Design inference

Bill Dembski: Is there any such thing as information in the abstract or is it always information “for an agent”?

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Continuing with James Barham’s The Best Schools interview with design theorist Bill Dembski – who founded this blog – this time on whether there is information in the abstract.

TBS: As your last answer makes clear, one of the key concepts you use in your work on ID is “information.” We have two questions about this. First, it seems to us that information, properly speaking, is always information-for-an-agent. That is, there is no such thing, strictly speaking, as information in the abstract, unrelated to some agent or intelligence for which the information is meaningful. So-called information, abstracted from its meaning for an agent, is really more properly termed “structure” or “pattern” or something of that sort. Given this definitional stipulation, then, the way the ID literature relies upon the concept of information appears question-begging, at least with respect to its positive claim—the external-design thesis. That is to say, ID’s inference to an external designer seems to depend upon a premise about information that already tacitly assumes the existence of an intelligence external to all living matter. Would you care to comment?

WD: I’m afraid I don’t agree with your first premise here. Whenever I set the groundwork for information in a discussion of ID, I make clear that information happens when there is a reduction of possibilities. Initially, there is a range of live possibilities. Later, one of these possibilities is realized. Information happens in that reduction and realization.

What makes the design inference work is a coincidence between information produced by nature and information produced by designers.

Now, the individuation of these possibilities and the causal process involved in their realization need involve no external intelligence. Tomorrow, it may rain or it may not rain. Both are live possibilities, and the fact that they are live possibilities does not depend on my, or any other external intelligence, drawing the distinction between rain and no rain. Moreover, the causal processes responsible for rain do not presuppose an external intelligence (at least not obviously so, though one might argue that if God created the world and providentially guides it, intelligence is involved even in the rain that falls).

So, in answer to your question, nature can produce information and in doing so it need beg no questions about external designers. That said, external designers can also produce information—as I am doing now by typing out my answer to your question. What makes the design inference work is a coincidence between information produced by nature and information produced by designers.

We see such a coincidence, for instance, in the bacterial flagellum. Ostensibly, nature produced it. And yet humans, as designing agents and without knowledge of such systems, also produced bidirectional motor-driven propellers. This coincidence calls for explanation, especially when it is cashed out with the full probabilistic design-theoretic apparatus that I develop. But the bottom line, in answer to your question, is that information, properly construed, is a powerful notion that does not beg the question in the way you suggest.

Next: Is information a primitive concept on a par with matter and energy?

See also: What does Bill Dembski think of David Abel’s “prescriptive information” theory?

Bill Dembski: Two different concepts of what ID is: Internal vs. external teleology
Pressing Bill Dembski on his conception of ID

Dembski on why ID’s struggle is going to be long and hard

Bill Dembski answers, How do we explain bad design?

Bill Dembski on the problem of good

Bill Dembski on young vs. old Earth creationists, and where he stands

Bill Dembski on the Evolutionary Informatics Lab – the one a Baylor dean tried to
shut down

Why Bill Dembski took aim against the Darwin frauds and their enablers #1

Why Bill Dembski took aim against the Darwin frauds and their enablers Part 2

Bill Dembski: The big religious conspiracy revealed #3

Bill Dembski: Evolution “played no role whatever” in his conversion to Christianity #4

So how DID Bill Dembski get interested in intelligent design? #5b – bad influences, it seems

So how DID Bill Dembski get interested in intelligent design? #5a

Bill Dembski: Trouble happens when they find out you mean business

What is Bill Dembski planning to do now?

What difference did Ben Stein’s Expelled film make? Dembski’s surprisingly mixed review

Bill Dembski on the future of intelligent design in science

16 Replies to “Bill Dembski: Is there any such thing as information in the abstract or is it always information “for an agent”?

  1. 1
    Gregory says:

    “nature can produce information and in doing so it need beg no questions about external designers. That said, external designers can also produce information—as I am doing now by typing out my answer to your question.” – Dembski

    As an ‘intelligent agent’ (i.e. a human being), is Dembski not ‘internal’ (as opposed to ‘external’) to ‘nature,’ iow, is he not a ‘natural designer’ that produces information? Or, to ask another way, what makes a human being an ‘external (to nature) designer’?

