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Intelligent Design Basics – Information

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First of all I want to thank the Uncommon Descent moderators for allowing me to post, with a particular hat tip to StephenB.  As I indicated on a prior thread, I am not sure how often I will take the time to create a new thread, but hopefully I can occasionally post something of interest.  Kudos to gpuccio for a wonderful first thread, relating to the basic definition of “design”.

—-

Intelligent Design Basics – Information

In this post I want to consider a fundamental aspect of intelligent design theory: the concept of “information”.

This is centrally relevant to the intelligent design concept of “complex specified information”.  Attempts have been made by ID critics to derail ID by critiquing each of these three words: complexity, specification and information.  Indeed, it is not uncommon to see long, drawn-out, battles over these terms in an attempt to avoid getting to the central issue of whether design can be detected.

With respect to information, I have seen complaints against the very concept of “information”, lengthy side roads pursued regarding so-called “Shannon information” (which is really not information at all, but that is a topic for a subsequent post), and – the issue I wish to discuss today – the assertion that there is lots of information contained throughout the physical universe and so, the thinking goes, there is nothing particularly special about the fact that living organisms contain DNA or other sources of information as well.  I have addressed this issue in various comments on UD from time to time, but would now like to bring the issue to the forefront in a single post.

This particular misunderstanding of the concept of information and the mistaken idea that information is contained in naturally-occurring physical phenomena is quite common.  One of the examples occasionally put forward is that of Saturn’s rings.  Other examples of natural phenomena allegedly “containing” information include quasars, pulsars, and the like, but the issue is identical in all such cases and I will use Saturn’s rings for the present discussion.

Do Saturn’s Rings Contain Information?

Saturn’s rings are not only complex (they are), but they contain a lot of information, the argument goes.  Indeed, if we were to completely map and describe the size, position, and trajectory of each boulder, block of ice and dust speck making up the rings, it would be many written volumes of information.

At first glance, the argument seems persuasive.  After all, it is quite true that if we were to map all of the particles in the rings of Saturn it would be a tremendous amount of information.  When faced with this kind of example, many people, including some ID proponents, struggle to explain the difference between the information contained in Saturn’s rings and the information contained in, say, a stretch of DNA.

Everyone intuitively seems to know that the information in DNA is somehow different from the information allegedly contained in Saturn’s rings.  Yet we sometimes have a harder time putting our finger on and articulating exactly what the difference is.  As a result, the attempts of ID proponents to respond to such arguments occasionally end up going down the wrong path or run off track on esoteric disputes about the possible difference between the one and the other.

The purpose of this post is to make explicit what that difference is in order to (i) enable ID proponents to understand the proper response to such arguments, and (ii) help ID critics understand why the idea of information being “contained” in physical objects like Saturn’s rings is neither a valid objection to the concept of CSI nor a good counterexample to the existence of information contained in DNA.

An Object Does Not Contain Information By Its Mere Existence

In order to cut to the chase, I will give the answer first and then backtrack to provide the supporting detail.

When someone argues that there is information “contained” in a pulsar or the waves on the seashore or in the rings of Saturn, the correct response is not “Yes, but there is more information in DNA or different information in DNA.”  (Potentially true as those statements may be.)

The correct response to “There is information contained in Saturn’s rings.” is “No there isn’t.”

And this is the key – a key that will help to address this issue regardless of whether we are talking about Saturn’s rings or any other naturally-occurring phenomenon: an object does not contain information just by its mere existence.

It is true we can use instruments to take measurements about a physical object like the rings of Saturn — their size, location, rotational speed, dissipation/formation rate, particle makeup, etc. — and those measurements are now information.  As a result of the observer’s careful observations and mental activity we now have information about the rings; but the information was not contained in the rings.

And, like all information, those measurements and the related details can now be stored and conveyed in a medium.  So the observer in observing the physical phenomenon and in taking measurements creates information, which can then be stored and conveyed.  But that is very different than saying the rings themselves “contain” the information.  Physical objects don’t contain information in any meaningful sense of the word by their mere existence.

This can be easily contrasted with DNA, for example, which clearly contains information.  To be sure, we can also study the structure of DNA, as we did Saturn’s rings, and as a result of that study we could also produce information about DNA — its diameter, its length, the number of nucleotide bases, the helix structure, etc.  And here is the fun part: we could then store that information in DNA.  This is possible because DNA not only exists as a physical object, but has the ability to store large amounts of information.  So we can study DNA and generate information about DNA, just like we could with any physical object; yet DNA also contains separate information within it.

In summary

A description of a physical object is information; but the information is not contained in the physical object.  Rather, the information is created when an intelligent agent observes the object and creates a description of that object using a language or a code or a mathematical formula.  And like all information, that description of the physical object can now be translated into different languages, or stored in different media, or transmitted via various forms of transmission.

And that leads us to consider characteristics of information that are clearly not “contained” in a physical object like Saturn’s rings: meaning, message, function, translatability, transmitability.  Characteristics for discussion perhaps another time.

—–

Finally, let me anticipate and nip a rhetorical objection in the bud:

Many people are confused (or are purposely obtuse) about what is meant by “information” and will continue to quibble and argue that the information about Saturn’s rings is somehow “contained” in the rings themselves.  It isn’t.  The information is produced by an intelligent agent in its research and study of the physical object.  But we can head this argument off in a different way because such an argument is really a distraction for two reasons.

First, it is clear to any objective observer that the kind of information found in DNA differs both in quantity and quality from any alleged information found in Saturn’s rings.

Second, and more importantly, the claim of information being contained in Saturn’s rings is nothing more than a semantic game.  If someone insists that Saturn’s rings “contain information,” then we can just define the kind of information that each object in the universe “contains” about itself as “Information 1.”  We can then define the kind of information contained in DNA, in a digital code, or in a written language, as “Information 2.”  Then we can proceed to have a rational discussion using the term “Information 2″ and it will be obvious that the kind of information “contained” in Saturn’s rings is not Information 2.

Furthermore, it should be evident that if a physical object, by its mere existence, “contains” information, then everything does.  Which makes the concept of containing information meaningless.  In addition, we would still need a way to distinguish between that kind of “information” and the information that is contained in DNA or a book or a computer program.

So even if someone mistakenly thinks there is some kind of meaningful information contained in Saturn’s rings, it does not in any way address the kind of information contained in DNA or the issues we are discussing in the context of intelligent design.

Again, for the kind of information we are discussing — complex specified information — there is a critical distinction between information about a physical object and information contained in a physical object.

 

101 Replies to “Intelligent Design Basics – Information

  1. 1
    kairosfocus says:

    EA, great to have you aboard, and great to see you taking on basics issues. I note, Shannon’s H metric is avg info carrying capacity per symbol. Actual explicit functionally specific info is a step beyond, and similarly functional, specific organisation implies info stored in a description of its config. KF

  2. 2
    scordova says:

    Eric,

    Congratulations on your first UD post.

    Sal

  3. 3
    Robert Byers says:

    HM.
    Saturns rings are different then DNA?
    Why not simply be complicated/less complicated information? That the rings are organized seems evidence its based on information from somewhere!
    I’m yEC but suspect its just graduations of complexity and not a different species of information.
    YEC would want a single equation for all the material universe .

  4. 4
    Mung says:

    From the OP:

    With respect to information, I have seen complaints against the very concept of “information”, lengthy side roads pursued regarding so-called “Shannon information” (which is really not information at all, but that is a topic for a subsequent post)…

    Shannon information is information. 🙂

    The problem is not with Shannon information itself, but with the understanding (or lack thereof) of what Shannon information is about.

    Even “design theorists” have a tendency to get this wrong.

    But every effort to clarify this issue in the design community is to be commended.

    Thanks Eric!

  5. 5
    Optimus says:

    EA

    Congrats on your first OP! The subject necessary for both newbies and longtime participants in the ID debate. Actually, I encountered a similar objection to the significance of information in DNA quite recently. The guy I was speaking with asserted that even a rock clattering down a hillside is producing ‘information’ – to which I replied that such a claim stretches the definition of information past the breaking point.
    In addition to the points you mentioned in your post, I would add that DNA sequences properly qualify as information (especially digital info) due to a few particular properties: (1) The sequences consist of distinct characters (i.e. nucleotide bases) that are drawn from a clearly defined, finite set. The constituents of Saturn’s rings, though, can hardly be described as characters belonging to a well-defined finite set. (2) The sequences in DNA produce readily discernible function that is contingent on the specific arrangements of the nucleotide characters. Again, in stark contrast, the constituents of Saturn’s rings produce no discernible sequence-dependent function.

  6. 6
    Mung says:

    From the OP:

    …an object does not contain information just
    by its mere existence.

    But can any object exist except it has form? And can any object have form except it was informed? What form does an uninformed object take? Is a formless object possible? What form would a formless object take?

    I’d like to debate the assertion that “an object does not contain information just by its mere existence.”

    How does an object exist absent any form, and where does an object obtain it’s form absent any information?

    Does form come “from above” or “from below”?

  7. 7
    Mung says:

    Optimus:

    (1) The sequences consist of distinct characters (i.e. nucleotide bases) that are drawn from a clearly defined, finite set.

    That sounds suspiciously like Shannon information, which the OP informs us, is really not information at all.

  8. 8
    Optimus says:

    Mung @ 7

    That sounds suspiciously like Shannon information, which the OP informs us, is really not information at all.

    To be charitable to Eric, I think the point he’s making is that “information” in common usage (and in its most important sense) is inextricably wedded to functionality. Many ID critics attempt to eliminate the import of the functional information in DNA by asserting that there’s no real distinction to be had between sequences that do something specific and nonfunctional gibberish (which may properly be described as Shannon information). So in the limited sense that Shannon information doesn’t at all pertain to functionality, it isn’t (i.e. it is distinct from) “information” in the more conventional common usage sense.

  9. 9
    Eric Anderson says:

    Thanks, everyone, for the comments. Couple of quick thoughts:

    Mung, I’m glad to see you stop by again!

    Sure, I can make a measurement of, say, a string using the Shannon metric, and that measurement is now information. But I didn’t measure information content because that is not what the Shannon metric is measuring. I trust we’ll have a chance to discuss Shannon information in a later post, so more then. 🙂

    —–

    Optimus:

    The guy I was speaking with asserted that even a rock clattering down a hillside is producing ‘information’ – to which I replied that such a claim stretches the definition of information past the breaking point.

    Thanks. The rock rolling down the hill is another great example of the kind of misunderstanding I’ve seen. That kind of definition of information makes the concept meaningless. But the real substantive point is that the rock tumbling down the hill is not producing information. It is simply a physical event.

    Now if an observer observes the rock and, using conventions of language or math, describes what is occurring, then the observer has produced information.

    One of the things that helps us understand information is to consider whether any meaning or understanding has been imparted. What meaning or understanding is imparted by the rock rolling down the hill (or in Saturn’s rings)? None. Also, information can always be transmuted into other coded representations and transmitted through other means. How can the rock tumbling down the hill be translated into something else and transmitted? It can’t. But the information about the physical event — information that was produced by the observer as a result of observing the event — can.

    Many people get confused and think that because information can be produced (by an observer) about a physical object then the physical object somehow “contains” the information. It doesn’t.

    Or, if faced with a recalcitrant debating partner and we need to take a less substantive and more rhetorical approach, we can just redefine and continue with the discussion, as in my anticipated objection at the end of the OP.

    —–

    Mung @6:

    How does an object exist absent any form, and where does an object obtain it’s form absent any information?

    Note, I have not said that an physical object is not produced using information. Many physical objects are produced using huge amounts of information. Nor have I said a physical object doesn’t have form. Of course it has form. But the physical object simply is what it is.

    If there is a rock traveling along in space it makes no sense to say that it “contains” information. We can observe the rock and — using our coding conventions — create a description of the rock, or a representation of the rock, or tell a story about the rock, or whatever other kind of information we want to create about it.

    That information, however, was produced by the observer. It can be stored, translated, transmitted and re-transmitted completely independently of the rock. The only information that exists is information about the rock that the observer has created. And that information is itself represented in or instantiated in or contained in some medium — a language, a mathematical formula, a sequence of binary numbers. That is where the information is contained. Not in the rock.

  10. 10
    Mung says:

    Optimus:

    Many ID critics attempt to eliminate the import of the functional information in DNA by asserting that there’s no real distinction to be had between sequences that do something specific and nonfunctional gibberish (which may properly be described as Shannon information).

    Shannon information cannot properly be described as “non-functional gibberish,” and “non-functional gibberish” cannot properly be described as Shannon information.

    The sooner the ID community abandons it’s mistaken ideas about Information in general and about Shannon Information in particular, the better off it will be.

    So again I applaud the OP.

  11. 11
    Graham2 says:

    Might be a good time to resurrect some topics that were raised but not answered before.

    If I measure something and write the answer on a piece of paper, presumably the paper contains information. If I then burn the piece of paper, has the information been destroyed ? Does it still exist in my brain ? If I get confused and muddle up the value in my brain, has the information been changed ? Is it new information ? Is it information at all ?

  12. 12
    Eric Anderson says:

    Here is another example that might help:

    A hundred rocks randomly scattered on the beach vs. a hundred rocks arranged on the beach in the English letters SOS.

    What is the difference between the two?

    In both cases an observer could come along and carefully map the position and size of each rock. That would be information that the observer created as a result of mental activity directed toward observing a physical object. The observer could even go crazy, calculating the positions to the nth degree, measuring with ever finer and finer accuracy the precise location, size and so on. The observer could add color to the description. The observer might include details about the precise shape, the type of rock, the shadows that were cast by each rock at a particular time of day. The observer could go on and on with ever-increasing levels of detail and accuracy.

