Irreducible Complexity Doesn’t Prove Intelligent Design or Disprove Evolution

A strawman argument is where someone misrepresents (either intentionally or out of ignorance) the other side’s argument, doing so in such a way in which it is easier to attack or dismiss. The atheist argument here (either critique or apology) is not being represented properly, and is instead represented as a caricature of the real argument, allowing it to be easily and unfairly dismissed without honest consideration. This argument is most often used as a theistic argument, which is to say used to prove the existence of a particular god (most often the God of Abraham). However this is a deistic argument, not a theistic one. This is an argument for the existence of a higher power, not any particular god or religion. Even if this argument were granted in its entirety, it would prove only a higher power, and isn't evidence for the God of Abraham any more than Zeus, Apollo, or Hanuman.

This argument is a God of the Gaps argument. It assumes that since science does not have an immediate answer to a problem (or even any idea how to get one), that the only alternative answer is god. First of all, all God of the Gaps arguments are also Deistic Substitution arguments, and cannot prove God. Further, in God of the Gaps is the single most employed argument in the history of human discourse, and the most failed one. It has never been right. Ever. It does not constitute evidence of any kind.

Can God make a universe capable of self-organization? If so, then there is no way
to make the case that complexity reflects direct design by a tinkering god, as opposed
to the result of a natural process in a universe made by an extremely clever God. If
not, then why do you posit a god that is so limited?
~James F. McGrath

The argument is that Irreducible Complexity disproves the “theory” of evolution, and is a proof for an Intelligent Designer (God).

Irreducible Complexity, first coined in Michael Behe’s book “Darwin’s Black Box”, is the idea that some things are so complex, with so many complex parts, that it could not have evolved. If any one part were missing, the whole thing wouldn’t work. Since it wouldn’t function without all the parts (and therefore wouldn’t have evolved), and the parts couldn’t have co-evolved together for a common purpose that didn’t exist prior to them, that it proves Intelligent Design (and to some, disproves Evolution). “An irreducibly complex system,” he wrote, “cannot be produced directly… by slight, successive modifications of a precursor system, because any precursor to an irreducibly complex system that is missing a part is by definition nonfunctional.

The problems with this are as follows:

  1. This is a hypothesis. A hypothesis is not proof.
  2. This relies on purported “common sense”, which is not permissible in scientific claims. It’s common sense that planets can’t change their orbits, yet Mars does (in “obvious” violation of physics), ergo God exists, is just one example of thousands of similar, failed, common sense arguments.
  3. This argument is a “God of the Gaps” argument. God of the Gaps is the single most employed argument in the history of human discourse, with as many as a billion unique iterations of it. It has never, not once, ever worked, and is also the single most refuted argument in human history (though it will no doubt continue to be deployed as long as we live).
  4. This is a deistic argument, not a theistic one. Therefore, even were it granted, it would constitute no evidence for theistic claims, like the existence of Vishnu, Zeus, Odin or God.

Each of these are alone are sufficient to dismiss Irreducible Complexity as any evidence for any theistic claim (such as evidence of God). Each of these, except (IV), are sufficient alone to completely discredit this argument as evidence, let alone “proof”, either supporting intelligent design or undermining evolution.

Note, first, that this is a hypothesis. A hypothesis is not a law, it’s not a theory, and doesn’t count as evidence against either. This makes it pseudo-science, in that people who use the argument try to couch it in scientific terminology to lend it credibility, but don’t apply it scientifically. For this to be “proof” against evolution, this hypothesis would need to follow the remaining steps of the scientific method to develop supporting evidence. None of that has been done (indeed this “hypothesis” may well violate the methods prohibitionist against fallibility). Supporters may say “Well, it’s obvious that you can’t co-evolve systems into a complex organ like the eye”, but it was once also “obvious” that the world was flat and that Mars can’t go backwards. “Obvious” is a banned word in science, and with good reason.

Indeed, already the mechanisms of many “irreducibly complex” systems are being discovered.

This is part of the problem with “Common Sense” arguments, and what makes them unscientific–they don’t look for possible alternatives. For example when Intelligent Design proponents argue that life requires four fully functioning systems (a means to absorb energy, to use energy, dispose of waste, and replicate) to exist, and therefore evolution is false because all four must have been in place first, they are dismissing reasonable alternatives (life might not always have had those requirements, perhaps small molecules had one or two of these systems and developed into larger complex systems and eventually became life (RNA has now been shown to be able to do this on it’s own. It’s not alive, and can self replicate, and develop crude methods for all of these functions, and it’s the basis of all life on this planet). “Common sense” is a ploy to suppress investigation into alternate theories, and is not now, nor has it ever been, evidence. Period.).