  2. 2
    TJ says:

    Your question: What makes a human being external (to nature) designer?

    Nature acts in only two ways chance and necessity. When people act intelligently, that is a categorically different action then chance or necessity.

    We all act as though persons actions are more than chance and necessity. This is one of the reasons why we put a high value on persons (they don’t act only because of chance and necessity).

    Was that your question and did my answer help at all?

    I answered what I thought your question was…I think Dembski was only saying external to whatever apparatus was in use (such as a computer or pen and paper).

  3. 3
    Gregory says:

    Thanks TJ, it’s at least a start. ‘External’ to (human-made) apparati is what I interpret as your answer. Please correct if I misunderstood your words.

    Dembski thinks that computers, pens and paper ‘evolve’ given that he accepts the ideology of technical and technological ‘evolution’ (2003, 2004+). What do you think, TJ, are human beings ‘natural designers’? Does technology ‘evolve’?

    To say ‘nature acts’ is of course a disputable statement already, given the debate over whether ‘natural selection’ is agent-like.

    Yes, that is part of the questions I was asking, in light of Barham’s question to Dembski in their interview. The additional ‘internal’ feature of the question is still ‘live’ and apparently ‘monumental’ (cf. William James’ “The Will to Believe”) on this topic as well.

  4. 4
    Jon Garvey says:

    Gregory, a related aspect is the question of “mind” as non-material, especially if is considered part of the imago dei, and even more especially if that is considered a supernatural endowment (think “soul”).

    That would mean creativity/design is something humans share only with God, rather than something that emerges from natural processes.

    That has implications both for the nature of “design”, and for our ability to detect it. All design would be, in some sense, supernatural.

  5. 5
    Gregory says:

    “something humans share only with God” or “something only humans share with God.”

    Yes, precisely. Though, it may be difficult to convince the ‘science-only’ contingent of IDers that this is even a relevant conversation wrt ID. “What’s ____ got to do with it?”

    “implications both for the nature of ‘design’, and for our ability to detect it.”

    We are agreed on (the axiom of) intention. However, if you deliberately remove ‘the nature of’ from the above statement (i.e. “implications both for ‘design’, and for our ability to detect it.” ), imo there is no significant difference in your meaning. Do you see the point in my repeated desire for correction re: ‘the nature of’ (reality)? Naturalisation of language itself is an issue here, which is easily demonstrated by a linguistic analysis of phraseology such as ‘the nature of.’

    Whether ‘design’ is only-supernatural or also-natural is a significant crackerjack for U.S. IDers yet to face. This is why I asked the questions in #1 re: Barham’s nuanced interview with Dembski.

    Is Dembski not a ‘natural designer’ that produces information? What makes a human being an ‘external (to nature) designer’? Thus far, no IDer I’ve read has given a satisfactory coherent answer.

  6. 6
    Jon Garvey says:


    Fair enough – but of course there are non-theists who are non-materialists regarding mind, so maybe that solves the problem (until they come to realise it’s incoherent and become theists!)

    Barham’s interesting. From his post re Shapiro he has happily incorporated agency (immanent teleology) and complexity into naturalism, but still can’t resolve teleology ultimately – ie who sets the goals that organisms aim towards?

  7. 7

    Is Dembski not a ‘natural designer’ that produces information? What makes a human being an ‘external (to nature) designer’? Thus far, no IDer I’ve read has given a satisfactory coherent answer.

    You haven’t seen a “satisfactory” answer because your question poses a false dichotomy. You start from the premise that a human is a “natural” entity. And then you challenge someone to demonstrate how a human is not a “natural designer.” Of course it can’t be done because you have simply defined away the answer. You have excluded the possibility of a satisfactory answer with your original assumption.

    The question of natural causes versus design needn’t be an angels-on-the-head-of-a-pin kind of inquiry. All that is being proposed by the distinction between natural processes and design is the simple distinction we draw every day between stuff that happens naturally (chance and necessity) and stuff that happens at the behest of an intelligent agent. Nothing tricky; nothing obscure. Just a simple straight-forward observation and then the question of whether certain things exhibit those characteristics of design.

