Uncommon Descent Serving The Intelligent Design Community

Illustrating embedded specification and specified improbability with specially labeled coins

arroba Email

The reason the 500-fair-coins-heads illustration has been devastating to the materialists is due to a fact that has somewhat escaped everyone until Neil Rickert (perhaps unwittingly) pointed it out: the sides of the coin are distinguishable, but not in a way that biases the probability. This fact guarantees that chance cannot construct recognizable symbolic organization, it can only destroy it. In essence, the world of symbols (heads and tails) has become somewhat decoupled from the world of materials, and the world of specialized information (in the form of recognizable configurations like all-coins-heads) can thus transcend material causes.

If the coins were perfectly symmetric and did not have any markings to let you know one side was distinguishable from the other, the ID side would have no case, but because the coins provide a means to distinguish one side from each other in a way that does not significantly bias the probability during a sufficiently random process, the ID side can prosecute its case. It is this fundamental transcendence of symbols and information from material causes that makes the case for design possible.

What may have escaped many, myself included, until Neil made this comment in another discussion, is that when the coin manufacturer created the a heads-tails coin (instead of a 2-headed or 2-tailed coin), ID proponents got a free-of-charge implicit embedded specification built into coins. Since humans like to think in certain patterns that are homogenous and repetitive, there was conceptually a pattern that was possible in principle which if seen in a set of 500 coins, that pattern that could not be reasonably caused by a chance process. In effect, the manufacturer embedded the possibility of an independent, recognizable pattern (or specification) without meaning to.

This implicit specification could then be used by IDists to bash Darwinists over the head with, namely the 500-fair-coins-heads illustration. The IDists were able to identify patterns that could not practically be the result of chance or law (and thus materialist-type causes). Darwinists didn’t like that, it was game over at that point as far as coins go. 🙂 The idea of information’s transcendence from material causes in the 500-coins-heads illustration is obviously extensible to biology, and we know the Darwinists don’t like that either.

Biology provides a clear analogy to coins in the form of homochirality in amino-acids and in DNA. As best as we can tell, the probability in pre-biotic soup of amino acids and DNA being in the left-handed or right-handed forms is 50/50. Worse, even supposing there were some simple chemical principle to make amino acids homochiral, thermal effects will cause them to racemize and become heterochiral again in not too long. Much like shaking a bag of coins that started out all heads, the “shaking” of molecules by heat will racemize the amino acids into proportions of 50% L-amino acids if they weren’t in that state to begin with. Worse, there are tons of other chemical reactions that will destroy the biotic materials in a pre-biotic soup. Figuratively speaking, not only will the coins never be all heads, in not too long, the coins (amino acids and DNAs in a pre-biotic soup) won’t even exist!

Homochirality does not only indicate design in the non-functional sense (the way coins all-heads indicate design), homochirality indicates design in the functional sense as well. Without homochirality, the ability for proteins to fold, probably the ability to read DNA, would not be possible. The chicken and egg problem is that life is not possible if homochirality is absent, and homochirality is not possible if life is absent. The homochirality problem is only the first round in a billion round boxing match between the IDists and Darwinists, and it seems almost at every round the Darwinists will be knocked out or at best score a draw.

Let me illustrate other forms of implicit embedded specifications that are possible with coins. Suppose we added a white label with a number (from 1-500) and affixed those labels to one side of each coin in order to identify a particular specification. For example I’ll put a white label “1” on the head of one coin, a white label “5” on the tail of another, etc. until I use up all 500 labels on 500 coins. Suppose I did this in a random fashion for the first 250 coins, and then repeated the pattern of the first 250 coins on the remaining 250 coins. Sequentially it would look like:

coins 001-250: H T H T T H T T H T T T H H H H H T T…
coins 250-500: H T H T T H T T H T T T H H H H H T T…

If I subject the coins to a random chance process like shaking them in a bag and pouring them on a table, we know four of the embedded specifications will not emerge, practically speaking:

1. all-coins heads
2. all-coins tails
3. all coins with white labels up
4. all coins with white labels down

We can then add more labels of different colors or fonts to the coins until we run out of places to paste them on the coins. This illustrates a method of embedding more specifications on the coins which will help rule out the chance hypothesis if we ever saw them:

1. all coins heads
2. all coins tails
3. all coins white labels up
4. all coins white labels down
5. all coins red labels up
6. all coins red labels down

Now an important point: design detection is possible only if there are only a few recognizable specifications just like there is limited room to paste labels on the coins. If humans could recognize 2^500 possible specifications, there would be no hope of detecting design in a 500-coin configuration — but we know that can’t happen. How many specific 500-digit patterns do you think a human can remember? It is the fact that we can only recognize a limited number of specifications that makes design detection possible. Humans can only store a limited number of specifications in their minds, and this forces humans to think in like-minded ways. This is why to recognize design is to recognize the products of a like minded process.

Like coins, biology is rich with implied embedded specifications. Homochirality is one example of such a specification, but homochirality is only the tip of the iceberg. The other embedded specifications in biology are just not so easy to see, but the embedded specifications are there if you are willing to find them. If we were able to find even one (like homochirality) we have hope of finding more.

A system that conforms to an embedded specification evidences specified improbability, and a system that evidences specified improbability evidences design.


1. HT Neil Rikert for inspiring this discussion (even if unwittingly)

2. The physical coin patterns that conform to independent specifications can then be said to evidence specified improbability. I highly recommend the term “specified improbability” (SI) be used instead of Complex Specified Information (CSI). The term “Specified Improbability” is now being offered by Bill Dembski himself. I feel it more accurately describes what is being observed when identifying design, and the phrase is less confusing. See: Specified Improbability and Bill’s letter to me from way back.

3. Is the Intelligent Designer of life really like-minded to humans? I suspect He made designs in a way humans could recognize. He is not completely like-minded with humans (he can surely remember more specifications than us). Rather, He made designs which could be recognized by the relatively humble minds of humans. I do think in some way He is like-minded to us, but his mind is far beyond anything we can comprehend. He could have chosen to make the designs in biology undetectable. It is evident he has not done so, but went to great lengths to make sure those willing to search out design with all their heart and all their mind will find it.

Charles, I felt your question was substantive enough that it deserved a substantive response. I know other readers likely had the same question so I just finished an essay I'd been working on for a while to that effect. https://uncommondesc.wpengine.com/chemistry/relevance-of-coin-analogies-to-homochirality-and-symbolic-organization-in-biology/ Sal scordova
Sal, we can use similar arguments to support the hypothesis that the universe was also designed and not the result of chance. We can ask, for example, why are all the electrons in the universe identical? There is an infinite number of possibilities for the mass and charge of any particle. There is no place for materialists to hide. Game over. Mapou
The decoupling of the symbols from the underlying material/medium is critical to all forms of communication. Indeed, communication is impossible without it. The only reason DNA can carry information is because the sequence of nucleotides is not determined by the physical structure of the nucleotides. The only reason text can convey information is because the symbols are separate from the paper and ink. This is why (and I'll say it again) a law-like process can never -- even in principle -- result in large amounts of meaningful information. As a result, the only game left in town for the materialist is chance.* ----- * Unless, of course, chance is not a valid explanation, in which case they've got nothing. Sorry, couldn't resist. :) Eric Anderson
Sal your on fire! Great run of posts
Thanks for the kind words. scordova
Sal your on fire! Great run of posts butifnot
what prevents homochirality?
The natural tendency of amino acids in non-living matter is to go into the heterochiral state (50% L-amino acids). This is because of thermal effects and quantum mechanics. In living matter, there is a lot of machinery used to create homochirality and maintain it. When something dies, it starts to lose its homochirality. http://www.evolutionnews.org/2012/05/homochirality_i059531.html scordova
and homochirality is not possible if life is absent.
Why is this so? If something is dead/dies/inanimate, what prevents homochirality? Is homochirality "alive" in some sense? Not arguing, just asking. Charles
Hi Sal, To understand sequences you should look into non-transitive and transitive game. In non-transitive game (like coin throwing or Humble-Nishiyama Randomness Game or non-transitive dice) some sequences cycles more often, so the odds of a sequence coming out first is more than others, but the probability of any sequence remains the same, and I might add this is not 'Jargon bluff' :-) Of course I don't think others will agree that some sequences cycle more often than other , but that's a fact! selvaRajan

Leave a Reply