Design Detection and Endless Space

Deutsche Version: Designdetektierung und endloser Raum

Design Detection and Endless Space

Intelligent Design is a controversial theory methodology aiming at identifying features of the universe bearing marks of an agency.  According to Bill Dembski and his fellow design theorists, two conditions must be present before detecting design:

a)      Complexity

b)      Specificity

Complexity is never enough for identifying a designed system: a heap of rocks randomly arranged near a mountain can have an extremely complex shape, yet it is a fully natural feature of nature.


Specificity alone is also not sufficient:  if I randomly select four letters among four hundreds and find the word “h-a-n-d” on my palm, the information is specific, but not complex enough for being the product of design.

But if I choose out forty letters and read “The son of Lothar is of divine origin”, I have good grounds for supposing it is either true, or that someone is playing a trick on me.

For establishing the validity of criterion a),  IDists  try to prove there is no way such a structure could have emerged by chance in our universe.  One obvious problem concerns the well-known ability of natural selection to give birth to extremely complex systems displaying elegant functions.

Here, I shall shove this difficulty aside and take the infinity of the universe into consideration. According to numerous models of the multiverse or the Big Crunch, many cosmologists think there are no boundaries to the space we live in.

And if this is so, each event physically possible is going to happen somewhere due to Chaos Theory and the law of the great numbers.

Frightening examples are the famous Boltzmann’s brains, which are brains which pop into existence without having first evolved.


Even if the mechanism of natural selection were very weak, as extreme proponents of Intelligent Design assert, the most complex biological structures they worship would irremediably come into being within an infinite Cosmos, without any help from an intelligent designer.



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8 thoughts on “Design Detection and Endless Space

  1. Hello Cale, thaks!

    I know that paper but I find the conclusion really dubious.

    According to him, there would be an infinity of complex systems brought into being by chance, but we would be justified in using the design inference to assert they were the product of an intelligence.

    This is a very confused epistemology.

    In the end, I believe that the endlessness of the universe makes every evidential argument based upon a god of the gaps impossible.

    Lovely greetings from Germany
    Liebe Grüße aus Deutschland

    Lothars Sohn – Lothar’s son

    • I think my counterargument would be that appealing to the infinitude of the universe to block design inferences seems to undermine trust in all inductive reasoning.

      Dembski notes in The Design Inference:

      “Call them what you will bubble universes, many worlds, possible worlds there is something deeply unsatisfying about positing these entities simply because chance requires it… …They exist solely to make chance intelligible. And yet, intelligibility is precisely what these posited entities undermine. Unlimited probabilistic resources are a nightmare. They turn Hume’s problem of induction, which in the end amounts to an admission that our inductions might be wrong, into a positive reason for thinking that anything might happen anywhere at any time.”

      I’m not a physicist, so I don’t know whether the strength of the scientific data for the spatial or temporal infinity of the universe is strong or not, but I think the following argument might be sound:

      1. If an actual infinite were instantiated in the physical world then induction could not function.
      2. Induction functions.
      3. Therefore, actual infinites are not instantiated in the physical world.

      I hope I’m making sense!

  2. Kudos for the Futurama reference, we need more of those ;-).
    When you say:
    “Even if the mechanism of natural selection were very weak, as extreme proponents of Intelligent Design assert”
    – you are strongly understating the ID position. Even the most moderate ID proponents (I prefer “Cdesign proponentsists”) have to argue and do argue that the scope of natural selection is *extremely* narrow. And they have to do that because if they don´t, their main argument makes no sense.
    If you study Dembski´s work, he goes as far as claiming that neither natural selection nor any other natural process could ever increase the information content of any system (“law of conservation of information”), new information ALWAYS requires “intelligence”. Fortunately, Dembski is notoriously bad with definitions (and consistency, and math, and honesty, and basic human decency) and his definition of “intelligent agent” is so bad, that one has to include natural selection as an “intelligent agent” under his definition.

    • Yeah but I think that there are truly things in biology which have not yet found a satisfying explanation.

      ID-creationists (I prefer to call them like that 🙂 ) keep saying that if science has not yet explained the origin of a biological system LOOKING designed, then it is evidence for God’s existence.

      Of course everyone knowing all the progresses science has reached over the past centuries knows how foolish this sounds.

      Now I’m going to utter something very blasphemous to your ears 🙂 : I am not sure that natural selection acting on genes is the driving force of evolution.
      I am open to the possibility that in the years to come self-organization, genetic drift and epigenetic factors (and for animals cultural and memetic evolution) played an important role as well.

      • “I am open to the possibility that in the years to come self-organization, genetic drift and epigenetic factors (and for animals cultural and memetic evolution) played an important role as well.”
        – Oh sure, that already happened a while ago! Since the seventies, the question no longer is whether genetic drift is important, the question is only *how* important it was relative to natural selection (I am working on comparative genomics so this is highly relevant for me – I am siding with the scientists like Michael Lynch who say that genetic drift was actually a more significant factor in the evolution of species with small population sizes (like us humans) than natural selection was. There is some very good evidence to support this claim, but no consensus yet.)
        Epigenetic factors are relevant but the evidence currently suggests that they are very unlikely to have long-term consequences (in the species where it has been studied, those factors cannot be stably inherited for a long time, so their influence is relevant but not in the long run).

    • Another random piece of information re epigenetics – most species don´t have the enzymes to methylate their DNA, so epigenetics is irrelevant for them. Most multicellular species do have those enzymes (with notable exceptions, many insects don´t have them for example), but for those, it seems very likely that epigenetics is used as a mechanism influencing short-term adaptation (in Arabidopsis (a plant), epigenetic marks can be stably inherited for 15-30 generations, but not longer than that).
      The research interest in epigenetics currently comes mostly from the biomedical side, because it does have implications for human health (and, curiously enough, even seems to affect sexual orientation!)

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