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Stephen C. Meyer Interview/Podcast

Posted on Jan 13, 2010 by Tom Gilson

 

Book Review/Podcast

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I had the opportunity to talk with Dr. Stephen C. Meyer by phone on Monday, January 11, about his powerful recent book Signature in the Cell: DNA and the Evidence for Intelligent Design. The book’s main argument, if I may be so bold as to summarize 600+ pages into one sentence, is that (1) materialist explanations (involving only natural processes) for the information present in the first life have never been found and are nowhere on the horizon, (2) that information is known to come from one source and one only, which is mind, (3) that mind is therefore the best explanation for that information, and (4)  it is artificial and arbitrary to rule out mind as an explanation.

Stephen C. MeyerMy first question to Dr. Meyer was something I don’t think I have seen discussed by ID proponents. ID opponents talk about it frequently but usually not in any satisfying way. The question was, “for those of us who are not specialists in the technical fields under discussion—biochemistry, biology, and even geology and cosmology which are not the topics of this book—is it reasonable for us to come to any conclusion on these questions? Can we know enough to make an informed decision of our own?”

ID opponents’ typical answer is, “There is no controversy, so there is no question. Why are you even asking?” For his answer, Dr. Meyer focused just on the origin of life and the information that it must have contained and expressed. The scientific facts are presented in the book for those who want to dive into them. For those who are not so equipped or inclined, the key point is that the basic facts are not in dispute: materialistic explanations are not working—at all—nor are there any prospects that they will in the foreseeable future. So the question is not whether there is or is not some materialistic explanation to be compared with proposed Design explanations. The question is whether one is allowed to entertain Design as an explanation; and if not, then why not?

Scientific rejoinders to this argument have been few, and none of them have addressed the core argument of the book: the origin of the first functional biological information. Not that there haven’t been negative reviews, but that they have lacked substance where it counts most. One of the better ones, by Darrell Falk at Biologos, touches on miniscule details and not on the fundamental point Meyer is making. Another review there, by the very eminent biologist Francisco Ayala, is much more theological in nature than scientific, and weak at that, in my view.

Reviews at Amazon, as I have already analyzed and reported (and discussed in the interview), turn the usual complaints against ID upside down: it is the negative reviewers, the ID antagonists, who have displayed dogmatic theological anti-intellectualism.

Meyer is not an experimentalist. Is his argument therefore not science? He offers two answers: one, does it matter if it’s science if it’s the best explanation? And two, if his is not science on that basis, then ID opponents will be embarrassed to find out who else they have thereby declared to be non-scientists. I suggest you read the book (especially Chapter 4-6 and thereabouts) to find out who; but you can hear the short answer in this podcast interview.

More than six months after its publication, it’s hard to find any effective scientific response against it. One Amazon reviewer called this book a “game-changer.” Time will tell if that’s going to be the case or not. But I have a strong feeling that if you don’t read this book, you’re not even going to know what the score is.

Signature in the Cell: DNA and the Evidence for Intelligent Design by Stephen C. Meyer. New York: HarperOne, 2009. 624 pages including extensive endnote material. Amazon Price US$19.13

(The content of the podcast is copyright 2010 by the participants. I edited my portion of the conversation to improve my sometimes slow conversational pace and upgrade your listening experience. Dr. Meyer did not need that kind of help.)

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27 Responses to “ Stephen C. Meyer Interview/Podcast ”

  1. Bill says:

    Thanks Tom. Excellent interview.

    In the existence of information in the cell, Dr. Meyer certainly presents the strongest argument for the presence of design in life. The existence of the information in DNA certainly raises issues that science has not answered. The question though might both be answerable by science while having that explanation remain inadequate. Is it not possible that God could have used a naturalistic process (e.g. RNA world) to introduce that information? And is it not possible if he did so that the process that created that information might legitimately appear as being created by a totally naturalistic process while from a philosophic/theological perspective speak to a designing intelligence.

    We may know that God created the universe and everything in it. We can believe that science offers the best explanations of how that took place. As you have said Tom, the conflicts are only apparent. The existence of scientific explanations doesn’t preclude the involvement of God nor would the involvement of God preclude a scientific explanation. It is very difficult to see where to draw the lines between the two when those lines may not be visible to either side of the debate.

  2. Charlie says:

    The existence of scientific explanations doesn’t preclude the involvement of God nor would the involvement of God preclude a scientific explanation.

    I see the existence of scientific explanations, and the expectation of such, as evidence of the involvement of God.
    I’m at a loss, though, as to how a process that creates information, that writes a functional message to be transcribed, translated and enacted, could be called “naturalistic”. I guess time might tell.

