From The Light Bulb Vol 1:1 (Spring, 2002)
By Casey Luskin
Delving into the writings of intelligent design theorists, one will encounter a large number of terms reminiscent of things out of a nightmare about a failed college math midterm. This intellectually intimidating nomenclature can come in the form of what appears to be esoteric jargon, cryptic acronyms, or to the scholastically slothful, "babel." Two questions we sometimes receive at IDEA are, 1) "Why does intelligent design theory have so much jargon?" and 2) "Can the jargon be explained?"
Skeptics of design sometimes claim that the terms and concepts of intelligent design are meaningless, and merely provide a pseudo-intellectual cover for a baseless theory. Proponents of design respond that a healthy understanding of the theory makes the concepts coherent and logical. Who is right? Do these skeptics simply misunderstand or misconstrue design theorists such as Michael Behe and William Dembski? Or is design just a tower of psuedo-scientific babble? Well, we at IDEA try to take all objections seriously because we feel good scientists listen to their critics--and try to answer them.
First off, intelligent design is often referred through an acronym, "ID." Thus, the "ID movement" often refers to itself as, well, the "ID movement." With that out of the way, there are other acronyms used in ID-speak. SC, CSI and IC refer to "specified complexity," "complex specified information," and "irreducible complexity," respectively. While these terms are sometimes tossed around casually, they have important meanings and are crucial to detecting ID through information.
Information theory identifies the amount of information associated with, or generated by, the occurrence of an event (or the realization of a state of affairs) with the reduction in uncertainty, the elimination of possibilities, represented by that event or state of affairs.
The amount of information can be quantified by converting probabilities into units of information--bits. These are the same "bits" and "bytes" from the computer world. Essentially, a complex, unlikely state of affairs contains much information. This relates to design because design theory is founded upon recognizing the types of information produced by intelligent action. And it just so happens that when intelligent agents operate, they produce much information.
But having a highly improbable scenario containing high amounts of information, or high complexity, is not the only criterion for inferring design. For example, when awakening each morning, the exact configuration of the thousands of hairs on your head is very unlikely. Though you did not necessarily intend for your hair to look exactly how it does through design, it is nonetheless highly improbable. Much information is necessary to describe the orientation of each hair, messy or not. Only after combing it to match a desired pattern of neatness could one recognize that it has been shaped by a purposeful intelligence.
William Dembski argues that the way we detect design is by looking for an unlikely (high information) state of affairs which matches a pre-existing pattern. The pattern which must be matched is called a "specification." Thus, the notion of specified complexity or complex specified information is simply lots of information which conforms to a specific pattern.
In biology, some systems have many interacting parts and are thus complex (high information). However, the arrangement of these parts must conform to a specific pattern in order for the system to work properly. Much like machines whose specifications must be "just right" to function, biological systems must have all the proper parts present in the proper places, or they don't work. If parts of these systems are changed, removed, or re-ordered, then the function ceases. Enter Michael Behe's concept of "Irreducible Complexity". IC, according to Dembski, is a special case of SC where many interacting parts must conform to a specific pattern: biologically advantageous functionality.
Complex specified information can therefore be manipulated in the natural world in a variety of different manners, but it is always introduced through intelligent design. Evolutionary processes can transfer the CSI around, but they cannot generate truly novel CSI. This could help explain the gap between microevolution and macroevolution.
From a design perspective, macroevolution is often seen as the "origin of biological novelty," while microevolution is simply variation on a previously existing archetype. Thus, in a designed world, the origin of biological novelty--of true specified complexity--cannot take place through purely natural processes, like Darwinian evolution. When biologists try to explain the origin of irreducibly complex biological structures, the Darwinian mechanism will mathematically fall short. Given that these structures bear the hallmark information of design, we can say they are designed.
Intelligent design thus proves to be a competing theory to explain the origin of biological information which can be tested against natural evolutionary mechanisms. It has an empirical basis, rooted in observations about information, design, and biology. In essence, design is testable.
Dembski and Behe have laid the groundwork, and now it time for other biologists to apply NFL theorems to biology and look for IC, CSI, and SC in order to detect ID. Happy jargoning!