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Papa Makes a Humdinger

My grandfather, about whom I have written before in these pages, was an extraordinary man.  Born in 1910, he left school after the second grade to go to work shortly after the great flu pandemic of 1918.  He was, however, a prodigious autodidact, and when he died his library ran into the thousands of volumes.  He had many talents, but his true genius lay in things mechanical.  He was a highly skilled tool and die maker at a multi-national manufacturing company, and it was ironic but not unusual for college educated engineers to consult with this second grade dropout on particularly thorny problems.

Papa also made machines for his own amusement, and what wonderful, whimsical, marvelous machines he made.  I remember one machine in particular.  On a large platform stood several mechanical men about six inches tall.  The men were animated by an electric motor attached to a series of pulleys and levers out of sight underneath the platform. 

When one turned the machine on the first man bent over and operated a lever that released a small metal ball to roll down a ramp.  A second man bent over, picked the ball up, stood up, turned to his right and dropped the ball into the hands of a third man, who turned to his right and tossed the ball through the air into a basket.  The next man caught the ball when it dropped out of the bottom of the basket and turned around and dropped the ball into a tube.  The next two men worked in tandem.  The first poked the second in the rear end with a pitchfork, which caused him to rear up with a sledgehammer and strike a target, which appeared to cause a blast of air that propelled the ball through the tube into a glass covered maze.  The ball then wended its way through the maze and exited onto the same ramp where it began.  When I was a boy I used to sit for hours at a time watching the little men pass the ball around.

Now suppose that instead of living in the last century my grandfather were to live in the next century with access to the fantastical, yet undreamt of technology that will be commonplace one hundred years from now.  Suppose further that papa were to use that technology to build a new whimsical machine that we will call a Humdinger.  A Humdinger is a tiny robot made of plastic and metal controlled by a computer using standard binary programming code that does one and only one thing – it makes exact copies of itself, each of which in turn makes an exact copy of itself and so on until they run out of building material.  Finally, suppose my grandfather takes an extended vacation and while he is gone someone walks into his shop and observes the little Humdingers working away making exact copies of themselves.

Consider the following questions:

1.  Is there any doubt that the observer will conclude that someone must have built these Humdingers?  That is to say, he concludes that it is certain that the Humdingers were designed for a purpose and they are not the product of unguided natural forces.

2.  If the observer takes a Humdinger apart and sees that it is made of metal and plastic and is guided by a binary computer program, will he not conclude further that the Humdinger was built by a fellow human and there is absolutely no need to posit divine cause for the Humdingers?

3.  Suppose that instead of using metal and plastic to build the Humdinger, papa were to use carbon based materials.  And suppose further that instead of using a binary computer code to regulate its movements, he used a much more complicated quaternary code.  Would a design inference that does not require resort to a divine power be any less warranted?

Here is how I would answer these questions:

1.  No, the design inferences is inescapable.

2.  Yes, it is obvious that he is examining a sophisticated example of the type of machines that have been around for decades.

3.  No.  In fact, this new machine is even more sophisticated than the original Humdinger, which means that if anything, the design inference is strengthened.

Final question.

Every living cell is a self-replicating carbon based nanobot controlled by a complicated quaternary code.  Why should the design inference be any less compelled than for a Humdinger?

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18 Responses to Papa Makes a Humdinger

  1. Better question:

    What if Darwin instead had lived in an age of electron microscopes, genome mappers and nano-technology? Would Darwin today have argued for random chance and natural selection to explain all life?

    Or would someone else (proto-Dawkins) inevitably have drawn the wrong uninformed inferences 175 years ago?

    Would anything be different?

  2. Paley said it better two centuries ago, which is why I sometimes refer to ID as “neo-Paleyism” (in parallel construction with “neo-Darwinism”). But Paley’s “natural theology” has not fared well over the past two centuries, and indeed is considered by many theologians today as having done much more harm than good. By contrast, Darwin’s “natural history” has burgeoned tremendously over the past century and a half, to the point that the current “post-modern evolving synthesis” is more vital and productive than ever.

    BTW, Darwin himself wrote in his autobiography that Paley’s Natural Theology was one of his favorite books from his years at university, the other being Paley’s A View of the Evidences of Christianity, which Darwin read as part of his training to become an Anglican minister (a calling which he later dropped to become a naturalist).

