TIA Tuesday: Rhetorical friendly fire

Today’s installment of TIA Tuesday is almost dramatic: Vox Day comes around a street corner in Dodge City and finds Richard Dawkins struggling with a friend of Vox’s, by the name of “ID.”

“Dawkins, you villain,” shouts Vox, “you’ve messed with me and my friends for the last time!” And with that, he pulls out his trusty six-shooter—and shoots poor old ID in the back. “Take that, Dawkins, you loser!” crows Vox, capering around the body of his fallen comrade, with a bemused Dawkins standing there wondering whose side Vox is really on.

As Geisler and Turek have taken some pains to explain to us, and as leading ID proponents have repeatedly tried to convince us, one of the arguments against evolution (and thus, allegedly, in favor of ID) is that evolutionary phenomena are too simple to have produced the incredible complexity and sophistication we see all around us. Those who are not ashamed to call themselves creationists are even bolder: the world we see, with all its complexity, could only have been produced by something even greater and more complex. And even if there were a natural explanation for all this complexity, that explanation itself would require an even more complex cause, because complex organization cannot arise spontaneously from simple causes.

Now, there are at least two problems with this argument. One is that it fails to define exactly what “complexity” is. The other is that if you claim that every complex phenomenon requires an even more complex cause, you’ve got a problem. Oh, sure, it works well as a rhetorical device for leading people to conclude that some Ultimate Complexity must exist. Logically, however, you’re going to have to contradict yourself sooner or later, because if there is an “Ultimate” Complexity, it’s going to violate your own principle that every complex phenomenon requires a more-complex cause. What caused the Ultimate Complexity?

Dawkins has taken some time to explain this problem in greater detail, and now Vox is going to try and refute him.

His first mistake is the assumption that the designer is inherently more improbable than the design, based on the assumption that the designer of the universe must be more complex than the universe itself. But because Dawkins does not define complexity, he provides no means of calculating the statistical improbability of the designer

Whoa, nice shootin’ there Tex. Vox is correct that the failure to define complexity is a major flaw in attempts to argue for the probability that a Creator exists. He seems to have missed the point, however, that it’s not Dawkins who is claiming that the complexity of the universe is sufficient to prove statistically that a Creator ought to exist. Dawkins is simply pointing out that creationists are being inconsistent when they claim that the “creation” is improbable and the Creator is not.

Vox tries to salvage this argument by making the irrelevant and erroneous claim that we can calculate the probability (or improbability) of fundamental physical constants being the values they are today.

But because Dawkins does not define complexity, he provides no means of calculating the statistical improbability of the designer, whereas the statistical improbabilities of the design are clearly defined in no little detail in the cosmological applications of the anthropic principle, as Dawkins concedes in his citation of the six fundamental constants examined by the physicist Martin Rees.

As we have discussed before, there’s more to calculating real-world probability than simply enumerating the imaginable alternatives. Vox Day is a person. A person can be male, female, hermaphroditic, or neuter, and can also be heterosexual, homosexual, or bisexual. We can combine these characteristics in twelve different ways, but that doesn’t mean that there’s realistically less than a 10% probability that Vox is a genuine heterosexual male. The fact that we can imagine alternatives does not mean that each of those alternatives is equally likely or equally consistent with the available real-world evidence. So Vox is simply wrong when he claims that he can accurately calculate “the statistical improbabilities of the design.”

It’s also irrelevant, because the alleged “improbability” of the universe is only an argument for God if you assume that complex phenomena require even more complex causes. As soon as you allow the complexity of the universe to arise from less complex phenomena, you’ve opened wide the doors for the evolutionary explanation, in which simpler causes give rise to greater and more sophisticated effects. Vox, however, seems to have overlooked this issue completely.

While Dawkins’s complaint that the theistic answer to the design’s improbability is unsatisfying because it leaves the existence of the designer unexplained is fair, his subsequent assertion that “A God capable of calculating the Goldilocks values for the six numbers would have to be at least as improbable as the finely tuned combination of numbers itself” is not. This is his second error, as the statement is certainly true of Rees, who is both capable of calculating the numbers and is a part of the design, but it cannot be true of the designer because the latter fact does not apply. Third, does Dawkins seriously wish to argue that Martin Rees is more complex than the universe? We know Rees calculated the Goldilocks values, so if he can do so despite being less complex than the sum of everyone and everything else in the universe, then God surely can too.

