March 26, 2009

DNA and Intelligent Design

APOLOGIA
By Hendrik van der Breggen
(The Carillon, March 26, 2009)

DNA and Intelligent Design

Here is an argument for an intelligent designer.

Premise 1: According to Bill Gates (of Microsoft fame), “DNA is like a computer program but far, far more advanced than any software we've ever created.”

Premise 2: We know (from experience) that the human mind—an intelligent cause—is the source of the highly-sophisticated computer software thus far created.

Premise 3: We know (also from experience) that explanations which appeal to non-intelligent causes have much trouble explaining the origin of life/DNA.

Conclusion: Therefore, as culture commentator Charles Colson points out (via rhetorical question): "If Windows XP points to Bill Gates, how much more do the marvellous complexities of DNA point directly to God, the great Intelligent Designer?"

The truth of the third premise is a surprise for many non-scientists, so consider the following credible sources as a sub-argument for it.

Francis Crick (co-discoverer of the structure of DNA): "An honest man, armed with all the knowledge available to us now, could only state that in some sense, the origin of life appears to be almost a miracle, so many are the conditions which would have to be satisfied to get it going." (1981)

Klause Dose (Mainz Institute for Biochemistry): "More than 30 years of experimentations on the origin of life in the fields of chemical and molecular evolution have led to a better perception of the immensity of the problem of the origin of life on Earth rather than to its solution. At present all discussion on principal theories and experiments in the field either end in stalemate or in a confession of ignorance." (1988)

Leslie Orgel (Salk Institute for Biological Studies, comparing the question of life’s origin to a mystery novel): "We are very far from knowing whodunit." (1998)

Paul Davies (theoretical physicist turned origin-of-life investigator): "[S]cientists are currently stumped...The problem of how and when life began is one of the great outstanding mysteries of science." (1999)

Fazale Rana and Hugh Ross (reporting on the International Conference on the Origin of Life): "Some 45 years of well-funded investigation have led to one dead end after another. The same intractable problems still remain, with no glimmering of resolution in sight." (1999)

Nicholas Wade (New York Times science-writer): "Everything about the [naturalistic] origin of life on Earth is a mystery, and it seems the more that is known, the more acute the puzzles get....The [naturalistic] genesis of life on earth…remains an unyielding problem.” (2000)

Antonio Lazcano (president of the International Society for the Study of the Origin of Life): “Life could not have evolved without a genetic mechanism….Precisely how the first genetic machinery evolved also persists as an unresolved issue.” (2006)

Back to our main conclusion: I think Colson may be overstating the case about DNA pointing directly to God. Nevertheless, it seems to me, DNA’s code/language constitutes at least some good evidence of intelligent design which can be used, quite reasonably, as part of a larger cumulative case argument for God’s existence.

(Hendrik van der Breggen, PhD, is assistant professor of philosophy at Providence College, Otterburne, Manitoba.)

18 comments:

bob said...

DNA is difficult for you to understand so you claim a magic fairy invented it.

Calling magic "design" and calling a magic fairy a "designer" doesn't make it any less childish.

Pvblivs said...

     Interesting. But software needs a designer because it is not self-replicating. It also does not naturally mutate. Strangely, though, if we were unaware of programming, we might not have thought that Windows was designed.

Dr. V said...

Hi Bob,

Thanks for your comment.

Bob wrote:

DNA is difficult for you to understand so you claim a magic fairy invented it. Calling magic "design" and calling a magic fairy a "designer" doesn't make it any less childish.

Hendrik’s reply:

With respect, Bob, I think that you have read my column much too quickly! My argument is not at all as you represent it. My argument is not: DNA is difficult to understand therefore a magic fairy invented/created it. Rather, my argument is as follows: We know from science that non-intelligent causes have difficulty explaining DNA; plus we know from experience that things like DNA (things such as computer software which are like DNA but aren’t as complex and sophisticated as DNA) are always produced by intelligent causes; therefore it’s reasonable to think that DNA (which is much, much more complex and sophisticated than the software created by human intelligence) is produced by a very intelligent cause.

So my argument isn’t an argument based on ignorance or “gaps” or on what’s difficult for me to understand; it’s an argument based on what we know—what we do understand.

Think about it this way. On the basis of our knowledge of the capacities of nature (learned by careful science), we know (have pretty good grounds for believing) that X is beyond the capacities of non-intelligent causes. We also know from doing careful science that there’s a strong analogy between X and what we know is produced by intelligent causes. So we infer—on the basis of what we know—that X has an intelligent cause. Couple this with the other arguments that I sketched in my previous installment of Apologia, and this suggests, quite reasonably I think, that there is a God.

