Intelligent Design

Order is not the same thing as complexity: A response to Harry McCall

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Over at John Loftus’ Website Debunking Christianity, contributor Harry McCall has put up a short post entitled, The Theology of a God as an Intelligent Designer Exploded! (11 June 2013). He writes:

Christian apologists claim that the detail of the universe proves the creation of a master designer: God. However, as you can plainly see in this video, a man made dumb frequency generator can create many different detailed intricate designs. Enjoy!

On his post, he has embedded a Youtube video of the Chladni plate experiment. It’s only about three=and-a-half minutes long, but I can guarantee it will leave you spellbound.

What I found funny when I saw McCall’s post recently was that the same video was also posted on the Catholic Website New Advent, under the caption, Amazing resonance experiment reveals the beauty hidden in the design of the universe (June 14, 2013). Evidently two people watched the same video and drew diametrically opposite conclusions.

In this short post of mine, I’d like to explain why the Chladni plate experiment poses no threat to Intelligent Design. Here’s why, in a nutshell:

Intelligent design is the search for patterns in Nature which are best explained as the product of intelligent agency. However, intelligent design cannot be inferred from order; it can only be inferred from specified complexity. Order and complexity are two very different things.

Dr. Stephen Meyer provides an excellent illustration of the concepts of order, mere complexity and specified complexity in his book, Signature in the Cell (Harper One, 2009, p. 107, Figure 4.8). Dr. Meyer begins with the repeating pattern “ABCABCABC”. This is an example of order. Crystals are striking examples of this phenomenon. It’s perfectly regular, and in its own way, beautiful. But it isn’t complex. A short algorithm or set of commands can easily generate the pattern. In other words, the pattern is compressible. We can re-write it as “ABC” x 3.

Next, Dr. Meyer considers an irregular pattern such as “ALXNTZXBCT”. This is an example of complexity, because the information it contains is incompressible: that is, it can’t be compressed into a shorter pattern by a general law or computer algorithm. But the random sequence of letters in the string lacks specificity. There’s no description of this sequence that makes it “stand out” from other irregular sequences of the same length, such as “QJDUFCOTFR”. For that reason, Meyer refers to this kind of complexity as “mere complexity”: it’s complex, and that’s all it is. Random polymers exhibit this kind of complexity.

Finally, Meyer examines the pattern “TIME AND TIDE WAIT FOR NO MAN”. This pattern can’t be compressed into a repeating sequence of letters, like “ABCABCABC”, so it isn’t ordered (i.e. regular); instead, it’s highly complex, like the pattern “ALXNTZXBCT”. But unlike that pattern, it’s also highly specific. It’s an English proverb with a particular meaning: nothing can stop the march of time. As such, it “stands out” in a very dramatic fashion from other sequences of letters of the same length. Very few other letter sequences of that length embody precisely the same meaning; and the vast majority of sequences contain no meaning at all. Because this pattern exhibits both specificity and complexity, Meyer refers to it as an example of specified complexity.

Of course, living things don’t embody a semantic meaning, like proverbs do. But they do contain DNA and proteins which perform very specific functions. For that reason, we can say that DNA and proteins exhibit specified complexity. Scientists know that even very slight changes in the sequence of units comprising these molecules will render them utterly incapable of performing any biological functions at all, as they won’t fold up properly. In other words, they’re highly specific. Additionally, the units are arranged in a non-repeating, incompressible sequence, unlike that found in a crystal. Here’s the amino acid sequence for the human version of the protein myoglobin, for instance:


A representation of the 3D structure of the protein myoglobin showing turquoise alpha helices. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Instead of exhibiting a regular order, such as we might find in a salt crystal, proteins are very complex.

The specified complexity of a living thing, which requires at least 250 different proteins in order to survive, is of a far greater different order of magnitude. Indeed, the British chemist Leslie Orgel, who coined the term “specified complexity” back in 1973, originally used it to denote what distinguishes living things from non-living things:

In brief, living organisms are distinguished by their specified complexity. Crystals are usually taken as the prototypes of simple well-specified structures, because they consist of a very large number of identical molecules packed together in a uniform way. Lumps of granite or random mixtures of polymers are examples of structures that are complex but not specified. The crystals fail to qualify as living because they lack complexity; the mixtures of polymers fail to qualify because they lack specificity. (The Origins of Life, John Wiley & Sons Inc., 1973, p. 189.)

