Friday, March 6, 2009

Specified Complexity

“Specified Complexity” is, of course, the phrase that William Dembski uses to describe his method for discovering Intelligent Design.

William Dembski defines it with these words[1]:

“A single letter of the alphabet is specified without being complex (i.e., it conforms to an independently given pattern but is simple). A long sequence of random letters is complex without being specified (i.e., it requires a complicated instruction-set to characterize but conforms to no independently given pattern). A Shakespearean sonnet is both complex and specified.”

Note here that Dembski uses “complex” as “intricate”. A single letter is not “complex” but a long string of letters is complex.

Of course that is really the dictionary definition of “complex”. As evidence, here is the first definition of the word “complex” at[2/[2]:

“an intricate or complicated association or assemblage of related things, parts, units, etc.:”

But, Dembski also uses a different definition for “complex”. He says that it is a synonym for “improbable”. Here’s an example[3]:

“Something that is specified and complex is highly improbable with respect to all causal mechanisms currently known. Consequently, for a causal mechanism to come along and explain something that previously was regarded as specified and complex means that the item in question is in fact no longer specified and complex with respect to the newly found causal mechanism.” [emphasis added]

Also when giving examples of ways to recognize specified complexity, he uses examples that come from probability calculations. Here is another reference where he explains “complexity” as a type of probability[4]:

Probabilistic Complexity

Probability can be viewed as a form of complexity. To see this consider a combination lock. The more possible combinations of the lock, the more complex the mechanism and, correspondingly, the more improbable that the mechanism can be opened by chance....Complexity and probability therefore vary inversely; the greater the complexity, the smaller the probability. The complexity in specified complexity refers to improbability.

Here’s how one creationist explained it:

>> Within ID, the complexity of an object or an
>> event is a function of:

>> 1) Probability: the more improbable a thing is,
>> the more complex it is.
>> ...

A combination lock is indeed an example of a case where additional complexity adds additional improbability. But “improbable” things do not necessarily lack “intricacy”.

A perfectly blue sky is certainly less intricate than one filled with clouds. Yet in many places on Earth, the sky is rarely perfectly blue – in those places it is quite improbable to see a perfectly blue sky. I’ve been lucky enough to visit the Hawaiian Islands a dozen times. I don’t recall a single time when there weren’t a few clouds in the sky which cause additional intricacy. (Those clouds contribute to the beautiful sunsets that the Islands are so justifiably famous for.)

So at least in that example, improbability is actually the opposite of intricacy. There are a number of other examples.

The two definitions don’t really have anything to do with each other. Sometimes they are consistent with each other. Other times they are very inconsistent with each other.

So what’s going on?

What’s going on is that the ID advocates prefer that no one notice this inconsistency. They can use one definition when it is convenient and use the other definition when that alternative is more convenient.

In general “improbability” is used as the definition of “complexity” when trying to show examples of when and how we can recognize ID. But in other areas they arbitrarily decide to use “intricacy” as the definition of “complexity”.
First, here is an example from William Dembski where “improbability” is the definition of “complexity”[5]:

Rare events are a cause for surprise only if the timing is right. Imagine, for instance, that before you is a large, grassy field. You have 100 stones and 100 flags each marked from 1 to 100. With a helicopter you fly over the field, releasing the stones indiscriminately. After you have dropped your last stone, you land the helicopter safely away from the field, leave the helicopter on foot, and examine where your stones have landed, placing next to each stone a flag with the corresponding number. There are an exceedingly large number of ways the stones could have landed. They had to land in some one way. You are looking at it. You are not surprised or shocked. You don't think a miracle has occurred because you are witnessing an event of exceedingly small probability. Some improbable event had to occur. Placing the flags next to the stones after the stones have fallen does not change these conclusions.

Now modify the situation. As before you have a field, stones, flags, and a helicopter. As before you take your helicopter and stones, and fly over the field, dropping the stones indiscriminately. But before you take off you first walk around your field and stick the flags in the ground at will. Having dropped the stones, you land the helicopter and now examine the field. Lo and behold, all the stones are next to their matching flags. Do you have a right to be surprised? Absolutely. When an extremely unlikely event matches a preset pattern, there is cause for surprise. In fact when such an event becomes too unlikely, one looks for non-probabilistic factors to account for it.

Because the event is improbable it is, therefore, “complex” according to Dembski.

Then consider this example: ID advocates say that ID is science because it can make predictions. Here is an example of one “prediction” made by ID[6]:

Natural structures will be found that contain many parts arranged in intricate patterns that perform a specific function (e.g. complex and specified information).

There are a number of points that could be made about this “prediction”. It lacks any (dare I say it?) specificity. It also is basically an after-the-fact prediction. The prediction was made fairly recently and certainly it has been known for a very long time that DNA, as one example, “contains many parts arranged in intricate patterns”.

But most importantly to the purpose of this post, they use the word “intricate” as in “intricate patterns”.

The “bait-and-switch” fraud is very evident. They use a single word in two very different ways depending on the point that they are trying to make.

Just another reason to reject ID as an explanation for anything.

[1], referenced on March 5, 2009
[2] Referenced on March 5, 2009
[3] William Dembski, No Free Lunch: Why Specified Complexity Cannot be Purchased without Intelligence, Rowman & Littlefield, 2002, p. 330
[4] Willian Dembski, The Design Revolution: Answering the Toughest Questions about Intelligent Design, Intervarsity Press, 2004, p. 82
[5] William A Dembski, "Randomness By Design", p. 4
[6], referenced on March 6, 2009

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