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Design Debate in a Nutshell: Mind Over Matter? Or Matter Over Mind?

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Steve Meyer was in Southern California recently and stopped by the campus of Biola University where he sat down for a podcast conversation with Scott B. Rae and Sean McDowell. It’s a good and thoughtful discussion of theistic evolution, occasioned by the publication of the new book that Meyer helped edit, Theistic Evolution: A Scientific, Philosophical, and Theological Critique. The book, as they acknowledge, has “hit a nerve.”

You can and should listen to it here, or read the transcript, which is also helpfully provided. A couple of points stood out for me. For one, here’s the conflict between intelligent design and theistic and atheistic evolution in a nutshell:

Stephen Meyer: [T]here’s a main issue, and that is, did life originate as the result of the activity of a designing mind, of a conscious agent, or is it the product of purely undirected material processes that, as one neo-Darwinist put it, did not have us in mind. Mind or no mind? The debate about intelligent design and Darwinian evolution, and some of the more current versions of evolutionary theory is most importantly a debate about whether or not mind played a role at all rather than how long ago life originated or whether the pattern in the fossil record is continuous or discontinuous. Those are secondary issues. [Emphasis added.]

In other word, in considering life and its long history, is it mind over matter, or matter over mind? There couldn’t be a more succinct distillation of the evolution controversy.

And this: It’s possible to summarize the debate in another way, in a single word: “fine-tuning.” We associate that with cosmology but of course, that’s what that the evidence for ID in biology comes down to as well:

Stephen Meyer: In physics, the interest in design started with the discovery of the many separate, maybe three or four dozen separate fine-tuning parameters, features of the physical world, for example, the strength of the different fundamental forces; the ratio of those different strengths one to another; the speed of light; the expansion rate of the universe; the rate at which new space is created from in the expansion of the universe; and many, many other such parameters; the discovery that these were exquisitely finely tuned within very narrow tolerances to make life possible.

We live…it has been discovered in a kind of Goldilocks universe, where the fundamental forces are not too strong, not too weak. The speed of light is not too fast, not too slow. The expansion rate of the universe the same, not too fast, not too slow, and on and on through dozens of such parameters. Some of them are calibrated quantitatively hyper-exponentially. The so-called cosmological constant is finely tuned to one part in 10 to the 10 to the 123rd power, it’s a hyper-exponential number. That means little tiny smidgen going in either direction, life is no longer possible. Many leading physicists saw from the outset of these discoveries that fine-tuning seemed to imply most logically, or naturally, a fine-tuner, an intelligent agent.

Now there’s a multiverse hypothesis, and we can get into that, but I think it’s implausible for a number of reasons, not least of which is that all the mechanisms that have been proposed to explain where you get these other universes to render our universe more probable themselves require fine-tuning. But then there are other evidences of biology …

Scott Rae: Okay, so there’s a fine-tuning argument.

Stephen Meyer: There’s a fine-tuning argument in physics, yeah.

Scott Rae: What else?

Stephen Meyer: In biology, I think there’s another kind of fine-tuning in the sense [of] information; the presence of information in living cells is a kind of fine-tuning. But the big discoveries, I would say a number of things in biology, but first, there’s been the discovery that at the foundation of life, in DNA and proteins, you have precisely sequenced subunits that are conveying and storing information, and that information, we know in our experience, is a product of mind or intelligence.

Finally, I find Meyer’s discussion of the three meanings of “evolution” useful: (1) change over time, (2) common descent, and (3) the sufficiency of the unguided mutation/selection mechanism for explaining the diversity of life. The first meaning is “entirely innocuous.” The third is the sticking point in the greater debate about design. The second, though, has been the occasion for some ongoing confusion, I think. Some outside the ID community are frustrated that ID doesn’t have a fixed position on universal common descent. Meyer’s view:

Stephen Meyer: [The] second meaning of evolution is the idea of universal common descent, that all organisms are related by common ancestry. I happen to be skeptical about that. Some proponents of intelligent design aren’t, but it is at least logically possible to believe that God caused the kind of continuous change that is depicted in the Darwinian tree of life, and therefore you could have a meaningful form of theistic evolution that affirmed common descent. Though I think there are some very good reasons scientifically to doubt it. There’s huge discontinuity in the fossil record, and increasingly we’re realizing in the genomic patterns that we see.

I personally am on the fence on this. But I would want to suggest to those who are frustrated by ID’s ambivalence that it is not a weakness but a strength. If the relevant science is ambiguous — and it is at least to me — then recognizing that and allowing for differences of viewpoint is a testament to ID’s intellectual honesty, and its tolerance. It’s a rejection of dogmatism of the kind we find, frankly, in both the theistic and atheistic evolutionary communities. It is also evidence that what drives ID, contrary to the view of our critics, is not a view of the Bible but faithfulness to what nature can tell us about itself.

Photo: Stephen Meyer on the Biola campus with Scott B. Rae and Sean McDowell, by Daniel Reeves.