On Recognizing Design

On Recognizing Design February 23, 2015

The Cult of Dusty guy (Dusty), recently put out a video (below) about yet another of Joshua Feuerstien’s not-researched disproofs of evolution. It’s an extremely caustic video, probably NSFW, yet, strangely satisfying. I take issue (not necessarily with this video) with his word choices often, such as being ableist, so it’d be nice if he dialed that back. But here it is:

If you want to watch the original Joshua video, go ahead. I’d rather Dusty get the views rather than intentionally-sabotaged-baseball-cap man.

It’s one of those videos where I’d like to pipe in with more detail, so here I go.

I get the distinct impression that when a creationist uses the term “evolution”, he/she does not mean “change in allele frequency in a population over multiple generations“, but rather, as a blanket “it wasn’t done by God” statement.

Joshua has 3 or 4 basic arguments, one of which is that one can ask any scientist, and they’ll all tell you that DNA doesn’t gain information (I’m guessing he never heard of gene duplication or point insertions… just a guess). More mystifying was his subsequent claim that “we’re actually only losing information.” I get that point deletions, among other mutations, exist, but it’s strange that he’d accept the data we know from genetics, that shows loss of information, but reject the same data that shows that we can gain information too. I’m wondering if he’s talking about something specific that I’ve never heard about.

What I’d like to talk about is his first point – we can recognize design.

No, actually, we don’t. We recognize human patterns. His example, if you have any brain cells to work with, is that we can look at Mt. Rushmore, and see the design. We can see this in nature, and just tell.


No, wait, sorry that’s not it. That’s the “Old Man of the Mountains Franconia”, New Hampshire. It’s since fallen apart, unfortunately. Mt. Rushmore looks a lot more like a face (or faces):

Martian Face

The hell… that’s not it either. That’s the Martian face, on Mars. Mt. Rushmore is actually on Earth:


Damn it! Fuck. No, that’s not Mt. Rushmore. That’s a rock formation in Goblin Valley, Utah. Mt. Rushmore has four faces:


Gah! No, that’s a rock formation in Walden, CO.


There, finally! That’s Mt. Rushmore.

The core problem here is that there’s an underlying premise to the argument that’s unsubstantiated – if we have a perception of a thing, that perception is necessarily accurate. It’s a declaration of the absolute accuracy of our pattern recognition, which, as you can see, can produce a lot of false positives. While the previous examples might be rather coarse, compared to Mt. Rushmore, many are ambiguous – were they specifically sculpted by intelligence, or were they naturally occurring?

Johsua Feuerstien is right in a limited sense. We are recognizing something… but what is it? What we have here is a very subtle equivocation. Are we recognizing design, or are we recognizing, instead, patterns of human construction that we’ve grown up with, throughout our lives? What we’re recognizing in Mt. Rushmore are human-made statues.

If anything like absolute certainty exists, this would be it: whenever someone like Joshua uses this argument, it’s guaranteed that they’ll cite an example of something you’ve been taught was designed or have observed being designed. They’ll cite buildings, cars or paintings. In short, they keep citing human patterns, not general design patterns. You will always have a familiarity bias with the examples.

How can we tell whether we’re “seeing design” versus recognizing specifically human construction? We have a tool: falsification.

Suppose we observe the below:

"BeaverDam 8409". Licensed under CC BY 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons.
BeaverDam 8409“. Licensed under CC BY 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons.

Do you recognize it? It’s a beaver dam. You might walk by such a thing without thinking it was anything more than a clot in the river from debris. In reality, they’re intentionally constructed by an intelligence for a purpose. They even tend to have inner chambers and other functions.

Unless a person is already familiar with the fact it’s designed, that recognition may never happen. The instant we remove the obvious human examples, that magical capacity to see design… just by looking at it, vanishes.

What’s more, humans can spend a great deal of intelligence and effort into mimicking objects that are otherwise naturally occurring. For instance, one can buy artificial styrofoam rocks.

Here’s a quiz – which of the three rocks below is the artificial, styrofoam rock?

Source - click thumb to enlarge.
Source – click thumb to enlarge.

A number of the readers may not quite catch – they’re all fake. They were intentionally designed to have the appearance of something that’s not designed. Some of you might have caught my subtle priming – “which of these three rocks is artificial“. With a subtle power of suggestion, you may have began examining the rocks fully expecting at least one of them to be a real, naturally occurring one.

That’s how monumentally fickle and prone to error our perceptions are.

You’re welcome, fake rock company, for the link-back.

So let’s review up to this point.

  1. We have instances where our ability to detect design is triggering on things that aren’t.
  2. We have instances where our ability to detect design should be trigger, but isn’t.
  3. We have things that are designed, but don’t “look like it.”
  4. We have things that aren’t designed, but look like they are.

What a crappy way of determining design…

So, how could we detect design?

