Reply to Vend
I am always interested in critical remarks addressing my publications, so I appreciate time and effort the correspondent using the moniker “Vend” invested in reading and discussing my article in Skeptical Inquirer (which is mirrored in my post on Talk Reason at http://www.talkreason.org/articles/Suboptimal.cfm ). (Vend's letter can be seen at http://www.talkreason.org/Forum.cfm?MESSAGEID=682).
As “Vend” points out, he has already discussed this matter with me via personal exchange of emails (although he signed his emails using a different name, presumably his real; I assume that “Vend” and the author of those personal messages is the same person, who chooses to avoid making his real name publicly known).
“Vend” apologizes for his poor English; in this respect I have only one comment: among his misspelled words, there is his persistent misspelling of my name. Certainly copying my name does not require one to be an expert in English; it seems to testify not to poor English but rather to his insufficient interest in being accurate.
“Vend” provides a syllogism which, he asserts, represents my position. There is no such syllogism spelled out anywhere in my essay, and I’d never formulate my thesis in such terms. Rather than put his words in my mouth, “Vend” would be better off simply quoting my actual statements. Since the “syllogism” offered by Vend is his own creation, there is no reason I should discuss it, except, perhaps, for pointing out that my discourse consistently implied likelihoods, while “syllogism” offered by Vend speaks (specifically its second point) in terms of absolute assertions, which makes it a caricature of my argument, indeed a “straw man” type device.
Regarding the gist of Vend’s main critical comment, the answer seems so simple and obvious, that, although I am not happy to say that, Vend’s English, although imperfect, seems to be better than his logic.
My thesis, as expressed in my essay, is that the concept of IC, as rendered by Behe, implies that if there was a creator of biological system, he (she, it?) must likely be a poor designer (or, perhaps, a malevolent one). Indeed, an IC system, by Behe’s definition, ceases functioning if its single component is damaged. A failure of any single part of such a system, as follows from Behe’s definition, causes the failure of the entire system. This feature, if it is indeed present in biological systems, goes beyond the simple suboptimality, often discussed in debates between ID advocates and their opponents. Indeed, Behe’s concept implies that the very feature which makes a system IC, and allegedly points to its being designed as IC by an intelligent mind, necessarily makes it also vulnerable to damage and therefore unreliable. Therefore Vend’s assertion that the vulnerability of an IC system is a result of a trade-off between various requirements, which may be true regarding the suboptimality problem, is irrelevant to my thesis, which goes beyond suboptimality.
Before pointing to the main fallacy of Vend’s comment, let as look at his lesser fallacies pointing to his insufficient understanding of the subject he endeavored to discuss. For example, he refers to a single screw as an IC system. This is indeed a new concept: if Vend read with attention Behe’s definition of an IC system, he would learn that to be IC in Behe’s sense, a system must consist of several “well-matched” parts. This definition is in no way applicable to a single screw, so Vend’s suggestion to “assume that a screw is IC” is meaningless, unless Vend wishes to offer his own concept of IC, differing from that of Behe.
Vend’s example with a crankshaft is in fact limited to the suboptimality and is therefore about a topic separate from my thesis. Generally, the analogy between engineering designs and biological systems, while often useful, has limitations. For engineering designs, suboptimality is the sole concern, as no engineer deliberately designs a system to be unreliable, but only may reluctantly succumb to an unavoidable suboptimality, dictated by trade-off considerations. Unlike Behe’s alleged designer, who is believed to be omnipotent (although ID advocates often deny such a belief, but obviously only to eschew the attribution of their concepts to religious predispositions), an engineer is constrained by many factors. In engineering designs, unlike for biological organisms, reliability, although very important, is not always the domineering consideration. Designing cars, engineers usually do not use more than one crankshaft because, indeed, there are considerations other than the reliability of the engine. Certain trade-offs may be necessary. Using a second crankshaft, although advantageous from the reliability standpoint, would go against other considerations (such as the cost). In this case reliability is reluctantly sacrificed to satisfy other considerations. This does not mean, however, that design with just one crankshaft is better than it would be with two crankshafts (there are in fact known engine’s designs with two crankshafts). Indeed, when reliability is the paramount consideration, a good design requires redundancy. If a car stops because of the engine’s failure, in most cases it is not a disaster (although in such a situation the car’s owner certainly would prefer a design with a redundant second crankshaft). However, if a passenger plane crashes, it is a real disaster, so for planes reliability is a much more important consideration and that is why passenger planes are usually designed with more than one “crankshaft” – actually usually having more than one engine, and capable of flying even if one of the engines fails. A passenger plane with just one engine would be not as well designed as that with two engines, and surely passengers would prefer a two-engine design. In my Dell personal computer there are two hard disks, of which one is used for an automatic continuous backup of the other disk, and such a design, despite a larger cost, is certainly better than it would be with just one disk, given the grave consequences of losing data stored on the disk (which happened before with my computers which did not have a redundant drive).
Likewise, if a biological system fails, it may spell a disaster, therefore for biological systems reliability is of paramount importance. For example, if a blood clotting system fails (recall the last Russian Tsarevich Alexei with his heritable hemophilia), there is a good prospect of the organism’s demise, so if a blood clotting system is (deliberately or inadvertently) designed as an IC system, it is either an inept, or perhaps a malevolent design.
(A discussion of why internal combustion engines have usually only one crankshaft is very interesting in its own right as it has many fascinating ramifications and historical curiosities which could fill a whole book. However, as my essay on IC vs ID is concerned, Vend’s example of single crankshafts is beyond the point and in no way speaks against my thesis).
Now look at the fallacy of Vend’s main argument (which he himself defined as such in his private emails to me). This fallacy is astonishingly obvious. My thesis unequivocally applies only to IC systems. Such systems by definition lack any redundancy. To refute my thesis, Vend talks about a system which consists of many identical components, such that if one of those components fails, other identical components take over its function. It is funny that Vend does not notice the egregious gaping hole in his reasoning: the system containing many identical components is exactly the opposite of an IC system; a system meeting Vend’s description, is a highly redundant one, so my point of a poor design in no way relates to such systems. My thesis was that, if biological IC systems are designed and by design deprived of redundancy, this likely signifies a bad design. To “refute” my thesis, Vend points to a system, which not only is not IC, but, on the contrary, is highly redundant (in fact he himself uses that term), and asserts that such a system can be well designed. Such an assertion not only does not “refute” my thesis, but in fact is in tune with it. Using a Russian adage, it can be said that Vend has lost his way among tree pines.
Vend writes that he submits his comment to Talk Reason in order to solicit other opinions. Some predictions can be safely made. ID advocates and their acolytes are delighted by any arguments, however fallacious, that defend Behe’s position, and dismiss critique of his concepts, often without offering any counter-arguments. The past experience is rich with examples – the exaggerated acclaims of Dembski’s empty mathematical exercises, self-admiration of Behe who compared himself to great scientists of the past, unbounded mutual praise of Discovery Institute’s fellows, vicious verbal assaults by ID adherents upon their opponents, comparing the latter to Hitler, Stalin, Lysenko, Salem judges, and the like – all this teaches us, that one has to be very cautious in taking an approval by ID advocates at face value. Vend will be well advised to take critique much more seriously than possible praise and defense from the ID crowd.
I am sorry for being blunt, but Vend’s letter left me no choice except for pointing to the abject lack of logic in his asseverations.
With best wishes, Mark Perakh