Pharyngula

Rabbi Moshe Averick asks, “Seriously, Aren’t Atheists Embarrassed by P.Z. Myers?

Seriously, aren’t you? What’s the matter with you people?

What prompts his outrage is his discovery of a lecture I gave some time back on the complexity argument from intelligent design creationists. He is appalled at my total lack of logic! Unfortunately for him, his misconceptions arise because he makes some unwarranted leaps about what I was saying.

He specifically objects to the fact that I showed a slide of a wall of driftwood at a beach, and that I explained that it had accumulated by chance and the properties of wind and water along the shoreline…and then I stated that it was very, very complex. And it is! Rabbi Averick is deeply incensed by this. I think you’ll spot his logical error in the second sentence of this paragraph from the rabbi’s rant:

To be honest, when I saw this lecture for the first time, I thought Myers was joking. A pile of driftwood as being analogous to the “complexity” of a living cell?! Myers is arguing that since a “complex” and “complicated” pile of driftwood can accumulate through an undirected natural process, so can a living cell. I guess if by “complexity” you mean a chaotic collection of junk, then I would have to agree; a large pile of driftwood is certainly “complex.” In any case, no self-respecting ID theorist would ever use the term “complexity.” The terms that are always used are “functional complexity” or “specified complexity.” In other words, complexity that achieves some pre-determined goal, complexity that clearly functions towards a specific purpose. The argument is that “functional complexity” and “specified complexity” clearly are the result of intelligent intervention. A pile of driftwood is immediately recognizable for exactly what it is; a random, disorganized, purposeless collection of…well, driftwood! To describe this argument as flawed logic would be misleading; we first would have to dignify it by labeling it as some form of logic in the first place. It is not flawed logic, it is simply ridiculous.

Nowhere in that talk do I claim that a pile of driftwood is analogous to a cell. I think there’s a rather huge difference between a cell and a pile of debris; one replicates and is therefore subject to iterative natural selection, and the other doesn’t. I was making a different point. I have been giving a similar talk lately, and in that I have added another slide that might help clarify the logic he’s missing. I show this:

i-7e4b1df6aba3d7004252a9f0c76fbcc9-nike_swoosh.jpeg

Recognize it? It’s only one of the most well known corporate logos in the world, the Nike swoosh. It’s very, very simple, and it’s also most definitely designed. No getting around it; a graphic designer sat down and designed that simple swooshing logo.

Is it clearer now? We have complicated things that are not designed, and we have simple things that are designed. We also have complicated things that are designed, and simple things that are not. The message you should take away from these examples is that complexity and design are independent properties of an object. One does not imply the other. You cannot determine whether something was designed by looking at whether it is complicated or not.

Yet as we see just about every time some clueless creationist, like Rabbi Averick, starts bellowing about design, we see the same blithe assumption: they look at a cell, they say “gosh, O Lord, it’s really, really complicated”, and then they start blithering about how it must have been designed. The two are not connected!

Also familiar, I’m afraid, is the usual indignant waffling about it being “specified complexity”. I have read Dembski, who uses the term. I have read Meyer, who practically spews the phrase out on every single page of his book, Signature in the Cell. I have never seen it operationally defined.

I had to read Meyer’s godawful book twice, because I couldn’t believe he failed to do something so fundamental; the second time I was looking carefully for any discussion of what “specified complexity” means, or how to measure it. Here is the closest he comes:

The term specified complexity is, therefore, a synonym for specified information or information content.

Oh, yes. That is so helpful. He equates complexity with information content, but the mystery word here is “specified” — how do we determine that? None of these clowns has a clue.

Forget about the complexity part; that’s irrelevant, and has nothing to do with whether something is designed. The problematic issue is whether something, complex or simple, was specified — which, alas, is a modifier for which you can freely substitute “designed” in all of the creationist literature, which means that all they are arguing is that designed things are designed.

To which I ask, “How do you know that is specified, or designed?”

To which they reply, “Because it’s awesomely complicated.”

Go back to line 1. Repeat endlessly.