Notice the misquote: Dawkins didn’t say that you would have to be more complex than the universe in order to calculate the “fine-tuned” combination of numbers that would allow for human life; he said a being capable of calculating those six precise values would have to be as improbable as the combination of the numbers themselves. And ID proponents would heartily agree that human beings are as improbable as the six so-called “Goldilocks numbers,” so it’s particularly ironic to see Vox pulling out the Six-Gun of Sarcasm to blaze away at the notion.

He follows up this gaffe with the final, fatal blow to his poor friend ID.

There is no reason why a designer must necessarily be more complex than his design. The verity of the statement depends entirely on the definition of complexity. While Dawkins doesn’t specifically provide one, in explaining his “Ultimate 747 gambit,” he refers to the argument from improbability as being rooted in “the source of all the information in living matter.” Complexity, to Dawkins, is therefore equated with information.

He’s got the right idea, though he misattributes the source. It’s not Dawkins who is pushing the idea that complexity equals information, but creationists. The whole point of the Ultimate 747 argument is to get people to realize that at some point, there has to be a fatal breakdown in the principle that says complex effects require more-complex causes. Vox’s “rebuttal” is essentially an admission that Dawkins is correct. I’m not sure how many creationists will realize that Vox has just shot their argument in the back, but by admitting that the “designer” can be less than his/her/its “design,” he has pretty much shut down the whole apologetic of intelligent design. If a bacterial flagellum can be “designed” by something that isn’t even as smart as a germ, there’s not much support for Genesis in biology. Poor ID, another casualty of friendly fire!

Vox goes on with examples of simple, non-supernatural phenomena which easily produce highly complex designs without being complex in and of themselves, and indeed without even being intelligent. But we’ll skip over that part, as abuse of a corpse is always rather disgusting, especially when the person doing it hasn’t yet realized it’s his own team-mate he’s abusing. The chapter’s not over though: tune in again next week, when we’ll hear Vox say:

A distinction between the divine designer and an active divine monitor is not only inherent to the Gnostic heretics, but to Bible-believing Christians as well.

See you then.

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2 Responses to “TIA Tuesday: Rhetorical friendly fire”

  1. Ric Says:

    Haha– awesome. I’m loving watching you shred VD’s book.

  2. jim Says:

    I’ve always found all this probablistic stuff so obscure and misleading. Working backwards through time, sooner or later you have to come to the conclusion that existence simply exists, for no reason at all. From this brute starting point, you simply move forward and discover that the ‘stuff’ of existence changes configuration from moment to moment in the dimension of time. Seen this way, each moment is the only way it could be, and probability vanishes.

    The only real question relevant to this discussion is whether or not existence contains a controlling deity or not. You observe, and measure your observations against the claims of the deists. From what I see so far, the universe works the way it would if nobody was controlling it. I’m still waiting for some evidence that might point the other way, but so far all we have are superstitious claims derived from primitive mindsets. Where is all the supposed supernatural activity that seems to be required, and which runs so rampant through the ancient texts of the believers? There are anecdotal claims now and again, but these always seem to fall apart under any sort of close scrutiny.

    How many Christains are there in the world? A billion or so? If even only 1 in 10 is a true and sincere believer, by their prayers alone we should see childrens’ cancer wards being emptied, severed limbs growing back, and numerous and sundry signs and wonders occurring on a daily basis. In short, the kind of stuff that should have even the most cynical of skeptics taking a second look. Hell, if Christianity were really true, the papers would be full of this stuff, EVERY SINGLE DAY! Instead, we have studies touching on the efficacy of prayer, searching for tiny, anomalous occurences easily explained away by margin of error.
    Silly, really.

    That being said, I’m not holding my breath waiting for any new arguments concerning real evidence from. V.D. His game is convolution, pure and simple. It seems to satisfy the artichokes who glut his threads, and provides a hatrack for those who’d rather not seriously contemplate their positions. I certainly admire your patience in taking apart his arguments bit by bit, though. You’re accomplishing something that could never be done in the kind of shoot-from-the-lip dialogue that passes for argumentation over at his blog. Thanks again.