Copyright May 2001 by George P. Drake
The reader should first review Don Stoner’s commentary on Darwin’s Black Box, by Michael J. Behe, on the Answers In Action web site, <http://www.answers.org/newlook/behe2.html>. The following answers Stoner’s points in detail, and as much as possible, in the order in which he introduced his ideas. The author is aware of the shortcomings of this approach, especially in that Behe’s main points about irreducible complexity in biological organisms receive short shrift. Thanks go to Helen Fryman for suggestions to improve the readability and factual content of this review. The author takes full responsibility, however, for the form, content, and topical order he felt necessary to best respond to Don Stoner’ particular form of presentation.
Criticisms of Behe’s use of the standard mousetrap as an irreducibly complex machine equivocate on terminology such as, “slight modification,” “functional improvement,” “grown,” “plausible,” “possible,” “design,” and “explanation.” They fail to appreciate the majestic scope and sweeping simplicity of Prof. Behe’s argument, its truthfulness and its scientific excellence. It will be shown that arguments used to oppose his mousetrap illustration suffer from category errors and are philosophically untenable. Don Stoner’s recent review of Behe’s idea and Behe’s critics makes a useful contribution to the study of irreducible complexity, and will be used as the basis of these remarks.
Playing devil’s advocate, creationist Don Stoner makes up a story of how a box and stick trap can be “gradually modified” into a standard mousetrap, just as Darwinist materialists make up stories about bugs becoming people by a long chain of subtle “changes.” Thus, Stoner says, the Darwinists will be able to explain away the irreducible complexity of the mousetrap, making the idea a poor apologetic. Since his illustration is so very much like the Darwinist explanation for the diversity of species, it will be useful to hold it up to analysis. Stoner says in his introduction that he will show that the standard mousetrap is not a valid example of irreducible complexity. However, so far as this writer can see, Stoner’s critique fails to invalidate Behe’s example.
THE HEART OF THE MATTER
The type of gradualism envisioned in Stoner’s pathway to a better mousetrap is a strictly physical proposal, which is categorically insufficient, and thus begs the question of how such a machine could, of itself, become modified. The gradualist, materialist explanation fails to account for the immaterial, non-physical parts of the process by which Don Stoner creates or receives a blueprint in his mind and, using active intelligence, manipulates the symbols in the blueprint into different, appropriate categories in order to transform them into a new blueprint of a better mousetrap. The “appropriateness” of the categories into which symbols are classified, the order of which constitutes “information content,” speaks volumes about the purposefulness of an ordered design, and, if original, the creativity of the mind behind it. Thus, Stoner correctly identifies his own naturalist, gradualistic explanation as fantastic (i.e. a fantasy).
Further, while the creation of an ordered design speaks of purpose (the “specified” part of “specified complexity”), a second reality barrier is the motivation of the subject mind when the process of actualizing the symbols into the tangible, physical reality they represent comes about. This requires work, effort, labor, expenditure of resources, and time, and assumes that the blueprint is possible to construct in our physical universe. Suitable materials must be available, sufficient time to do the job, causal agents to do the work, and, according to Einstein, an intelligent mind to relate symbols to the reality for which they stand. (Cf. the “Einstein gap,” the ability of an intelligent mind to transcend the otherwise unbridgeable gap between symbol and reality.)
Stoner states that the only burden of proof required of naturalistic evolutionists is to provide a plausible fantasy story of how something came about, and questions why the Darwinists haven’t done so with the mousetrap conversion. Why, indeed? Stoner thinks they are immune to caring, being immersed in the dogma of evolutionism and humming the mantra of materialism. Could it be also that some of the smarter, more open-minded, non-religious evolutionists are smart enough to see that any particular fantastic sequence that could be proposed will be picked apart at each and every turn for want of cause, available resources, mechanism, and motivation?
Of course, the framework under which evolutionists operate is always geared to non-falsifiable arguments, Darwinist dogma, appeal to authority, and much hand waving and generalities. Given that no example of any change of “species” (a highly dubious and equivocal concept like “race”) can be demonstrated, except that of limited, isolated populations losing genetic information, eventually becoming unable to interbreed, what choice does the poor physicalist have? But, why should evolutionists be granted such an absurdly low standard of proof, which would fail in any other area of human commerce and conversation?
