Tag Archives: Intelligent Design

The Design Analogy

The DNA Structure – Illustration by Zephyris – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15027555

There is a theory, known as Intelligent Design (ID), that postulates that “certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause, not an undirected process such as natural selection.”[1] Many people reject this theory out of hand, and yet it just won’t go away. Why is ID so persistent? I would suggest it’s because analogy is so powerful. We tend to think analogically. We use analogies to work through difficult problems. When we have difficulty understanding a concept, a common first move is to try to find some way the new concept is analogous to something we already understand. Of course, all analogies break down at some point. Otherwise the 2 things being compared would be fully identical. But analogies help us to correlate known causes or effects with newly observed ones. Think back to when you had trouble understanding something new, and a friend or mentor who knew you well enough to know what kind of concepts you understood well, said “It’s like this…” and related it to something you were familiar with, and it suddenly clicked.

The problem for the atheist seeking a materialistic explanation for the universe and the existence of intelligent life is that we can’t seem to avoid analogies – comparisons – to design. Intelligent Design is such a persistent idea because so much of nature is analogous to human design. It’s actually pretty difficult to describe many things in nature without using design-centric terminology: we commonly speak of the “genetic code” and the “blueprints” of DNA; different “body plans” of the each species; the fine-tuning of the universe with its “clockwork precision”; cellular “pumps” and “motors”, and the “wiring” of our nervous system; and the “purpose” of different natural components. Even Richard Dawkins defined biology as “the study of complicated things that give the appearance of having been designed for a purpose” and speaks of our bodies as consisting of trillions of cells “organized with intricate architecture and precision engineering into a working machine….”[2]  In fact, the human body has been compared to a “system of systems” similar to a building’s structural skeleton, architectural skin and functionality, and mechanical ventilation, plumbing, and electrical systems, except far more complex than anything any human has ever designed. The analogies between what we see in nature and the results of the human design process really do seem to flow rather readily, don’t they? Of course, the bacterial flagellum has become the poster-child for intelligent design, but why not? The analogy between it and an electric motor, both in function and even in individual parts really is uncanny. When searching for descriptions for natural processes and their results, all of these design-related terms keep rising to the surface as the most appropriate, fitting, terms to use. Why is that?

To answer why this whole debate between Intelligent Design and Naturalism even arises, let’s look at the what analogy really is. Peter Kreeft addresses this topic in his Socratic Logic textbook, where he makes several relevant points.

  • Analogies are often not meant as arguments to prove a case, but simply illustrations to better explain some part of it.
  • Arguments based on analogy do not prove anything with certainty, only varying degrees of probability.
  • Arguments from analogy are the most common kind of inductive argument and actually make up most of our daily inferences.
  • “Argument by analogy is an really an abbreviated form of induction and deduction together.”[3]

Now, I would say that ID isn’t simply attempting to make an illustration, but a proper argument, so let’s lay out some terms first. Induction is (typically) the process of drawing general conclusions based on observation of specific instances. The most basic form of induction is induction by simple enumeration. Think of statistics; you measure a certain part of a test population and induce some general conclusion from the sample you measured. The more you measure the more certain your conclusion. But generally, you cannot be certain except in the case that you measure every possible instance. Deduction is (typically) the process of reasoning that applies general principles to specific instances. Provided the premises are true and the conclusion logically follows from the premises, a deductive argument will provide certainty.

Now analogy is said to be a combination of the two because when we draw an analogy, we are thinking of multiple past instances of something, inferring a general conclusion from that previous track record, recognizing (perhaps unconsciously) the common essence tying those past instances together, as well as that common essence in a new instance, and applying that general principle to the new instance. Analogies provide us a shortcut for that thought process. The more cases we’ve seen, the more similarities between those cases and the new one under investigation and the more relevant they are, and the fewer the dissimilarities between them,  the more certainty we can have that the analogy is sound.

So why won’t Intelligent Design go away? Perhaps because we can recognize an intelligent mind behind all of our human designs, can infer that a mind is what’s required to generate any design, can recognize the twin pillars of design – choice and purpose – in many natural objects and processes we observe, and can therefore reasonably apply that concept of design to them even if we haven’t figured out the identity of the Designer yet. Of course, ID is just a scientific theory, and stops short of identifying the Designer, but we can apply what we know about the necessary attributes of this mystery guest to arrive at an identity. The question for my skeptical friends is this: if the evidence points to nature being the result of design, and the omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, ontologically necessary, free agent known as God in the Bible is the best fit for the source of that design, will you follow the evidence where it leads?

[1] “Intelligent Design”, New World Encyclopedia. http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Intelligent_design, accessed 2017-02-15.
[2] Both quotes are from Chapter 1 of Dawkins’ 1986 book The Blind Watchmaker.
[3] Peter Kreeft, Socratic Logic (South Bend: St Augustine’s Press, 2010), pp.329-31.

The Fallacy of “Sub-Optimal” Design

Ever hear people like Richard Dawkins rant about the so-called “sub-optimal designs” in nature that must obviously disprove the existence of any omniscient Supreme Designer? As a practicing professional engineer, I find it a little annoying. Let me explain why.

What exactly is an “optimal design”? When I worked for a steel joist manufacturer, our designs were typically all about minimizing weight. It was often a very tight-margin business, and if we could save another pound of steel, that was a good thing. But, least weight doesn’t always equal least cost to produce. Sometimes, it was worth it to consolidate a bunch of different optimized least-weight designs into a big run of identical pieces, even if it meant some of them were a little heavier then needed. Just think about how much faster you could work at producing something if your instructions said that the next 1000 pieces would be made exactly like the first one, instead of having to look at the directions before every piece to see what had changed. The efficiency of repetition in our shop sometimes made a design that was not optimized for weight actually the most optimal design for us regarding least total cost (i.e. we traded a small material cost increase for a large labor cost decrease).

