Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language.
Ludwig Wittgenstein, 1953, aphorism 109
My recent exchanges with Jeffrey Shallit illustrate this aphorism. Our disagreement is not over the substance of the matter. Instead, our disagreement hinges on Shallit’s abuse of language to make a trivial point. Shallit and I disagreed over whether an excerpt from Hamlet’s soliloquy could be considered “random” in any meaningful sense of that word. In the course of that exchange Shallit said this:
Barry, and all ID advocates, need to understand one basic point. It’s one that Wesley Elsberry and I have been harping about for years. Here it is: the opposite of ‘random’ is not ‘designed’.
The problem with Shallit’s assertion is that neither he nor Wesley Elsberry get to decide what “random” means. In linguistic theory words acquire meaning in a language by convention among the speakers of that language, not by diktat, and as I will demonstrate below, in the English language “random” does in fact mean the opposite of “design.”
In order to determine whether “random” is the opposite of “design” we must first establish what those two words mean. Wikipedia defines “random” as follows:
Randomness means lack of pattern or predictability in events. Randomness suggests a non-order or non-coherence in a sequence of symbols or steps, such that there is no intelligible pattern or combination.
Thus, a random string of text is one in which there is no intelligible order, coherence, or pattern.
Webster’s Dictionary defines “design” as follows:
1. to prepare the preliminary sketch or the plans for (a work to be executed), especially to plan the form and structure of;
2. to plan and fashion artistically or skillfully;
3. to intend for a definite purpose;
Any string of text that results from “design” will definitely have an intelligible order or pattern.
Therefore, Shallit is wrong. “Random” is in fact the opposite of “designed.”
Shallit insists, however, that Hamlet is in fact “random” as that term is used in algorithmic information theory. For what he means by this, Wikipedia again:
Algorithmic information theory studies, among other topics, what constitutes a random sequence. The central idea is that a string of bits is random if and only if it is shorter than any computer program that can produce that string (Kolmogorov randomness)—this means that random strings are those that cannot be compressed.
In his first post Shallit ran both a string of keyboard banging gibberish and Hamlet through a computer program,
If we want to test this [i.e. randomness] in a quantitative sense, we can use a lossless compression scheme such as gzip, an implementation of Lempel-Ziv. A truly random file will not be significantly compressible, with very very high probability. So a good test of randomness is simply to attempt to compress the file and see if it is roughly the same size as the original. The larger the produced file, the more random the original string was.
Here are the results. String #1 is of length 502, using the ‘wc’ program. (This also counts characters like the carriage returns separating the lines.) String #2 is of length 545.
Using gzip on Darwin OS on my Mac, I get the following results: string #1 compresses to a file of size 308 and string #2 compresses to a file of size 367. String #2’s compressed version is bigger and therefore more random than string #1: exactly the opposite of what Arrington implied!
What is going on here? Despite the facetious title of my third post Shallit is not barking mad. Nor is he stupid. Why on earth would an obviously intelligent person write a sentence like “[Hamlet’s] compressed version is bigger and therefore more random than [gibberish]”?
Please see the Wittgenstein quotation above. The simple and obvious fact of the matter is that the string from Hamlet does not conform to the English word “random” to even the slightest degree. The string was carefully designed. Therefore, it has zero randomness. Hence, it cannot be “more random” than any string of text that displays any randomness whatsoever. Certainly it cannot be “more random” than a string of gibberish. But in his eagerness to discredit my analysis, Shallit lost sight of that fact. In short, he lost the battle against the bewitchment of his intelligence by means of language.
Sure, the compressed version of Hamlet is bigger than the compressed version of gibberish. And if one insists on defining relative randomness in terms of relative compressibility Hamlet is “more random.” Here’s the problem with that approach. It is glaringly obvious that Hamlet is not in any degree “random” whatsoever as that word is used by English speakers. Therefore, by its very nature it is not subject to a relative randomness analysis except to the extent one observes that it is totally non-random and any string that is even partially random is therefore more random. So what did Shallit accomplish when he insisted that under his esoteric definition of “random” Hamlet is “more random” than gibberish? He made a trivial mathematical point, and in the process made himself look foolish.
My advice to Shallit. Next time you are fighting Wittgenstein’s battle against the bewitchment of your intelligence by means of language, fight harder.