Irreducible complexity is evidence of design.


Here is my debate with Belle.  The resolution is “Irreducible complexity is evidence of design”.  It was a true privilege to have this discussion with her, and I feel the debate has overall been very informative.  Belle does not hold the view of Intelligent Design.

Con: Tim (instigator)
Pro: Belle (contender)

 

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ROUND ONE
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Tim [Con]: One of the major arguments from the Intelligent Design camp is that irreducible complexity is evidence of design.

Here I should like to focus on this one major argument which the ID camp seemingly bases itself — the idea that “irreducible complexity is evidence of design”, which I believe to be a false assumption.

You would consider the way pebbles are arranged on a beach designed, if of course you had completely no understanding, at that given time, of how, naturally, the beach could have been formed. That is because it is completely statistically impossible for each bit of sand to come together in such a way to form a coastal stretch in that formation.

But the fact that sand is arranged in this surprisingly miraculous manner does not immediately point toward design, even if we are not armed with the knowledge on how to reduce it yet. If this very same concept of ID were to be used in science centuries ago, we would never find out how nature works, at all. Anytime we see something seemingly irreducibly complex, we would hasten to the conclusion that “The designer did it”. Yes, it’s the classic “God of the Gaps” argument — now changed to “the Intelligent Designer of the Gaps”.

If ID wishes to call itself a scientific theory, it must provide testable explanations, not untested hypotheses. IC does not imply design, it is at best simply a criticism of evolution.

Today it can be shown that beaches are formed by gradual, natural processes. The aforesaid argument for ID therefore fails. Irreducible complexity is not evidence for intelligent design — the argument simply does not hold water.

Belle [Pro]: While my opponent has offered an excellent argument as to why apparent irreducible complexity is not evidence of design, this does nothing towards proving the contention, since he also shows that the arrangement of pebbles on beaches are not, in fact, irreducibly complex.

I would agree with him that most ID arguments assume irreducible complexity where none is in fact found; however that doesn’t mean that *if* irreducible complexity is found that it doesn’t indicate design. There is a difference between that which actually *is* irreducibly complex (say, a laptop computer) and what simply appears to be, but isn’t (like your beach or the human eye).

The fact is, timcooley has offered evidence of something that is not irreducibly complex (as he has, in fact, reduced it before our very eyes!) and from that concluded that irreducible complexity doesn’t indicate design. However, if something actually *couldn’t* have been functional in a partially formed stage, and yet it is functional now, it had to have been designed. Extremely complex things *don’t* simply pop into existence. While there is often trouble distinguishing between things that actually are irreducibly complex and things that only appear to be so, that doesn’t change the logic of the argument.

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ROUND TWO
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Tim [Con]: Thank you for taking the debate.

My opponent has raised a good point that I have indeed used a ‘reducibly’ complex example. I do not deny that I have done so. However, something as complex as a beach would have once be considered by ID proponents as ‘irreducibly’ complex. It was my earlier intention to state that IC is an argument from incredulity, and therefore “does not hold water”.

I shall here address the logic of this argument. My opponent has said that “if something actually couldn’t have been functional in a partially formed stage, and yet it is functional now, *it had to have been designed*.” [emphasis mine]. This is untrue.

First, it is important for the both of us to have the same definition of ‘irreducible complexity’. Judging by your quote above (especially when you mentioned a ‘partially formed’ stage), I assume that you define ‘irreducible complexity’ as something along the lines of “the characteristic of a system of well-matched, mutually interacting parts performing a specific function, in which the removal of any one of the parts causes the system to cease functioning.” It is my understanding that this is the standard ID definition for IC, as given by Behe’s mousetrap analogy. Please let me know if this is not your definition of IC as I do not intend to attack a strawman.

But irreducibly complex systems can be a result of undirected processes. A bacterial flagellum, for instance, may be considered irreducibly complex (removing any one of the parts would likely cause the system to cease functioning). However, this by no means proves design. As we know, evolutionary refinements could easily explain the “irreducibly complex” bacterial flagellum. The system when broken down may not be functional as a whole, but still functional independently. The fatal flaw committed by the ID proponents is to assume exactly that which you had assumed — that irreducible complexity can only be explained by design. I hope I have shown you here that IC simply does not indicate design.

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Footnotes

IC: “a single system composed of several well-matched, interacting parts that contribute to the basic function, wherein the removal of any one of the parts causes the system to effectively cease functioning.” 1
Michael J. Behe, Darwin’s Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution, Simon & Schuster, 1996, 39.