In my current role as a structural engineer, I’m reviewing shop drawings right now on a colleague’s project where I designed the seismic bracing for him. He unfortunately had some severe architectural constraints on his project with regard to permissible beam depths and flange widths in the walls these braces were in. After spending a couple of weeks trying to work out a solution with more conventional means, I finally came across an example of a different configuration in one of my reference books that we were able to make work in our situation. Would I call it an optimal design? Not hardly, but I was thrilled just to find anything that would meet those kinds of high demand loads with the restrictions we had.

Why do I bring up these two examples? To illustrate a couple of general points regarding optimum designs.

  • Optimization is always with respect to specific parameters. If you’re paying by the ton of steel, the most optimum design may very well be the one that weighs the least. If you’re the contractor erecting the building, the most optimum design might be the one that can be erected the fastest, or with the fewest jobsite workers. If you’re the owner of the new building, the best design may be the one that balances material costs, construction costs, and lifecycle costs for an overall lowest cost of ownership. Parameters like weight, cost, speed, strength, resilience, flexibility, lifespan, redundancy, etc. are always optimized at the expense of others. It is meaningless to talk of an optimal design without specifying what parameter is optimized. By the same measure, it is also meaningless to speak of something being a sub-optimal design without knowing what the original designer was trying to optimize for. I can say a military tank design is suboptimal for speed, and that may be true, but that isn’t where the tank was designed to excel: that heavy 4″ thick armor that slows it down so much also responds to incoming fire far better than trying to drive a race car into battle! Just because you would optimize for a particular parameter, doesn’t mean the original designer (or anyone else) would.
  • Constraints limit what is possible with regard to optimization. Looking at the end product of our seismic bracing design might appear to the fabricator to be a little odd when building it, not knowing the limits we were having to work within. Even a peer reviewer, knowledgeable of engineering design, might wonder why we didn’t simply use a much bigger beam, as is typical for these types of braced frames. But, if they’re like me, they’ve learned to ask why a puzzling design was chosen before they start throwing stones at it. In engineering, we deal with design every day – creating our own designs, reviewing the designs of colleagues, even sometimes having to try to guess the original design intent behind 100+ year-old buildings being renovated. And though it can be tempting to immediately deride some design that isn’t how I would design it, I’ve found an attitude of humility very appropriate when looking at the designs of others. For sometimes, the designs I thought were poor were actually quite innovative solutions to constraints I wasn’t aware of. But then I tried to run an alternate design that should’ve been “better,” and I ran into the same constraints the original designer did, and found the original design to be the only viable option after seeing the complete picture.

This is just a couple of reasons I think the bad design argument fails. It essentially reduces to saying “Because I, a person of limited knowledge, can’t comprehend some particular design chosen by an allegedly all-knowing Designer, He must not exist.” What hubris! Moreover, it seems to go even further by thinking that these odd cases outweigh the abundance of cases of brilliant-appearing designs in nature, many of which have spawned a whole field called biomimetics.  This field of study, which attempts to improve existing human designs or innovate new ones based on designs seen in nature, would not exist except that so many natural objects solve design problems we struggle with in ingenious ways. Indeed, I would say we have sufficient positive examples of exceptional design in nature to warrant an humble, inquisitive stance toward the supposedly “sub-optimal” cases we don’t fully comprehend yet. But really, isn’t that the attitude good science is founded on anyway?

Photo credit: By Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-23805-1665 / CC-BY-SA 3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0 de, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5349654

Essence vs Accident

The School of Athens - Raphael (1511)
The School of Athens – Raphael (1511)

A friend hosts a video conference call of sorts each week where a guest speaker presents on a certain topic, and other participants can just listen in, submit questions or comments via a chat function, or dialogue via video with the guest speaker.[1] The guest speakers represent many different views, from Christian to atheist to Muslim, from supporting evolution to intelligent design, from pro-abortion to pro-life. It’s an interesting chance to hear a representative of an opposing view make their best case, and then open up to questions from anyone who agrees, disagrees, or is still trying to decide.

Last week’s speaker was Dr. Michael Behe, biochemistry professor at Lehigh University, and one of the more famous intelligent design proponents. In the Q&A, an atheist chemist questioned Behe at length on how to avoid false positives and false negatives when deciding something is the result of design.[2] I think that’s a fair question. For instance, if diagnosed with cancer, you wouldn’t want a false positive (being told you have cancer and going through an expensive and often painful treatment regimen unnecessarily), but you really wouldn’t want a false negative (being told the cancer was gone when it really wasn’t). Yet what I found particularly interesting was that in the course of the dialogue, the atheist revealed a determined adherence to the idea that design was only a human activity. So reluctant was he to admit even the possibility of a supernatural designer of nature, that he seemed unable to bring himself to admit the possibility of a completely natural, but alien, designer. Now, I’ve discussed design on this blog before (like here), and I used a rather cumbersome, but accurate, definition for “design”. Behe chose to use the following concise definition from freedictionary.com: “the purposeful or inventive arrangement of parts or details.” However one defines design, human involvement actually isn’t a specified requirement. That brings me to this week’s topic.

Why is design not necessarily limited to humans? What is it at the heart of design that helps us recognize it, regardless of source? To answer this, we need to understand a more basic question: what is required to classify something, to see different objects and recognize commonalities between them and assign them to the same universal categories? For instance, why do we put Chihuahuas and Saint Bernards in the same category of “dog”? Why group  pretty little redbud trees and rugged Joshua trees and majestic Giant Sequoias as “trees”? What is this abstract trait of “dogness” or “treeness” that allows us to make these groupings? In philosophy, there is the idea of essence and accident. Something’s essence (like forming branches) is that which a thing must have to be what it is (i.e. a tree). An accident is that which a thing can gain or lose and still remain what it is (i.e. greenness or redness of leaves). For example, skin color, ethnicity, physical appearance, level of intelligence, and so on are all accidental traits of humans, but none of those are what set one apart as human.

