Intelligently-Designed Snowflakes?

Intelligently-Designed Snowflakes? January 3, 2012

The blog Irtiqa got to a topic that I was hoping to mention. It already seemed to me that the snowflake (which in many parts of the Northern hemisphere is readily available for observation at the moment) provides a great illustration of what is wrong with Intelligent Design. Looking at a snowflake, it would be easy to say that something so beautiful, so ornate, and so logically and precisely structured must be a product of an intelligence.

That’s perhaps even more the case when one sees a relatively rare sort of snowflake (at least rare for human beings to see), such as the simple prism or triangular crystal:

Why should anyone doubt that these are the work of an intelligent Designer?

Because we understand the processes that are involved, and can replicate them.

Those who either object that aspects of biological organisms must have been designed because they appear designed or resemble the work of human planning, or because a detailed scientific explanation has yet to be offered for every aspect of a particular component, clearly have not been paying attention to the history of science.

Irtiqa’s post which I mentioned at the start of my own looks at Kepler’s brilliant attempt to explain the snowflake in terms of natural processes – and his disappointing retreat into the supernatural when he failed to do so.

If there is one thing that science has learned by our time, hopefully, it is that the appropriate response to a failure to explain is to keep trying.

Ironically, as Paul Wallace pointed out in his recent article “Intelligent Design is Dead: A Christian Perspective”, Kepler is on the whole a good example of why Christians should reject Intelligent Design. Kepler’s overall approach was that the universe is designed, and therefore it should be intelligible. ID says the opposite: if something is unintelligible, that is evidence of design.

The religious believer can delight in the snowflake as evidence of a Creator who, rather than needing to intervene in order to make each snowflake, rather than havingstorehouses of snow,” created a universe that is endowed with the ability to produce such objects of beauty.

When religious believers fail to approach biology in the same way, they turn what could be a reason for rejoicing into a battle that leaves them and their faith associated in the minds of many with lies, deception, opposition to learning, and the peddling of pseudoscience.

If you are in the second category rather than the first, please take a lesson from the snowflake. You might or might not be right in your religious beliefs, but at the very least you may avoid being wrong in your scientific ones – and making your religious beliefs look foolish because of your unnecessary repudiation of science.



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  • Cliff Martin

    Great post, James! Thank you.

  • Irtiqa’s post which I mentioned at the start of my own looks at
    Kepler’s brilliant attempt to explain the snowflake in terms of
    natural processes – and his disappointing retreat into the
    supernatural when he failed to do so.

    If there is one thing that science has learned by our time,
    hopefully, it is that the appropriate response to a failure to
    explain is to keep trying.

    Excellent point. There is no excuse in this modern age for anyone to believe in a supernatural God or supernatural entities of any sort for any reason.

    Everything — even personal conversion experiences and the ultimate origin and shape of the universe and our existence — can be explained as a matter of natural processes. If we can’t find them just yet we must not fall into the trap of resorting to supernatural explanations.

  • Noone

    Ah yes, Neil, it’s so much easier to beleive in things like Higg’s Bosons and superstrings than in silly supernatural things.  🙂

    From a snowflake to a biological system — a rather startling leap of several orders of magnitude in “comparable” examples.  I have no particular axe to grid on the theory of intelligent design, whatever people think they mean when they say that, but I am curious how many of those on either side of the question have ever read Dembski’s “The Design Inference”?  If you do bother to think about picking it up, do be warned that it does include math (at least insofar as probability theory can be considered math).

    — Ishmael

    • I read Dembski’s book quite some time ago. More recently, the BioLogos Institute had a mathematical evaluation of Dembski’s claims by a Christian:

    • No Ishmael, you are quite mistaken, I believe. I had grown up in a family believing in God, and the community around me supported that belief. It was very easy for me to believe in God. In my teenage years I questioned those beliefs as probably most teenagers do. But for whatever reasons I eventually (not very long afterwards, though) came back to belief in God.

      When I finally did seriously question God many years later it was by no means easy at all. It was extremely difficult. I was faced with a choice: to continue with my former life in which God was a central entity, or to leap into an unknown space that I had always believed would lead to damnation and hell. Faced with such a crossroads is not easy. It delivers one with some degree of trauma. One has to decide: Am I to continue with my friends, habits, ways of life and thoughts, or am I to take a step into a world that I have never before experienced, and that all my past teaches me is a world of sin, no self-control, only self-will and self-deception, etc etc etc. That is not an easy thing at all.