In a similar vein, physicist Paul Davies has written: “Living organisms are mysterious not for their complexity per se, but for their tightly specified complexity.” (The Fifth Miracle, Simon & Schuster, 1999, p. 112.)

What does all this have to do with Intelligent Design and the Chladni plate experiment?

First, the patterns you see in the Chladni plate experiment are repeating patterns. As such, they exhibit order, not complexity. The reader can see this more clearly by going to this physics Web page, which has photos of scores of these beautiful patterns. All of them are repeating patterns. I can’t reproduce them here for copyright-related reasons, but I can illustrate the point with an image from Wikipedia, which shows some Chladni patterns from a guitar backplate:

Chladni modes of a guitar plate. Image courtesy of Denis Diderot and Wikipedia.

Second, the Intelligent Design movement does not treat order as such as evidence of intelligent agency. In The Design of Life: Discovering Signs of Intelligence in Biological Systems (The Foundation for Thought and Ethics, Dallas, 2008), Intelligent Design advocates William Dembski and Jonathan Wells provide three definitions for order, the first of which reads as follows:

(1) Simple or repetitive patterns, as in crystals, that are the result of laws and cannot reasonably be used to draw a design inference. (p. 317; italics mine – VJT).

A second, broader definition of order reads as follows:

(2) More generally, the arrangement of parts into a pattern (that may or may not reasonably be used to draw a design inference. (p. 317; italics mine – VJT).

The ordered patterns we see in the Chladni plate experiment exhibit order only in the first sense. There is nothing specific about the parts making up the pattern; a sprinkling of fine sand or salt is all that’s required in order for the pattern to be displayed. Consequently, no design inference can be drawn from the patterns we observe in the Chladni plate experiment.

Third, the Intelligent Design movement regards the functional specificity of a living thing, or a DNA molecule or a protein as a phenomenon which is best explained in terms of intelligent agency, because intelligent agency is the only process known to be capable of generating patterns with a high degree of functional specified complexity. As far as we know, it’s the only kind of cause which is adequate to the task.

Fourth, we can formulate an even stronger argument for Intelligent Design by pointing to features of living things which can only be properly understood in “mentalistic” terminology, such as the presence of a genetic code in living things. Intelligent agents are, by definition, the only beings that are capable of creating codes. If we find codes in living things, then the only reasonable conclusion we can draw is that they were designed.

Fifth, while order as such is not evidence of intelligent design, it is possible to argue that the very existence of laws of Nature which generate this order, constitutes powerful evidence for an Intelligent Creator. But that’s a metaphysical argument, not a scientific one. Since Intelligent Design is a scientific quest for patterns in Nature that are best explained as the product of intelligent agency, such an argument would fall outside the ambit of Intelligent Design theory.

Sixth, it is rather silly for Harry McCall to use the Chladni plate experiment to argue that “a man made dumb frequency generator can create many different detailed intricate designs”, when the designs actually arise as a consequence of the laws of Nature, which humans did not create.

I conclude that McCall’s attempted refutation of Intelligent Design misses the mark badly.

27 Replies to “Order is not the same thing as complexity: A response to Harry McCall

  1. 1
    Axel says:

    The mere fact of the speed of light’s absolute speed to the observer, irrespective of the speed of his own constant motion in the same direction provides unassailable evidence of an omniscient, omnipotent, personal God; just as Intelligent Design flows inexorably from that.

    It’s not rocket science. It’s not even thermos.. well, you know… I don’t want to go on about that too much. But the point is: there is no getting away from it. Just like all the quantum mechanics inferences relating to the mind and matter. We all know you’d like this world to be the primary reality, but it’s clearly not. GET OVER IT!

  2. 2


    First of all, thank you for the mercifully short (for you) opening post. 🙂

    Second, why is it so hard for some people to get it through their heads that the issue is not “order”? Is this really hard to understand, or just that so many people haven’t been properly educated about the issues?

    Sigh . . .

