Thursday, June 17, 2010

Irreducible Complexity

In this blog I will be discussing an episode of "The Atheist Experience" which is a public access television show that airs in Austin, Texas. You can listen to the relevant show by clicking the blog title, and then choose which format you want to see/hear show #660. On a portion of this episode the hosts had a discussion with a fellow on irreducible complexity. I believe irreducible complexity was made popular by Michael Behe in his book Darwin's Black Box. I will begin by explaining what irreducible complexity is, move to why it is used as an argument against evolution, and then give the argument against irreducible complexity. I will conclude with weaknesses regarding both the arguments for and against irreducible complexity.

What is Irreducible Complexity:

Irreducible complexity describes a system, where if any component of that system was missing, the system would no longer function. The popular example of irreducible complexity is the bacterial flagellum. The bacterial flagellum is what propels the bacteria and is made up of at least a paddle, rotor and motor (this is not mentioning whatever is necessary to compose the motor etc). If any of those three were missing, the bacterial flagellum would no longer be functional.

Why Do People Use Irreducible Complexity as an Argument for Intelligent Design:

It is easy to understand why people think Irreducible Complexity points to intelligent design. Evolution relies upon natural selection to preserve advantageous mutations in an organism; thus allowing the organism to change over a long period of time and eventually becoming a different organism all together. The process of naturalistic evolution is not guided, purposeful or forward looking. I do not think it is necessary to get into the distinction between macro-evolution and micro-evolution at this time except to point out that creationist do not typically argue against micro-evolution.

The argument is that since the bacterial flagellum needs a paddle, rotor and motor at the same time to be functional, then it could not have come about as a result of small mutations over time, because it would not be functional in the state prior to all of the necessary mutations. If something is not functional it is not advantageous and natural selection only preserves that which is advantageous to survival. Therefore, some sort of intelligence which can anticipated work toward the end result of a flagellum is needed.

The Argument Against Irreducible Complexity (at least in this particular episode of Atheist Experience):

The hosts of the show argued that scientist know of systems that have the same parts that the bacterial flagellum has (e.g. the motor) but that is still fully functional (for other uses than what the flagellum does). The argument is that all the parts for the bacterial flagellum could have come from other systems hence the bacterial flagellum is not irreducibly complex. The caller kept saying that the bacterial flagellum as a functioning flagellum is still irreducibly complex as a functioning flagellum, but the hosts argued (I think rightly) that if irreducible complexity is defined so narrowly it is essentially meaningless to discuss.

The Host's argument is like someone arguing that a mouse trap is not irreducibly complex because there are all of these other things that have a purpose and function which have different parts of a mouse trap which could eventually become a fully operational mouse trap which could be combined into a mouse trap.

Weaknesses in the argument against irreducible complexity:

I think there is still one major weakness in the argument against irreducible complexity. those parts that exist in other functioning systems would somehow need to come together to form the flagellum. The atheist would argue that the coming together of the different pieces would be a result of random mutation and then natural selection preserving the mutation which resulted in the pieces coming together to form the flagellum.

However, it must be remembered that random mutation and natural selection cannot work toward an outcome or with a purpose, it can only maintain a random mutation if it happens to give the organism a competitive edge over the other competing organisms. So, the parts of the flagellum which exist in other systems would have to happen to come together in working order due to a chance mutation.

To use the mouse trap example it would be like someone who is blindfolded and who does not know what a mouse trap is having several functional systems in front of him. The systems have the right parts for the mouse trap, but the blindfolded person would need to put together the pieces into a mouse trap without knowing what a mouse trap is and without having the desire that he wants something to catch mice. For more accuracy we will even assume that the person hears a bell go off every time he puts together something other than a mouse trap that is functional. Of course even in my scenario we are dealing with a person and hence an intellect which is not a part of random mutation and natural selection. I think it is easy to see why the atheistic argument against irreducible complexity seems to be a weak one.

The atheist would say that given enough time even really unlikely mutations will occur, and according to them, the time frame is billions of years. I would argue that the amount of time is practically irrelevant given that it is not just mutation that is required but rather mutation (maybe even several mutations) which results in a combining of previously existing separate parts into a new functional system (again without any foresight, or desire). Also it is important to remember that mutations result from a break down rather than a bolstering or addition of the original DNA in the duplicated strand . I intentionally avoided using the words code or information because the hosts on the show argued that DNA is not a code or information. They would almost have to argue that because codes and information originate with intelligence.

Weaknesses in the argument for Irreducible Complexity:

I do not think there is a weakness in the irreducible complexity argument against evolution, but I think there is a weakness when this argument is used to try to prove something beyond some sort of intelligence operative in the universe. In other words, this argument cannot be used as a positive argument for the God revealed to us in Scripture.

The best argument can do is to show not x where x is the unguided force of random mutation and natural selection leading to intelligent life on earth. However, the argument cannot then say not X but A where A is the Triune God. So imagine that an atheist is convinced by irreducible complexity that there is some kind of intelligence operative in the universe - he basically becomes a theist. That "theist" is still a rebel sinner against God who will not bow the knee before Christ without a supernatural work of the Holy Spirit.

I sometimes get the impression that some Christians think if someone can be brought to the point of bare theism that something has been accomplished. However there are plenty of theistic religions (Muslims are even monotheistic) out there, but people in those religions have just as much need of the Gospel as atheists.

I want to be clear, I think there is benefit to showing that evolution is not as solid as secular society would make it appear. However, let us not forget that the real problem is not that people hold to evolution, but that they are unrepentant sinners.

Good resources:

I personally want to recommend the book Debating Design: From Darwin to DNA which is edited by William A Dembski and Michael Ruse.

I would also recommend the website:

Entertaining Strangers

It is Saturday night and my wife calls me from her work. I was expecting the usual after work question, "do you want me to bring home anything to eat?". Instead I was asked a very different question. "There is someone here who needs a place to stay for a couple of days, is it okay with you if he comes home with me? I am pretty sure he is not on any drugs."

what I said was "yes he can stay with us." What I thought was "I do not want another person sharing our 900 some odd square feet." I will be honest having someone in the house with us was hard on us. Still God worked on my heart through the experience.

For the sake of the blog I am going to call our previous house guest Johny. I am generally a quiet introspective kind of person, Johny is not. While I was home with Johny I found that I was having to tell myself several times "Jesus wants you to care for this man." Thinking about what John Piper teaches I began to remind my heart that I would have more joy in God by helping Johny D.

It was still really hard for me to have someone other than my wife in the house with me, but I found that my attitude toward him was changing. I started to feel less annoyed by Johny's propensity to never be quiet and more exited about the opportunities it provided my wife and I to share the Gospel. We were never able to share the gospel start to finish in one sitting, but we were able to lay ground work about sin, all men sinning against God, and Christ was either going to be judged on our behalf or we would be judged. Johny even sat with Carrie and I every night while we did our corporate devotion through Psalms and one night he asked questions about the return of Christ.

Johny's stay at our house was never easy for me and I will be honest when I say I am glad he found a place to rent. Yet, throughout his tenure at our house, I received a contented joy in the Lord that superseded the discomfort. I am thankful that God in his Grace allowed my mouth to say "yes he can stay with us" even though my heart was not where it should have been.

I was further rewarded today when I was reminded of Hebrews 13:2 "Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers for by this some have entertained angels without knowing it."