      The only thing that propelled me in the end was the knowledge that I must be honest with myself, that is, completely and ruthlessly honest with all that I knew. Would I become a murderer or adulterer if I was an atheist? That’s what I had always thought was on the cards — as if no Christian is ever guilty of such things.

      So I ironically prayed a last “prayer” to God and told “him” that if he was going to send me to hell for being as honest as I could be with the information I had then I could not respect him and would rather be in hell.

      After that I was in limbo, a state of unreality, without my usual bearings of anything I had been used to — it was not untraumatic.

      No. The decision to be as honest as one can possibly be with the understanding one has reached through as sincere and as open-minded a study of all sides of the question as one can think of— that is not easy.

      It took courage for me as it takes courage for anyone in such circumstances.

  • Gary

    I don’t know if I’d waste my time, and $30, on Dembski’s “The Design Inference”. Although in fairness, I am judging it on the Barnes and Noble synopsis (which I assume Dembski wrote) stating “This book presents a reliable method for detecting intelligent causes: the design inference. The design inference uncovers intelligent causes by isolating the key trademark of intelligent causes: specified events of small probability.” I guess he has no idea of probabiility theory. The probability of an electron tunneling through an energy barrier is extremely small (as determined by the mathmatics used by quantum theory), but since there are a very large number of electrons in, say, a tunnel diode, you actually see the electrons that do tunnel, as a current through the diode. Given enough opportunities (electrons), or given enough time, extremely small probabilities become observable facts. Also, not miraculous. But if you have access to a downloadable free copy, we could all spend a few hours seeing if he actually knows what he is talking about. But wouldn’t waste any money on the effort. On the “God” side of things, I wonder which is the better (smarter, more efficient) manager? One that micro-manages, and does everything himself. Or one that delegates, and lets the laws of nature do the heavy lifting.

    • Ron

      Isn’t the electron tunneling analogy similar to the lottery argument? (an evolutionist once used the argument of the small probability of one particular person winning against the long odds) Don’t the scientists (intelligent designers) who design the tunnel diode know in advance (despite the long odds of any one electron tunneling) that some will make it through?  This is apples and oranges, applying the low probability argument to evolution.  Lottery, deck of cards (royal flush), whatever…they all guarantee some arrangement/outcome of the numbered balls/cards. The laws of probability demand that someone will win a particular lottery – there will be a winner….and no one is surprised when that outcome occurs (unless you’re the one holding the ticket).  Silly argument and it’s used all the time to defend evolution.   This is analagous to me saying  “my pet hamster died, I cremated it and placed the ashes on the back patio, in the hopes that over time the raw materials (molecules) will rearrange themselves into another hamster.  I have high hopes for this occurring because I know someone won the lottery this week.  and if it doesn’t become a hamster, perhaps some other life form.  Bottom line, small probabilities (with guaranteed outcomes) need to be differentiated from zero probabilities.

  • Gary

    Dembski’s the one that wants to correlate extremely small probabilities with miracles from God, not me (at least from the B&N summary). Although you say “Don’t the scientists (intelligent designers) who design the tunnel diode”….the tunneling effect is a fact of physics. The effect is not designed by man. The tunnel diode is designed by man to make use of the tunneling effect…as you say, to allow a measureable current to flow. But you are right….there are only two states that are important for an event. Zero probability, which means it will never happen, and non-zero probability, which means it will eventually happen, given enough time/opportunity. So the BIG question, what is the probability of resurrection, zero or non-zero? A quantum event on a micro-scale will indeed happen. A macro-scale event may or may not happen….but physicists project a quantum event (on the micro-scale) occurred to create a macro-scale entity (our universe). Who would have thought it. I’ll save my $30, all the same.

  • Gary

    And thanks to James….James Bradley’s document can be downloaded, to save the $30. I’ll be interested in reading it, not Dembski.

