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Denying the Signature: Of Minds and Causes

Stephen C. Meyer


Editor’s note: Readers of Evolution News likely know the central thesis of Stephen Meyer’s bestseller, Darwin’s Doubt: The Explosive Origin of Animal Life and the Case for Intelligent Design. Meyer argues that the functional biological information necessary to build the Cambrian animals is best explained by the activity of a designing intelligence, rather than an undirected, materialistic evolutionary process. Most reviews of Darwin’s Doubt curiously omitted to address or even to accurately report this central claim. However, a review by philosophers Robert Bishop and Robert O’Connor in Books & Culture was a welcome exception. In this 6-part series, adapted from Debating Darwin’s Doubt, edited by ENV‘s David Klinghoffer, Dr. Meyer responds to their critiques. This is Part 5 of the series. Look here for Parts 1, 2, 3, and 4.

Meyer series.jpgIn their Books & Culture review of Darwin’s Doubt and Signature in the Cell, Robert Bishop and Robert O’Connor not only claim that I provide no justification for the idea that minds have causal powers that unconscious, non-rational, material processes don’t; they also claim that my “analysis assumes that… mind is fundamentally immaterial” and yet they note that I offer “very little substantive support for mind having unique causal properties inasmuch as it immaterial.”1 In other words, Bishop and O’Connor seem to say that I don’t justify the idea (1) that minds are immaterial entities distinct from physical brains; and (2) that such immaterial minds possess causal powers that material processes do not.

In this latter respect they are right. I do not provide a justification for what philosophers of mind call “substance dualism” — the theory of mind-brain interaction that affirms the mind is an immaterial entity distinct from the physical brain. Instead, I make clear that my case for intelligent design does not depend upon holding a particular view of the mind-body question or holding that the mind is an immaterial entity. As I explained in Darwin’s Doubt:

Proponents of intelligent design may conceive of intelligence as [ultimately] a …materialistic phenomenon, something reducible to the neurochemistry of a brain, but they may also conceive of it as part of a mental reality that is irreducible to brain chemistry or any other physical process. They may also understand and define intelligence [or mind] by reference to their own introspective experience of rational consciousness and take no particular position on the mind-brain question.2

It is true, as Bishop and O’Connor note, that I do in various contexts contrast the causal powers of minds or agents, on the one hand, with “strictly material processes” on the other. And by pointing this out, Bishop and O’Connor seem to be posing a philosophical dilemma for me. They seem to be suggesting, on the one hand, that because I have contrasted mind with strictly material processes, my argument presupposes that mind cannot ultimately have a materialistic basis. Thus, they assert that, “If material processes lack such causal powers [as Meyer argues], then intelligent agency cannot be material.”

It seems to follow for them that I cannot allow the possibility of a materialist (or physicalist) account of mind without effacing the distinction between mind and matter (or materialistic processes) that would make an inference to intelligent design significant. On the other hand, if I presuppose an immaterial conception of mind, they fault me for failing to provide a justification for such a conception (including the idea that mind conceived as an immaterial substance possesses unique causal powers).

They also argue that any potential justification for dualism would necessarily have to be philosophical, rather than scientific, in character — thus, in their view, rendering the theory more philosophical than scientific. As they explain, “any way you look at it, what support might be available [for the idea that for mind is immaterial] must certainly be regarded as philosophical rather than scientific. At least on this side of the ledger, ID looks more like philosophy than science.”

The Horns of a Dilemma

There is a straightforward way to split the horns of the dilemma that Bishop and O’Conner pose. Rather than defending substance dualism, on the one hand, or treating mental and material phenomena as indistinguishable, on the other, the case for intelligent design can be made utilizing a more philosophically minimalist or pre-theoretical conception of mind. And both my books make use of such a conception.

Indeed, by making a distinction between minds and strictly material processes, I am not committing to full-blown substance dualism as a condition of being able to make design inferences (as my disclaimer above indicates). Instead, I assume a more philosophically minimalist (or pre-theoretic) conception of mind or intelligence that acknowledges a distinction between physical states and mental states (such as desires, thoughts, beliefs, and emotions), but one that does not insist that the distinction between these two types of phenomena necessarily derives from two different types of substances, one material and the other immaterial.

Thus, my books implicitly distinguish minds from “strictly material processes” by reference to precisely those mental attributes such as “consciousness, will, deliberation, foresight and rationality” that we know minds possess as the result of introspection. As such, my argument depends only upon a distinction that nearly all people recognize as a result of their own direct awareness of mental phenomena and conscious experience.

Bishop and O’Connor acknowledge that I equate intelligent agency with “self-conscious mind in possession of thoughts, will and intentions.” Hence, they seem to recognize that I define mind by reference to specific and distinctively mental properties of which we are all aware. Nevertheless, they seem to think that I need to go further and demonstrate that these properties derive from an immaterial substance in order for us to be able to detect intelligent or mental activity. Though I personally think that substance dualism has a lot of merit, I don’t think that follows.