    The attempt to paint “design” out of the discussion by saying, “Well, designers are natural and, therefore, everything they do is just another manifestation of nature” is silly, and misses the point entirely. It is a semantic ruse. All an IDer has to do in response is say, “Fine. Have your definition. Then what we are drawing a distinction between isn’t ‘natural’ versus ‘design,’ but rather ‘chance and necessity’ versus ‘what most people ordinarily think of when they think of design.’ Now can we please cut the semantic game and get back to the substantive question?”

    There is a real difference between things that happen through chance and necessity and those that happen by design. It is a substantive issue. We recognize it in our everyday life all the time. It is interesting. It is more interesting to try and ascertain whether design can be reliably detected in the absence of a historical record. It is exceedingly interesting to see whether that design detection can be found in living systems. We don’t explore these questions and don’t gain any insight by trying to sweep design under the rug as just another manifestation of nature.


    On a related note, it is very much up in the air whether what a human thinks, feels, understands, communicates, invents, imagines, designs — what we might call “mind” — is reducible to matter and energy. Thus, even the assertion that a human being is “part of nature” (in the sense that we normally think of matter and energy) is questionable, insofar as it relates to mind or designing intelligent activity. Indeed, one of ID’s contentions is that there is something else that objectively exists besides matter and energy — a third entity, if you will, that is part of reality — namely, information.

  8. 8
    Gregory says:

    “your question poses a false dichotomy.” – Eric Anderson

    It was Dembski’s dichotomy that I was drawing peoples’ attention to with my questions, the same as was Barham with his. Again, if a human being is an ‘external designer,’ then are we not to assume he means ‘external to nature,’ which is a provocative position? If human beings are ‘internal’ to (what he personally means by) nature, then Dembski’s argument faces a significant challenge. Most people think human beings are natural, whether totally natural, mostly natural or partly natural is tangental to Barham’s direct question. You should be questioning Dembski rather than me for pointing this out, Eric.

    As it is, I’m quite certain you haven’t put as much rigorous thought into the distinction between ‘human’ and ‘natural’ as I have in the past 12 years, Eric. Respectfully, this is what I do professionally, whereas I’m guessing ID is merely a hobby for you.

    You accuse me of playing a semantic game; yet this is what Dembski appears to be doing by avoiding the meat of Barham’s question. For the record, Barham’s PhD studies at Notre Dame have no doubt familiarized him with ‘spiritual’ apologetics for ‘design.’ What he and the rest of us ID doubters want to know is why the insistence on ID-as-natural-science, when on the topic in question, i.e. ‘intelligent agents,’ it is reflexively that we (human persons) know them and each other. Why would IDT seek an objectivistic proof (by probabilities and statistical reasoning) of the Designer’s signs and marks by calling it ‘science,’ which they know in their heart of hearts really means ‘putting God to the test’?

    “There is a real difference between things that happen through chance and necessity and those that happen by design.” – Eric Anderson

    Yes, I completely agree. This is why Barham’s question about ‘information-for-an-agent’ is so important. Dembski avoided the ‘anthropic’ aspect of the question, to speak as a statistician or mathematician. We know what ‘rain’ is because we are humans who have knowledge and experience of rain.

    If Dembski were to draw on his psychology training, his answer would have been quite different, and probably more direct. When Barham points to the “positive claim — the external-design thesis,” he wants to know why Dembski thinks ‘intelligent agency’ can count as anything other than human beings’ ‘intelligent agency.’ Is analogy a strong enough argument to count as a ‘(new) design science’? It is obvious to everyone that ‘biological information’ was not ‘invented’ or ‘produced’ millions of years ago, at ‘origins of life’ time scales, by human beings who did not yet exist.

    “We recognize it in our everyday life all the time.” – Eric Anderson

    Yes, ‘we’ – which refers to human beings, to us, to you and me, she and he! Dembski’s approach otoh depends on ‘unembodied intelligent agency,’ i.e. ‘not to us,’ which is precisely what Barham’s question attempted to pin down. Dembski, however, didn’t bite. The “intelligence for which the information is meaningful” part went unaddressed.

