The Irreducible Complexity of the Universe

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I recently read the book, Darwin’s Doubt, by Stephen C. Meyer, a Cambridge University Ph.D. in the Philosophy of Science. The book uses Darwin’s acknowledgment that the Cambrian Explosion was a significant problem to his evolutionary theory of the origin of life as a springboard to explore in detail that problem which Meyer aptly names “Darwin’s doubt”.

I have summarized the first ten chapters of the book on a different Blog, Perspective, starting with a summary of the first four chapters of the book. If you want to read a summary description of the detail that Meyer explores without buying the book, though I strongly suggest buying the book if your are interested.

In this blog, I want to provide an overarching description of the basis for Intelligent Design, which is ultimately the theory that Meyer espouses. For Meyer, the key basis for Intelligent Design is 1) the argument from biological or genetic information and 2) the argument from physics or cosmology. Both arguments can be summed up in the statement that we live in a universe of irreducible complexity that could not have happened by chance or unguided “natural law”.

Meyer focuses on the biological argument, observing that, to build the complex biological machines that we see, there is a need for prior information, and any discussion of that complexity begs the question: where did that information necessary to build the protein parts out of which the complex structures are made come from in the first place? What cause is capable of generating that information? Meyer argues that we can use the same scientific method that Darwin used to infer that the cause had to be conscious mind or intelligence.
The evidence in physics and cosmology is the “fine tuning” that we observe in the constants and initial conditions of the universe and the “fine tuning” of the conditions necessary to make life on planet earth possible, fit for habitability and fit for scientific discovery. He calls this last observation (a planet fit for human scientific discovery) the “Privileged Planet Hypothesis”.

But Meyer’s  focus is biology. He contends that the attempts to define origins by chance or necessity (natural laws) have all failed in light of the last 20-30 years of discovery. The sub-theories conceived to explain “Darwin’s doubt” have all led to dead-ends. The new evidence that has been discovered and continues to be discovered, in fact, has only served to expand the yawning gap between theory and reality. We need another paradigm

Intelligent design is the natural alternative to the main thrust of Darwin’s argument. Darwin tried to show that the “appearance of design”, that all biologists recognized in Darwin’s time, and biologists recognize still today, was the product of an undirected, unguided mechanism which he called natural selection. He analogized natural selection to the power that human breeders were known to have in changing the attributes of a population, like sheep or dogs. Darwin thought that nature could do what the human breeder could do, that nature could select what only human invention was thought to be able to do. Natural Selection was presented as a “designer substitute”. He replaced artificial selection with natural selection.

In contrast to modern rhetorical dogmatism from Neo-Darwinists, however, Darwin was rather modest and candid. He acknowledged the problem of the Cambrian Explosion and recognized it as a legitimate objection to his theory for which he had no explanation. Darwin speculated, however, that subsequent discoveries would fill in the gap and shore up evolutionary theory. Far from it, subsequent discoveries have only exasperated the problem and widened the gap, leading many to conclude that a different model is necessary to explain the origin and history of life (even while most of the scientific community holds religiously to the original premise).

Intelligent Design is framed around the central proposition of Darwinian Theory. It engages the very question Darwin designed his theory to engage. All biologists recognize that living organisms give the appearance of design. Richard Dawkins says, “Biology is the study of complicated things that give the appearance of having been designed for a purpose.” He would say, however, that the appearance is an illusion because there is an unguided process behind it – natural selection acting on random mutations. That is the central proposition of Darwinism. But is it any more than a conclusory statement?

Intelligent Design says that the appearance of design is not an illusion; the design is real; the appearance of design is actually what it appears to be, a sign of a real designing intelligence. The design that we see is the result of actual design, not apparent design.

Intelligent Design is commonly confused with young earth creationism. They are not the same. Creationism is based on scriptural interpretation and deduction from scriptural text. Intelligent Design is an inference from biological, cosmological and other physical evidence. The starting point is completely different. The basis of Intelligent Design is scientific evidence, not scripture. Intelligent Design is an age neutral theory, and it makes no claims about the age of the earth.

To see how this Intelligent Design is based on science, we need to examine scientific method when it comes to studying the origins of the universe or the origins of life. When you do science about the origin of life, or anything in the remote post, we must take a different approach from the science in the lab where experiments are performed under controlled conditions. The historical scientific method relies on inductive reasoning, or the hypothetical deductive method. Scientists reason from effects back to causes. Clues are left behind, and we have reason back to what caused those clues. We use a form of inference called abduction, that is retrodictive, going backward in time.