Once again, as nearly every theistic argument, Irreducible Complexity relies on scientific ignorance to prove god. Science can’t explain how multiple systems co-evolved, or how complex systems would work without one piece, it clearly, obviously can’t be done, so that proves God (or an intelligent designer). This is a God of the Gaps argument, this kind of argument is the single most employed argument in the history of human discourse, and it’s been wiped out every single time. It’s success rate in the last 6,000 years is zero.

Now that doesn’t give theists pause in deploying it. When the spin of Venus was impossible (a violation of the law of angular momentum) it proved God. When the orbit of Mars was impossibly changed direction mid-flight, it proved God. Theists can’t help themselves claiming that something we don’t understand proves god. But our ignorance, in an apparently finite world, isn’t proof of anything it’s not. And it’s been trumpeted as that, and I say this without hyperbole, a billion times. And it’s always wrong (except this time. This time it’s right!).

Aside from this being a God of the Gaps argument, and therefore completely invalid and unreliable, it’s also a deistic argument, not a theistic one. I do not contest deism. I’m an atheist, I contest Theism, and Irreducible complexity is a deistic argument for an intelligent designer–a higher power–which could just as easily be Zeus or Quetzalcoatl or something we’ve never thought of. None of this is not even suggestive of Theistic beliefs like the God of Abraham, or that Jesus was the son of God.

And all of that out of the way, science is already making significant strides in destroying irreducible complexity arguments. We know how non-living, self replicating DNA could acquire the other necessary systems to sustain life. Many parts of the steps have been reproduced. There are working hypotheses, and we’re showing that it is indeed (big surprise) possible for processes like this to develop.

There is no evidence that it can’t be done–we’ve theoretical ideas, they’re getting worked out, and we’re showing at least one way to do it.

Which is an expression of the exact problem with God of the Gaps arguments. Our ignorance, that something seems impossible, does not prove anything other than our own ignorance. Even if irreducible complexity wasn’t already falling to demonstrations of how to reduce these systems, it was never, ever, under any circumstances, proof of a higher power. It was proof we have more to learn, and we always will. And since our ignorance seems to somehow be proof of god, we’ll always have an argument of the gaps.

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Warren Kincaid
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Incredible complexity doesn’t have to prove the existence of an all-powerful God (emphasis on “All”). It’s similar to trying to understand the word “infinite”. The most complex of systems understood today would be simple in comparison if the view of complexity continues to expand through the science of tomorrow. Today, science is working through a complexity that has always been a part of our reality through time, past, present, and future. And will continue to do so as long as we have an eye to see and a mind to understand. We’ll never know everything about everything as new understanding opens up new and wider horizons. It’s not so much the complexity that confounds us and hints at the existence of a creator (God). It’s the ever-growing understanding that proves to us our insignificant standing within those systems. God appears to get exponentially larger as we get intelectually sharper. Of course, that’s just our limited point of referance. And you must admit… we will always be limited in a seemingly infinite and evolving reality. And yet the same “spiritual components” still nag us as if they are imprinted in our DNA. What would life be without music, art, creativity and passion? Those are quests to touch the complexity of the human reality too.

Arūnas Liuiza
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test

Steve Ray Webb
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At some point, you (and all of us) are going to be lying in a hospital bed, or wherever, and taking your last breath, leaving this world. What lies behind that great door of death? Philosophers back to Plato and beyond have argued for the existence of God. They have been joined by countless scientists, theologians, and modern day philosophers. The incredible complexity of nature, the moral sense of right and wrong, the desire for significance, the willingness for people like Jesus’ apostles to be tortured and put to death rather than renounce belief in him, all demand exceptional explanations. Are you going to place your hopes and dreams in this life with the belief that nothing lies beyond the grave except darkness? Logic and evidence does not demand that you go that direction. It is something within you that is fighting God. I plead with you to turn before it is too late. I continue to be available on a more personal level through GotQuestions.org when addressed to Scientist Steve. What do you have to lose? You will be able to maintain an anonymous email address and you will not be doing that ministry any favors whatsoever.

