An Intelligently Designed Brain

A letter in the Economist (27th of August) on Intelligent Design:

SIR ‚Äì The human brain has 100 billion extremely complex neurons connected by 1,000 trillion synapses. It is mathematically impossible for anything this unimaginably complex to have been the product of an unguided evolution, even over limitless aeons. One doesn’t have to know the rules of mathematical probability to recognise this. The brain could only have been created by a limitless intelligence, call it what you may.

Aside from the fact that the letter writer is out by a factor of ten on the number of neurons in the brain (there are 1,000 billion neurons, with an average of 1,000 synapses) he is also advancing a fallacious argument. The human brain may be tremendously complex, but it isn’t a complexity designed by God. You start your life with exactly one cell, and it’s not even a brain cell. In the womb this cell turns into the 1,000 billion cells of the brain and all the other body cells besides, all without the intervention of God at any stage. The complexity of the brain, a staggering complexity which develops under the guidence of natural laws, is actually an argument against ‘Intelligent Design’, not for it.


  1. cicatrix
    Posted September 8, 2005 at 12:19 am | Permalink

    Not to defend the ID bloke, but the word ‘billion’ may be used to refer to two different numbers – one thousand million or one million million – depending on who’s speaking. (see Wikipedia entry –

  2. Posted September 8, 2005 at 12:24 am | Permalink

    True, but he’s wrong either way. Does anyone use the british sense of ‘billion’ anymore? I’m british and i prefer the american way (ie billion = 1,000 million).

  3. biogadfly
    Posted September 8, 2005 at 2:28 am | Permalink

    Its also important to keep in mind that there is a superfluous number of neurons which develope in the first few yeas of life, after which a large ammount of pruning continues along with apoptosis until death. Is that intelligent, did god make an error? On average we loss 85,000 ‘cortical’ neurons a day, approx 31 million a year. When need this abundance to allow for the sculpting of neural architecture by biological and social mechanisms.

    • Posted October 25, 2011 at 7:25 pm | Permalink

      God didn’t make a mistake, since the anticipated loss of neurons occurs from birth as new experiences spur the growth of new neural networks (neurogenesis) to effectively interpret and deal with the new situations of life. This shows the plasticity of human cranial ability, and far overshadows any synthetic (man-made) intelligence in terms of learning and reasoning. In short, human AI engineers have LOTS to learn from the sophisticated engineering and purposeful design of the human brain. Something that mindless Darwinian processes simply cannot account for.

  4. Johnathan
    Posted September 8, 2005 at 2:42 am | Permalink

    I disagree that it argues against ID. The very fact that the single cell is programmed to develop into something so complex requires intelligent design. If an astronaut landed on a planet and found a nanobot programmed to replicate itself until there were billions of nanobots each designed to play a specific role in a larger machine, ID would be undeniable. Organic life is essentially large arrays of nanotechnology.
    Another point is that if you do not believe in ID, how do you account for the existence of the natural laws mentioned? Natural laws run counter to a universe governed solely by chance.
    As for the loss of neurons, I have nothing against the idea that an intelligent designer created an adaptable brain. Without that adaptability, the human brain would not be able to function at all.

  5. Posted September 8, 2005 at 7:54 am | Permalink

    If natural laws are sufficient to explain the lifetime development of the adult brain from a single cell, why invoke an intelligent designer to explain the evolutionary development of the single cell? Surely giving up the explanatory chase at this point shows a lack of scientific nerve, as well as begging the question. Who designed the designer?
    Also, no one claims that the Universe is ‘governed soley by chance’, just that the natural laws it is governed by are sufficient to explain the phenomena we experience. Science is the business of checking this idea. Intelligent Design is a metaphysical position no more disprovable than the idea that gravity is a myth – it’s just that the earth sucks – or that the world was created by a giant ham sandwich wrapped in tin foil.

