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.
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.