Intelligently Dined: I go to an ID evening with Dr Stephen Meyer

Last night I was lucky enough to attend a meeting sponsored by the Discovery Institute in London, the main event of which was a presentation by Dr Stephen Meyer of here, here and here. The first thing I should explain is that ‘Chatham House Rules’ were in force, so all I can do is report the discussion, I can’t attach names to that discussion, which is a shame because I met some jolly nice people indeed. I really only got to speak to six or so, some more willing to discuss the topic than others, but all of them very polite and (in varying degrees) friendly. The evening began with a wine reception which was followed by Dr Meyer’s presentation, a meal (no wine at the table!!) and then a question and answer session. I’ll discuss some of the main points below, but one thing I want to return to is that I wasn’t quite sure what they are doing here in the UK. I don’t mean that they have no place being here, but I couldn’t see what the agenda was. I have checked the BBC and the Centre for Intelligent Design website and to my knowledge this UK group is merely acting as a support base for their bigger American cousins. Anyway, I’ll put that aside for now, what was said?

Well sadly most of it was stuff that has been being said for at least five years (discounting the couple of thousand before that). However, most of the people at my table hadn’t seen him speak before (even online) and some clearly really didn’t know who he was, so they found it pretty stimulating. This unfamiliarity with Meyer tells you a little bit about the position of ID in the UK.

There was no mention of flagellum, which was very refreshing! I got the impression that Meyer is looking to avoid ID being labelled a one trick pony because the presentation was really wave after wave of examples of his ‘specified information’. It was certainly nothing like the kinds of presentation I’m used to these days, looking down as I do from my fifth floor bedsit in the ivory tower. There was no beginning, middle and end; rather “Some people say Darwin destroyed the designer- this is wrong- look at all this design for the next hour”. I don’t think I’m being flippant in this summary, they filmed the presentation and MIGHT put it online so with a little luck you can judge for yourselves.

In discussion some people said they were impressed by the notion that information in the world had to come from somewhere. An analogy to scrabble pieces was used, whereby the repeated selection of random bits of information (tiles from a bag) leads inexorably to greater and greater confusion (things that almost look like words disappear in the mess). The argument this is meant to capture is that if you are looking for the origin of organic change, you have to accept that the information used to create that change must have been in some sense directed; the odds of this happening by chance being beyond human comprehension or at least credulity. I was able to offer in return that deciding the scrabble pieces possess any ‘information’ is a decision in itself, that this is not given to us by the natural world, it is up for us to to decide the ‘pattern’ of the letter A means something. This led to the best joke of the evening, sadly not mine, when a gentleman on conceding the point said “There is no such thing as A-ness”.

One thing that caused me serious trouble was the argument that Darwin was a proponent of inference to the best explanation, and that all ID is, after all, is an argument for an inference to the best explanation. In order to make this point it was suggested that Darwin was following Charles Lyell’s uniformitarianism, which was also an inference to the best explanation. Lyell said “look to natural causes that you know to be acting now” – we only know of one thing capable of producing design (intelligence) – so we should invoke an intelligent agent to explain any design that we find. Now this is problematic, to put it politely, for lots of reasons, but the first one that leapt to my mind was that Lyell was deliberately trying to exclude non-natural phenomena from geological explanations. That was the point of uniformitarianism. When I raised this point I received no adequate reply, it was in fact asserted that Lyell was happy to allow for all types of explanation, it was Darwin who really went to town on methodological naturalism. This is bollocks.

To return to my initial point, I don’t know what they plan to do as an organisation. Are they a fund raising body? I don’t think for a second they will have much political weight, certainly not over the national curriculum. What are they going to get up to, aside from feeding me and giving me free books? In the end, as long as guys like Dawkins keep saying stuff like this there will always be a job for the ID crowd. They played that clip by the way, to much laughter, and while I am certain it has been cut and edited terribly (and Dawkins says he and many of the other participants were highly mislead by the whole affair, which I don’t doubt for a second) it’s still a bloody stupid thing to say in a complete sentence. Still, I can’t get too comfy on that score.

p.s. you can see from my freebies that I got a DVD (with guest appearance from Steve Fuller no less!) and I may well try and review it for my next post, you lucky lucky people!

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23/11/2011: My apologies, I meant Lyell’s actualism. In my defence ‘uniformitarianism’ was used in the presentation so my sloppy brain is only partially to blame.

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