Steve Ray Webb
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Yes, I believe that God is calling all people, all nations, everywhere, whether or not they have a clear conception of him. And for the people who have never had a chance to come to an accurate (or at least fuller) understanding of him, he holds them to a different standard. God does not condemn people for ignorance if it is ignorance that they have been unable to avoid. As for happiness, how do you rate and compare happiness from one faith, nation, or even individual person with another. I believe it is our sacred duty as humans to seek truth and I don’t believe that seeking it, or even finding it, necessarily brings happiness. I do believe it generally brings a sense of purpose and fulfillment but happiness depends on the daily exigencies of life and I don’t expect Christians to necessarily be happy, or at least not happy on a continuous basis.

Steve Ray Webb
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I am pretty new to this website, but thus far, it has surprised me. I find some openness and honesty I had not expected. These websites, whether they be Christian-based or atheist-based tend to draw out end of the spectrum types of people who will not entertain even the slightest comment that varies from their presupposition. I sense that many of you would be friends if we lived nearby (I have never asked that my friends be Christian). I still do not expect that we Christians will find much agreement with atheistic views here but I still appreciate that we can have serious discussion. If I have offended, or offend in the future, I do not do it out of ill will. Passions run high when it comes to matters of the heart, as I think all of us know.

Steve Ray Webb
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I took a look. The format is very professionally done, but as no surprise, I saw almost nothing in the content that I liked. The Bible quotes, quotes from Luther, etc. are out of context. If you took select quotes from things I have written (and probably every one of us) it could make me look like a saint or like a Hitler. This can always be done by pulling things out of context. As you, or others, have noted, there are mysteries in this universe, and the existence of an all powerful God cannot be disproven. Eternity is at stake for you and everyone of us. I plead with you to not be in the business of leading people astray.

Steve Ray Webb
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As for comments concerning the law in the Old Testament, the word ‘law’ there is used in different ways just as it is used in different ways in English today (law of gravity, speed limit laws, etc.). In the Old Testament, there is a clear distinction between moral laws, civil laws and ceremonial laws (bible commentaries write pages and pages about this stuff). Jesus comes down hard in support of the continuance of the moral laws (essentially the Ten Commandments), but never provides the slightest support for the continuance of the civil and ceremonial laws of the Old Testament. In fact, the New Testament as a whole is unswerving in its teaching that the Jewish civil and ceremonial laws have passed away and it records frequent strife between this new teaching from Jesus and the Judaizers who keep wanting to hang onto the old laws. I could write many more words on this topic but maybe this makes the point.

Steve Ray Webb
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Let me recommend once again, that if there is anyone truly wrestling with the idea of whether or not God exists, a public forum like this is not particularly the best way to go. I encourage you to submit your questions and comments to the website GotQuestions.org, and specify them to go to Scientist Steve. It will be completely anonymous. I will not know your email address and you will not know mine due to the firewall they have created. And you are guaranteed to never receive any spam from this website ministry. What do you have to lose. Give it a try!!!

Steve Ray Webb
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Everyone on this post needs to recall that an agnostic is someone who does not know whether or not God exists. An atheist knows that God does not exist. As such, atheists are postulating a position that requires proof. You cannot propose a definite position without proof of it. I keep waiting for someone to prove that God does not exist.

Doreen Fenwick
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Are we going on Stephen Hawkins theory’s.His descriptions of parts of Space as Black holes and Grey Matter when he really doesnt know what it really is. A lot of his ideas are flawed, yet!! as with Darwin people hang on to every utterrance of theirs as Gospel.Darwin’a Theories in the light of our modern Scientist s etc; has so many holes in it , but they try to patch it up still.x.

Doreen Fenwick
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Chris Jarvis?? Oh but it does you just dont see it.You cant see the Wood for the trees x.

Doreen Fenwick
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Thanks Nev Richards.This is what is meant by my saying Test each thing out for ones self dont take as true just because someone says its true.This why I always back up what I say with Scripture because I Trust God, and what Ive learnt from questioning Scientists etc; xx.

Bruce Underhill
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A circular argument such as “I always back up what I say with Scripture because I Trust God” is meaningless. What you are saying is “I believe in God because I believe in God”. If all your faith needs is this, then that’s good for you. You get what you need and there is nothing wrong with that. Some of us however need more. As soon as I recognize I am in a circular argument, I realize I have made a mistake and I try to straighten the circle into a line that actually has the potential to go somewhere. This is why I am atheistic. I don’t like circular arguments.

