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Life Is a “Distinguished Outcome”

Michael Egnor


In a series at Evolution News adapted from Debating Darwin’s Doubt, my colleague Stephen Meyer is in the process of responding to a review of his superb book Darwin’s Doubt by philosophers Robert Bishop and Robert O’Connor. Published in Books & Culture, a sister publication of Christianity Today, Bishop and O’Connor’s review was more thoughtful on the issue of design than many other reviews, which generally evaded Meyers’ salient point. That point is that functional biological information is best explained by the activity of a designing intelligence.

Yet Bishop and O’Connor have some misunderstandings as well, and they have been addressed quite cogently by Dr. Meyer. I would like to add my own perspective here.

First I note that the tone of Bishop and O’Connor’s review is a bit odd; they seem to have respect for Dr. Meyer’s point, and they seem to address the issue of design at least vaguely from the perspective of teleology. Both are good things. Yet they criticize Meyer’s emphasis on the unique scientific questions raised by functional biological information.

They write:

[I]nherent in the notion of a functional outcome is the presumption that life constitutes a distinguished outcome. Since life has value — to us — we naturally insist that any means conducive to life has distinctive value. But that’s an interpretation we supply… An objective observer will realize that, if life is the goal, then that arrangement [of bases in a coding sequence of DNA], however improbable, functions magnificently. If some other outcome were the goal, however — say the more modest goal of replication — then that outcome would have no particular value.

But life most assuredly represents a distinguished outcome quite independent of its value to us.

Meyer series.jpgTo understand why, consider the fundamental question: What distinguishes life from nonlife? The classical (and I believe correct) answer to that question is to note that all of nature tends to ends. That means that change in the natural world always entails restrictions on outcomes. Electrons attract protons, and do not repel them. Struck matches burst into flame and not ice. Michelangelo painted a ceiling and not a floor. All of nature tends to a more or less restricted set of outcomes. This is what teleology means.

But teleology differs in living and non-living things. Life and non-life tend to ends in different ways. In nonliving things the ends characteristic of inanimate objects arise external to the object. Rocks are tossed or eroded or heated or cooled by external agents. Rocks don’t toss themselves.

In living things the ends characteristic of life arise from within the organism. Living things grow and take nourishment and reproduce via processes that are characteristically within them, rather than (wholly) external to them.

The classical terms for the characteristic actions of nonliving and living things are transeunt (external) and immanent (internal) causation. Immanent teleology is what defines life. Transeunt teleology is what defines nonlife.

A related characteristic of living things is that the change that arises from within the organism is directed to the perfection of the organism (to use a Scholastic term). By perfection I mean that organisms change in a way that generally tends to make them better instantiations of what they are. This is not true of nonliving things. A rock does not spend the better part of its day becoming a better rock. It has no immanent causation at all. It is acted upon, rather than acting itself.

On the other hand, the characteristic actions of a living thing very much entail acting in such a way to make it a better living thing. A man spends the better part of each day breathing and eating and working and exercising and learning — making himself a better man. Even the simplest forms of life, such as bacteria, continuously carry out salubrious metabolic processes.

This difference between transeunt and immanent causation may also be expressed in terms of function, and this is where the design perspective is particularly appropriate to the study of living things as opposed to nonliving things. Only living things have functions. Only living things have immanent teleology directed at the functional outcome of perfecting themselves. Nonliving things don’t have functions per se.

One important aspect of the science of intelligent design is to understand how the function characteristic of living things (immanent teleology) works. And in this sense it is necessary to privilege function. Note that, contra Bishop and O’Connor, this investigation of function is warranted by the actual fundamental difference between living things and nonliving things, and not by any vitalist chauvinism.

Information is a manifestation of teleology, and like teleology, it is a restriction of outcomes. Information, as applied to biology, is the appropriate framework with which to understand immanent functional teleology.

Functional biological information is a central concept in biology and in intelligent design because living things, and only living things, have functions. It is a fact of nature, not a human bias.

Living things may in this sense be said to have functional exceptionalism — life, and life alone, has functions, and the formal cause (another Scholastic term) of these functions entails biological information. The root “form” in “information” refers to formal cause, which is the intelligible principle of biological function.

Intelligent design is the scientific study of the intelligible principle of biological function. Nothing in biology makes sense without inference to functional biological information. To ignore functional biological information, as Bishop and O’Connor seem to suggest we should, is to get the science of life wrong in a very fundamental way.

Michael Egnor

Senior Fellow, Center for Natural & Artificial Intelligence
Michael R. Egnor, MD, is a Professor of Neurosurgery and Pediatrics at State University of New York, Stony Brook, has served as the Director of Pediatric Neurosurgery, and award-winning brain surgeon. He was named one of New York’s best doctors by the New York Magazine in 2005. He received his medical education at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons and completed his residency at Jackson Memorial Hospital. His research on hydrocephalus has been published in journals including Journal of Neurosurgery, Pediatrics, and Cerebrospinal Fluid Research. He is on the Scientific Advisory Board of the Hydrocephalus Association in the United States and has lectured extensively throughout the United States and Europe.



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