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Rob Sheldon: In all Pigliucci’s examples, information is lost when subdivided

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In response to Disunity of sciences? (Yes, but you must be allowed to think that, Massimo, without getting your head bashed in), physicist Rob Sheldon responds to philosopher of science Massimo Pigliucci::

Anti-reductionism is a restatement of gestalt philosophy, that “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts”. For example, a live worm is more than simply two half-worms superglued together. This is such a commonplace statement, there are probably a 100 aphorisms on this observation. Life doesn’t result when we stitch together Frankenstein and zap him with electricity. Why? Because the parts are irreducibly complex–we destroy life when we subdivide it, and we cannot create life by gluing pieces together.

For some reason, physicists like the word “emergent” to describe this new thing that happens when an irreducibly complex system behaves in ways that cannot be expected by looking at the parts. Of course, materialists want that “emergence” to be accidental, but as we ID types know, “emergence” or IC is consequence of design.

Since Dembski has published Being as Communion which dematerialized design, we can now talk about gestalt and/or emergence as an information puzzle. In all Pigliucci’s examples, there is information in the whole that is lost when it is subdivided. Or we could say that there is not just information in the combination of parts, but in the permutation of parts.

The mathematical difference is huge. In a combinatorial universe of 10^80 protons, MIT’s Seth Lloyd computes something like 10^120 information bits because he figures there’s equal numbers of photons and electrons and perhaps a volume of some 10^12 lightyears divided into cells of Planck-length size to store them in. But such big numbers should not blind you to the shell game he is playing–he’s being a reductionist.

Say we have five boxes and four marbles, Lloyd is saying that there is no difference between permutations, so a 11011 is no different from a 10111 or a 01111. How do I know this? Because the number of permutations of 10^80 protons is not 10^120 but “(10^80)!” where “!” is shorthand for “factorial”
or 10^80 * 10^79.99999 * 10^79.9998 …. * 1.

If your calculator has a factorial button, you can test it out, but here’s the first few: 2! = 2*1=2.
3!=3*2*1=6. 4!=4*3*2*1=24. And I couldn’t get bigger than about 60! without producing an overflow error on my calculator. Fortunately there’s an approximation for really big factorials that works better the bigger the number–Stirling’s approximation: log(n!) = n log(n) – n.

So how big is “(10^80)!” ? About exp[10^80 * log(10^80)]. If we switch from base e (~2.7) to base 10, then we have the number of bits in our universe is about 10^[80*(10^80)]. In laymen’s terms that is 1 with 80 zillion zeroes after it. And that is the power of permutations over combinations. That is the power of gestalt over reductionism. That is the information in the whole versus the information in the parts. That is why irreducible complexity is so very very much more information than the sum of the parts.

My favorite physics word for this difference between IC and parts is “coherence”. It means that there is new information in the whole that cannot be found in the incoherent sum of the parts. Darwin lived in the 19th century when atomic theory of matter, heat conduction, Maxwell’s description of diffusion, Boltzmann’s theory of thermodynamics were all based on the statistics of incoherent or random particle motion. The 20th century opened with the QM discoveries that distant locations could impact the local behavior through “spooky-action-at-a-distance”. Einstein famously wrote the EPR paper that dissed QM as an “incomplete theory”. But by the end of the 20th century, Einstein was shown to be wrong, QM coherence was real, and the whole was found to be fundamentally greater than the sum of the parts. I have said on several occasions that the 21st century will be the century where we master coherence the way the 19th century mastered incoherence.

Quantum computing, consciousness, irreducible complexity, intelligent design, mathematical topology, evo-devo, are all examples of the triumph of coherence.

I don’t want anyone to mistake this as substance dualism. It is true that information is immaterial, but in some sense, information has to be instantiated without being simply “a part” of the whole. It is not like Frankenstein can be stitched together and “information” added to make him alive. Information is not a substance, even though it can be quantified. Physicists would not be so very confused by entropy and Boltzman’s identity— S = -k ln(Omega) — if information was easily extracted from
its material instantiation. But I defer to Dembski’s book (which I am reading now) [*] for a more rigorous treatment.