  3. Mr Arrington,

    Why should the design inference be any less compelled than for a Humdinger?

    If simpler and simpler Humdingers were fossilized in rock going back millions and billions of years, I would doubt the one I saw in your grandfather’s workshop was designed. It would be a clue that Humdingers developed from simpler Humdingers, and it would push the origin of Humdingers beyond the evidence for any intelligent agent similar to myself – the only kind of intelligent agent I can reliably detect.

    If the workings of the Humdinger shaded imperceptibly into chemistry, I would doubt it was designed. It would be a clue that Humdingers developed gradually and without intelligent input from natural materials occuring on the surface of the earth.

    If Humdingers all over the world had similar functions, but clearly demarcated geographic distributions, I would doubt it was designed. It would be a clue that Humdingers had a historical and contingent development and distribution across the planet.

    If I watched Humdingers replicate and they didn’t always made an exact copy of themselves, I would doubt it was designed. It would be a clue that variation allowed Humdingers to develop from simpler versions.

    On the other hand –

    If I found the Humdingers in the workshop of a capable human, I would have a clue they were designed.

    If the Humdingers bore no resemblance to objects I knew can be created natually, I would have a clue they were designed.

    If there were no history of Humdingers in the world, I would have a clue they were designed.

    If the error rate in the Humdingers’ self-replication was so low as to be undetectable, I would have a clue they were designed.

  4. Nakashima’s answer is very good but IMO only gets one to common descent or descent with modification. I have asked evolutionists who believe the modern synthesis is adequate, “How do we know that the back side of Mt Improbable does not contain cliffs” or “How do we know that time is really deep enough for the mechanism you propose to produce what we see today” So far the silence is deafening.

    Dave W

  5. 6

    1. Nakashima writes: “If simpler and simpler Humdingers were fossilized in rock going back millions and billions of years”

    The questions were asked in the context of the cell. Your evidence that millions and billions of years ago cells were simpler than they are now is . . . . . [crickets]

    2. “beyond the evidence for any intelligent agent similar to myself – the only kind of intelligent agent I can reliably detect.”

    You imply that, in principle , only human agency can be reliably detected. The logical premise for this statements is . . . . [more crickets]

    3. “If the workings of the Humdinger shaded imperceptibly into chemistry, I would doubt it was designed.”

    You seem to be asserting that the most simple cells we know of shade “imperceptibly into chemistry.” That anyone would believe this glaringly false statement truly beggars belief. It is akin to saying that aircraft carriers shade imperceptibly into deposits of iron ore.

    4. “If Humdingers all over the world had similar functions, but clearly demarcated geographic distributions, I would doubt it was designed.”

    So if you went into my grandfather’s shop and found Humdingers and then you went to a dozen other shops around the world and found Humdingers, you would doubt design. Interesting, if I found very similar, staggeringly complex nanobots in several different shops around the world, the first thing I would think is “Hey, the design of these machines if very similar. That can’t be a coincidence. They must be made from a common plan.”

    5. “If I watched Humdingers replicate and they didn’t always made an exact copy of themselves, I would doubt it was designed.”

    Design must be perfect before design can be inferred? You have a lifetime of experience dealing with designed things. Can you give me one example of a perfect design that cannot possible be improved?

    6. “If the Humdingers bore no resemblance to objects I knew can be created naturally, I would have a clue they were designed.”

    Do you ever get dizzy when you employ obviously circular reasoning like this? There is a radical discontinuity between the most simple cell and the bare chemical building blocks of life. 150 years after Darwin speculated about life beginning in some warm little pond we are no closer we are no closer to bridging that gap. Your faith in material processes’ ability to bridge that gap is just that – faith. Your faith commitments do not count as evidence. Neither do mine. On what basis can you say you “know” life can be created by unguided natural processes? Sorry, but your rhetoric has outstripped your evidence.

    7. “If there were no history of Humdingers in the world, I would have a clue they were designed.”

    Another circular argument.

    8. “If the error rate in the Humdingers’ self-replication was so low as to be undetectable, I would have a clue they were designed.”

    Just a restatement of the argument rebutted at 5 above.