    Or are you suggesting, Eric, that ID as you view it does not actually make an “inference to an external designer”?

  9. 9

    Gregory, you are talking about two separate issues: (i) whether humans (including mind/intelligence) are part of “nature” and (ii) whether information exists independent of an agent.

    Which are you most concerned with?

  10. 10
    Gregory says:


  11. 11

    OK, let’s deal with the latter first, which is what the thread was initially focused on.

    As to the existence of information, we have three possibilities.

    (i) information can exist independent of an agent (Dembski’s view);

    (ii) information can exist only if an agent exists (the agent could be in another part of the universe and unaware of the information, but as long as the agent exists and could theoretically understand the information, then the information exists); or

    (iii) information can exist only if an agent exists and recognizes the information as information.

    Which of these three possibilities do you subscribe to?

  12. 12
    Gregory says:

    The thread initially focussed on ‘information-for-an-agent’ – which Dembski obviously skirted in the interview with Barham. Check the thread’s title.

    You’ve got an ontology vs. epistemology issue here, Eric. (8 x ‘exist’ in 6 lines!) You want ontology without epistemology. But that’s not going to fly.

    There is no need to say ‘information can exist’ as you’ve proposed in i, ii, iii. Point of fact: Information *does* exist. Who’s asking? Don’t you agree? Voila; an answer.

    Denying agent-hood status means little on this topic except dehumanisation, even nihilism. How do you (embodied man-person-human being) subscribe?

  13. 13

    Dembski didn’t skirt anything. He (rightly) objected to Barham’s attempt to adopt as a premise the very conclusion he wanted to reach by a priori defining information as not-information if there is no agent. (Barham says it really isn’t “information” just ‘structure’ or ‘pattern’ or something of that sort.”) Then he asks a question “given this definitional stipulation.” Dembski very astutely noticed this rhetorical trap and refused to “stipulate” to the very point in question.

    This rhetorical move of Barham jumped out at me as soon as I first read the initial paragraph. I do hope you can see that Barham’s approach inapproprately defines information in a way that a priori provides the answer he wants. If not, please carefully re-read Barham’s question.

    I asked whether you were concerned with the issue of whether information can exist independent of an agent, and you said you were. As we are discussing that point it is perfectly appropriate for me to use the terminology in the discussion. I’m glad that you were able to count how many times I used the term, but you still didn’t answer the question. Asking whether information exists is indeed a very appropriate question, and I gave you three (there are only three) logical possibilities. That is the issue we are discussing. No-one is denying “agent-hood,” whatever that means, and no-one is dehumanizing. We’re discussing the question of whether information exists independent of agents.

    You did not provide a direct response, so which is it: do you think information exists by the simple fact of an agent existing, or only only if the agent actually has access to and/or recognizes the information?

  14. 14
    R0bb says:

    I’m confused by Dembski’s choice of terms. He says that information “happens” when an outcome is realized from multiple live possibilities, and that nature can “produce” information. The example he gives is the realization of an outcome from the set of possibilities {rain, no rain}, which need not involve an external intelligence.

    But elsewhere he claims that nature cannot “create” information, but merely shuffle it around. So what does “creation” of information entail, and what intelligence created the information that “happens” when it rains?

  15. 15

    R0bb, your link is broken. I’d be interested to see the reference. Dembski doesn’t deny that there is information in nature independent of intelligence. What he has always been focusing on (as are Meyer, Behe, and other design theorists) is complex specified information. It is possible that Dembski misspoke in a particular instance, but my hunch is that in your link he was talking about the kind of information he has always been clear he was interested in: complex specified information.

  16. 16
    R0bb says:

    Eric, my apologies for the broken link — here is the correct link. If you read the first section, entitled “The Creation of Information”, you’ll see that Dembski defines information as he does in the OP above, complete with the same {rain, no rain} example. You’ll also see his claims that nature does not create information. For example,

    The challenge of intelligent design, and of this paper in particular, is to show that when natural systems exhibit intelligence by producing information, they have in fact not created it from scratch but merely shuffled around existing information. Nature is a matrix for expressing already existent information.

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