Free Markets, A Lunar Eclipse, the Engines of Innovation, and Intelligent Design

 

Last night we had a long dinner on the terrace here in Tuscany, after which we watched the fireflies flickering and a lunar eclipse over the Tuscan hills. This led to panic because of course the conference-goers subscribe to the myth that a blood-red moon is an indication of the second coming of Christ. They didn’t know the real, scientific explanation for this phenomenon, so they rushed off in terror to handle snakes, marry their sisters, burn books and stone heretics. A shame they didn’t study the eclipse like rational men and bring us more progress, technology, wealth and civilization. That’s what they were doing over at the Guardian, I gather.

Italy-Borgo-01a.jpgYes, I am just kidding, of course I’m just kidding, that is as far from a true description of the nature of the people with whom I’m spending time as could be written in the English language. I made the joke because I was myself reviewing the causes of lunar eclipses on the Internet this morning and found this article in the Guardian, complete with an unnecessary invocation of the superstition and primitivism of Christians, deliberately contrasted with the Enlightened dispassion of scientists.  As far as I can see, the necessary qualification for being a scientist, as far as the Guardian is concerned, is the ability to watch a lunar eclipse while suppressing all one’s natural instincts for wonder and joy.

In any event, I’ve just spent three days in the company of bright, curious scientists. I have the sense of having been present at something important–perhaps it’s just the mood of the moment, but I can imagine that some day in the future, people will speak of the Great Expectations conference as a turning point. A turning point in what, you ask? Perhaps they will say that this was the point at which a group of curious people convened to say, “The framework through which we’ve viewed some very important problems isn’t delivering the answers we need. We’re not making progress, in the sense the West has always defined progress, fast enough. We’re not curing cancer fast enough. Advances in technology aren’t rapid enough. It still takes far too long to travel. Things are still too expensive for too many people on the planet. We’re not innovating fast enough. We’re not entering the truly high-tech era. The economy is in the tank, and we’re not doing what Americans do best–creating truly revolutionary technology–at the pace we need to do it to remain a global superpower.”

The point of the conference was to ask: What if we’ve been looking at these problems in too limited a way? What if in fact, the so-called materialist hypothesis has already achieved most of what it can achieve? What if the most interesting ideas in science are precisely the ones no one wants to talk about, because they might lead to  spooky metaphysical conclusions? 

One presentation suggested a path from a new program for inquiry in biology toward interesting results in biotechnology. The ultra-secretive people–I may now reveal–were investors, mainly in the high-tech industry, who are at the end of their tether with orthodoxy about the ideas they are and aren’t allowed to think about. They’re asking themselves, “If we look at these problems in a different way, might we invent something new, something from which we can make a lot of money?” Yes, you read that right: a lot of money. Capitalism, engine of human progress, strikes again.

We have people here who believe–contrary to all the evidence of human history–that when you put free expression and free markets together, you sometimes get progress and prosperity. (Yes, I am being dry again: That is not, actually, a hypothesis that runs counter to the evidence of human history.) Some of the people here–probably all of them–believe that “science” has become so stultified by orthodoxy and bureaucracy and peer pressure and political correctness that it may well be impeding progress as much as it is promoting it.

They are wondering whether looking at things in a more curious, playful, genuinely creative way might lead to discoveries that allow America to restore its leading technological edge and its economic dominance. They may be wrong. But certainly, after listening to this for three days, I am persuaded that their ideas are worth considering. You would have been, too. I promise.

So, from the Great Expectations in Tuscany conference, I bring you an interview with Steven Meyer, author of Signature in the Cell: DNA and the Evidence of Intelligent Design. As I’ve noted, it is not at all the case that this is an Intelligent Design conference, nor that everyone here endorses that idea. But since there seemed to be quite a bit of interest in the idea on Ricochet, I thought I’d find an actual exponent of Intelligent Design (as opposed to a caricature of one) to make the case for it. 

Here’s Steve Meyer discussing the mysterious, much-maligned Discovery Institute. In this clip he discusses the definition of science, addressing the idea that Intelligent Design is fine as a faith, but not a scientific theory:

In this clip he discusses peer review. The story of Richard Sternberg and the Smithsonian Institute is really worth everyone’s time. 