Stoner frustrates both his own gradualist story and his “burden of proof” for the evolutionists idea (possibly on purpose; since it cuts two ways) with his statement that, “the modern mousetrap is obviously a product of design.” Ok, this writer agrees! And, he would assert that a blueprint, (written or mental symbols) some simple tools, wood, regular and spring wire, and a little time and effort by a motivated, intelligent being are necessary to bring one into being. The evolutionist is challenged to bring one into being by any other means.
Later, Stoner comes around and says that, “it is now up to the naturalistic evolutionists to show how these [biological] structures might be gradualistically achieved,” and that even though Behe’s mousetrap is a “poor mechanical illustration” it is “possible that his biological structures might actually be beyond the reach of any gradualistic explanation – either true of fantasy.” Well, if the mousetrap isn’t irreducibly complex in some meaningful sense, and the argument were to fail on that account, why the sweeping statements on complex biological structures? Rather, Behe’s example is not poor at all, just not properly understood. He’s a better scientist than most of his critics. The principle that machines must have some minimum number of parts in order to function was long ago established by John von Neumann, who showed that a self-replicating machine required approximately a minimum of 150,000 parts. Further, designing any machine with the actual irreducible minimum number of parts required to function is always the crowning achievement of engineering design, almost always an exceedingly difficult and laborious task requiring a high level of creative thought for all but the simplest mechanisms.
It’s most probable that any given design attempt for a mechanism which is to perform a certain function will result in more than the irreducible minimum number of parts. Thus, if things came about as a matter of chance, or even by design of a less than perfect engineer, one would expect to see all sorts of superfluous components in the natural world. Yet, the record is that, when properly understood, biological mechanisms (which are the only natural mechanisms!) show the greatest economy of design. Why should the simplest non-biological mechanism be instantly recognized as “obviously” designed, but the addition of a “life principle” to a vastly more complex machine somehow makes it “obviously” the product of random chance?
ANYTHING AND EVERYTHING
By “process of Stoner,” the imaginary gradual changes of form and substance described in his critique, anything could become anything else, hence, everything else, whether natural or artificial. Real objects are not observed to randomly and naturally morph into other objects and with changes of substance to boot. When we see something like that, we call it a miracle (Jesus feeds the five thousand), or recognize it as a process following natural laws (caterpillar becomes butterfly). In either case, it’s easy to recognize the purpose; and one is presented with not only fait accompli, but fait a peindre! God doesn’t “mouse around” with inconsequential changes when He wants to make a point. Stoner’s fantastic story thus lacks credibility, placing it exceedingly low in the list of possible explanations for the appearance of the standard mousetrap. Likewise, any similarly concocted evolutionist scenario about the appearance of different kinds of animals.
If this sort of logic were to be taken seriously in any other field, no criminal, for example, could be convicted of a crime; because he could always tell a fantastic story with a series of small changes to arrive at a scenario which would exculpate him. The computer on which this is being written has a memory storage device, subject to cosmic rays, which bombard its internals, causing electrical disturbance. By a series of “small changes,” this article will change into Hamlet – would you believe? No, it would be more plausible that Shakespeare rose from the dead and typed his play into my computer than to believe that it assembled itself from random bits and bytes! (Because we have historical records of persons rising from the dead, but no corresponding record of any writing of even a paragraph coming into being without a writer.)
1. Alleged “functional improvements” not credible.
For example, the proposed tiny increments of wood to eventually form a base will be evaded by the mouse until it almost completely covers the ground. Any small hole in the base would be as good as no base at all for purposes of burrowing an escape tunnel. The base must be essentially complete and fully functional before it is of any value. In other words, the size, shape and material of construction of the base effectively present a kind of irreducible complexity of their own. But, it begs the question that, by itself, the box and stick mechanism is complete and irreducibly complex.
The second item, a hinge to anchor the box to the base, begs the question that the box and stick don’t need a base to function. That the box needs enough heft to keep the mouse from overturning it will be obvious to the designer in the first place when he makes up the material specification for the box, and doesn’t solve the problem of how the box came into being.
It’s really meaningless to speak of further “changes” until we can account for the first one, and specify exactly how these changes come about. There are problems of causation, information, and materials.