All this to say that I disagree with Pigliucci on just about every conclusion he draws. Laws are not simply inductive regularities a la Hume, but just as it means something absolute to say “the ratio of the circumference to the radius of a circle is pi” instead of “long observation shows that pi is approximately 3.1416”, so also it means something to say “in hyperbolic geometry pi > 3.1416” or “since pi < 3.1416 we must live in a spherical space”. That is to say, the outcome of the universe depends crucially on whether pi is less than, greater than, or precisely 3.141592653589. It is the difference between a whimper or a bang, the difference between heaven and hell.

Nor is anti-reductionism the same as anti-realism. Just because we can’t get Frankenstein to sit up after stitching his parts together doesn’t mean that there is no such thing as a living being, or that living beings are indescribable to science. It simply means that we don’t understand coherence, or that we have not yet expanded our science description to contain the missing information. Perhaps one day we will make a novel virus “from scratch” or even a novel “synthetic” bacterium. But it clearly will take a lot more information than we have at present.

I can be an anti-reductionist without being an anti-realist, and Pigliucci’s dabbling with vitalism is logically unnecessary (and, as the late Stanley Jaki might say, a metaphysical dead end.)

[*] Note: “Dembski’s book” is Being as Communion.

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30 Replies to “Rob Sheldon: In all Pigliucci’s examples, information is lost when subdivided

  1. 1
    REC says:

    “that there is not just information in the combination of parts, but in the permutation of parts.”

    How does that follow? Even granting design, a design comes about not because of the combination of parts, but the exclusive search of all possible combination of parts?

    I’ll grant my car is designed, but not by selection from all possible combinations of all its parts….

    The big numbers game has sunk to a new low (or high, I suppose).

  2. 2
    Jerad says:

    it means something absolute to say “the ratio of the circumference to the radius of a circle is pi”

    Sigh. pi = ratio of the circumference to the diameter or twice the radius of the circle.

    Let’s hope Dr Sheldon fixes that!

  3. 3
    fifthmonarchyman says:

    WOW

    Rob Sheldon’s observation is exactly what I have been yammering on here about for a few weeks now. I want to again point to this excellent definition of IC taken from Integrated Information theory.

    From here

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/I.....ion_theory

    Quote:

    In a system composed of connected “mechanisms” (nodes containing information and causally influencing other nodes), the information among them is said to be integrated if and to the extent that there is a greater amount of information in the repertoire of a whole system regarding its previous state than there is in the sum of the all the mechanisms’ considered individually. In this way, integrated information does not increase by simply adding more mechanisms to a system if the mechanisms are independent of each other.

    end Quote:

    As you can see IIT and ID are saying exactly the same thing!!

    I would go so far as to say that the two ideas are equivalent.

    peace

  4. 4
    RodW says:

    In all Pigliucci’s examples, there is information in the whole that is lost when it is subdivided. Or we could say that there is not just information in the combination of parts, but in the permutation of parts.

    I think this is the wrong way to think about it. As Meyer points out in Signature there is no clear single defintion of information and certainly none that capture the complexity of the world and life.
    A better way to think about it is that complexity emerges and increases in the universe as the result of the interactions between things. Those interaction are things in themselves In fact, everything that we think of as a thing turns out to be an interaction. Consider the most basic thing: matter. Matter is made of protons, neutrons and electrons. The properties that we associate with matter are that you can see it, that you can feel it and that it takes up space. But protons neutrons and electons have none of those properties by themselves. Its only when electrons interact with a nucleus that those properties emerge. So we’re perceiving an interaction. The same is true when you consider the properties of the subatomic particles and when you go the other direction to galaxies. Perhaps the systems we recognize as ‘complex’ are just cases where the interactions can interact and where those second order interactions can interact to create 3rd order interactions…and so on….