  3. 3
    kairosfocus says:

    VJT: Well done as usual. It seems that there is a mental block to something that is quite obvious all around: functionally specific complex organisation and associated or implied information. The resistance is so stubborn that it tells us the best explanation is a defense mechanism that fends off the utterly threatening. The point that FSCO/I points strongly to design as credible cause. KF

  4. 4
    Chance Ratcliff says:

    Natural law implies biological systems. Check. Wait, I think a step or two is missing. Oh yeah, evidence. Well, Miller-Urey gives us OOL, and genetic algorithms demonstrate the power of natural selection. All that’s left is to fill in a few pesky details. 😛

  5. 5
    humbled says:

    “Miller-Urey gives us OOL” – nonsense, they did no such thing.

    UD: humbled, Chance is speaking tongue in cheek.

  6. 6
    bornagain77 says:

    If Harry McCall thinks there should be a disconnect between the intricate forms that sounds make and God he really doesn’t know his Bible very well at all:

    Genesis 1:3
    And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light.

    In a TEDtalk, Evan Grant certainly had no problem making the connection of the surprisingly intricate patterns formed by sound with God speaking reality into existence,, using the same patterns Harry McCall is looking at in his post:

    The Deep Connection Between Sound & Reality – Evan Grant – Allosphere – video

    further notes which Mr. McCall, as an atheist, may not like:

    Photons and Phonons
    Excerpt: You see, the primary Planck-Law (E=hf) is metaphysical and independent on the inertia distribution of the solid states.,,,
    Both, photon and phonon carry massequivalent energy m=E/c2=hf/c2.
    The matter-light interaction so is rendered electromagnetically noninertial for the photon and becomes acoustically inertial for the phonons; both however subject to Bose-Einstein stochastic wave mechanics incorporative the Planck-Law.,,
    Where, how and why does E=hf correctly and experimentally verifiably describe the quantum mechanics of energy propagation?,,,

    Excerpt: In physics, a phonon,, represents an excited state in the quantum mechanical quantization of the modes of vibrations,,
    The name phonon,, translates as sound or voice because long-wavelength phonons give rise to sound.

    Big Bang Sound Recording ‘Remix’ Created By Physicist – 04/04/2013
    Excerpt: While you might think that because space is a vacuum the explosion of a singularity wouldn’t make any sound at all, Cramer told QMI that “the Big Bang is the exception to this, because the medium that pervaded the universe in the first 100,000 years or so was far more dense than the atmosphere of the Earth.”
    In other words, matter was so dense in the early Universe that it carried sounds waves in much the same way air does on Earth.

    Music of the sun recorded by scientists – June 2010
    Excerpt: The sun has been the inspiration for hundreds of songs, but now scientists have discovered that the star at the centre of our solar system produces its own music.

    How Music and Mathematics Relate – The Great Courses – video

    The following video is just plain cool:

    What pi sounds like (when put to music) – cool video

  7. 7
    scordova says:

    Of course, living things don’t embody a semantic meaning, like proverbs do.

    But living things do have parts with semantic meaning. The existence of semantic meaning is evidenced by the fact that the DNA blueprint codes for proteins and organs, etc. DNA would not be an informed language if it had no meaning.

    The wonderful thing about life is that it comes with interpretive machinery to explain the meaning of some of its parts — i.e. the transcription machinery that reads DNA is inferring the semantic meaning of the DNA. Because of this, we are able to understand some of the meaning of DNA (or as Collins called it, the Language of God).

    I have to disagree with Dr. Meyer. Design can be inferred from orderly patterns with the provision that the artifacts in question have a high propensity for disorder.

    I provided both man-made and biological examples here:

    Siding with Mathgrrl on a point

    In brief, all coins-heads or the homo-chiral patterns in biology are orderly patterns that evidence design.

    Orderly patterns in the ultimate sense do not disprove design but may only prove law like behaviors of nature.

    Ironically, prior to Darwin, orderly behaviors in nature were seen as evidence of ID. See:

    Cosmological ID in 1744


    Teleology and ID in Physics

    Though I do not concur with those pre-Darwinian views, neither do I accept the existence of orderly patterns as evidence against ID either. Order in the universe is neutral at best to the case of Universal/Cosmological ID and actually in slightly in favor of it as Dembski noted here.