    Nakashima, your arguments are textbook examples of the basic Darwinian fallacy. Darwinism always workds perfectly if one assumes it is correct. But of course, whether it is correct is the very issue in question.

  6. “By contrast, Darwin’s “natural history” has burgeoned tremendously over the past century and a half, to the point that the current “post-modern evolving synthesis” is more vital and productive than ever.”

    Nonsense Allen and you know better. Why make such a preposterous statement? Darwin is a complete failure at the origins of complex novel capabilities, the one thing he really wanted to explain.

  7. “If I watched Humdingers replicate and they didn’t always made an exact copy of themselves, I would doubt it was designed. It would be a clue that variation allowed Humdingers to develop from simpler versions.”

    No this is an indication of great design since these types of Humdingers are on their own and the designer had to prepare for lots of potential futures. What marvelous design built in to this incredibly complicated but flexible entity.

    The second thing that is so glaring wrong is that there are billions of instances of small changes but zero instances of big changes. So you would think that in the 3.5 billion years since life appeared there would be at least one example to show how a simpler version turned into a real Humdinger.

  8. Mr Arrington,

    Your evidence that millions and billions of years ago cells were simpler than they are now is . . . . . [crickets]

    Bacteria and Archaea seem to be older than Eukarya. Eukarya have more complicated cells – organelles, cell membranes, nucleus, etc.

    You imply that, in principle , only human agency can be reliably detected. The logical premise for this statements is . . . . [more crickets]

    What are the idicia of design of an intelligent giant squid? It is the leap from humanity to God that is premised on crickets. We know that was God designing intelligently because, gosh, its just what a human would do!

    You seem to be asserting that the most simple cells we know of shade “imperceptibly into chemistry.” That anyone would believe this glaringly false statement truly beggars belief.

    And yet, you don’t bring a counter-example, you just express personal incredulity. If it was truly glaringly false there would be a counter-example close at hand, wouldn’t there?

    It is akin to saying that aircraft carriers shade imperceptibly into deposits of iron ore.

    That actually is a pretty good analogy! ;)

    So if you went into my grandfather’s shop and found Humdingers and then you went to a dozen other shops around the world and found Humdingers, you would doubt design.

    No, not into other workshops, into the world.

    Can you give me one example of a perfect design that cannot possible be improved?

    You are either conflating or confounding unchanged and improved. With modern information technology such as error correcting codes, it is possible to design a computer that won’t make copying errors such as we see in DNA. Humdingers built a hundred years from now to make exact copies (your words) will make exact copies. Things in nature do not make exact copies.

    There is a radical discontinuity between the most simple cell and the bare chemical building blocks of life.

    Where? There is no elan vital. I agree there is a radical discontinuity in our knowledge, but as your own thought experiment shows, in a hundred years it is easy to believe that we, limited humans though we are, will be able to build life from the ground up out of only material parts. You can’t have it both ways.

    On what basis can you say you “know” life can be created by unguided natural processes? Sorry, but your rhetoric has outstripped your evidence.

    In this case, it is your rhetoric that has outstripped the evidence of my words. I didn’t say “life”. I said objects that can be created naturally. I’ve never seen a microprocessor created naturally. The purity of the silicon substrate, the precise layout of the wires and junctions in three dimensioins, accomplished by doping with elements that are very rare on the surface of the planet, to acheive effects that rely on quantum physics to work. Semiconductor physics doesn’t shade imperceptibly into the chemistry of gases, water, UV radiation and dirt.

    7. “If there were no history of Humdingers in the world, I would have a clue they were designed.”

    Another circular argument.

    Really? Sudden appearance of new features, an entirely new object, isn’t evidence of design? I think Alfred Russell Wallace would disagree with you.

    Nakashima, your arguments are textbook examples of the basic Darwinian fallacy.

    Thank you for noticing that I have patterned my response on the clues and lines of evidence received from the fossil record, biogeography, and the principles of variation.

  9. 10

    Barry: Your evidence that millions and billions of years ago cells were simpler than they are now is . . . . . [crickets]

    Nakashima: Bacteria and Archaea seem to be older than Eukarya. Eukarya have more complicated cells – organelles, cell membranes, nucleus, etc.