Indeed, many investigators make design inferences without having an account of the origin of the mind or the mind/brain interaction. Forensic scientists and archeologists, for example, neither presuppose substance dualism, nor reject physicalism — nor do they necessarily have any opinion on these matters — in order to infer that some objects, structures, or events are the product of a mind.

A Mess in the Kitchen

Put differently, when forensic scientists or others make a design inference based on their (presumably) pre-theoretic distinction between the causal powers of agents and material processes, they do not also thereby commit themselves to any other particular view of mind-body interaction. When a mom finds a huge mess in the kitchen and infers that her kid did it (as opposed to some “natural” cause such as, perhaps, a tornado!), she can clearly do so without also justifying some substantive position in the philosophy of mind.

Similarly, a materialistically minded scientist might infer — based upon the information-bearing properties of DNA and knowledge of the unique causal powers of intelligent agents — that a designing agent or mind of some kind played a role in the history of life. Yet that same materialist could conclude (as Richard Dawkins has allowed as a possibility) that the designing agent in question evolved, and evolved its powers of agency, by some strictly materialistic evolutionary process.

I find this possibility extremely implausible, not only because I doubt that consciousness, rationality, imagination or mental qualia have been (or can be) explained by reference to brain chemistry, but also because this view begs crucial origins questions. If evolutionary theory has failed (as my books show) to explain the origin of the genetic information necessary to produce living systems on this planet in the first place, positing that life — and/or complex conscious life — first evolved somewhere else in the cosmos hardly solves that problem. Nor would the postulation of a wholly materialistic designing agent residing within the cosmos explain the origin of the fine-tuning of the universe itself. Clearly, no such immanent agent within the cosmos can account for the design parameters built into the very fabric of physical laws and the universe itself.

Nevertheless, I do not need to foreclose or reject the possibility of such a designing agent a priori in order to show that meaningful design inferences can be made or that the past activity of a designing agent of some kind provides the best explanation for the origin of functional biological information. We don’t need to know how minds came to be, or all the necessary and sufficient conditions of mental phenomena, to infer the presence or past activity of mind from evidence that we know only minds produce.

Moreover, a meaningful distinction between mind and matter (or “strictly material processes)” can be justified by reference to what we know from observation and introspection about the differences between minds and material processes without such a defense. Indeed, we have ample reason for thinking — and plenty of observational evidence supporting the idea — that minds have attributes that rocks, waterfalls, chemical reactions, electromagnetic forces, genetic mutations, and tectonic plates do not.

We can, of course, theorize (as materialists do) that ultimately some material process — perhaps involving neurochemistry — can explain how our conscious experience arises from the material substrate of the brain. Similarly, materialists can theorize that somehow some evolutionary mechanism initially produced the attributes we associate with minds such as consciousness, will, reason, imagination, foresight, and the like.

But positing such materialistic explanations to explain the nature and origin of conscious experience and the other known capacities of minds does not efface the distinction between mind (or mental phenomena) and matter (or material processes) that we know and observe on the basis of our ordinary experience. Indeed, it is precisely those distinctive attributes of minds, known from uniform experience and introspection, that physicalists (or epi-phenomenalists) seek to explain. To get any theory of mind off the ground, including physicalist theories, the theorist assumes the same prima facie distinction between mental attributes and material attributes that I presuppose in my books.

For this reason, I do presuppose a distinction between material and mental phenomena without defending, and without needing to defend, the idea that the mind is necessarily an immaterial substance. And if I don’t need to justify that the mind is necessarily an immaterial substance, then it follows that I also don’t need to justify the claim that the mind as an immaterial substance has unique causal powers that material processes lack. Strictly speaking, I need only justify the assertion that minds (as we conceive of them based on our direct pre-theoretic introspective and observational experience) have causal powers that material objects and processes do not. And both of my books certainly do that.

Although I don’t need to justify substance dualism for my argument, I will turn to a discussion of the subject in the final installment of this series


(1) Robert Bishop and Robert O’Connor, “Doubting the Signature: Stephen Meyer’s case for intelligent design,” Books & Culture, November-December 2014.

(2) Stephen C. Meyer, Darwin’s Doubt: The Explosive Origin of Animal Life and the Case for Intelligent Design (New York: HarperOne, 2013), 394.

Stephen C. Meyer

Director, Center for Science and Culture
Dr. Stephen C. Meyer received his Ph.D. from the University of Cambridge in the philosophy of science. A former geophysicist and college professor, he now directs the Center for Science and Culture at the Discovery Institute in Seattle. He is author of the New York Times-bestseller Darwin’s Doubt (2013) as well as the book Signature in the Cell (2009) and The Return of the God Hypothesis (2021). In 2004, Meyer ignited a firestorm of media and scientific controversy when a biology journal at the Smithsonian Institution published his peer-reviewed scientific article advancing intelligent design. Meyer has been featured on national television and radio programs, including The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, CBS's Sunday Morning, NBC's Nightly News, ABC's World News, Good Morning America, Nightline, FOX News Live, and the Tavis Smiley show on PBS. He has also been featured in two New York Times front-page stories and has garnered attention in other top-national media.



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