Internet Goosing the Antithesis

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Irreducible Complexity Impossible

This is cross-posted from, written by Kevan Wang (MrSpooky).

I was sitting myself down for some delicious, delicious thai food this evening after a good day's work teaching in my Philosophy of Atheism class when an idea suddenly struck me. I mulled it over, sorted it out, and with an "OMGWTF" I scribbled it down in my notepad on my laptop. I'm glad I did.

Such catharses come to me occasionally, but sadly most are relegated to oblivion because I forget to write them down. Such a terrible, terrible shame.

I was pondering one problem that I've been trying to tease apart for the longest time, one of my favorite topics really. It was pseudoscience, namely, Intelligent Design.

A good chunk of ID is predicated on a methodology of presenting examples of "Irreducible Complexity." That is, "so-and-so is immensely complex in its components are such that the removal of one component would render it useless." That is, this IC system is complex in a manner that it can't be explained via natural law: it can't have arisen by evolution. When you boil it all down, IC as a whole predicates itself on the premise that so-and-so is INEXPLICABLE, and concludes that an intelligent agent must be at work (a deity of some sort).

There are many problems to this approach, God of Gaps and all that, and there's always George H. Smith's argument that "the supernatural is no explanation, it merely asserts the futility of an explanation." These are indeed broad and important points, but I'd like to present a more specific approach today in what I hope will be a good and final criticism of IC.

Remember that methods which seek to demonstrate "Irreducible Complexity" are based on the idea that a certain system is INEXPLICABLE. We shall refer to this as "the Principle of Inexplicability." It's not merely that so-and-so is extraordinarily difficult to explain, or that an explanation is not known at present. If this were so, one should be seeking an explanation in the first place rather than jumping to this conclusion of "Intelligent Design." Without the premise of conclusive inexplicability, ID merely becomes a "here there be monsters" on our scientific map of reality. It becomes at best a placeholder for the unknown.

Barring the nigh impossibility of proving a negative (as is known for those familiar with the Burden of Proof), a more intrinsic problem lies within the heart of IC.

For any good idea to be considered "scientific," it must in principle be falsifiable. Is this Principle of Inexplicability falsifiable? If it is falsifiable, then there exists the potential for an explanation. Ergo, the Principle of Inexplicability, by the very principles of science, must be a tentative claim. This renders the IC system not so inexplicable at all, and science must do as it has always done: experiment, discover, critically examine, and hopefully tease out an explanation soon. IC has no bearing on science if it is falsifiable.

What if the Principle of Inexplicability is NOT falsifiable? In principle, an IC system can then be proposed and the conclusion of ID is much closer to being a genuine conclusion. However, by sacrificing falsifiability for coherence, the ID scientist has also sacrificed his ability to refer to his hypothesis as "scientific."

This, I propose, is the PRIMARY dilemma in the IC camp. In order for IC to be scientific, it must be falsifiable. However,in order for IC to be tenable, it must be strong in its treatment of the Principle of Inexplicability and hence UNfalsifiable. Each of these possibilities the IDer turns to renders his argument moot. If he chooses to go the way of making IC scientific (and hence falsifiable) he sacrifices his ability to make his claim of inexplicability in the first place. If he chooses to go the way of making IC a tenable proposal for ID, he renders his argument unscientific.


1. Before the proposal of IC systems can be made, one must accept the premise of the Principle of Inexplicability (that this system is not merely "currently unexplained" or "difficult to explain," but rather that such a system cannot be explained AT ALL).

2. If one accepts the Principle of Inexplicability, IC is unfalsifiable and hence unscientific.

3. If one makes the Principle of Inexplicability falsifiable, they sabatoge the Principle itself and hence IC is no longer tenable.

4. Therefore, given all the possibilities, an IC system cannot exist.

Post a Comment


At 11/03/2005 12:28 PM, Blogger Aaron Kinney declaimed...

I would love to see what Behe would and the Discovery Institute would have to say about this entry.

At 11/03/2005 1:21 PM, Blogger Zachary Moore declaimed...