So now we’re clear on my argument. Now, let’s look at your argument a bit more closely. It turns out that you commit three fallacies (a fallacy is a mistake in reasoning that is so common that it’s been given a name).

First, you commit the Straw Man Fallacy. According to philosopher and critical thinking expert Trudy Govier (with a couple of parenthetical comments from me), “The straw man fallacy is committed when a person misrepresents an argument, theory, or claim, and then [critiques the misrepresentation, and then], on the basis of [the critique of] that misrepresentation, claims to have refuted the position that he[/she] has misrepresented.” (Trudy Govier, A Practical Study of Argument, 6th edition [Belmont, CA: Thomson/Wadsworth, 2005], p. 180.) As I have shown, you definitely misrepresent my argument. Also, it’s obvious that your critique (your second sentence) is based on that misrepresentation. Also, it’s obvious (especially via the use of the word “childish”) that you think (mistakenly) that your critique successfully demolishes my original argument. So you commit the Straw Man Fallacy.

Second, you commit the Fallacy of False Dichotomy. Govier explains the Fallacy of False Dichotomy as follows: “An either/or split that omits alternatives. (For example, to think that everything is either black or white would be to believe in a false dichotomy [because there are shades of grey plus there are other colors].)” (Govier, p. 243.) You seem very much to suppose that there are only two alternatives available for explanation: naturalistic mechanism or magic. Surely, though, there is a third alternative: intelligent causation. Significantly, we use the concept of intelligent cause in archaeology (to explain cave paintings), in forensic science (to explain whodunit), in SETI (to explain possible communications from ET), and elsewhere, so the concept of an intelligent cause isn’t anything wholly new or foreign or anti-science or “magical”. So you commit the Fallacy of False Dichotomy.

(By the way, for a readable article on the topic involved in your second fallacy, I suggest William Dembski’s “Mechanism, Magic, and Design,” Christian Research Journal 23:2 (1999): 22-27, 44-46. In this article Dembski sets out a philosophically astute criticism of Robert Pennock’s book Tower of Babel wherein Pennock commits the same sort of fallacy as you do. This article may be available online, I’m not sure.)

Third, you commit a version of the Ad Hominem Fallacy. Govier explains: “The ad hominem fallacy is [the mistake in argument] in which a critic attacks a person instead of arguing against the claims that person has put forward [when doing so is not relevant].” (Govier, p. 182.) Yes, you argue against my position (sort of, by misrepresenting it), but your use of the word “childish” spills its meaning not only onto the position that you attribute to me, but also onto me. That’s a personal attack. And it’s not relevant. It’s also unkind. So you commit the Ad Hominem Fallacy.

Three major fallacies in one very short argument. I’ve never seen that before.

Bob, your words show disrespect for the person with whom you are arguing (in this case, me). For the sake of maintaining civility on this blog (and elsewhere), I encourage you to be more careful in your word choices. I encourage you too to pick up a good textbook on critical thinking and argument. Trudy Govier’s book A Practical Study of Argument is very good (her work is highly regarded by many academics, plus I use her book in my Critical Thinking courses). I also recommend the book Logical Self-Defense by Ralph Johnson and Anthony Blair (two of my former teachers at the University of Windsor).

Best regards only,
Hendrik

Dr. V said...

Hello Pvblivs,

Thanks for your comment. As usual, I’ll respond in piecemeal fashion.

Pvblivs wrote:

Interesting.

Hendrik’s reply:

Thanks!

Pvblivs wrote:

But software needs a designer because it is not self-replicating. It also does not naturally mutate.

Hendrik’s reply:

I think that this backfires as an objection. Surely, if software needs a designer when it is not self-replicating, then if software were self-replicating, then that would be all the more reason it would need a designer. In other words, the suggestion of design is strengthened by the genesis of a self-replicating life form—just as the genesis of a self-replicating version of Windows would suggest a designer even more so than the genesis of a non-self-replicating version of Windows. It seems to me that if a non-self-replicating X requires intelligence to make it, then to make a self-replicating X would require more intelligence. If the origin of X is a big puzzle, then the origin of a self-replicating X is a humungous puzzle.

Pvblivs wrote:

Strangely, though, if we were unaware of programming, we might not have thought that Windows was designed.