Belle [Pro]: “But irreducibly complex systems can be a result of undirected processes. A bacterial flagellum, for instance, may be considered irreducibly complex (removing any one of the parts would likely cause the system to cease functioning). However, this by no means proves design. As we know, evolutionary refinements could easily explain the “irreducibly complex” bacterial flagellum. The system when broken down may not be functional as a whole, but still functional independently. The fatal flaw committed by the ID proponents is to assume exactly that which you had assumed — that irreducible complexity can only be explained by design. I hope I have shown you here that IC simply does not indicate design.”

You have done no such thing. Assuming a bacterial flagellum could have evolved in stages, it would not be irreducibly complex at all. Again, I think there is a confusion here between what appears to be irreducibly complex, such as various biological systems proposed by intelligent design advocates and what actually *is* irreducibly complex and couldn’t have evolved at all.

I admit it is quite possible, even likely, that every instance of irreducible complexity proposed by ID theorists is wrong; that not a single one is evidence of irreducible complexity at all. However, it does not follow from that that nothing on earth is irreducibly complex, or that something that is could have evolved. The very definition of “irreducible complexity” is something that could not have developed by stages. If you provide evidence for the stages through which something evolved, you are explicitly denying that it is irreducibly complex. You have yet to show how something that actually *is* irreducibly complex, rather than simply appearing to be so, fails as evidence for design.

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ROUND THREE
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Tim [Con]: “You have done no such thing. Assuming a bacterial flagellum could have evolved in stages, it would not be irreducibly complex at all.”

Actually, by the definition of irreducible complexity proposed by the ID camp, it would be.

Definition of IC *according to its originator*: “a single system composed of several well-matched, interacting parts that contribute to the basic function, wherein the removal of any one of the parts causes the system to effectively cease functioning.”
Michael J. Behe, Darwin’s Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution, Simon & Schuster, 1996, 39.

I am not debating to win. I am trying to prove a point. So if the definition for IC is as you say (as opposed to what Behe said), then admitted I really have no issue with your position, and I shall whole-heartedly agree with you. This “IC” would indeed be some sort of evidence for design — of course, some further questions will surely be raised, such as: how then should ID proponents go about in denoting something as “IC” or not “IC”, when not a single criterion exists? Things may appear “IC” when actually, they’re not. The current definition of IC actually has specific criteria to be met. If some parts are removed from a system and the system ceases to operate, then we have a candidate IC system.

I am not here to muddle up definitions. The definition of IC has clearly been stated by ID proponents, and I fear it is not one to which you are adhering.

Footnotes
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ID: “certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause, not an undirected process such as natural selection.” (Discovery Institute).

Belle [Pro]: There is a simple error that Behe makes in defining irreducible complexity the way my opponent has described. He assumes that one can choose *any* part to disable, and if the structure in question ceases to function, then it is irreducibly complex. However, since evolution is at base a linear process, in order to move from less to more complexity, only one part at a time need change. So while it is true that removing a part at random may well destroy the functioning of a flagellum, it is possible that a flagellum minus a single part can still function.

Example: Assume a flagellum requires parts A,B,C,D, and E to function properly, and further that if you knock out A,B,C or E that the proto-flagellum has no function. However, a structure composed of A,B,C,E and missing D does serve a function, one that is beneficial to the organism (though it need not be the same function that the flagellum serves.) It may appear that such a structure is irreducibly complex, until you hit upon the correct part to disable while still maintaining some function. This does not change the fact that if there were no part that could be removed while maintaining *some* function, that the structure would be irreducibly complex.

Behe also claims that “An irreducibly complex evolutionary pathway is one that contains one or more unselected steps (that is, one or more necessary-but-unselected mutations). The degree of irreducible complexity is the number of unselected steps in the pathway.” (A Response to Critics of Darwin’s Black Box, by Michael Behe, PCID, Volume 1.1, January February March, 2002; iscid.org/).[1]

This is the definition to which I adhere. While my opponent would likely agree that there is no evidence of this in the fossil record or in any living creatures, the fact of the matter is that if such a structure were discovered, either in an organism or in something inorganic, it would have to be considered the product of design. As Charles Darwin himself said:

“If it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed which could not possibly have been formed by numerous, successive, slight modifications, my theory would absolutely break down.”
–Charles Darwin, Origin of Species

Thus while I agree that irreducible complexity is often claimed spuriously, it doesn’t follow from that that actual irreducible complexity, when observed, is not evidence of design.

1. http://www.ideacenter.org…

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ROUND FOUR
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Tim [Con]: I am in complete agreement with you as to how evolution works.

pro: “This does not change the fact that if there were no part that could be removed while maintaining *some* function, that the structure would be irreducibly complex.”