  5. 5
    Phinehas says:

    REC:

    How does that follow? Even granting design, a design comes about not because of the combination of parts, but the exclusive search of all possible combination of parts?

    My take: The combination of parts is selected out of all possible combinations of parts. Information is found in that which narrows the permutations down to the combination (the specification?).

  6. 6
    cantor says:

    10^[80*(10^80)]

    Actually it’s about five times that size: 5*10^(80*10^80)

  7. 7
    EDTA says:

    And not to be too hard on Dr. Sheldon–who knows more physics than I ever will…but Frankenstein was the human doctor that pieced the monster together. The monster actually didn’t have a name.

    But this idea is echoed in the paper that News mentioned here a month or so ago, which I am slowing getting through: “An Information-Theoretic Formalism for Multiscale Structure in
    Complex Systems”, by Allen, Stacey and Bar-Yam. It’s over at arXiv.org, and looks interesting so far. It attempts to measure the information in a system of parts.

  8. 8
    bornagain77 says:

    Veritas Forum has just loaded 4 new videos on youtube, here is the first one
    Genes, Atoms or Something Else? Praveen Sethupathy and Roald Hoffmann at Cornell – video
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KGDi3C2mA1Y&list=UUsJezu3tK45jPs0ywrq0S0Q&index=1

  9. 9
    Seversky says:

    I don’t want anyone to mistake this as substance dualism. It is true that information is immaterial, but in some sense, information has to be instantiated without being simply “a part” of the whole. It is not like Frankenstein can be stitched together and “information” added to make him alive. Information is not a substance, even though it can be quantified.

    So, if information is immaterial, what is it? More specifically, what does Sheldon mean by it? How do you quantify the immaterial? Does that even mean anything?

  10. 10
    bornagain77 says:

    Of note, Weak Panentheism resolves difficulties with Dualistic Theism:

    Christianity and Panentheism – video
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_xki03G_TO4

    As well, ‘Dual Aspect Idealism’ resolves difficulties with both physicalism and substance dualism in explaining how the mind interacts with the brain:

    The Case for the Soul – (8:22 minute mark) – video
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_detailpage&v=oBsI_ay8K70&list=UU5qDet6sa6rODi7t6wfpg8g#t=502

    Music:

    Brooke Fraser (Hillsong Live) – Lord of lords – video
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tlqDIfS4O3s

  11. 11
    fifthmonarchyman says:

    Seversky said,

    How do you quantify the immaterial? Does that even mean anything?

    I say,

    I never cease to be amazed that there are actually some who are unaware of the demise of Logical positivism.

    Ask yourself this…

    Is the statement “only the material is quantifiable” itself material?

    If it’s not does that mean the statement “only the material is quantifiable” has no meaning?

    If not why not?

    Think about it

    peace

  12. 12
    Joe says:

    So, if information is immaterial, what is it?

    Well that means it is neither matter nor energy.

  13. 13
    Me_Think says:

    Joe or any IDer

    Well that means it is neither matter nor energy.

    How do you measure it ? How do you know it exists in, say, the Standard particles ?

  14. 14
    Joe says:

    LoL! We know information exists because we use it every day. We know that it doesn’t have any mass and we also know it doesn’t have any energy. We also know that matter and energy are mediums for information- one for embodiment and one for communication/ transmission and reception. .

    Information is information, neither matter nor energy.- Norbert Weiner

  15. 15
    Me_Think says:

    Joe,
    Let me put it in different way – how much information is there in standard particles? ( They are the building blocks of everything so that is where we need to start)

  16. 16
    Silver Asiatic says:

    Joe

    LoL! We know information exists because we use it every day. We know that it doesn’t have any mass and we also know it doesn’t have any energy. We also know that matter and energy are mediums for information- one for embodiment and one for communication/ transmission and reception. .

    Excellent summary. The medium (matter and energy) is necessarily distinct from the information (immaterial). That is obviously a problem for materialism and evolution.