2. Materials of construction.
Much of the gradualist explanation involves pieces of wood unexplainably falling apart or accreting additional mass in just the right places. One could assert that if the wood were so likely to disintegrate, the mouse would have no trouble chewing his way out. Moreover, the same argument applied against the partial base being non-functional can be applied to the box. If a knot fell out to begin “forming” the base, the mouse would simply crawl out the knothole.
Or, consider that the wooden box material somehow becomes transformed into spring steel. Stoner speaks of “increasing the spring strength.” Would any known wood be capable of forming a coil spring that would work in the standard mousetrap? He is challenged to produce an example. Spring steel is a sophisticated material requiring some technology to produce. If anyone finds a steel coil spring in the sand at the beach, he will not jump to the conclusion that it evolved from a piece of wood.
Changing form is one thing. Changing into a different material substance introduces entirely new considerations. The materialist gradualist will object that “real evolution” takes place in the primordial soup, as it were, with available biological materials, and has no need of products of technology. Frequently, the evolutionist will dismiss creationist arguments out of hand over some such red herring.
3. The base – necessary part or a matter of placement?
The base is not part of the machine, as designed. The box and stick are made to be placed onto a flat surface, which could just as well be rock as soft soil. This machine comes with instructions. “For best results, set on a flat rock or other hard surface.” Simply adding a wooden base offers no functional improvement when the machine is used as intended, and thus, offers no motivation for one to form. It would be a true innovation with benefits that could only be envisioned by creative mind willing to overthrow the status quo. Defining new functions, one could now have an irreducibly complex machine with more parts, the extra parts being absolutely necessary for greater functionality.
4. Parts – accessory or necessary?
One must be careful to distinguish between parts of a machine that are absolutely necessary for it to work and things that are accessory to the machine and will be mentioned in the instructions for use of the machine. In Stoner’s example, bait is a useful accessory, and would no doubt be mentioned in the instructions for use; but, the trap will function the same without it if the mouse blunders in and trips the mechanism.
5. Accessories and parts – a matter of usage?
Whether something is a “part” of an irreducibly complex machine or an accessory depends to some extent on the set of functions defined for the machine. How irreducibly many parts are required to build the machine depends on how its function is defined.
6. Equivocal terms.
Stoner’s gradualist story uses equivocation in the same way as materialist evolutionists, and is a good example of what to look out for. When the terms are carefully defined, they tend to saw off the logical limb upon which the gradualist sits; because, it prevents mixing unlike categories. The word “grow” used in Stoner’s story means what, in relation to the dead wood parts of the box? Is the wood not dead? Will it become a tree and destroy the box? A mineral crystal, placed in a solution of the right chemicals can “grow” by adding atoms attracted to the crystal lattice one a time. But, how does dead wood “grow?”
Stoner speaks of “adding” and “increasing,” and “making.” He also uses “we.” So, clearly, none of this is happening by itself; yet, he doesn’t explain how “we” are doing it. If “we” are doing something, it must be a series of conscious decisions “we” make. One supposes that Stoner’s subconscious cannot cope with the illogic of materialist evolutionism and must invoke a causal agent, betrayed in his language, that the evolutionists would ascribe to chance.
Confusion reigns over use of the terms “plausible,” “possible,” and “explanation.” What standard of proof or probability applies to make a story into an accepted explanation, a possible explanation, or a plausible explanation? Gradualist “explanations” seem to require no proof, being non-falsifiable; and, exceedingly low probabilities (<1/10exp150) will do quite nicely, thank you. What standard of proof will the gradualist accept to indicate that something is designed and not accidental?
7. Process of design.
The process of thought by which Don Stoner “improves” his mousetrap is a sophisticated design function performed by a qualified engineer (himself). It relies on a mental blueprint of the standard mousetrap to know the direction of each step and when it is done “evolving.” It wouldn’t know it was done until it arrived at a non-improvable, non-simplifiable design; i.e. one with the sublime quality of irreducible complexity! A posteriori “explanations” such as this story beg the question about whether such mechanisms could arise through natural process. Stoner has not shown that “the standard mousetrap is not a valid example of irreducible complexity.” If he has show anything, it is that items of irreducible complexity are the object of engineering design, represented by intangible symbolism (e.g. a vision of the blueprint). Behe’s example is by no means refuted nor his argument diminished. If anyone thinks the story and its details arose in Stoner’s brain by chance and to no purpose, this writer has a bridge to sell him in Brooklyn.