Hendrik’s reply:

This is an interesting thought. I’m inclined to think that we know enough about other intelligence-caused artifacts to strongly suspect that Windows was designed, even if we were unaware of programming. At any rate, this speculation shouldn’t distract us from the fact that we are aware of programming. Significantly, this awareness, when coupled with our awareness of the programming in DNA, which is analogous to but much much more sophisticated than human programming, and when coupled with our knowledge of the weakness of non-intelligent causal explanations to account for the programming, is very suggestive of intelligent design. Super-software suggests a super-mind. At least that’s how it seems to me.

Interestingly, this is also how it seems to the highly regarded British philosopher Antony Flew. Flew, famous for his many years of being an outspoken atheist philosopher, has recently come to believe that there is a God (a deistic God). Why? Because of the indications of design in DNA. Flew (with coauthor Roy Abraham Varghese) sets out his intellectual journey in the book There is a God: How the world’s most notorious atheist changed his mind (HarperOne 2007). In this book Flew expresses his decades of commitment to follow the argument wherever it leads—which ends up leading him to God. It’s a good read, and I recommend it. (Note: Flew is no intellectual wimp. I have studied a considerable portion of his work in philosophy of religion. He is also a careful thinker, having published the very helpful book How to Think Straight: An Introduction to Critical Reasoning [Prometheus 1998].)

Pvblivs, thanks again for your comments. I hope that all is well with you and yours in your area of the world.

With best regards,
Hendrik

Pvblivs said...

An attempt at clarification:

     I am not asserting that the complexity of Windows requires a designer. I am asserting that if members of a set are not naturally constructed from existing things, then those members must be designed in order to exist. A mouse is certainly more complex than Windows. But a mouse is not individually designed. It is constructed naturally from pre-existing parent mice. The links in the chain go back as far as we can see. Whether the chain goes all the way back to simple elements or whether there is a "stop" that requires a designer is an open question. Windows requires a designer because there are no links in the chain. The "stop" is plainly evident.

Dr. V said...

Hi Pvblivs,

Thanks for the addtional comment. Your clarification looks more like a new argument than a mere clarification. New argument or not, the argument is interesting, so I will take some time to ponder it. (I also have a few other things on my plate presently, so I will take time to tend to those things too.)

Best regards,
Hendrik

Dr. V said...

Pvblivs,

Thanks again for the clarification. I think you’ve put your finger on the issue that divides us. You write, “The links in the chain [for a living organism] go back as far as we can see. Whether the chain goes all the way back to simple elements or whether there is a ‘stop’ that requires a designer is an open question.” I agree with the bit about the open question, but not with the bit about the links in the chain going back as far as we can see.

The argument of my column is a challenge to the claim that the links in the chain go back as far as we can see. It very much seems that, over the past half century of looking back, we can see that the links don’t go back as far as we can see. In fact, we can see back to the simple elements and we can see good evidence for thinking that the chain seems very much not to go all the way back to simple elements. That was the point of my quotes concerning the work of the leading origin of life researchers.

I didn’t argue what follows in my column on DNA and design, but I think some additional support can be set out for the claim that we don’t see the links go back as far as we can see. As I mentioned in a reply to a previous comment from Dale (a.k.a. “froggie”), I am skeptical of neo-Darwinism operating on a large scale. As I mentioned too, I quickly add and acknowledge that there are many very intelligent people who disagree with me on this, so, of course, I could very well be mistaken. Nevertheless, I think it’s worth pointing out that I’m not alone in my skepticism here: for a list of 700-plus highly credentialed scientists who are “skeptical of claims for the ability of random mutation and natural selection to account for the complexity of life,” see A SCIENTIFIC DISSENT FROM DARWINISM at http://www.dissentfromdarwin.org/.) The more I read (as a reasonably intelligent non-scientist), the more I think that the critics of neo-Darwinism’s large-scale claims have the stronger arguments.

Now, couple (1) the evidence for thinking that the chain seems very much not to go all the way back to simple elements with (2) the evidence of the obvious deep mind affinity of the computer-like code in DNA (i.e., it’s a super-sophisticated software that seems very much to point to a super-sophisticated mind). This coupling, it seems to me, strongly suggests a beginning—a “stop”—that requires an intelligent cause.

Think of my argument this way. Considerable evidence points to Jones having done the crime; the evidence for the other major suspects having done the crime looks pretty feeble; therefore, that Jones did it makes pretty good sense.

