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Intelligent Design Legitimized Through Darwin’s Own ‘Vera Causa’ Criterion

Review Of The Seventh Chapter Of Signature In The Cell by Stephen Meyer
ISBN: 9780061894206; ISBN10: 0061894206; Imprint: HarperOne

The distinction between historical and experimental science is one that extends back over the centuries and at its core seems easy to grasp. Whereas historical science has as its focus events that have defined the history both of our planet and larger cosmos, experimental science has its eye on the current operation of nature.

The 19th century philosopher William Whewell coined the term ‘palaetiological sciences’ to describe those fields of science, such as geology and paleontology, that have a historical perspective (1). Whewell’s broad application of the term shone through in his two great works, his History of the Inductive Sciences and his Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences (1). Immanuel Kant used a similar distinction contrasting those sciences that describe “relationships and changes over time” with those that deal with the “empirical study and classification of objects…at present” (2).

As part of their analytical process, scientists routinely assess the validity of competing hypotheses to determine which best explain the data they have at their disposal. The late Cambridge philosopher Peter Lipton formally defined such a process of validation in his book Inference To The Best Explanation (3). Put simply, Lipton considered the best explanation for the occurrence of a natural event as one that obviously best identifies a likely cause. Lipton’s formalization rode on the back of 19th century geologist Thomas Chamberlin’s ‘method of multiple working hypotheses’ (4) and provided an improvement over Charles Peirce’s abductive reasoning- the process through which an established rule is used to explain a tangible observation (5).

Abductive reasoning would have us say that given a rule such as “If it rains the grass is wet”, the occurrence of wet grass must invariably lead to the conclusion that rain had fallen at some moment in the past (5). Nevertheless Peirce was quick to identify an inherent fallacy in such a thread of logic- a fallacy known amongst philosophers as the ‘affirmed consequent’. According to one review:

“Affirming the consequent, sometimes called converse error, is a formal fallacy committed by reasoning in the form: If P, then Q. Q. Therefore, P. Arguments of this form are invalid in that [they] do not always give good reason to establish their conclusions, even if their premises are true.” (5)

In the above illustration, the fallacy is all too evident since rain is quite obviously not the only causal agent that waters our lawns (summertime sprinklers and hose pipes stand out as self-evident alternatives!). The question that naturally follows is, given numerous causally adequate explanations, how might one go about deciding which supplies the greatest explanatory power?

One way is to resort to vera causa (“causes now in operation”) as Darwin did when he used animal migration behaviors to explain common descent. According to Darwin “the simplicity of the view that each species was first produced within a single region captivates the mind. He who rejects it, rejects the vera causa of ordinary generation with subsequent migration, and calls in the agency of a miracle” (6). Darwin of course assumed that the ‘now operational’ variations observed in animal breeding could likewise explain macro-evolutionary changes throughout the history of life.

An alternative approach to the causal adequacy question is to seek out additional lines of evidence that either prop up or debunk competing explanations. Stephen Meyer expounds on this salient point in the seventh chapter of his most recent book Signature In The Cell,

“the process of determining the best explanation often involves generating a list of possible hypotheses, comparing their known (or theoretically plausible) causal powers against the relevant evidence, looking for additional facts if necessary, and then, like a detective, progressively eliminating potential but inadequate explanations until, finally, one causally adequate explanation for the ensemble of relevant evidence remains” (p.166)

Historical scientists are of course not the only group to employ such a procedural chain. Meyer’s impressive list of distinguished professions- including clinical diagnosticians and forensic detectives- that are ’cause-focused’ in their modes of operation, gives us much to ponder over. And his follow-on question is brilliantly relevant- might not intelligent design supply the most causally adequate explanation for the origin of biological information? The answer may surprise some. It turns out that by the same ‘vera causa’ line of reasoning used by Darwin 150 years ago, intelligent causation in biology remains a distinct possibility. After all, a cornerstone claim in the ID offensive is that we routinely observe intelligent agents as ’causes now in operation’ that generate the same type of specified information as we find in DNA.

Meyer goes on to boldly entertain the idea that intelligent design presents us with the only causally adequate explanation for the origin of biological information and spends much of the remainder of his book tying together substantial evidence in support of his position. As for Darwin, one can only imagine how he might have felt coming back to find intelligent design legitimized through his very own criterion. My hunch is that he would have applauded the current state of debate.

