Reducing Irreducible Complexity, Part 3

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January 27, 2010 Tags: Design

Today's video features Ard Louis. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of The BioLogos Foundation. You can read more about what we believe here.

The commentary that follows was written by Darrel Falk.

I am asked all the time to explain, in a nutshell, why irreducible complexity is not a valid argument in favor of intelligent design. Indeed I have addressed this issue in Part I and Part II of this series. However, I have never heard anyone put it in a more cogent form than Oxford biophysicist Ard Louis in this video. If you are like me though, you’re going to have to listen extremely closely and probably play it two or three times in order to fully grasp the depth of the point he is making. Here is what I think he’s saying. Tell me if I’m right.

Dr. Louis begins by pointing out the complexity of the bacterial flagellum—it consists of many different protein components that must assemble in a specific configuration, a process which takes about twenty minutes. As the components assemble, they might try out many different arrangements until at long last the correct one is identified, producing a fully mature bacterial flagellum.

The problem is that there are a “zillion” different possible combinations and configurations of the components and only one works. Trying them all out and arriving at the single correct one in just twenty minutes would be impossible. Yet, the flagellum assembles. It works. And it works in twenty minutes.

Dr. Louis goes on: If you were to come across a fully assembled flagellum with all of its protein components attached in the one and only way which works, what might you conclude? Remember there are zillions of ways in which those proteins could assemble, but in the search process, only one works. Given the state of our knowledge until recently, you might well conclude that there was a “guiding hand” or a “vital force” that had facilitated the assembly process enabling it to find the correct combination in only minutes. Yet none of us, I assume, believe that there is a guiding hand acting on the cell, causing the proteins inside it to follow the correct search process to make the flagellum. The basic elements of the process are understood, Louis says. They can be explained both mathematically and biologically. We do not need to invoke a guiding hand inside each of the trillions of bacterial cells that are in our body. Their parts, including their flagella, are assembled by processes that we have come to understand over the past half century. No vital force. No guiding hand.

Louis then goes on to explore another aspect of the assembly of the bacterial flagellum: the evolutionary history by which it arose to become the complex structure it is today. That search process took place not in twenty minutes, but over millions of years—probably hundreds of millions. We don’t have the intermediates for this evolutionary history. All we have is the final product. Today, there are people who look at that structure in all of its complexity and say, “There must have been a guiding hand, a vital force to design and build something so complex. Even with hundreds of millions of years of searching in design-space, no natural process could build something this complex.” So, just as some were incredulous that a flagellum could self-assemble in a cell before our current state of knowledge developed, leaders of the Intelligent Design movement are now incredulous in a new way. For what they consider to be scientific reasons, they believe it is nearly certain that the structure must have come fully formed through an intelligence and not have become increasingly more complex through gradual, natural processes.

Louis, a deeply committed Christian, says in essence, “Given our incomplete knowledge about these processes, how do they know that?” True, showing how the flagellum could have been produced by natural processes is a hard problem—we don’t, after all, have the intermediates. However, is it not too early to say that scientists are never going to discover a natural way in which this could come about? Surely we cannot calculate probabilities of this, when we know so little about the process. Is it not premature to come across a finished product and say there must have been a guiding hand when we know so little about the history of its development over hundreds of millions of years?

Again, I emphasize that Dr. Ard Louis is a deeply committed Christian, a person who sees the Bible as the Word of God. He is not arguing against the existence of a Creator. It is science he is discussing, not theology. There are no scientific reasons to say that a guiding hand was needed in evolutionary history to assemble what we now see as a marvelously complex structure. There are also no sound theological reasons to assert that God could not have used natural processes to carry out God’s creation command. God could have used natural processes! We believe that God is Creator of life, that God “spoke” life into existence, and that God’s Presence sustains the created world in its current state.

Think back to Louis’s initial premise about what happens in twenty minutes. There are no scientific or theological reasons to insist on the presence of a guiding hand which manipulates the process so that the proteins attach in all the right ways to build the flagellum of a bacterial cell. By the same token, there are no scientific or theological reasons for assuming that a manipulating hand is needed step by step to build better and better flagella in evolutionary time. Instead, we are simply left with this:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.(John 1:1-3)

That is enough for me.

Commentary written by the BioLogos editorial team.


Ard Louis is a Reader in Theoretical Physics and a Royal Society University Research Fellow at the University of Oxford, where he leads a research group studying problems on the border between chemistry, physics and biology. He is also the International Secretary for Christians in Science, an associate of the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion and served on the board of advisors for the John Templeton Foundation.

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Charlie - #3494

January 28th 2010

Can anyone see how Biologos can believe that God created the universe/ laws of physics/ life on Earth, yet claim they do not believe in Intelligent Design? How is this not Intelligent Design?

Can anyone explain this to me?


Syman Stevens - #3497

January 28th 2010

@Charlie - #3494:

Hi Charlie, thanks for your comment.  Yes, BioLogos does believe in an “intelligent designer”, but disagrees with many of the arguments & positions of the “Intelligent Design” movement.  It’s a term equally confusing as “Creationism” –– BioLogos certainly believes in a Creator, but disagrees with “Creationism” when the term refers to 6-day, or Young-Earth, Creationism.  Please see our FAQ on “How is BioLogos Different From ID and YEC”, in the “Questions” tab of this site. —Syman


Argon - #3503

January 28th 2010

Mike - “Just because function F requires parts A, B, C, and D to exist does not necessarily mean parts A, B, C, and/or D require function F to exist.”

