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Stephen C. Meyer Philosopher and Historian of Science
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Signatures of Minds

On William Paley and the Design Inference

Over at the discussion of Signature in the Cell continues with an interesting post from “Bradford.”

Being the good professor that he no doubt is Olegt inspired me to address this objection. There are some misconceptions about refutations of Paley’s watch argument. Paley’s watch served as a metaphor for life centuries ago at a time when our understanding of life and our technology was considerably less advanced. Our understanding of life extends to life’s basic unit — the cell — and its components. Cells are able to replicate themselves and if one chooses a metaphor it ought to be one able to explain this phenomenon. Meyer identifies the cellular property that is required to explain not just cellular replication but an ability to adapt and evolve. Information. He cites complexity and functional specificity as features of the biological information found in DNA and proteins, compares them to computer programs and goes on to make a best explanation inference.

Meyer is not rehashing Paley. He is not simply citing complex technology and claiming that an analogy to cellular complexity allows for a design inference. He is citing a particular feature common to both computers and cells and noting that information is essential to life in that it enables replication with a capacity to adapt. But unlike the interacting pieces of Paley’s watch, information need not be presumed to be mechanistic in nature. Indeed information is abstract. It exists as a conceptual idealization before it is expressed physically. That’s consistent with the computer analog. It’s consistent with the coding you are deciphering on your computer screen as you read this post. I conceptualize the thoughts first and express them via a preordered encoding convention. The actions are intrinsically those of intelligent design. Thoughts directing muscles to intelligibly arrange symbols according to code. One could argue that this is precisely what occurs when codes are encountered. Abstract information is symbolically mapped according to convention to convey specified conceptualizations.

Oh no you don’t Bradford. That’s not how it went down with the origin of life. That coding you refer to was incidental to chemicals reacting on prebiotic earth. There was no planning or conceptualizing. The cognitive recognition of a code followed its development by an uncomprehending process directed only by laws of chemistry and physics. The abstraction never existed until minds evolved. In theory if we could specify both conditions and substances we could create codes all the time. Get the recipe, put in the ingredients and watch that prebiotic mixer churn out cells.

What came first concepts or codes? Matter or minds? To find out let’s play science sez. We don’t know how cells came about but that ignorance is called a gap. The only thing allowed into gaps are models preconfigured to follow the incidental and unintentional code formation concept. Don’t get your hopes up and think this is a search for truth. Bradley Monton knows better and so do I.

In fairness if we did see symbolic coding systems arising around us in the absence of intelligent input we would rightly expect information systems to arise from biochemical reactions. When we do see the type of systems alluded to by Meyer we find humans or cells in the causal mix. The latter presumed to result from an unspecified series of reactions and the former more indirectly so. Although we know with 100% certainty that intelligent agency does routinely manipulate coding systems the rules favor a presumption for what we never see as opposed to that which we routinely observe.

The archived post is available at The Wayback Machine.