    And all of that constitutes information. Information produced by the observer. Information that can be coded, translated, transmitted, stored and retransmitted at some much later date, long after the actual physical object no longer exists. The information about the rocks is a nonphysical representation of and exists independently of the rocks themselves.

    The same holds true for both groups of rocks. In both cases an observer can produce information about the rocks.

    However, only in the latter case is any meaning or understanding conveyed by the rocks themselves. That information was not produced by the observer, but by some other agent, and exists independently of that particular observer.

    In both cases we, as an observer, are capable of producing information about the rocks. But only in one case is information contained in and transmitted by the rocks.

  13. 13
    Eric Anderson says:

    One more example, before the sandman calls:

    This one is more for fun (and took me a bit of work, so I hope you appreciate it). 🙂

    Let’s suppose that I were to observe Saturn’s rings and produce some information, say in the English language, about the physical object I observed. I might say (courtesy the first paragraph from Wikipedia):

    The rings of Saturn are the most extensive planetary ring system of any planet in the Solar System. They consist of countless small particles, ranging in size from micrometres to metres, that orbit about Saturn. The ring particles are made almost entirely of water ice, with a trace component of rocky material.

    Now the above paragraph contains information, in the English language, about Saturn’s rings. The paragraph consists of three sentences, 52 words, three commas and three periods. This paragraph contains information about the prior paragraph. Information that I created by carefully observing the prior paragraph, by using conventions of math, and by representing the information, again, in the English language – all by my conscious activity and choice.

    This paragraph also consists of three sentences. It also contains 52 words, three commas and three periods, just like the paragraph about Saturn’s rings. This information could be produced by any observer and represented in the language of choice, but in this case the information is also contained in the paragraph itself.

  14. 14
    Querius says:

    Nice job, Eric. Very persuasive.

    It reminds me of the old saying that

    Data is not information,
    Information is not knowledge,
    And knowledge is not wisdom.

    I’m also reminded of the part in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, where The Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything is calculated by the supercomputer, Deep Thought, as 42, demonstrating the inadequacy of a numeric value outside of any context.

    -Q

  15. 15
    Optimus says:

    Mung @ 10

    Shannon information cannot properly be described as “non-functional gibberish,” and “non-functional gibberish” cannot properly be described as Shannon information.

    The sooner the ID community abandons it’s mistaken ideas about Information in general and about Shannon Information in particular, the better off it will be.

    My understanding of Shannon information is admittedly limited, but I’m not really sure what your objection is. So I’ll write and you can tell me where the mistake is. Shannon’s theory of information (as I understand it) concerns the ability of a string of characters to carry information, that is, it measures information carrying capacity (using the formula I = -log2p). Information carrying capacity is, of course, distinct from actual information content (which in varying contexts might be described as ‘meaning,’ ‘function,’ etc.). So two sequences that are of equal length and utilize constituents from the same character set will possess an equivalent amount of Shannon information – information carrying capacity – though one may be meaningful/functional and the other may not. On page 90 of SITC Meyer uses this example:

    – Four score and seven years ago
    – nenen ytawoi jll sn mekhdx nnx

    Both sequences possess an equivalent amount of information carrying capacity (Shannon information), but only the former satisfies the additional criterion of meaning/functionality. But even though the latter does not appear functional (at least as far as I can tell), rendering it a fair example of “gibberish”, it surely possesses at least the capacity to carry information.

  16. 16
    Joe says:

    Saturn’s rings, tree rings, sediments and the like are data recorders. It takes intelligent agencies to take that data and make information out of it. (Q beat me to it)

  17. 17
    Joe says:

    Optimus- Shannon didn’t care about meaning.That oesn’t mean Shannon information never has any.

  18. 18
    Joe says:

    OK Eric what about:

    Information flows from artist to art, ie from designer to the thing being designed. Therefor any object a designer designs would contain the information required to make it.

    A cake, for example, would, at a minimum, contain all the information in the recipe used to make it.

    Agree or disagree?

  19. 19
    jstanley01 says:

    If I measure something and write the answer on a piece of paper, presumably the paper contains information. If I then burn the piece of paper, has the information been destroyed ? Does it still exist in my brain ? If I get confused and muddle up the value in my brain, has the information been changed ? Is it new information ? Is it information at all ?

    Remembering back to what I learned in an undergraduate anthropology class, it appears that among people groups without written languages, information about historic events lasts about fifty years, give or take. That is, more or less, the length of a generation. Events such as, eighty years ago the group lived on the other side of the mountain, but no one in the group knows it.

    Of course, it has been thirty years since I sat in that class and my notes are long gone. So I could have what was taught all bollixed up. 😀

  20. 20
    Box says:

    Excellent article Eric! I’m looking forward to your further explorations of information.

    On the distinction between information 1 & 2:

    The information in DNA is about something else (e.g. proteins). By contrast the alleged information in Saturn’s rings only refers to Saturn’s rings.

  21. 21
    jstanley01 says:

    Here’s a couple or three questions (he said, with a deadpan look on his face):

    Did Egyptian hieroglyphics still contain information after everyone who knew what they meant died out? And was that information then recoverable by any means analogous to recovering the alleged information contained in the rings of Saturn? And if not — if the recovery of that information were still impossible, absent the Rosetta Stone — aren’t information and alleged information two different things?

  22. 22
    CuriousCat says:

    That was a very good article Eric. One point I’m not sure I agree with you is the following statement:

    One of the things that helps us understand information is to consider whether any meaning or understanding has been imparted. What meaning or understanding is imparted by the rock rolling down the hill (or in Saturn’s rings)?

    Here, “meaning” (or understanding) is, I believe, subjective. What if (though of course I do not belive in such a thing :)) Saturn’s rings carries a message written by the shape, color and form of the rings, but in a way we haven’t figured out yet? If you see a set of lines drawn in a cave, would you take them as randomly drawn lines carrying no information, or a paragraph written in a foreign language (though we cannot figure out the alphabet) carrying information. What I would like to emphasize is that it is difficult (or maybe impossible) to determine which parts of the nature carries this type of information and which parts do not. What if, inspired from Saturn rings, an artist comes up with a painting, or a physicist comes up with an equation? If Saturn rings weren’t there, those paintings and equations would not be created! Still, would we argue that Saturn rings carry no information?

    I think classifying the processes in nature as randomly occuring and information carrying events separately is the crucial point in ID discussion. We try to define the concept of “random” by examining the universe around us. However, if nothing in that universe is random (but everything carrying information), we are doomed in this classification from the very beginning!

  23. 23
    Joe says:

    This is what Meyer uses in SITC p 86:

    information– the attribute inherent in and communicated by [one of two or more] alternative sequences or arrangements of something [(as nucleotides in DNA or binary digits in a computer program)] that produce specific effects

    Whereas Shannon didn’t give a hoot about meaning nor function, to ID information is all about meaning and function, producing specific effects.

  24. 24
    GBDixon says:

    Hi All from a lurker…

    I work with the Shannon channel capacity, etc.
    Shannon defined information as the set of possible received messages that have meaning to the sender and receiver. These messages are compared to the set of all possible messages that can be received through a noisy channel. The messages that have no meaning (usually a much larger set) contain no information.

    A sequential toss of 100 heads in a row on a coin has meaning to the receiver: “the coin is rigged, it has two heads, or the person tossing the coin is very skilled”. This outcome has information when compared to a random head-tail sequence, which conveys no meaning and has no information in this context.

    In DNA, the set of sequences that produce something useful (proteins and their assembly sequences, for example) would be considered information while all the other sequences (which produce nothing useful) would be the set of sequences that contain no information. In a cell, then, DNA is rich with information because many of the DNA sequences produce useful things needed for the cell to function and divide.

    By making a list of all sequences that everyone agrees produce something useful, we can calculate, using Shannon’s formula, a lower bound on information contained within the cell. Using this lower bound for a cell’s information content, one can then discuss and speculate on how this information came to be.

    I would try not to confuse the ability of a medium to convey information with the information itself. A long DNA sequence found in isolation has no information. Coupled with the machines in the cell, the useful sequences become meaningful and have rich information content.

  25. 25

    I have posted on this before: the important distinction, which several commentators mentioned but did not emphasize, is the difference between Shannon information and meaningful information. Optimus in #25 gets close: the two strings

    – Four score and seven years ago
    – nenen ytawoi jll sn mekhdx nnx

    have exactly the same amount of Shannon information, but only the first string has meaningful information. Furthermore, the meaningful information in the first string does not depend on the bits/characters of which it is composed, because if it did its “meaning” would still be there if no one could read it, as jstanley01 pointed out in #21. However, this is clearly not the case. For information to be meaningful, it must have meaning. That is, it must be encoded and symbolic: the bits/characters must stand for something else. That “encoding/translation” relationship between the symbol and the thing it represents is its meaning.

    This is why the rings of Saturn and the grains of sand on the beach and the stars in the night sky may have Shannon information, but they do not have meaningful information. The kind of information that we are all interested in (evolutionary biologists and intelligent designers) is meaningful information. That is, information that is encoded, can (must?) be transmitted from a sender to a receiver, and decoded for its meaning to be manifested. Without a decoding receiver it’s like linear B before it was translated: meaningless gibberish.

    So, the central question in the disagreement between evolutionary biologists and intelligent designers is where and when the meaning comes from. I am working on a monograph on the concept of purpose in which I argue that for something to be purposeful its meaning must be encoded in some form before that something is manifested. To use Ernst Mayr’s terminology, purposeful/teleological (i.e. teleonomic) phenomena must be programmed; the program must pre-exist the object/process it makes manifest.

    Viewed from the perspective of the physical sciences, this also entails the assumption that such programs must have some material referent. Meaning cannot simply “float in the spaces between the star” but must be encoded in the energy/matter that comprises the “contents” of the phenomenological universe of our experience. Yes, ideas seem disembodied to us, but they aren’t. They exist in our minds and/or in the objects and processes we perceive that we recreate in the evanescent flickerings of action potentials that comprise our minds. A brain without ideas is dead matter, but ideas without an energy/material vehicle are undetectable and therefore pointless (and probably non-existent).

  26. 26

    Arguing about Shannon information (and Kolmogorov information) is therefore pointless. Information without meaning is indeed gibberish, and biology is all about meaningful information.

  27. 27
    DennisM says:

    Greetings from a longtime lurker, only my second time posting, I think.

    When I encountered this type of objection — ie that information is contained in all objects, therefore DNA is not special — the example offered was a star’s spectrum, which can be used to reveal the various elements contained in the star and was not a trivial amount of information. (His previous example was a red sky, which conveyed information about impending weather.)

    I granted the presence of “information” in the spectrum, but it was only a limited kind, similar to the OP’s suggestion of “Information 1”. The spectrum could only give the composition of that particular star. Nothing in the spectrum or in the star itself store or convey the composition of any other star, much less anything about human beings or even my dog’s name. However, all of that can be stored and transmitted using DNA, as an example of “Information 2”.

    He wasn’t persuaded, of course, but perhaps he thought about it later.

  28. 28
    GBDixon says:

    Hi,

    I’m trying to get a handle on why so many here seem to think meaning is not part and parcel of Shannon information. Many are very assertive…where did this idea come from?

    I remind readers that all of communication theory deals with separating messages that have meaning from those that don’t. Error detection, error correction, retransmission, etc. are all designed to make this separation process more robust.

    But the exercise is meaningless and no information is transferred until something meaningful is extracted from the process.

  29. 29
    Upright BiPed says:

    I’m trying to get a handle on why so many here seem to think meaning is not part and parcel of Shannon information. Many are very assertive…where did this idea come from?

    From Clauge Shannon’s theory. Paragraph 2, Sentence 3.

    The fundamental problem of communication is that of reproducing at one point either exactly or approximately a message selected at another point. Frequently the messages have meaning; that is they refer to or are correlated according to some system with certain physical or conceptual entities. These semantic aspects of communication are irrelevant to the engineering problem.

  30. 30
    Box says:

    Allen_MacNeill #25

    AMN: Meaning cannot simply “float in the spaces between the star” but must be encoded in the energy/matter that comprises the “contents” of the phenomenological universe of our experience. Yes, ideas seem disembodied to us, but they aren’t.

    I beg to differ. Ideas are immaterial and only need embodiment when expressed into the material world – like our texts.

    AMN: (…) the evanescent flickerings of action potentials that comprise our minds.

    How can “evanescent flickerings of action potentials” be ideas or even have ideas?

  31. 31
    Joe says:

    Allen MacNeill:

    Arguing about Shannon information (and Kolmogorov information) is therefore pointless. Information without meaning is indeed gibberish, and biology is all about meaningful information.

    That’s the whole point of specified information- to differentiate between function/meaning and mere Shannon information.

  32. 32
    GBDixon says:

    Thank you, BiPed #29

    I can see how Shannon’s remarks might be interpreted as some here do. What he is actually saying is that from the communication theory standpoint the content of a valid message can be anything chosen to be valid by the sender and receiver, and it doesn’t change the communication problem.

    But note that in the previous sentence he states the communication problem: to distinguish a valid message from other valid messages, or an invalid one. This is the sense of meaning we use in communications…a valid message, received correctly, is the only instance when information is transferred. Gibberish messages (that is, messages that have no meaning in this sense) do not qualify as a valid message and there is no information transfer.

    A random collection of bits, DNA, die throws, etc. contain no Shannon information because they do not qualify as valid messages.

  33. 33
    gpuccio says:

    Eric:

    Hi, and congratulations for your first OP. I have been very busy, so I have read it only now. Very, very stimulating (and we can already see the results in the discussion, including Barry’s new post).

    So, what do I think?

