From email concerning James Tour and Joshua Swamidass: Livestream on Friday May 22, 2020.
I was listening to the discussion that you and Dr Tour had on “Capturing Christianity” channel about the origin of life. I myself am not a biologist or chemist; I am completing MSc in Energy Systems at Oxford. I am a Christian, and I find arguments for intelligent design (that the coded information in the cell points to some activity by an intelligent agent) to be the most reasonable from what I’ve read and heard on the origin of life. In the video, you stated that, among other things, there should be a clear idea of who the designer is and what he can or cannot do for ID to be a proper scientific argument. To be honest, I didn’t agree at all, so I wanted to understand your thoughts better. For example, the SETI program looks for signs of intelligent life in the universe, and receiving some digital signal with coded information would be an evidence for that. Would you say that we must know who sent the signal and what the sender can and cannot do for us to infer that there is intelligence behind it (as a reasonable scientific proposition)? Or say if we went to Mars and found some form of a machine there (e.g. a computer, but much more sophisticated than ours, so that we couldn’t even build a copy of it), would you say that we must know who built that computer and what they are capable of in order to infer that some intelligence must’ve designed it.
To be clear, if I understand correctly, Stephen Meyer doesn’t even claim that all of the cell is best explained by intelligent activity; he proposes that ID adds another analytical tool (insofar as informational content is concerned), because the only cause known to produce coded information is intelligence. As an analogy, if there was a single chemical reaction known to produce some feature of cell, it would be scientifically reasonable to infer that that reaction too place in abiogenesis, alongside with everything else. It seems to me that the reason ID hypothesis doesn’t state who the designer is is precisely for it to be a scientific hypothesis, because scientifically speaking we can only infer that some intelligence did it, just as we would if we receive a radio signal (like in the movie “Contact”) or discover a machine on another planet. Just as many scientists believe that solely chemical processes must’ve been responsible for abiogenesis without necessarily being able to specify which processes exactly, so do I (admittedly non-scientist) believe that we can construct a scientific argument for ID without being able (within the strict limits of biochemical science) to identify who the designer exactly is, for that would be a philosophical (in my case, theological) inference. I look forward to hearing your thoughts on this subject, and wish your family stays safe during the current crisis.
I’m not going to answer this completely now, but I’ll start. There seems to be some real confusion about how science detects design. Case in point is SETI.
In both these cases, scientists would be forming and refining (informally or formally) a model of the designer. A great example is how scientists ruled out human-design of the COVID-19 virus, with a particular model of design: COVID-19 genome and design detection. In the case of SETI, in almost all cases they start with a model of how aliens would produce a signal. When putative signals have been found, they look for other evidence of the designer to confirm, which once again depends on a model of the designer.
SETI, also, has the distinction of never touting a signal as evidence of intelligent aliens. So their filter has been very successful. In contrast, ID has touted several signals that fell apart on scrutiny.
There is also a misleading analogy being used here, regarding a “machine on another planet.” It is notable that they did not say “life on another planet.” We can already see that this changes the character of the question entirely. The fact of the matter is that, even if life is in fact designed, it doesn’t have the same signature of design as would machinery.
Moreover, if we did find machinery on another planet, we would immediately consider different models of a designer. On top of the list would be other people on earth who sent it there, and that’s an example of a model of the designer. Until there was confirmation of an extraterrestrial designer by other lines of evidence, it is highly unlikely we would conclude it was an intelligent alien.
I could go on, but it is important to keep in mind that when Meyers draws analogies to these different things, these analogies break down. Where and how spectacularly the break down is important. SETI is a good case study, in fact, because the methodology used by SETI is inconsistent with the methodology used by ID. I agree with Meyers, however, that science can and should consider design. In fact, it already does. The innovation of ID, however, is to consider design without considering a designer, but that doesn’t work in science. That’s the problem in the end.
There could be a way forward. Some IDists have proposed models of designer, and I have endeavored to engage these models with rigor: Winston Ewert: The Dependency Graph of Life.