Specified Complexity — It’s Back!

We have a treat for you today, dear reader. At the Discovery Institute’s’ creationist blog we found Answering an Objection: “You Can’t Measure Intelligent Design”, and it was written by Casey Luskin. When he recently returned to the Discoveroids, we wrote Casey Is Back — O the Joy! Casey was given the grandiose title of Associate Director of their Center for Science and Culture — i.e., their creationism operations. Here are some excerpts from his post, with bold font added by us for emphasis, and occasional Curmudgeonly interjections that look [like this]:

Former director of the anti-ID National Center for Science Education Eugenie Scott used to say that without a hypothetical device she called a “theo-meter,” she did not know how to detect if God was at work. Even some scientists who are sympathetic to design arguments have wondered how we can detect design if we can’t “measure design like we measure the amount of some substance in a test tube.”

Ah yes, the design detector. That used to be a hot topic at the Discoveroids’ blog, and then it sort of faded. Perhaps that fading was helped by an old post of ours: The Curmudgeon’s Design Detector. Anyway, Casey is back on that topic. He says:

The answer to these objections is that we test intelligent design in the same way that we test all historical scientific theories: by looking in nature for known effects of the cause in question (in this case, intelligent agency), and showing that this cause (again, intelligent agency) is the best explanation for the observed data. [Ooooooooooooh! Their magic Designer is the best explanation!] If that answer seemed a little bit technical or unclear [Hee hee!], let me explain so that it makes more sense. We’ll see how precise quantitative measurements can in fact help us to detect design.

Casey has a method of precise quantitative measurement of Oogity Boogity? This should be good! He tells us:

Historical scientists who study fields like geology, evolutionary biology, cosmology, or intelligent design can’t put history into a test tube. They can’t measure what happened in the past like we might directly chemically measure the amount of some substance in a solution in the present. That doesn’t mean we can’t use scientific methods to study the past. It just means we have to use different methods in the historical sciences (which study what happened in the past) than we use in the empirical sciences (which study how things operate in the present). To claim that intelligent design isn’t science because we can’t directly “measure it in a test tube” is to misunderstand how historical sciences work, and to apply an unfair standard to intelligent design.

Yeah, yeah — but we’re still waiting to see how we can measure Oogity Boogity. Casey continues:

Historical sciences (like Darwinian evolution and intelligent design) rely on the principle of uniformitarianism, which holds that “the present is the key to the past.” Under this methodology, scientists study causes at work in the present-day world in order, as the famous early geologist Charles Lyell put it, to explain “the former changes of the Earth’s surface” by reference “to causes now in operation.”

Casey keeps including intelligent design in his lists of actual sciences — but that doesn’t actually make it a science. Let’s read on:

The theory of intelligent design employs scientific methods commonly used by other historical sciences to conclude that certain features of the universe and living things are best explained by an intelligent cause, not an undirected process such as natural selection. [Groan!]


For example, mathematician and philosopher William Dembski observes that “[t]he principal characteristic of intelligent agency is directed contingency, or what we call choice.” According to Dembski, when an intelligent agent acts, “it chooses from a range of competing possibilities” to create some complex and specified event. Thus, the type of information that reliably indicates intelligent design is called “specified complexity” or “complex and specified information,” “CSI” for short.

Groan. Casey is repeating stuff from the Discoveroids’ ancient past — like this from nine years ago: Casey Defines “Complex and Specified Information”. Because it’s all repetitious blather, we’ll skip it and go to his final paragraph:

So it’s true we don’t directly “measure” intelligent design in a test tube. But we can use measurements and calculations to detect design. [Yeah, right!] If we calculate and measure that a structure contains more CSI than can arise by the relevant probabilistic resources available for a naturalistic origin of the structure, and we know from experience that intelligent agency produces precisely such CSI-rich features, then we can detect design.

If that didn’t make you throw up, it’s only because we omitted an ark-load of Casey’s earlier text. If you think that he just might have something worth your serious consideration, then click over there and read it all. Carefully. Then get back here and give us your opinion. We’ll keep an open mind.

Copyright © 2021. The Sensuous Curmudgeon. All rights reserved.

16 responses to “Specified Complexity — It’s Back!

