't find any. I think his description of the influence of Christian thought on the rise of science is pretty much correct, if brief. I could be wrong, but I didn't see anything off the wall in that section.

Then Meyer begins to describe how early modern scientists made design arguments, and that's when I started to frown. Not because Meyer gets it all wrong, but because he left out a lot of relevant detail that would explain these early modern design arguments far better. Meyer's point here seems to be just that "design" used to be a normal part of science, and now it isn't.

My unease with Meyer's condensed version of early modern design arguments crescendoed when he described testifying before the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights along with Eugenie Scott. According to Meyer, Scott "explained that, for Newton, intelligent design was merely a theological belief" that he kept separate from his science. Meyer objected that Newton made design arguments frequently, even in Principia. I think they're both right.

Recall that the fundamental issue of the enlightment (and scientific revolution) was the source of knowledge. The medieval mind viewed authority as the most reliable way to gain knowledge, but Bacon and others called for personal observation to be at least as important as autthority. The overthrow of ancient, unjustified authority was a common feature of "the new philosophy" (AKA science).

In his "Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina," Galileo introduced a theological doctrine that would allow science to do its thing in a sort of independent way. The last time I mentioned this, I got a long email castigating me for oversimplifying the issue, so I'll just let Galileo explain:
I think that in discussions of physical problems we ought to begin not from the authority of scriptural passages but from sense­experiences and necessary demonstrations; for the holy Bible and the phenomena of nature proceed alike from the divine Word the former as the dictate of the Holy Ghost and the latter as the observant executrix of God's commands. It is necessary for the Bible, in order to be accommodated to the understanding of every man, to speak many things which appear to differ from the absolute truth so far as the bare meaning of the words is concerned. But Nature, on the other hand, is inexorable and immutable; she never transgresses the laws imposed upon her, or cares a whit whether her abstruse reasons and methods of operation are understandable to men. For that reason it appears that nothing physical which sense­experience sets before our eyes, or which necessary demonstrations prove to us, ought to be called in question (much less condemned) upon the testimony of biblical passages which may have some different meaning beneath their words.... From this I do not mean to infer that we need not have an extraordinary esteem for the passages of holy Scripture. On the contrary, having arrived at any certainties in physics, we ought to utilize these as the most appropriate aids in the true exposition of the Bible and in the investigation of those meanings which are necessarily contained therein, for these must be concordant with demonstrated truths.
To paraphrase: Since the Bible is meant to be understood by anyone anywhere, it's sometimes necessary to use terminology that is not precisely accurate. That is, revelation is accommodated to our ignorance. Since any passage could be accommodated, we can't use the Bible to give us reliable information about the natural world. Instead, we should use science to give us a way of understanding the Bible better.

The doctrine of accommodation was widely accepted, and the result was a sort of one-way interaction between science and religion. Science was allowed to influence religion (by giving it design arguments), but religion was not allowed to inform the practice of science (otherwise the design argument would be circular). It's in this sense that I think Scott was right. Early modern scientists did indeed try to keep religious considerations out of science. It didn't always work, and Biblical ideas continued to influence science for a long time. Inevitably, though, religion lost even that meager influence in science, and science lost its interest in bothering with religious arguments altogether.

When I say that Scott and Meyer were both right about Newton, I'm refering to this sort of philosophical tension in the scientific revolution, the need to balance the removal of religion from the practice of science while not becoming completely irreligious. I suspect that this early modern version of science, with its one-way street of interaction with religion, is what IDers want to get back to. A world where you don't incorporate religious ideas into science, but you're free to draw religious-like conclusions from science. ID essentially wants to rewind back to the early days of science.

I'm a little different (in case you hadn't noticed). I want to rewind back to the beginning and reconsider this whole accommodation thing. I'm sure Matheson would disagree, but it seems to me that Galileo and his philosophical successors went too far. Especially now, when we've been doing science long enough to understand how easily it can get things quite wrong, I think we ought not simply defer to science where the Bible clearly contradicts the conclusions of science.

Of course, rethinking accommodation means that I have to come up with a means of incorporating biblical data into my understanding of the world. As I've already explained, that doesn't mean blind adherence to naive interpretations. I think the Bible needs to be scrutinized as carefully as the natural world, but in the end, when the Bible is clear, I will concede to its authority as the Word of God.

That's why I don't care about the origin of life (and why I'll probably never finish reading Meyer's book). I already know where life came from. I open the book of Genesis, and the Bible tells me exactly where life came from. Speculating on how it might have happened in a naturalistic scenario seems like a waste of time to me. Just like it would seem like a waste of time to an atheist to study the logistics of Noah's Ark.

That's also why I'm not terribly interested in design as an inference. Design is obvious. The Bible makes that crystal clear. Arguing to design seems fruitless to me, but trying to comprehend design? That's a captivating idea. Begin with the (inescapable) assumption that design is real, and where does that take us?

Next week, I'll explain a little about what "design studies" might look like.