This is the very method that Darwin used in the Origin of Species. Meyer uses that same form of reasoning to come to a non-Darwinian conclusion of Intelligent Design. Darwin pioneered the method that Meyer uses, and Darwin’s method today, given almost a century and half of additional research and information, produces a different result, says Meyer.

The “stop press moment in biology,” says Meyer, was the discovery of the structure of DNA in 1953 by Watson and Crick. Later, in 1957, Francis Crick purposed the Sequence Hypothesis: the DNA molecule has chemical units along the interior of the spine of the DNA molecule that function just like alphabetic characters in language or digital characters in machine code that store information in an alphabetic or digital form for constructing the proteins and protein machines that cells need to stay alive. What “runs the show” in biology is information (like text or digital code). Bill Gates says, “DNA is like a software program, only much more complex, more complex than anything else that has been created.” Richard Dawkins recognizes that the information in DNA is “uncannily machine like”.

Meyer speaks of asking his college students what is needed in a computer to give it a new function; they will quickly answer that a new program, new digital code, is what is necessary to create new function. that right of course. The same thing is true with biological life. To build a new animal from a pre-existing animal, you need new information. A primary evidence for design is the digital information stored in the DNA molecule. It has the same attributes of a written language our digital code.

Going back further to the origins of life, to build life in the first place from chemicals, the chemicals need to arrange themselves into informational sequences that are capable of building the proteins and protein machines necessary for life. Where does that information come from? What causes that exist are capable of producing information in sequences to create function?

Meyer uses the “inference to the best explanation method” that Darwin used to analyze all the competing explanations, all the possible causes, in his book, Darwin’s Doubt. Meyer shows with detail what he calls “the big story in origin of life research over the last 20-30 years” which is the deepening impasse in the field of evolutionary study. All of the various explanations invoke chance or law-like necessity, or some combination of both, all of those explanations based on these Neo-Darwinian models fail to explain the origin of the information necessary for life. That is the unsolved problem for materialistic, evolutionary theory. Where did the information come from that is necessary for life?

That is where Intelligent Design comes in because that is where experience tells us that intelligence is the one thing that we know that is capable of generating information. Intelligence has the “known casual power” to produce the effect in question (the arrangement and orchestration of information into sequences that produce function).

Meyer points out that basic scientific method requires making an inference to the best explanation of what caused something in the remote past by invoking causes that are known in the present to produce the effect in question. Darwin used this same method to come up with the theory of evolution, which he learned from his mentor, Charles Lyel, who said we must look for “causes now in operation”.

What is the “cause now in operation” that produces digital information? There is only one cause we known of – intelligence. Causes invoking chance, necessity or some combination of the two have been wholly incapable of producing functional information, but there is a cause that we know that does produce functional information: that is mind or intelligence. “Information is habitually associated with conscious activity.” When we find information at the foundation of life, the natural thing is to infer based on our knowledge of cause and effect that conscious activity, intelligence, produced that information.

9 thoughts on “The Irreducible Complexity of the Universe

  1. What is unguided natural law?
    Law by its nature follows a set path, just as the earth revolves around the sun.
    We could not exist in a world of pure chance ; morning may not dawn ; nothing would be certain.

      • Science sees relationships and then proposes workable laws it has no need to go further and say why?
        Human curiosity may well ask why but it is not the job of science to answer such questions. The concern of science is how are these happenings related?
        Its fine if you wish to see a divine hand behind everything but it is outside the realm of science.

      • I agree with that. By the same proposition, it is outside the realm of science to say there is no God. Science necessarily focuses on space, time and matter. God, if there is one, necessarily is outside of space, time and matter. A Creator, if there is one, is by definition not part of the creation. Intelligent Design identifies mind/intelligence behind the intricacy of the universe but necessarily can go no further. Mind I’d the only cause we presently know that can order complex information into precise order sequences to create interrelated and integrated functions on the level that we see even in a single cell, in all the cells that make a living organism, regardless of how simple it appears and in all the fine tuning of the universe, but Intelligent Design can go no further than science as you have insisted. Science is limited in that way.