Here he wonders about the technological and medical advances that might result from exploring these ideas and reflects upon the notion that the non-coding regions of DNA might be a lot more functional than people realize. He suggests that this realization might–as one scientist at this conference suggested–hold promise for cancer research:

Here Steve discusses the criticism of Behe’s arguments about the irreducible complexity of the bacterial flagellum: “It’s a terrific criticism that makes Behe’s theory very testable,” he notes. This clip is especially interesting, I think:

Finally, Steve asked for a chance to make the positive case for intelligent design.  You got it, Steve:

In the last clip, we wonder out loud whether Darwin would have enjoyed the Great Expectations conference. We suspect he would have. He was, apparently, quite a curious man himself. 

There are 17 comments.

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  1. Profile Photo Member
    @GreatGhostofGodel

    “dispassion of scientists”

    Now there’s an oxymoron if I’ve never heard one before.

    • #1
  2. Profile Photo Member
    @Aodhan

    His positive argument for intelligent design relies upon an equivocation over the meaning of “information”, as well as ultimately resting on a prevalent but basic metaphysical confusion.

    Here is the confusion. Information is not a fact of physics. There is no information intrinsically in any physical structure, simple or complex. Information exists only relative to suitably intelligent observers. In a universe devoid of explicitly conscious beings like us, there would be no information. Bits of the world must be defined and counted by conscious beings before they can constitute information. But there is neither definition nor counting prior to people to do the defining and counting. So, genes do not contain information, nor cells process it, prior to people defining and counting the relevant bits.

    Here is the equivcation. Information intentionally communicated via language is not the same as information abstractly ascribed to the workings of any complex system. My telling you “Obama is president” conveys information deliberately. The bits of the genes, or the processing by the cell, aren’t conveying anything deliberately. Hence, his analogy–trying to imply an intelligent origin in both cases–fails. It just isn’t the same type of information.

    • #2
  3. Profile Photo Member
    @katievs

    Claire, this is great stuff, thank you!

    My husband and I have tried to convince our smart, religiously skeptical 17 year old son that the problem with Darwinism is that it makes metaphysical claims that are not (and cannot be) warranted by empirical evidence. But we lack the necessary background to reach him on the scientific level, which interests him more. I’m going to have him listen to these clips so we can discuss it together on the way up to NH tomorrow.

    • #3
  4. Profile Photo Member
    @

    Noticed the clip about Behe’s Irreducible Complexity. You weren’t kidding about getting to as many questions as possible ;). Thanks for your vigilance. I’m quite impressed with the quality of the speakers you’ve interviewed thus far. Goes to show that whatever one may think of their ideas, the issues these men bring up are still worth discussing.

    • #4
  5. Profile Photo Contributor
    @tommeyer

    Good interview, Claire.

    Aodhan:

    Here is the equivcation. Information intentionally communicated via language is not the same as information abstractly ascribed to the workings of any complex system. My telling you “Obama is president” conveys information deliberately. The bits of the genes, or the processing by the cell, aren’t conveying anything deliberately. Hence, his analogy–trying to imply an intelligent origin in both cases–fails. It just isn’t the same type of information.

    That’s my understanding as well. Likewise, we often say that the stars Merak and Dubhe “point” to the North Star. But they don’t; yes, the three of them are in a row with two of them close together, but the meaning ascribed to that arrangement is wholly in our heads.

    I wish Claire had pressed him on the problems created by ID. For instance, how could a designer like the one IDers infer be so meticulous on the micro level and yet so careless on the macro? Millions of species have gone extinct over the eons, largely because — despite their ingenious biochemistry — they really weren’t up to the task of living. ID isn’t very comforting if you’re a neanderthal.

    • #5
  6. Profile Photo Member
    @MarkWilson

    His inference that the digital information in DNA must have come from an intelligent designer doesn’t strike me as any different from the negative (“God of the Gaps”) conclusion that he tries to contrast it with. In the God of the Gaps version, it is postulated that there is no “natural” cause that can account for DNA, therefore an intelligent designer must have done it. It is implicit that an intelligent designer is a known source of digital information–think how ridiculous this would sound if you proposed a volcano, earthquake, or flood as the source.

    It seems to me that all he is doing is stating that fact explicitly before coming to the same conclusion for the same reason.

