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Science and the Question of God, Part 4

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October 14, 2010 Tags: Christianity & Science - Then and Now

Today's entry was written by Randy Isaac. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of The BioLogos Foundation. You can read more about what we believe here.

Science and the Question of God, Part 4

Today’s blog is the fourth entry in a five-part series, which has been adapted from a new Scholarly Article found here. All references have been removed for the blog series but can be found in the full paper. In his previous entry, Randy Isaac introduced Intelligent Design and pointed out some flaws with Stephen Meyer’s argument from information. Today he distinguishes between different types of information and concludes that the case for an intelligent designer as laid out by the ID community is not compelling.

What is information?

The word “information” is used in many different ways, often leading to confusion. It may be helpful to consider three of the categories in which the term is often used.

  1. Complexity. Information theorists quantify information as the logarithm of the number of possible states of a system. Four coins, for example, can have 16 different possible combinations of heads and tails. The amount of information is the log of 16, or 4 bits. This category includes so-called Shannon information, named after Claude Shannon who in 1948 published a seminal analysis of the amount of information that can be transmitted in a noisy communication channel. This type of information is related to entropy, which also depends on the number of possible physical states.

    Changing some heads to tails can generate an informational pattern without changing the amount of information. Just as there is no conservation principle that limits changes in entropy there is no conservation principle that limits changes in information. In closed systems as well as in open systems with energy flow, information can increase. Rolf Landauer has shown that while energy is not necessarily dissipated in the change or in the increase in information, it is necessarily dissipated in the destruction of information. In other words, there is no fundamental constraint on increases or changes in complex information.

  2. Compressibility. Another use of the term information refers to the minimum amount of information required to describe a particular state of the system. It is easier to describe the state of all coins being heads than it is to describe coins in a random sequence. Both states have the same amount of information in terms of complexity, but regarding compressibility, the repetitive sequence has less information. This category includes Kolmogorov information and information that can be expressed in simpler algorithms. It is extremely useful in the telecommunication industry in transmitting audio and video data.

    This type of information can change significantly without any change in complexity whenever the state of the system changes. For example, if some coins are heads instead of tails, the compressibility of the information changes while the total complexity remains the same. Any discussion of the “generation” or “creation” of information is ambiguous without further clarification since it can refer either to increasing the amount of information or to changing the state of the system.

  3. Significance. The popular use of the term information most often refers to the significance attributed to a particular physical state of a system. This significance can either be a physical characteristic or, more commonly, an abstract or symbolic relationship. The physical shape of the letter “A” conveys significance in the English language that is not mandated by the physical characteristics of that letter. It could have had a different meaning. Intelligence is sometimes defined as the ability to carry out symbolic reasoning. Therefore, meaningful information in this category requires intelligence to generate the abstract significance.

    Note that physical complexity must exist in order for meaning to be attributed to it. Paul Revere’s famous phrase “…one if by land and two if by sea…” is an example of far-reaching information being conveyed by two bits of information. If the lanterns did not exist, the information would not be conveyed. If an intelligent agent had not assigned that meaning, the lanterns by themselves could not transmit the desired effect. DNA and computer code information: same or different?

Stephen Meyer’s use of the term “specificity” puts it in this third category of information. Meyer adds a second type of specificity, namely functionality. Usually functionality refers to the characteristics or action of a design compared with the design specification set by the designer. If that functionality involves symbolic meaning at any level, then an intelligent agent does need to be involved in some direct or indirect way. What Meyer overlooked, however, is that if no symbolic meaning is involved, then physical processes might be adequate to determine functionality. For instance, computers are constructed from a set of binary systems in which one state in each binary is assigned the symbolic meaning of “0” or “1”. No attribute of the binary system determines which meaning must be assigned to which state. An intelligent agent capable of symbolic reasoning must be involved. However, in living systems the ability to reproduce is a type of complex functionality that has a physical, but not a symbolic, function. If a living cell reproduces, it functions—otherwise it dies. There is no necessity for an intelligent agent to be involved at any level. Significance of information cannot be quantified and is not conserved in any quantitative way.

The information argument sounds appealing at the surface. Most of our daily use of information involves computers, language, and numbers, which are all laden with symbolic value. It makes sense to us that information requires intelligence. The remarkable similarity between DNA code and binary information code makes it tempting to attribute the same requirement of intelligence to the generation of DNA information. Closer analysis, however, shows that every biomolecule in a living cell can be assessed by its value to survival as opposed to any symbolic relationship set by an intelligent designer. DNA information is complexity with significance endowed by the physical and chemical functions that enable its host organism to sustain existence. This means that natural selection is a viable process for determining DNA information. An intelligent agent is not necessarily required.

The case for an intelligent designer as laid out by the ID community is not compelling for the scientific community. Science has not answered the question of God even in the less stringent form of an indeterminate intelligent agent.

Isaac's series continues here.

Note: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and not of the American Scientific Affiliation.


