How Would We Be Able to Detect Intelligent Design in Nature If It Actually Exists?

The folks at SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) have done some thinking along the lines of what constitutes signs of intelligence. They are searching for extraterrestrial life, as opposed to God, but they have to deal with the same problem set. How would they recognize communication from outer space if they saw or heard it?

Some of their thinking is brought out in the movie Contact. In one scene, the character played by Jodie Foster spends the evening listening to her dryer. But there is a method to her apparent madness. She is trying to train her ears so that she will be able to recognize intelligent radio signals from outer space, filtering out the zillion random signals produced by all manner of objects in the cosmos.

A clothes dryer produces a certain level of mechanical rhythm; its noise actually has a level of design, sort of like that of a snowflake. But that noise (especially when you have sneakers thumping around in there) represents a type of design that nonintelligence (that is, nature) can produce.

How can we tell the difference between design that occurs naturally and intelligent design?

Let’s say we’ve headed out to Vegas, and along the way, we come upon a bizarre rock formation. I say, “Hey, look at the erosion on that rock. It looks kind of like Richard Nixon when the Watergate tapes were made public.” You, on the other hand, think it looks like Vladimir Putin eating scrambled eggs. We agree to disagree, but we both note that the forces of erosion made something that looks a bit like a product of intelligent design.

Now, as we drive farther, we come to Mount Rushmore. Seeing it for the first time, I am amazed. I say, “Wow, look at the erosion on those rocks. It looks just like three presidents I recognize and some guy wearing glasses.” You rightly call me an idiot, not only because you know who Teddy Roosevelt is, but also because it is obvious by the way the stone is cut and the extraordinary degree of design that this is the product of intelligent craftsmen—ones who apparently have no fear of heights. But there must be a more scientific way to differentiate between these two levels of design: one that can be produced by nature and one that can’t.

Later on in the movie Contact, the scientists receive radio waves at the sequence of 1,126 beats and pauses. The sequence, they deduce, represents the prime numbers 2 through 101. It becomes doubtful that random radio waves could emit such a sequence, thus they presume they have made contact.

This is a more scientific way of differentiating between two different orders of design. It is commonly called CSI. This acronym has nothing to do with a popular TV show. It stands for “complex, specified information.”

Here is what you need to remember about CSI, or complex, specified information. Nature can generate information that is complex, and it can produce information that is specified, but it cannot do both.

The best way to understand this is to think of yourself as a computer programmer. (You might want to grab a large bag of potato chips and a six-pack of Coke to get into character.) I want you to write a program for the computer telling it to type random letters of the alphabet.

It should be fairly easy to write the program. Just instruct the computer to type keys at random and repeat the process infinitely. Now, occasionally the letters might make an interesting pattern, perhaps even type the word “Nixon” by accident, but it is clearly generating a design of complexity without any real specificity.

Now let’s switch it around. Let’s say I ask you to program the computer to type the word “the”. This is going to require specificity. You must specify, “Computer, type the letter ‘t,’ then ‘h,’ and then ‘e,’ and do this over and over again until your printer runs out of ink or your hard drive crashes.” This is specific, but it is not complex. You can program the computer in this case, like the previous one, with just a few lines of instructions.

Typing random letters or typing a simple word over and over is like the kind of design that natural processes can handle on their own.

Now let’s look at specified complexity. Let’s say I ask you to program the computer to write out a Harlequin romance novel and make the girl decide to dump the guy in the end. You would have to write a list of instructions for the computer larger than the book itself. You would have to specify, in the form of a command, every letter of every word.

Few people would have thought of Harlequin romances as specified complexity, but as you can see, they are. The commands to the computer are extremely complex and extremely specific. That’s the kind of detail we must demand if we are going to believe that there is intelligent design exhibited in the world.

So do we find that kind of detail in nature?  What about within the human body?  Continue reading to find out.