• Design and Function

    Disqus seems to be having some issues this morning, so I wanted to bring this over to a new thread.

    The situation is that ID proponents just look at something. If it looks complex and it has a function, then it must be designed. They can say this isn’t so all they want.. and they will complain about this… a lot. But, in nearly 20 years of talking about Intelligent Design, I have NEVER seen anything to indicate otherwise. There is no mathematical system that can determine if something is designed or not. There is no mathematical system that can determine designed from random (actually, there is, but ID proponents don’t use it). If they can’t tell designed from random, how can they tell complex, functional design, from complex functional evolved?

    For example, here’s this statement.

    Smilodon junior: [pointing to Mr. Rushmore] Daddy, look at that mountain. Who did that?

    Smilodon: Well son, we can’t be sure anyone did it. You see the sculpture cannot be quantified so we’re left wondering if it happened by chance or by some natural law.

    Smilodon junior: Daddy, that’s just stupid. Anyone can see that it was designed. We don’t have to know who, how or when it was made. We don’t even have to know if it’s ongoing or if someone is still working on it.

    Smilodon: But it could have been created by wind, rain and erosion right? I can believe that if I want to.

    Smilodon junior: I suppose but then everyone will think you’re an imbecile

    So how do we know that Mount Rushmore was designed? Because we know it was designed by humans and it looks like something humans would do.

    What about this?


    Designed or not?

    It’s certainly not something that a human would design. In fact, this is not built by an intelligence. It’s a termite mound. Inside this structure are millions of insects. The mound has “farms” where the termites grow fungus to eat. It contains a nursery. It has defenses and an air conditioning system.

    I have actually had an ID proponent tell me that termites are intelligent.

    So, the criteria is that it looks designed by an intelligence… therefore it is designed by an intelligence.

    If you are an ID proponent and disagree, then feel free to describe how we can determine whether something is designed or not in a rigorous way. I mean rigorous in that, any person (regardless of religion, cultural background, prior knowledge, or any other biased factor) using the process will achieve the exact same result.

    Now, we have often heard ID proponents talk about information both here and on some other blogs at Skeptic Ink. There’s a problem though. Information is a defined mathematical quantity. It doesn’t say anything about where the information comes from.

    For example, given a string of 438 nucleotides, you will get a certain amount of information. ID proponents have a method for determining how much information is in the string. It takes 2 bits of information to determine each nucleotide.[1] So our string consists of 876 bits of information.

    Unfortunately for them, I picked 438 for a very specific reason. It’s the number of nucleotides that code for HBB (beta globin) which is one of the proteins used to make blood cells.

    Everyone should be familiar with sickle cell anemia. That disease is caused by a single point mutation in the HBB nucleotide sequence. If I recall correctly, it’s in position 17 of the DNA sequence. That single letter change results in a very different protein that causes blood cells to become sickle shaped instead of doughnut shaped.

    The problem for ID proponents is that can’t deal with that. Why? Because the allele has the exact same amount of information in it, 876 bits.

    What’s worse is that no of the other possible mathematical descriptions work here either. Both alleles have the same probability of appearing in a purely random mix of nucleotides (assuming that nucleotides arrange themselves randomly, which isn’t true… a bigger problem for ID). Of course, there are several thousand more HBB alleles running around.

    And the ID proponents can’t tell an HBB allele that works from one that doesn’t… or even a completely random string of numbers.

    For this reason alone, any mathematical treatment of ID is doomed to fail.

    The ID proponent replies

    You and Smilodon seem to think that a one-dimensional string of nucleotides or codons on a piece of paper or computer screen can to be identified as intelligently designed simply by using math and if it can’t then design theory fails. How naive. To determine if a gene has specified information, one would have to look at its position in the genome, its secondary, tertiary and even quaternary structures. Maybe knock it out and see if the organism survives or is crippled. A simple string that can’t be identified as designed by eyeballing it doesn’t mean it can’t be identified in other ways. Try again.

    So, unlike what other ID proponents say, this poster thinks that we actually have to look at the whole structure to determine if it’s designed or not. Maybe they should get together and quit arguing with biologists long enough to actually figure out what they are saying.  Even better develop a process that actually determines design.

    I’d love to know what these “other ways” are.

    It only gets worse for ID proponents. Let’s say that they can actually do what they absolutely must do and determine the information content of a protein or gene. This is in a mathematical rigorous way. There are two problems.

    The first is, “so what?” The existence of information in no ways implies a designer. We have dozens of examples of non-designed objects producing information (pulsars, radioactive decay, cosmic background radiation, etc). Now the ID proponent must explain why x-value of information MUST imply a designer.

    The second is that the must be able to remove false positives. Just determining information content is meaningless. They have to be able to quantify the function as well. Just look in the example above, Mount Rushmore sure does look designed, but the termite mound does not look designed. To humans, it looks like many other rock formations or even piles of dirt. Saying something ‘looks designed’ is meaningless.