  3. Charlie says:

    Wow. Great interview/discussion, Tom.
    Aside from the points brought out, I’d like to comment on your style.
    Interviews are very difficult to lead and you did a great job. In most interviews there is an element of asking a question, not listening to the answer but acknowledging it with a single word and then asking the next prepared question which is unrelated to the previous answer. Your questions often flowed from the answer and helped to elucidate it and move the conversation forward. Very nice.
    There is also a tendency to try to compete with the guest and for the interviewer to try to show how much he knows and to talk over the answers. This occurs when i listen even to some of my favourite people in this greater discussion. When you added facts you did so briefly and then let Meyer carry the point and draw the conclusions.
    Your ability here showed not only your familiarity with the topic of ID and its opponents, in that your questions were original, insightful and, even when obviously planned, could flow from the natural conversation but also showed your listening ability and grace in questioning Dr. Meyer.
    Kudos in avoiding all my pet peeves and facilitating a great demonstration of Meyer’s case.

  4. Tom Gilson says:

    Bill, in addition to what Charlie said, I would add that RNA world explanations must include an accounting not just for the chemicals but also for the information expressed/representation in their functional arrangement. We’re a long, long way from explanations that accomplish that without the intervention of a designing mind. And that’s the question. Could God have used some kind of NRA world in his design process? I can’t think of any principled scientific or philosophical reason he couldn’t have done that. At that point, though, we’re no longer discussing whether ID is true, but rather what processes were involved in the design.

  5. Tom Gilson says:

    Thanks, Charlie. When I wrote this up late last night I forgot to add that I edited it considerably to improve my slow conversational pace, to improve the listening experience. I didn’t actually do nearly as well as it sounded, in that sense (there were lots of pauses and umms). I don’t think that has anything to do with the specifics of what you have said here, though, so I’ll say thank you again, I really appreciate the encouragement.

  6. SteveK says:

    As stated in the interview, I prefer the foundation of the debate shift to “is ID true?” rather than “is ID science?”. The latter question assumes that science is the only way to get to the complete and full answer. That’s the wrong starting point.

    There’s no reason to accept this epistemological assumption (scientism) – whether it comes from the mouth of an ID proponent or and ID opponent. Our experience says knowledge often come from several areas of study – both scientific and non-scientific – and perhaps ID theory is an example of this.

    Nobody should be troubled that ID may not be ‘science’. When someone says it isn’t science the reply should be something like, “Maybe so, but there are good reasons to think it is, nonetheless, true”. I haven’t read the book, but I’m told that Meyer’s book lists some of those good reasons.

  7. woodchuck64 says:

    Tom:

    … the key point is that the basic facts are not in dispute: materialistic explanations are not working—at all—nor are there any prospects that they will in the foreseeable future.


    One of the better [reviews], by Darrell Falk at Biologos, touches on miniscule details and not on the fundamental point Meyer is making.

    I’m mystified why are you are claiming Darrell Falk’s review skips the fundamental point Meyer is making. Falk refutes Meyer’s claim that science has reached a dead-end with specific examples: he points out that new research at the University of Manchester shows Meyer is now wrong to claim in his book that the conditions for the building blocks of RNA are necessarily incompatible; he refutes Meyer’s claim that RNA molecules in the lab have never been able to join more than two building blocks together, again, with new research published after Meyer’s book. Falk, who is a Christian, closes with “ The science of origins is not the failure it is purported to be. It is just science moving along as science does—one step at a time. Let it be.“.

  8. Bill says:

    “Could God have used some kind of NRA world in his design process? I can’t think of any principled scientific or philosophical reason he couldn’t have done that. At that point, though, we’re no longer discussing whether ID is true, but rather what processes were involved in the design.”

    I couldn’t agree more Tom. The issue though is if he did in a way where his hand is not discernable (and that is certainly possible and maybe even probable), we will be at an impass but not necessarily a conflict. The naturalistic scientists will not be able to explain where the information came from and the ID scientists will not be able to expain away the process.

  9. Tom Gilson says:

    That is indeed the question: what does the evidence suggest?
    The evidence at this point seems to favor that God did it in a discernible way, in my opinion.

  10. Tom Gilson says:

    I said he missed the core argument. Whether RNA molecules could have assembled is very peripheral. I suggest you re-read my opening paragraph, or better yet, listen to the interview, in which Meyer states his core argument in depth and from a variety of angles.

