Tuesday, May 17th | 16 Iyyar 5782

August 19, 2012 1:21 am

A Belated Reply to Dr. P.Z. Myers

avatar by Moshe Averick


Dr. P.Z. Myers of the University of Minnesota-Morris

In May of 2011 I wrote an article critiquing a lecture given by outspoken atheist advocate P.Z. Myers at the Atheist International Alliance (2009) in Burbank, California. Dr. Myers, a biologist at the University of Minnesota-Morris, had attacked Intelligent Design (ID) theory by claiming that there are many “complex” structures that appear naturally. That is to say, that despite the “complexity” of the simplest living bacterial cells, there is no need to invoke an intelligent designer because “very complicated” phenomena occur through natural, undirected processes. Myers put it this way: “We biologists will freely admit that things are really complicated inside the cell…Don’t we have to resort to a Creator? We say, of course not. There’s lots of things that are very complicated [and aren’t the result of an intelligent creator.]”

As evidence to support his assertion, Myers used the example of a large pile of driftwood that had accumulated solely due to natural forces on Rialto Beach in upper Washington State: “You find these walls of driftwood…very complicated walls. It has been constructed, who did it? We know the answer, natural forces did it. We don’t need a designer to build this kind of wall. This is complex, you simply can’t deny it. If I turn the projector off would you be able to draw it? No.”

My critique revolved around the obvious flaw in his argument. While it may be true that the pile of driftwood is “complicated” in the sense that there is no simple mathematical algorithm that could describe its structure, the same could be said about a pile of garbage in a garbage dump. However, no matter how “complicated” no one would be foolish enough to mistake it for anything other than what it is: a random collection of garbage. The critical difference between piles of junk and a bacterium is not their “complexity,” but rather their functional complexity. Piles of junk don’t do anything, they perform no discernible function. “Functionality” is the difference between the complexity of an M1A1-Abrams battle tank and the complexity of a pile of scrap metal. “Functionality” is the difference between the complexity of a log cabin on a bluff overlooking Rialto Beach and the complexity of the pile of driftwood on the beach below. In both of these cases it is the functional complexity of the former that makes them instantly recognizable as being the result of intelligent design, while the lack of functional complexity is what makes the latter instantly recognizable as being the result of random, undirected forces. It is the astounding level of functional complexity of the simplest bacterial cell and its genetic code that lies at the heart of ID theory.

An M1A1-Abrams Battle Tank - Not just "complex" but "functionally complex."

On 5/29/11, Dr. Myers responded to my article with a post on his Pharyngula blog entitled, “I am lectured in logic by a man who believes in invisible magic men in the sky.” (I actually don’t, but I am very clear about the existence of God) Although I did read it at the time, it recently dawned on me that I never responded to his blog-post, hence the title of the article. The gist of Myer’s response is that I misrepresented or misunderstood his point:

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“Nowhere in that talk do I claim that a pile of driftwood is analogous to a cell. I think there’s a rather huge difference between a cell and a pile of debris…I was making a different point.”

Up until this point in his response we are in total agreement; a pile of driftwood is clearly not analogous to a living cell and the cell has nothing in common with piles of debris. The next thing that appears in his post is a reproduction of the famous Nike “Swoosh” logo. He goes on to explain that the Swoosh is “very, very, simple” and is “most definitely designed.” So far, so good. It is from here on that things get very confusing:

“Is it clearer now? We have complicated things that are not designed, and we have simple things that are designed. We also have complicated things that are designed, and simple things that are not. The message you should take away from these examples is that complexity and design are independent properties of an object. One does not imply the other. You cannot determine whether something was designed by looking at whether it is complicated or not.” [emphasis in original]

The Nike "Swoosh"

What is so confusing here is that there never was a disagreement about the existence of “simple” things that are intelligently designed; there are endless examples besides the Swoosh that illustrate such a principle. There never was a disagreement regarding the existence of “complicated” things – like piles of driftwood or garbage – that are not designed, but are the result of natural, unguided forces. There are endless examples of those also. The only point of contention; I repeat, the only point of contention is whether or not functionally complex structures – like the battle tank, log cabin, or living cell – can arise through natural, unguided forces, or is their very existence the undeniable evidence of the intelligent, creative force which was the cause of their formation? In fact, Dr. Myers addresses this point:

“Also familiar, I’m afraid, is the usual indignant waffling [by ID theorists] about it being specified complexity…I have never seen it [i.e., specified complexity] operationally defined.”

