Fresh Brains in Singapore

Lim Leng Hiong is a graduate student in Singapore. He writes a blog called Fresh Brainz. It’s interesting to see the world of science and other aspects of life through his lens.

He has an excellent post about the fallacy of irreducible complexity. He gives a brief overview of 18th-century theologian William Paley’s watchmaker’s analogy:

Hey, living things are complex things too! In comparison to a watch, a human being contains way, way more parts. All these parts must fit together perfectly in order for a person to be alive. Since brass watches are made by smart people, living things must be made by an even smarter “person”, why, this is the ultimate proof of the existence of an intelligent, Designer God!

Hiong doesn’t mention the logical hazards of arguing by analogy, so I will. Analogies are a great way to illustrate a point, but you have to know where it breaks down. Almost all analogies break down at some point, some earlier than others. Also, there are often assumptions built into the analogy that may bias your reaction. This is probably one reason they’re effective arguing techniques. When you hear an analogy, ask yourself how far the analogy can be extended, and what assumptions are built into it.

In the case of the watch, yes, watches are complicated and humans are more so. The analogy can’t be taken very far, because watches aren’t alive. Watches don’t reproduce. There’s a whole host of differences. One of the assumptions built into this analogy is that the only way something complex could come into existence is if it is intentionally created by an intelligent, sentient being. That forces the listener to only think along that one track. It makes the argument seem compelling. It is, however, ridiculous. There are other ways complex things can be created.

Snowflakes are complex and very ordered. How does something ordered come out of the random swirls of water vapor and low temperatures? A living creature is, of course, way more complicated than a snowflake, but this simple example shows how order can arise from chaos, complexity from simplicity. All that evolution requires is small, incremental steps.

In fact, this illustrates the absurdity of taking an analogy too far. Snowflakes are complex. Snowflakes were formed in the clouds out of water vapor. Humans are more complex than snowflakes. Therefore, humans were formed in the clouds out of water vapor! (or supernatural clouds out of cosmic water vapor)

The Fresh Brainz Approach

The above was my anemic attempt to refute the watchmaker’s analogy. I think that Hiong does a better job with his comparison of a watch to a baby. Go check it out. You can read the entire article at his blog.

(Thanks to Cabbie X for this tip!)

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