    Barry again: The question was not evidence you have that some currently existing cells are simpler than other currently existing cells. What evidence do you have that cells millions and billions of years ago were simpler than they are now? Since you changed the subject, I will assume the answer is “none.” This is not surprising, because even the simplest conceivable cell still has literally hundreds of parts, every one of which is necessary for function. The idea that a nano-machine with hundreds of parts cold spontaneously form itself out of constituent chemicals is risible.

    Barry: You imply that, in principle , only human agency can be reliably detected. The logical premise for this statements is . . . . [more crickets]

    Nakashima: What are the idicia of design of an intelligent giant squid? It is the leap from humanity to God that is premised on crickets. We know that was God designing intelligently because, gosh, its just what a human would do!

    Barry again: Your response is absurd. I expect better from you. The indicia of design are (1) complex specified information; and (2) irreducible complexity. Your suggestion that these indicia might vary from one type of intelligent agent to another is based on nothing.

    Barry: You seem to be asserting that the most simple cells we know of shade “imperceptibly into chemistry.” That anyone would believe this glaringly false statement truly beggars belief.

    Nakashima: And yet, you don’t bring a counter-example, you just express personal incredulity. If it was truly glaringly false there would be a counter-example close at hand, wouldn’t there?

    Barry again: Counter-example? Counter-example of what? You are the one who made a claim. You claim that cells shade “imperceptibly into chemistry.” Your evidence for this claim is . . .? Again, you have nothing to back it up other than your steadfast unshakable faith in materialism. Origin of life research is moribund for a good reason. They are attempting to surmount an obstacle that is literally insurmountable.

    Barry: So if you went into my grandfather’s shop and found Humdingers and then you went to a dozen other shops around the world and found Humdingers, you would doubt design.

    Nakashima: No, not into other workshops, into the world.

    Barry again: The other workshops are a metaphor for the world. Everywhere you go, you see design staring you in the face. Only someone who has a prior commitment to philosophical materialism fails to see it.

    Barry: Can you give me one example of a perfect design that cannot possible be improved?

    Nakashima You are either conflating or confounding unchanged and improved. With modern information technology such as error correcting codes, it is possible to design a computer that won’t make copying errors such as we see in DNA. Humdingers built a hundred years from now to make exact copies (your words) will make exact copies. Things in nature do not make exact copies.

    Barry again: You are making a theological argument in a science discussion. You assume the designer, if one existed, would be a deity, and your deity would make things so that there would never be mutations, and then you conclude that since mutations exist the designer does not exist. Nakashima, I will be happy to have a theological debate with you at another time. But if you have “scientific” arguments to bring to bear in this discussion, by all means do so.

    Barry: There is a radical discontinuity between the most simple cell and the bare chemical building blocks of life.

    Nakashima: Where? There is no elan vital. I agree there is a radical discontinuity in our knowledge, but as your own thought experiment shows, in a hundred years it is easy to believe that we, limited humans though we are, will be able to build life from the ground up out of only material parts. You can’t have it both ways.

    Barry again: Now you have descended into gross denialism. Again, I expect more of you. You cannot in good faith deny that the most simple living thing that we know of (and the most simple living thing that we can conceive of) is still staggeringly complex, containing hundreds of interrelated parts. Darwin thought a cell is nothing but a simple bag of chemicals that could easily be assembled from the ground up. His naiveté is a luxury that 21st century Darwinists such as yourself can no longer indulge. So, please, stop insulting our intelligence with arguments like this.

    Barry: On what basis can you say you “know” life can be created by unguided natural processes? Sorry, but your rhetoric has outstripped your evidence.

    Nakashima In this case, it is your rhetoric that has outstripped the evidence of my words. I didn’t say “life”. I said objects that can be created naturally. I’ve never seen a microprocessor created naturally. The purity of the silicon substrate, the precise layout of the wires and junctions in three dimensioins, accomplished by doping with elements that are very rare on the surface of the planet, to acheive effects that rely on quantum physics to work. Semiconductor physics doesn’t shade imperceptibly into the chemistry of gases, water, UV radiation and dirt.

