Intelligent Design

A Brief Reply to Eric Anderson

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First, welcome aboard Eric and thank you for your first UD post .

Eric uses the rings of Saturn to illustrate his point that natural objects, in and of themselves, do not “contain” information by their mere existence.  I disagree.  I am certainly not an information theorist, but I do have the advantage of having read an advance copy of Bill Dembski’s Being as Communion, a Metaphysics of Information (which I understand is due out in August).

Eric says that the act of measurement of a state of affairs by an observer creates information; that the state of affairs in itself has not produced information.  You will need to wait for the book for a more complete explanation (the wait will be worth it; I believe this book is truly groundbreaking).  For now I will just say that Dembski’s thesis is that “information” is a much broader concept than that formulated by Eric.

Dembski starts with Eric’s more limited view of information:

In everyday life, information is associated with intelligent agents who form statements to convey meaning. Accordingly, intelligent agents convey information to other intelligent agents by making meaningful statements within a system of language. Information, therefore, customarily presupposes intelligence, language, and semantics.

That conception is fine as far as it goes.  But in a broader sense Dembski says “information is about realizing possibilities by ruling out others.”  Therefore, “Nature produces information when it comes down on one side or the other of a contingency (an event is contingent if it is possible but not necessary, in other words, if it can happen but alternatives to it can also happen).”

To Eric’s point about the rings of Saturn, I take it that Dembski would say that the orbits of each particle of the rings exist within a matrix of other possible orbits and therefore create information.  Indeed, Dembski uses the orbit of the earth’s moon to illustrate information.  If the matrix of possibilities is stable orbit/non-stable orbit, the earth’s moon’s orbit comes down on a particular side of a contingency and thus information has been produced.

To sum up, Eric is using an “everyday” definition of information and that is fine as far as it goes.  But information need not be defined so narrowly, and for certain purposes it can be defined extremely broadly, as Dembski has done.  To see why this is important and how it fits into a broader metaphysics of information, we will need to wait until August.

23 Replies to “A Brief Reply to Eric Anderson

  1. 1
    Neil Rickert says:

    I disagree.

    There’s no real agreement on what we mean by “information”. Your conceputalization of “information” is different from Erics. And mine is probably different from both.

    A lot of the disagreement over arguments on information, is really a disagreement over what we mean.

    To Shannon’s credit, his theory of information includes precise enough definitions that we can avoid ambiguity. However, he achieves this by making his theory a purely syntactic theory. That leaves out the semantic issues, which is where the disagreeing begins.

  2. 2
    Joe says:

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

  3. 3
    scordova says:

    This may be shocking, but to the extent I can avoid information theory when defending ID, I avoid it!

    Because Shannon information is the negative log of probability, whenever we deal with Shannon information we can equally argue the case in terms of rote probability without even saying the dreaded word “information”. Doug Axe didn’t need information theory to discuss improbability of protein evolution, same with many OOL scenarios.

    I’ve argued the most fundamental concept in ID is probability, and as far as design detection it is the law of large numbers.

    Bill said in NFL about semantics (aka meaning):

    Counterintuitive as it may seem, semantics, far from helping to detect design, can actually hinder its detection.

    Bill Dembski
    NLF, page 167

    Instead Bill resorts to arguments based on mereology and statistics. The coin analogies are examples this approach. I agree with Bill, the incorporation of meaning can hinder detection of design.

    One might say, “but DNA means proteins and assembly instructions”, but one can alternately just demonstrate a mathematical and functional relationship that DNA triplets correspond to amino acids and not have to invoke meaning.

    Invoking “meaning” adds nothing to the probability argument. Even though seeing the meaning of an object helps our understanding, it doesn’t help the probability argument, and if doesn’t help the probability argument it doesn’t help the design inference.

    NOTES

    Probability of 500 fair coins all heads

    P(all H) = 1 / (2^500)

    Shannon information

    -log2 P (all H) = 500 bits

    recasting the all fair coins head illustration into Shannon information adds no insight into the probability argument. The same is generally true of ID in biology, even though biology is obviously meaningful.

    Why do I say this? At some point everything in a design inference will boil down to probability anyway. Many times it will take some clever thinking to translate an argument couched in terms of meaning to the same argument couched in terms of rote probability.

    I prefer to argue ID in the most minimal, unassailable terms:

    A Statistics Question for Nick Matzke

    Law of Large Numbers vs. Keiths

    A dead dog stays a dead dog

  4. 4
    Barry Arrington says:

    Joe, yes they exist. Do they matter? I suppose that depends on what matters to you.

  5. 5
    Barry Arrington says:

    Neil,

    Perhaps “disagree” is the wrong word. You are correct that the arguments usually are about meaning. Therefore, Eric’s meaning may be appropriate in one context and Bill’s more appropriate in another. The important thing is ensure that everyone means the same thing in whatever context the discussion is had.