8. From Whence Information Arises?
What is information, and how does it come into being? No textbook or dictionary definition; let’s think afresh. Clearly, information is more than raw data, and more than the physical parameters of every particle in the universe, as the materialists would have us believe. Data requires a framework for interpretation, a context, and a mind to understand it, to give it meaning. We’re all familiar with the term, “meaningless data.” If data could inform itself, this phrase would be an oxymoron; and, one would have to seriously consider the materialist position.
Data is transmitted as symbols. A mind, or a machine programmed by a mind, consigns each symbol received into a category, a compartment of the mind. This process would be impossible to order unless the mind attributed meaning to each symbol. Without meaning, how would the mind know into which compartment to toss the symbol?
A prime materialist rubric denies meaning in the universe; because to have meaning would be to admit the existence of a transcendent mind. But, symbols don’t inform themselves any more than the physical parameter represented by the symbol can symbolize itself. To say otherwise is to attribute a meaning to the symbol or to categorize the physical parameter with a meaningful symbol. In either case, the atheist shoots himself in the foot. A transcendent mind has to provide context. A mind is transcendent if it can think about thought. It can step outside of itself to understand the thinking process. Indeed, to “understand” something is to “see the meaning” of it. Fascinating how atheists don’t want to admit meaning, hence understanding in anything. So, why should we believe them? “If you won’t believe when I tell you of earthly things, how will you believe when I tell you of heavenly things”
One definition of information would be “data ordered in a meaningful way.” To say it another way, “symbols ordered and categorized to have meaning.” Here the useful definition of “meaning” vis-a-vis symbols would be “correspondence with reality.” Materialist atheists often deny “reality” and other absolutes; but their minds must assign and transmit to us appropriate symbols which have meaning to both themselves and to us to get their point across. They, thus transmit to us information about their thoughts, which could not be found out by dissecting their material brains. Indeed, their thoughts are strange to us, and generally would not occur to a logical theist. Further, they disagree vehemently with our position. Thereby, we know that something has been communicated; and all must admit the possibility of communication, hence, information, else we should all be silent monks.
The process of communication breaks down without both the sender’s mind to assign symbols to meaning and the receiver’s mind to assign meaning to symbols. Information is what is communicated; but, information arises out of the process of interpretation of thoughts by assigning symbols to categories and manipulating them between categories – with logic operators, one supposes. Logic cannot make the crucial identification of symbol with the entity symbolized, however. As Einstein recognized, this is strictly the function of transcendent mind. Information arises out of mind.
9. Continuity vs. quantization of change.
The statement about the story is that each “slight modification must represent a functional improvement over the previous design.” If improvement is defined in terms of function, one could see that in those cases where the change is one of type and not simply one of magnitude, the required degree of change is not an infinitesimal portion of a new part, nor a tiny addition to the old part. The change which represents functional improvement of a new type would have to be described at least as “a new part with impaired functional efficiency.” It would have all the attributes of a fully functional new part, except be missing a non-essential piece, slightly off-size, or the like. The change required is not the “difference that makes no difference,” but a finite, quantifiable, change, recognizable as something new by type or number.
10. Patents & invention.
The above finite differences of type could be quantified by the minimum number of bits of information required for their description. This information, which describes each set of Stoner’s “slight modifications” which add up to a new functional entity not previously extant, describes an invention. All these separate inventions are quite patentable in the world in which the box and stick are the height of technology.
To be patentable, the inventor must convince the patent examiner that his work produced a result that, in view of prior art, was not obvious. It must be “original” and “significant,” not a mere extension of prior art. Originality is determined by the patent search. Significance could relate to the quantified information content, as well as recognized economic advantage in the field of invention. I.e. A “useless” invention would not generally be awarded a patent in the USA.
The examiner knows that the hallmark of invention is creative intelligence. The basis for an invention could be either an abstract concept, which formed the basis for designing a machine or process, or, it could be an astute observation of something that came about accidentally, or as the result of “playing around.” In that case, the creative part involves recognizing the implications of the accident within a particular field of industry, and optimizing the function of the resulting process or machine design at least to the point of “significance.”
