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What’s the Mechanism of Intelligent Design?

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University of Toronto biochemist Larry Moran has issued a challenge at his blog Sandwalk, a challenge that advocates of intelligent design have heard before. We’ve answered it before as well, but it’s not unreasonable and is therefore worth addressing again. He asks: Tell me the way information is incorporated into living things. Give a detailed explanation. What’s the mechanism?

Indeed, I would bet that some readers have wondered the same thing. Taking Moran’s post as a welcome occasion for revisiting the question, let me expand on it in a slightly different way than it’s posed. Let me also say that this is my personal view, and does not necessarily reflect the approaches others might take to these questions. I’m going to have to explain the hidden meaning behind his request, and it’s going to get a little deep, but bear with me.

The first question to be addressed is why Dr. Moran insists I provide a mechanism. That insistence is indicative of a particular view of science known as methodological naturalism, or methodological materialism. This view of science claims that science must limit itself to strictly materialistic causes to explain all phenomena in nature, even things like the origin of the universe, the origin of life, and the origin and causes of human consciousness.

But does the rule work? The requirement for a material cause, a mechanism, can lead to the odd conclusion that Isaac Newton’s law of gravity is not scientific because he famously refused to provide a mechanistic explanation for action at a distance. Likewise Einstein’s E = mc2 has no mechanism. But these laws are certainly scientific.

So what other criteria do methodological naturalists use to define science? Defenders of methodological naturalism often invoke definitional or “demarcation criteria” that say that all science must be observable, testable, falsifiable, predictive, and repeatable. Most philosophers of science now dismiss these criteria because there are too many exceptions to the rules they establish in the actual practice of science.

Not all science involves observable entities or repeatable phenomena, for example –you can’t watch all causes at work or witness all events happen again and again, yet you can still make inferences about what caused unique or singular events based on the evidence available to you. Historical sciences such as archeology, geology, forensics, and evolutionary biology all infer causal events in the past to explain the occurrence of other events or to explain the evidence we have left behind in the present.

For such inference to work, the cause invoked must now be known to produce the effect in question. It’s no good proposing flying squirrels as the cause of the Grand Canyon, or a silt deposit as the cause of the Pyramids. Squirrels don’t dig giant canyons or even small ones, and silt doesn’t move heavy stone blocks into an ordered three-dimensional array.

However, we know from our experience that erosion by running water can and does produce gullies, then arroyos, and by extension, canyons. We know that intelligent agents have the necessary design capabilities to envision and build a pyramid. No natural force does. These are inferences based on our present knowledge of cause and effect or “causes now in operation.”

The theory of intelligent design also qualifies as historical science. We cannot directly observe the cause of the origin of life or repeat the events we study in the history of life, but we can infer what cause is most likely to be responsible, as Stephen Meyer likes to say, “from our repeated and uniform experience.” In our experience the only thing capable of causing the origin of digital code or functional information or causal circularity is intelligence and we know that the origin of life and the origin of animal life, for example, required the production of just such things in living systems.

Even though other demarcation criteria for distinguishing science from non-science are no longer considered normative for all branches of science, it is worth checking to see how well intelligent design fares using criteria that are relevant for an historical science. Briefly, although the designing agent posited by the theory of intelligent design is not directly observable (as most causal entities posited by historical scientists are not), the theory is testable and makes many discriminating predictions. Steve Meyer’s book Signature in the Cell, Chapters 18 and 19 and Appendix A, discusses this thoroughly.

Of course, the main challenge that Dr. Moran offers has to do with a different demarcation criterion: the idea that a scientific theory must provide a mechanism to qualify as a scientific theory. He wants us to detail what mechanism the theory of intelligent design proposes to explain the origin of biological information, thinking that if we offer no mechanism that our theory will fail to qualify as scientific.

Moran assumes that scientists may not invoke mind, or any intelligent cause, as an explanation for natural phenomena, at least if they want their theories to be considered scientific. He assumes, again, that science must limit itself to strictly materialistic causes in order to explain all phenomena, even the origin of biological information such as digital code in DNA, or the Cambrian explosion.

This is a self-imposed rule or limitation that not only keeps many scientists from considering the evidence for intelligent design, it may also keep them from discerning the true cause of the origin of biological information. Why? Because we know from our own experience that intelligent agents can and do interact with the universe to cause change and to produce functional information. Mind can cause things to happen in the material world. The origin of functional information invariably arises from the activity of minds rather than from strictly (or necessarily) material processes. Thus, to rule out the possibility that a mind may have produced the information present in DNA, for example, is to turn a blind eye to what we know about the causes of other information-rich systems such as computer code or spoken language.

Though Moran cannot rule intelligent design out of court as unscientific without asserting an arbitrary limitation on theorizing, it’s still worth considering how a mind might act in the world to cause change. The answer is we don’t know. I sit here typing. My mind, mediated by my brain, is putting words into a computer program (designed by other minds, by the way), using my fingers to type. But how does it happen, really? Where does the impulse to press one key instead of another come from? And how do these words, products of my mind, communicate to others through their computer screens?

We can’t really say how our own minds work to interact with the world, yet we know they do. It is our universal, repeated, personal experience that shows us that our consciousness interacts with our bodies to produce information, but exactly how it works is not known. So why should we expect to know how the agent(s) responsible for the design of life or the universe may have worked?

The theory of intelligent design does not propose a mechanism (a strictly or necessarily materialistic cause) for the origin of biological information. Rather, it proposes an intelligent or mental cause. In so doing, it does exactly what we want a good historical scientific theory to do. It proposes a cause that is known from our uniform and repeated experience (to borrow a phrase) to have the power to produce the effect in question, which in this case, is functional information in living systems.

This answer about mechanism has been given before, most notably in Steve Meyer’s book, Darwin’s Doubt, which Moran claims to have read. In a future post, I’ll give some key passages from the book.

Image: � Sergey Nivens / Dollar Photo Club.