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Posted
05 October 2005

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Verisimilitude

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7 Comments

Complexity ⇏ Design

For those who haven't been paying attention to the idea of intelligent design, here is my understanding of it. There are many instances where living creatures have some adaptation or anatomical feature, typically described as "complex", for which we don't know the exact evolutionary pathways. Some people think that this information is somehow fundamentally unknowable. And as such they think the presence of a designer is required to explain the existence of complexity in living things.

There is plenty wrong with this, and any serious search on the web will reveal many eloquent rebuttals. pandasthumb is an excellent starting point.

However I have not yet heard from any designers as to their views on the assumed causal relationship between complexity and design, because frankly it is counter to everything I know about the subject of design. Speaking as a designer of software, the values that we strive to attain in design are most definitely not complexity.

In my experience, complexity is typically what you get when you don't design something, or at least design it badly. Instead, what we strive for is to make things "as simple as possible, but no simpler", as attributed to Einstein.

[Aside: what Einstein actually said was "The supreme goal of all theory is to make the irreducible basic elements as simple and as few as possible without having to surrender the adequate representation of a single datum of experience". The attributed quote seems to have been an oversimplification...]

Anyway, good design always follows the rule of "simple as possible, but no simpler". In some way I think certain ID followers grasp this. I believe the phrase "irreducible complexity" is used to indicate that a given anatomical feature is as simple as it can possibly be, while still performing the same task. Others can better address this as relates to evolution. But within the current set of living things you certainly don't have to look far for examples of reducible complexity:

Evil Genius: God isn't interested in technology. He knows nothing of the potential of the microchip or the silicon revolution. Look how he spends his time: forty-three species of parrots! Nipples for men! -- Time Bandits

So if there is a designer at work in the creation of living things, he doesn't always do a great job, at least from the perspective of the "as simple as possible" maxim. Fair enough, we probably don't always understand the need for every anatomical anomaly that nature has thrown at us, but this doesn't mean they are all absolutely necessary either. It's hard to imagine what the hypothetical designer of humans was thinking when they added the appendix, for example. A Friday afternoon rush job maybe?

On the other hand there are certainly many examples of such jaw-dropping elegance and simplicity and, yes, beauty in nature. For one thing, how about the process of evolution itself? If you're going to look for evidence of an intelligent designer, why not start there?

7 Comments

Posted by
Chris
2005-10-05 20:46:49 -0500
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I remember having this argument with a creationist at Cambridge University (which is, in itself, a slightly disturbing concept). He was arguing that a Christian who denied the creationist understanding was 'taking glory away from God'.

My response was that I find it much, much more impressive to create a system with simple rules that results in an incredible universe than to just create the universe. At the time I had in mind the elegantly simple laws of physics, but the system of evolution would have been just as good an example.


Posted by
peter
2005-10-05 20:46:49 -0500
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Conviction radically distorts argument but argument makes little impression on conviction.

You’re brave to step into this territory.


Posted by
alastair
2005-10-05 20:46:49 -0500
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Peter, what do you mean "argument"? Do you mean the logical reasoning behind a conclusion, or do you mean the act of persuading someone else? I can understand that conviction distorts the latter but not necessarily the former.

And I'm only biting off a small morsel, deferring to other forums for the complete discussion.


Posted by
peter
2005-10-05 20:46:49 -0500
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the former


Posted by
peter
2005-10-05 20:46:49 -0500
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Though I suspect you would see a greater distinction between the two than I might.

I mean, it seems that implicit in your question is a perception of a platonic set of absolute truths that might be arrived at by argument (some kind of an argument convergent logical iteration - like a mathematical proof). I kind of half believe in this, but have to admit, to being a bit of a relativist. I think what becomes accepted as truth (even in my beloved science) is in large part the product of debate (as you say just persuading some one else - every one if you can but most people will do).

More specifically, I think, people who really want to believe in god (or anything else - and i don't exclude my self from this) will prefer augments (type 1 or type 2) that support their conviction. Jesus types are keen to make room for some kind of god in a distorted arguments ranging from 'creation science' to god some how inventing evolution or pressing a button to fire off the big bang.


Posted by
Alan Green
2005-10-05 20:46:49 -0500
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Peter: "Pressing a button to fire off the big bang." ... neat image.


Posted by
Garth T Kidd
2005-10-05 20:46:49 -0500
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There aren't that many people that can get away with quoting Time Bandits to buttress an argument. :)