At the heart of the atheist’s objection seems to be a confusion between what is essential and what is accidental. In the case of design, there are two essential factors: choice,  and purpose (or a goal). A designer is one who makes choices between alternatives in order to achieve an end-goal. Whether that designer is human, alien, angel, demon, ghost, or God, the essential requirement for design is the presence of a mind capable of determining a goal and making choices to realize that goal. Notice I did not say “brain”, but rather “mind”. While a brain is a physical container and interface for a mind, an unembodied mind is certainly possible. The requirement for a mind still does not limit design to humans.

As Peter Kreeft highlights in his logic textbook, “the most important act of abstraction is the one by which we abstract the essential from the accidental.”[3] But the atheist in this case is only seeing the accidentals, the particular instances of design carried out by humans, and failing to abstract that out to the universal aspects of design that make it design regardless of who’s doing it. In saying that we can only infer human design from seeing something that appears designed, he is effectively hamstringing science. By the same logic, he could say that because he has only ever seen Bob design something, the claim that John also designed something is unsubstantiated. Yet the goal of science is to expand our knowledge beyond what we are already familiar with. We do that by observation of particulars, abstraction to universals, and application of those universals to new particulars. In this case, rather than saying that we can only infer human design from having observed humans designing, we proceed as follows: a) we observe humans designing many things, b) every case observed involved an agent making choices to achieve a goal, c) therefore, a Martian artifact exhibiting these traits could indicate the presence of a Martian designer at some point. Likewise, the presence of these essential design traits in biological systems in humans would justify the idea that a necessarily non-human designer was the cause of any design found in humans. Does that have implications that run contrary to atheist preferences? It does. But we must follow the evidence wherever it leads, even – no, especially – if that leads to our Creator.

[1] Jonathan McLatchie’s Apologetics Academy. Click here for archived videos of past presentations on his Youtube channel.
[2] Click here for the Behe Presentation. The dialogue with the atheist begins at about 54 minutes in & goes for 26 minutes.
[3] Peter Kreeft, Socratic Logic (St. Augustine’s Press, South Bend, IN, edition 3.1), pp. 34-43, 110.

Deconstructing Dawkins 3 – A Case Study in Design

Schematic of the human eyeLast week, I wrote about some general problems I saw with Richard Dawkins’ claims of “sub-optimal design” in natural objects like the human eye. I recommended that we keep in mind our own finite knowledge and approach the matter with the same humility an engineer should approach a peer review of a colleague’s work. This week, we’ll need to get a little more technical to see Dawkins’ error, but let’s do a little “peer review” of that particular case of the human eye.

Dawkins’ problem with the eye is that the rods and cones (the photosensors) point toward the back of the eye, while the nerves (the “wiring”) come out the back of these sensors into the interior of the eye before being bundled up into an optic nerve that connects to the brain through a hole in the retina, causing a “blind spot” where there can’t be any sensors because of the hole and the nerve bundle. Admittedly, this is counter-intuitive. And yet, the eye is an amazing machine that the best human minds have not been able to rival. Whether it seems backwards to us or not, the eye seems to do better than we can with our “forward” thinking. Why might this backwards wiring actually be optimal?

Many times in my field, our structural systems are more complex than they could be otherwise because of other systems such as heating and air. Let’s face it, on a hot, humid, summer day in the Southern US, the best structure is useless if nobody can stand to be in the building because there’s no air conditioning. With the eye we have a similar issue: we need wiring (i.e. nerves) for data transmission, but we also need plumbing (i.e. blood flow) to supply energy – and lots of it. The rods and cones of the retina are so sensitive, that a single photon of light can be detected. This is because a series of enzymes massively amplifies this minuscule stimulus to useful proportions. But this enzyme activity also makes the photoreceptor layer of the retina have one of the highest metabolic rates of any known tissue[1] and the highest in the human body.[2] The energy for this is supplied by a bed of oversized capilleries immediately behind the photoreceptor layer that floods the layer with near-arterial levels of oxygenated and nutrient-rich blood to satisfy these high metabolic demands. This arrangement of blood supply allows a high packing density of the rods and cones making up the layer, which allows for increased visual resolution. In the opinion of biochemist Michael Denton, it is “hard to imagine how a standard-type capillary network to carry the necessary quantities of blood directly through the photoreceptor cell layer could be arranged without causing at least some decrease in the packing density of the photoreceptors and a consequent decrease in the resolving power of the eye.”[1] Considering also that blood strongly absorbs light, this plumbing system can’t be in front of the photoreceptors, even though that would allow for the nerves to be routed to the rear and more “tidily” as Dawkins suggests. In fact, any other arrangement in humans appears  to create bigger problems than it solves.

However, atheists have looked to the cephalopods like the octopus and squid as examples of creatures with good eyesight whose eyes are wired “correctly” – photosensors facing forward, toward the light, and nerves directed toward the brain – eliminating the admittedly minimal blind spot of the human eye. Although their visual acuity is comparable to some fish that have inverted retinas like us, octopuses operate in environments where ambient light is more diffuse or even negligible for the deep-sea dwelling varieties. Whereas we would actually need something to reduce the amount of incoming light if our sensitive photoreceptors faced the light like theirs, that placement is an advantage in their environments. Energy conservation can also be a design parameter. In fact, studies in different species of flies have shown that optical data transmission from photoreceptors increases with light, and there is an energy cost associated with photoreceptor activity which is at a minimum in total darkness and a maximum in full daylight. This cost can be significant as one species of fly tested used up to 2% of its total base metabolic rate just powering the photoreceptor layer of its eyes. And that was just the “ready state”, in total darkness. As ambient light increases, optical data increases, and with it, energy demands. However, the octopus’s copper-based blood, hemocyanin, only supplies roughly one-quarter of the oxygen as our iron-based hemoglobin.[4] Based on the experimental confirmations from the fly testing, it is reasonable that humans operating in full daylight will have a much higher metabolic demand than the octopus operating in the subdued light of shallow water or the near darkness of deep water. This then makes perfect sense for us to have the inverted retina we have, with its high-capacity power delivery system, while the verted eye of the octopus is more reasonable in their environment. Our inverted photoreceptors then appear to be the best possible solution, even with the introduction of a blind spot. However, this blind spot is situated in an area of each eye not used for focused vision, is in a different spot in each eye so that the input from the other eye compensates for it, is adequately corrected for in the image processing  occurring in the brain, and is actually a smaller blind spot (approx. 6°) than the most obvious blind spot for humans: our own nose, which blocks out a larger field of view for each eye.

