Self Organization and the Origin of Complexity


Even a casual examination of nature reveals the existence of complex, organized states of matter. Organization is found on all scales—for example, in the elaborate spiral shapes of galaxies in space and hurricanes on earth, in organisms, in snowflakes, and in the molecules that participate in many important chemical reactions. Ordered, organized, complex states of matter abound in the world around us. How are we to explain this complexity? Our current best account of these types of phenomena is given by dynamical systems theory, a branch of natural science that explains the existence of complex, organized systems in terms of self-organization.

But natural science has critics who want to explain the existence of organized complex systems as the result of intelligent design by a supernatural being. One such critic is William Dembski (2002b), who modestly claims to have discovered a fourth law of thermodynamics, which he calls the law of conservation of information (169). As Dembski observes, "intelligent design is just the Logos theology of John's Gospel restated in the idiom of information theory" (192). To understand the proposed law, we must see what Dembski means when he refers to what he calls complex specified information (CSI; see also chapter 9 in this book).

Specified events are those forming part of a pattern that can be specified independently of the events. Suppose you want to impress your friends with your skill at archery. You shoot from a distance of 50 meters. Having hit the wall of the barn with all your arrows, you then go and paint bull's-eyes around them and call your friends over to have a look. What can your friends conclude when they arrive at the barn? Dembski (2002b) tells us:

Absolutely nothing about the archer's ability as an archer. Yes, a pattern is being matched, but it is a pattern fixed only after the arrow has been shot. The pattern is thus purely ad hoc.

But suppose instead the archer paints a fixed target on the wall and then shoots at it. Suppose the archer shoots a hundred arrows, and each time hits a perfect bull's-eye. What can be concluded from this second scenario? Confronted with this second scenario we are obligated to infer that here is a world class archer, one whose shots cannot legitimately be referred to luck, but must rather be referred to the archer's skill and mastery. Skill and mastery are of course instances of design. (180)

An archer who draws bull's-eyes around his arrows might generate a pattern, but it won't be a specified pattern. An archer who shoots once and hits the bull's-eye might have been lucky; it could have happened by chance. By contrast, an archer who shoots numerous arrows from a distance and scores many bull's-eyes will have generated a complex, specified pattern of events. Complexity here simply means that the events have a very low probability of occurring just by chance. Dembski claims that when a pattern exhibits complexity and specification and moreover is contingent (that is, is not simply the result of an automatic pattern-generating mechanism), it reveals the presence of intelligent design.

According to Dembski (1999), the law of conservation of information is captured by the claim that natural causes cannot generate CSI. He lays out its implications:

Among its immediate corollaries are the following: (1) The CSI in a closed system of natural causes remains constant or decreases. (2) CSI cannot be generated spontaneously, originate endogenously or organize itself (as these terms are used in origins of life research). (3) The CSI in a closed system of natural causes either has been in the system eternally or was at some point added exogenously (implying that the system, though now closed, was not always closed). (4) In particular any closed system of natural causes that is also of finite duration received whatever CSI it contains before it became a closed system. (170)

Bringing out a connection with thermodynamics, he observes:

Moreover, it tells us that when CSI is given over to natural causes it either remains unchanged (in which case the information is conserved) or disintegrates (in which case information diminishes). For instance, the best that can happen to a book on a library shelf is that it remains as it was when originally published and thus preserves the

CSI inherent in the text. Over time, however, what usually happens is that a book gets old, pages fall apart, and the information on the pages disintegrates. The law of conservation of information is therefore more like a thermodynamic law governing entropy, with the focus on degradation rather than conservation. (2002b, 161-62)

What is the connection between Dembski's law and the second law? Dembski's proposed law is related to the second law of thermodynamics through the relationship of information to entropy. He, in fact, asks whether information appropriately conceived can be regarded as inverse to entropy and whether a law governing information might correspondingly parallel the second law of thermodynamics, which governs entropy. Given the previous exposition it will come as no shock that my answer to both questions is yes, with the appropriate form of information being complex specified information and the parallel law being the law of conservation of information. (166-67)

So he is arguing that as the entropy of a system decreases, information increases, and as entropy increases, information decreases. Any increases in information in a universe such as our own arise from the input of an intelligent designer.

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