    I must confess that I am a little confused by the word itself. “Information” seems to be one of those words which can mean many things, and which imply many other things. So, I will try to offer here a few disordered reflections, hoping that they may contribute to the discussion.

    I absolutely agree with you about the basic point: information is about intelligent observers, and does not exist out of conscious events. So, information is never in things, but us a conscious way of looking at things. Information is a cognitive dimension. And cognition is an experience of meaning.

    So, in a sense, all information is meaning. And it is not contained in objects, but can be experienced by observing objects. The object itself, however, is very important as a source of possible experiences, and its objective properties and form are a specific constraint to our cognitive experiences about that object.

    In that sense, all objects can be a source of information, because all objects can be cognized by an intelligent observer. As you correctly point out, we can define an object, measure it, give it a symbolic meaning, and so on, In all those cases, we derive an informational experience from the object, and that experience is in some way constrained by the object’s properties.

    Now, at this point we have to trace the difference between different kinds of “information experience” that objects give us.

    The most basic seems to be:

    a) Data. All objects can be a source of data. In that sense, all objects contain some kind of that basic information power. We can derive data form the rings of Saturn as much as from a stone.

    b) Higher level information about regularities and laws. That is much more interesting. An apple falling from a tree can give us (if we are intelligent 🙂 ) a definite hint of a very important laws of nature.

    c) Meaning and function. This is even better. Here the experience is symbolic, it is about meta-experiences of consciousness (experiences which are at a meta-level in respect to the object itself, and of the possible laws which act on it). Meaning and function can be viewed as the same thing, or as different aspects of the same thing. They are strongly related concepts, but we can look at them as partially separate:

    c1) Meaning is a definite cognitive experience induced by the object, but which is abstract in respect to the object itself (related to other objects, or to other non material experiences). So, the word “tree” evokes in us the representation of a tree. The word “fear” evokes in us a specific feeling. A drawing of a house evokes in us the representation of a real house. And so on.

    c2) Function is a definite feeling about the possible results of an object in a context. “Functional” means ( 🙂 ) “capable to generate a desirable (or undesirable) result”. The idea of function is always connected to a judgement (an inner feeling) about a result.

    However we define all these things, a simple fact remains: information, in all its forms, requires material objects which can evoke the necessary conscious experience, and the specific form and properties of those objects are the basic constraint connected to the conscious informational experiences we can derive from them.

    Now, here comes the very interesting point. Some quantities can be connected to specific types of information. I like very much Dembski’s fundamental concept, quoted by Barry in his post:

    “information is about realizing possibilities by ruling out others.”

    But I like very much also Joe’s comment on that:

    “Umm if there aren’t any intelligent agencies around to determine if alternatives exist, do they exist and does it even matter?”

    So, just to stay simple, let’s go to examples of digital information. Eric, you would say that there is no digital information unless we see it in a material system which has been designed to convey it, and you are right.

    But let’s see that we just observe an object, or a material system, and we wonder: can I derive a digital string of values in some alphabet from that object?

    In many cases, the answer is yes. Even the rings of Saturn can be transformed into some digital string, probably (or in many different digital strings). But let’s say that we give a value of = to all days in a year when the temperature in our city is below a certain value, and a value of 1 to all days when it is higher than that threshold. We get a series of binary values, a string of 365 bits in one year.

    Now, is that information? Yes. First of all, it is data. Second, it can give us hints about weather laws.

    But has it symbolic meaning and function? I would say that the string itself does not evoke any meaning or function beyond the data aspect and law inference aspect. It cannot be interpreted as a piece of language, or as a functional string.

    But, if we want to express a definite meaning or function, using definite material objects as bits (let’s say a series of ordered stones, small ones counting as 0s, bigger ones counting as 1s), we will need different numbers of stones according to the meaning or function we want to convey.

    So, if our series of stones, correctly coded, gives us as a sequence:

    “Four score and seven years ago”

    We cannot convey the full meaning of that phrase with less stones. And is the sequence is:

    “nenen ytawoi jll sn mekhdx nnx”

    we have conveyed nothing, as far as we can judge, but we have used the same amount of stones.

    That’s where the concepts of Shannon information (and Kolmogorov information) are truly important: they are a way to count the necessary stones.

    That’s where the concept of specified information (in all its variant) is fundamental: it is the only way to count how many bits are necessary to convey a meaning or a function. IOWs, the “complexity” of that meaning or function.

    Note that the complexity has nothing to do with the deep value or meaning of the information, but only with the number of stones we have to use to convey it.

    For example, let’s consider these two examples, both from Wikipedia:

    1) A circle is a simple shape of Euclidean geometry that is the set of all points in a plane that are at a given distance from a given point, the centre.

    2) Facebook is an online social networking service. Its name comes from a colloquialism for the directory given to students at some American universities. Facebook was founded on February 4, 2004 by Mark Zuckerberg with his college roommates and fellow Harvard University students Eduardo Saverin, Andrew McCollum, Dustin Moskovitz and Chris Hughes. The founders had initially limited the website’s membership to Harvard students, but later expanded it to colleges in the Boston area, the Ivy League, and Stanford University. It gradually added support for students at various other universities before it opened to high-school students, and eventually to anyone aged 13 and over. Facebook now allows anyone who claims to be at least 13 years old to become a registered user of the website.

    We can argue that the definition of a circle is probably more important and fundamental than the definition of Facebook, and yet the second definition is more complex, simply because it requires more “stones”.

    Shannon information is very important to understand these quantitative concepts. In the fundamental Durston paper, “Measuring the functional sequence complexity of proteins”:

    http://www.tbiomed.com/content/4/1/47

    Shannon’s information is brilliantly used to measure the functional space of protein families, by estimating the reduction in uncertainty determined by the function versus the random state.

    So, to sum up, the kind of information which is relevant to ID theory is information which conveys meaning and function, and to be relevant to the ID core idea (design detection) that information must be quantifiable, in terms of bits necessary to convey the meaning or the function, using Shannon’s concepts.

  34. 34
    Optimus says:

    Joe @ 6
    If you reread the last part of my post at 15, it should be clear that I am not arguing that Shannon information never has content or meaning. In fact, I have never argued that to be the case. In my earlier post that Mung objected to, it simply says that an apparently nonfunctional sequence can properly be described as possessing Shannon information. Shannon information is a broad category that subsumes both functional and nonfunctional sequences.

  35. 35
    Optimus says:

    Srry that was in reference to comment number 17

  36. 36
    Eric Anderson says:

    Graham2 @11:

    If I measure something and write the answer on a piece of paper, presumably the paper contains information.

    Yes.

    If I then burn the piece of paper, has the information been destroyed ? Does it still exist in my brain ? If I get confused and muddle up the value in my brain, has the information been changed ? Is it new information ? Is it information at all ?

    Information can be destroyed. I have had the unfortunate experience of sending in three different hard drives to three different vendors this past year (thankfully all still under warranty). Amusingly, one vendor (if I recall, it was Seagate) sent me back a larger capacity drive, because it was less trouble for them then tracking down the older smaller capacity drive I had returned.

    There are myriad pieces of information that have disappeared over the ages. Information about ancient civilizations, orders Caesar Augustus gave on a particular day, the price of grain in the Egyptian market at a particular time, some of Leonardo da Vinci’s writings, letters, minutes of meetings, drafts of a presentation I gave several years ago . . .

    On the flip side, tomorrow there will be millions of pieces of information created that did not exist today. Yes, information is regularly created and destroyed.*

    But one of the basic characteristics of information is that it can be easily reproduced, translated, transmitted, copied and so forth. As a result, it is very common to have multiple copies of the same exact piece of information. If I burn my copy of “The Design Inference” that information is lost to me individually until I locate another copy, but it still exists in the world — objectively so and readily available should I wish to access it. In contrast, I know that somewhere in a box in my room are numerous unique cards and letters from friends and family I have received over the years. Should that box of correspondence be lost, burned, or otherwise destroyed, it is gone forever.

    —–

    * Please, dear readers, let’s not get into a discussion of whether God (who by some definitions, knows all things) possess all information in his head and that, therefore, no information is ever completely destroyed. That line of discussion is unhelpful for present purposes because (i) it is a theological/philosophical argument, and (ii) for intelligent design we are interested in the information we can see here and now — what we have access to in the real world.

  37. 37
    Eric Anderson says:

    Thank you everyone for lots of great thoughts and comments. I’ll get to as many as I can off and on throughout the day.

    Joe @18:

    Information flows from artist to art, ie from designer to the thing being designed. Therefor any object a designer designs would contain the information required to make it.

    A cake, for example, would, at a minimum, contain all the information in the recipe used to make it.

    Great question, but I think it falls in the same categories I layed out. Two issues with the cake example:

    (i) It is not clear that the cake contains all the information needed to make it. There is a tremendous amount of background information that the observer still has to know and learn, independently of the cake. Things like how to measure the precise molecular content, what an oven is, what a mixer is, where to get the ingredients and so on. Contrast this with a self-reproducing organism, which not only can be observed by an outside observer to learn about the organism, but contains within itself (let’s assume for purposes of discussion that this is fully the case) the actual instructions for its own reproduction.

    (ii) More importantly, the information allegedly “in” the cake is, like any other physical object, information that is produced by an observer as a result of mental activity in observing the cake. Once the observer has produced that information we then have information about the cake; but the information was not contained in the cake itself. Contrast that with an example of a large cake that has the entire recipe carefully spelled out in frosting letters on the top. In that case an observer could of course observe the cake (like any other physical object) and draw up information about the cake, but the cake itself would also contain information — information that, as always, is represented by some kind of language or code or formula, in this case an English-language recipe.

    In any event, as I described in my response to anticipated objections, if someone insists that physical objects by their mere existence “contain” information, then everything — every single particle — in the universe does. Fine. We can deal with that rhetorical (although substantively incorrect) stance. What they are talking about is Information1. What we are interested in is Information2.

    The first cake in your example has only Information1. The last cake in my example has Information1 and Information2. Then, since everything in the universe has Information1, we can ignore it. It is not a distinguishing feature. It tells us precisely nothing about why some things in the universe also have Information2 and others don’t. It becomes an entirely useless and pointless exercise to even talk about Information1.

  38. 38
    Eric Anderson says:

    Box @20:

    The information in DNA is about something else (e.g. proteins). By contrast the alleged information in Saturn’s rings only refers to Saturn’s rings.

    Yes. Information is representative of something, typically something other than itself. It is also immaterial and is not confined to a particular medium (unlike Saturn’s rings, or the rocks on the beach, or the cake that was baked, each of which exists only in the particular medium of which it is made). As a result, information can be coded, translated, decoded, and transmitted in different media.

    I can easily give someone an instruction: “Please take the first paragraph on Wikipedia about Saturn’s rings [note: information about the rings] and translate it into Spanish or Russian or into binary or otherwise.”

    In contrast, if I say: “Please translate the information contained in Saturn’s rings into Spanish or binary,” I will, justifiably, get strange looks. Only after fumbling around a bit will the poor soul realize that what was meant is to translate the information about Saturn’s rings into Spanish — the information contained in the Wikipedia article.

    We’ve seen several examples on this thread of arguments people have run into besides Saturn’s rings, things like rocks rolling down hills, rainbows, and so on.

    This is the crux:

    Every time someone gives an example of a physical object “containing” information by its mere existence, when asked to pin down in detail what information they claim is contained in the object it will invariably turn out that the information: (i) is information produced by an observer as a result of mental activity when observing the object, and (ii) is information about the object.

  39. 39
    GBDixon says:

    Thank you, Eric, for this most interesting post. I appreciated your cake example.

    I think everyone here must concede there has to be some way of saying “This is not information”. Otherwise, if Shannon information is not dependent on content, everything that exists (and that doesn’t, perhaps) would qualify as information. That sounds too much like Darwinism: no way to disprove it!

    So whether or not something is information depends on the meaning it has in the eyes of the receiver (as in the cake example). Here is another example.

    The Ethernet receiver in our computer that we know and love even though we never think about it, is trained to recognize valid Ethernet packets. If the datastream has the right source and destination IP address, CRC, framing signals and length, etc., the receiver accepts the packet as information. To this receiver this is Shannon information. The receiver is always accepting bits, most of which it discards as not part of a valid packet. These bits are not information to the Ethernet receiver. The receiver does not care what is in the packet as long as its own criteria for a valid message has been met.
    .
    The payload of the Ethernet packet happens to be a short digitized signal from the Aceribo observatory, pointed to deep space. It is sent to the computer’s running program: SETI@HOME. The program assembles many such packets then processes them through a filter designed to detect unusual signals.
    In this case, the program does not detect anything and discards the packets, simply reporting to the coordinating server that it processed that data and found nothing.
    The SETI@HOME program is also a receiver, and in this case has decided there is no information in the signal. There is no Shannon information.

    So whether a collection of data is information or not depends on how the receiver attaches meaning to it. Because we have two receivers, there are two interpretations of Shannon information: both are correct but the same data qualified as information in one case, but noise in the next.
    In DNA, sequences that are used to create things the cell needs are clearly Shannon information. DNA in isolation with nothing to interpret it is not.

  40. 40
    Joe says:

    Eric:

    It is not clear that the cake contains all the information needed to make it.

    True, but that isn’t what I said. Read it again, slowly:

    A cake, for example, would, AT A MINIMUM, contain all the information in the recipe used to make it.

    (ii) More importantly, the information allegedly “in” the cake is, like any other physical object, information that is produced by an observer as a result of mental activity in observing the cake.

    OK.