One last thing to point out to armchair engineers like Dawkins is this: show me we can do better. If our eyes are so offensive, show how we could improve on them. Yet with all our scientific knowledge and advancements in technology and some of the best human minds working on a visual prosthetic for blind people, the pursuit of a man-made eye is still woefully primitive. It seems extraordinarily hypocritical to me to criticize another’s design, whether a fellow engineer’s or God’s, if I can’t even come close to designing something comparable. We are at the level of allowing a blind person to differentiate between light and dark, between the presence of a large opening like a door versus a solid wall, and between crude outlines of shapes that would make the old PONG computer game of the 80’s seem like an IMAX 3D movie. It’s easy to criticize something from afar. But in engineering, getting intimately familiar with the details of a problem is what makes or breaks a design. And the more we familiarize ourselves with the constraints and objectives of the human eye, the less we find to criticize.


[1] Michael Denton, “The Inverted Retina: Maladaptation or Pre-adaptation?”, 1999. Hat tip to blogger Wintery Knight for publicizing Denton’s research.
[2] Punzo, Xiong, and Cepko, “Loss of Daylight Vision in Retinal Degeneration: Are Oxidative Stress and Metabolic Dysregulation to Blame?”, Journal of Biological Chemistry, January 13, 2012.
[4] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hemocyanin, accessed 12/8/2015.

Deconstructing Dawkins 3 – Optimal Design Overview

Richard DawkinsRichard Dawkins has made much of the “appearance of design” in biology being a false positive, and the notion that living creatures actually exhibit bad design that negates the idea of an omniscient Creator. After all, why would God, if He existed, and if He was all-knowing, do things like wire the human eye “backwards”? This is, according to Dawkins, a sub-optimal design that any engineer would reject out of hand, or get fired if he submitted a design like this to his company. In fact, regarding the “backwards wiring” of the vertebrate eye, he admits that it doesn’t actually have much effect on vision, but “it is the principle of the thing that would offend any tidy-minded engineer!”[1]

Oh really? Since he decided to drag us engineers into this, I’d like to ask one question: what exactly do you mean when you talk about an optimal design? I can tell you most engineering designs end up being sub-optimal, regardless of how “tidy-minded” we may be. That’s because we routinely have to make trade-offs between competing goals. I have a book on wood-framed shearwalls that humorously highlights this issue with a side-by-side photo of an “engineer’s dream wall” and an “architect’s dream wall”. The engineer’s wall is very stout and very solid. The architect’s  preference (and most owner’s) is one completely filled with beautiful expansive windows. Which one is the “optimal” wall? Neither one of us is getting what we would call the optimum. Us engineers need some minimum amount of strength that the windows aren’t providing, and the architect needs some minimum amount of holes in our solid wall so the owner doesn’t feel like he’s living in a dungeon! Factor in things like cost and meeting building code constraints and “optimal” becomes a very subjective term with different meaning to different stakeholders. But this is the way most design goes. You can’t maximize one parameter without minimizing another, and at some point, you’ll have 2 (or more) parameters that conflict. Do you focus entirely on the first, or the 2nd? Do you balance them equally? Maybe a weighted average based on your best guess as to which one will govern more often? Unfortunately, no matter which route you choose, someone will come along later, with the benefit of hindsight, and ask why you didn’t do it some other way. But God, being omniscient, has perfect foresight, so that shouldn’t be an issue for Him, right? True, He won’t make a mistake in design due to lack of knowledge or not anticipating future conditions, but the aspect of competing design parameters still applies.

Versatility and specialization are two such competing parameters. Specialized designs seek to maximize a positive parameter like speed or strength, or to minimize some negative parameter like weight or waste, at the expense of other factors. This is evident in animals like peregrine falcons whose hollow bones minimize weight, while their aerodynamics maximize speed. Versatile designs, on the other hand, seek to balance the most parameters at one time to achieve adequate performance over a wide range of conditions. This allows the object to fulfill many roles, or to survive in a variety of unpredictable conditions and possibly even excel over more specialized objects if conditions are constantly changing. Humans, for example, are extremely versatile. We may not thrive as well on our own as more specialized animals in arctic or desert or tropical environments, but unlike most of them, the same human can generally still survive in all of them. And, besides this highly versatile body design, we have the brains to make tools, and shelters, and transportation to overcome our bodily limitations, such that we can even survive in places like outer space where no animals, however optimized, can survive.

So is God required to maximize all parameters that go into a design? No. Some may fall into the category of “square circles” where the parameters are simply mutually exclusive. Is He required to maximize the particular parameter we favor over another that He deems more important? No. As professional engineers, we can seek the input of peers if desired, but nothing says we have to take their advice. The engineer signing off on the design and taking full responsibility decides the direction of the design. Is so-called “bad design” evidence against God? No. It simply means we likely aren’t seeing the whole picture. My own peer reviews of other engineers’ designs have raised questions as to why they chose a particular route, but then they proved quite reasonable after getting those questions answered. It was typically my lack of knowledge of the background of that particular project, or my unfamiliarity with some certain condition they’d been burned by before that made me think they’d missed something “obvious” when they had actually thought through their design better than I might have if I’d been in their position.