    What usually happens then is just to deny it exists.

    Information, supposedly does not exist. Or, supposedly, nobody can define what it is (let’s forget about the entire field of information science).

  17. 17
    Silver Asiatic says:

    Me_Think

    how much information is there in standard particles?

    Information is generated by something, to communicate meaning, operation or function.

    Or, we extract information from something that does not generate discernible symbolic code.

    We can extract indefinite amounts of information from anything. Count of particles, speed of particles, location of particles, activities of particles … information can be extracted from any of those things.

    Do you think standard particles communicate informational code to receivers?

  18. 18
    Zachriel says:

    Silver Asiatic: Or, supposedly, nobody can define what it is

    Don’t know anyone who says that. We have a non-ambiguous mathematical definition, known as Shannon Information. Rather, the problem is the conflation of different uses of the term information.

    Silver Asiatic: We can extract indefinite amounts of information from anything. Count of particles, speed of particles, location of particles, activities of particles … information can be extracted from any of those things.

    If you mean we can extract information from data, then sure.

    Silver Asiatic: Information is generated by something, to communicate meaning, operation or function.

    The central concept of Shannon Information is the transmission of information over a noisy channel from a sender to a receiver.

    Silver Asiatic: The medium (matter and energy) is necessarily distinct from the information (immaterial).

    It’s an abstraction, like any other abstraction. Most “materialists” understand abstraction as states of the brain.

    Silver Asiatic: That is obviously a problem for materialism and evolution.

    It’s not a problem for evolution. Not even sure it’s a coherent objection. If you mean the transmission of information from one generation to the next, that’s explained by Shannon Information.

  19. 19
    EugeneS says:

    Zachriel #18,

    the problem is the conflation of different uses of the term information.

    I could not agree more. I can only add that the same applies to ‘evolution’.

    If you mean the transmission of information from one generation to the next, that’s explained by Shannon Information.

    Shannon uncertainty cannot measure functional sequence complexity. That’s where the conflation starts. It can only measure what it is designed to measure i.e. uncertainty. Shannon’s theory of communication does not address the ‘aboutness’ of information. He himself stressed that his theory should not be thought of as a theory of information.

    http://www.biomedcentral.com/c.....2-2-29.pdf

    Algorithmic organization is a huge challenge for evolution. Most prominent evolutionist thinkers realize that and it takes them a leap of faith to still remain proponents of evolution.

  20. 20
    Zachriel says:

    EugeneS: I can only add that the same applies to ‘evolution’.

    Sure. That’s an important point, and a common problem on this blog. Evolution can refer to the fact of evolution, the change in populations over time, or to the Theory of Evolution, which explains that evolutionary change.

    EugeneS: Shannon uncertainty cannot measure functional sequence complexity.

    See. The definition we were provided was “Information is generated by something, to communicate meaning, operation or function.” It doesn’t take a measure of functional sequence complexity to transmit the plans for a spaceship or a flagellum. See Shannon, A Mathematical Theory of Communication, Bell System Technical Journal 1948.

    Abel and Trevors: A sequence is compressible because it contains redundant order and patterns. Law-like cause-and-effect determinism produces highly compressible order.

    That is not necessarily the case.

    In any case, while FSC (functional sequence complexity) has some intuitive meaning, quantifying it has been intractable without making simplifying assumptions. Furthermore, you can’t argue that FSC can’t increase through evolution, because we have strong evidence that it does.

  21. 21
    Me_Think says:

    Silver Asiatic @ 16

    Information, supposedly does not exist. Or, supposedly, nobody can define what it is (let’s forget about the entire field of information science).

    Information as defined by ID does not exist. Information is not superglue to stick parts of a whole.

  22. 22
    Joe says:

    LoL! @ Me Think- ID didn’t define information. ID is OK with the standard definitions. Also CRICK defined biological information and wrt biology ID is OK with that too.