  6. Johnathan
    Posted September 8, 2005 at 8:55 am | Permalink

    A single cell is not any simpler than an adult human. The difference is that a cell contains the information necessary to form an adult, but it has not yet been put into effect. As your site said a few days ago, even the seemingly random data in the human genome has a purpose in creating the complexity of the mind. The single cell has all the information in it necessary to create an entire human person. Natural processes just build from this blueprint to the end result. The unexplained order is still there.
    As for who designed the designer, this is really irrelevant. We must objectively look at the evidence and make conclusions based on that, even if the consequences contradict something we thought was true.
    Actually, there are some people who believe the universe was created solely by chance. I’m sorry to have jumped to that conclusion about you. I like your definition of science. The one problem I have with it is that it does not explain why the laws it tries to prove exist. The laws definitely exist. Why? Science alone can’t explain that.
    Science must also presuppose several crucial ideas, such as cause and effect, and the ability to generalize from the past to the future. Neither of these can be scientifically tested without presupposing them.
    These principles must be more basic to our reality than science, as they cannot be scientifically tested and science cannot exist without them. The existence of this unexplainable order is one of the biggest reasons why I believe in intelligent design. It gives a reason why order exists in the world.
    I don’t hope to convince you, I’m just trying to give you an idea of where I come from. This seems a bit off-topic for the comments, so feel free to email me if you’d like to continue the discussion that way.

  7. tom
    Posted September 8, 2005 at 4:42 pm | Permalink

    We agree that there is unexplained order, i guess, just not on how to explain it. Like you say, science just won’t explain some things (“why something rather than nothing?” seems to me to be the core reduction of that idea).
    I believe a single cell is simpler than the whole brain, just as the genome is simpler than the whole organism. All the information isn’t just in there. It emerges due to the history of the thing in interaction with the environment (and with the right directed energy flow). Here’s a thought experiment: is all the information for the brain in the cell? Including all the things you know? All the things you learn? All the things you do? These things affect in a very real, physical, way the structure of the brain and, consequently, the ‘complexity’ of that marvellous organ. Was all the information in your brain contained in your first cell?
    (Hey, we’re almost back on topic maybe?)

  8. Posted September 8, 2005 at 9:12 pm | Permalink

    the single cell and adult human that it emerges from are the same thing. one is the explicate manifestation of the other. the complexity of dna isn`t changed by the form it exists in. is a flower more complex than the seed or bulb it comes from? the eye sees more stuff certainly, but from a mechanical complexity standpoint, the system is the same.
    we see eyes, feet, toes and other devices that are part of the mechanism of a human, but weren`t they already programmed in?

  9. Johnathan
    Posted September 9, 2005 at 7:18 am | Permalink

    Yes, most of the human body appears to be directly coded somewhere in the genome. At issue here is the brain. I fully agree that the brain is intrinsically adaptable, and much of its formation is influenced by environment. The brain has been designed to be able to adapt to its surroundings and develop based on stimuli. It’s like a computer program that adapts to the specific computer it’s on while it’s compiling. It seems to me that the adaptability of the brain is just another evidence of intelligent design. After all, a rigid mind that can’t adapt would be pretty useless in our complex world.

  10. Posted September 9, 2005 at 8:40 am | Permalink

    Yes, a flower *is* more complex than the seed it comes from. Just as the brain *is* more complex than a single cell. All the information is *not* there to start with – part of it is in the environment and in the history of the interaction of the two. The DNA is *not* a blueprint for the organism. If aliens got sent a message with the genetic code fully detailed in it they would not have any idea what a human looked like, they would not have any ability to reconstruct a human. The complexity of the brain emerges with information added by the interaction with the environment.
    How this happens looks fearsomely smart, and you’re free to think that it couldn’t have evolved but must have been designed – but the original point of the post was that the adult complexity of the brain is not explicitly designed but emerges over the lifetime without supernatural aid.
    My implication was that if you can conceeed this kind of non-guided developmental emergence why not conceed non-guided evolutionary emegence? We pursue the causal chain: why the complexity of the brain? Because of the cell. Why the complexity of the cell? Because of evolution. Why the complexity of evolution? Because of physics? Why the complexity of physics? Just because?! Who knows? This is point at which you can metaphysically speculate about ‘intelligent design’ (and why the euphamism? why not just say ‘theism’ or ‘christianity’?). Intelligent Design is not a scientific research programme, especially since it amounts to giving up trying to find explanations and saying “It’s just that way because it was designed that way”. Surely a theist should be interested in *how* it was designed to turn out that way?

  11. malcolm pollack
    Posted September 10, 2005 at 4:58 pm | Permalink

    There is a lively and ongoing discussion of the Intelligent Design controversy at Bill Vallicella’s fascinating website, The Maverick Philosopher:

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