    ID proponents often say that some amount of information above a certain threshold (Demsbki calls it the Upper Probability Bound or something like that) to determine design. If the information content is over  certain value, then the object is designed. Which presents ID with yet another problem.

    Determining a value for a DNA sequence and a protein will yield different results. For example, in the system I describe above, a DNA sequence may have an information content of 180 (90 nucleotides long) bits, but the protein developed from that sequences has an information content of only 150 bits (20 amino acids require 5 bits to describe).

    ID proponents can’t deal with even one of any of these objections.

    Even if they could deal with all of these objections, it still doesn’t point to a designer. There is nothing in math, science, nature, or anything else that says, “information content more than x requires a designer.” There is nothing in math, science, nature, or anything else that says, “all complex, functional things must have a designer.” That is the ultimate problem with Intelligent Design as a concept.

    Just because a human thinks that something looks designed doesn’t mean that it was designed and built by an intelligence. Our human perceptions are flawed. That much is easy to understand. Humans think that the structures and physical objects around us are solid, but they aren’t. Every physical thing that exists is mostly empty space.  And when I say empty space, I mean an atom is 99.99999999% empty… not vacuum, I mean nothing. And the space between atoms even more empty space. If you removed all of the empty space between atoms and inside of atoms, every living person on the planet would fit into the volume of a sugar cube.

    That sounds completely crazy, but it’s true. When you slap your hand on the table, you aren’t hitting atoms. The forces produced by the atoms in your hand are being repelled by the forces generated by the atoms in the table.

    Just because humans think something is a certain way, doesn’t mean it really is that way. That’s why we have science. To test things in a way that our biases can’t influence. Unlike ID proponents, who let their biases determine the answer.

    ID proponents are welcome to comment below. This is a discussion of ID though, NOT a discussion of the perceived failures of science or evolution. If you think I am wrong, then describe, in detail, with math, why so and provide a reference to the correct information.


    [1] 1 bit is either 0 or 1. Since there are four choices, 2 bits are used. That allows values of 0, 1, 2, 3. One for each letter of the DNA alphabet.

    Category: Uncategorized

    Article by: Smilodon's Retreat

    • Void L. Walker

      Snow flakes are a fitting example. They appear to be works of art, but the process by which they form is hardly orderly. We humans have a major propensity to seek order and/or design where none is to be found.

    • Ann

      Here is one attempt to sort these out. Unluckily, there are many flaws. I’ll post it anyway hoping others can refine it and address its faults.

      > Merely random natural phenomena are disorderly and chaotic.
      (a heap of rubble)

      Natural phenomena that are the result of the operation of some natural law (of physics, chemistry, or biology, for example) are organized, regular, patterned, repetitive, and so on.
      (a bush with leaves)

      Intelligently designed phenomena are purposeful — in a teleological sense.
      (a bridge)

      I read a Jehovah’s Witness brochure advocating ID.
      It showed a little watercolor illustration of a road on a mountainside, and a heap of rocks by the side of the road. But the rocks spelled out a message: “Warning Falling Rocks”

      The text said, “Now if you saw that by the side of the road, you would know that the rocks did not just wash and tumble down the mountainside and accidentally get arranged into that pattern. You would know that it had been put there by an Intelligence.”

      And I thought: “Yes, that’s right! That’s exactly what I’d know. And that’s exactly what IS NEVER SEEN in nature. I would know that a HUMAN did it. Nothing like that has EVER occurred in nature. That’s why it’s ludicrous to claim you see ID in nature.”

      People say all the time, “But look at the beautiful design of the Universe!” What they mean is, “Look at the orderly behavior of the laws of physics. Never once disobeyed — that would be a miracle, and it never once occurred.”

      And of course, the order of the universe is only as good as would be expected. So naturally it demonstrates Unintelligence

    • Even if they could deal with all of these objections, it still doesn’t point to a designer. There is nothing in math, science, nature, or anything else that says, “information content more than x requires a designer.” There is nothing in math, science, nature, or anything else that says, “all complex, functional things must have a designer.” That is the ultimate problem with Intelligent Design as a concept.

      Exactly. Moreover, the attribution of function is invariably something that intelligent beings do relative to their own purposes. Ask a child or a theist what the Sun is for and they will tell you it is there to give living things warmth and light. Ask an ID-ist if the Sun is complex and specified and they will waffle about and try mightily to avoid applying Dembski’s approach (analyzing a natural language description of what it is and what it does) to the problem. Basically anything in our solar system that was picked out for special treatment in the Ward and Brownlee book counts as both complex and specified, following that approach. That should give us pause, of course, but their approach is generally “Look over here at this microscopic structure! Bet you don’t know how it got there. ID, QED.”