    Barry again: So you are finally admitting that objective indicia of design exist!! Great news. Now, the next step is when you realize that the quaternary computer code embedded in the DNA molecule is several orders of magnitude more complex than the binary code used in the computer you describe and the intricate and elegant nano-technology in every cell is several orders of magnitude more complex than the computer hardware you describe. You seem to succumb to a logical fallacy that I shall call the “familiarity breeds contempt fallacy.” You assume that just because the designer’s wondrous works are commonplace they are not wondrous. Think about it.

  10. From Barry “This is not surprising, because even the simplest conceivable cell still has literally hundreds of parts, every one of which is necessary for function.”

    Exactly. It’s a myth that early life or first life was SIMPLE. All life was, is, and most probably will be more complex than the finest human technology. If Nakashima will not see that, well then, he will not see it. To even have to have this conversation ad infinitum is tedious in the extreme and would be uproariously funny if the end game weren’t so tragic.

  11. Mr Arrington,

    For the sake of making it easier to respond to specific sections of your message, I will break up my response into several messages.

    The question was not evidence you have that some currently existing cells are simpler than other currently existing cells.

    Really? Your first response was:

    Your evidence that millions and billions of years ago cells were simpler than they are now is . . .

    Are you arguing that the cells of our bodies today are not descendants of those cells of billions of years ago?

    But the issue is somewhat simpler. The fossil record for bacteria is a billion years longer than it is for Eukarya. Banded iron formations argue that photosynthesizing eukarya made their appearance at specific point in the record. If cells as complex as they are today, such as eukarya with chloroplasts (or even free living chloroplasts as bacteria) had lived earlier, the banded iron formations would have formed earlier. Since they didn’t, that is evidence that a certain kind of complexity was not always present.

  12. Mr Arrington,

    The indicia of design are (1) complex specified information; and (2) irreducible complexity.

    This is known as assuming what you are trying to prove.

  13. Mr Arrington,

    Counter-example? Counter-example of what? You are the one who made a claim. You claim that cells shade “imperceptibly into chemistry.”

    Yes, that claim is refutable with a counter-example. If I claim “all odd numbers are prime”, you can refure that claim with a counter-example, such as 12. Oops! :) OK, 9. See how easy and powerful counter-examples are? Now you try it…

  14. Mr Arrington,

    The other workshops are a metaphor for the world.

    OK, I’ve seen this differently. The context of a workshop is a powerful clue to design in both your grandfather’s case and in other cases.

  15. Mr Arrington,

    You are making a theological argument in a science discussion.

    Hmm, error correcting codes are theological? I don’t think so.

  16. Mr Arrington,

    You cannot in good faith deny that the most simple living thing that we know of (and the most simple living thing that we can conceive of) is still staggeringly complex, containing hundreds of interrelated parts.

    Of course I don’t, but agreeing to that is not the same as agreeing that there is a radical discontinuity. Again, if you think there is a radical discontinuity, where is it? Before the chemicals of life are enclosed by a lipid bilayer or after? Before the abiotic synthesis of building blocks or after?

  17. Mr Arrington,

    So you are finally admitting that objective indicia of design exist!! Great news. Now, the next step is when you realize that the quaternary computer code embedded in the DNA molecule is several orders of magnitude more complex than the binary code used in the computer you describe and the intricate and elegant nano-technology in every cell is several orders of magnitude more complex than the computer hardware you describe.

    Err, no. If I walk across the heath and find a microprocesor lying on the ground, I think it is designed due to subjective criteria, not objective criteria. That is why my sentence begins “I’ve never seen…”

    Now, let’s talk about that several orders of magnitude difference between DNA and computer code. Do you know what “order of magnitude” means in a discussion such as this? Are you claiming to quote a measurement, a comparison done on a numeric scale, or are you blustering?

    To give this part of the discussion a head start, I’ll be honest and say that the last CPU whose instruction set I knew anything about in detail was the 6502. (Davescot, please stop laughing at me.) The genetic code uses three, four choice codons – 64 slots with redundancy to code for 22 amino acids. The 6502 used eight, two choice codons – 256 slots of which 151 coded instructions with no redundancy. The other 105 slots if used could crash your machine.

    So the genetic code looks pretty good when stacked up against an instruction set design that was very popular – in 1975. Not orders of magnitude better, of course, but comparable. So I will be fascinated to see how you justify your claim.

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