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Book Stumps Decoders: Design Filter, Please?

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Here’s a new book about an old book. The new book was designed for a purpose: to try to understand an old book that’s a mystery. We know the author of the new book; the author of the old book, the Voynich manuscript, is unknown. Raymond Clemens explores the mystery in The Voynich Manuscript (Yale University Press), examining “a work that has long defied decoders.” Reviewing Clemens’s book for Nature, Andrew Robinson calls our attention to this “calligraphic conundrum,” providing another opportunity to think about intelligent design theory.

In the past, we’ve explored two cases of intelligent design science in action: cryptology and archaeology. Both of them unite in this story that will intrigue puzzle aficionados. Clemens introduces the riddle of the Voynich manuscript:

In a Connecticut archive sits a manuscript justifiably called the most mysterious in the world. Since its rediscovery more than a century ago, the Voynich manuscript has been puzzled over by experts ranging from leading US military cryptographer William Friedman to cautious (and incautious) humanities scholars. Since 1969, it has been stored in Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library in New Haven.

The fine calligraphy of the 234-page ‘MS 408’, apparently alphabetic, has never been decoded. Copious illustrations of bathing women, semi-recognizable plants and apparent star maps remain undeciphered. No one knows who created it or where, and there is no reliable history of ownership. Its parchment was radiocarbon-dated in 2009 to between 1404 and 1438, with 95% probability. The manuscript could still be a forgery using medieval parchment, but most experts, including Yale’s, are convinced it is genuine. [Emphasis added.]

It’s like trying to read Egyptian hieroglyphics without a Rosetta Stone. Who wrote it? Why? What does it mean? The best minds in the world have not figured it out for six centuries. Want to try? You can view the whole thing online at the Beinecke digital library. Solve it and you’ll be famous.

Giving his article some Indiana Jones mystique, Robinson describes the cloak-and-dagger route of the manuscript from where it was sold in a Jesuit archive “under condition of absolute secrecy” by a shady antiquities dealer named Wilfrid Voynich, to another dealer, to its current home at Yale. While interesting, those facts don’t concern our current discussion about the validity of the inference to intelligent design.

The story of the various failed attempts to decipher the script, told by Clemens and Renaissance scholar William Sherman, is particularly fascinating. It begins in the 1920s, when US philosopher William Newbold convinced himself that the text was meaningless, but that each letter concealed an ancient Greek shorthand readable under magnification. He further claimed that this ‘finding’ proved the authorship of [Roger] Bacon, who he claimed had invented a microscope centuries before Antonie van Leeuwenhoek. After Newbold’s death, the ‘shorthand’ was revealed to be random cracks left by drying ink.

There’s a hint of design inference right there: how does one tell the difference between intentional calligraphy and cracks left by drying ink? Newbold was mistaken. He found a false positive, something that wasn’t designed that he thought was designed. Proper use of the Design Filter would have prevented his mistake.

What hope is there of decoding the script? Not much at present, I fear. The Voynich manuscript reminds me of another uncracked script, on the Phaistos disc from Minoan Crete, discovered in 1908. The manuscript offers much more text to analyse than does the disc, but in each case there is only one sample to work with, and no reliable clue as to the underlying language — no equivalent of the Rosetta Stone (A. Robinson Nature 483, 27-28; 2012). Professional cryptographers have been rightly wary of the Voynich manuscript ever since the disastrous self-delusion of Newbold. But inevitably, many sleuths will continue to attack the problem from various angles, aided by this excellent facsimile. Wide margins are deliberately provided for readers’ notes on their own ideas. “Bonne chance!” writes Clemens. I’ll second that.

Before leaping from a clearly designed book to applying the design inference in reference to a living cell (you suspect that’s where we are headed, right?), let’s review some facts about design theory.

  1. It’s not necessary to know the identity of the designer.

  2. It’s not necessary to know the purpose or meaning of the design.

  3. Design is evident from the arrangement of parts themselves when chance and natural law can be effectively ruled out.

Viewers may recall the scenes of Egyptian hieroglyphics in Unlocking the Mystery of Life, where the narrator says, “No one would attribute the shapes and arrangements of these symbols to natural causes, like sandstorms or erosion. Instead, we recognize them as the as the work of ancient scribes, intelligent human agents.” Wind and erosion can create remarkable patterns, but not markings like those. We immediately recognize them as symbols, even if no one understood them until the Rosetta Stone was deciphered.

The same is true with the Voynich manuscript. As Doug Axe argues in Undeniable, our universal design intuition immediately recognizes the difference between designed objects and the work of unguided processes. The theory of intelligent design formalizes our intuition in robust ways.

Now we can address the comparison of DNA to cryptic writing. One might think the situation is too different to do so. Imagine the response: Everybody knows that books and drawings of plants and bathing women are made by human beings. DNA is made of chemicals. It’s called a genetic “code,” but humans don’t write that way. We just use the word “code” as a metaphor.

Oh? Remember Craig Venter? His team inscribed their names and other messages in the genome of their synthetic bacterium using DNA letters. Other bio-engineers have made molecular nanomachines out of DNA. Some are considering building DNA computers. Could an investigator unaware of these projects tell the difference between artificial DNA structures and living genomes? If not, the investigator would commit a false negative, calling something not designed when it is designed. If, on the other hand, the investigator did make a valid design inference for the artificial structures, why not use the same reasoning for the rest of the genome?

Paul Davies, in fact, has considered the possibility that intelligent extraterrestrials might have left their mark in our DNA. Proving that would presuppose the ability to distinguish intelligent causes from natural causes. Natural laws are incapable of symbolic logic. Only minds can make symbols mean something or do something they would never naturally do. So it’s not just ID advocates who look at DNA for evidence of intentional design. If DNA is indeed a code — written in symbols that have meaning — then a design inference is justified. For more on why speaking of a genetic “code” is more than just a metaphor, listen to Charles Thaxton on ID the Future.

The attempt to decipher the Voynich manuscript offers us another illustration of ID principles at work, right in the pages of Nature. One can’t exclude ID as a scientific theory and then apply it to a scientific question in the world’s leading science journal.

Image: Detail from the Voynich manuscript, by Unknown via Wikicommons.