I can picture steam pouring out his ears...

At 11/03/2005 2:17 PM, Blogger UberKuh declaimed...

How can I sign up for this Philosophy of Atheism class??? Is there a distance learning option? What if I pay double tuition?

At 11/03/2005 2:41 PM, Blogger Kevan Wang declaimed...

Well hey, if you're in the Berkeley area you can always drop by. I'm planning on teaching for as long as I'm a student here (two more semesters).

So far I think I'll need to bone up a bit on my Popper before I make it into a professional philosophy paper.

At 11/03/2005 3:54 PM, Blogger Francois Tremblay declaimed...

I'm not sure I follow the reasoning. The PI is falsifiable : if you're able to find an explanation. When you find such an explanation, then you know PI is false. And we already have such an explanation : Neo-Darwinism.

On the other hand, I'm pretty sure that PI contradicts the very nature of the scientific method. If there are PIs, then what's the point of looking for explanations ? "God did it".

At 11/03/2005 4:12 PM, Blogger Zachary Moore declaimed...

That's the point of Kevan's argument: Creationists who hold to Irreducible Complexity are forced to choose between admitting that IC is nonscientific or accepting neo-darwinism as the null hypothesis.

Not a very comfortable position.

At 11/03/2005 5:13 PM, Blogger Aaron Kinney declaimed...

Uberkuh, you may be in luck. I know you mentioned the BART in one of your blog posts, and Kevin teaches at Berkeley. So you may be able to commute to the campus to take the class!

At 11/03/2005 9:24 PM, Blogger UberKuh declaimed...

Thanks, Aaron! I apologize for taking so long to see your post. Kevan contacted me, though, so it's all good.

At 11/03/2005 10:36 PM, Blogger RichieGB declaimed...

I like this argument, however I suspect that the ID'ers can too easily call it scientific by falling back on "God of the Gaps", as you put it. After all, ID only seeks to replace what science has not *yet* solved with God. I would think ID will abandon whatever is falsified by science and just hang on to what is not yet known.

No matter how far science goes, I still don't fathom humans understanding every working of the universe without opening new questions with each step. This in itself is the IDer's wet dream.

At 11/03/2005 11:01 PM, Blogger Francois Tremblay declaimed...

God of the Gaps is not an argument. It's an admission that you've given up on reason.

At 11/04/2005 2:18 AM, Blogger Kevan Wang declaimed...

Note to self: Enunciate the "here there be monsters" point.

At 11/05/2005 6:29 PM, Blogger breakerslion declaimed...

The IC argument is in itself, a fallacy. I paint you a picture with artificial boundaries, like a box. Then, after putting you in the box, I chortle, "HA! you are in a box!" Example: The mousetrap reduces to a rock and a throwing arm. The rest is bullshit.

At 11/09/2005 5:53 PM, Blogger Jim Arvo declaimed...

I fully agree that ID is necessarily either unfalsifiable (and, hence, unscientific), or simply a fancy label for "unknown". Yet ID advocates invoke the notion of "irreducible complexity" as the ostensibly scientific linchpin of their theory. They seek to identify biological mechanisms with this property (as you put it): "...the removal of one component would render it useless." But you go on to say "That is, this IC system is complex in a manner that it can't be explained via natural law: it can't have arisen by evolution."

This may seem like a very small nit to pick, but I believe you've lost a subtle but important distinction here. When you say "that is" in the comment above, it seems to imply that IC is the *same* as something that requires a supernatural explanation. In fact, what the ID community claims is that IC *implies* supernatural design.

I believe the distinction is important for the following reason. The notion of IC is actually coherent (albeit useless). It's trivial to create a device that will fail upon removal of any given part. In fact, countless machines have this property, as well as many biological processes. The question is, "So what?" To the ID community, this immediately warrants a jump to the conclusion that natural selection cannot explain it, followed by another huge jump to the conclusion that it must therefore be supernaturally designed. Neither jump is warranted, of course.