    Last Magic by William Dembski.

    Platonic forms are highly ordered patterns (algorithimically simple). Whereas DNA language is algorithmically complex. Yet BOTH can be evidence of ID in biology.

    ID can be in evidence both in algorithmically simple and algorithmically complex forms. That is where I disagree with Dr. Meyer.

    For biology and engineering, ID is evidenced by the physical improbability of algorithmically simple order (such as homochirality or all coins heads) or algorithmically complex systems such as DNA that are specified because they come ready made with language interpreters (protein transcription). Biology is self-specified by the protein transcription machinery. I described how objects can be self-specifying here:

    Refuting Postdiction and Single Target Objections

    Now with respect to the plate patterns, traditional ID methods can’t be used to assert design. The only thing demonstrated was that ordered patterns can be generated. It neither affirms or refutes ID in the ultimate sense of cosmology, it only shows a mind is not needed in the proximal sense for the plate but says nothing about ID in the ultimate sense (whether the laws of physics are themselves evidence of ID).

    I think Dembski made a great argument for ID in the laws of physics in his last magic essay. So even if ID is not in evidence in the proximal sense (like salt crystals), it could still be in evidence in the cosmological sense.

    Now all of this becomes very confusing because ID can be evidenced in:

    1. orderly patterns (all coins and homochirality)
    2. disorderly, but specified patterns (DNA)
    3. highly improbable patterns (both #1 and #2)
    4. patterns that are probable, orderly, and universal (Dembski’s last magic)

    All this to say, there are far more nuances to the topic than most in the ID world appreciate. But that’s why we have UD to discuss esoteric things like this. 🙂

    Ironically Dembski explanatory filter would be a rather forced argument when applied to the theme of his last magic essay. Not that I’m saying Bill contradicted himself, but some readers might not appreciate the nuance that the explanatory filter is not as appropriate on questions of ID in cosmology although perfectly appropriate for ID in biology.

    Thanks for the brevity! My response in contrast wasn’t brief, but hopefully informative.

  8. 8
    bornagain77 says:

    semi related note:

    Four microphones, computer algorithm enough to produce 3-D model of simple, convex room – June 17, 2013

  9. 9
    Chance Ratcliff says:

    ‘“Miller-Urey gives us OOL” – nonsense, they did no such thing.’

    I’m skeptical of your skepticism. If bricks beget buildings, why should we doubt that amino acids beget biological organisms? It’s either that or creationism, kids! 😛

  10. 10
    JDH says:

    I hope that most people here know that the observed patterns are just the solutions to the nodes ( where zero amplitude vibration takes place ) and are the solution to the wave equation on the 2-d surface given the boundary condition of the plate. My take-away from the referenced article is:

    1. A video is made of a Chladni plate experiment.
    2. From evidence on the Website Debunking Christianity we know there exists at least one being (we will call him Harry ) who thinks this simple video so destroys the concept of God as an intelligent designer he deigns to call the article “The Theology of a God as an Intelligent Designer Exploded!”
    3. This conclusion is clearly not a random thought for there is high correlation between the title of the website and the thought of the poster.
    4. But it can’t really be a necessary event because it really does not logically follow in any intellectually honest way.
    5. Therefore since an event ( the posting of a neat video with an inane conclusion by this being Harry ) occurs which is neither random nor necessary, it must be initiated by some being with a will.
    6. Clearly Harry has a will, and uses it to make inane statements.
    7. If Harry has a will, but is unintelligent about how he uses it one must ask where did this Harry person get this will.
    8. Clearly no amount of blind processes patched together can make a will that initiates such an illogical conclusion.
    9. Harry has demonstrated that he is not intelligent enough to create that will.
    10. So the ability for Harry to initiate such illogical conclusions must have been granted to him by a being much more intelligent than Harry.
    11. There must be an intelligent designer.

  11. 11
    Granville Sewell says:

    Sorry for the off-topic post but I notice that “Darwin’s Doubt” is now #1 in “Christian Books and Bibles” at Since I don’t think the book ever mentions the Bible, Christianity or Christ, this is obviously some employee’s way of belittling the book. And why not, questioning the motives and credentials of anyone who doubts Darwin has worked wonderfully for them for 150 years, why not go with what got you where you are.