  1. Derek Freyberg

    This is mildly interesting, if only because the DiscoTute is here showing a clear split from Hambo and ICR – the DiscoTute wants us to trust “historical science”, presumably because it will lead us inexorably to Intelligent Design, while Hambo has no truck with “historical science”, which he contrasts with the “observational science” that he approves of. Perhaps this is because historical science, per Casey, relies on uniformitarianism; and uniformitarianism, and phenomena like the speed of light being the same in all directions, the rate of radioactive decay being unchanging, etc., don’t really fit with a 6000 year old universe.

  2. When he says “undirected process such as natural selection” I’ll assume he means it in the hyper-literal sense that it is not directed by Stanley Kubrick since he already knows natural selection is directed by natural forces. I don’t think he would play word games since he is an honest guy.

  3. The way that living things produce their structure and functions, determined by DNA, is very different from the way that designers solve their problem.
    It is a difficult problem to arrive at a particular configuration of DNA which will produce a living thing which will fit a particular ecosystem. It is not at all like design. Or, at least, it needs to be seen in what way it is like design: how does a designer go about choosing a stretch of DNA which will produce a vertebrate eye?

  4. Last I heard, nobody had ever attempted to “calculate and measure” CSI either. They simply declare that something has oodles of it.

  5. What do we know about changes in CAI?
    We know that descreases occur spontaneously.
    We know that small increases occur spontaneously.
    We know that humans are not constrained by changes in CSI. (In contrast with conserved qualities
    like mass, energy, entropy )
    We know that it is not constrained in the ordinary processes of life (growth, reproduction).

  6. I miss the old days when Casey would go around to all the blogs and post huge walls of text in the comments sections. And then everyone would take time out of their day to read all of the zillions of links and quote-mines and then immediately convert to Intelligent Design of course. Good times.

  7. Dave Luckett

    He can measure specified complexity? Now we’re getting somewhere! What units is it measured in? The product of the number of interactions between parts and the total number of parts in the system, over time, perhaps? No, that wouldn’t do – what about unused parts? Like, oh, wisdom teeth or an appendix or male nipples in humans, or the vast amount of junk DNA. Surely that would reduce the design inference, no matter how complex the entity. You’d have to correct for redundancy. Some kind of calculation would be necessary. What would that be?

    Where can I read the papers setting out the methods and measurements, with model calculations of the specified complexity of things known to be designed – like, say, the steam engine – compared with those not known to be – like, say, the human brain. Perhaps we could adopt a well-known value of specified complexity, rather as James Watt used horsepower as a unit, and thus say that an amoeba has the specified complexity of, say, fourteen Airbus A380’s, that is, an amoeba’s SC is 14 jets. No doubt the SC of the human brain would need to be measured in giga- or maybe terajets.

    And at what point can we infer design? What number? What value? What’s the threshold? One problem: it is manifest that a steam engine is a whole lot less complex than any living thing, but we know it was designed. Maybe we should do a Fagin, and think it out again.

    Or could it be that Casey hasn’t thought it out at all, and is talking utter tosh again?

  8. I sat down with a young man who argued that you could absolutely measure complexity, who was arguing from Luskin’s conclusions*, and it was a hilariously frustrating experience. He had absolutely no notion of what he was actually saying and was only able to parrot Luskin, and did so very, very badly.

    * I wouldn’t debate a creationist publicly, and tend to avoid online discussions, but sitting down across a table, each of you with a drink in your hand, is a different matter.

  9. Dave Luckett asks

    He can measure specified complexity? Now we’re getting somewhere! What units is it measured in?

    I can’t find it now–and it may be that I am badly misremembering–but I have a vague recollection that some years back this very blog featured a discussion on units of measurement for things like specified complexity.

    IIRC: The proposed name for the base unit of Irreducible Complexity was 1 Behe of IC, which represents the Irreducible Complexity of a single bacterial flagellum.

    As befits the concept, fractions–say, 0.27 Behes–are not permitted; 1 Behe is irreducible! But multiples are of course not only possible but abound.

    Of course, multiples of something like Irreducible Complexity should not be in something simple like Base 10, so Base 7 is used. Thus, 7 Behes of IC = 1 Heptabehe, and 7 Heptabehes = 1 Dembski, &c.