What the ID advocates invariably miss is that biological processes need not appear all at once. Like an archway made of bricks, the structure or process may rely on scaffolding to erect it. Once the scaffolding is gone, the structure is indeed "irreducibly complex" in that each component relies on all the others. In the realm of biology, the "scaffolding" may consist of molecules & mechanisms with dual purposes. As selective pressures change, the previous "purposes" of any given component may disappear, thus removing part of the scaffolding.

At 11/14/2005 12:04 PM, Blogger Mr. Parsons declaimed...

Hello ex-Christians,

You have erected a straw man to knock down by generating a false definition for the term "Irreducible Complexity" and then debunking it. IC only defines an organic system that cannot work without a full set of components from the very beginning.

Your "scaffolding" theory is arguing from ignorance. If you can prove that the scaffolding exists or existed, then you will have a valid argument...but where did the scaffolding come from? So far your theory only reveals a designer of the scaffolding...and your presumption of "life just spontaneously generated "ex nihilo" is implausible and I think Intelligent Design is a better theory.

What ID advocates want is to speak freely in the scientific community. Let intellectual freedom reign and science seek truth wherever it may lead. Let them not be censored by those who are prejudiced against God. If you are right and there is no God, what have you to fear? Your desire to oppress and censor goes against the first amendment of the constitution.

This is my first time posting here, and it makes me sad to see people who have been lured away from God by hypocritical liars (both "Christian" and non-). However, I am not surprized because the birth of was prophesied by Paul nearly 2,000 years ago:

"The Spirit clearly says that in later times some will abandon the faith and follow deceiving spirits and things taught by demons. Such teachings come through hypocritical liars, whose consciences have been seared as with a hot iron."
- 1 Timothy 4:1-2

Thank you all for increasing my faith by confirming the accuracy of prophesy in scripture.

At 11/14/2005 2:33 PM, Blogger Kevan Wang declaimed...

Step 1: Totally ignore the philosophical argument in the main post.
Step 2: Accuse others of making Straw Men while constructing your own.
Step 3: Profit!

At 11/17/2005 4:51 PM, Blogger Anomaly declaimed...

Mr. wang,

Did I hear you correctly? YOu actually teach a course called philosophy of atheism? If so, I am so totally psyched about the prosepect of atheism being taught directly, much like philosophy of religion, rather than merely relegated to bits and pieces representations only within other philosophy classes.
Didn't you encounter resistance from the powers that be? How does the student population typically react? Are you ever the target of extreme fanaticism? And what does your syllibus consist of?

At 11/18/2005 12:47 AM, Blogger Jim Arvo declaimed...

Well Mr. Parsons, one of us is clearly jousting at straw men, and I don't think it's me. First, the only substantive difference between your definition of IC and mine is that you added the words "from the very beginning". The beginning of what? The organism (i.e. phylogenically)? If so, then you've added nothing, because that was implicit in the original definition. You can't mean the beginning of the species (i.e. ontogenically), can you? If so, then you are postulating something that is completely untestable; and this is NOT what is intended by ID advocates in any case.

You call my "scaffolding theory" an argument from ignorance. You not only misapply the term, you also miss the point. It is a way to see that the central dogma of ID is specious, as it simply ignores important possibilities; possibilities that are not only biologically plausible, but have been documented in other cases (e.g. the formation of the mammalian ear from the reptilian ear). An argument from ignorance would be something like this: "I cannot think of a way that natural selection could carry this out, so god must have done it." Attempting to CONCLUDE something from a LACK of knowledge is an argument from ignorance. In contrast, rejecting a dogmatic claim because it ignores a valid possibility is sound.

Mr. Parsons "If you can prove that the scaffolding exists or existed, then you will have a valid argument..."

If I could prove that the scaffolding existed, it would be a concrete demonstration of how the given structure came about through natural selection. Without the specifics of the scaffolding, it is merely a way to highlight that ID is either an argument from ignorance (if phrased in one way), or an example of special pleading (if the evidence of analogous scaffolding is simply ignored).