Engineers must approach peer reviews with an attitude of humility, but even more so if the design being reviewed is God’s. If I can overlook the good reason a fellow human engineer made the design choices he did, then I should be all the more open to the possibility that I’ve missed something an omniscient Designer did consider. And this is where I would encourage people like Dawkins not to arrogantly assume that there is no good reason for something just because they can’t see it. Tune in next week as we focus on a couple of specific examples where the atheist claims of “sub-optimal” and “bad” designs in nature have actually turned out to be engineering masterpieces.

[1] Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker (London: Penguin Books), p94.

Why Only One?

The Olympians by Nicolas-André Monsiau
The Olympians by Nicolas-André Monsiau

After presenting in Honduras on the evidence for intelligent design in the genetic code, and thus the necessity of a Designer of DNA (God), one observant lady asked a good question that evening. How do we know there’s only one designer? In other words, while the argument from design can bring us from atheism to theism, what’s to say polytheism isn’t really the best explanation? She’s right – the teleological argument from design that I was presenting can’t tell us if there were multiple designers, only that the design we observe required some designer. But it is quite common for any man-made project to be divided up among a design team. In fact, on almost every project I’ve worked on in my career as an engineer, I’ve simply been one member of a design team, dealing with my area of knowledge. So does the idea of a “divine design team” of gods bear up to scrutiny? I don’t think so, and here’s why.

Part of the strength of the case for the God of the Bible is the interlocking nature of the evidence. While the evidence from design doesn’t address this particular question, other line of reasoning do. First we have to look at the law of causality: everything that begins to exist has a cause. Anything that fits in this category is considered contingent because its existence depends on something prior – its cause. A design team of angels or “lesser gods” responsible for the design we see in different natural objects would simply be an intermediate link in the chain of causation. They might be immediately responsible for the objects we investigate, but if we go back far enough, we must eventually arrive at something that does not need a prior cause because it has always existed. They would ultimately need to trace back to a non-contingent source, which we would then call God.  Even if God delegated the design of nature to a “design team” and did no specific design Himself, He would still be causally responsible for whatever was designed by them.

But one might ask if there could be multiple non-contingent beings. Let’s follow that line of reasoning. To be non-contingent (or metaphysically necessary) requires eternal existence in order to not have a prior cause.  A necessary being cannot  not exist, hence the title “necessary”. So this being can never cease to exist without all of reality that is contingent on him ceasing to exist at the same time. Therefore, no other being or group of beings could be more powerful than the one in question. For if any other being(s) could control or change the subject being, then its actions would be contingent on their actions, and he would turn out to not be a necessary being after all. For these reasons, you can’t have more than one non-contingent being in any possible reality. It’s also worth noting that the axiological argument shows that God exists due to the existence of objective moral values, which have to come from a source beyond humanity to truly be objective. But if multiple non-contingent beings existed, there would not be a single source for the objective moral values we observe. This is not to say that those values couldn’t have been established by consensus of a group of deities, but that does seem to multiply assumptions needlessly. I don’t know that we could say the axiological argument alone is sufficient proof of God’s uniqueness, but I would count it as contributing evidence.

But could we have necessary beings in different “dimensions”, “parallel universes”, or some other concept of separate but coexisting realities? This is basically just an updated idea of henotheism, the idea of locally supreme deities, applied to more abstract regions than the original geographical ones. If a god were all-powerful in his dimension, but limited to that dimension, then he wouldn’t really be necessary, even in that dimension. He would be, in effect, a caged deity contingent on that dimension’s existence and the higher deity who established that dimension. A truly necessary being must transcend all possible worlds/dimensions/realities to not be contingent.

In the end, we come to the conclusion that if God exists, He must be a non-contingent necessary being in any possible reality. We can look at the teleological argument (from design) and the various cosmological arguments (from causality) to see that God exists. Then we can look at the axiological argument (from morality) and ontological argument (from being) to see that polytheism is false and the Bible is correct when it says that “there is no God but one. For even if there are so-called gods whether in heaven or on earth, as indeed there are many gods and many lords, yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom are all things and we exist for Him; and one Lord, Jesus Christ, by whom are all things, and we exist through Him.“[1]

[1] 1 Corinthians 8:4-6, NASB.

The Cellular Lottery

DiceI’m in Honduras this week, where I gave a presentation on evidence for intelligent design in the genetic code. Some of my presentation was based on past blogs on design (here) and DNA (here). But now I’d like to show you a different part of the presentation dealing with the nature of “chance” as this seems to come up a lot in discussions of the origin of life. Enjoy!

First off, what is chance? It has been defined as “the absence of any cause of events that can be predicted, understood, or controlled”.[1] Chance can’t actually cause anything. It’s simply the explanation left after physical-chemical laws and design have been ruled out; it is the so-called “null” hypothesis that there were no discernible patterns pointing to necessity or design. So let’s look at this way of describing the tendencies of events we don’t understand, can’t control, or can’t predict with certainty.

Chance events will have certain odds associated with them. For instance, in a lottery, the odds of winning might be 1 in 100 million. So what are the odds of DNA developing by chance? better or worse than a lottery? How do we determine what the worst case odds possibly are? Let’s start with a basic example. Supposing you rolled 2 dice once every second for a minute, hoping to get a pair of sixes. You have a 1 in 36 chance of getting that pair of sixes on each roll, and 60 chances to get that particular result each minute. Your odds of winning are still only 1 in 36 each roll, but you’ve made a win relatively likely by increasing what’s called your probabilistic resources, the number of rolls of the dice.  So with the resources of 60 rolls, you will generally see 1 pair of sixes result. If you were able to roll 100 pairs of dice at the same time, you would have 6,000 chances each minute of play. Thus you would have sufficient resources to witness something more unusual, like 2 pairs of sixes (1 in 1,296 odds), but probably not something like 10 pairs (1 in 60 million odds). To assign some event to chance rather than design, we need to compare the odds of it happening to the resources available.