    My point is someone can come along take the cake and figure out its ingedients and then reproduce it. That is they can extract information from the existing cake to produce another one:

    information- the attribute inherent in and communicated by [one of two or more] alternative sequences or arrangements of something [(as nucleotides in DNA or binary digits in a computer program)] that produce specific effects

    A cake is an arrangement of something that produces specific effects. It is communicated by the baker to the consumers.

    artifact:

    The causal tie between an artifact and its intended character — or, strictly speaking, between an artifact and its author’s productive intention — is constituted by an author’s actions, that is, by his work on the object.

  41. 41
    Joe says:

    ARTIFACTS contain information, as in specified information. Not all physical objects.

  42. 42
    Graham2 says:

    Similar to the jstanley01 question about Egyptian hieroglyphics, does a coded message contain information even if we cant read it ? They certainly contained information once, do they still ?

  43. 43
    Joe says:

    Graha,2-

    As long as the sender & intended receiver knows/knew the information, that is all that counts. To us it would be something for us to figure out- as unintended receivers.

  44. 44
    seventrees says:

    Greetings.

    Eric at 38,

    I can easily give someone an instruction: “Please take the first paragraph on Wikipedia about Saturn’s rings [note: information about the rings] and translate it into Spanish or Russian or into binary or otherwise.”

    In contrast, if I say: “Please translate the information contained in Saturn’s rings into Spanish or binary,” I will, justifiably, get strange looks. Only after fumbling around a bit will the poor soul realize that what was meant is to translate the information about Saturn’s rings into Spanish — the information contained in the Wikipedia article.

    If I use this logic, it goes thus: Translation of all the information contained in DNA is possible, which distinguishes it from the information collected by experiences.

    Using your terms, “Information 1” is not translatable, while “Information 2” is translatable.

    Correct me if I understood you correctly. If so, I hope the discussion will continue from here.

  45. 45
    seventrees says:

    Joe at 40:

    I was also thinking of that. People with good taste buds can somehow tell the ingredients of certain recipes.

    Semi O/T: To me, the definition of artifacts you provided together with your cake example seems to justify those who believe that beauty they see in the world plus the laws governing matter and energy cannot just come up by chance. Please, point out where I have misunderstood you.

  46. 46
    Eric Anderson says:

    jstanley01 @21:

    Did Egyptian hieroglyphics still contain information after everyone who knew what they meant died out? And was that information then recoverable by any means analogous to recovering the alleged information contained in the rings of Saturn? And if not — if the recovery of that information were still impossible, absent the Rosetta Stone — aren’t information and alleged information two different things?

    Thanks. Hieroglyphics are an interesting example.

    Once information is produced by an agent it exists, and as long as that information is represented somewhere it continues to exist, even if a recipient is not available at a particular moment to take advantage of the information.

    But that doesn’t mean the information in the hieroglyphics is anything like the alleged information in Saturn’s rings or other physical objects by their mere existence.

    In fact, the hieroglyphics are a great example of the distinction that needs to be drawn. Prior to their deciphering, scholars had studied the hieroglyphics for a long time and had observed and documented — meaning the scholars had produced a lot of information — about the hieroglyphics: how many, different forms, different styles, where they were found, and on and on. Lots of information about the hieroglyphics. Just the same as an observer can, through mental activity and careful study, produce lots of information about Saturn’s rings or any other physical object.

    But it was only when a code was understood, when a mental breakthrough occurred, that scholars learned the information that was contained in the hieroglyphics.

    This is precisely the kind of difference we need to appreciate.

  47. 47
    Eric Anderson says:

    CuriousCat @22:

    What if (though of course I do not belive in such a thing :)) Saturn’s rings carries a message written by the shape, color and form of the rings, but in a way we haven’t figured out yet?

    That is certainly possible (logically speaking), though exceedingly unlikely. But, regardless, that is not an issue for what I am laying out. We are regularly discovering information that was not previously known, such as the example of the hieroglyphics jstanley01 brought up or your cave drawings example. If such information ever were discovered in Saturn’s rings, then, of course, we could say the rings “contain” information in the same way that hieroglyphics or DNA do.

    What I would like to emphasize is that it is difficult (or maybe impossible) to determine which parts of the nature carries this type of information and which parts do not.

    Not really. It is usually incredibly easy. So easy that in 99% of the cases it is not even a close call. For example even in your example of Saturn’s rings above you said you “of course” do not believe such a thing. Why? Because it is obvious that the rings don’t contain such information.

    We could probably find a few corner cases where it is difficult to tell, but in most instances it is extremely straight-forward and easy to tell.

  48. 48
    Eric Anderson says:

    GBDixon @24:

    Glad we coaxed you out of lurking. Thanks for the good thoughts!

  49. 49
    StephenB says:

    Well, just to complicate things even more, I think information (in the biological context, at least) exists in both in the organism and and in the observer.

    On the one hand, information must exist in the organism as a code in order to act as a cause and produce an effect. Our experience and understanding can apprehend that effect, but cannot produce it.

    On the other hand, it must also exist in the observer (albeit in a different way) in terms of experience and understanding. The organism cannot produce our experience and understanding. It can only provide the input.

    Taking it one step further, I am not sure that a general definition of information is possible:

    First, there are so many aspects to it, including entropy, organization, chaos, functionality, intentionality, communication, language, meaning, codes, subjectivity, objectivity, semiotics, etc. Tt would seem that the best approach is to provide an operational definition for the context being discussed.

    Second, cosmology is different from biology, which makes it very difficult to transfer concepts or take a unified approach.

  50. 50
    ScuzzaMan says:

    Eric, you wrote:

    “However, only in the latter case is any meaning or understanding conveyed by the rocks themselves. That information was not produced by the observer, but by some other agent, and exists independently of that particular observer.”

    I’m not sure about this point. The word ‘HELP!’, as an element of communication, requires a sender, and a receiver, and a prior agreement between them about what this precise sequence is intended to communicate. These 3 elements are essential to all communication.

    Someone else, discussing Shannon information, already pointed oout that Shannone information is necessarily concerned with the minimum requirement to represent communication betweeen sender and receiver. If there is no receiver (no observer), then no communication has taken place, and thus no information has been transferred, but it is still there..

    Once sombeody observes the random rocks, or the rings of Saturn, that somebody not only gains information about the rocks. The rocks tell the observer things about their environment. The rings of Saturn tell us about the mass of Saturn, for example. If we measure their orbit, velocity, mass, etc, then we can deduce further information about Saturn, and Saturn’s moons, and etc.

    There absolutely IS (imho) information contained in the rings of Saturn, but it is not contained in them as an artefact of their mere existence but as an artefact of the state, or condition.

    Nonetheless, the vital issue in my view is not information but communication, which is the transfer of information.

    And here the cell becomes much more interesting. For in the cell, a sender transmits various pieces of information encoded in proteins, and other parts of the same cell, ot other cells, successfully interpret this information and use it to construct our bodies.

    Every minute, this process is operating on our planet to produce the most complex structure of which we are aware – the human brain – and the information that must be successfully transferred (i.e. must have been sent, received, and understood) in order to make that happen is staggering in both it’s scale and it’s complexity.

    The design inference is appropriate in such a case. Natural objects may contain information, but only intelligence communicates. Only intelligence can derive information from the mere existence and/or condition of Saturn’s rings.

    Only an English speaker can help Robinson Crusoe.

    THAT seems to me to be the crucial distinction. To give one final example; if I find a hammer in the jungle, I KNOW it didnt grow there. Because I already know some other things. Being only moderately intelligent, they are few, but they are enough. I know that man makes hammers. I know that trees do not.

    We know that only intelligence communicates. We know that random undirected material does not. Therefore, when we see communication taking place, of such enormous, elegant, beautiful, and intricate scale as occurs in living things on this planet, we are warranted in making the inference to design.

    So it seems to me.

    This is my first toe in the waters here, so I apologise if this was not clear.

  51. 51
    Joe says:

    seventrees-

    Humans with great taste and knowledge, ie existing information, may be able to do it, but we also have analyzers that could tease out the chemicals in better detail. From that we match the ingredients.

    Reverse engineering is extracting the information from the existing design. The information was put there by the original designers. Cakes are no different.

  52. 52
    Querius says:

    Allen_MacNeill@25 stated

    nenen ytawoi jll sn mekhdx nnx

    Wow! Brilliant, meaningful poetry!

    nenen = “Not everything new enhances nature;”
    ytawoi = “Yet to all with observant intellects,”
    jll = “Just leaving litter”
    sn = “should never”
    mekhdx = “make enterprises kindle human dread!”
    nnx = “Not now!”

    Thanks so much for sharing! 😉

    -Q

  53. 53
    Eric Anderson says:

    Allen_MacNeill @25:

    Good thoughts on the importance of meaning. Hopefully we can explore that in more detail in a future post.

    With respect to whether a recipient is necessary for information to exist, I have a post that hopefully will get put up tomorrow on that issue.

  54. 54
    Eric Anderson says:

    DennisM:

    Thanks for your thoughts and for ‘unlurking’ momentarily. 🙂

    If you don’t mind, I’ll make a mental note to add the star’s spectrum to my personal list of examples.

  55. 55
    Eric Anderson says:

    GBDixon #32:

    But note that in the previous sentence he states the communication problem: to distinguish a valid message from other valid messages, or an invalid one. This is the sense of meaning we use in communications…a valid message, received correctly, is the only instance when information is transferred. Gibberish messages (that is, messages that have no meaning in this sense) do not qualify as a valid message and there is no information transfer.

    A random collection of bits, DNA, die throws, etc. contain no Shannon information because they do not qualify as valid messages.

    Thanks for the thoughts. It sounds like this is an interesting issue, though likely primarily a definitional one. I’m hoping to do a full post on Shannon information, but it is about 4th in line right now. 🙁

  56. 56

    I will start with a declared bias of looking and thinking about information from a human perspective.

    I will avoid using the term “information” – at least initially – for any other context but only within living creatures – and particularly human context.

    Later I would consider to what degree the human-centric defined information may apply to other living creatures.

    A human receives on a continuous basis SIGNALS from his environment. These signals are of different physical nature:

    – light – that for the basis for perception of images
    – sound – form audio perception
    – chemical vapors – to form olfactory (smell) perceptions
    – mechanical (wind, vibrations, ground shakes) – to form equilibrium/balance perceptions

    Human posses specialized organs: eyes, ears, nose, tactile sensors that are specialized in converting these signals in special input (signals, impulses) sent to the brain.

    The human brain has the capacity to create and maintain dynamic, multidimensional cognitive SCENES that keep us – on a continuous basis – in touch with various aspects of our environment: the visual, auditive, olfactive aspect, etc.

    The overall result of conjugated capabilities of our sense organs and the mind is that we acquire continuously background INFORMATION from our environment.

    To summarize we can say that the human is endowed with capabilities to “in-form” the mind, on a continuous basis with what happens in our environment.

    This is a highly sophisticated capability which is one of the foundation for the high intelligence of the human species.

    We may say that the “raw material” from which these multi-aspect “scenes” are made up is “information”. This raw mental material resides in our mind and we can rightfully called information.

    The Mind “landscape” that hosts information is the place were the Mind operates with its other “tools”: memory, reasoning, abstraction, face and scene recognition, pattern recognition, decision-making, etc. We can think of information as the native raw-material of these and other mental processes.

    On this established background for our analysis, let’s consider several scenarios.

    a. I am picking a book from the shelf and start reading it. The image on the page is translated in the eye visual sensors, through optical nerve, through the brain in images of a sequence of letters, and then into higher and higher “mind constructs”; words, phrases, meaning.
    These elements can rightfully be considered information extracted through the book reading.

    b. In my environment appears my friend Jack and he starts talking with me. His words are initially just audio signals that are converted through my ears, nervous system, brain and mind into mental words, information and meaning. My mind processes this information and prepares somehow response information that materializes into the sounds produced by my vocal chords and heard by Jack.
    My words follows a similar path to become information in Jack’s mind.

    These two scenarios show that beyond the background information feed to the mind from signals from the environment, there are over-imposed specific streams of signals (when reading a book, or talking with someone) that translate in specific streams of information for where the mind is focused at a particular moment.

    Let’s try now to do synthesis and formulate some speculative statements following our preceding analysis.

    A. Information is Native to the Mind

    Genuine, highest level of information, exists only in the human mind were it has the proper mental context and tools to achieve meaning and to inform mind cognition, reasoning and trigger action.

    The information in the human mind deserves a special name or statute for the following reasons:

    – it is achieved through concerted contribution of human perception organs that convert environment signals into highly formed “mental staff” that is easily connected with the mental tools, state and context appropriate for accepting, integrating the “new staff” that may trigger new mental state and body action.

    – Only in the human mind information exists in a proper cognitive context were it is matched with the mind cognitive, meaning, reasoning capabilities and achieve meaning.

    B. Information in the Other Living Creatures

    We speculate that since many (but not all) living creatures have in various degrees:
    – similar visual, auditive, olfactory perception organs and capabilities
    – similar but lower level brain capabilities
    – show ability to form some kind of brain (mental?) representation of their environment and to properly react to changes in their environment we can consider that some lower form of information is constructed in their brains – good enough to help them live, reproduce and survive in
    their environments.

    C. Can we talk about INFORMATION outside the MIND?

    Here are some speculative statements

    S1. The Mind is the SINGLE NATIVE environment for INFORMATION, where information is seamlessly connected with the mind cognitive abilities

    S2. WE can think of information outside the mind as a “desiccated information”, a skeleton, a minimum derivation of genuine mental information.

    The information outside the mind HAS MEANING ASSOCIATED BY CONVENTION ONLY.