Finally, natural laws or processes are not patentable, not because they aren’t designed and useful, with patentable qualities, but because there is no human inventor deserving of the award. (On the other hand, certain plants, and now, genes are granted patents. Biological objects have patentable qualities. The justification for involving human agency seems nebulous.) Patentable inventions are expressly the product of informed, creative human intelligence. In this, the inventor, an economic agent, maintains a different role than the scientist who observes laws of physics or geological formation but cannot secure a patent on them. If natural laws and processes were invented by humans, they would be patentable under the same standards as artifacts and human process descriptions.
Gradualistic, naturalistic explanations, like Stoner’s story, of inventions with high information content (specified complexity) directed to achieve a particular purpose always beg the questions of how the information came to light and how it came to be directed in the particular fashion. Naturalistic explanations never overcome the Einstein gap.
NO APOLOGY NECESSARY
Stoner need not apologize, in his closing remarks, for Behe, nor for generations of truth seekers who came before. His comments are unclear with respect to the identity and nature of God: “historically, men have been too willing to attribute to God anything they did not understand. It has certainly been a step in the right direction to eliminate the host of deity from our explanations for thunder and other elusive phenomena.” Such careless equivocation between The Creator, God of the Bible, the Spirit of All Knowledge, and pagan entities formerly invoked in ignorance of both God and nature is unbecoming to the monotheist. Philosophically, one must distinguish between immediate and ultimate cause. Attribution of natural phenomena to The Creator as the Ultimate, Uncaused Cause, in lieu of more detailed knowledge, would be correct both philosophically and scientifically.
Then, Stoner’s argument is with the invocation of pagan deities; and he should not have dragged a tired, old, red herring about superstitious Christians across the path of discussion. It was precisely those pagan superstitions about God and nature that Christians have endeavored to refute all these centuries. Everyone knows the stereotype of the Christian missionary in the jungle, fighting against every manner of superstition and pagan beliefs. It’s a true stereotype to this day. Only, the “jungle” isn’t just in Darkest Africa. The rain forest has taken over vast swaths of academia, such as biology classrooms.
Now, Prof. Michael J. Behe is a modern scientist whose hypothesis of irreducible complexity stands unrefuted in principle or in detail by his numerous critics. Don Stoner seems to have written his article out of concern that Behe’s simplest example of irreducible complexity might result in a poor witness to skeptics if it was overturned. Yet, Stoner’s critique does not refute the example in any way. His condescending tone and specific remark that Behe “might be right,” is completely uncalled for. This writer contends that attempting to sugar coat the truth for the benefit of skeptics’ knee-jerk emotions just makes it a tar baby for the Christian witness.
BEST EXPLANATION – PLEASE!
Depending on the standards used to evaluate the models and the quality of data, there might be no one best theory in a particular situation. Frequently, more than one model will find data sufficient to give it a gloss of plausability. Science isn’t as airtight as advocates of certain theories and lines of research would make it seem. Worldview and basic assumptions about philosophical issues determine which theories become accepted more than logic and data. What is needed in science is the best explanation, that not only provides a good fit to the data, but is not in logical contradiction to findings in other fields of knowledge and has the economy of simplicity.
Are those who hold out fanciful stories of how, by accident or chaos, exceedingly complex biological creatures came into being, thus adding to the store of knowledge? 150 years ago, when the cell was thought to be a “simple blob of protoplasm,” such a naïve, gradualist explanation could have glossed over the physical issues – at least, until Louis Pasteur disproved abiogenesis. Perhaps a better explanation of the origin and diversity of creatures could be given, now that we have microbiology, genetics, and information science, along with vast improvements in chemistry and physics.
150 years since Darwin and the only missing link is that fossil of a science we call biology! Let’s teach it with fewer philosophical problems, and less conflict with the basic tenets of the aforementioned sciences. Science, properly conducted, is a collegial discussion illuminated by all relevant knowledge and points of view. Looking at scientific journals, today, each researcher is working on such a narrow specialty, he’s forgotten about all the others, and does not bring to bear knowledge from other disciplines to guide his theorizing. A more eclectic, interdisciplinary approach, helped along by some generalists and philosophers offers hope for arriving at the best scientific explanation of how things came to be as they are. But, it will not, by itself, overcome the irrationally held dogmas nor unsound assumptions which characterize our age as much as any prior time. Truth will reveal itself to its humble seeker.
George P. Drake
18 June 2001
[George Drake has received a BS degree in economics from the California Institute of Technology. Comments or questions may be addressed to him c/o Answers In Action.]