I am at a complete loss as to why the concept of “specified” or “functional” complexity is so puzzling for Myers. It’s the difference between the driftwood and the cabin; it’s the difference between a pile of scrap metal and a tank; it’s the difference between a batch of sludgy chemical goo and a living bacterium. What is so difficult about that to understand? What is even more perplexing is that in the original Atheist International Alliance lecture, Myers himself explains the obvious difference between a structure which is “functionally unspecified” and one which is “functionally very specific.” At 12:30 minutes into his lecture a picture of an expertly built brick wall appears on the screen of his Power-Point presentation. Myers elaborates:

“On the other hand we are familiar with this kind of wall. So this is also a wall, it’s one that we can recognize that has a specific purpose, that was built by human agents, and I’d have to say that of these two wall, which one is simpler? The human built one…When we look at natural walls [driftwood] what we discover is natural things…are functionally unspecified, there’s nothing that says that a pile of driftwood is a wall…Artificial walls [the brick wall] are built with intent, they are functionally very specificand relatively simple.” [emphasis mine]

Soldier, this may be a "complicated" pile of scrap metal but it's not an Abrams tank

I couldn’t have said it better myself. The brick wall, due to its specific purpose, or being “functionally very specific” is instantly recognizable as being the result of intelligent design. (This is true even if we accept Myers’ characterization of the wall as being “relatively simple.” It is certainly functionally complex enough to be recognized as being the result of intelligent, creative causation.) On the other hand, the “functionally unspecified” nature of the pile of driftwood (no matter how “complicated” it is), makes it instantly recognizable as being the result of random, undirected forces. Only one question remains: Is the simplest living bacterium “functionally very specific” in the way that Myers described the brick wall or is it “functionally unspecified” like the pile of driftwood? The answer, of course, is obvious.

I’m sorry to have to lecture you in logic Dr. Myers, but your response is as logically incoherent as your original presentation. In order to effectively refute the thesis of my article you would need to give examples of functionally specified or functionally complex structures – like your brick wall – that are the result of unguided processes. You fail to provide even one such example and for a very good reason; there are no such examples.

I do applaud the fact that you understand the issue well enough not to have invoked crystals and snowflakes. We both agree they are non-sequiturs. As Australian microbiologist and geneticist, Dr. Michael Denton, has put it: “Between a living cell and the most highly ordered non-biological system such as a crystal or a snowflake there is a chasm as vast and as absolute as it is possible to imagine.” We also both understand that examples from Darwinian Evolution – accepting its truth for argument’s sake – are irrelevant. Darwinian Evolution and natural selection cannot occur until a fully functioning, DNA-based living cell is in place. Once the fantastically functionally-complex molecular machinery of life is operating, fantastic things can potentially happen. But then, of course, the notion that fantastic machinery can do fantastic things was never in dispute.

How was the enormous gap between non-living, non-organic chemicals and the simplest living bacterium crossed? It is this baffling enigma that you must address in any intellectually honest confrontation with ID Theory and it is this very enigma that you failed to address in both your original lecture and in your response to my article. If I have not yet convinced you of the profoundly flawed nature of your position, I would challenge you (and anyone else for that matter), to debate the issue in a public forum. I’m certain the student body at the University of Minnesota-Morris would enthusiastically support such an event.

University of Minnesota-Morris Campus

In order to ensure that we maintain focus on the truly essential issues and not get lost in confusing sidebars, I offer the following protocol (which is open to revision, based on discussions between the parties):

Agreed that:

The topic under discussion is not the truth, accuracy, or interpretation of the creation story in the first chapters of Genesis. For the purposes of this debate we will accept the standard scientific model that the universe came into being roughly 14 billion years ago in what is commonly called “The Big Bang.” How this “Big Bang” happened or who or what caused it is not a topic under discussion in this debate.

  1. For the purposes of this debate we will accept the standard scientific model that the Earth formed roughly 4.5 billion years ago.
  2. For the purposes of this debate we will accept the standard scientific model that the earliest known life began no later than 3.7 billion years ago. The earliest known living organisms are some form of bacteria.
  3. While it is possible that there was life earlier than 3.7 billion years ago there is no conclusive scientific evidence one way or the other. Due to the effect of heat on early rock formations it may never be scientifically possible to ascertain how long ago life began on Earth.
  4. At the present time there is no conclusive evidence to support any particular scientific theory which would explain how the gap between non-organic chemicals on the early Earth and the first living bacterium was crossed.
  5. The fact that at present there is no plausible scientific theory to provide a naturalistic explanation of how life emerged from non-life does not, in and of itself, mean that it did not happen and does not preclude the possibility that such a theory will be discovered in the future. Almost all origin-of-life researchers believe that one day such a theory will be discovered.
  6. The fact that such a scientific theory does not exist, does not in and of itself lead to the conclusion that life was created by some sort of intelligent creator.
  7. Even if, for argument’s sake, we would agree that the origin-of-life required an intelligent creator outside of the physical universe, that would not in any way imply the truth or falsehood of any claim of divine revelation. Such a claim would require separate evidence and would also require an entirely different discussion.
  8. The only topic which is being debated is the following: What is the most reasonable explanation for the origin of life on Earth: An intelligent creator or an unguided, naturalistic process?

If you (or anyone else) are game Dr. Myers, you can either contact me via my website at mosheaverick.com or in any other manner which you deem appropriate.

Rabbi Moshe Averick is an orthodox rabbi, a regular columnist for the Algemeiner Journal, and author of Nonsense of a High Order: The Confused and Illusory World of the Atheist. It is available on Amazon.com and Kindle. Rabbi Averick can be reached via his website. If you wish to be informed when new articles appear, send an email to [email protected] with the email address and the word “Subscribe” in the subject line.

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