    • #6
  7. Profile Photo Member
    @DuaneOyen

    Why is there an assumption that species extinction is due to macro carelessness? If the ultimate species is human, and we are required to decay (there are a bunch of theological discussions indicating the essentiality of that point) as does the entire universe, species extinction of all living things is a natural part of the process, including for humans. The time scales may be different, but the end result is the same.

    No one needs to prove anything one way or the other- ultimately, people believe- or they don’t- in an “ultimate intelligence”. The point IDers make is that their belief, which they acknowledge to be such, is just as rational (I might argue more so), based on evidence in the universe as characterized by observational and analytical science, as the belief (which is all it is, sorry, Dawkins) in pure naturalism.

    • #7
  8. Profile Photo Member
    @MarkWilson
    Duane Oyen:

    The point IDers make is that their belief, which they acknowledge to be such, is just as rational (I might argue more so), based on evidence in the universe as characterized by observational and analytical science, as the belief (which is all it is, sorry, Dawkins) in pure naturalism. · Jun 16 at 9:12am

    You’re right, at this point it is not rational to cling to the belief that life arose spontaneously from nonlife, absent a plausible physical explanation.

    However, what is rational and what is correct are not necessarily related. Before meteorology, it was rational to believe storms were the wrath of the gods. Before astronomy, it was rational to believe the stars were tiny points of light fixed in the sky-sphere that revolved uniformly around the Earth.

    • #8
  9. Profile Photo Contributor
    @tommeyer
    Duane Oyen: Why is there an assumption that species extinction is due to macro carelessness? If the ultimate species is human, and we are required to decay (there are a bunch of theological discussions indicating the essentiality of that point) as does the entire universe, species extinction of all living things is a natural part of the process, including for humans. The time scales may be different, but the end result is the same.

    Because ID posits that the designer is ingenious and, moreover, the majority of IDers posit that the designer is God. Once God’s actions are taken down to the level of microbiology and species-specific evolution, the door to a unfathomable number of theodicy and theodicy-like questions is opened. Why would such an ingenious designer make so many unfit species? Or design the human uterus so poorly that the majority of eggs fail to implant? Or create appendixes that are fatal when inflamed? And what’s with God’s fixation with beetles? It’s like the counterfeiter who perfectly mimics a $20 bill but substitutes Hamilton’s portrait for Jackson’s.

    • #9
  10. Profile Photo Member
    @RobertPromm
    Aodhan: His positive argument for intelligent design relies upon an equivocation over the meaning of “information”, as well as ultimately resting on a prevalent but basic metaphysical confusion.

    Here is the equivcation. Information intentionally communicated via language is not the same as information abstractly ascribed to the workings of any complex system. My telling you “Obama is president” conveys information deliberately. The bits of the genes, or the processing by the cell, aren’t conveying anything deliberately. Hence, his analogy–trying to imply an intelligent origin in both cases–fails. It just isn’t the same type of information. · Jun 16 at 4:37am

    Oh? To Your bolded, italicized statement – says who? I presume by bits of genes you mean DNA. The DNA is not deliberately conveying infomation to the cell to cause it to grow and/or reproduce? Of course it is!

    You sir are confused at one of the lower rungs of the wisdom ladder. Data – Information – Knowledge – Wisdom

    Data – bits and bytes

    Information – data organized, sequenced & formatted to be analyzed

    Knowledge – hypotheses analyzed from information

    Wisdom – the productive use of knowledge

    Already, at the information stage, we have ID as formatting presumes a purpose.

    • #10
  11. Profile Photo Member
    @BrianWatt
    Mark Wilson

    Duane Oyen:

    The point IDers make is that their belief, which they acknowledge to be such, is just as rational (I might argue more so), based on evidence in the universe as characterized by observational and analytical science, as the belief (which is all it is, sorry, Dawkins) in pure naturalism.

    You’re right, at this point it is not rational to cling to the belief that life arose spontaneously from nonlife, absent a plausible physical explanation.

    However, what is rational and what is correct are not necessarily related. Before meteorology, it was rational to believe storms were the wrath of the gods. Before astronomy, it was rational to believe the stars were tiny points of light fixed in the sky-sphere that revolved uniformly around the Earth. · Jun 16 at 9:27am

    Bless you, my son. If I may, add to this…it was perfectly rational to assume that the heavenly bodies of Hesperus and Phosphorus were two distinct “stars” – one appearing in the morning hours and the other in the evening hours. Of course, the truth is that a) they weren’t stars at all, and b) they were the same planet…Venus.

