Reading License Plates

What a random group of letters & numbers….

Not all countries allow this, but here in America, we have the phenomenon of the “vanity plate” – the ability to pay a fee and get personalized license plates for your vehicle. Having a long commute to work each day, I get to see a lot of license plates, many of them personalized. What do personalized license plates have to do with apologetics? Let’s work through that today.

It’s always impressive how creatively people can convey a message with 7 characters. Some are quite amusing. Of course there’s sports cars with plates like “BAD BOY”, or “2FAST4U” and so on. There’s the pilot that gets the plate “LUV2FLY”, or the veterinarian that gets “PETDOC”. Others leave you scratching your head, thinking, “That must be an inside joke or something.” Some of the more creative tricks of personalized plates are the use of numbers that look like letters (i.e. 5 for S), or letters and numbers that look like other letters when viewed upside down or backwards (i.e. 3 for E, W for M, and so on). Those tactics can make it a little more challenging to figure out the significance of the plate. But then I have to ask myself when I see a personalized plate that I can’t decipher, what makes me think it means anything? I didn’t get the point of the characters they picked, but I assumed my comprehension was the issue, and not that there was no message to comprehend. Why is that? It’s because I know license plates in my state conform to a particular pattern of letters and numbers (3 numbers, a space, and 3 letters, sequentially assigned by the state), and when a particular plate doesn’t conform to that predefined pattern, that’s indicative of intent, or purpose, behind the arrangement. I don’t have to know the car owner’s intent in order to recognize that there was intent behind the characters picked, and that his personalized license plate is not the result of random assignment. Likewise, we don’t have to know God’s intent in creation to recognize the presence of purposeful choices that require an intelligent agent to make them. But while seeing a designed message in a customized license plate may seem intuitive, are we justified in applying that reasoning to things like nature? What about false positives – seeing design where there is none? Let’s look at how we eliminate chance and how we confirm design now.

An event conforming to an independent predefined pattern (like recognized words in English) is one way to eliminate randomness as a reasonable explanation for an event. Stephen Meyer, in his book, Signature in the Cell, uses the example of a gambler named Slick who keeps winning at the roulette wheel – 100 times in a row – by betting on Red 16.[1] Could his amazing winning streak simply be the result of chance? It’s possible, although to call it astronomical odds would be an understatement. But why would the casino, and any reasonable person, think this wasn’t simply chance, but either a cheating player or a mechanical malfunction? The consistently beneficial results make it less and less reasonable as the streak continues, and the pattern negates the chance hypothesis. While chance is eliminated, design isn’t confirmed yet; the pattern may match with physical necessity due to an unbalanced wheel that makes the ball always land in Red 16. Slick could just be just taking advantage of a pattern he noticed. Meyer then asks about a different case, where Slick bets on different numbers each time, but still wins 100 times in a row. The ball isn’t landing on Red 16 every time now, so physical necessity (like a defect in the roulette wheel) doesn’t seem to be the culprit. And yet we still instinctively reject that this is simply chance, and think Slick is cheating, or “designing” his winning streak. Why? Because the seemingly random pattern of results matches the independent pattern of Slick’s bets. These are “functionally significant” results that accomplish something – they advance the goal of him winning lots of money! And achieving a goal is the very heart of design. Both cases reject chance based on the events matching a pattern, but the second case reasonably infers intelligent design behind the pattern.

In that example, the predefined pattern (winning each spin of a roulette wheel) is framed positively. But the same applies as a negative association: when a result doesn’t conform to the known pattern that it should conform to, such as the “123 ABC” format of license plates in my state,  then we can know that something else is going on. Based on my knowledge that government-issued license plates conform to specific patterns of characters unless a person pays extra to make a non-random assignment, I can reasonably infer that a plate not conforming to those set patterns was intentional, at the least. The fact that someone paid extra for their non-random plate makes it unlikely that they then picked a combination of letters and numbers that had no meaning to them. Now, when I see things such as coded information in DNA, I can reasonably reject chance or physical necessity as an explanation. The arrangement of bases in a strand of DNA is highly contingent, yet arranged extremely specifically over a very long sequence to produce highly functional information. Now, if I’m justified in thinking 7 letters and numbers on a license plate have been deliberately arranged to convey a message, why would I not recognize the message conveyed by the information overload of over 3 billion bases carefully arranged like letters in words to store the massive amounts of information that make up our bodies? And where does that message point me? To the design hypothesis, which requires an intelligent agent beyond any human (or any physical entity, for that matter). It points me to God. Where do you look for the author of that message? Till next time, blessings on you.


[1] Stephen C. Meyer, Signature in the Cell: DNA & the Evidence for Intelligent Design, (NY: HarperOne, 2009), chapters 8 & 16.

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