This sounds somewhat like an argument from incredulity, does it not? That’s because it is.

My opponent has chosen to quote Darwin: “If it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed which could not possibly have been formed by numerous, successive, slight modifications, my theory would absolutely break down.”

But I have stated quite clearly in the very first round: “If ID wishes to call itself a scientific theory, it must provide testable explanations, not untested hypotheses. *IC does not imply design, it is at best simply a criticism of evolution.*”

As for Behe’s second “evolutionary” definition, it actually works against him. Behe referred to “necessary-but-unselected mutations” — but what is this really, in evolutionary terms, but a huge self-contradiction? Should I also have to mention that, just as before, the argument still ignores the fact that evolutionary functions can and do change?

And so, as far as the theory of evolution is concerned, both the proposed definitions for irreducible complexity are, in their truest essence, irreducibly invalid.

Belle [Pro]: My opponent claims that I have offered an argument from incredulity but this is most emphatically not the case. I think it would be instructive to go back to our example of the flagellum.

In a highly simplified form, say it has only the 5 parts listed- A,B,C,D,E. Now, say we disable or remove each part in turn and investigate to see whether or not the flagellum functions in some way. If we find that, in fact, a flagellum missing any one of those parts, but possessing the other four, is useless, then we will have found an example of irreducible complexity. This is not a matter of incredulity it is a matter of testable hypotheses. The fact that ID theorists don’t bother to do such experiments before making their claims doesn’t change the fact that *if* they did so, and they found that every possible configuration that would have led up to the final one is unselectable, that they would have an example of irreducible complexity. Remember, I don’t think a single factual claim in regards to irreducible complexity holds water- I don’t think such a case has ever been found.

“Behe referred to “necessary-but-unselected mutations” — but what is this really, in evolutionary terms, but a huge self-contradiction?”

Thats the point. I am arguing here; that, were such a thing found, it could not have evolved naturally and must be evidence of design.

“Should I also have to mention that, just as before, the argument still ignores the fact that evolutionary functions can and do change?”

I did no such thing. In R3 I specifically mentioned that while an earlier structure needs to have *some* function, it need not the be the same one as the final structure.

My opponent still completely misses the point of my argument; namely that irreducible complexity, when found, is evidence of design. He keeps presenting arguments intended to show that irreducible complexity has not been found in nature and on this point I agree with him. However, it doesn’t follow that such could not be found through scientific investigation or that once found it would not indicate some form of design. That is what the resolution states, and that is what I negate.

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ROUND FIVE
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Tim [Con]: There are very clear definitions for Irreducible Complexity.

1. Behe: “a single system composed of several well-matched, interacting parts that contribute to the basic function, wherein the removal of any one of the parts causes the system to effectively cease functioning.”
2. Behe: (Evolutionary definition) “An irreducibly complex evolutionary pathway is one that contains one or more unselected steps (that is, one or more necessary-but-unselected mutations). The degree of irreducible complexity is the number of unselected steps in the pathway.”
3. Dembski: “A system performing a given basic function is irreducibly complex if it includes a set of well-matched, mutually interacting, nonarbitrarily individuated parts such that each part in the set is indispensable to maintaining the system’s basic, and therefore original, function. The set of these indispensable parts is known as the irreducible core of the system.”1

I have thus proceeded to show, by these definitions, that irreducibly complex systems *can* in fact be explained by some other processes other than design. The Pentachlorophenol compound, for example, is irreducibly complex, however, it is certainly not evidence of ID, as the theory of evolution can easily explain it. The resolution states that “IC is not evidence of design” and so I have shown that although something is irreducibly complex, it does not make design evident. My opponent has done nothing but to accuse me that by showing an evolutionary pathway to anything, I am reducing the complexity, therefore the example I have given is not irreducibly complex. However, this accusation is false as the criteria for IC have been strictly set by its proponents to mean something along the lines of indivisibility. Something is “irreducibly complex” if it is: [refer to the definitions as quoted above].

It must be said that my opponent’s decision to define IC as “anything we cannot explain” does nothing for the point of this debate. If we wish to pursue this matter scientifically, we must realise that ID is not an alternative to evolution. My opponent said: “Thats the point. I am arguing here; that, were such a thing found, it could not have evolved naturally and *must be* evidence of design.” [emphasis mine] This incorrectly assumes that if evolution is disproven, intelligent design is the only possible explanation. The fallacy of false dichotomy is blatantly committed.

The Intelligent Design camp must also not fail to take into consideration the things which *are* indeed reducibly complex. If the definition of IC is as you have suggested, then surely they have set themselves in an unfalsifiable position — let’s ignore everything that is reducible, but do a victory dance whenever we find an irreducibly complex system. The whole argument reduces to a classic “God [or Intelligent Designer] of the Gaps”. In other words, “if we can’t explain this system by evolution then it has to be designed.”