    • #11
  12. Profile Photo Member
    @RobertPromm
    Tom Meyer

    Why would such an ingenious designer make so many unfit species? Or design the human uterus so poorly that the majority of eggs fail to implant? Or create appendixes that are fatal when inflamed? And what’s with God’s fixation with beetles? It’s like the counterfeiter who perfectly mimics a $20 bill but substitutes Hamilton’s portrait for Jackson’s. · Jun 16 at 10:29am

    Edited on Jun 16 at 10:33 am

    Because the answer is spiritual not physical. Unfitness, extinction, faulty egg implantation, etc. are the result of a man-made cause. Ridicule as you will but “the wages of sin is death.”

    • #12
  13. Profile Photo Member
    @RobertPromm

    @Aodhan,

    WADR, having now had an opportunity to relisten to Steve Meyer’s thesis, I submit that the definitional equivocation with respect to information is yours not Meyer’s.

    • #13
  14. Profile Photo Member
    @
    Robert Promm

    Because the answer is spiritual not physical. Unfitness, extinction, faulty egg implantation, etc. are the result of a man-made cause. Ridicule as you will but “the wages of sin is death.” · Jun 16 at 2:05pm

    So what about all of the defects in nature that occur before man came into existence? All of the extinctions that have occurred over millions of years. All of the death and disease. Notice that no one Claire Berlinski has interviewed thus far has denied, directly anyhow, that the earth is billions of years old or that humans evolved from apes (and are apes)..

    • #14
  15. Profile Photo Member
    @DiegoSunDevil

    First off, I disagree with many facets of ID, but I feel I understand it a little better now and I’m encouraged by the fact that these scientists seem to be clearly playing within the rules of science while pursuing their theories, etc. They are just simply being shut out by a version of the Good Ol’ Boys club.

    The politicization of science seems more prevalent than ever, but that may just be my perception because I’m more politically aware than I’ve ever been. Nonetheless, science has suffered some serious credibility setbacks lately, specifically with the ClimateGate episode. There was and is clearly some unsound science being injected into the discussion of this topic. The end result is that it’s all tainted, and science is supposed to be objective. Clearly, it is being driven towards a foregone conclusion, and the people who disagree are ostracized in one form or another. It’s all very disheartening to someone who has a deep respect for the scientific method.

    • #15
  16. Profile Photo Member
    @DiegoSunDevil
    Mark Wilson: His inference that the digital information in DNA must have come from an intelligent designer doesn’t strike me as any different from the negative (“God of the Gaps”) conclusion that he tries to contrast it with. In the God of the Gaps version, it is postulated that there is no “natural” cause that can account for DNA, therefore an intelligent designer must have done it. It is implicit that an intelligent designer is a known source of digital information–think how ridiculous this would sound if you proposed a volcano, earthquake, or flood as the source.

    It seems to me that all he is doing is stating that fact explicitly before coming to the same conclusion for the same reason. · Jun 16 at 8:49am

    You’ve pretty well described my view of ID too. There’s a lot of information here, the source of which can’t be determined, therefore they conclude ID (AKA there’s an outside entity injecting information). This seems more like a debate stopper than a theory. It’s a branch of science that seems to take it’s origin from another branch and yet claim originality (if that makes any sense).

    • #16
  17. Profile Photo Member
    @RobertPromm
    Abdiel

    So what about all of the defects in nature that occur before man came into existence? All of the extinctions that have occurred over millions of years. All of the death and disease. Notice that no one Claire Berlinski has interviewed thus far has denied, directly anyhow, that the earth is billions of years old or that humans evolved from apes (and are apes).. · Jun 16 at 4:06pm

    Nope. No evolution on a macro level. This I understand by faith — “By faith we apprehend that the worlds were framed by the word of God, so that that which is seen should not take its origin from things which appear.” So, by faith I accept the Genesis account of creation in 6 days. I do not take this as allegory as my old earth creationist friends do. And, humans are not apes. Only humans have the divine spark and knowledge of God’s existence. “…for God has revealed it to them, — for from the world’s creation the invisible things of him are perceived, being apprehended by the mind through the things that are made, both his eternal power and divinity, –so as to render them inexcusable.”

    • #17

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