    Examples: the text in an English Novel; the DNA elements; the 64 bit words of the in-memory representation of a computer program

    S3. It is a little difficult to justify the HAS MEANING ASSOCIATED BY CONVENTION formula when considering the “candidate information” associated with a photography or with the information on an audio CD. In both of these cases we can consider that the two objects (the photo and the CD) carry information with meaning associated only through convention. Both these objects are practical, specific means to store and re-play for the human perception organs and mind a SNAPSHOT of a real-world image or a 10 minutes interval re-playing of captured audio signal.

    In both cases the visual or audio human experience is exercised by reproducing an original perception experience. And the Convention here is associated with the intrinsic, constant ability of our perception organs and brain/mind to perform the same/similar conversion of similar signals.

    S4. I am trying to find a separate name for INFORMATION OUTSIDE THE MIND.

    What about Desiccated Information?
    Maybe not. Let’s call it for the time being D-Information.
    Or POTENTIAL INFORMATION: has the potential to become information only when it “reaches” a human mind (observer).

    S5. Is there information in the Saturn Rings?

    Tend to agree – based on previous analysis – that, like in Quantum Mechanics – we can talk about information only in the presence of a Human Observer (as in Eric Anderson’s thesis in this blog).

    When a human observes the Saturn Rings through a telescope or from a photography the Potential Information (P-Info) in the image becomes genuine Information in the mind of the human observer.

    S6. Besides the POTENTIAL INFORMATION we can name a different variety of Non-Mind Resident Information: MANUFACTURED INFORMATION.

    Manufactured information is desiccated information produced (directly or indirectly) by humans in order to save (materialize) Information for later reuse.

    Taking a photography creates Manufactured Information (M-Information) on a Digital Card, on a Film or on Photographic Paper.

    Writing a letter by hand on paper creates Manufactured Information intended as Potential Information for the intended reader.

    Printing books is a process of mass-production of M-Information that becomes P-Information when consumed by the readers.

    S7. A computer program is M-Information that uses a specific convention for associating meaning (embedded in the definition of the programming language, compiler, interpreter, the computer microprocessor) to the statements of the program. The convention is shared by the producer of the program – a human and the machinery (compiler, computer) that executes the program.

    S8. The results of the Execution of a Program is Potential Information: becomes information when read by a Human.

    We have a Delicate question here: can a computer program
    produce information? On a logical plane we can consider that it produces just text or images on a paper or on a computer screen.

    S9. In general Information Outside the Mind does not have meaning in the rich mental sense. It may have “storage” usage (photo, audio CD) with potential to become genuine Information when consumed by a mind.

    M-Information in a computer program has meaning associated through the programing language definition convention.
    The computer program has Operational Information in the sense that “operates” (dictates) the behavior of a computer in order to produce results – but in the process no other real understanding of the program can be associated to the computer where the program is executing.

    S10. The Diagram below represents the “Circulation of Information in Nature”


    Environ. –> P-Info –> Human[Info] –> M-Info –> P-Info –> Human[Info]

    Info = (Genuine) Information (in the mind only)

    P-Info = Potential Information

    M-Info = Manufactured Information

    Both P-Info and M-Info are D-Info = Desiccated Information

    S11. Only in the Mind Information has Meaning

    Outside the Mind the Information (D-Info) has meaning only associated through convention.

  57. 57
    Eric Anderson says:

    Joe @40:

    Thanks.

    I said “It is not clear that the cake contains all the information needed to make it.” You seem to be saying that at a minimum that much information is contained in the cake; meaning there could well be more. I’m not sure why you think there is a disconnect.

    In any event, it is not at all clear that a cake contains all the information needed to make it. An observer of the cake — someone who already knows: (i) what a cake is, (ii) how cakes are made generally, (iii) what kinds of utensils and tools are used, (iv) the important order of mixing ingredients, (v) a great deal about sophisticated molecular analysis techniques — that kind of observer could perhaps, with his own significant and detailed prior background knowledge, with the right tools, and his own mental activity produce all the information needed to make the cake, much of the information of which obviously did not come from the cake itself.

    Regardless, if someone insists that everything in the universe “contains” the information required to completely and fully describe itself, then the concept applies to everything and becomes meaningless.

  58. 58
    Eric Anderson says:

    Graham2 @42:

    Similar to the jstanley01 question about Egyptian hieroglyphics, does a coded message contain information even if we cant read it ? They certainly contained information once, do they still ?

    Yes and yes. My post tomorrow will address this specific issue.

  59. 59
    Mung says:

    Eric:

    Information is representative of something, typically something other than itself.

    Agree.

    As Jan Kahre writes in The Mathematical Theory of Information:

    A fundamental, but somehow forgotten fact, is that information is always information about something.

    Even Shannon information is information about something.

    There is no “meaningless information.”

    Eric:

    Every time someone gives an example of a physical object “containing” information by its mere existence, when asked to pin down in detail what information they claim is contained in the object it will invariably turn out that the information: (i) is information produced by an observer as a result of mental activity when observing the object, and (ii) is information about the object.

    Succinct. Thanks.

  60. 60
    Eric Anderson says:

    seventrees @44:

    If I use this logic, it goes thus: Translation of all the information contained in DNA is possible, which distinguishes it from the information collected by experiences.

    Not quite. Let me see if I can clarify.

    Information is produced by an observer as a result of the observer’s capabilities, tools, mental ability, and so on. The observer encodes that information in some medium. At that point the medium — whatever it is: a binary code, the English language, mathematical formulae, pits on a DVD — contains information. Pretty straight-forward at this stage.

    Next, it is also the case that the medium, let’s say it is a DVD, could be observed by another observer, and that observer could in turn (with his own knowledge, tools, and mental ability) produce information about the DVD, perhaps its precise size, how many pits, whether it is double sided, whether it is single-layered or multi-layered, etc. This is information about the DVD.

    But the DVD also contains information. Information different from and unrelated to the information about the DVD.

    My point is that if we do not carefully distinguish between information about an object and information contained in an object, then we (i) make the concept of information meaningless, because everything everywhere is filled with information, and (ii) we could fall into the intellectual trap that some anti-ID proponents have fallen into of thinking that information in a rock, or a star, or Saturn’s rings is no different than the information in DNA.

    That is a bit of a long answer, but perhaps to recap: once an observer observes an object and produces information about an object, that is information just as much as the information in DNA is. It can then be stored in a medium. The key is that a physical object by its mere existence does not contain information in the way DNA does, notwithstanding that we can learn about an object through our efforts and produce information about what we have learned.

  61. 61
    Mung says:

    Eric:

    Once information is produced by an agent it exists, and as long as that information is represented somewhere it continues to exist, even if a recipient is not available at a particular moment to take advantage of the information.

    An interesting and perhaps relevant distinction. One way to put it is that there is a difference between the representation (the medium) and what it is that is represented (the message). Only by way of a figure of speech does the medium “contain” the message.

    But that doesn’t mean the information in the hieroglyphics is anything like the alleged information in Saturn’s rings or other physical objects by their mere existence.

    There is no information in the hieroglyphics you backslider! 🙂

    And there’s no information in a cake either. What exists are human minds which “contain” knowledge about cakes from which deductions and inferences can be made. Yum.

  62. 62
    Graham2 says:

    This discussion doesnt bode well for ID. Its shtick is that ‘information’ cant be created by natural processes (or whatever), and this is used over and over to hammer evolution. Yet, as is clearly demonstrated above, no-one seems to be able to agree on even the fundamentals.

  63. 63
    Mung says:

    Eric:

    I trust we’ll have a chance to discuss Shannon information in a later post, so more then.

    Righto! I’ll try not to take this current thread off any more into that topic then, though there have been some interesting posts which bring up the issues over Shannon info.

  64. 64
    Eric Anderson says:

    Mung @58:

    Thanks.

    “There is no “meaningless information.”

    I think I would probably agree with that.

    Even Shannon information is information about something.

    Well, if we mean the resulting bit value produced by running a Shannon calculation on a particular medium, then, yes, it is information, every bit (no pun intended) as much as the information in DNA or the dictionary. It is information about the carrying capacity of the medium. Information produced by the observer by using the proper tools and mathematical concepts. Information that can then be encoded, say in English, and stored in a medium of its own.

    On the other hand, if we mean that the actual bit sequence that was measured with the Shannon metric is itself information (as you mention above, it must be a “meaningful sequence “about” something), then that is not necessarily the case.

  65. 65
    Mung says:

    Allen MacNeill:

    I have posted on this before: the important distinction, which several commentators mentioned but did not emphasize, is the difference between Shannon information and meaningful information.

    Hi Allen,

    Yes, I recall those former posts and you were wrong then as well. =P

    To say “meaningful information” is to be redundant. To say “meaningless information” is to be oxymoronic.

    An arrangement of symbols can represent something meaningful, or not. Not to be confused with whether they “contain” information. And certainly a meaningless arrangement of symbols should not be claimed to be “meaningless information.”

    Do you not see the distinction? If you do see it, do you think it not important?

  66. 66
    Mung says:

    Eric:

    That information, however, was produced by the observer. It can be stored, translated, transmitted and re-transmitted completely independently of the rock. The only information that exists is information about the rock that the observer has created. And that information is itself represented in or instantiated in or contained in some medium — a language, a mathematical formula, a sequence of binary numbers. That is where the information is contained. Not in the rock.

    So back to my earlier comment about whether “contains” information is a figure of speech. Is it the information that is stored or transmitted, or rather a representation of the information?

    Is it a distinction without a difference or an important distinction?

    It [information] can be stored, translated, transmitted and re-transmitted completely independently of [what that information is about]…

    I hope I’ve accurately generalized your point. Are you speaking metaphorically?

    Is it the information itself that is transmitted and stored, etc? Or is it a representation?

    This is a great discussion. Some very basic and fundamental issues are being raised and addressed. Thanks again Eric.

  67. 67
    Joe says:

    To Shannon meaning was irrelevant. As he said systems have to be able to transmit and receive all possible selections, not just the ones chosen that may convey meaning.

  68. 68
    Mung says:

    Do Saturn’s rings contain information about the sort of body that Saturn is? 😉

  69. 69
    Mung says:

    Eric @59:

    Rather than employ extensive quoting i will just refer to the relevant post above. Basically I am now repeating earlier arguments in an attempt to drive home the point.

    By virtue of the fact that the information (message) must be encoded on to a medium (the DVD) doesn’t it more or less follow that the DVD does not contain the information itself but rather a representation of “the information” that when properly interpreted/decoded by a knowledgeable receiver only then becomes information about the original message?

    If you could re-write your post at 59 in the light of the above question how would you re-write it?

    I think the confusion is not so much over “information about an object and information contained in an object” than it is over failing to distinguish between information and it’s representation.

    Can we learn anything about information from this?

    Is it immaterial?

    In a physical medium, do we have at best a representation of information and not actual information itself?

    Must information always be encoded in a medium as a representation of the information if the message is to be stored or transmitted?

    Is it therefore never the information itself that is contained in or stored or transmitted but rather only it’s representation?

  70. 70
    Joe says:

    Mung’s point is, of course, that information is neither matter nor energy. Matter and energy are mediums for information.

  71. 71
    Mung says:

    The General Definition of Information:
    GDI) σ is an instance of information, understood as semantic content, if and only if:
    GDI.1) σ consists of n data, for n ≥ 1;
    GDI.2) the data are well formed;
    GDI.3) the well-formed data are meaningful.

    Information: A Very Short Introduction

  72. 72
    Mung says:

    Joe:

    Mung’s point is, of course, that information is neither matter nor energy. Matter and energy are mediums for information.

    Close.

    Matter and energy are mediums for representations of information.

    Matter and energy, inasmuch as they are material/physical do not and cannot “contain” information itself.

    Saying that they do is akin to saying that Jesus’ material/physical body contained God.

    That’s my story ad I’m sticking to it!

    Until it changes.

  73. 73
    Eric Anderson says:

    Graham @61:

    This discussion doesnt bode well for ID. Its shtick is that ‘information’ cant be created by natural processes (or whatever), and this is used over and over to hammer evolution. Yet, as is clearly demonstrated above, no-one seems to be able to agree on even the fundamentals.

    Your assessment goes a bridge too far and demonstrates that you are not appreciating the nuances.

    I haven’t seen any ID proponent on this post object to the central concept that the information contained in living organisms, for example in DNA, is fundamentally different from what is contained in a rock or a rainbow or some other physical object.

    The nuance of this post is directed toward the anti-ID obfuscatory talking point that there is information in all kinds of things — Saturn’s rings, a rainbow, a rock rolling down a hill — and, therefore, there is nothing special about the information contained in living organisms. Everyone knows there is a difference, but these claims sometimes live on longer than they should because they are not properly countered. The OP proposed two possible approaches to the anti-ID talking point, one substantive and one rhetorical.

    Yes, we are having a spirited discussion about the exact nature of the information, if any, contained in physical objects by their mere existence. But no-one is confused over the fact that even if such information does exist, it is fundamentally different from what we find in living organisms.

  74. 74
    Eric Anderson says:

    Mung, do you think there is information in DNA or not? Yes or no.

  75. 75
    Mapou says:

    Mung @72:

    Matter and energy are mediums for representations of information.

    Matter and energy, inasmuch as they are material/physical do not and cannot “contain” information itself.

    This is deep. Yin-yang deep. One is tempted to ask, what gives a particle of matter its properties? It it something that is intrinsic to the particle or extrinsic?

  76. 76
    gpuccio says:

    Graham2:

    This discussion doesnt bode well for ID. Its shtick is that ‘information’ cant be created by natural processes (or whatever), and this is used over and over to hammer evolution. Yet, as is clearly demonstrated above, no-one seems to be able to agree on even the fundamentals.

    No. The opposite is true. People in the ID field are trying to discuss and clarify extremely important concepts which have remained ambiguous and ill defined in recent thought, and to deal with them objectively and quantitatively. That is one of the great merits of ID as a general paradigm of scientific knowledge.