One way we can eliminate chance is by looking at the Universal Probability Bound. That is a way to determine statistically whether something is possible through random processes by conservatively estimating the maximum probabilistic resources of the entire universe as an upper limit. For instance, this has been used by security analysts to determine whether computer codes can be broken by brute force attacks. The universal probability bound does this by looking at the fastest possible “dice roll” with the most possible “dice” for the longest possible time.

  • The shortest possible time for any change in physical state is called the Planck time, which is roughly 10^-45 seconds. This means we’re rolling the dice 10^45 times per second instead of once per second like the first example.
  • Scientists estimate the total number of elementary particles in the universe to be 10^80 particles. In this scenario, we’ve made every particle in the universe a dice so that you can’t physically have more chances to win in play at one time.
  • There are various estimates of the age of the universe, but if we take the oldest estimate of 14 billion years we get 4.4×10^17 seconds. If we conservatively round up (a lot!), we can use 10^25 seconds to make the numbers even. This actually works out to 316 quadrillion years, so I think we’ve safely covered the idea of having all the time in the universe to roll the dice.

Multiplying these 3 together gives us a very conservative estimate of the maximum resources of the entire universe for causing a random event. Therefore, if the odds of any event are less than 1:10^150, it’s just not reasonable to say it happened by random chance.
What do these extraordinary odds look like? This: 1 chance in … ž1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000, 000,000,000,000,000, 000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000, 000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000, 000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000!
This is our standard for saying that we have eliminated chance as a possible cause. When we find that many biological and cosmological systems in our universe didn’t have to be the way they are, but have odds of occurring by random process less than that, we have to assume intervention of some kind. But just how bad are the odds for random formation of the first reproducing cell?
First, 20 protein-forming amino acids must form (1) peptide bonds (2) using only L-isomers in (3) stable, functional, 3D folded structures to form proteins. Many proteins are then required to form one cell. That cell must be complex enough to be able to reproduce before evolution could even begin. This happening by random hookups in a “prebiotic soup” is an uphill battle to say the least.
The odds of the chance formation of a single minimally functional protein composed of only 150 amino acids is roughly 1 in 10^164. This is 100 trillion less likely than that outrageously long number above. And that’s only for a short 150-acid protein. They’re typically composed of several hundred to several thousand amino acids. The odds of chance formation of 1 minimally complex cell of only 250 proteins is roughly 1 in 10^41,000. Again, this would be far less than what we typically see. The smallest self-replicating cell in the wild is 482 proteins, and scientists were able to knock out 100 of its proteins to arrive at a 382 protein cell that could still replicate (although with much other normal functionality removed). This is still 132 proteins more than the generously low number of 250 we’re assuming for a threshold.[2]
The Bible tells us that “His invisible attributes, namely, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.”[3]  Similarly, David wrote in the Psalms that “the heavens declare the glory of God.”[4] It seems that, as our ability to observe nature has increased, so too has its declaration of God’s glory. Now we find that it’s not just the starry night sky that speaks to us of God’s creative power. Every one of the roughly 50 trillion cells in our bodies screams at us that they are not the result of chance, but of incredible design beyond human abilities. Will we listen, or will we continue buying atheistic lottery tickets?

[1] “Chance“, Dictionary.com, definition #1.
[2] Much more detailed explanation of these numbers, how they were calculated, and the theory behind them can be found in Stephen Myer’s book, Signature in the Cell, 2009, particularly chapters 8-10.
[3] Romans 1:20, ESV.
[4] Psalm 19:1, ESV.

Divine Design (The Teleological Argument)

London Museum Roof SmallWe’ve been looking at different explanations for the existence of God, and this week we have one that resonates with me as an engineer: the teleological argument, or argument from design comes from the Greek word “telos” meaning end purpose or goal. The argument is as follows:
Premise 1: Every design has a designer.
Premise 2: The universe was designed.
Conclusion: Therefore, the universe had a Designer.

Now let’s unpack those tidy little premises. Does every design have to have a designer? Design can be defined as: “a specification of an object (or process), manifested by an agent, intended to accomplish goals, in a particular environment, using a set of primitive components, satisfying a set of requirements, subject to constraints.” Though a bit dry, this actually describes my daily tasks as an engineer pretty well. But notice that design is defined as being “manifested by an agent”. It appears that designs have designers by definition. But even without the word “agent” in there, we can see that design requires intent – an end purpose, a goal. But goals require consciousness to make choices between alternatives. Processes like natural selection, unguided by conscious agents, can only “choose” alternatives that confer immediate advantage. For example, chess moves that sacrifice an immediate advantage for a long-term gain are not possible without the foresight of design. Chance and physical necessity also can’t explain evidence of design such as intent. Therefore, the indication of long-range intent is confirmation of a designer.

The second premise is perhaps more controversial. But let’s follow the evidence along 3 lines: terrestrial, cosmic, and biological design. First, many parameters on earth appear to be fine-tuned for life to exist, and not just any life, but large, complex life. Things like atmospheric transparency, oxygen content, the polarity of the water molecule, and the temperature of max density of water, among a variety of other dispersed parameters, appear to all be set to values in very narrow ranges that allow for our level of life to exist (and flourish). Second, although these values all fall in narrow ranges, we find in the universe parameters that are even more precisely balanced in favor of life. But these parameters are fine-tuned not just for life anywhere in the universe, but specifically for life on earth. Properties such as the speed of light, the ratio of proton to electron mass, the mass density, expansion rate, homogeneity, and entropy level of the universe, the  uniformity of radiation, the values of the four fundamental forces (gravity, electromagnetism, and the strong and weak nuclear forces), and the location of earth both in our galaxy and the Milky Way’s location in the universe, are some of the roughly 100 interdependent parameters that have to be what they are for us to exist.[1] Interestingly, we also happen to be in a unique position in the universe to even be able to see the evidence of this design.