Presumably, unless Joshua Feuerstein is talking about some kind of ESP, like a Spidey-sense, when we’re discussing “looking at” something, to determine whether it’s designed, we’re talking about an analysis of attributes.

… but what attributes? Complexity?

Company Logos

Company logos are extremely designed, yet, extremely simple. Compare that to the rock faces above, or something as straight forward as a pile sand. If we’re looking for a means of “measuring” complexity, one way of doing so is to determining how much time it’d take to accurately draw a thing. Drawing the Nike logo might take a matter of seconds. On the other hand, drawing the intricacies of a randomly fractured rock face could take hours.

So complexity isn’t it…

What about geometric shapes? Houses and many household items are very boxy.

"2780M-pyrite1" by CarlesMillan - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
2780M-pyrite1” by CarlesMillanOwn work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

The above is Pyrite (fool’s gold), one of my favorites. No, they’re not cut that way. They literally often come out of the ground like that. I used to dig these things up when I was younger. It’s not unusual to dig up dodecahedron-shaped Garnets either. It’s just how the crystal lattice grows.

How about artificial materials?

Could that determine design? For instance, are there any plants or animals out there that have alloys like Bronze, for shells? Or maybe materials like nylon? Artificial materials do work fairly well, as far as I’m concerned, but unfortunately for creationists, this metric effectively rules out the entire biological world as designed.

How about “specific complexity”? What is that? I examined an explanation last time, but  here’s the gist of it (as far as I understand. They’re not entirely lucid about the topic)…

In order for something like DNA to correctly produce something like a needed protein, there’s a whole lot of wrong ways for the DNA sequence to be ordered… and only one right way (the “right” way is the “specified” way). In fact, the probability of that happenng randomly is too unlikely, therefore, the only thing that could overcome that – intelligence – must have done it.

I have three basic problems with it.

  • What qualifies as “specified” is very often a subjective analysis by the claimant, and relies heavily on both the claimant’s and audience’s ignorance.
  • There’s many assumptions about what mechanisms are at play, or could be at play, that’d solve the probability problem. It largely ignores that nature could have a mechanism that produces “specified” order (in evolution, the primary example would be Natural Selection)
  • Ultimately, it’s an argument from ignorance. Because they can’t think of any other way, they’ll plug in an intelligence as the answer without any positive supporting evidence.

In terms of determining design, it’s mostly smoke and mirrors. We don’t have that many examples to assess whether this method works well, considering that many examples (such as DNA) are in dispute, they can’t really be used as examples. So again, we only have human construction to work with.

A Challenge

While not a challenge with a monetary reward, I’d like to challenge people like Joshua Feuerstein with an academic exercise.

Please come up with a set of attributes – whether they work stand-alone or in conjunction with other attributes – that consistently and exclusively indicate design. As in, if something matches these attributes, we have a 95% or better chance of accurately assessing whether it was designed. 

Note: Since we’re in dispute as to whether the biological world is designed or not, it can’t be factored into the whether the above attributes work. The biological world is what we’re assessing whether it’s designed or not, based on those attributes.

Honestly, I think the exercise is rather pointless. In order to assess what attributes indicate design, we need to be able to compare known-designed and known-not-designed groups. Between the scientist and the creationist (and yes, I contrast those two), we can’t even agree on what objects are designed or not, for comparison.

On top of that, we have to be careful about what designed vs. not-designed groups we’re examining. If we only cross-compare human construction with geological formations (beaches, rocks, etc), we might not be establishing a set of attributes that determine designed from not designed, but rather, human construction versus geology.

Just like the problems of specified complexity, the creationist must assume several negatives:

  • Nature cannot produce function
  • Nature cannot produce information
  • Nature cannot specifically order information

They try to argue it, but their approach is typically faulty.

For example, they might argue, “Outside of DNA, all other coded information we know of was designed by an intelligence, so DNA probably was too.” Keep in mind, that if we exclude DNA (because it’s what’s in dispute), all we have left is human “information”, and we have a really biased sample set. It’d be like saying that 100% of all solar systems we’ve explored so far have had at least one planet with life, therefore, 100% of all other solar systems in the universe should have life too.

Such a simple statistical analysis isn’t going to help us here, when we only have 2 different kinds information to examine – the known/observable human-generated information, and the unknown rest.

I don’t know whether DNA had an intelligent designer helping it along, or not. The only reliable way of determining whether something was (or probably was) designed is through observation… like we can observe houses being build, factories producing cars, or painters painting paintings. When we look at DNA in nature, we have no observations of any intelligence meddling with it. We only find evidence of mechanisms like natural selection, combined with information-slot-adding gene duplication, at play. So we have plenty of evidence for naturalistic causes, and no positive evidence for intelligent causes. That’s why I reject “Intelligent Design”.


In the next article, I’ll explain the overarching problems they have when trying to explain how something like Abiogenesis probabilistic couldn’t have happened.


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