Sure, detectives (scientists) should continue to check for other suspects (as part of a research program). However, we should also keep in mind that the more evidence we have for thinking that the major competing suspects are ruled out (rendered improbable), and the more evidence we have for thinking that Jones did the deed (because the deed itself seems to be a deed only Jones could do), then the more it is reasonable to think that the case favoring Jones doing the deed strengthens. Sure, we can’t see all the way back to the actual event and be 100% certain. But we can adjust our beliefs in the direction that the evidence points us (and, of course, readjust them if we’re mistaken).

I think this last point is what the former atheist philosopher Antony Flew means when he says he is committed to following the argument wherever it leads.

Best regards,
Hendrik

Pvblivs said...

     Well, each generation corresponds to a link. These do go back as far as we can see. We don't have a specimen for which we can say. This did not come from a predecessor/predecessors. We have things up front that match what is thought to be at the end of the chain. But the chain itself goes back farther than we can see.

Dr. V said...

Hello again Pvblivs,

Thanks for yet another comment. Here are my replies.

Pvblivs wrote:

Well, each generation corresponds to a link. These do go back as far as we can see.

Hendrik’s reply:

I disagree. As I argued above, there are reasonable grounds for thinking that the links do not go back as far as we can see. Enter: my appeal to the skeptical conclusions of the origin of life scientists. Enter: my skepticism about neo-Darwinism’s alleged creative abilities (a skepticism that’s shared with quite a few scientists). It seems to me (and others) that we can see (i.e., have good reasons for thinking) that the links don’t go back as far as we can see. In other words, I think that my previous arguments are cogent. Of course, I could be mistaken. However, I am going to stick with my arguments, since I haven’t yet seen reasons for thinking my arguments aren’t cogent.

Pvblivs wrote:

We don't have a specimen for which we can say. This did not come from a predecessor/predecessors. We have things up front that match what is thought to be at the end of the chain. But the chain itself goes back farther than we can see.

Hendrik’s reply:

It seems to me that my previous arguments have covered this, and—and I say this with respect—it seems to me too that my previous arguments are stronger than yours. Clearly, though, you think that your arguments are stronger than mine. At this juncture, Pvblivs, it looks like we’ll have to agree to disagree. (It also looks like you still owe me that expensive coffee I mentioned previously….)

Best regards,
Hendrik

get_education said...

(It also looks like you still owe me that expensive coffee I mentioned previously….)

I am not Pvblivs! (Just in case there is a confusion, it might be that Pvblivs is also in the coffee drinking business.)

Hendrik,

I would have a few words for you on this one too. But, as yourself, immersed in the final touches (marking and such), then freedom for research. I miss my students though.

G.E.

Dr. V said...

G.E.,

I believe you when you say that you are not Pvblivs. It just happens that I've been trying to encourage Pvblivs to purchase me one of those expensive coffees too.

Okay, okay, my game is up. I confess: I've been hoping that everyone who posts anything on this blog will somehow feel obligated to buy me an expensive coffee. Oh, wretched man am I, scheming such things in the dark crevices of my soul--just so I won't have to go back to ... ordinary coffee.

Did you know that withdrawal from caffiene is listed in the latest issue of the DSM (diagnostic and statistics manual of mental disorders)? I am very familiar with this disorder, having tried to kick the caffiene habit many times(unsuccessfully). I suspect in the next few years there will be new entry: withdrawal from expensive caffiene disorder.

Best regards,
Hendrik

get_education said...

Here we go (trying to be extremely concise, but will surely fail on ... being concise!):

Premise 1: According to Bill Gates (of Microsoft fame), “DNA is like a computer program but far, far more advanced than any software we've ever created.”A metaphor that does more bad than good. DNA is more like a computer hard drive than like a computer program. Then it is more like a very dirty and convoluted hard drive that you would rather get cleaned. The drive contains instructions/softwares and such. But it is so obvious that it was not intelligently designed since things are there that are mostly useless and selfish, such as self-preserving DNA parasites (some contain venoms and antidotes that are hard to be taken out because the venom outlives the antidote), or useless and eroded genes that obviously come from ancestors who had a working copy, and so on and so forth. Far from clean this hard drive of ours.

Premise 2: We know (from experience) that the human mind—an intelligent cause—is the source of the highly-sophisticated computer software thus far created.Yeah, but remember that the software above is a metaphor, and an equivocal one at that. You cannot build an argument for design out of an imprecise metaphor Hendrik. You know this, right?