Gerald Lloyd
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It is NOT a circular argument. My soul was awakened to the need for God (over years and from a background of no religious activity in our house), which pointed me to the Scriptures, which pointed me to proving the reality of God in my every day over and over. I also investigated the origins of Scripture etc., did a lot of studying, asking questions of all kinds of people. Accepting the Scriptures, both through my spiritual experiences and information gathered, and also seeing EVIDENCE of God all around, pointed me to trusting God more and more. I find this the straightest of lines. I don’t believe because I believe – my belief is founded on knowledge and experience. I have tested God’s words over and over and over – amazing! One experience of many that stands out is that we had a friend who was doing a type of missionary work in Africa. I was awakened from sleep one night to pray for her and heard 2 days later that ‘that night’ she had to flee because soldiers were coming. I told her about this a long time after and she said that so many people told her a similar story. Now you can put whatever twist or spin on that that you like, but we are in a wonderful family, the family of God, and if people who… Read more »

Doreen Fenwick
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May be meaningless to Bruce because you refuse to see the bigger picture thats all x.

John Termaten
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I always find it funny when people say I trust god and he has a plan. The same people who are saying that do go to a doctor, have health insurance, and are taking a lot of precaution not to get hurt. Don’t you trust him that much ?

Doreen Fenwick
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Thanks Nev Richards.This is what is meant by my saying Test each thing out for ones self dont take as true just because someone says its true.This why I always back up what I say with Scripture because I Trust God, and what Ive learnt from questioning Scientists etc; xx.

Doreen Fenwick
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Atheist, Really Stupid Questions deserve Stupid answers really, and dont deserve creditable replies. BUT I AIM TO PLEASE !!!!!xx.

Karfvgen Eric
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Diferent Universes Diferent god ???

Bruce Underhill
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John Termaten I agree, and what is really bizarre, is that opposing armies in the past, Germans and Allies, each prey to god before the action asking they be victorious. Talk about a conflict of interest on god’s part.

Nev Richards
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Scientists who seek the truth find it. Here’s just a few. Information from UNLOCKING THE MYSTERY OF LIFE DVD Expresses the scientific views of: Dr Dean H Kenyon Evolutionary Biologist, one of Leading Chemical Evolutionists Dr Michael J Behe Biochemist Dr Steven C Meyer, philosopher of Science Professor Phillip E Johnson Dr Paul A Nelson Professor of biology William Dembski, mathematician Baylon Uni., Scott Minniah, Molecular Biologist, Uni of Idaho and others who are specialists in various fields In 1969 Dr Dean Kenyon published , “Biochemical Predestination”. It was a best selling book influencing many scientists. It claimed the different complex protiens essential for life had self assembled. (30,000. of them) with the 20 different animo acids to begin life. But 5 years later he began to doubt his own theory. How could first protiens assemble without instructions?(a recipe) Where did the genetic assembly instructions come from? The complex assembly chain is classified to A, C, G, T each standing for complex arrangements. By the end of the 70’s he realised animo acids do not have the ability to organise themselves into any orderly sequence and that there was a need for genetic information . So what was the source of biological information in DNA.? Natural selection could not have functioned before the existance of DNA. So it cannot explain the origen of DNA so life couldn’t start by natural… Read more »

Sed Adler
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Laughable. Since we don’t have every single fossil since man evolved into existence, it must mean a god intervened. Occam’s razor folks.

Steve Ray Webb
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What we have is a record of fossils that now exceeds a million. That is not an exaggeration. The point of the fossil record is that species mostly appear out of ‘thin air’ with no transitional forms. As more species are continually discovered, this problem has grown worse in terms of finding transitional forms. If you are keeping up to date with the evolutio news, there is a lot of rumbling by the scientists (of which I am one). Darwinism is on life support and everyone is scrambling to find ways to keep it alive.

Sed Adler
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Steve Ray Webb Are you a paleontologist?

Sed Adler
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Just like climatology, there are going to be some that don’t agree but the vast majority of paleontologists agree that Darwinism is easily viable and verifiable with the fossils we have.

The big splash that xians are making about that new book by Stephen Meye is “…based on a 1980s perspective… According to paleontologist Charles Marshall, biologists no longer believe that building the diverse forms of Cambrian animals would require evolving new genes (or, at least, many new genes)..”

Denis Martel
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I buy that! There are many ways of perceiving reality, while some may seem to contradict it may only be semantix or point of view! There were two men at a coffee shop looking at a coffee cup. They argued for hours about which side of the cup the handle was on. The left side or the right side. Both convinced the other was wrong!

