Intelligent Design specified complexity

Why is specified complexity so badly misunderstood?

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Put another way: What’s the difference between a bag of jigsaw puzzle pieces and a text message: “The city will get your car towed if you don’t move it within the next 8 minutes”?

The jigsaw puzzle pieces are complex but they are just stuff. The message is complex but it is also specified. It is addressed to you (= specified). It is telling you something in a language (complex, like all human languages).

From the podcast:

Robert J. Marks: In terms of meaningful information, I think it’s obvious. Michael, they used to say that it doesn’t take a brain surgeon to answer this or it doesn’t take a rocket scientist. Well, it turns out you’re a brain surgeon and I’ve done work for NASA and I got an NASA Tech Brief award. I guess that makes me a rocket scientist. So I think for both of us, the answer is obvious, yeah, that Mount Rushmore contains more information than does Mount Fuji. And it’s clear from the context that this refers to meaningful information. There’s more meaningful information on Mount Rushmore. There’s Lincoln and Roosevelt and Washington, and yep, what do we get? Well, if we get Mount Fuji, we just get a big chocolate gum drop. So yeah, there’s obviously more information on one than the other.

News, “Complexity is not always a bad thing” at Mind Matters News

Specified complexity allows us to have an intellectual life.

14 Replies to “Why is specified complexity so badly misunderstood?

  1. 1
    polistra says:

    Part of the problem is that we don’t have a real measurement for ACTIONABLE information. Existing measurements deal with mathematical randomness vs static predictability vs surprise. They don’t deal with the value of info for decisions.

    Our nervous system, from cochlea to cortex, is concerned with the need for action. If the incoming waves and words are likely to tell me something I need to know for my own decisions, the input will be focused and strong. Everything else is damped down.

  2. 2
    GBDixon says:

    Both Polistra and Marks are correct in that they both imply something that should be a formal part of information: the interpretation of information by a receiver. Mount Rushmore clearly has more information to a person who sees it, but Fuji has more information to a rabbit on the mountain who smells a fox.
    Our cells contain huge amounts of information to the molecular machines that do something with the DNA–they are the receivers, and we only understood how much information there is once we humans learned how to interpret the DNA (and we are still learning).

    Specified Complexity, when it tries to define how much information something contains without a formal receiving mechanism that interprets or does something with that information, is incomplete and therefore confusing.

    I think this is why it is misunderstood. It is not a complete theory.

  3. 3 says:

    “Specified” is not scientific. Art is NOT “specified”.

  4. 4
    ET says:

    Care to make your case, NonLin? The art of Mt. Rushmore is specified by the 4 Presidents it depicts.

  5. 5
    johnnyb says:

    A long time ago, I did a video tutorial on Specified Complexity. See it here:

  6. 6
    ET says:

    So there aren’t any rabbits or fox on and around Mt Rushmore? Weird. But anyway, the information contained by Rushmore is the information it took to produce it. And we can try to flesh that out by figuring out what it took. But we don’t need that component, information, to help us determine if the object in question arose via telic or atelic processes. The whole point of specified complexity is to help us to reach that inference. SC screams artificiality. There isn’t anything about Fuji that says it is artificial.

  7. 7
    ET says:

    The concept has been around:

    Living organisms are mysterious not for their complexity per se, but for their tightly specified complexity- Paul Davies “The Fifth Miracle”

    Living organisms are distinguished by their specified complexity. Crystals such as granite fail to qualify as living because they lack complexity; mixtures of random polymers fail to qualify because they lack specificity.- Leslie Orgel

    *Complicated things have some quality, specifiable in advance, that is highly unlikely to have been acquired by random chance alone. In the case of living organisms, the quality that is specified in advance is…the ability to propagate genes in reproduction- Richard Dawkins “The Blind Watchmaker”

  8. 8
    GBDixon says:


    Thank you for proving my point. It took you as an observer (or interpreter, or receiver) to determine the Rushmore sculpture was artificially created, either through observation or the study of its history. Every person who sees or studies the mount is such an observer. Especially Borglum, who observed every tiny step in the process, knowing that many would experience aesthetic pleasure because he created something that was informative to them as well.

    Even though the scent of a fox is not artificially created, to a rabbit (wherever she is) that scent is much more informative than a sculpture of the presidents. It is the rabbit who decides what is information in its world.

