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Argumenta / Blog

Irreducible and Specified Complexity

Creating a clay woman

Things fester on the internet. Propositions that were refuted long ago don’t go away; there’s always someone who hasn’t been brought up to speed yet, paddling the same old canoe that has already been sunk many times over.

Irreducible Complexity and Specified Complexity are terms used by the proponents of Intelligent Design to support their proposition that there is a creator deity. There’s a backstory to this: the Federal government, following the famous 1925 court case, known as the ‘Scopes Monkey trial’ 1, made the teaching of Creationism in US schools illegal. What did the theists do? They rebranded Creationism, calling it ‘Intelligent Design’! At that point, they abandoned any legitimate claim to have the open mind needed to do science. 

Intelligent Design sidesteps the issue of a Creator God by leaving the agent anonymous. They just refer to an unknown ‘Intelligent Designer’ (we all know they mean their god) and say that the ‘evidence’ that such a being must exist is because, they assert, some of the complex features of organisms cannot have evolved. That’s not evidence for a designer, it’s just a variant of the argument from ignorance fallacy 2 and it reveals that they don’t understand the difference between argument and evidence.

They skate over how one is supposed to recognize what qualifies as a ‘complex feature’ because they obviously wish to extend their claim from ‘a designer must be required for complex features’ to ‘a designer must be required for all features’. They love to quote statistics showing how improbable it would be for such things to have evolved by chance. All that does is tell us that they don’t understand how evolution works; the mechanism of evolution is not chance; it’s selection. Leaving all that aside, let’s examine the items of ‘evidence’ that they claim supports their case for an Intelligent Designer: irreducible complexity and specified complexity.

Irreducible complexity

Irreducible complexity supposes that certain complex organs or biological processes couldn’t have evolved gradually by intermediate stages because, until they are complete, they don’t work and, therefore, don’t confer any advantage.

The first problem that IDers face is any feature, however complex, is only irreducible until it has been shown to be reducible and several of the IDer’s ‘irreducibly complex’ examples have fallen at this hurdle; we have good explanations for how the mammalian eye and the flagellum likely evolved. Smuggling the assumption of irreducibility into an item being offered as evidence is a clue—it’s not evidence, it’s a claim! 

They probably think like this because they are assuming a deliberate progression from simple to complex. This is not the case; there is no intentionality in evolution, it’s only a matter of passing on genes by not dying before breeding. Sometimes a characteristic begins with one function and, as it evolves, acquires a different function. Evolution is by modification of the existing, not by designing on a blank sheet of paper. Any particular characteristic doesn’t even have to contribute to survival; it might just be taking a ride into the next generation on an individual that didn’t die before breeding for other reasons.

Specified complexity

Specified complexity claims that the existence of coding in the DNA, which instructs the production of proteins that lead to the construction of a cell, indicates that some clever being must have programmed it. But both specifying and designing are manifestations of intentional intelligence. Ask any procurement officer and you will find that the first thing they do is compile a wishlist of demands, for example: ‘The aircraft should be able to fly at 600 mph, carry 300 passengers, have a range of 4,000 miles and be able to use short runways’.

Specifications are designed before a product is designed so IDers are assuming the existence of their designer when they label a particular complexity as having been ‘specified’ and then saying that the existence of that complexity proves that there must be a him! All Intelligent Design proponents have done is moved their presupposition of a designer back one stage in the process of creation that they imagine is taking place. Projecting backwards is like saying, “I exist, therefore, two hundred years ago, my great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great grandfather must have inseminated his partner with a plan to produce me as a descendant!” Ludicrous isn’t it! You can’t conclude historic intentionality—it will always be merely a claim.

Once you spot that specifying is designing, their claim boils down to ‘a designed complexity is evidence of a designer’! They are just trying to trick us by using the word ‘specified’ instead of the word ‘designed’. This is an example of the begging the question fallacy or circular reasoning 3 —assuming an explanation for an existing phenomenon and then claiming that the existence of that phenomenon is evidence for that assumption! Smuggling the assumption of specification (designing the features) into an item being offered as evidence is a clue: it’s not evidence, it’s a claim! 