  11. Holopupenko says:

    Tom:

    The material cannot in any way affect the immaterial except in the sense of a rational agent understanding the formal cause (the whatness) of the material thing: I recognize and understand that a particular arrangement (form, if you will) of pigments on a page is music. The music was in-form-ed by the composer (it is, after, a form of in-form-ation with the expressed intent of someone (me, in this case) being able to recognize and know that it is music, to read the music, and to play the music. To know something at an intellectual (not merely sensory) level is to employ our immaterial capacity.

    Technically, it isn’t even so much that the material object (the printed pigments representing music on the page) that object (throw themselves) to me except from the perspective of sensory data “entering” me. Rather, it is the agent intellect that abstracts from the particulars of the specific immaterial image formed in my mind (technically called the phantasm) the immaterial form or whatness of the music. This whatness is impressed on the passive intellect (analogously to a signet ring impressing upon wax the form of the signet symbol) and I thus end up “knowing” the music.

    What’s the point? That ONLY a rational agent can intellectually know that there is in-form-ation in DNA and thus conclude properly that another intellect (or super-intellect) impressed that information. This is manifestly NOT a process the modern empirical sciences undertake–it is something only rational agents “see” from the scientific gathered. This is why Dembski is wrong: it’s not information theory that “sees” design, it’s we and only we rational creatures that “see” design as obtained from information theory (or whatever scientific tools the IDers employ). It’s not the hammer that builds the house: I build the house; it’s not the eye that sees anything, it’s I who see things; it’s not science (the tool) that “sees” design, it’s I–the rational agent–who sees design. ID theory, in a certain sense, is implying the tool does the job instead of being the instrument employed by the rational agent.

    That’s why, as grudgingly as I have to admit it, Darwinian scientists are correct in saying ID isn’t science: they’re doing philosophy. Unfortunately, their philosophy is incorrect as well: they claim “chance” could not cause the admittedly hugely-complex biological structures through Darwinian mechanisms alone in the alloted time frame. Well, of course: “chance” doesn’t cause anything–it’s not a causal agent to begin with. However, that does not mean things cannot happen by chance in the sense that a biological system preferentially “selects” or “takes advantage of” (in the non-directed, non-rational sense) chance alterations that enhance survivability or “reject” weakness. The final, really huge error of IDers (tied to the first error) is the presumed ability of science to find the latent “fingerprints” of God (or a super-intelligence)… and this stems also from their very weak, undeveloped, not-even-formally-articulated philosophy of nature. The modern empirical science qua MESs never have and never will “find” God in nature, nor have they ever nor will they ever disprove the existence of God–it’s not in their job description.

    The IDers should stop promoting (“pushing”?) that approach, beef up their natural philosophy, and propose robust philosophical arguments that demonstrate the existence of an intelligent designer. (I’m heartened that Meyer’s position has evolved–no pun intended–to employing “mind” rather than designer.) On the other side, secularists, philosophically-ignorant scientists and especially atheists should stop the scientistic game of claiming or assuming only MES-knowledge is valid knowledge.

    Once we get that straightened out (I’m not holding my breath, though… there are too many, deeply-entrenched commitments driving things), we can move on to study how the “mind” (designer, God, whatever) as immaterial agent did it. Well, as a teaser, we’ve known since the Middle Ages how the immaterial affects the material (as opposed to the material affecting the immaterial)…

  12. Bill says:

    Tom, the existance of information certainly points to an intelligence however the procees that intelligence could have used may appear very naturalistic. It’s the distintion of the how as opposed to the why. Naturalistic science may well discover that RNA can self assemble or whatever else explains their existance. That still would not tell us why they exist or why they contain the information they do.

  13. Holopupenko says:

    Tom:

    Another technical clarification to amend to the end of my last comment:

    (Important technical clarification: it’s not the form that we know but the object in-form-ed. If it was the form (idea) that we knew, we’d be stuck in our heads in DL-fashion. Knowing is the ACT of acquiring the form in our minds–it is not the form itself that we know except as a second intention. As a metaphor: our hand doesn’t “catch” [know] the shape [form, crudely put] of the baseball it catches (even though the hand “takes on” the rounded shape/form of the ball), the hand “know” (“grasps”) the ball itself: the form/shape of the ball is not what we know, but it is that by which (implying the act of catching or grasping) the hand “knows” the ball.)

  14. woodchuck64 says:

    Tom:

    I said he missed the core argument. Whether RNA molecules could have assembled is very peripheral.

    RNA assembly is not peripheral but the very molecule proposed to be the first biological information carrier.

    From your post:

    The scientific facts are presented in the book for those who want to dive into them. For those who are not so equipped or inclined, the key point is that the basic facts are not in dispute: materialistic explanations are not working—at all—nor are there any prospects that they will in the foreseeable future.

