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How Can You Tell if Something is Designed? Isn't that Pretty Subjective?

In the previous question, we noted that intelligent design is much more modest than earlier versions of design theory. But it’s also more powerful. Instead of looking for such vague properties as "purpose" or "perfection"—which may be construed in a subjective sense—it looks for the presence of what it calls specified complexity, an unambiguously objective standard.

That term sounds like a mouthful, but it’s something we can all recognize without effort. Let’s take an example.

Imagine that a friend hands you a sheet of paper with part of Lincoln’s Gettysburg address written on it:


Your friend tells you that he wrote the sentence by pulling Scrabble pieces out of a bag at random.

Would you believe him? Probably not. But why?

One reason is that the odds against it are just too high. There are so many other ways the results could have turned out—so many possible sequences of letters—that the probability of getting that particular sentence is almost nil.

But there’s more to it than that. If our friend had shown us the letters below, we would probably believe his story.


Why? Because of the kind of sequence we see. The first string fits a recognizable pattern: It's a sentence written in English, minus spaces and punctuation. The second string fits no such pattern.

Now we can understand specified complexity. When a design theorist says that a string of letters is specified, he’s saying that it fits a recognizable pattern. And when he says it's complex, he's saying there are so many different ways the object could have turned out that the chance of getting any particular outcome by accident is hopelessly small.

Thus, we see design in our Gettysburg sentence because it is both specified and complex. We see no such design in the second string. Although it is complex, it fits no recognizable pattern. And if our friend had shown us a string of letters like "BLUE" we would have said that it was specified but not complex. It fits a pattern, but because the number of letter is so short, the likelihood of getting such a string is relatively high. Four slots don’t give you as many possible letter combinations as 143, which is the length of our Gettysburg sentence.

So that’s the basic notion of specified complexity. But let’s elaborate the idea by looking at an example that doesn’t involve letters.

Imagine that you’re standing in a football stadium that’s covered by a dome. The stadium is well lit, and as you look around, you discover three red bull’s eyes. One is painted on the dome overhead and two are painted on seats. Upon closer inspection, you find that the bull’s eye on one of the seats has an arrow sticking in it, dead center.

As you’re looking at the arrow, your Scrabble-playing friend enters the stadium. He shouts a greeting and hurries over to where you’re standing.

"I see you found my handiwork," he says. "I did that just a few minutes ago. I turned off the lights, entered the stadium, spun around a couple of times and shot an arrow in the dark. When I turned lights back on, I discovered that the arrow had struck a bull’s eye. In fact, I’ve shot several arrows that way, and every time I fired a shot, it hit a bull’s eye."

What would you think about your friend’s story? As with the Gettysburg sentence, you’d be very skeptical. The odds of hitting a bull’s eye without aiming are so low that you doubt he could have done it even once, let alone several times in a row.

But as with the Gettysburg example, there’s more to it than low probability. If your friend had told you that he’d never hit a target, and that his arrow had landed in a different spot every time, you’d probably believe him. Why? Because his shots fit no discernable pattern, as defined by the targets.

Now we’re in a position to give a broader description of specified complexity: Specified complexity is displayed by any object or event that has an extremely low probability of occurring by chance, and matches a discernable pattern. According to contemporary design theory, the presence of highly specified complexity is an indicator of an intelligent cause.

ARN Recommends: For more information on complex specified information see:
The Design Inference: Eliminating Chance through Small Probabilities William A. Dembski
Intelligent Design William A. Dembski

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