  6. 6
    Joe says:

    Barry, How do you know they exist if no one is there to determine they do? The point being only intelligent agencies can determine such things and only intelligent agencies can extract information from the scenarios.

  7. 7
    Joe says:

    Biological specification always refers to function. An organism is a functional system comprising many functional subsystems. In virtue of their function, these systems embody patterns that are objectively given and can be identified independently of the systems that embody them. Hence these systems are specified in the same sense required by the complexity-specification criterion (see sections 1.3 and 2.5). The specification of organisms can be crashed out in any number of ways. Arno Wouters cashes it out globally in terms of the viability of whole organisms. Michael Behe cashes it out in terms of minimal function of biochemical systems.- Wm. Dembski page 148 of NFL

    In the preceding and proceeding paragraphs William Dembski makes it clear that biological specification is CSI- complex specified information.

    In the paper “The origin of biological information and the higher taxonomic categories”, Stephen C. Meyer wrote:

    Dembski (2002) has used the term “complex specified information” (CSI) as a synonym for “specified complexity” to help distinguish functional biological information from mere Shannon information–that is, specified complexity from mere complexity. This review will use this term as well.

    Francis Crick:

    Information means here the precise determination of sequence, either of bases in the nucleic acid or on amino acid residues in the protein.

    Biological functionality is specified information.

    Casey Luskin weighs in- The NCSE, Judge Jones, and Citation Bluffs About the Origin of New Functional Genetic Information

    And as has been pointed out:

    The word information in this theory is used in a special mathematical sense that must not be confused with its ordinary usage. In particular, information must not be confused with meaning.- Warren Weaver, one of Shannon’s collaborators

  8. 8
    Joe says:

    Barry posted:

    But in a broader sense Dembski says “information is about realizing possibilities by ruling out others.”

    And guess what it takes to realize possibilties by ruling out others?

    If you said “Intelligent Agencies” give yourself a bisquit.

  9. 9
    RDFish says:

    Hi Barry,

    @5:
    Perhaps “disagree” is the wrong word. You are correct that the arguments usually are about meaning. Therefore, Eric’s meaning may be appropriate in one context and Bill’s more appropriate in another. The important thing is ensure that everyone means the same thing in whatever context the discussion is had.

    The word “intelligence” is at least as ambiguous as the word “information”, which makes “Intelligent Design Theory” a very nebulous idea. I have asked hundreds of ID proponents what they mean by the term, and have received scores of very different sorts of answers.

    ID proponents consistently disagree about fundamental aspects of what the word “intelligence” implies, for example whether or not it necessarily implies conscious awareness or libertarian free will. Many people even consider trial-and-error learning and problem solving a type of intelligence, which would mean that Darwinian evolution would qualify as an intelligent process.

    One would think that a bona fide scientific theory such as Intelligent Design Theory would, just as you say, try to ensure that everyone means the same thing in the context of ID. On the other hand, I think that ID equivocates on this central concept for a reason.

    Cheers,
    RDFish

  10. 10
    Joe says:

    RDfish:

    The word “intelligence” is at least as ambiguous as the word “information”,

    Only to people who cannot read and comprehend a dictionary.

    OTOH to people who love to obfuscate rather than understand, RDFish is correct.

  11. 11
    StephenB says:

    Because there are so many aspects to information, such as entropy, organization, chaos, functionality, intentionality, communication, language, meaning, codes, subjectivity, objectivity, semiotics, etc, it would seem that the best approach is to provide an operational definition for the context being discussed. (Upright Biped has made a heroic effort to provide a semiotic context. Eric Anderson builds his argument around the distinction between what is in an object and what we say about it.)

    I look forward to what Dr. Dembski has to say about it. For my part, the meaning of some informational aspects can be transferred from biology to OOL to cosmology while others cannot.

    In terms of intentionality, for example, I think the designer meant to communicate through nature the fact of His existence both in in cosmological realm and the biological realm. In that context, we can understand information as the substance of the intended communication.

    On the other hand, I don’t think that cosmology has any equivalent for biology’s genetic language of nucleotides and their likeness to the letters of an English sentence. In that context, a generalized or universal understanding of information as language is not so easy.

    Concerning our present discussion, I am fascinated with the objective/subjective component. I think, for example, that the DNA code communicates with the organism, insofar as it gives building instructions, and with us, insofar as it communicates God’s handiwork and informs our understanding. In other words, the code [and the information] exists both in our mind and in the organism, albeit in a different way. Again, I know of no equivalent for this vertical/ horizontal communication in cosmology.

  12. 12
    Eric Anderson says:

    Barry, I have already anticipated and responded to this objection at the end of my post.

    I’ll keep my substantive comments in that post, but just to summarize again here quickly, if information is “contained” in physical objects by their mere existence, then (i) everything contains information, so the concept loses any distinguishing or explanatory power, (ii) it is clearly not the kind of information that is of interest in terms of, for example, intelligent design detection in biology. It is thus a semantic game.