    So how does Meyer show that materialistic explanations are not working? By listing the problems with current theories and proposals for the origin of what might be the first functional biological information carrier, RNA. However, while he is writing about those problems, science marches on and provides possible answers to two of the very problems he brings up!

    Now Meyer says in your podcast that these answers don’t solve the core problem. Well, of course not. Solving two of the many problems and questions with RNA origin and evolution doesn’t allow us to call it anything like scientifically settled. But, here’s the thing: the problem is now not as hard as Meyer thought it was, it’s a little, tiny bit easier. Thus, it looks to me like “materialistic” explanations are working, that we are clearly not at a dead-end, and that it is not time to give up on science.

    I think this is Falk’s point as well.

  15. Tom Gilson says:

    woodchuck64,

    You misquoted me:

    Now Meyer says in your podcast that these answers don’t solve the core problem.

    I didn’t say they didn’t solve it. That would be, as you went on to say, asking far too much. I said they didn’t even address the core problem.

    Meyer’s core argument is about x, whereas their experiment is about z. Meyer says that x never appears under purely naturalistic conditions, without the involvement of mind.

    He adds a, b, c, … n as reasons to doubt that even z could never appear naturalistically, where z is one of many preconditions for y, and y is one of many preconditions–and probably not the most important one–for a naturalistically occurring x.

    That puts z at quite a distance from the core argument concerning x: it is but one of many conditions that are simultaneously necessary for the next precursor y, and as it turns out, it is a condition that is at least two steps removed from x.

    Let me fill in the blanks now. x is the information needed for functioning, reproducing life. y is RNA sequenced properly so as to be able to catalyze reactions that allow it to reproduce itself in the chemical etc. conditions in which it exists. z, the substance of the referenced experiment, is the ability of two RNA molecules to combine in conditions that may be like that of the early earth (though with intelligence involved in selecting the experimental conditions, I might add). If that fractional and peripheral portion of Meyer’s argument is proved wrong, it’s so far from the core it really doesn’t address it.

    Have you listened to the interview? It’s really not so easy to argue Meyer’s points based on my quick summations.

  16. Tom Gilson says:

    Holopupenko, do you know of a good article that explains this position from beginning to end? I know Francis Beckwith and Ed Feser have similar positions, but I’m having trouble seeing how it actually applies to this question, and it might help me to read it from another source. Thanks.

  17. Holopupenko says:

    Hi Tom:

    Actually, I’m in the middle of preparing something along these lines: it’s a synthesis of critiques of ID Theory not from the scientific perspective but from the philosophical. I have a pile of sources whose information I’m trying to formulate a bigger-picture critique.

    However, there are deeper problems that I’ve alluded to in previous comments. The pedigree of thinking (the historical intellectual and faith precursors) that leads to the philosophical mistakes of ID Theory are a complex web of interwoven ideas–everything from Newton’s mechanistic reductionism, Ockham’s nominalism affecting early Reformation theology (“plain meaning” Scriptural hermeneutics) and reasoning about the natural world, rejection of a classical philosophy of nature–driven partly by Fideism, and an implicitly buying into the scientistic lie. Somehow I have to weavethe latter in–quite carefully–to round out the picture. The philosophical critique will focus on how ID is wrong from the philosophical perspective, the historical critique will focus on why ID is wrong… in due deference to C.S. Lewis’ point to first explain what is wrong with any man’s argument and then explain why he got to that point. In any event, the picture I’ve seen forming is not a pretty one for ID Theory…

    For now, I’ll recommend what I consider to be a fairly neutral survey of the competing theories: The Evolution Controversy by Fowler and Kuebler (Baker Academic Press, 2007).

  18. SteveK says:

    ID theory may not fall under the category of science, and it may not have its philosophy entirely correct, but there is something that people ‘see’ that is driving the quest to figure it all out – something ‘out there’. Much like the perception of morality, yet very different.

  19. woodchuck64 says:

    Tom:

    That puts [experimental results] at quite a distance from the core argument concerning [information for life].

    If it’s just a question of distance, then any steps at all taken in a positive direction by science make it difficult to flatly conclude that materialistic explanations are not working now or in the foreseeable future.

    But I believe you are also saying that Meyer’s infor mation argument is the stronger, “positive” argument against naturalistic processes alone as the source of RNA/DNA, rather than his “negative” arguments against existing theories. I agree, and I need to take some time to understand Meyer’s information argument in more depth. Prof Falk review briefly mentions information, but I’ll withdraw my complaint about your characterization of his review for now.

  20. JAM says:

    I said he missed the core argument. Whether RNA molecules could have assembled is very peripheral.

    Please explain. Are you saying that Meyer devoted an entire chapter of his book to something that misses his own core argument and is very peripheral?