But a truly scientifically valid piece of evidence for ID would not merely thrive upon the gaps of the evolutionary theory. It should at the very least seek to explain how, when, what or why.

So if the definition of IC is as ID proponents have proposed, I have demonstrated that IC can indeed come about by undirected processes, therefore IC simply does not suffice as evidence of design. However, if the definition of IC is as my opponent proposes, then this debate loses all that it is worth. I have no real issue with her position, howbeit we are thrown back at square one, in which IC is merely an argument from incredulity or ignorance. In which case, we might as well be but compelled to the conclusion that, IC is, in point of fact, evidence for nothing at all.

Footnotes
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1. No Free Lunch: Why Specified Complexity Cannot Be Purchased without Intelligence. William Dembski pp. 285

Belle [Pro]: Unfortunately, CON has yet again strawmanned my argument. In R3 I explicitly rejected definition one on the grounds that it includes some instances that are not irreducibly complex. Definition two I endorsed. Definition three I will agree to only if the clause “each part is indespensible” allows that if even *one* part *is* dispensible, then irreducible complexity does not obtain.

I never claimed to be an intelligent design advocate; nor did I agree to the definition of irreducible complexity as meaning “anything an ID advocate may have said on the subject”. I specifically defined irreducibly complex as something that *could not* have arisen through an evolutionary pathway.

Onwards…

“This incorrectly assumes that if evolution is disproven, intelligent design is the only possible explanation. The fallacy of false dichotomy is blatantly committed.”

“Intelligent Design” the theory (with all the Christianity and baggage attached) is not what I am advocating at all. There is a dichotomy here but it is not false. Either something is capable of developing gradually, through small changes, or it is not. If it is not, and shows complex function, it must have been designed by someone.

“If the definition of IC is as you have suggested, then surely they have set themselves in an unfalsifiable position — let’s ignore everything that is reducible, but do a victory dance whenever we find an irreducibly complex system. The whole argument reduces to a classic “God [or Intelligent Designer] of the Gaps”. In other words, “if we can’t explain this system by evolution then it has to be designed.””

Again, this is not my position at all. I have not made any claims about the truth or falsity of evolution. My claims in this debate have been purely hypothetical. *IF* something is found, which *could not* have developed gradually, and yet it has a complex function, it is irreducibly complex. This is a perfectly testable claim, at least in theory. Take any candidate for irreducible complexity X and break it down to its constituent parts (A,B,C,D,E). Proceed to knock out the function of one part at a time, while leaving all the others(A,B,C,D; A,B,C,E; A,B,D,E; etc). In this case there are five possible configurations. If none of those configurations can be found to have *any* function whatsoever, then X is irreducibly complex. Note this is not simply a case of “I can’t imagine how this evolved”; it is in fact a case of “this could not have evolved and here is why”. The second is a much stronger claim and much harder to prove, but it is necessary to show irreducible complexity. Once that burden is met, one can indeed say with confidence that the object has been designed.

Even if the burden could never be met- even if no one could ever prove that something were irreducibly complex- the logical relation between irreducible complexity and design would still obtain. According to the resolution, “irreducible complexity is evidence of design”. It says nothing about whether or not irreducible complexity exists in nature, or even whether or not we are capable of proving that something is irreducibly complex.

“if the definition of IC is as my opponent proposes, then this debate loses all that it is worth. I have no real issue with his position, howbeit we are thrown back at square one, in which IC is merely an argument from incredulity or ignorance. In which case, we might as well be but compelled to the conclusion that, IC is, in point of fact, evidence for nothing at all.”

This is not so. While showing that something is irreducibly complex doesn’t tell you anything about the designer, it is necessarily evidence for design. This is not an argument from incredulity or ignorance at all, it is an argument from logic and common sense. Given my definition of irreducible complexity, we *know* that the object could not have developed gradually. Given modern science we *know* complex functional objects don’t spring into existence fully formed. Given these two facts, and confronted with object X the only reasonable conclusion one can make is that of design.

CON has failed to show how an instance of *actual* irreducible complexity is not evidence for design. The fact that some ID theorists define it sloppily, in ways that would include instances that are in fact reducible, does not change the meaning of the term, nor does CON’s accurate critique of ID theorists claiming certain things to be irreducibly complex when they are not.

Many things that aren’t irreducibly complex are claimed to be so, as my opponent has shown. However, this has nothing to do with the relation between irreducible complexity and design. Consider the resolution affirmed.

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