Mr. Parsons "but where did the scaffolding come from? So far your theory only reveals a designer of the scaffolding..."

I've discussed this at some length in other posts, so I'll be brief here. First, I hope you understand that the word "scaffolding" is a metaphor. It refers to components whose presence would add redundancy to a structure or mechanism. IC proponents, including Behe, consistently overlook the role of redundancy and dual-purpose structures, and the utility of barely-working structures. As environmental pressures change, the value to the organism of various structures can also change, ultimately removing redundancy and/or dual-use structures. There is concrete evidence of such scaffolding in some biological mechanisms, and it's quite easy to see how they might also explain all the examples given by Behe. Thus, not ONLY is it arguing from ignorance to conclude that IC implies a designer (for HOW ELSE could it have happened?), but it overlooks VERY CONCRETE possibilities. Thus, I find it difficult to take ID seriously.

Mr. Parsons "...and your presumption of life just spontaneously generated 'ex nihilo' is implausible and I think Intelligent Design is a better theory."

Thank you for sharing your opinion. As for me, I do not make the presumption you suppose. Neither do I make the immeasurably more fantastic presumption that you make; that of a designer. You see, you simply replace one riddle with a much much bigger one.

Mr. Parsons "What ID advocates want is to speak freely in the scientific community."

You've raised this red herring elsewhere. Who is not allowing you or anybody else to speak freely? Are you suggesting there is some kind of a conspiracy to silence ID advocates? Anybody with some evidence, or even an interesting testable hypothesis can get a fair hearing in the scientific community. But if you come empty handed, you will probably be ignored. Is that unreasonable?

Mr. Parsons " makes me sad to see people who have been lured away from God by hypocritical liars..."

You've also leveled this charge elsewhere, and I'll respond again as I did before. Calling someone a liar is a very serious charge in my book. Who, exactly, are you accusing of being a liar, and what evidence do you bring?

At 11/21/2005 1:10 AM, Blogger Kevan Wang declaimed...


I'm sorry I haven't responded sooner. Busy and all that.

While it would've been rather nice to get in the papers due to being stoned by some evangelicals, here in California we don't get too big of a population of such. The response has been a bit of a "be careful" and "this will impact your future given our current cultural climate." I appreciated the warnings of my peers and instructors, but I felt this atmosphere was what necessitated a critical look at religion in the first place.

There hasn't been any real opposition, and there haven't been any terribly evangelical Christians in here. Most are from more liberal sects. However, there is ONE guy who sits in the back who criticizes quite a bit, but this is a function more of the limitations of a verbal lecture. It's very hard to describe the specifics and nuances of philosophy verbally. I'm able to cover quite a bit, though, and in all honesty I've seen such questions arise mainly out of a loss of perspective.

So really, everything is peachy keen. Thanks for being interested!

At 11/21/2005 1:16 AM, Blogger Kevan Wang declaimed...

Oh yes, I forgot:

In regards to the topics in the course, I tend to focus most on Natural Theology rather than Revealed (after all, I don't accept the Bible as a valid premise at all). I start off by setting out definitions (Positive/Negative Atheism, Agnosticism), then move on to a basic debunking of Revealed theology. I then move on to the ontology of human thought (i.e. Reason VS Faith and why Faith is impossible as an epistemic procedure). Afterwards, I move on to classic Natural Theology, i.e. Necessary Being Arguments, First Cause Arguments, Design Arguments.

Right now I'm covering Science & Religion, in particular evolutionary biology as a model of how God isn't a necessary postulate, and is in fact an irrational one. This will lead to "God of Gaps" of course.

Finally, I'll wrap up with a bit of ethics and some existentialism.

At 11/27/2005 3:35 PM, Blogger Adam Omelianchuk declaimed...

I think there is some confusion here in the term "inexplicable" that arises with trying to jam IC into a one to one correspondence with "inexplicability." IC simply argues that an object in question could not have arose from slight, gradualist modifications over a long span of time. Thus the "inexplicability" refers to Darwinian natural selection. IC is falsifiable if it can be shown, by Darwinian processes, that such a supposedly IC object came to be.