  • Just Sayin’

    Plantinga has some thoughts relevant to snowflakes in pages 240-264 of Where the Conflict Really Lies.  He distinguishes between “design arguments” and “design discourse.”  In other words (as I understand him), he’s saying that ministers can still preach meaningfully on the “majesty of the snowflake” or whatever but it doesn’t constitute an *argument* for design.
    I’ve just read this and haven’t had time to think about it, so I’m reporting rather than endorsing/unendorsing.

  • JDatty

    The snowflake conveys no information.

  • Matmulca

    I say this… Yes man can create a snowflake. However, man can not create galaxies that hold things such as snow. The fact that such a minute detail was place inside a galaxy so big and so detailed, shows evident signs that there was an intelligent designer. The reason you do not believe in an intelligent designer is because you are ignorant. You obviously see the work of design every day. If you saw a painting of a “snowflake” (since you picked a boring topic) you would know that somehow that snowflake painting was created. Your first thought would not be “Oh shoot, how the heck did this come out of nowhere?” Rather you would inherently know that the painting had a painter. You can not deny the fact that the painting was painted by a being, if not you are being ignorant. It is the same thing with this universe and everything in it. You can not possibly look at it and blatantly declared that every thing you see came from “nothing.” That is the biggest boast of arrogance a man can make. You are obviously trying to avoid the fact that there was an intelligent designer when there are signs all around you of one!

  • First, let me address the problem with your analogy. Someone can paint a picture of a cloud. Obviously the picture was made by human beings, but this post was not about pictures of things in nature, but the things in nature themselves. Clouds likewise come about through processes that we can understand, and the fact that one can paint them seems to have no relevance to that.

    Either you did not understand the point of this post, or you are not aware what Intelligent Design claims. ID is not about merely claiming that the universe is wondrous and can be viewed as pointing beyond itself to God, which plenty of scientists would agree with. ID involves claiming that, in order to point beyond itself to God, the explanations of biological phenomena in natural terms which science offers must be wrong. There is an enormous difference, and it isn’t clear from what you wrote that you would side with Intelligent Design and its anti-science stance, as opposed to with mainstream science as most religious people involved in scientific research understand and appreciate it.

  • tadah

    Snowflakes are an icy form that manifest and emerge from the laws of physics. It has been found that the laws of Physics are specifically tuned like settings on
    a radio dial to encourage and insure the survival and manifestation of life as we know it on earth. Hence snowflakes would be a symmetrical tangible proof of the intelligently wrought forces of nature that manifest order from chaos.

    The multidimensional faceted forces of nature fine tuned to manifest incredible biological manifestations proves that these forces work together in a symphonic orchestration that produce the symmetrical tangible shapes and forms we see in nature, and therefore can not be categorized as products of random nonsensical forces emerging from a blind chaos driven process.

    Intelligence produces order, whereas the lack of intelligence produces chaos.

    For example I suppose one could insist that the black forms and notes on a score of music are not indicative of intelligent design, yet it doesn’t require a rocket scientist’s brain to recognize that sound waves emerging from various musical instruments that our ears translate and recognize as being beautiful music, yet would be nothing but a discombobulated dissonant caca-phony were it not for an intelligent mind with a knack for creative musicality to pen the black notes on the musical score into a specific mathematically based code that other intelligent beings can then read from to then play their various musical instruments to produce invisible sound waves that translates into a beautiful symphony.

    Ironically, it requires a certain level of intelligent consciousness to recognize something that has been intelligently manifested, which leads to the conclusion that the mind of primates would be incapable of such.

  • Josey Wails

    This is a misguided article. Understanding the sciences—physics, biology etc, does not fly in the face of intelligent design. The two coexist. So we have acknowledged that snowflakes take the most efficient form and they can be replicated, therefore the possibility of a higher power does not exist…a non sequitur if I ever heard one.

  • Josey Wails

    This is a misguided article. Understanding the sciences—physics, biology etc, does not fly in the face of intelligent design. The two coexist. So we have acknowledged that snowflakes take the most efficient form and they can be replicated, therefore the possibility of a higher power does not exist…a non sequitur if I ever heard one.

    • You seem to have misunderstood things you’ve read both here and elsewhere. If you are referring to science-denying forms of “Intelligent Design” then there are indeed issues. If you mean the broader notion that there may be design in the universe, understood in ways that do not involve rejecting the conclusions of science, then that is of course true – and not the stance of the movement that uses the label “Intelligent Design” and denies biological evolution in particular.