Absolutely, and in reference to much of the description about essential functionality in Behe’s first book, just because the organism requires function F in order to survive today doesn’t mean it always did. For example, with respect to clotting, what are the needs of an ancient, tiny, multicell animal with a low-pressure, open circulatory system compared to humans of today? Answer: Much different. It’s not as if humans popped into existence from no precursors.

Later versions of “IC” that try to redefine the term based on things like the number of neutral steps required to create the system just exacerbate the ‘begging the question’ problem.

I think it would be best to scrap IC in ID discussions. At one time, “ICness as a possible indicator of design” might have been an interesting hypothesis but it turned out to be unworkable and clearly wrong in some cases. It’s not useful any longer except perhaps as an indicator that someone who still promotes “IC systems review ID” arguments is out of date on some of their biology.


Argon - #3504

January 28th 2010

Argh - “IC systems review ID”

change to: “IC systems indicate ID”


Gregory Arago - #3511

January 28th 2010

Yes, the link between ‘irreducibility’ and ‘intelligence’ is not an easy one to make clear. I wonder how Mike Gene, a non-IDM proponent of ‘design’ and/or ‘telic’ thinking in biology reconciles this difference. How does ‘irreducibility’ connect with ‘intelligence’?

Nevertheless, the issue of ‘irreducibility’ is here to stay.

S. Wolfram writes:
“For if the evolution of a system corresponds to an irreducible computation then this means that the only way to work out how the system will behave is essentially to perform this computation.” (A New Kind of Science, 2002)

The philosophy of ‘irreducibility’ is also important here. One cannot reduce ethics to biology (cf. evolutionary psychology). One cannot reduce mathematics to anthropology (cf. ethnic science). So much reductionism occurs in ‘modern science.’ How can we remedy this?


Charlie - #3524

January 28th 2010

Syman,

Is your belief in a creator based solely on faith then (excluding science justifying this belief)?


Mike Gene - #3525

January 28th 2010

Gregory,

Here is how I connect them.  Irreducible complexity points to the crucial role of cooption and functional shifts in evolution.  Cooption and functional shifts are something we would *expect* from the front-loading of evolution.  Front-loading can be viewed as the intelligent use of chance and natural selection to nudge evolution in order to accomplish design objectives across time.


Gregory Arago - #3599

January 29th 2010

Thanks Mike!

Worth repeating imho:

“Front-loading can be viewed as the intelligent use of chance and natural selection to nudge evolution in order to accomplish design objectives across time.”

Of course, I would prefer if you add the qualifier ‘biological’ since it is clear that you are speaking about ‘biological evolution’ and not about ‘universal evolution.’ You understand well why I note the difference.

The “different meanings of evolution” argument was verified by Dr. Ard Louis here at BioLogos recently when he explained that ‘evolution’ to many people can mean ‘worldview.’ By adding the qualifying adjective ‘biological’ in front of ‘evolution,’ one avoids that possibility. That said, probably everyone reading this thread understood already that the topic was ‘biological evolution,’ so the point is almost purely pedantic.


Peter - #7185

March 19th 2010

Blogger wrote, “The basic elements of the process are understood, Louis says. They can be explained both mathematically and biologically. We do not need to invoke a guiding hand inside each of the trillions of bacterial cells that are in our body.”

Response: Since the activity in Louis’ brain can be explained mathematically and biologically, and since his body language in the video can be explained mathematically and biologically, does this mean no intelligence guided the process?

In the video he mentions that proteins self-organize.  Since proteins don’t have a mind of their own, they have no self.  Thus, they cannot self-organize.  Claiming that molecules self-organize is an Of-the-gaps explanation.  They don’t know what moves them to organize in a particular way so they throw up their arms and claim it happens all by itself.  The problem with this view is that if proteins can self-organize so readily, then it is more logical to infer that they self-organize everyday.  This would mean that life would be originating from non-life more often than scientists believe.


Peter - #7187

March 19th 2010

Blogger stated, “For what they consider to be scientific reasons, they believe it is nearly certain that the structure must have come fully formed through an intelligence and not have become increasingly more complex through gradual, natural processes.”

ID supporters do not make the claim that anything intelligently designed does not involve a natural process.  Rather, ID supporters claim that life cannot be explained solely by reference to non-intelligent processes.

Blogger went on to ask, “Given our incomplete knowledge about these processes, how do they know that?”

Answer: Given incomplete knowledge, how does Louis know that proteins are organizing themselves?  How does Louis know that an intelligently driven process never involves natural objects?

Blogger asked, “However, is it not too early to say that scientists are never going to discover a natural way in which this could come about?”

Answer:  Perhaps someday they will discover how proteins magically take it upon themselves to organize into functional patterns.  But as rationalists we must rely upon evidence currently available to explain, not evidence that might be available in the future.


Andrwe - #8459

April 3rd 2010

The flagellum self-assembles because of the information contained within its physical parts (the. It does not create information as it self-assembles; it follows it. We know they self-assemble because we can watch them doing so. Upon doing so, we understand the step-by-step process.

By contrast, flagella are never seen to evolve. Instead they are seen to devolve to the Type Three Secretory System. After much study, there are still no credible ‘upward’ pathways.

To carry the analogy of self-assembly to evolution: if evolution did manages to assemble a flagellum, it is because the organism was somehow pre-programmed to. Behe happens to think that it is not programmed to, as there is no evidence for the requisite pathways. But if it was programmed to, ID would again be the natural conclusion.


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