In my previous article, I described how Randy Isaac’s critique of The Mystery of Life’s Origin: The Continuing Controversy failed to honestly engage with Jonathan Wells’s analysis of how recent textbooks misrepresent the relevance of the Miller-Urey experiment, or with James Tour’s exposé on the state of origin-of-life research. I also illustrated how Isaac censored, perhaps unintentionally, the evidence I presented for design intrinsic to self-replication. Now I will show that Isaac’s critique of Stephen Meyer’s design argument reflects Isaac’s faith-based approach to science.
Meyer writes in his chapter that the presence of complex specified information (CSI) reliably points to design in any context. CSI resides in patterns that are highly improbable, not the result of natural processes, and demonstrate purpose or intentionality. His argument can be summarized as follows:
- The presence of large quantities of CSI always reliably points to design. This is based on human experience, theoretical analyses, and common sense.
- Living systems contain large quantities of CSI such as the amino acid sequences in proteins and the encoded information in DNA.
- Therefore, life demonstrates clear evidence of design.
Isaac responds to Meyer’s argument in his critique and then summarized his response in a recent Evolution News piece. He asserts that Meyer does not justify the claim that CSI must point to an intelligent agent. He then proposes the reason he believes CSI might or might not point to design:
My suggestion is that the reason lies in the way it is determined whether such information is specified rather than random. Simply put, if the determination of whether complex information is specified or not is made by an intelligent agent then intelligence is required but if nature makes that determination, then no intelligence is required.
Isaac clarifies how nature makes such a determination in his critique of my calculations of the improbability of a cell emerging through natural processes:
But his calculations fail to account for the Bayesian probabilities given the feedback and impact of natural selection at each step. He considers neither the influence of population effects nor the effect of a more generalized goal.
A Fatal Error
Isaac’s response, however, is based on a fatal error. Natural selection could not have commenced until after a population of autonomous cells capable of high-fidelity self-replication already existed.
Isaac might be tempted to point to a population of self-replicating information-bearing molecules as an intermediary stage where natural selection could occur. Yet such an appeal would be a futile gesture.
The most popular origin-of-life theory based on prebiotic self-replication is the RNA World hypothesis. It assumes that a self-replicating system of RNAs emerged on the early earth. Then, a purported subpopulation of the RNAs evolved into enzymes that jump-started life’s genesis. The problem is that all versions of this proposition face numerous insurmountable hurdles (here, here), not the least of which is that information-rich RNA did not exist (here, here). And proposals starting with different building blocks for macromolecules encounter equally impassable obstacles. James Tour details the challenges he encountered when he attempted to construct such a system.
Even if a self-replicating system arose, the macromolecules that would quickly dominate would be those that most efficiently self-replicated and performed no biologically useful function. Certainly, nothing would appear that could perform such essential cellular tasks as information processing, energy production, or error correction. Since no self-replicating system would ever move towards the goal of life, Isaac’s appeal to natural selection has no basis in reality.
Identifying the Faith Commitments
At a deeper level, Isaac’s entire argument is based on circular reasoning. It can be summarized as follows:
- The presence of CSI might reliably point to design in all non-biological contexts.
- Yet it would not point to design in life if natural processes could generate it.
- Natural processes explain everything observed in nature.
- Therefore, natural processes could eventually be shown to explain the CSI in living systems.
- So, the presence of CSI in life does not conclusively demonstrate design.
Isaac’s belief that natural processes could produce all the CSI associated with the systems required for self-replication contradicts all the empirical evidence that we detailed in our book. Yet he refuses to question his secular faith commitments. His recalcitrant position reveals the fundamental difference between how members of the intelligent design community and members of the evolutionary community approach science.
We start from the premise that evidence and reason should shape one’s philosophical assumptions. In contrast, members of the evolutionary community believe that philosophical commitments supersede evidence and reason. For them, the dogma of scientific materialism dictates what data can be considered and how it can be interpreted.
Isaac intuitively recognizes that life appears designed, but his conceptual grid prevents him from considering God as the designer. Instead, he attributes God-like creative powers to natural processes. His reluctance to recognize God’s direct role in life’s origin might appear to conflict with his professed belief in Christianity. But his training conditioned him to compartmentalize his faith such that his Christian convictions govern his private life, but his secular faith commitments govern his scientific beliefs. This practice is not without its consequences.
A Tragic Irony
The claim that life originated as an unintended accident of nature represents one of the main reasons that atheists and agnostics have difficulty considering God’s existence. Conversely, the evidence for design in life is a key catalyst for atheists and agnostics who start their journey toward faith.
I once mentioned in passing to a student that DNA contains information. She pondered that fact, and quickly recognized the philosophical implications of life demonstrating evidence for design. That realization freed her mind from the mental prison of philosophical materialism, perhaps with supernatural assistance, and she quickly came to personally know her Creator.
I have often been perplexed by Christians who defend the junk science presented to the public to prop up the secular creation mythology of life’s origin. And I have been equally baffled by Christians committed to suppressing the clear evidence for design in life. The tragic irony is that such efforts are comparable to the resident of an apartment complex helping a group of arsonists move the furniture to block the exits before the arsonists set the building on fire.
The authors’ hope for The Mystery of Life’s Origin is that the content will help many, just like that student, to understand that they are not an accident of nature. Instead, they have intrinsic value and a greater purpose in life.