Design of Snowflakes Explained
Illustra has released a new short film on snowflakes. What kind of design do crystals represent, natural or intentional?
Here is a new short film by Illustra Media posted on their free-video website, The John 10:10 Project: “The Jewels of Winter.” It’s beautiful and fun to watch. This season of the year, people can romp like a dog in a crystal palace.
Two Ways to Measure Design
The film makes an inference to design in snowflakes, and most viewers would certainly agree that the beautiful crystals look designed. But a rigorous inference to design—one that would convince a skeptic—requires more evidence. Advocates of intelligent design (ID) theory point out that crystals are not sufficient to make a design inference. The reason is that they can be explained by laws of nature and are relatively “simple” in chemical terms. Crystals are repetitive in nature: the pattern is determined by laws of attraction in the water molecule.
One might compare a crystal to a repeating sequence of letters like ABCABCABCABC…. Forming that sequence would only take a couple of instructions: “Type ABC; repeat.” The complexity of a line of Shakespeare is much higher: What’s in a name? A rose by any other name would smell as sweet. There would be no way to program that line except by spelling it out. The film explains that the basic crystal structure of a snowflake is simple and repetitive.
The Robust Way
Determining a robust method for inferring intelligent design led William Dembski to devise a Design Filter. One formulation looks like the flowchart at right. An object under consideration must pass three tests: contingency, complexity and specification.
Contingency means the object or event did not have to happen; it could have gone another way. If it had to happen, that would be necessity, not design.
Complexity means the probability for the object or event is low enough to rule out chance. Otherwise, the observer could infer it just happened by chance.
Specification means the object or event matches an independently-given pattern. For example, some large rocky cliffs look like faces. But if the rock matches the faces of four US presidents known from paper money or portraits, like at Mount Rushmore, the shapes are specified.
A quick way to visualize the design filter is to ask “Law? Chance? If not, then Design.” Preference is given to natural law and chance before inferring design. This prevents jumping to conclusions when something looks designed but is not, or something looks random (like some modern art) but was designed.
Do snowflakes pass the Design Filter? No. It can be argued that no two are alike. That is true, but they all follow a chemical pattern that is simple and repetitive. Therefore, the inference drops out at steps one or two. It had to form according to that chemical law of attraction, and the growth process is repetitive. Each arm of the six-sided crystal grows under the same conditions in the cloud micro-environment, and so the overall crystal is necessary, even if the details are unique.
If the snowflakes landed on a fence rail and spelled out the line from Shakespeare, that would be something else entirely.
The Fine-Tuning Way
Another way to approach the design inference is to back up and look at the big picture. Why do natural laws produce these crystal works of art? It can be argued that the laws of water molecules and other crystals are finely tuned to make crystals possible. Dr Michael Denton, in his books The Wonder of Water and Miracle of the Cell,* goes into detail about properties of atoms and subatomic particles. The laws of attraction between atoms and molecules could have taken on a wide range of values that would never allow for snowflakes to form.
The fact that they do form points to initial conditions in the properties of matter and particularly of Earth (including its type of star and atmosphere) that appear uncannily well-suited for complex life. In their book A Fortunate Universe, Luke Barnes and Geraint Lewis share many truly astonishing fine-tuning coincidences that would leave one strongly convinced that the laws of nature were purposely designed to allow for cells, animals and even snowflakes.
A Third Way: Aesthetics
One response that will probably be universal among viewers of the film is that snowflakes are beautiful. What is the purpose of beauty? Why do we respond to it? Why do we recognize it? Beauty in nature seems gratuitous or unnecessary; life could exist without it. As the film says, snow could perform its roles for the planet without the crystalline beauty of snowflakes. Our aesthetic sense is a gut-level, heartfelt response to design that judges between things that are ugly and things that are beautiful. Aesthetics is one of the three main branches of philosophy: What exists? (ontology) How do we know what we know? (epistemology). What is good, true and beautiful? (aesthetics). While concluding design in snowflakes from aesthetics alone may not be as robust an inference as the Design Filter can provide, it is adequate for the soul.
In short, all three methods of design inference can be found in the beautiful film above, The Jewels of Winter. And best of all, it ends with the testimony of the Creator God who revealed his role in creating the “treasures of the snow” in his Word. There’s no better evidence than that!
Praise the Lord from the earth, you great sea creatures and all deeps, fire and hail, snow and mist, stormy wind fulfilling his word! —Psalm 148:7-8
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*Denton takes a philosophical view called structuralism, which posits that the initial conditions of the universe were set up in such a way to allow for the evolution of stars, planets, and complex life. How they were set up he doesn’t know; perhaps it was by intelligent design, or perhaps it’s just “the way nature is” intrinsically. Since his view excuses all the problems of big-bang-to-man evolution, we do not endorse his philosophical view and caution against being deceived by it. His books are very good, though, for pointing out the amazing coincidences that make complex life possible. He admits he finds these coincidences “absolutely astonishing.”