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Robert Saunders Makes False (and Incoherent) Criticisms about Stephen Meyer on the Identity of the Designer


Don’t miss Jonathan M.’s great article that deftly handles many of the mistakes made by British biologist Robert Saunders in his critique of Signature in the Cell. Saunders claims he “reviewed the Kindle edition of this book,” but one of his comments makes you wonder how careful that review was.

In his critique, Saunders specifically asserts that “Meyer refuses to come clean that he believes that God was that designer,” and thus supposedly takes “a hugely dishonest approach, but one in keeping with the strategy of Intelligent Design creationism proponents.”

Saunders is so eager to attack and smear Meyer that he’s apparently imagining things — or failing to see evidence that refutes his preconceptions. In fact, Meyer is quite clear in Signature in the Cell that he’s a Christian theist, and that he believes the designer is God. As Meyer writes on page 447 of Signature in the Cell:

I personally think that the evidence of design in biology, considered in the context of other evidence, strengthens the case for theism and, thus, my personal belief in God. Subjectively, as a Christian theist, I find this implication of intelligent design “intellectually satisfying.”

So if you read the book, then it’s clear as day: Stephen Meyer does not hide his personal beliefs about the identity of the designer and his personal belief in God.

Saunders isn’t merely wrong. Beyond that, his argument against ID is incoherent in exactly the way I discussed here recently in The Identity of the Designer: How to Avoid an Incoherent Criticism of Intelligent Design. The incoherent criticism goes like this:

  • If Meyer does say he believes in God, then Saunders would accuse Meyer of (in Saunders’s own words) “pushing a set of religiously motivated objectives,” as well as advocating “a form of creationism.”
  • If Meyer does not say he believes in God, then Saunders calls him “dishonest.”

You can’t attack ID proponents for both identifying and not identifying the designer. Both criticisms can’t be valid.

The truth, of course, is that ID proponents are entirely open about their personal beliefs on the identity of the designer, they just make it clear that these are their personal views, and not conclusions of the scientific theory of intelligent design. In fact, I would say much the same thing as Meyer: I personally am a Christian theist, although my beliefs about the identity of the designer are not necessary conclusions of the theory of ID. The position of ID proponents is entirely consistent and defensible, and it’s the arguments of critics like Saunders that are incoherent and inaccurate.

Meyer openly discusses his belief in God, but he makes it clear that this is his personal religious belief and not a conclusion of intelligent design. As Meyer writes in Signature in the Cell:

The theory of intelligent design does not claim to detect a supernatural intelligence possessing unlimited powers. Though the designing agent responsible for life may well have been an omnipotent deity, the theory of intelligent design does not claim to be able to determine that. Because the inference to design depends upon our uniform experience of cause and effect in this world, the theory cannot determine whether or not the designing intelligence putatively responsible for life has powers beyond those on display in our experience. Nor can the theory of intelligent design determine whether the intelligent agent responsible for information life acted from the natural or the “supernatural” realm. Instead, the theory of intelligent design merely claims to detect the action of some intelligent cause (with power, at least, equivalent to those we know from experience) and affirms this because we know from experience that only conscious, intelligent agents produce large amounts of specified information. The theory of intelligent design does not claim to be able to determine the identity or any other attributes of that intelligence, even if philosophical deliberation or additional evidence from other disciplines may provide reasons to consider, for example, a specifically theistic design hypothesis. (pp. 428-429)

Thus, Meyer’s argument for design doesn’t claim to identify the designer nor does it have the religious content Saunders claims it does. As a result, Saunders falls back to weaker arguments for casting ID as religious — namely, attacking the motives of ID proponents. Saunders wants to malign Meyer as “religiously motivated,” but Meyer also anticipates and answers this objection in Signature in the Cell:

First, it’s not what motivates a scientist’s theory that determines its merit, status, or standing; it’s the quality of the arguments and the relevant evidence marshaled in support of a theory. … to say otherwise commits an elementary logical fallacy known as the genetic fallacy in which an alleged defect in the source or origin of a claim is taken to be evidence that discredits the claim.

…In any case, scientists on both sides of the origins controversy have ideological or metaphysical or religious (or antireligious) motivations. Barbara Forrest, a leading critic of intelligent design, is a board member of the New Orleans Secular Humanist Association. … Do the religious or antireligious motives of leading advocates of evolutionary theory disqualify Darwinian evolution or chemical evolution from consideration as scientific theories or diminish the merits of the theories? Obviously they do not. The motivations of the proponents of a theory don’t negate the scientific status, merit, or validity of that theory. (pp. 447-448)

Saunders does not seem to recognize that his critique of Signature in the Cell commits the genetic fallacy. Nor does he acknowledge that his fallacious exercise in motive-mongering would, if applied fairly, equally disqualify Darwinian evolution as science. After all, Saunders himself is an outspoken atheist whose blog advertises itself as promoting “atheism in an overly religious world.” Thankfully, Meyer does not take Saunders’s fallacious and unfair approach, and correctly acknowledges that antireligious motives like those expressed by Saunders don’t disqualify evolution from being science. If only Saunders would adopt such a fair, thoughtful, and logically consistent approach when discussing ID.


Casey Luskin

Associate Director and Senior Fellow, Center for Science and Culture
Casey Luskin is a geologist and an attorney with graduate degrees in science and law, giving him expertise in both the scientific and legal dimensions of the debate over evolution. He earned his PhD in Geology from the University of Johannesburg, and BS and MS degrees in Earth Sciences from the University of California, San Diego, where he studied evolution extensively at both the graduate and undergraduate levels. His law degree is from the University of San Diego, where he focused his studies on First Amendment law, education law, and environmental law.



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