Dave Glostein
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We all need something to believe in and we don’t want to believe that the lifespan of a person is meaningless. We need to feel connected to the people we love even after they pass away. Since our consciousness only reveals a small percentage of reality, we have no way to tell what is beyond us. Our beliefs make us who we are and provide us with our morality!

Steve Ray Webb
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But why should be need something to believe in? Why would random evolution give us thoughts that are meaningless and hopeless? I submit that we have these thoughts and feelings because they are trying to lead us to something real and substantial – God. He is there for us to find him but he is not going to impose himself on us. We need to humbly come to him.

Dave Glostein
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Steve Ray Webb : I personally choose to believe there is a god. I may not believe that he created the universe, and it is not impossible to believe he is a creation of man. Who knows, the human race may have greater abilities then we can experience in our own reality. Could the human race have created such a being from their own powers of their minds? Who’s to say that what we can’t sense with our own senses does not exist.

Dave Glostein
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You could take it a step further and say an intelligence being(s) existed that triggered the big gang. Since everything is made up of energy, it could be a logical conclusion.

Denis Martel
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So long as god is thought of as an anthropomorphic consciousness separate from the world, an old man with a beard sitting on a cloud. Then It will never be understood!

Steve Ray Webb
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I’m not aware of any Christians who think of God as having a beard and sitting on a cloud. We can know some things about God because he has revealed them to us but there is no way for us to have comprehensive knowledge of him. In fact, a god we could fully understand would not be a god at all, or certainly not the god who created the universe.. We do know how God feels and thinks about us humans, and what he expects of us, through Jesus Christ, and that is going to have to be sufficient for this lifetime.

Denis Martel
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you are speaking to the choir! I fully agry with what you said! But I have met many Christians, and other believers of monotheistic religions who believe in an anthropomorphic god! Anthropomorphism is humanities collective ego making a god in our own image! Just look at the ceiling of the sistine chapel. God knows how often e have wanted to play God often enough!

Bruce Underhill
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Denis Martel ‘We can know some things about God because he has revealed them to us”? Did I miss it? When did that happen?

Denis Martel
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I never said that nor do I think it. Please in the future if you wish to critque what I said make sure I said it and don’t put words in my mouth! Do you want to really know what I think about It? If you say you don’t know then you don’t know. If you say you know you still don’t know! Also, about God’s existence. It exists, but does not exist, but does not not exist. The begining of wisdom starts with the statement “I don’t know”. So, chew on that.

Steve Ray Webb
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Bruce, it happened in the Bible. I recommend you start by reading the book of John in the New Testament. Shouldn’t take more than a couple hours to read. Hit me up after that.

Steve Ray Webb
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Denis Martel, all language, except words directly dealing with sense, is metaphoric. C.S. Lewis does a good job of explaining this in his book Mere Christianity. The Bible uses language that helps us try to picture God and picture heaven with images we can understand, but these images are not reality. They are just vehicles that help our comprehension. God is not really our father and Jesus is not really his son in the way that we normally understand these terms. They are just picture words that aid in communication. Physics and chemistry books are chock full of such metaphorical language to the point they are practically poetry books (I am a retired scientist). There is nothing at all wrong with communicating in this fashion; in fact it is necessary. But we have to keep in mind that our words are just are best attempt at grasping reality behind those words.

Denis Martel
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Absolutely! Words communicate the limitations of the brain. The anthropomorphisation of God caused much of the problem! When Jesus called God our father he was refering to the primal force that initiated the existence of what our brain sees as reality.

Denis Martel
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Steve Ray Webb I forgot to mention C.S. Lewis is one of my favourite authors and I read vertualy all of his books!

Gerald Lloyd
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I’m always amazed at this thought about lack of evidence for God. No one has seen the wind but we know it IS there because we see the evidence of the wind, what we have given the name ‘wind’. No one has seen love but we see its evidence. No one has seen God but we see the evidence all around. I believe because of 1) the awesomeness of nature; 2) the Bible (preservation, prophecies, etc.); 3) my own experiences; 4) the experiences of others; and 5) the fact that my questions of life are all answered.

Denis Martel
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This is called anecdotal evidence as opposed to hard evidence. I think both are valid ways of discerning existence. Even physics admits that there are aspects of reality that it can not study, prove or disprove due to the paradoxical nature and other factors of these aspects. Physics does not have the tools to do so. But, physics never says these aspects are not real! They are the domain of philosophy. So, keep on keeping on!

Steve Ray Webb
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So what evidence do you need? What would it take for you to believe in God?

Denis Martel
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To answere that I need to know what you mean by God.