    This should be self-evident: a string of gibberish is not information and you would probably assert that is true until you are informed it is a zipped file. It is still not information to you and you certainly cannot quantify the amount of information until you unzip and interpret it. A receiver completes the process of information transfer and is just as essential as the sender. Whether you are aware of it or not, you CANNOT quantify the information content of something until the receive process takes place.

    Specified complexity (it seems to me)trips over itself by attempting to quantify information in advance without specifying the interpreter of the information. Here is a prime example: I say a certain protein structure could not occur by natural means. I compare it to the odds of getting a royal flush in poker. A naturalist would counter that the odds of a royal flush in poker is exactly the same as the odds of getting any other specified sequence of cards ( and they have, indeed, argued this).

    But now we put a receiver in the picture: I say the protein structure is rare and cannot occur naturally because it does something beneficial in a cell while a vast number of similar structures do not. The odds are similar to a poker player winning a hand with a royal flush.

    Do you see the difference? Now there is a machine in the cell that interprets the protein structure and does something worthwhile, and there is a receiver in the poker game who interprets the hand.
    Without the receiver the argument is weak and misinterpreted. Specified complexity must formally define what is receiving the information before it can quantify information content.

  9. 9
    Fasteddious says:

    When we say “meaningful information”, we refer to “semantic content”. But that too is fraught with difficulty as the “content” may differ significantly for different receivers of the information. For instance, an English sentence will have more content for an English reader than for a Chinese one who cannot read English. It may have additional content for a spy who has hidden a secret message in the English words.
    Specified complexity to me means that the semantic content of the information can be specified apart from the information itself. E.g. “human genome” specifies the 3 billion nucleotides in our DNA, apart from the CGAT code in the sequence. Added specifiers could be used to indicate whose DNA it is, making it more specific. Mount Rushmore can be “specified” as sculptures of four (named) heads at scale X into a mountain at location Y. The rabbit on that mountain may not notice the carvings because it does not have the appropriate “receiver”, as GBD says at 2. Conceivably, an intelligent Martian octopus would not recognize the faces as artificial if its “receiver” is attuned to other signals, and in any case, it would not recognize the faces as such, much less as important American historical figures. Indeed, the Chinese tourist would recognize them as human faces, but would then ask “who are they?”, thereby receiving less semantic content than an American history buff.

  10. 10
    GBDixon says:


    Exactly. Thank you. Specified Complexitydoes quantify information content of something based on an implied receiver that can interpret the information correctly and completely. Much better to carefully define the receiver/interpreter. This allows the calculations and conclusions to be duplicated by others.

  11. 11 says:


    Much better:
    “Attempts to quantify “specified complexity” by estimating ”functional information” help clarify Dembski’s Explanatory Filter, but still fall short because design needs not implement a function (e.g. art) while ‘the function’ is arbitrary as are the ‘target space’, ‘search space’, and ‘threshold’. Furthermore, ID opponents can easily counter the functional information argument with the claim that the ‘functional islands’ are linked by yet unknown, uncreated, eternal and universal scientific laws so that “evolution” jumps from island to island effectively reducing the search space from a ‘vast ocean’ to a manageable size.”

    The art of Mt. Rushmore is specified ONLY by YOU and a few others that can appreciate the 4 Presidents it depicts. Whatever side they are, GBDixon and Fateddious prove my point.

  12. 12
    ET says:

    LoL! @ GBDixon- It takes observers to conduct science. The scent of a fox is artificially created by the fox. The rabbits sense of smell was also artificially created.

    CSI pertains to quantifying information. As I said, the only way to get to information via SC is to determine what it would take to duplicate it.

    In poker the odds of getting dealt a hand is exactly 1 to 1. With proteins the sequence has to be specific and most likely it will need a chaperone, more SC, to find its functional shape. And then it is only functional in a specific context. Look at “Methinks it is like a weasel”. It only has a function in one and only one work of literature. The same goes for proteins. They are pretty useless outside of life.

  13. 13
    ET says:

    Earth to NonLin: The art of Mt Rushmore is understood by over 7 billion people. And any aliens can use whatever techniques they have to observe the WORK contained by the rock.

    Also claiming the unknown to try to solve an issue is pure cowardice and outside the realm of science.

  14. 14
    Les says:

    “Specified complexity, the property of an object being both unlikely and structurally organized, has been proposed as a signifier of design.  Objects exhibiting specified complexity must be both complex (e.g., unlikely under the relevant probability distribution) and specified (e.g., conform to an independent or detached specification).”

    — George D. Montanez
    Department of Computer Science, Harvey Mudd College, Claremont, CA

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