    Interesting that it is outselling the Bible, though!

  12. 12
    Alan Fox says:

    Vincent Torley writes:

    Scientists know that even very slight changes in the sequence of units comprising these molecules will render them utterly incapable of performing any biological functions at all, as they won’t fold up properly.

    In some well-known cases, specific SNPs can produce deleterious results, such as the SNP that results in sickle cell anaemia (when homozygous) but there is no reason to extrapolate from that to assume that functionality in all proteins not already found in nature is rare. We simply don’t know how rare novel functional proteins are. The only current method of establishing this (other than natural selection – which only explores sequence space close to existing function) is to synthesize and test.

  13. 13
    Alan Fox says:

    Sal Cordova

    …the explanatory filter is… …perfectly appropriate for ID in biology.

    If that’s so, how come nobody has been able to demonstrate its use on any biological example?

    (Or are you still claiming Genetic-ID is such an example?)

  14. 14
    Alan Fox says:

    Oh, I see Mark Frank is wondering:

    The curious thing is that Dembski defines specification in terms of a pattern that can generated from a few simple principles. So no pattern can be both complex in VJ’s sense and specified in Dembski’s sense.


  15. 15
    kairosfocus says:


    Why do you insist on continued misrepresentations despite repeated correction and evident facts to the contrary:

    how come nobody has been able to demonstrate its [the explanatory filter’s] use on any biological example?

    Try here on for just one instance that has been on the table in and around UD for years, literally.


  16. 16
    Joe says:

    Alan Fox:

    If that’s so, how come nobody has been able to demonstrate its use on any biological example?

    LoL! We can and have, Alan. OTOH your position can’t tell us about its methodology- for example how was it determined that all genetic changes are mistakes/ accdents/ errors? And how was it determined that these mistakes/ errors/ accidents can produce a bacterial flagellum?

  17. 17
    Joe says:

    How come nobody has been able to demonstrate that natural selection can actually do something?

  18. 18
    Joe says:

    The curious thing is that Dembski defines specification in terms of a pattern that can generated from a few simple principles. So no pattern can be both complex in VJ’s sense and specified in Dembski’s sense.

    Evos, still slectively reading Dembski…

  19. 19
    bornagain77 says:

    AHH but Now Now JDH at 10, not too quick on this wildly irrational Harry postulation of yours,, how do you really know this ‘other mind’ named Harry actually exists and is not merely a figment of your imagination? 🙂

    Solipsist Humor from Plantinga
    ,,,At a recent Lecture I attended by Philosopher Alvin Plantinga, he warmed up the crowd with a few solipsist jokes.,,,
    FYI, solipsism is the rather odd idea that there is only one individual in the universe and that you are it. Everyone else is just a figment of your imagination.

    1. British philosopher Bertrand Russell was a solipsist for a time (why does that not surprise me?), and he once received a letter from a woman who found his arguments very convincing. Well, I suppose it’s not so hard to convince a figment of you imagination that your arguments are brilliant. Anyway, the woman commented in her letter that his description of solipsism made a lot of sense and that, “I’m surprised there are not more of us.”

    2. Plantinga also told of an accomplished academic who was a well-known solipsist (I forget the guys name). And Plantinga thought it would be fun to meet a real life solipsist, so he went to visit him. He was treated fairly well considering he was only figment. I mean, it’s not a given that a solipsist would feel the need to be polite to his imaginary friends. After a brief conversation, Plantinga left and on the way out one of the man’s assistants said, “We take good care of the professor because when he goes we all go.”

    It is interesting to note that there is a very strong tradition in philosophy that holds that the most concrete thing that you can know about reality is the fact that you are indeed conscious, i.e. that you have a mind:

    David Chalmers on Consciousness – video

    “Descartes remarks that he can continue to doubt whether he has a body; after all, he only believes he has a body as a result of his perceptual experiences, and so the demon could be deceiving him about this. But he cannot doubt that he has a mind, i.e. that he thinks. So he knows he exists even though he doesn’t know whether or not he has a body.”