Third, the structure and information content of DNA points to extremely information-centric design. Four DNA bases are the optimum number for speed of replication.[2] From a data storage standpoint, the 4 letter “alphabet” and 3 letter “words” used by DNA for synthesizing proteins are the most efficient system possible in terms of minimizing space requirements in the cell, simplifying encoding/decoding of the data, and maximizing redundancy for error checking.[3] DNA exhibits nested encoding where the same stored data is used to convey meaningful information when read one way, and different meaningful information when read a different way.[4] To understand the significance of this coding accomplishment, try writing a book that tells one story when read in order, and a different, but still intelligible, story when reading only every third word. This increases the storage capacity of DNA immensely. Even so, DNA does not have all of the information needed to assemble an organism in it.[5] Some of the information is stored outside the DNA, which leads to a chicken-and-egg problem of how the cell is built by plans stored in the DNA, but with instructions stored in the cell that’s being built using the DNA plans. Our planet, our universe, and even our own bodies appear to all show signs of design, making the second premise true.

If these 2 premises are true, then the conclusion is true that the universe had to have a designer. What characteristics could we infer about this designer from the conclusion?

  • Intelligence – far beyond that of any human designer to understand complex and interdependent “systems of systems” comprising the universe.
  • Foreknowledge – far beyond any human ability to anticipate highly complex interactions and plan for those contingencies.
  • Power – far beyond any human capacity to alter our surroundings (we celebrate when we figure out how to copy something in nature successfully; making all of nature from scratch is in a whole other league of accomplishment).
  • Intemporality and immateriality – no design precedes it’s designer. If the universe (and therefore all of space and time) had a designer, then that designer had to precede the universe. Therefore the designer would have to exist outside of space and time.
  • Benevolence – It’s relatively easy to imagine many ways our universe could be organized that would result in life being a much harder, more miserable, existence for us. Also, the fact of our unique position in the universe to be able to see so much of it could be an example of a deliberately placed trail leading us back to this designer.

These correspond well with the omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, eternal, loving God of the Christian Bible. So then, how do we respond to this? We could a) accept the evidence left for us by this God, and seek after Him, b) deny the evidence having honest doubts, but attempt to offer an alternative that explains the evidence as well, or c) simply refuse to consider the evidence. Please, don’t be content with this last option.

[1] Hugh Ross, “Fine Tuning for Life in the Universe”, http://www.reasons.org/articles/fine-tuning-for-life-in-the-universe, accessed 2014/08/03.
[2] “Why is the Number of DNA Bases 4?”, by Bo Deng, Dept. of Mathematics, University of Nebraska – Lincoln. Published in the 2006 Bulletin of Mathematical Biology.
[3] Werner Gitt, Without Excuse (Atlanta: Creation Book Publishers, 2011), p. 162-166.
[4] Stephen Meyer, Signature in the Cell (New York: Harper Collins, 2009), p. 466.
[5]  ibid., p. 473-474.

Alphabet Soup


I explained a few weeks ago how any kind of observed design actually requires a designer, by definition. If we correctly observe design, we can reasonably infer the existence of a designer. But how do we know we’ve correctly observed intentional design?  We don’t want false positives or false negatives (while thinking you were healthy when you had cancer could be fatal, mistakenly thinking you had cancer when you don’t, and having an unnecessary amputation isn’t desirable either). And so the atheist is often concerned that we Christians are falsely attributing intentional design by God to naturalistic processes. Let me start by saying I appreciate those concerns. So today, let’s look at the evidence for intentional design in nature in the form of information.

The presence of information is a key part of confirming design because true information is always the result of intelligence. Waves makings ripples in the sand are an unguided process that may generate patterns, but not information. On the other hand, someone writing their name in the sand has guided the movement of the sand so as to convey data (their name) using symbols (letters) arranged in a non-random order (J-O-H-N) with a goal (for others to know that John was there).  If we walk down that beach later and find that name in the sand, we recognize this was not the work of the waves, but rather an intelligent agent, because codes (i.e. the English language) are not generated by physical-chemical processes alone. Meaning is conveyed by the willful choice of certain letters to form certain words in a certain order, but natural processes do not possess a will – only intelligent agents do. This then takes us back to the causal agent required of design.

If I hand you a piece of paper that has been moved at a constant speed under an eyedropper filled with ink, will the series of evenly spaced dots provide you any information? The repetitive pattern of dots are arranged as they are out of necessity. What if the ink drops were splattered randomly on the paper where there was no pattern whatsoever? The first is highly specified (identical spacing and size of dots) but repetitive and not complex. The 2nd is complex (in that it would be very difficult to intentionally reproduce it), but completely unspecified. Either way, no useful information is conveyed. But what if the ink drops were from an inkjet printer that was plotting a set of framing plans for a skyscraper? Has information been conveyed? Certainly, but how can we know that? The symbols on the paper exhibit specified complexity. They are a product of neither chance nor necessity. They also have a clear purpose: If you follow the instructions presented, with the materials specified, in the order prescribed, you will have successfully constructed a tall building. These characteristics can differentiate legitimate information from repetitive patterns and random noise.

