Intelligent Design specified complexity

Casey Luskin on what ID is and how we should defend it

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The key concept is specified complexity: complexity that means something:

Roughly speaking, something is complex if it is unlikely. But complexity or unlikelihood alone is not enough to infer design. To see why, imagine that you are dealt a five-card hand for a poker game. Whatever hand you receive is going to be very unlikely. Even if you get a good hand, like a straight or a royal flush, you’re not necessarily going to say, “Aha! The deck was stacked.” Why? Because unlikely things happen all the time. We don’t infer design simply because of something’s being unlikely. We need more — according to ID theorist William Dembski, that is specification. Something is specified if it matches an independent pattern.

To understand specification, imagine you are a tourist visiting the mountains of North America. First, you come across Mount Rainier, a huge, dormant volcano in the Pacific Northwest. This mountain is unique; in fact, if all possible combinations of rocks, peaks, ridges, gullies, cracks, and crags are considered, its exact shape is extremely unlikely and complex. But you don’t infer design simply because Mount Rainier has a complex shape. Why? Because you can easily explain its shape through the natural processes of erosion, uplift, heating, cooling, freezing, thawing, weathering, etc. There is no special, independent pattern to the shape of Mount Rainier. Its complexity alone is not enough to infer design.

Now you visit a different mountain — Mount Rushmore in South Dakota. This mountain also has a very unlikely shape, but its shape is special. It matches a pattern — the faces of four famous Presidents. With Mount Rushmore, you don’t just observe complexity; you also find specification. Thus, you would infer that its shape was designed

Editor’s note: This article is an excerpt from a chapter in the newly released book The Comprehensive Guide to Science and Faith: Exploring the Ultimate Questions About Life and the Cosmos (2021)

Casey Luskin, “What Is Intelligent Design and How Should We Defend It?” at Evolution News and Science Today (December 6, 2021)

University of Waterloo computer science prof Jeffrey Shallit seems to doubt that there is any difference in information content between Mount Fuji in Japan and Mount Rushmore. Radical naturalism does that to people. That may be one reason why radical naturalism is losing its grip.

6 Replies to “Casey Luskin on what ID is and how we should defend it

  1. 1
    polistra says:

    Pattern is a somewhat weak word in this context. The argument might be stronger if it focuses on purpose instead of pattern. Many inorganic things (especially crystals) have complex mathematical patterns, but those patterns aren’t meant to create an action or a response.

  2. 2
    chuckdarwin says:

    If you closely read the links included in this article you will see the following:

    University of Waterloo computer science prof Jeffrey Shallit seems to doubt that there is any difference in information content between Mount Fuji in Japan and Mount Rushmore.

    Shallit, who has an undergrad degree in math from Princeton and PhD in math from Berkeley actually said this:

    Once upon a time, the illustrious Baylor professor Robert Marks II made the following claim: “we all agree that a picture of Mount Rushmore with the busts of four US Presidents contains more information than a picture of Mount Fuji”. (emphasis added)

    Shallit accurately quote Marks directly from a 2014 article found at

    Shallit disagreed with Mark’s claim contacted Marks for follow-up data, periodically reminding him of the request. For seven years the request has gone ignored, the latest request being in September of this year.

    In the Mind Matters link in the OP, Egnor repeats this claim, again leaving out the reference to “a picture” and Marks, in his answer, subtly adds to the definition of “information”:

    Michael Egnor: Dr. Jeffrey Shallit, a mathematician at the University of Waterloo near Toronto, claims that Mount Rushmore doesn’t have any more information than Mount Fuji. I’d like to ask my guest today Dr. Robert Marks to answer that question.
    Robert J. Marks: In terms of meaningful information I think it’s obvious. (emphasis added)

    It should be noted that Shallit has been a vocal critic of Marks, Dembski and Meyer’s misuse or misunderstanding of information theory in their advocacy of intelligent design. So this type of cheap shot isn’t all that surprising.

  3. 3
    KRock says:

    Jeffrey Shallit is a hardcore atheist, so it’s not surprising he would suggest that there is no difference in the information content between Mount Fuji in Japan and Mount Rushmore. In fact, Shallit is just more proof that someone can be highly educated and still be an absolute fool.

  4. 4
    Fasteddious says:

    Trying to compare the amount of information in two different mountains is just silly.
    The question should be, how much information does it take to specify the object in question? Even there, you would need to consider the knowledge of the person being asked, and the level of description required. To specify any mountain in absolute terms – e.g. the precise nature and location of every atom – would require an enormous amount of information, regardless of which mountain is in question.
    On the one hand, it is easy to uniquely specify “Mt. Rushmore” to most Americans, and “Mt. Fuji” to most (English reading) Japanese. Indeed, I just did that. However, to specify Mt. Rushmore to a Martian would require a lot more information, even if the Martian could read or decode what you provided. And if the Martian wanted to know what minerals were available in the mountain, telling him about four US Presidents would just be confusing.
    I expect that, in general, “specified complexity” requires less information to specify than to fully describe! “Mt. Rushmore” is specified in a few letters, while some other mountain in the same range would require a lot more information to just locate it for most people, and even that would not say much about the mountain itself. A “Royal Flush, Hearts” in poker is easier to specify than a hand of five random cards, but only if the terminology is known to the specifier and the reader.
    Thus I tend to agree that stating, “there is more information in a picture of Mt. Rushmore than in one of Mt. Fuji”, is a meaningless claim. Trying to define, distinguish and apply different types of “information” as some ID people do, is difficult in any real situation. “Human genome” is easier to say and obviously requires less “information” than a list of 3 billion base pairs. In that sense, if the specification is more meaningful and quicker/easier to provide than the full information defining the item being referenced, then we can say in some sense that the item has “specified complexity”. Trying to argue about that to promote ID is – as we can see from the above – a tricky row to hoe.

  5. 5
    EDTA says:

    Yes Marks was being unfortunately imprecise when he spoke, and Shallit was trying to gain points by being more technically precise. But the fact remains that Mt. Rushmore shows evidence of design and most other mountains (at the appropriate scale) do not. Shallit has not overturned ID in one fell swoop like he thinks he did.

  6. 6
    doubter says:

    I think that the scientific difficulty in exactly defining the essence of the obvious (to intelligent human observers) difference between the kinds of information describing Mt. Fugi and Mt. Rushmore, is due to the fact that the information uniquely specifying Mt. Rushmore not only has prior specification and is complex, but more importantly it basically has meaning and purpose. Since meanings and purposes, like qualia, are immaterial properties or characteristics of immaterial conscious awareness, they are not measureable scientifically any more than science can measure the weight and dimensions of a thought.

    And since science (which assumes reductive naturalism) does not account for consciousness, science can’t analyze and quantify the unique kind of real information specifying the faces carved into Mt. Rushmore. Conscious human beings know absolutely that the faces in the mountain contain meaningful and purposeful information that they can easily distinguish from the kind of configuration information specifying the rest of the mountain, but it can’t be analyzed by the methods of science. That is, this unique quality can’t be readily quantified and analyzed in information theory as Shannon or Kolmogorov or some other measureable type of information.

    So this “define and measure CSI” problem is one of the primary problems ID has in convincing mainstream science, the deliberate blindness of science to consciousness, the most important thing in human lives but claimed by scientism to be really just an illusion or ineffectual epiphenomenon.

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