    “Descartes said ‘I think, therefore I am.’ My bet is that God replied, ‘I am, therefore think.'”
    Art Battson – Access Research Group

    The Dawkins Delusion

    Related notes:

    Another interesting argument comes from the leading philosopher and Christian, Alvin Plantinga—he asked, what evidence does anyone have for the existence of other people’s minds? He argued cogently that the evidence for God is just as good as the evidence for other minds; and conversely, if there isn’t any evidence for God, then there is also no evidence that other minds exist—see God and Other Minds, Cornell University Press, repr. 1990.

    What is a Properly Basic Belief? (Alvin Plantinga) – video


    Paul Colman – The One Thing

  20. 20
    Alan Fox says:

    Yet again, Kairosfocus tries to claim that “Chi” is calculable, linking to one of his own worked examples in which he fails to compute P(T|H) for anything other than the null of “blind chance”, citing Durston et al’s “Fit” calculations which assume random draw.

    He still hasn’t seen the eleP(|TH)ant in the room. Despite repeated correction.

    KF – please note!

    Elizabeth Liddle

  21. 21
    Joe says:

    LoL! Neither Alan nor Lizzie seem to understand that it is up to them to provide the proper calculations pertaining to the claims of their position. That they are even given a place at the probability table is obvioulsy far more than they deserve.

    THAT is the real ELEPHANT in the room- the FACT that accumulations of genetic accidents can’t even muster a testable hypothesis.

    You are sad and pathetic little people. Fortunately for you you lack the self-awareness to understand that.

  22. 22
    Joe says:

    Earth to Elizabeth Liddle:

    How something arose doesn’t have any effect on whether or not it has CSI.

    The whole point of CSI is that every time we have observed CSI and knew the cause, it has always been via agency involvement- always, 100% of the time. THAT is why we can use it to determine design.

    That said, if you or anyone else can demonstrate that blind and undirected processes can produce CSI, then we could no longer use CSI for design detection.

    Dembski goes over this, as does Meyer- who goes over and over and over that in most of his writings.

    So the questions is, what is your problem that you cannot grasp that?

  23. 23
    Joe says:

    In this short post of mine, I’d like to explain why the Chladni plate experiment poses no threat to Intelligent Design. Here’s why, in a nutshell

    It has nothing to do with nature, operating freely.

  24. 24
    Joe says:

    Elizabeth Liddle sez:

    So a pattern has CSI if it:
    A.Has a large amount of Shannon Information
    B.Can be generated by a short algorithm
    C.Has a low probability of being generated by a material process

    If it has A and B but not C, it is “ordered”, but not necessarily designed.
    If it has A and C but not B, it is unordered, and not necessarily designed.
    If it doesn’t have A it doesn’t have C, whether or not it has B
    If it has all three, it is Designed.

    I say No to A, No to B and No to C.

    For one, patterns are best described with specified complexity, as opposed to using CSI- different manifistations of the same thing.

    Algorithms are incapable of generating CSI nor SC. They can only transfer it or rearrange it- see “No Free Lunch”. They also sart with the very thing that needs to be explained.

    Given only a pattern the EF is the best process to use. And a pattern has SC if it is both complex and specified. And that is regardless of HOW it came to be.

  25. 25

    Joe, you missed off the question I posed at the end of that post:

    So: given a pattern with A and B, how do we compute C?

  26. 26
    bornagain77 says:

    semi related: Sound waves precisely position nanowires – June 19. 2013
    Excerpt: The smaller components become, the more difficult it is to create patterns in an economical and reproducible way, according to an interdisciplinary team of Penn State researchers who, using sound waves, can place nanowires in repeatable patterns for potential use in a variety of sensors, optoelectronics and nanoscale circuits.

  27. 27
    Joe says:


    Given that all of your premises are incorrect, your question is moot.

    You said:

    So a pattern has CSI if it:
    A.Has a large amount of Shannon Information


    B.Can be generated by a short algorithm


    A pattern has specified complexity. I don’t know how to relate Shannon information to a pattern. Does anyone?

    That said a pattern has specified complexity if:

    It is both complex and specified- complex meaning it is not reducible to law/ regularity and has a small probability of occuring by chance. A specified means just that it has some correlation to something we already have experience with- ie mind correlative.

    The EF- use the EF.

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