Detecting Intelligent Design
Until recently, no methods of detecting intelligent design existed (Dembski 2003a). The two most common methods used today are specified complexity and irreducible complexity.
Mathematician and philosopher William Dembski formulated the specified complexity method for detecting design (2004a). Objects that have these three characteristics – contingency, complexity, and specificity - are said to show design.
Something contingent is a possibility - but not the only possibility. For example, if I toss a coin with one side heads and one side tails, heads is a possibility, but so is tails. The result of the coin toss is contingent because more than one possibility exists. However, if heads is on both sides of the coin, heads is always the result and no choice exists. Therefore, natural laws explain the result because natural laws always have the same result (Intelligent Design Basics undated).
Anything that is complex has a number of interrelated parts that makes chance an improbable cause (Intelligent Design Basics undated). For example, a sentence is complex compared to a single letter in the alphabet.
This term refers to anything that follows a meaningful pattern. For example, although the letter “a” is simple and not complex, it follows a pattern: it is the first letter of the alphabet (Dembski 2003a).
Using the alphabet as an example, below is an illustration of specified complexity based on the three characteristics described above.
1. Letter "a" of the alphabet
2. Lengthy string of letters in no particular order (i.e., gbaozmt)
3. Arrangement of letters in a poem
1. Yes: 25 other choices
2. Yes: various combinations possible
3. Yes: other possible poems
1. No: too simple
2. Yes: many components
3. Yes: many components
1. Yes: always the first letter of the alphabet (pattern)
2. No: no meaningful pattern
3. Yes: follows the pattern of grammar
In all cases of specified complexity in which cause is known, intelligence is responsible (Dembski 1999; Meyer 2000).
Biochemist Michael Behe (1996) writes about the concept of irreducible complexity in his book Darwin’s Black Box. Behe argues that biological systems show design due to their irreducibly complex nature. If an object is irreducibly complex, it cannot be reduced to a simpler, functioning object; and the object must contain all of its parts at the same time in order to function. If any part is removed, the object will no longer work. This characteristic found in nature presents a problem for Darwinian evolution.
Darwin wrote: “If it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed which could not possibly have been formed by numerous, successive, slight modifications, my theory would absolutely break down” (Behe 1996, p 39; Strobel 2004, p 197).
Behe (1996) states that since all components of a complex system must be in place at once in order to function, the system could not have possibly evolved as Darwin describes.
The Standard Mousetrap
To illustrate the concept of irreducible complexity, Behe (1996) refers to the standard mousetrap with five parts: platform, hammer, spring, catch, holding bar (See figure 3.1). If any one of these parts is missing, the trap will not function.
Table 3.2 illustrates how scientists determine if an object or system is irreducibly complex. Using the mousetrap as an example, Behe (1996) asks three questions as the following table demonstrates:
Table 3.2 Steps to Determine Irreducible Complexity
Can the scientist name the function and components of the system?
Function: trap mice
Components: platform, catch, hammer, spring, holding bar
Are all parts necessary for the object to function?
Yes – For example, if the holding bar is missing, the trap will not catch mice.
Are there any functional precursors?*
No – The trap with five parts did not “evolve” from a simpler form.
*Behe (1996) explains that other means to catch mice exist, i.e., glue traps, boxes propped with sticks, etc. However, none of these can develop into a mousetrap that includes a platform, catch, hammer, spring, and holding bar. This means the mousetrap has no functional precursors.
Figure 3.1 Standard Mousetrap
source: McDonald, John H. 2000. A reducibly complex mousetrap.
Evolutionists’ Arguments Against Mousetrap Analogy
Some evolutionists argue that the mousetrap does not demonstrate irreducible complexity. In an interview with Lee Strobel (2004), Michael Behe discusses two of those arguments as follows:
Ø It is possible to build a less complex, functioning mousetrap with fewer parts. Behe agrees; however, the point is that the mousetrap Behe refers to could not be created gradually because it would not function until all parts are fully in place.
Ø Perhaps natural selection preserved the components as they served other purposes while a complex system developed. Ken Miller, Brown University professor and evolutionist, makes this argument. In his analogy, Miller theoretically removes parts of Behe’s mousetrap and assigns functions to these components until they can develop into the mousetrap.
Some components in complex systems can have other functions. However, the question is whether or not these functions will develop into a complex system through a series of modifications over time. Behe writes: “He’s [Miller] starting from the finished product—the mousetrap—and disassembling it and moving a few things around to use them for other purposes. Again, that’s intelligent design!” (Strobel 2004, p 200).
Irreducible complexity is not the only complication for Darwinian evolution. Related to irreducible complexity is a concept called “minimal function.” For Darwin’s natural selection to work, objects must have minimal function. For example, not only does the mousetrap need all of its parts, these parts must work efficiently. If the mousetrap platform is made out of paper, the platform is too weak to support the other parts, which reduces the ability of the trap to function (Behe 1996).
We have focused on man-made objects to illustrate design. What about complex living organisms? Do they exhibit irreducible complexity and specified complexity as well?
In the next chapter, we will look at biological examples of intelligent design.