    Moreover, ID is supported by people who think for themselves, and there is no party line. That is another great merit of ID.

    Who can deny that meaning and the informational resources necessary to convey it are very important concepts?

    Ah, yes, I forgot. Neo darwinists can deny that. It’s more comfortable for them to deny or elude a problem, if the problem is likely to demonstrate that they are wrong. It’s better to deny the existence of meaning, because, if meaning exists, hoe could they justify defending a theory which means nothing?

  77. 77
    seventrees says:

    Greetings.

    Thanks for your answer at 60, Eric.

    I said earlier that

    Using your terms, “Information 1? is not translatable, while “Information 2? is translatable

    to see if I understood you correctly.

    It does seem like not all ‘stuff’ that falls under “Information 2” is translatable, but all things which fall under “Information 1” cannot be translated due to the fact that they merely exist.

    I think maybe the characteristics which distinguish “Information 1? and “Information 2? need to be shown. It might bring out more clearly why these are different.

  78. 78
    Joe says:

    Mung:

    Matter and energy, inasmuch as they are material/physical do not and cannot “contain” information itself.

    Of course matter and energy contain information. What do you think makes matter matter and energy energy? Neither would exist without information.

  79. 79
    Eric Anderson says:

    seventrees:

    Maybe think of it this way: There is nothing in the rings themselves that is translatable. How do I translate a bunch of blocks of ice into binary or into Spanish? There is nothing to translate.

    In contrast, once an observer has created information about the rings — through the observer’s mental activity — then that newly-created information about the rings can be translated at will.

  80. 80

    Thank you for the kind comments, Eric. BTW, I appreciate the fact that you address content, rather than the person posting the content. I will not ever respond to any comment which contains any reference to my person (or anyone else’s).

    You have touched on this point several times, as have I:
    the crux of the issue here is encoding, by which one means (pun intended, of course) representing an object/process using energy/matter that is not that same object/process.

    Shannon’s theory of information is about how one can maintain the fidelity of an encoded message, but the object/process encoded in the message may itself be meaningless. Indeed, as the quote from Shannon’s own work confirms, the “meaningfulness” of the content of the message is completely irrelevant to his theory. What matters is the fidelity of its encoding/transmission/decoding by the sender/transmitter/receiver of the message.

    Your example of the 100 rocks is quite illustrative of this distinction. Exactly the same number of rocks (i.e. “bits”) are present in a random collection of 100 rocks washed up on a beach as are present in 100 rocks spelling out the English/Latin letters “SOS.” Both sets of rocks have the same number of “rockbits,” but the SOS rocks have something that the random rocks don’t. They represent something else: an appeal for help/a warning of danger, etc. The “bits” of information contained in the SOS are completely separate from and not in the same domain of information as the “rockbits.” It is the representation of (or “standing for”) something else that makes the SOS an example of meaningful information, which the random set of rocks does not have.

    The same thing happens when you translate a passage from one language into another one, especially one that does not use the same orthography. for example, when one translates a passage Chinese ideograms into English (I’ve done this), one is attempting to represent the same “meaningful bits” in the English passage as are contained in the Chinese ideograms. However, the number of ideograms/letters will be very different, as the “bit rate” in Chinese ideograms is much more “condensed” than it is in English orthography. IOW the same “meaningful bits” (i.e. the meaningful content in the Chinese ideograms) will be encoded into very different “transmission bits” (i.e. the letters in the English translation), which will be decoded by the reader into approximately the same “meaningful bits” (i.e. the “meaningful bits” represented by the Chinese ideograms).

    The same thing also happens when the nucleotide sequence in a DNA molecule is translated into a corresponding amino acid sequence in a polypeptide. A specific sequence of DNA nucleotides is encoded into a corresponding sequence of RNA nucleotides, which is then translated into a corresponding sequence of amino acids that comprise a polypeptide. This simple analogy is complicated by the fact that, for a DNA sequence to be meaningful (i.e. transmissible and translatable) it must also include (at a minimum) a promoter sequence to which an RNA polymerase molecule must bind to transcribe the DNA sequence and a ribosome to which the mRNA and tRNAs (with specific amino acids attached) must bind and polymerize the specified polypeptide. Without the promoter sequence and/or the ribosome, the nucleotide sequence is literally (pun intended again) meaningless.

    To sum up (to this point, at least): meaning comes into existence in the act of encoding/transmission/decoding.

    A necessary corollary to this is that, absent encoding/transmission/decoding there is no meaning. This is why the rings of Saturn by themselves, (i.e. their ding an sich have no meaning at all. If the mass, charge, location, gravitational force, etc. of the “rockbits” of which the rings are composed are encoded into a symbolic representation (i.e. a “message”) that message will have meaningful information that the “rockbits” that comprise the rings lack.

  81. 81
    jstanley01 says:

    Eric Anderson @ 73:

    The nuance of this post is directed toward the anti-ID obfuscatory talking point that there is information in all kinds of things — Saturn’s rings, a rainbow, a rock rolling down a hill — and, therefore, there is nothing special about the information contained in living organisms. Everyone knows there is a difference, but these claims sometimes live on longer than they should because they are not properly countered. The OP proposed two possible approaches to the anti-ID talking point, one substantive and one rhetorical.

    It bears keeping in mind that the entire goal of obfuscators is to veer discussions off into whatever semantic swamp seems handy. Too often, in my humble opinion, this leads defenders to add unneeded adjectives.

    So the simple and unambiguous noun “information” becomes “functional information” in an attempt at greater precision in the face of the objectors’ cavils. The problem is, adding unneeded adjectives doesn’t add precision to the noun, but rather, waters it down. And the last thing needed when mired in a swamp is more water.

    Meanings are derived by the in-bred human convention that invests words with definitions via common usage over time. Nothing is set in stone. But to me, it’s a sin against the English language when individuals dumb words down to score mere debate points.

    “Information” is the noun, of which the verb form is “to inform.” So information means, quite simply, “that which informs.”

    Now a rock rolling down a hill might be said to contain data about its weight, trajectory, acceleration, etc. But that data is not — it CANNOT BE — information until it is observed and recorded. Thank you Eric, for sticking to your guns about what information is.

    Whew, okay. Now that that is settled, please carry on. Lol… 😀

  82. 82
    Mung says:

    Eric:

    Mung, do you think there is information in DNA or not? Yes or no.

    I do not.

    Information is not material.

    The material cannot “contain’ the immaterial as containment is itself a material/physical concept.

    DNA consists of symbols. Symbols are representations. Representations are not the “thing” represented.

    I utterly appreciate your posts, don’t get me wrong. I may sound dogmatic at times, but I merely seek to offer up thought-provoking items for consideration and to continue in dialogue. I always try to keep an open mind and hope that what I currently think can be revised in light of new understanding.

    (Granted, I’m not too receptive to the idea that the earth is only 6k years old. It would probably take a literal miracle to change my mind about that.)

  83. 83
    Mung says:

    Allen MacNeill:
    …the crux of the issue here is encoding, by which one means (pun intended, of course) representing an object/process using energy/matter that is not that same object/process.

    Shannon’s theory of information is about how one can maintain the fidelity of an encoded message, but the object/process encoded in the message may itself be meaningless.

    Allen is wrong yet again.

    The sequence of symbols produced by the source may not consist of a meaningful sequence of symbols, and whether they do or not is irrelevant to the communications problem addressed by Shannon’s theory.

    One cannot (should not) from this infer or conclude that any object or process is or can be meaningless.

  84. 84
    Mung says:

    Allen MacNeill:

    To sum up (to this point, at least): meaning comes into existence in the act of encoding/transmission/decoding.

    This is just silly. What sort of intelligent agent encodes meaningless whatever it is you think exists prior to the encoding of the meaningless nonsense?

    Normally, people ENCODE information into a symbolic representation precisely BECAUSE it has meaning BEFORE it is encoded.

    The meaning exists PRIOR to the encoding.

    So while you assert that this is your summation, I don’t find the ARGUMENT from you which would lead one to reach the conclusion you have reached.

    For example:

    when one translates a passage Chinese ideograms into English (I’ve done this), one is attempting to represent the same “meaningful bits” in the English passage as are contained in the Chinese ideograms. However, the number of ideograms/letters will be very different, as the “bit rate” in Chinese ideograms is much more “condensed” than it is in English orthography. IOW the same “meaningful bits” (i.e. the meaningful content in the Chinese ideograms) will be encoded into very different “transmission bits” (i.e. the letters in the English translation), which will be decoded by the reader into approximately the same “meaningful bits” (i.e. the “meaningful bits” represented by the Chinese ideograms).

    How does it follow from this that meaning does not come into existence until it is encoded? Forget about translation for a moment, unless it is somehow critical to your argument. What do the Chinese ideograms represent? You ask us to believe that what they represent has no meaning until what is represented is actually encoded into the ideogram. Why should we believe that?

    Where’s your argument, Allen?

  85. 85
    Eric Anderson says:

    Mung @82:

    The material cannot “contain’ the immaterial as containment is itself a material/physical concept.

    DNA consists of symbols. Symbols are representations. Representations are not the “thing” represented.

    Thanks, Mung.

    So it sounds like your hangup/objection is to the use of the word “contained.” I understand (and agree with) your point about symbols representing, and that they are not the thing represented. That said, I presume you would still agree that DNA contains a representation of information? That is what is meant when we say “contains.” Even in the professional literature it is standard fair to refer to the information “contained in DNA.” In the English language we also regularly refer to information contained in a technical manual, or on a DVD, or on a hard drive.

    I don’t begrudge the recommendation that perhaps we should say DNA “contains a representation of information” rather than saying DNA “contains information.” I’m even amenable to that approach. That said, I’m not sure I’m willing to, or interested in, trying to change the ubiquitous use of terminology as it currently exists in the professional literature and in our everyday language. Maybe I’m just too lazy. 🙂

    BTW, in my more recent post (in the nota bene at the end) I reference the issue of whether information can be said to exist wholly in the immaterial form (at the point of conception by an intelligent being), or at the point of encoding. I take it your view would be the former. Perhaps we can discuss that in more detail in a future thread.

    I utterly appreciate your posts, don’t get me wrong. I may sound dogmatic at times, but I merely seek to offer up thought-provoking items for consideration and to continue in dialogue. I always try to keep an open mind and hope that what I currently think can be revised in light of new understanding.

    Thanks. I appreciate your input and thought-provoking comments.

    (Granted, I’m not too receptive to the idea that the earth is only 6k years old. It would probably take a literal miracle to change my mind about that.)

    Presumably this has nothing to do with what I wrote, but OK.

  86. 86
    PaV says:

    (Part One)

    Allen_MacNeill:

    Shannon’s theory of information is about how one can maintain the fidelity of an encoded message, but the object/process encoded in the message may itself be meaningless. Indeed, as the quote from Shannon’s own work confirms, the “meaningfulness” of the content of the message is completely irrelevant to his theory. What matters is the fidelity of its encoding/transmission/decoding by the sender/transmitter/receiver of the message.

    This is well-stated, and I, for one, would hope that we could just put the whole issue of Shannon information to rest. Shannon’s job was one of ‘tuning into’ a signal. In biology, it would amount to eliminating frame shifts within DNA.

    gpuccio stated above he wanted to offer . . . a few disordered reflections; I’d like to do the same.

    First, I wonder if we shouldn’t start out by agreeing to make a distinction between “physical” information—that which is found in our world and existing under some form of matter or energy—from that kind of information which is “intellectual”—the property of minds, and that can be, and is, transferred from one mind to another using “physical” means (i.e., matter and energy). As Allen MacNeill has pointed out, all our ‘ideas’ are of necessity connected with matter and energy, and so exist as part of the “physical” world; yet, the independence of ‘ideas’ (thoughts) from “physical” constraints is also true, except for strict materialists [although I’ve recently read where they have the capacity, or are on the verge of having this capacity, to impose thoughts onto thinking persons.] If we’re concerned with fostering a more clear and focused discussion of ‘information’ I just think it is much easier to keep these two ‘realms’ or ‘categories’ separate; otherwise, we’ll keep stepping on one another’s understanding of ‘information.’

    Second, if we want to have a real gritty, brass tacks, kind of discussion regarding ‘information’, then we have to get down to the microscopic essentials. And THE ‘real essential’ when it comes to “information” is the “degree of freedom.” This is what we always come up against in trying to define or specify what is, and what isn’t “information”, and what is, or isn’t “meaningful” information as Allen has couched it.

    If you take the rings of Saturn, or an ordinary snow flake, the atoms involved are arranged in some order. These atoms have—without exaggeration—’infinite’ degrees of freedom. But these “degrees of freedom” only exist at the quantum level—at the Planck scale: tiny, indeed, and beyond our direct detection. At the level of what we’re able to physically inspect and measure, we’re dealing with a ‘finite’ degrees of freedom.

    If a snowflake condenses out from water vapor in a cold and airy environment, various “laws of nature” are at work whose net effect is to limit the number of degrees of freedom of water molecules. So, this means entropy decreases (Shannon’s definition of “information”), and gaseous water molecules condense (liquify) and then crystalize. How these “infinite degrees of freedom” become constrained by the laws of nature results in any one, particular snowflake. And since the initial conditions of these ‘infinite degrees of freedom’ are ever so slightly different, each snowflake is “unique”: complex, but not specified in any way. Further, since the gaseous water molecules’ degrees of freedom have been restricted, or “constrained,” “information” is present. But, of course, this is what we would hopefully accept as nothing more than “physical” information.