    That said, I of course look forward to reading Bill’s book.

  13. 13
    Joe says:

    Eric,

    Everything does contain information. The questions are- is it specified? Is it complex? Is it complex and specified? For example Leslie Orgel said:

    In brief, living organisms are distinguished by their specified complexity. Crystals are usually taken as the prototypes of simple well-specified structures, because they consist of a very large number of identical molecules packed together in a uniform way. Lumps of granite or random mixtures of polymers are examples of structures that are complex but not specified. The crystals fail to qualify as living because they lack complexity; the mixtures of polymers fail to qualify because they lack specificity.

  14. 14
    Mung says:

    Joe,

    There is no such thing as unspecified information. That phrase ranks right up there with “meaningless information.”

    And information is neither simple nor complex. You are applying invalid terms. It is the representation of information that is simple or complex.

  15. 15
    Mung says:

    There are no physical instantiations of information. There is only the physical instantiation of representations of information. Is that too bizarre?

  16. 16
    Mung says:

    “Nature produces information when it comes down on one side or the other of a contingency (an event is contingent if it is possible but not necessary, in other words, if it can happen but alternatives to it can also happen).”

    What sort of natural events are contingent, I wonder?

    Does ice of a specified salinity at a specified pressure have a choice about whether or not it will melt at a specified temperature?

    What sort of sense does it make to say that the freezing point of water is contingent upon its salinity and atmospheric pressure and the ambient temperature and that somehow because of these contingencies information is produced by Nature when the water turns to wine?

  17. 17
    Joe says:

    Mung,

    OK the physical representation of information can be specified or unspecified, complex or not. The physical representation of information can be meaningless or not.

    Evolutionism is full of information that is meaningless. Or is it evolutionism is meaningless because it’s full of information that is not even wrong?

  18. 18
    Barry Arrington says:

    Eric:

    “. . .if information is “contained” in physical objects by their mere existence, then (i) everything contains information . . .”

    Maybe everything does contain information. Maybe information is primary before even matter and energy. Maybe the universe is a great thought instead of a great thing.

  19. 19
    Eric Anderson says:

    Thanks, Barry. And BTW, thanks for the kind thoughts and opportunity to post.

    Maybe everything does contain information. Maybe information is primary before even matter and energy. Maybe the universe is a great thought instead of a great thing.

    Well, that is a nice philosophical nut to chew on, but I’m trying to focus the discussion on information in the practical here-and-now, what-we-can-observe sense, rather than larger philosophical musings.

  20. 20
    aqeels says:

    Hello to everyone,

    Another lurker that has posted a few times before.

    I am surprised that UB has not commented yet as I always look forward to reading his sharp insights on representations and protocols.

    But in a nutshell if we are referring to information type 2 then this is fairly clear to me. The arrangement of matter (or whatever the medium may be) that is required to carry the information must not be reducible to law. In the case of Saturn rings, the exact arrangement and motion of the rocks and ice particles are all reducible to inexorable law and therefore do not qualify as type 2 information. I find this differentiation to be clear and I am not sure why people struggle with it; but alas maybe its the field of computers that I come from that clouds my judgement!

    But try this for size; We could in theory encode a bubble sort algorithm within the Saturn rings by establishing a protocol. If we did such a thing then we could happily say that the rings contain type 2 information but in doing so Eric’s point still stands that the information is a mental construct and was not innate in the rings themselves to begin with.

    I hope this was useful to the discussion.

  21. 21
    Eric Anderson says:

    aqeels:

    Well said. Thanks for the thoughts.

  22. 22
    tragic mishap says:

    My understanding of this issue, coming from pretty much everything Dembski has written on it, has always been that Shannon information, though not CSI, is necessary for CSI to exist. Necessity, or physical law, has a probability of “1” and therefore cannot contain even Shannon information, much less CSI. Movements according to the laws of physics have a probability of “1”, and therefore they are not contingent and have zero Shannon information. Atomic and crystalline structure follow physical law and have a probability of “1”, and therefore have zero Shannon information. The only possible candidate for even Shannon information in physical objects like rocks orbiting Saturn is their initial position, which could be contingent depending on your understanding of cosmology.

    This is different than DNA because the sequence of DNA nucleotides is not determined by any known physical or chemical law, and is therefore contingent and has Shannon information. It is therefore a candidate for CSI in a way that rocks orbiting Saturn according to the law of gravity are not.

  23. 23
    Mung says:

    “information is about realizing possibilities by ruling out others.” Therefore, “Nature produces information when it comes down on one side or the other of a contingency (an event is contingent if it is possible but not necessary, in other words, if it can happen but alternatives to it can also happen).”

    I find this argument very confusing.

    How does nature “rule out” certain possibilities and “rule in” other possibilities?

    Does it do so by following rules?

    What does it mean to “realize” a possibility?

    Does he mean “actualize”?

    But in what sense is ‘nature’ an actor?

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