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It's Really Not Rocket Science

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In a 2005 American Spectator article, Jay Homnick wrote:

It is not enough to say that design is a more likely scenario to explain a world full of well-designed things. It strikes me as urgent to insist that you not allow your mind to surrender the absolute clarity that all complex and magnificent things were made that way. Once you allow the intellect to consider that an elaborate organism with trillions of microscopic interactive components can be an accident... you have essentially "lost your mind."

It has never required a PhD in science to understand the key issue in the debate between Darwinism and intelligent design. It is blindingly obvious to non-scientists like Jay Homnick that unintelligent forces alone cannot design hearts, eyes, ears, and brains. Darwinists dismiss the layman's intuition that there is something terribly "unnatural" about evolution, and claim that while it may seem implausible to the uneducated, there is no scientific principle that prevents the basic, unintelligent, forces of physics alone from reorganizing the basic particles of physics into computers and science texts and jet airplanes.

But there is such a principle, and the layman understands it perfectly well: unintelligent forces cannot do intelligent things. And in recent years, a number of people have attempted to take this simple layman's principle and state it in more precise, scientific terms.

First, William Dembski (Dembski 2006) argues that natural causes do not do things that are "complex" and "specified." The exact arrangement of the rocks on the sides of Mount Rushmore and Mount Rainier can both be said to be "complex," but we suspect intelligent agency only in the case of Mount Rushmore, because the arrangement there is also "specified" -- it accurately depicts the faces of four U.S. presidents. And Dembski points out that the origin and evolution of life involved the creation of many things that are complex and specified.

Second, early intelligent design proponents noticed that while the first formulations of the second law of thermodynamics were all about how thermal entropy (disorder) must increase in an isolated system, as dictated by the laws of probability, physics texts often generalized the second law with statements such as, "In an isolated system, the direction of spontaneous change is from order to disorder" (Ford 1973). These texts gave examples such as a book burning, a wine glass breaking, a tornado destroying a house, or two automobiles colliding, to illustrate natural processes that move from order to disorder, while reversing these processes would violate the generalized second law. What could be a more spectacular violation of this law than atoms on a rocky, barren planet spontaneously reorganizing themselves into computers and airplanes and encyclopedias?

This argument was countered in these same physics texts, with the argument that the Earth is not an isolated system, since it receives energy from the sun, so order can increase here as long as order is decreasing even more rapidly outside the Earth, so that the total order in the universe, or any isolated system containing our open system, is still decreasing. My primary contribution to the ID debate has been to show how silly and unscientific this "compensation" counterargument is, that the very equations of entropy change on which this counterargument is based actually support, on closer examination, the common sense conclusion that "if an increase in order is extremely improbable when a system is isolated, it is still extremely improbable when the system is open, unless something is entering that makes it not extremely improbable." The fact that order can increase in an open system does not mean that because tornados derive their energy from the sun, they might occasionally turn rubble into houses and cars, and it does not mean that computers can appear on a barren planet as long as the planet receives solar energy; something must be entering our open system that makes the appearance of computers not extremely improbable, for example: computers.

My criticism of this "compensation" argument is summarized in the video below:

For a more "scientific" exposition of my criticism, see "Entropy and Evolution," published in 2013 in the journal BIO-Complexity. I have found that ID critics who read my writing on this topic quickly realize how silly the compensation argument is, and invariably retreat to the original formulations of the second law, saying they simply don't accept the more general statements of the second law, the second law of thermodynamics should only be applied to thermodynamics, and what has happened on Earth does not violate the second law as it applies to thermal entropy.

Notice that on the last page of the BIO-Complexity paper, I wrote that the more general statements of the second law do not apply only to isolated systems, that the general principle behind this law is "natural (unintelligent) forces do not do macroscopically describable things that are extremely improbable from the microscopic point of view," so in an open system you just have to take into account what is entering and leaving the system when deciding what is extremely improbable and what is not. Then I pointed out that this principle is very similar to William Dembski's argument that unintelligent forces do not do things that are "specified" (simply or macroscopically describable) and "complex" (extremely improbable). So Dembski's "specified complexity" argument and the generalized second law argument are really very closely related, but the second law argument has the advantage of being based on a widely recognized law of science.

In 2002, soon after I began writing about the second law, I wrote an e-mail to Phillip Johnson, expressing my frustration at trying to get scientists to see my simple, common-sense points. He replied, "I long ago gave up the hope of ever getting scientists to talk rationally about the second law.... I skip the words 'second law' and go straight to 'information.'"

Which brings us to the third, and now most popular, attempt to express in more scientific terms what is obvious to the layman: natural forces always degrade information, they never create it. Stephen Meyer, in Signature in the Cell (Meyer 2009), writes:

Most of us know from our ordinary experience that information typically degrades over time unless intelligent agents generate (or regenerate) it. The sands of time have erased some inscriptions on Egyptian monuments. The leak in the attic roof smudged the ink in the stack of old newspapers, making some illegible.... Common experience confirms this general trend -- and so do prebiotic simulation experiments and origin-of-life research.

I would say this argument is essentially just the application of the second law to information. But it has the advantage that critics cannot confuse readers as easily as they can with the more general second law argument, where they typically divert the discussion to irrelevant technical issues. (Anyone who has ever attempted to make the second law argument with Darwinists knows very well what I mean, and what Phillip Johnson was talking about!)

The argument from information is now widely used by ID proponents to argue that the vast amounts of information in living things (in DNA, for example) cannot be accounted for by unintelligent causes. For example, see Discovery Institute's powerful new video, The Information Enigma.

So the three arguments above are actually all just variations on the same common-sense theme, and each just attempts to state in more scientific, precise, terms what is completely obvious to the unindoctrinated, that unintelligent forces cannot do intelligent things, such as design hearts, eyes, ears, and brains.

Seeing design in living things is not at all difficult, it's really not rocket science. You don't need an intimate knowledge of microbiology, or of the details of evolutionary theory, or even of the concept of irreducible complexity.

Max Planck biologist W.E. Loennig once commented that Darwinism was a sort of "mass psychosis" -- then he asked me, is that the right English word? I knew psychosis was some kind of mental illness, but wasn't sure exactly what it was, so I looked it up in my dictionary when I returned home: "psychosis -- a loss of contact with reality." I wrote him that, yes, that was the right word.

No matter how many other mysteries of Nature may yield to scientific investigation, and no matter how much evidence for common descent we may find, and no matter how many intelligent scientists believe in Darwinism, Loennig and Homnick are still right. Once you seriously consider the possibility that all the magnificent species in the living world, and the human body and the human brain, could be entirely the products of unintelligent forces, you have been in academia too long and have lost contact with reality -- you have lost your mind.

References:

  • Dembski, William (2006) The Design Inference: Cambridge Studies in Probability, Induction and Decision Theory, Cambridge University Press.

  • Ford, Kenneth (1973) Classical and Modern Physics, Xerox College Publishing.

  • Meyer, Stephen (2009) Signature in the Cell, Harper One.

Image credit: Bill Ingalls [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.