      • It’s a personel choice we must make to believe or not to believe. I’m live and let live agnostic I have no axe to grind with the religious believer.
        Regarding complexity it can, and has arisen since the big bang. Even the simplest things are very complex when we examine them. It is my personel belief that we will never be able to unravel many areas of knowledge.
        Besides which we stand in serious danger unless we act to find new antibiotics and guard against severe weather. Civilisation is more fragile than we think.

      • I agree with too. We have that choice. The increased complexity we see arising in the scientific record could be merely the result of random processes and unguided chance, but I don’t think that is very plausible. Even in our own experiences, we see that things break down and go from function to non-function if we do not attend to them in real time. Mutations degrade function; they do not increase function or create function. At best mutation acts on existing material, but it does not create new material; it rearranges existing information, but it does not create new information. Natural selection acts on existing material and information, but has no creative force. I think the evidence suggests the necessity of the input of new material or, at least, new information and arrangement of information in a functional way. The complexity that we see, even in a simple strand of protein DNA, casts doubt on the ability of random processes (that must go from function to function) to produce the kind of evolutionary change that explains the origin of life that leads to the appearance of new life forms, ultimately, the life forms we see today, in the mere 14 billion years of the existence of the universe, let alone the 5 billion years since life appeared. Mathematical calculations suggest that the likelihood is next to impossible, certainly implausible. More plausible, it seems to me, is a different cause: one that we know from evidence that we see, is sufficient to arrange and rearrange material to introduce new information into increasing complexity and function, and that is, generically, design, intention, mind, intelligence.

      • In his book ‘The Blind Watchmaker’
        Richard Dawkins spends considerable time and effort trying to account for abiogenesis. He makes a noble attemept using.chance and other possible explanations. It is a weak point but that said, natural selection seems sound to me. Natural selection can only operate once duplicating molecules exist ; Darwin started from this point life already existed.
        Natural selection is not a chance process it is driven by environmental necessity . Rather in the fashion of business today.
        We do not control business we guide where it leads.
        Alfred Wallace the co- discoverer of evolution believed divine intervention was needed to explain the mind of man ; its called Wallace’s Paradox. Steven Pinker attempts to explain it away in ‘How the Mind Works; not too impressive for me. Poor Alfred Wallace ended up a spritualist. It reminded me of Prof Penrose who believes consciousness has a quantum explanation.

      • Mutation may create an environmentally useful change.
        Such as the ability to run faster in stone-aged man. Only useful changes will survive.
        Richard Dawkins goes to heroic lengths to explain biogenisis by chance. Natural selection only kicks off with living things or duplicating molecules. Evolution applies to living things.
        Natural selection is driven by the environment rather like business is driven by market forces; it is not chance, but neither is it planned.
        Alfred Wallace co- discoverer of natural selection believed divine intervention was needed to explain the mind of man.
        Steven Pinker believed he could explain Wallace’s Paradox in ‘How the Mind Works I’m not so sure.
        Poor Wallace ended up a spiritualist.
        Self – Aware consciousness is still a major problem. Prof Penrose believes consciousness is connected to quantum mechanics.

  2. I am familiar with Dawkins. There is certainly some truth to what Darwin and subsequent scientists have discovered, and natural selection is an apt description for much of the evidence that we see. As you note, any discussion of natural selection presupposes material and information on which natural selection works. The building blocks must be there for natural selection to work. Necessity, it seems to me, is a poor explanation of the process, however, for the same reason that natural selection is limited in its ability to address the larger questions. Where did the building blocks come from? What drives necessity in the direction it goes, if it goes in any direction at all? If we are not open to the possibility of outside agents, we are likely to miss key things. I am familiar with the rabbit holes that spirituality can lead to (using the term even more broadly than in the spiritualist sense). I would advocate being as “scientific” about spirituality as with physical, natural processes, but that is another discussion. Perhaps it was Darwin’s experience with Wallace that led him to shy away from the inner convictions that he acknowledged. He famously said in Origins and in personal letters that he could not trust them, being the product of evolution from lower life forms, like apes. This candid assessment has led me to wonder why Darwin felt so comfortable trusting in his mind’s ability to reason, assimilate and draw conclusions about the evidence he studied, being that our minds suffer from the same defect as our inner convictions. On the one hand, the natural, physical world gives the appearance of permanence and certainty (just like, I suppose, that biological complexity gives the appearance of design). Perhaps, the physical world is not as permanent and certain as we suppose. But, of course, there arises the dilemma . What, then, do we latch on to?

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