Citations Listed
1. For a summary of Whewell’s work, see biologist Robert J O’Hara’s discussion at http://rjohara.net/darwin/palaetiology

2. Phillip R. Sloan (2006), Kant On The History Of Nature: The ambiguous heritage of the critical philosophy for natural history, Stud. Hist. Phil. Biol. & Biomed. Sci. 37 (2006), pp.627–648

3. Peter Lipton: Philosopher of science renowned for his account of inference and explanation, Obituary appeared in The Guardian, Thursday 13th December, 2007, See http://www.guardian.co.uk/news/2007/dec/13/guardianobituaries.obituaries1

4. For a detailed account of Thomas Chamberlin’s work, see http://geology.about.com/od/history_of_geology/a/aa_geothinking.htm

5. See Absolute Astronomy, http://www.absoluteastronomy.com/topics/Abductive_reasoning

6. Charles Darwin (1859), The Origin of Species By Means of Natural Selection Or The Preservation of Favored Races In the Struggle For Survival, Modern Library Paperbacks Edition (1998), New York, p.488

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11 Responses to Intelligent Design Legitimized Through Darwin’s Own ‘Vera Causa’ Criterion

  1. Thank goodness we can leave this historical method of argument behind, with direct experimentation such as Lenski’s work with bacteria and abstractions such as evolutionary algorithms. We are seeing the process of moving evolution from the inductive to the deductive category of Lipton.

  2. What proof is there that, say, 500 million years ago there was an intelligent agent around aside from gaps in the fossil record? Intelligent agents can’t act if they aren’t there. :-)

  3. Ellazim,

    What proof is there that, say, 500 million years ago there was an intelligent agent around aside from gaps in the fossil record?

    The presence of biological information, digital code and specified information necessarily present before the first cell can even get off the ground, best explained by a conscious being, i.e., an intelligent designer. Once one studies the alternatives, that is the “only causally adequate explanation.”

  4. absolutist: (another good moniker, I must get a better one! :-) )

    We’re always going to come to this impasse: I think that once you have a self-replicating molecule that sometimes makes mistakes then eventually you can get all the life we see and know of. I agree that it’s the initial step (or steps) that are the essential first rung and I think that must be a fascinating area of research to be involved with: how could that first molecule have got started. I can see everything else coming from that through a process of natural selection; we are talking millions and millions of years!! And I think we will always differ on that point.

    So, I won’t try and convince you of my view but I shall continue to try and understand and appreciate yours. And if some new research that has greater support behind it points towards an intelligent designer then I shall be ready for a paradigm shift!

    And I shall try and be less snarky. :-) But I do like asking questions . . .

  5. One question on the process of natural selection. You talk about the “mistakes” that eventually create all of the life that we see. Once a new species is created with a different count of chromosomes, with whom does it breed? Is there an another “mistake” just down the block and they happen to meet? When they talk about random mutations creating all the varieties of life, how do they come up with a scheme to get that accident to happen in the same area, at the same time, but with a different sex. As many years of working with bacteria shows, you still have a bacteria, and not a paramecium.

  6. wbarmy: I shall look for a reference for you! :-)

  7. From http://talkorigins.org/indexcc/CB/CB141.html

    “Chromosome counts are poor indications of similarity; they can vary widely within a single genus or even a single species. The plant genus Clarkia, for example, has species with chromosome counts of n = 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 12, 14, 17, 18, and 26 (Lewis 1993). Chromosome counts in the house mouse species (Mus domesticus) range from 2n = 22 to 40 (Nachman et al. 1994).

    Chromosomes can split or join with little effect on the genes themselves. One human chromosome, for example, is very similar to two chimpanzee chromosomes laid end to end; it likely formed from the joining of two chromosomes (Yunis and Prakash 1982). Because the genes can still align, a change in chromosome number does not prevent reproduction. Chromosome counts can also change through polyploidy, where the entire genome is duplicated. Polyploidy, in fact, is a common mechanism of speciation in plants.”

    HTH :-)

  8. Well gee golly gus Ellazimm…

    Cant make out what David Abel is saying one day ’cause it don’t fit your way of thankin, then snappity-snap-snap back the next day pulling out TO quotes like it wuz ez pickins

    Hit us with some more of them smilies!

  9. ellazimm is about as opaque as a glass-bottom boat.

    And if some new research that has greater support behind it points towards an intelligent designer then I shall be ready for a paradigm shift!

    So ella, what kind of evidence would cause you to change your opinion?

  10. I’d be happy with some good solid empirical evidence. I’d be happy if, like Lynn Margolis, ID proved its case to the mainstream of biological thought.

    I’m not an expert so, to some extent, I depend on others to do some of the “reviewing”. I’ve read some of what Drs Behe and Dembski have written and I have read some of the criticisms of their work and I don’t think the case has been proven . . . yet.

  11. I should have said: good solid empirical evidence that clearly does not fit the up-to-date evolutionary ideas.

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