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In his “UB Sets It Out Step-By-Step” UprightBiped argued that the transfer of recorded information in the genome is like any other form of recorded information – i.e., it is an arbitrary relationship instantiated in matter.
After several months and over 1,400 combox comments, UB’s argument has withstood a barrage of attacks from our materialist friends. This post is a response to one such attack.
UB’s opponents argue they cannot understand what he means by “arbitrary” in his argument. Of course, UB has good responses to this objection, and I invite you to read them in the combox. But as I was thinking about the matter this morning, it occurred to me that there is a very simple definition of “arbitrary” that, I think, makes the matter so clear that only the willfully obtuse could deny it. Here it is: An arrangement of signs is arbitrary when the identical purpose could be accomplished through a different arrangement of signs if the rules of the semiotic code were different. [“Semiotics” is the study of how signs are used to represent things, such as how a word in a language represents a particular object.]
Here’s an example of an arbitrary arrangement of signs: DOG. This is the arrangement of signs English speakers use when they intend to represent Canis lupus familiaris. In precise semiotic parlance, the word “dog” is a “conventional sign” for Canis lupus familiaris among English speakers. Here, “conventional” is used in the sense of a “convention” or an agreement. In other words, English speakers in a sense “agree” that “dog” means Canis lupus familiaris.
Now, the point is that there is nothing inherent in a dog that requires it to be represented in the English language with the letters “D” followed by “O” followed by “G.” If the rules of the semiotic code (i.e., the English language) were different, the identical purpose could be accomplished through a different arrangement of signs. We know this because in other codes the same purpose is accomplished with vastly different signs. In French the purpose is accomplished with the following arrangement of signs: C H I E N. In Spanish the purpose is accomplished with the following arrangement of signs: P E R R O. In German the purpose is accomplished with the following arrangement of signs: H U N D.
In each of the semiotic codes the purpose of signifying an animal of the species Canis lupus familiaris is accomplished through an arbitrary set of signs. If the rules of the code were different, a different set of signs would accomplish the identical purpose. For example, if, for whatever reason, English speakers were collectively to agree that Canis lupus familiaris should be represented by “B L I M P,” then “blimp” would accomplish the purpose of representing Canis lupus familiaris just as well as “dog.”
How does this apply to the DNA code? The arrangement of signs constituting a particular instruction in the DNA code is arbitrary in the same way that the arrangement of signs for representing Canis lupus familiaris is arbitrary. For example, suppose in a particular strand of DNA the arrangement “AGC” means “add amino acid X.” There is nothing about amino acid X that requires the instruction “add amino acid X” to be represented by “AGC.” If the rules of the code were different the same purpose (i.e, instructing the cell to “add amino acid X”) could be accomplished using “UAG” or any other combination. Thus, the sign AGC is “arbitrary” in the sense UB was using the word.
Why is all of this important to ID? It is important because it shows that the DNA code is not analogous to a semiotic code. It is isometric with a semiotic code. In other words, the digital code embedded in DNA is not “like” a semiotic code, it “is” a semiotic code. This in turn is important because there is only one known source for a semiotic code: intelligent agency. Therefore, the presence of a semiotic code embedded within the cells of every living thing is powerful evidence of design, and the burden is on those who would deny design to demonstrate how a semiotic code could be developed though blind chance or mechanical law or both.