The fact is, biological diversity doesn’t require any specifying. We have a good model of how the complexity of DNA likely came about and it wasn’t by design, it was by natural selection from an array of variants produced by mutation, both of which are unplanned events. Variants pop up all the time due to external mutagenic factors and recombinations in the gametogenesis and fertilization processes. That happens at every reproductive event, whether the species is evolving or not. The environment determines which variants succeed and has its ‘foot on the throttle’: more change in the conditions stimulates more change from the population in response. No need for any specifier, designer or god. 

Unintelligent design

Then there are the countless examples of unintelligent ‘design’! Once you actually study genetics you will find lots of apparent nonsense, such as multiple replications of pieces of code and dormant viruses, in every nucleus. Craig Ventner has demonstrated this with the investigation to find the minimal genome 4. The truth is, we have acquired a hotchpotch of accidentally accumulated genetic material which is most unlike any deliberately specified code. A designer would have to have been a scatterbrain rather than intelligent.

IDers are not doing science; they are doing presuppositionalism and the law courts agree: ‘Intelligent Design’ was recognized as Creation-by-another-name in the 2005 case of Kitzmiller vs Dover Area School District 5

Even if ‘irreducible complexity’ and ‘specified complexity’ were real things, they wouldn’t be evidence for an Intelligent Designer, they would just be unsolved mysteries. You can’t turn ‘we dunno’ into ‘godunnit’. Not even any god, let alone the Christian one… This is Science 101. Go back to school IDers.

References:

  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scopes_Trial
  2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Argument_from_ignorance
  3. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Begging_the_question
  4. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Minimal_genome
  5. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kitzmiller_v._Dover_Area_School_District

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4 Comments

  1. Bill Flavell

    The reasons creationists give for denying evolution by natural selection evolve faster than anything else!

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      There’s a truism!

      Reply
  2. Avatar

    The first thing I’d better point out is that I am a creationist, or as this article would refer to me, an IDer. I’ll be attempting to refute this article paragraph by paragraph.

    According to the third paragraph in the introduction, assuming we were created by something when the arguments of those trying to prove we weren’t is an argument from ignorance. But, there isn’t a third option here. We were either created by an intelligent being, or we weren’t. It’s not an argument from ignorance, at worst it is the process of elimination.

    There is a simple answer to paragraph four in the introduction: defining a ‘complex feature’. Most IDers agree that a complex feature is a piece of the body that, when one part of it is removed, does not function at all. That’s an oversimplification, but for purposes of this argument, I believe it is sufficient.

    I question why there is no source for paragraph 2 of “Irreducible complexity” in regard to knowing how the eye has evolved, as it seems to be the only place in this article where any real evidence is mentioned. My argument here is not really an argument, I am just admitting my own ignorance in this particular case.

    Paragraph 3 says that all of the irreducible things in our body have merely come about by chance. If this is true, why do we not see other parts of our body that are complex things that have not yet fully developed? Any irreducibly complex organism is highly unlikely – which seems to be atheism’s specialty – but we have many irreducibly complex organisms! The very blood cells of our bodies are irreducibly complex. Not only that, they present a chicken-and-egg dilemma in that they cannot survive without other functions of our body, and those cannot happen without blood cells.

    Paragraph three of “specified complexity” states that ‘a designed complexity is evidence of a designer’ is circular reasoning, but that’s just not true. Saying that the design of this website is evidence that someone designed it is not circular, it’s logic. The teleological argument is an argument very similar to what we are discussing here, and it has yet (to my knowledge) to be disproved.

    Paragraph four of “specified complexity” and paragraph one of “unintelligent design” claim that much of our current being came about through mutations. But if you study mutations, you will see that in every case mutations are caused by a LACK of DNA. Not one mutation has ever caused more DNA to be added to the genetic code, or provided any beneficial trait to the mutated.

    Paragraph one of “unintelligent design” also claims that imperfections in the genetic code indicate an imperfect designer, but as we’ve already discussed, mutations passed through bloodlines have caused this. Likely earlier humans had purer DNA, fewer mutations, but as the years have gone by (billions of them according to atheism), inbreeding and chance have caused imperfections, not God.

    Reply
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    William Fartherly comments:

    The first thing I’d better point out is that I am a creationist, or as this article would refer to me, an IDer. I’ll be attempting to refute this article paragraph by paragraph.