    Dembski’s definition of the “explanatory filter” trades in distinguishing the ‘complexity’ that the laws of nature bring about—this lowered entropy, or ordering, due to “constraints” being imposed—and the complexity that is proper to “design,” when the “constraints” being imposed are the effect of human agents.

    Examples like the following are often offered as a way to convey the ‘meaning’ (no pun intended) of the “specified complexity” proper to “design” and that of the complexity that the laws of nature might bring about: you walk into a room and you see a ball attached to a pendulum, and it is swinging in a wide arc, back and forth. The conclusion that is reached is that the only way that the ball could have been put into motion is via human intervention (let’s say there are no pets around).

    Now, you can shoot all kinds of holes into this conclusion—a false positive—but the intent here is simply to point out the implicit, tacit means by which humans reach this conclusion.

    We start by reasoning that a ball that is moving back and forth in a wide arc has greater degrees of freedom than a ball that is simply hanging straight down from where the string attaches itself up above. Looking around the room (remember, no pets), every object there is restricted by gravitational forces to remain in its own place. IOW, each object has virtually NO degrees of freedom. Unless some force is applied, then it basically has zero degrees of freedom. This is tantamount to a water molecule in the gaseous phase, able to move around through space, having once been ‘frozen into place’, and the flake having hit the ground, also has, roughly speaking, zero degrees of freedom. It is constrained; as are all the objects in the room we’ve walked into. The only “physical object” that is able to impel the ball on the string is a human (again, no pets or animals around).

    Moving things forward a bit, we now can consider the rolling of a pair of dice. If we’re at a table in Las Vegas, and someone is inordinately rolling “sevens” and winning a bundle, the dice are going to be inspected. Why? Because, given its ‘physical’ composition and construction, a ‘fair’ die with six faces, rolled 120 times, should have each ‘face’ showing up around 20 times each. If they roll that die and this doesn’t happen, then they know that its degrees of freedom (here we can consider each ‘face’ of the die as a ‘degree of freedom’ of a ‘rolled’ die) aren’t obeying the normal ‘laws of nature.’ Somehow, its “six” degrees of freedom have been reduced to “five” or “four”, or even “three” or “two”. Since nature’s laws preclude this “constraint” in the degrees of freedom, and, so, human agency is suspected.

    According to the view of “information” I’m presenting, “information” is the direct result of constraints being imposed upon physical objects.

    I’m proposing two classes of information. So, how do we distinguish between them? Well, basically, we use Dembski’s method and rely on its use of the Universal Probability Bound. So, we’re dealing with extremely “low” (or “high”) probability, and so it seems that we’re simply back to Shannon information.

  87. 87
    PaV says:

    (Part Two)

    Here’s where my focus on “degrees of freedom” needs to be better understood—-distinctions need to be made—and where it can possibly become useful.

    My thesis so far says that “information” is the byproduct of ‘constraints’ being imposed on ‘physical’ ‘degrees of freedom.’ One more step is now needed. We now need to distinguish between ‘physical’ constraints and ‘intellectual’ constraints. And implicit to this distinction is the idea of “physical degrees of freedom” and “intellectual degrees of freedom.”

    What, then, is to be the basis of making the distinction between CPDF ( constrained physical degrees of freedom) and CIDF (constrained intellectual degrees of freedom)?

    Optimus gave this example in an early post above. Two strings of letters:
    – Four score and seven years ago
    – nenen ytawoi jll sn mekhdx nnx

    The CPDF is the “same” for both strings! (Let’s forget for the moment all the ways in which typed letters deviate from an uniform distribution) But the CIDF is quite high for the first sentence, and extremely low for the second (we do have space marks as in normal English sentences).

    The CPDF of both strings requires the right kind of pressure to be applied to a keyboard (which can be supplied either by and adult who knows English, or by a two-year old child, or a monkey) The keys are independent of one another, so choosing to type one character does not ‘constrain’ any of the preceding or following characters. So the only “constraint” is effectively a downward pressure on a particular character of the keyboard.

    The CIDF has, of course, all of the constraints from above, but then it has additionally all the “constraints” imposed by use of the English language. Now we have entered the area of “intellectual constraints.”

    Dembski’s fundamental idea is that the human mind is able to detect the presence of these ‘imposed’ intellectual constraints, and that should the entropy of IDF decrease to sufficiently low levels, and surpass the UPB, then one can virtually presume that a designer is involved. And his assertion is that the human mind, via the discovery of a “meaningful” pattern (there’s that word again), can deduce that the needed constraints employed to produce the perceived pattern can be attributed to intelligent agency—the work of the mind. [This presume, of course, that this intelligence is able to effect constraints–an argument that ID critics employ: who is the Designer?]

    When we look at DNA in the cell, we know that there is a code. This is simply a language of life (we know of several languages now, not just what we call the genetic code]. We could call it DNAese instead of Chinese. Prescinding from proteins, certain nucleotide combinations “code” for, or represent, or “constrain the production of,” certain amino acids in the mRNA transcript.

    Allen MacNeill wrote:

    So, the central question in the disagreement between evolutionary biologists and intelligent designers is where and when the meaning comes from. I am working on a monograph on the concept of purpose in which I argue that for something to be purposeful its meaning must be encoded in some form before that something is manifested.

    I think we would all argue that this is exactly what we see happening in the cell. First comes the nucleotide combinations, and then, on cue, the right amino acid.

    But I’ve gotten ahead of myself here.

    Let’s look at things according to what I have laid out here.

    We have TWO strings. The first is DNA, and is made up of a string of nucleotides. There doesn’t seem to be any “physical” means of “constraining” the nucleotides: i.e., they are ‘free’ to be whatever they want to be. IOW, they are independent.[*]

    The second is a string of amino acids that form the messenger-RNA transcript. We know that, using a mathematical term, there is a “mapping” of the sequence of the nucleotides and the string of amino acids. They are correlated. And yet the ‘forces’ that “constrain” the nucleotides (i.e., the chemical bonds associated with polynucleotides) are different forces (chemical bonds) than which constrain the amino acids. The “translator” here is the code for transfer-RNA. When it sees a particular triplet of nucleotides, it “signals’ the start of ‘translation’, and then selects amino acids based on the particular triplet it encounters, all of this, of course, mediated via quantum/chemical forces. The “constraint” arises because of a particular “pattern.” The t-RNA “sees” the pattern.

    Here the t-RNA is acting like an “intelligent agent.” If we think of analogies to non-human “intelligent agency” in our world, we think of computers and robots. E.g., you can use Google Translate to translate any sentence you write in English into one of any number of foreign languages. The computer “sees” the patterns in English (the t-RNA “sees” the patterns in “nucleotides”) and then translates the pattern into, let’s say German (t-RNA “translates” into amino acids), so we go from “nucleotide language” to “protein language.”

    How do we account for these CIDF? How do we account for the cell’s translation mechanism being able to choose 1 a.a. out of 22 possible a.a.s at each spot along the protein length? Physical forces are out since causation by physical forces alone would mean only one way of putting together these various aminos acids. And, of course, all independence is lost, and the constraint is complete. And everything can be said to constitute CPDF alone. But we see independence. And we see function being produced by specific arrangements of a.a.s. So we can only conclude that CIDF is involved.

    This, of course, then raises the question of where this CIDF came from. If we inspect computer code, we’ll find CIDF all over the place. And we know where it comes from. Etc., etc. We all know the arguments.

    Under this scenario, I want to say that ‘design’ involves ‘fine-tuning’ the “initial conditions” of a system so as to bring about certain specified “final conditions.” IOW, the “constraints” of CIDF come from a delimitation of the ‘initial conditions’ of a system (whether it is a language, a code, a set of equations, a mechanical device, etc.).

    Just by way of illustration, we can look at all of this backwards. I.e., we can fix, or ‘constrain’, the “final conditions” and thus force the “initial conditions” to be specified.

    So, e.g., let’s say we take a Roulette wheel and we want the tiny ball to always land on the number 17. This is the ‘final condition.’ Well, given the accepted mechanics of a Roulette wheel, this would mean that the tiny ball would have to start at a certain position, with a certain initial momentum, and the wheel would have to be spinning at a certain angular velocity. Once we select the position where the ball will start and be at rest, then we need to choose a means of accelerating the ball to a final velocity. This acceleration, coupled with the initial location, constitutes a final point of entry into the ‘wheel’ itself. One then can determine the velocity at which the ‘wheel’ needs to be spinning, and the exact location where the ball will ‘enter’ the ‘wheel.’ Tricky business; but it could be done. And we would say that it was designed. [ And if you went to Monaco, and the ball ended up in the same location over and over again, you would know that it would have to have occurred by design.]

    In philosophical language, we would say that the formal cause (how things are configured) is the same as the final cause (teleos), since the whole point of the adventure was to continuously end up with the ball in the 17 chamber.

    If a sufficiently large enough degrees of freedom of any system are constrained initially, and the mode of constraint cannot be traced to physical forces that have been arranged via natural laws alone, then CIDF is present, and, “design” can be deduced. It is the “knowledge” of the “mind=intelligence” that examines the system which determines whether the “initial conditions” have been “constrained,” or not.

    In the example of the typewritten letters above, a native Chinese speaker, who has no knowledge of English whatsoever (perhaps an elderly peasant), might not be able to detect the “constraints” that a native English speaker would see. A native English speaker would determine that the first string of letters was highly constrained, but not via “physical” forces, and, so would “see” CIDF, and possibly [is the UPB been reached?] conclude “design.”

    I think this is enough for starters.

    [*]The argument that Stephen Meyer makes in The Signature in the Cell is methodical, wherein he methodically illustrates that the genetic code is built with nucleotides that, for all intents and purposes, enjoy almost the same PDF, and are found in the cell in just about equal proportions, so that the CPDF cannot be assigned to “physical” forces, or laws of nature. Darwinists would say that there must be some kinds of hidden forces at work within the cell that are responsible for the constraints, and we just haven’t discovered them yet.

  88. 88
    PaV says:

    I think PCDF and ICDF are better acronyms: physically constrained degrees of freedom and intelligently constrained degrees of freedom, respectively.

  89. 89
    Mung says:

    We are modifying our everyday perspective on the ultimate nature of reality, that is, our metaphysics, from a materialist one, in which physical objects and processes play a key role, to an informational one.

    Information: A Very Short Introduction, p. 12

    The infosphere will not be a virtual environment supported by a genuinely ‘material’ world behind; rather, it will be the world itself that will be increasingly interpreted and understood informationally, as part of the infosphere. At the end of this shift, the infosphere will have moved from being a way to refer to the space of information to being synonymous with reality. This is the sort of informational metaphysics that we may find increasingly easy to embrace.

    Information: A Very Short Introduction, p. 17

  90. 90
    Mung says:

    Eric:

    I presume you would still agree that DNA contains a representation of information?

    According to Wikipedia:

    Deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) is a molecule that encodes the genetic instructions used in the development and functioning of all known living organisms and many viruses.

    I would probably not phrase it in terms of containment but would rather say that DNA consists of sequences of symbols…

    No materialist could agree.

  91. 91
    PaV says:

    Just a little bit more:

    The example of the stones fitted together to form an “SOS” pattern quite nicely points out the difference between ICDF’s and PCDF’s. The rocks, as macroscopic objects, have 3 degrees of freedom. However, when they rest in place at some part of the earth, they effectively have 0 degrees of freedom. So, they can’t ‘move’ on their own. Now agents (animals and birds and such, even us humans) are able to ‘move’ these rocks/stones about. So for ‘agents’, these rocks/stones have available degrees of freedom: IDF’s intelligently available degrees of freedom. When they are formed into a ‘pattern’ then we recognize the pattern as being formed by some human agent (could animals and birds do such a thing?) who “constrained” the IDF’s of these stones/rocks so as to form the ‘pattern’. So, as we look at the “SOS”, we infer that the ‘pattern’ represents ICDF’s.

    One last comment: it seems as though a helpful way of viewing “intelligence” (def.: intelligence=’meaningful information’) is that “intelligence” is always conveyed via ICDF’s, which is to say, that “intelligence” must always be “reflected” by some sort of “physical” (material) reality.

  92. 92
    PaV says:

    Let’s apply the ICDF/PCDF distinction at work when it comes to language.

    Remember we’re dealing with “constrained” degrees of freedom (DF=CDF). What happens with any spoken language?

    The first thing that happens is that certain “sounds”, vibrations of the atmosphere audible to the human ear, are assigned “meaning.” A “sound” produced by humans represents a constraint on the degrees of freedom involved with exhalation and tension within the vocal chords. Between all of this, mainly due to the tension of the chords, and the particular construction involved in various types of vocal chords, to say nothing of controlled exhalation (=duration of the sound), a huge amount of DFs are “constrained” by the human producing a particular ‘sound.’

    Humans then ‘assign’ a ‘sound’ (or ‘sounds’) to an ‘object’ or an ‘action’ (nouns and verbs). The human being that aurally detects the vibration being produced by another human can then be directed to ‘associate’ this vibration/s with this ‘object’/’action.’

    According to what I’m proposing, the total set of possible vibrations that humans can produce, along with their duration, inflection, etc, represent PDF (physical degrees of freedom). Any human language represents a subset of these PDF, and represent the CPDF for that language/language group.

    The ‘assignation’ of ‘meaning’ to a particular ‘pattern’ of audible vibrations, including duration, inflection, etc, represent the ICDF of that language group. Via the set of ICDF for any particular language, ‘meaning’ is imparted—from one ‘mind’ to another ‘mind.’

    The ICDF of any language can be, of course, transfered via written symbols, into a written language, with the symbols either being entirely symbolic—as in ancient languages—or as a system that assigns ‘vibrations’ and such to elemental symbols (letters) to which ‘sounds’ are ‘assigned.’