  23. 23
    Joe says:

    Furthermore, you can’t argue that FSC can’t increase through evolution, because we have strong evidence that it does.

    We would love to see that alleged evidence. Also “evolution” isn’t being debated. ID argues against blind watchmaker/ unguided evolution being able to produce FSC.

  24. 24
    Me_Think says:

    Joe
    ID is definitely not using the standard definition of information. It is being used as a unprovable Metaphysical ansatz.

  25. 25
    EugeneS says:

    Zachriel #20,

    Apologies if double-posted (my PC glitched).

    Could you provide references. That would be most interesting to see.

    When the sender and receiver have previously agreed, they can encode anything using just 1 bit, i.e. once a proper information context has been established. E.g. sexual reproduction gives you a rate of sqrt(genome_size) bits of information gain per replication. That is not magic. Magic is to convincingly empirically demonstrate how such an agreement emerges from chaos.

    Here again I am asking you to produce empirical evidence of an abstract protocol of communication emerging out of chaos, i.e. empirical evidence of holistic organization emerging as a product of undirected biological evolution.

    You see, there’s research done in labs with test tubes and there’s mathematical modelling. All sorts of physics-independent ‘artificial life’ models have been proposed. These do not constitute evidence unless models are built using sensible realistic assumptions. OTOH, solid evidence in support of grand scale evolution (in the sense of holistic organization emerging as a result) is totally lacking. What is usually interpreted as evidence cannot be taken at face value. What is more problematic, is that this situation grows progressively worse over time as more details are discovered that are prohibitive to holistic organization emerging solely as a result of undirected biological evolution.

  26. 26
    Joe says:

    Me Think- According to Dembski biological information is the same, ie ID = Crick’s definition

    According to Meyer in “Signature in the Cell” ID uses the following definition for information:

    b : 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

    OTOH all you have is you, and maybe some other evos on an agenda of obfuscation, but you don’t have anything else.

  27. 27
    fifthmonarchyman says:

    EugeneS said,

    When the sender and receiver have previously agreed, they can encode anything using just 1 bit, i.e. once a proper information context has been established.

    I say,

    Exactly, once the “key/specification/Platonic form” is known you can code the entire universe in a single bit.

    With out the “key” you can’t encode anything at all.

    If evolution began with the “key” it could produce the wonders we see in nature.

    The problem is that materialism is based on the premise that the “key” doesn’t exist.

    peace

  28. 28
    Me_Think says:

    Exactly, once the “key/specification/Platonic form” is known you can code the entire universe in a single bit.

    Have you plotted bit length of integers ? Just try. You will see a step ladder graph with increasing length of steps, which means the higher the integers, the more it becomes difficult to distinguish between them, so even with a ‘key’ all you will get is a indistinguishable mess. You need a private key, public key and a modulus for encryption. You still think 1 bit is enough for the universe ?

  29. 29
    fifthmonarchyman says:

    Me_Think says

    That is the beauty of lossless data compression.
    for example all I need to know is “Pi” and I can plot

    3.1415926535897932384626433832795028841971693993751058209749445923078164062862089986280348253421170679 …

    I can continue to plot this sequence precisely to infinity.

    If I knew the “key” for the sequence corresponding to “the universe” I see no reason why I could not plot that sequence as well. Do you?

    Now since I’m a part of the universe I have no way of ever determining what the key/specification is but if I existed outside and was omniscient then knowing the key would be an easy task.

    Peace

  30. 30
    Zachriel says:

    EugeneS: These do not constitute evidence unless models are built using sensible realistic assumptions.

    Are you asking about the historical process, or are you making the claim that such a process is impossible?

    EugeneS: Here again I am asking you to produce empirical evidence of an abstract protocol of communication emerging out of chaos, i.e. empirical evidence of holistic organization emerging as a product of undirected biological evolution.

    As we pointed out, there is no complete theory of historical abiogenesis. However, we do know that molecules can act as both enzyme and gene, sidestepping the problem of “protocol of communication”.

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