    I suggest you re-read my opening paragraph, or better yet, listen to the interview, in which Meyer states his core argument in depth and from a variety of angles.

    Are you saying that your writing and Meyer’s interview now supercedes what Meyer chose to devote an entire chapter to in his book?

    If his empirical predictions about progress in testing the RNA World hypothesis are very peripheral,what empirical predictions did he make in the book that were central?

  21. Tom Gilson says:

    Does this material supercede his book? No. But it surely does have the potential of helping you understand better what he argues. If you will assure me you.have heard the interview, then we can proceed fruitfully from there.

  22. JAM says:

    I listened. It was tediously repetitive, as I understand perfectly well what he argues, so your arrogant claim that I need to understand better was ludicrous.

    It didn’t address my simple questions; Meyer’s assertions about the recent data that directly contradict his predictions in the book were pathetic and predictable.

    Additional points:

    1) The metaphorical spine of DNA is not the bases. The spine is the sugar-phosphate-sugar-phosphate…etc., that is more commonly referred to as the “backbone.”

    2) The term “code” is pure metaphor, so all of Meyer’s repetitive ranting about codes is laughable, particularly when he references \alphabets.\ The alphabetic bit is a code that we use to symbolize the bases! Actual codes have symbolism. If you disagree, simply state the symbolic step.

    2) When someone knows what he is talking about in molecular biology, he uses the verb “to sequence” to refer to what humans do to nucleic acids.

    3) Science is about testing predictions. Darwin tested predictions. No one tests “claims.”

    4) TT censors, just like you do.

    5) What establishment could possibly have prevented the ID movement from publishing its very own journal for more than two years?

    6) Meyer doesn’t follow the evidence, and neither do you.

    7) Where are Doug Axe’s data from testing ID hypotheses? He can publish them on a cocktail napkin for all I care, but we both know that there are none and that Meyer is deliberately deceiving his audience.

    8 ) What proportion of “junk” DNA in the human genome has been shown to be functional, Tom? Do think that based on Meyer’s claims (not an argument, this is about fact) that junk is some monolithic classification that has been accounted for?

  23. Dave says:

    Devastating argument, wow!

  24. Tom Gilson says:

    JAM, your first two paragraphs seem to imply that you and I have had some dialogue already. Have we? (Forgive my memory lapse if we have.)

    On your first point numbered 2, to say the term “code” is pure metaphor is to define ID out of existence, rather than to argue against it. In what sense is it not a code? How does it differ substantively from code in the sense Meyer and I discussed in the interview?

    Your point 1 and your second point numbered 2 are of no consequence to the argument. Have you ever tried to do an interview like this? It’s easy to say a wrong word now and then.

    Your point 3 is directly contradicted, with supporting argument, in the book. First, science is not only about testing predictions. Second, Meyer provides a whole chapter of predictions to test. Third, the reason we test predictions is to test the theories underlying predictions, for which another perfectly appropriate word in this context is “claims.”

    As to your point 4, I “censor” rudeness. I do not censor disagreement.

    Point 5: the establishment forces that keep ID supporters from wanting their names to be publicly known.

    Point 6: So’s your old man! (Okay, I’ll explain: unsupported assertions like yours in point 6 are the equivalent of “Nyaah, nyaah, nyaah” on the playground, so I thought I’d respond with a time-tested answer.)

    Point 7: We don’t both know that Meyer is deliberately lying. I know that you are not telling the truth when you say that about me, however. Whether you are lying culpably or merely self-deceived is not mine to judge. You can find some of Axe’s publications listed here.

    8. I don’t know what proportion of “junk” DNA has been accounted for. Could you fill me in on that, please? I’d be glad to know.

  25. Tom Gilson says:

    In just two quick posts, JAM has managed to show him- or herself not willing to follow the standards of civility and respect this blog follows. JAM will undoubtedly object, because part of JAM’s last entry here, now deleted, included this answer to my earlier point:

    Me: As to your point 4, I “censor” rudeness. I do not censor disagreement.
    JAM: IMO, you routinely conflate the latter with the former.

    Obviously I’m taking the risk of being accused of conflating again, but so be it. I could point to other instances of rudeness in JAM’s comment I just deleted, but I’ll let this one represent the whole. It’s too bad; he/she had some interesting points to make, but for me it’s just not worth wading through the attitude.

  26. Brian Vallotton says:

    This is my first visit here. I have very much been blessed to listen to your interview with Dr. Meyer. WOW! God Bless and keep you! –Brian Vallotton

  27. Tom Gilson says:

    Thank you, Brian. I really appreciate your words of encouragement.

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