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Detection of Intelligent Design

Posted By Randall D. Isaac, Wednesday, February 27, 2019

On January 1, 2019, Stephen Meyer published a post called “Intelligent Design Is Detectable by Science” on the EvolutionNews.org blog. His main point can be summarized in this way. Functional (aka complex specified) information is necessarily and universally linked to intelligence so that when we observe functional information in DNA we can reliably infer that there must have been an intelligent agent. Since scientific methods can detect functional information in DNA, then an intelligent agent is detectable by science.

Meyer justifies the linkage between functional information and intelligence by citing a wealth of examples where we know such information requires an intelligent agent. His inductive argument relies solely on examples of human-designed systems such as language and computer programs. He then assumes without justification that this necessary linkage between information and intelligence can be extended from the human design realm to the biological realm. Yet he offers no indication of how and why functional information is connected to intelligence and no rationale for the universality of such linkage. This is a critical missing step in Meyer’s logic that needs to be supplied before his conclusion can be credibly considered.

I would suggest that one possible linkage between functional information and intelligence is abstract reasoning. Whenever functionality of information is determined by abstract relationships, then intelligence is indeed necessarily involved. However, when functionality is determined by physical relationships instead of abstract relationships, then no conclusion can be made about intelligence. In the case of biological systems, functional information of DNA is determined by the survival and ability to reproduce of the organism. This is a physical and not an abstract relationship. Thus it would seem that the connection between functional information and intelligence cannot be extended to the biological realm.

Tags:  information  intelligent design  theistic evolution 

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Tony Isaac says...
Posted Saturday, March 30, 2019
Steven Meyer has an interesting argument. Relying on inductive reasoning does have its limits. However, if indeed "functional" information can occur without an intelligent designer, then we should see examples of such in nature.

One might say LIFE is such an example. The problem is, we do not have the necessary data to prove this. If we believe that life occurred without intelligent design, we can rely only on assumptions because we cannot observe its creation in the absence of pre-existing life.

How about some other counter-example, some natural phenomenon where functional information is present, and we can prove that there is no intelligent design behind the functionality. If such is possible, we should expect to see more than one example in nature (the one example being life).

Mere survival and successful reproduction do not explain all of the functionality expressed in DNA. Every organism possesses these qualities. Survival alone does not require multi-cellular organisms, the ability to fly, walk, think, see, or mate. Indeed, survival is not needed by nature at all! Dead planets have no need for life or survival of any kind. I would argue that the very goal of survival is an abstract functional objective, evidence of intelligent design.
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Randall D. Isaac says...
Posted Sunday, March 31, 2019
Thank you for your comment, Tony. I do agree that the origin of life is an unknown and we cannot use it as evidence of whether or not an intelligent agent was involved.
As I have frequently written, there are countless examples of new functional biological information being generated without the aid of an intelligent agent, giving ample evidence that intelligent agents are not required. I would argue that every successful reproductive event is such an example since the information in each individual is unique and novel and is functional if that individual survives.
Usually the response to that claim is something like "oh, but that is too small an amount of information and not the large amount of information that is necessary for different body types or other major differences." But there is enough evidence that these major differences are the result of an accumulation of small differences, so the mechanism is indeed the same and is relevant. To my knowledge, no one has ever shown experimentally or logically that an intelligent agent is necessary for a genetic change in any organism. We are just now learning that it may be possible for humans to make such changes in very limited situations.
Hence, when you say "we should expect to see more than one example in nature" I would say we see countless examples. If you mean we should see something else besides life, then I agree it would be nice but I see no reason to think that other such systems should exist. Yes, life is unique and biological systems have no counterpart as far as we know. That, however, is of no help in deciding whether or not an intelligent agent was involved.
I do not understand your comment that survival and reproduction do not explain all functionality. It seems to me that every organism exists because it does possess the quality of being able to survive and reproduce. In understanding the variation that is inherent in that process, and tracing the record of that variation in the fossils and in the genetic data, we see that indeed the ability to fly, walk, think, see or mate developed through that process.
When you say "survival is not needed by nature at all" you really need to specify to which part of nature you are referring as well as what kind of survival. Stars and planets do not need the kind of survival and reproduction as living organisms do. Stars do not survive forever and they do stop existing after their explosive demise or their consumption of all their fuel. But life does need survival and reproduction to exist. Does life need to exist for some abstract functional objective? Not from a scientific perspective. It is only needed to sustain itself. But from our theological perspective it certainly does. And in that view, there is certainly an intelligent designer, our creator God. I certainly agree with you there. But that has no bearing on the question of whether the observed generation of new functional information in the genomes of living organisms is evidence for the action of an intelligent agent.
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Tony Isaac says...
Posted Sunday, March 31, 2019
Yes, you are right to infer that I meant we should see examples of functional information _outside of life_. Using variation among living things as an example of functionality without intelligent design, is circular logic, because it depends on the pre-existence of life, and life is "designed" (intelligently or not) to produce variation.

My argument is similar to the Fermi Paradox, which (paraphrased) says that if life is probable enough to exist at all, it should exist in many places elsewhere, and we should be able to detect it. As a corollary, if functional design (outside of life) is probable enough to exist without an intelligent designer, it should exist in many places, and we should be able to observe it.
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Randall D. Isaac says...
Posted Monday, April 1, 2019
Tony, I don't think this is circular logic. Yes, we are setting aside the issue of the origin of life. The variation we see is a function of the basic physics of the universe and not unique to life so it is a feature that helps enable life but not one that is unique to the design of the original life. Again, I am critiquing Meyer's claim that all functional information must be generated by an intelligent agent. That claim is invalid.

As for the Fermi Paradox, it is indeed an important part of the rationale for the search for extraterrestrial life. But the failure to find it so far is hardly justification to claim that life is unique or that life requires an intelligent agent. We simply can't access the vast reaches of the universe to study those regions that would be amenable to life.

Furthermore, if you focus on life as it originated on earth, the diversity that we have found is startling. From deep sea vents to virtually every nook and cranny, there is an amazing diversity of life. I see that as a pretty good indication that life develops and diversifies without an intelligent designer. For that matter, no one yet has ever shown an example of any organism that did require an intelligent agent to specially structure its DNA.

Finally, I want to underscore again the key factor that we as Christians all believe in the intelligent designer who created us and the entire universe. All of life depends on him. We are speaking in this post of scientific evidence for the need of an intelligent designer to occasionally modify the normal paths of variation and survival.
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