    AAI: Hello William, thank you for your email. My responses are here labelled ‘AAI’.

    William: According to the third paragraph in the introduction, assuming we were created by something when the arguments of those trying to prove we weren’t is an argument from ignorance. But, there isn’t a third option here. We were either created by an intelligent being, or we weren’t. It’s not an argument from ignorance, at worst it is the process of elimination.

    AAI: The ‘Ignorance’ in the ‘Argument from Ignorance’ fallacy refers to a lack of positive evidence not to a lack of alternatives. To support the claim of creation, you need to produce some evidence FOR it, not merely assert “We dunno, therefore my godunnit.”
    The heart of this matter requires an understanding of the difference between argument and evidence: Argument is thought – a mental construct, while Evidence consists of observations in the Natural Realm.

    William: There is a simple answer to paragraph four in the introduction: defining a ‘complex feature’. Most IDers agree that a complex feature is a piece of the body that, when one part of it is removed, does not function at all. That’s an oversimplification, but for purposes of this argument, I believe it is sufficient.

    AAI: So, at what level do you apply that criterion? At the anatomical level or the molecular level? If you apply it at the molecular level, then EVERY biological structure is complex because the removal of one atom could destroy functionality. However, claiming you can define a ‘complex feature’ assumes that functionality is a black or white matter. This is not the case: for example, some people lack a full complement of cones in their retinas. Are they sightless? No, they are merely color blind. There are degrees of functionality – it’s not an on/off switch.

    William: I question why there is no source for paragraph 2 of “Irreducible complexity” in regard to knowing how the eye has evolved, as it seems to be the only place in this article where any real evidence is mentioned. My argument here is not really an argument, I am just admitting my own ignorance in this particular case.

    AAI: Here’s a link https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/evolution/library/01/1/l_011_01.html
    And another https://www.detectingdesign.com/humaneye.html

    William: Paragraph 3 says that all of the irreducible things in our body have merely come about by chance.

    AAI: DOES IT? THE MECHANISM OF EVOLUTION IS NOT CHANCE. IT’S SELECTION.

    William: If this is true, why do we not see other parts of our body that are complex things that have not yet fully developed? Any irreducibly complex organism is highly unlikely – which seems to be atheism’s specialty – but we have many irreducibly complex organisms! The very blood cells of our bodies are irreducibly complex. Not only that, they present a chicken-and-egg dilemma in that they cannot survive without other functions of our body, and those cannot happen without blood cells.

    AAI: THE FALLACY OF CONSIDERING THINGS TO BE IRREDUCIBLY COMPLEX IS DEALT WITH IN THE ORIGINAL ARTICLE.

    William: Paragraph three of “specified complexity” states that ‘a designed complexity is evidence of a designer’ is circular reasoning, but that’s just not true. Saying that the design of this website is evidence that someone designed it is not circular, it’s logic. The teleological argument is an argument very similar to what we are discussing here, and it has yet (to my knowledge) to be disproved.

    AAI: The circularity comes from the expression ‘specified complexity’ because, as I explained in the article, specifying is part of designing – it is performed by an intelligent agent. So, you are building the concept of intelligent design into your claim. Assuming a condition and then claiming that its existence proves your assumption is a circular argument.

    William: Paragraph four of “specified complexity” and paragraph one of “unintelligent design” claim that much of our current being came about through mutations. But if you study mutations, you will see that in every case mutations are caused by a LACK of DNA. Not one mutation has ever caused more DNA to be added to the genetic code, or provided any beneficial trait to the mutated.

    AAI: Incorrect. Mutations CAN be deletions but they can also be insertions, duplications and recombinations.

    William: Paragraph one of “unintelligent design” also claims that imperfections in the genetic code indicate an imperfect designer, but as we’ve already discussed, mutations passed through bloodlines have caused this. Likely earlier humans had purer DNA, fewer mutations, but as the years have gone by (billions of them according to atheism), inbreeding and chance have caused imperfections, not God.

    AAI: Purer? You are assuming that there is perfection. There isn’t.
    There is only fitness for the environment.

    HELPFUL HOMEWORK:
    1. PLEASE REREAD MY ORIGINAL ARTICLE.
    2. AND WATCH THIS: https://www.patreon.com/posts/27045638

    Reply

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