IC is a subset of specified complexity which means that whatever pattern in question is best explained as being the result of intelligence, not chance. To assume that intelligence could never be a plausible explanation, or that IC is inherently incorrect, is to assume that Darwinian natural selection is in the gaps. Which one is the more falsifiable? It doesn't seem to be Darwinism, but rather ID.

At 11/30/2005 3:10 AM, Blogger Jim Arvo declaimed...

Adam said "IC simply argues that an object in question could not have arose [arisen!] from slight, gradualist modifications over a long span of time."

That is a useless definition as there does not seem to be any means of such a demonstration, even in principle (EVEN if it were actually true). Behe's definition actually makes more sense, as it can (at least in principle) be demonstrated that something is IC simply by showing that each part is necessary for the whole to operate. Of course, it's the next step where the theory then falls down: i.e. demonstrating that such a thing is inaccessible via a sequence of small independently beneficial changes.

Adam: "Thus the 'inexplicability' refers to Darwinian natural selection."

But it is only creationists who feel it is "inexplicable," and without proof or even evidence. There are biologically viable mechanisms that explain how such structures could arise via natural selection, and even very specific "IC" structures with a very clear evolutionary history that shows that such things actually HAVE been formed gradually (again, the mammalian inner ear).

Adam: "IC is falsifiable if it can be shown, by Darwinian processes, that such a supposedly IC object came to be."

I agree that IC is falsifiable when applied to a specific structure. In fact, it has already been falsified in the case of the mammalian inner ear, which is/was IC in Behe's sense. And examples such as Behe's mouse trap have also been resoundingly falsified. Moreover, there are extremely plausible scenarios for falsifying Behe's other examples, and concrete evidence that already casts doubt on them (e.g. much simpler flagella than Behe was aware of).

Adam: "IC is a subset of specified complexity which means that whatever pattern in question is best explained as being the result of intelligence, not chance."

"Specified Complexity" is another question-begging term. In what sense is "result of intelligence" a "better explanation" than evolution? (NOTE: The term "chance" that you used is a red herring. Evolution is not "chance"--it's the antithesis of chance.) Does it make predictions that can be tested? Is the explanation in some way "simpler" than the phenomenon it "explains"? I think not, on both counts. On the other hand, evolution rests upon comparatively simple principles, each of which can be observed to be in operation today, and it makes myriad predictions, such as the existence of specific pseudo-genes (e.g. olfactory receptors in dolphins), the rate of mutations in junk DNA, the stratification of fossils, the existence of intermediates (such as ambulocetus, or "walking whale"), the existence of vestigial structures (e.g. fully formed wings in flightless beetles, gooseflesh in humans, the snake and whale pelvis), and the geographic distribution of species, to name just a few.

Adam: "To assume that intelligence could never be a plausible explanation, or that IC is inherently incorrect, is to assume that Darwinian natural selection is in the gaps."

Who is making any such assumption? Those are straw man arguments. I, for one, do not find ID to be a plausible explanation because 1) it posits INFINITELY more than it explains, 2) it makes *no* predictions of any kind, which means that 3) it is untestable, and finally 4) there is no credible evidence to support it, aside from a PERCEIVED lack of alternative explanations (which is an incorrect perception at that).

Adam: "Which one is the more falsifiable? It doesn't seem to be Darwinism, but rather ID."

You argued above that IC is falsifiable, and I agreed that is (and has been). However, you gave no hint as to how you would falsify ID in general. No matter what we observe, ID can simply assert "it was the creator's will." On the other hand, evolution would be falsified (or at least put into extreme doubt) with the discovery of a reptilian or mammalian fossil in the pre-Cambrian strata, or by the discovery of a non-DNA-based reptile, or a mammal with no junk DNA or pseudo-genes, or two morphologically related species based on radically different proteins. There is a virtually limitless list of such things that could easily refute evolution; but these things are never found.

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