    NB: Irreducible Complexity is not to be confused with Impenetrable Perplexity, which is measured in gls (gigaluskins)

  10. So if Casey does eventually tell us what units he uses for his imaginary CSI and manages to convince himself that a squid has more CSI than a chloroplast, how does that get to the mechanism that the “intelligent agency” (Ganesha?) used to get to a squid? After all, quantum physics reveals a great deal about the mechanism of how matter and energy interact, without any mystical intelligent agency at all. I do hope Casey will get busy and find the mechanism of CSI.

  11. @abeastwood
    Yes, indeed.
    That is what is lacking.
    In just saying that it is designed, that does not tell us what happened.
    I wonder about the smile on the Mona Lisa. I am not satisfied to be told that it is intelligently designed. Indeed,

  12. longshadow

    The answer to these objections is that we test intelligent design in the same way that we test all historical scientific theories: by looking in nature for known effects of the cause in question (in this case, intelligent agency), and showing that this cause (again, intelligent agency) is the best explanation for the observed data. [Ooooooooooooh! Their magic Designer is the best explanation!] If that answer seemed a little bit technical or unclear [Hee hee!], let me explain so that it makes more sense. We’ll see how precise quantitative measurements can in fact help us to detect design.

    The problem with this approach is that if one uses an unscientific theory — such as the “Magic Designer” — as the explanatory mechanism, the result is unscientific twaddle.

    A “Supernatural Designer” can design ANYTHING, by definition of Supernatural. Therefore, all historic observations can be force-fit retroactively into the “Magic Designer” Theory. And as Karl Popper teaches us, the theory that predicts all possible outcomes, predicts nothing useful, and is not falsifiable, and hence is not a scientific theory.

    When you cut away all the “Specified Complexity”/Intelligent Design Oggity-Boogity chaff, and look at the heart and soul of the argument being put forward, it is — unsurprisingly — nothing more than the usual attempts to smuggle religious explanations (which are inherently unfalsifiable, because supernatural entities are not constrained by the laws of nature,) into scientific discourse by camouflaging them as scientific theories.

    No need to debate the minutia of the Specified Complexity arguments; the entire thing is non-scientific for the reasons stated. And that’s where the scientific argument must end.

  13. @lonshadow
    Yes, a supernatural designer can design anything.
    To the effect that a supernatural
    designer is a contradiction.
    To design is to cope with difficulties. A designer works within rules. Art imitates nature and necessity is the mother of in engion. But what is the point of a supernatural imitation of nature? What necessity is there facing the supernatural that leads to invention?

  14. docbill1351

    Luskin used to be fun to kick around when he was a manic Attack Gerbil, rabbiting on under the influence of way too much caffeine. In the good old days you could google “casey luskin ” and google would suggest “is an idiot.” Alas, no more.

    Luskin has devolved into a pathetic, sad little man of dim prospects, as we would say. I imagine him sitting on a bench near the bus station in Seattle, damp from the drizzle, rheumy eyes, skin pasty and unshaven, shoes untied, drinking Thunderbird out of a bottle in a wet, brown paper sack, mumbling, “Cain’t put history in a test tube. No, sirree, cain’t do it, no way no how. Don’t stop thinking about tomorrow ’cause yesterday’s gone, yesterday’s gone! It’s all gone, I tell ya, turtles all the way down!”

    But, hey, I can understand his depression. If only you could measure history, say, by extracting gas from zircon crystals or ice cores. If you could only measure the magnetic history in rocks, something I’d dub “paleomagnetism.” Hmmmmm, if only the former Attack Gerbil had managed to scrape by with a P H Effing D in paleo-freaking-magnetism. But, alas, only a dream. History … gone forever. Rosebud.

  15. No problem, docbill. We’ll always have Paris.

  16. docbill1351

    Back in the Stone Age when we were fighting creationists on the State School Board (Remember Don “Da Flud” McLeroy, the dentist?) The Gerb was on the calendar, so I drove up to Austin to see the idiot in person. I was not disappointed. Imagine an LP of Gish doing his gallop, then cranking it up to 78 rpm. That was Luskin. Machine gun BS like you wouldn’t believe. Man, could the Gerb flap his gums. He took no questions and I never got a chance to shake his paw. He was a piece of work, though. Worth the drive.

    Also worth the drive was dinner at Trudy’s with the Texas science advocates. Trudy’s signature Pitcher Margarita Cocktail (limit 2 per customer) and smoked chicken enchiladas with chipotle cream sauce.