Now let’s apply what we know about information to DNA.  Deoxyribonucleic acid is composed of 4 bases (Guanine, Adenine, Cytosine, and Thymine) attached to the famous double helix backbones of sugars and phosphates. These bases match up in pairs (G&C, A&T).  One DNA molecule can have 220 million of these base pairings. The entire human genome, the transcript of all the base pairings in all of human DNA, is 3.4 billion units.  Printed out in small font, this takes over 100 volumes of 1,000 pages each. While DNA is still mind-blowing 50+ years after it was discovered, and we’ve still only scratched the surface of understanding it, does assigning letters to these bases and filling books with them make this a language? Are these letter sequences conveying information? Actually, the ability of DNA to store and transmit information has not been lost on scientists. In 2012-13, 2 different groups managed to encode text, pictures, and audio data into DNA’s code, synthesize actual DNA from it, then sequence that DNA to get the original data back with 100% accuracy.  In fact, DNA makes for a far more stable data storage medium than our current typical magnetic disks. It’s also estimated that one cup of DNA could store 100 million hours of hi-def video[1].

Let’s compare this 4-letter “alphabet” to some other alphanumeric codes. Consider this: our common number system is called Base 10 because it uses the ten digits 0-9. Our computers use “binary”, a Base 2 system that only uses the numbers 0 and 1, because these can represent physical states of on and off. Hexadecimal (Base 16) has been used in computers to reduce storage requirements. It uses the digits 0-9, then adds the letters A-F. In this way, you can count to 15 with only 1 digit (F) compared to the 4 digits needed in binary (1111). The English alphabet that I’m using to communicate right now is a sort of Base 26 code. You have 26 symbols to use for each character, and if that’s not enough to convey an idea, then you need to keep adding characters to form words, stringing those into sentences, paragraphs, books, and rambling blogs…. Knowing how base systems work, what do we see when we look at DNA? We see a Base 4 code for conveying information. Interestingly, a 2006 paper in the Bulletin of Mathematical Biology asked the question of why DNA is a Base 4 code and not a binary code, or Base 6, Base 8, etc, and concluded that Base 4 actually maximizes the rate of replication over every other option.[2] Dr. Werner Gitt looked at DNA from a data storage standpoint and concluded that the 4 letter “alphabet” and 3 letter “words” (codons) used by DNA for synthesizing proteins were the most efficient system possible in terms of minimizing space requirements in the cell, simplifying encoding/decoding of the data, and maximizing redundancy for error checking[3]. So the framework for efficiently storing and communicating information is there, but is there actually information there? Like the set of framing plans, if you follow the data found in human DNA you will end up with a human. In fact, this is carried out every time a baby is conceived as a new human is constructed from the plans found in its DNA.  The data found therein is extremely specific, highly complex, and has intent or end-purpose. Therefore, it does indeed seem to be true information, requiring an intelligent source, and providing an additional jigsaw piece in our design puzzle.

1. http://phys.org/news/2013-01-dna-storage-million-hours-hd.html
2. “Why is the Number of DNA Bases 4?”, by Bo Deng, Dept. of Mathematics, University of Nebraska – Lincoln. Published in the 2006 Bulletin of Mathematical Biology.
3. “Without Excuse”, by Werner Gitt, PhD, 2011.

Design Defined

Engineering_design_drawings smallI’ve heard a lot of criticism of “intelligent design” (ID), the idea that certain features of the universe and of living organisms are best explained by an intelligent cause rather than unguided naturalistic processes. But I have to ask, regarding intelligent design, is there any other kind? If we see the appearance of design, is there any other explanation besides intelligence? Let’s first define design. Design is a very broad task, with lots of different types, but a good (if somewhat laborious) definition is:

A specification of an object (or process), manifested by an agent, intended to accomplish goals, in a particular environment, using a set of primitive components, satisfying a set of requirements, subject to constraints.

That could really apply to things as diverse as engineering or developing a new soup recipe, but let’s break that down with an example.  I’m an engineer, so here’s an example from an actual job I worked on earlier this year that illustrates each of these criteria. I (the agent) designed a chevron brace connection (the object) to resist a 665,000# earthquake force (the goal) in Little Rock, AR (the environment) using steel tubes, gusset plates, bolts, & welds (the primitive components) to satisfy the 2006 International Building Code (the requirements) without obstructing a doorway (a constraint).

This example is representative of a typical design, but it’s simply not something we see occurring without intent. We don’t accidentally design things.  Water may erode the Grand Canyon, but wind and rain don’t hit the Black Hills of South Dakota with intent to sculpt giant faces into the cliffs. Erosion causing Mount Rushmore is not a reasonable theory! We recognize the design of Mount Rushmore and understand that someone designed it, even if we don’t know who (Gutzon Borglum in that case).  So back to the original question. Is there any other kind of design besides intelligent design? Not really, and here’s why.  Two things jump out from the above definition: an agent, and a goal.  The components, environment, requirements, and constraints add to the definition, but the heart of any design is a person with a purpose. And purpose is not a characteristic of chance or even “natural selection”. It is the result of choice, and choice requires intelligence. Rocks, trees, bacteria, the wind, a piece of steel – none of these can have goals or plans on their own. Only sentient beings can do that. So it seems that design requires intelligence by definition.

Interestingly, Richard Dawkins wrote that “Biology is the study of complicated things that give the appearance of having been designed for a purpose.” Here the Christian and the atheist agree on the presence of appearance of design in nature. Basically, the atheist argument is that this evidence is a false positive, an indication of design when there isn’t any, while the Christian claims that our observations are accurate and the appearance of design is, in fact, indicative of actual design. So at what point do we say, “If it walks like a ducks and quacks like a duck, it’s probably a duck and not a time-traveling homicidal shape-changing cyborg disguising himself as a duck, or an advanced alien holographic projection of a duck”? Much like a duck simply being a duck, I think we can say that a powerful, knowledgeable, willful Master Designer being behind all the apparent design we see in nature is a simpler and less far-fetched explanation than what we have to derive in a strictly materialistic universe. Today I just wanted to address the necessity by definition for a designer in any true case of design, and the corequisite of purpose, both of which are absent in a world governed solely by natural selection. Stay tuned as we dig into the case for actual design in upcoming weeks.