Premise 3: We know (also from experience) that explanations which appeal to non-intelligent causes have much trouble explaining the origin of life/DNA.No such thing. There are lots of explanations for the origin of DNA, for the origin of RNA, and for the origin of other, much more primitive "genetic systems." What we have trouble with is which scenarios are correct, given that we are still debating about the primitive conditions of the earth, and about how primitive cells with primitive genetic systems changed from one system to the other. Yet, our ignorance does not mean "designer" let alone an "intelligent" one, in any possible way. That would be a non-sequitur. Ignorance means ignorance. That and only that. If ignorance were a valid argument, then you would claim that now knowing how babies are formed was a valid argument for God at times when our ignorance included that bit of information. Since we learned later that this was explainable by natural causes, then it is not "valid anymore." So, why use a God-of-the-Gaps argument now?

Of course there are things (natural things) that will not be accessible to science. Does that mean that now the God-of-the-gaps will be a valid argument? I doubt it. But will be happy to hear how you reason that one.

Conclusion: Therefore, as culture commentator Charles Colson points out (via rhetorical question): "If Windows XP points to Bill Gates, how much more do the marvellous complexities of DNA point directly to God, the great Intelligent Designer?"You cannot conclude anything from empty premises. You cannot conclude that, given human ignorance, the only possible answer is God. Not even an intelligent designer. That would be an argument from ignorance, right?

Best and have a delicious long-named coffee.

G.E.

Dr. V said...

G.E.,

I just responded (in considerable detail) to your last comment on the previous post. And now I have yet another comment from you - thanks!

As I mention at the end of my above-mentioned response, I need some time to tend to other matters (e.g., work). Consequently, I won't be able to immediately provide a thoughtful reply to your latest comment.

What you've written looks challenging. Nevertheless, I have done some thinking about a few of the points you bring up. My arguments and clarifications, however, will have to wait.

I hope that your grading is going well. And thanks for the delicious coffee wishes!

All the best to you too,
Hendrik

get_education said...

Hey Hendrik,

I was not expecting an answer in the other thread because I made no argument. Not that I know.

Anyway, I will check it out when I have more time.

Best!
G.E.

Dr. V said...

Hello again G.E.,

Regarding the other thread (on the Apologia column "Does God exist?"), I must say that you did very much seem to set out an argument against cumulative case arguments in general. So I thought that it was important to respond to what you wrote. After all, the argument in the particular instalment of Apologia under discussion is a cumulative case argument, and, as I argued, I think that your argument is fallacious.

Now, I should also point out that, even if your comment was, in actuality, merely an opinion about cumulative case arguments in general, such that, in your opinion, my cumulative case argument is problematic, I also think it would be important to respond to that opinion. After all (again), my column's main argument is a cumulative case argument, and, as I argued, the opinion you set out is a mistaken opinion.

As I think you would agree, we don't want mistaken opinions to go unchecked -- whether they're your opinions or my opinions or opinions of whomever. At least that's part of what Apologia is about.

Also, I thought it was important to respond to the considerable confusion arising in the thread, confusion having to do with the following topics:

(a) Fideism vs. critical realism.

(b) Bible vs. reason and evidence.

(c) Forcing an argument to fit one's faith vs. faithfully following the direction of the force of an argument.

I think that the above topics are important, worth taking time to clarify. Also, I believe that our discussion will progress in the direction of reason and truth if we achieve clarity on these topics.

I apologize if I've been sounding "preachy" here. It's just that this kind of stuff moves my soul.

Best regards,
Hendrik

get_education said...

Hi Hendrik,

Precicely, the argument was not fallacious because there was no argument. I agree however with your feeling that you should not let it be unchecked. Yet, had I truly offered an argument, then we could talk about fallacies or not.

The reason it looked like a hasty conclusion (or whichever the name) is because I did not even try to tell you where the arguments you offered were wrong. I was not talking against cumulative arguments (those I know and accept), but about how yours could work backwards (as they did with me) because they could become cumulative anti-arguments. but I never explained where your arguments fail. This was a conscious choice because I had no time, and I did say I had no time.

Anyway, thanks for the patience.

Best always,
G.E.

Dr. V said...

Readers of Apologia,

Here is a newly published book that is relevant to the (original) topic of discussion in this installment of Apologia: Stephen C. Meyer's Signature in the Cell: DNA and the Evidence for Intelligent Design. For more information, click here.

Best regards,
Hendrik

Dr. V said...

Dear readers of Apologia,

For an update of the discussion of Stephen C. Meyer's Signature in the Cell, check out the e-book Signature of Controversy.

Best regards,
Hendrik