    Looked at in this way, an important distinction can now be made: viz., INFORMATION is ’embodied’ in a particular configuration of PCDF (we’re dealing with ‘configuration space’ at this point, and a ‘constraint’ or delimitation of this set of physical degrees of freedom), while MEANING involves the ‘assignation’ of ‘content’ to the PCDF now being subsumed into the ICDF of ‘language.’

    This would apply also to computer language, as well as biological language.

    If “actor A” can reflect a “mental state” to “actor B” via human language, then MEANING has been communicated, and this MEANING uses ICDF to “reflect” ‘actor A’s ‘mental state’ to ‘actor B.’

    In the cell, if “physical state A” can “reflect” its own “physical state” to “physical state B,” then this “physical state” can be assumed to possess MEANING!

    I’m beginning to think there is something rather handy here.

    Here’s what I mean:

    ICDF/PCDF, along with the notion of “reflection” seems to enable us to analyze some difficult, entangled real-life situations.

    So, e.g., are we dealing with PCDF? Then we’re dealing with “information” as a function of matter obeying physical forces, which science can interpret and manipulate.

    Are we dealing with ICDF? Then we’re dealing with “intelligent information” as a function of ‘mental activity’ (ideas) obeying the powers of the human mind, which the human mind can then interpret and manipulate.

    Are we dealing with CDF of either type that can “reflect” itself into an independent configuration of physical or mental reality (either another physical form, or a mental image in another mind)? Then we’re dealing with “meaning.”

    One could then state a law which says that unless there is ‘independence’ between the producer of the CDF and the recipient of the CDF, then “reflection” CANNOT take place, and, so, there can be no MEANING.

  93. 93
    PaV says:

    If you take what I wrote in the last post and convert it into the NFL version of Dembski’s CSI, the “independence” would represent “tractability”, and the CDF would represent the “pattern” perceived.

    One would then need to perform an ‘entropy’ calculation as Dembski does with his “improbability” formula.

    Where this differs from Dembski’s presentation is that the ‘improbability’ he calculates relies on being able to identify the means by which the ‘pattern’ was produced, and then using the probabilities associated with ‘pattern production’ to develop a ‘rejection region.’

    Here, we’re dealing with something that is “scalable.” That is, we’re dealing with ‘degrees of freedom’, but we’re dealing only with ‘relevant’ degrees of freedom based on the SCALE at which “reflection” is taking place.

    So, e.g., with the stones forming an “SOS,” we’re dealing with the PCDF of the stones themselves. Forensic methods may need to be employed to determine the ‘relevant’ PCDF, but this happens all the time in various sciences across the board. These PCDF can be reasonably determined without assigning any type of probability distribution to our analysis.

    Same thing with the “Methinks it is a weasel,” example; the PCDF involved are keystrokes, and the only thing that needs to be determined are the actual mechanisms being employed to produce the keystrokes. No probability distribution is needed other than that associated with a typewriter.

    And, onto to the realm of biology:

    All we need to do is to argue that the PCDF of nucleotide triplets are being “reflected” into the PCDF of amino acids, which are ‘independent’ of each other (physically they are different, and the “reflection” takes place with the nucleotides and the amino acids being separated), which indicates that “meaning” is involved. Then we can calculate the entropy in a straightforward way without having to know what the mechanism was that gave rise to the nucleotide sequences, which is now demanded by critics of ID.

    To close the loop on all of this, we only have to take this one additional step: We state that only “intelligent” beings can produce “meaning.”

    [Of course this only means that we will get into different kinds of arguments with materialists. Yet, it might succeed in putting them more on the defensive. Hope we get to see that.]

  94. 94
    Mung says:

    – the issue I wish to discuss today – the assertion that there is lots of information contained throughout the physical universe and so, the thinking goes, there is nothing particularly special about the fact that living organisms contain DNA or other sources of information as well.

    Hi Eric,

    Do you have any sources you can cite that take this “information everywhere” view? I am not being argumentative, just wondering.

    That said, Meyer makes a good case that “the information in DNA” is off a different kind altogether from whatever else might be found “out there.”

    Concerning my view on “the containment of information” consider the mind-brain issue. If the mind is immaterial, and the brain is material, in what sense does or even can the brain “contain” the mind?

  95. 95
    Eric Anderson says:

    PaV:

    Apologies for getting back to this late. You have obviously put some careful thought into this issue and make some interesting proposals/observations. Well worth everyone re-reading comments 86-93 above.

    —-

    Just a quick thought on one minor point (I realize this doesn’t cut against anything in what you wrote; it is just that a particular term was mentioned tangentially and it reminded me of something.)

    The word “pattern” often comes up when discussing CSI. I am fully aware of what is meant in the context of CSI and what Dembski and others mean by it. However, I’m not sure the word does a good job of conveying the concept to people generally.

    Specifically, we are taught to recognize “patterns” very early in life. There is a whole set of exercises in school that kids go through involving pattern recognition. However, in nearly all cases, the complexity is low (the degrees of freedom are low). For example, there will usually be a series of shapes or colors or numbers, with some members of the series missing, and the task is to fill in the missing members.

    I certainly recognize that the concept of “pattern” can be broader than that. Indeed, we could say that we recognize a “pattern” in the sounds that form spoken English. Yet it feels and seems (perhaps is?) different than the kinds of patterns that we’ve been taught to recognize our whole life. Indeed, in so very many cases law/necessity is what produces the kinds of repetitive patterns we often see in nature.

    As a result, I think this contributes to the confusion that sometimes abounds. People see something “ordered”, like the colors of the rainbow someone mentioned in the comments above, and realize they see a “pattern”. Or we have the oft-cited example of crystals as a naturally-occurring “pattern.”

    In each of these instances, the ID proponent who started talking about “patterns” is then required to undertake a challenging task — almost a re-education of the individual — to explain that this kind of pattern is not really what we are talking about (indeed, it is most likely the result of law/necessity), and that we have some other idea of “pattern” in mind. What makes it more challenging still is that the latter “pattern” is usually something more vague, or at least harder to describe. Take a machine like the bacterial flagellum. Does it correspond to a “pattern”? Well, in a very broad sense of the word we could say that it does, in that it corresponds to a class of objects that look kind of like X and do such-and-such. But, again, that takes us away from what the ordinary man on the street thinks of when he thinks of a “pattern.” And it probably makes more sense to talk of something like the bacterial flagellum in terms of function, rather than its adherence to a “pattern.”

    Incidentally, this is one of the weaknesses with the coin flip examples if we are not careful. Sure, 500 heads in a row or HTHTHT repeated for 500 positions each form an easily recognizable pattern — in precisely the simple way that our kindergartners are taught to recognize patterns. Everyone can see that there is a “pattern.” Yet, in both of these cases the most likely answer, and certainly the one that will be spit out by the Explanatory Filter, is that it was law/necessity, not design, that produced the pattern.

    In summary, I am not sure I have a better word to propose, but I do think we have to be careful when talking about ID to say that we are looking for a “pattern”. The mere recognition of a pattern does not lead us to design. Indeed, in many (most?) cases, it leads us away from design — certainly in the simple, repetitive-type patterns we have all been taught since our early years. As a result, any “pattern” we are talking about for purposes of ID is really a departure from the general, everyday concept of patterns and is something more ephemeral and less concrete. Something that is perhaps better described in terms of functionality or purpose or meaning, rather than “pattern.”

  96. 96
    Eric Anderson says:

    Mung @94:

    Unfortunately, I have not kept track of everywhere I have seen these kinds of arguments (shame on me, I know, BA77).

    I have seen this argument several times in debates and discussions I have been involved with, and there were a couple of other examples given by other readers above (I think someone mentioned a rock rolling down a hill, someone else mentioned a rainbow, etc.)

    As for the “information everywhere” wording, that is my wording and my explanation of the logical conclusion that must follow from the idea that there is information in a rainbow or in the rings of Saturn, and so on. Part of my point is that if one argues there is information in these natural objects then, by definition, there is information in everything and everywhere, which makes the idea utterly useless (independent of the fact that I also think it is arguably incorrect substantively).

  97. 97
    Mung says:

    EA @ 96, I understand perfectly!

    But wasn’t the internet supposed to give us all information anywhere anytime!?

    It doesn’t affect anything you’ve said, I was just hoping to add some references to my own library, lol.

    If you do ever come across something on the web or in a written text please do post it!

  98. 98
    bgaide says:

    I’m new to CSI and have a couple questions/comments:

    It seems to me that CSI is essentially relative entropy. To use statistical entropy as an example, what I mean is that we have some known macro-state, say a DNA molecule. Say there are T possible microstates in a closed system, where each microstate is the position,velocity,etc. of each atom in the system. Let M be the number of microstates that can create DNA. The relative entropy would then be ~log(M/T). What CSI calls complexity is proportional to T, and what they call specified is proportional to M. Are there additional constraints beyond this that CSI requires for something to be considered designed (other than the result being scaled by some very small number)? Or is this the crux of it?

    Secondly, I had this CSI-like idea I labelled “efficiency”. Given a functional specification, we can compare two functional units. The one that has lower entropy (less information required to characterize it) is better designed. For example, say your functional spec is to inflate a balloon. Compare the wind, a human, and an air compressor. Take the Kolmorgorov complexity (i.e. amount of information required to describe each system) and compare them to each other. The wind is highly entropic so is the worst designed for this function. Humans are low entropy relative to their complexity but still high entropy for blowing up a balloon. The air compressor is a fairly low entropy system and would thus be the best ‘designed’ to meet our spec. Obviously humans do more than blow up balloons so not saying humans aren’t well designed. I wonder if this sort of logic could be applied to molecular systems (or if it has already), and if there might be some reasonable ratio above which we might be able to assume design.

    Thanks

  99. 99
    jerry says:

    I’m new to CSI and have a couple questions/comments:

    I have been reading this site and posting here since 2006 and I have never seen a good definition of CSI. They are all either esoteric or vague. Generally it means that there is something found in the world that refers to/points to something completely separate from itself.

    All sorts of complexity exists in nature but little of it points to something completely separate from itself. A thunder storm is natural and very complex but the information in the thunder storm which is very complex does not refer to or specify something else.

    Some DNA points to something else completely separate from itself, namely proteins (we are learning this is just the tip of the iceberg). Nothing else in the natural world, complex or otherwise, points to something outside of itself like this. It is quite common to find examples whereby some information points to something else, language, computer programs, art etc. These are all due to an intelligence.

    The only example I have ever seen where nature creates something that points to something else is where some object, can be a live organism but does not have to be, leaves an impression in the earth somehow and this impression indicates that this other object (a rock, tree, fossil) was present there at some time in the past. For example, there is a whole section of paleontology that looks at trace fossils. These are patterns in the strata that indicate some organism was there by the various indentations in the rocks. A lot of pre Cambrian fossils are trace fossils usually indicating some type of worm was there.

    Here is a discussion that took place 7 years ago on this site and illustrates the lack of clarity of CSI. Sometimes, I don’t think we are any further along. There is a concept called FSCI or FCSI which is very simple and clear and has been around since 2007 here under that acronym. The “F” refers to functional as in functional specified complex information. DNA, computer code, language, art etc all meet this definition and only appears as a result of an intelligence. Kairosfocus came up with this particular acronym here but the idea is discussed in the OP below as a way of solving the vagueness of the CSI concept. It is quite long so you may want to search for the term “CSI” to shorten your reading.

    http://www.uncommondescent.com.....me-online/

    Hope this helps. I am not sure how entropy helps but it may.

  100. 100
    PaV says:

    Eric:

    I am just now reading your response. I’m glad you did respond.

    You wrote:
    Incidentally, this is one of the weaknesses with the coin flip examples if we are not careful. Sure, 500 heads in a row or HTHTHT repeated for 500 positions each form an easily recognizable pattern — in precisely the simple way that our kindergartners are taught to recognize patterns. Everyone can see that there is a “pattern.” Yet, in both of these cases the most likely answer, and certainly the one that will be spit out by the Explanatory Filter, is that it was law/necessity, not design, that produced the pattern.

    I’m not sure I understand why the Explanatory Filter would spit these out as due to “law/necessity.” If you happen to read this, maybe you could respond.

    As to “pattern” versus “function,” I think you would still have problems. For example, the Caputo case that Dembski uses: what “function” is involved in the pattern?

    As I briefly look over my comments, I see that I conclude with what here seems critical: viz., “To close the loop on all of this, we only have to take this one additional step: We state that only ‘intelligent’ beings can produce ‘meaning.’”

    When it comes to “patterns,” their recognition can only be made by intelligent beings, while, likewise, the origin of “meaningful patterns” is also intelligent beings.

    But, yes, it’s always hard to explicate the obvious.

  101. 101
    PaV says:

    Eric:

    I’m looking at this post again. You never responded to the last entry–which is, of course, quite understandable as it comes over a year-and-a-half later than the original post.

    Now I would like to add perspective to my remark that I didn’t think the Explanatory Filter would deem the 500 H’s, or the HTHT repeat pattern going on for 500 places, as the result of ‘law’ or ‘necessity.’

    What ‘law’, or what kind of ‘necessity’ will cause 500 coin flips to all be ‘heads,’ or to oscillate between ‘heads’ and ‘tails’? There is no such ‘law’ or ‘necessity.’ We’re dealing with ‘random’ coin flips here, are we not? And, if we are, then you will NEVER see either of those two patterns! They’re way to improbable. The only thing that can make those ‘patterns’ appear is the human imagination, fueled by intelligence as it is.

    These patterns will never show up: unless, of course, the system is rigged. But, of course, if the system is rigged, then intelligence is the only explanation for ‘rigging,’ and we’re back to design.

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