Over at Scott McKnight’s blog at Beliefnet, an anonymous blogger has started a review thread on Steve Meyer’s book. Signature in the Cell. While the blogger (“RJS”) says he ultimately disagrees with Meyer’s argument, it’s clear that he takes Meyer’s argument seriously and is trying to do his best to present the argument accurately. This is much more than can be said for the many hysterical and misinformed “critiques” of Meyer’s argument that are now floating around the Internet. Anyone who’s actually read the book will know that most of these critiques are cliches that Meyer addresses in detail in the book, suggesting that the critics don’t even know the argument they are criticizing.
A civil review like this is welcomed, and I look forward to reading the installments.
In his first installment, RJS suggests that there’s a promising “third way” that Meyer doesn’t address in the book:
It seems to me that there is a middle ground between the insistence that chance, happenstance, and law (the laws of physics) suffice to explain all and the suggestion that biology – life – can only be explained with reference to a creative mind. Alister McGrath (A Fine-Tuned Universe) and Simon Conway Morris (Life’s Solution) provide some insight into this middle ground. The fabric of the Universe makes life possible and inevitable – not a highly contingent accident. Thinking scientifically we look for the causally connected series of events that resulted in the present reality – as part of God’s method in creation.
I’m familiar with McGrath and Conway Morris’s views, and think they have some merit; but I don’t think they offer an alternative that Meyer fails to address. Smoothing for inconsistencies in their proposals, their idea is basically that God hard-wired or “front-loaded” everything “in the beginning” as it were to give rise to complex life somewhere, while allowing for a lot of “freedom” and variation within the cosmos. (So they’re not hard determinists.)
First, taken seriously, this is quite obviously a theistic form of design that simply tries to locate all the designing activity at the beginning–in the cosmic fine-tuning and initial conditions. The design does real work, and there’s no reason that the effects of that design would not be empirically detectable (as long as we have an open-minded, nonpositivist view of science). As a simple analogy, think of front-loading this way. If I shoot a gun at a target and hit it, I’ve intentionally aimed the bullet at the beginning, even though the bullet’s trajectory follows the rules of gravity, momentum, etc. In God’s case, of course, he would also establish the law-like rules and superintend them. All I can do when I shoot a gun is take them into account.
Second, some front-loading and fine-tuning is not only compatible with but necessary for Steve’s argument. But I think the argument that everything can be explained this way doesn’t capture the details of Steve’s argument about information at the origin of life. The front-loading scenario tries to turn necessary conditions for life into sufficient conditions. Though Steve doesn’t say this, if he’s right, it’s not at all obvious that this front-loading scenario is so much as possible. The only thing God would have to hardwire information at the beginning would be initial conditions, some proto-matter and the repetitive, law-like forces that govern the matter. But we can see the effects of both those initial conditions and the law-like regularities playing out in the material world now. They constitute the background to the information in biological systems–that is, the necessary but nowhere nearly sufficient background–the contrast medium for the information. What would it mean to tweak the expressions of gravity and electromagnetism so that they would give rise to the information-processing in cells and body plans of vertebrates? I think this explanation has plausibility only in proportion to the haziness of one’s conception of specified information.
Third, even if it’s possible for God to frontload things in this way, it hardly follows that this is a better explanation than the one Steve proposes, which is (at least implicitly) (1) that matter shows degrees of freedom inconsistent with such complete front-loading and (2) that intelligence plays an active and detectable role within cosmic history, and probably is not limited in the way proposed (or suggested) by Conway Morris and others. What we’re interested in is the best explanation for life’s features in the real world, one that takes account of the known causal powers of world as we see it.