Chopsticks, Spoons, & Snowflakes and another Design Critique Fail

ID Objection Neglects the Specificity Component of the Inference to Design

In a recent online debate which broke out in a comment section on the YouTube channel for the Discovery Institute, one respondent who shall remain anonymous levelled what might be mistaken for a trenchant critique of the “complexity” point of the specified complexity element in the design argument. The objection went like this:

Spoons and chopsticks both have shapes that are far simpler, far less complex than the shapes of snowflakes.

Snowflakes are not designed by an intelligence. They form their elegant structures under proper conditions of ambient climate, the right range of temperature and relative humidity, according to specific and predictable rules.

Spoons and chopsticks do not form naturally.

The snowflake is more complex than the spoon or the chopstick, ergo the inference that complexity supports the design argument must be bunk.

That might be a solid refutation of the design argument—instead of a strawman—if the design argument posited only that simple, repeating patterns with predictable variations were all that is required to constitute complexity or that a discernible form taken by a complex structure all by itself were sufficient to infer design. But the critique only works if complexity is understood superficially and does not include such elements of complexity as non-linear patterns and non-repeating elements in information-bearing systems. That is to say, this particular straw man can only stand if complexity as a concept is simplified and flattened, and only if the specificity criteria is left out of the design argument.

What do we mean by complexity in this sense - one that takes into account specificity? A good working definition is this: non-linear patterns that build their own changes in state that lead to stable structures that serve a discernible intended purpose.

Regularity is the key element in naturally occurring complex phenomena, such as the formation of crystals or the patterns of currents that form in dynamic gases. Fractal patterns, mathematical structures that follow the Fibonacci sequence, alternating bilateral or radial symmetries, and other patterns that are observed in the formation of crystals, in geological formations, and many life forms (plants especially) can and often do evince complexity by this definition. These forms evince repeating regularities, to be sure, but nothing of the form required to serve a specific purpose, even a simple one.

Specified Complexities

And that brings me back to chopsticks and spoons, neither of which grows on trees or naturally occurs randomly lying around on the beaches of the world. Trust me, I’ve looked. You can, however, find scores of videos about how to make each of these objects. You can find videos on how to make chopsticks from wood, metal, scrap plastic, or other materials. But not every type of wood, every metal, or every grade of plastic is suited for making chopsticks.

Likewise, you can find scores of videos on how to make spoons, even some that call spoon-making “an art” - which is to say, an activity requiring both intelligence and aesthetic sense to accomplish it successfully. It seems that the particular shapes of these objects, their surface finishing, and their respective sizes and dimensions, really are highly specific, since they must serve the complex purpose for which they are intended – that of feeding people.

Think about that purpose for a moment. The intended action places a series of very particular demands on the objects in question. Don’t believe me? Then plug the phrases “how to make chopsticks” and “how to make spoons” into the video section of your search engine of choice. Once the hits come in, take the time to watch a few of the hundreds of videos you will find. Soon, you will gain an appreciation of the specificity of the complexity of the spoon and the humble chopstick.

These items have to be of a certain size and shape, in order to reliably deliver morsels of solid food or limited amounts of liquids of appropriate size or amount that will fit comfortably in a human mouth. To perform their function, chopsticks cannot be too long or too thick in diameter. Think about heat. They cannot conduct too much or too little heat—lest they damage the tongue, lips, and palate of the person using them. Think about sharpness or bluntness. Chopsticks have to be blunt or rounded, not sharp, so that they are less likely to inflict cuts on the oral cavity.

And spoons? Like chopsticks, they too have to be specific in design to meet a particular function, which again, is to convey foods, including liquids and semi-liquids like icecream, yogurt, or jellies and jams to human mouths. Spoons, like chopsticks, cannot be too large or too small, conduct too much or too little heat; we all want that soup or stew to be tolerably warm when it reaches our mouth. And they cannot have edges sharp enough to cut our tongues, lips, or palates while delivering that Progresso Chunky Chicken or Dinty Moore Beef to the input station for our digestive tracts. Quite a lot of intelligence goes into the design of these apparently simple, but obviously man-made, objects.

Specified for a Purpose

All of this means that the “simple” spoon and the “simple” set of chopsticks are, in fact, too complex to occur naturally, without the intervention of an intelligent agent making them into what they are. These apparently simple objects, which certainly appear to be less complex in structure than a head of broccoli or the coastline of a continent, are rendered more complex than those other objects because of the physical constraints on their shape and material composition made necessary by their intended function.

This principle is also at work in every one of the thousands of chemical components in every living cell. When scientists like Fazale Rana or Michael Behe or James Tour make arguments from design in molecular biochemistry, their arguments do not just rest on the improbable nature of a structure per se, as if they were unaware of the constructive capacities of chance and natural laws. They are quite aware of these capacities, and of their limitations when confronted with the specifity of the types of complexity demanded by the chemical strucutures that compose living organisms.

The sort of complexity that can be accounted for by self-organisation and natural laws can be distinguished from the kind of complexity indicating the intervention of an intelligent agent. The sticking point is determining where that boundary lies, and what objects fall on which side of it. As a dismissal of intelligent design, the facile appeal to apparent simplicity stumbles when confronted with this very boundary.

is a professional translator, missionary, and writer living in Germany, where he works with several different ministries, and lives in a Christian intentional community. He has written academic articles on medieval literature and culture and has published essays in Salvo, First Things, and Boundless. He is a native of Indiana.

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