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:
MGLSDGEWQL VLNVWGKVEA DIPGHGQEVL IRLFKGHPET LEKFDKFKHL KSEDEMKASE
DLKKHGATVL TALGGILKKK GHHEAEIKPL AQSHATKHKI PVKYLEFISE CIIQVLQSKH
PGDFGADAQG AMNKALELFR KDMASNYKEL GFQG
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.