Randy Isaac is a solid-state physics research scientist and executive director of the American Scientific Affiliation (ASA), where he has been a member since 1976 and a fellow since 1996. Isaac received his bachelor’s degree from Wheaton College in Illinois and his doctorate in physics from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He joined IBM to work at the Thomas J. Watson Research Center in 1977 and most recently served as the vice-president of systems technology and science for the company.

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R Hampton - #37417

October 29th 2010

Your use of the key/lock scenario fails in that it does not identify that the environment, other members of its species, etc. all represent locks. It’s not necessary to have keys that fit all locks, only that you have a set of keys that will open some of them.

Organisms can, and will, mutate in unpredictable (random) ways. The environment “shapes” these mutations by “naturally selecting” them. A house cat that can “sing” can be said to have come across a key. Which lock does it fit? That depends on its surroundings. If the singing ability in someway aids survival and reproduction - for example, it greatly amuses humans who chose to capture that ability in a new breed, or it attracts more/better mates - then that key will be selected (in this example, by man or nature) and preserved in the next generation. But there is no guarantee that keys (mutations) will be beneficial and/or be selected. Sometimes luck plays a role.


Roger A. Sawtelle - #37440

October 29th 2010

Part 2

God does give a rational purpose to human life and it is not to just survive and reproduce, it is to love which means to share.  We share in marriage.  We share life by reproducing and giving our children the care and guidance they need.  We share through government, church, and other institutions, such as BioLogos.  We can share in all we do, or we can choose not share and be selfish. 

Darwin and Dawkins build their view of life upon the selfish gene.  I know its not as simple as that, but when it comes down to it, IT IS.  Christianity says life is meant to be lived unselfishly,  This does not mean some phoney concept of altruism.  Being good for its own sake is just as irrational as living for its own sake.  This is the rational kernel of truth as to why conservative resistance to Darwinism is real, and cannot be overcome until this issue is properly resolved.


Roger A. Sawtelle - #37446

October 29th 2010

R. Hampton #37417

Your use of the key/lock scenario fails in that it does not identify that the environment, other members of its species, etc. all represent locks. It’s not necessary to have keys that fit all locks, only that you have a set of keys that will open some of them.

Response: You are right that the scenario has real limits.  You are right in the sense that the idea of ecological niche limits the scope of the keys needed.  A creature needs to deal with the elements and life forms in its own particular niche, not the environment as a whole. 

The overall system has numerous subsystems and subsubsystems to make up the whole biosphere.  Every life forms does interact with the physical and climate aspects, plants, bacteria and viruses, other members of its species, and creatures up and down the food chain.  It is truly an interactive, interdependent, nonlinear understanding of life and reality, as opposed to the linear, absolutist, simplistic, Darwinian understanding of life and reality.


R Hampton - #37460

October 29th 2010

interactive, interdependent, nonlinear - What you described IS a Darwinian understanding of life/reality.

All organisms are both locks and keys, depending on the frame of reference selected. The cold virus is an organism that evolves to meet the changes in its environment. The human body evolves to meet the changes of an evolving cold virus. One that cold infects my body may fail to evolve, but in another mutates into a new, viable strain, and in a still another makes a jump from human to pig. Three different outcomes to three different members of the the same species of cold virus— so yes the process is continuous, non-linear, interactive and interdependent.


R Hampton - #37462

October 29th 2010

God does give a rational purpose to human life and it is not to just survive and reproduce, it is to love which means to share.

I don’t disagree. But that has nothing to do with the statements I made. While humanity has additional goals, we too have a genetic/biological goal to reproduce (which is itself a God given goal) just like the rest of life.

And God created great whales, and every living creature that moveth, which the waters brought forth abundantly, after their kind, and every winged fowl after his kind: and God saw that it was good. And God blessed them, saying, Be fruitful, and multiply, and fill the waters in the seas, and let fowl multiply in the earth ... So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them. And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.

So what does all life have in common, according to the Bible? A command from God to Reproduce - or as I put it, to survive long enough to produce viable offspring.


Roger A. Sawtelle - #37558

October 30th 2010

R Hampton - #37460

All organisms are both locks and keys, depending on the frame of reference selected. The cold virus is an organism that evolves to meet the changes in its environment. The human body evolves to meet the changes of an evolving cold virus. One that cold infects my body may fail to evolve, but in another mutates into a new, viable strain, and in a still another makes a jump from human to pig. Three different outcomes to three different members of the the same species of cold virus— so yes the process is continuous, non-linear, interactive and interdependent.

Response:  Of course when you define evolution in an ecological sense where it is the environment which selects and modifies the organism, then it is going to be like non-linear, injteractive, and interdependent. 

What I am suggesting is not a contradiction to traditional views of evolution, but an extension or additional information that adds addition meaning and depth to it.  In fact it is so obvious that most people assume that that ecology is already a part of evolutionary thought even though Dawkins its cheif spokesperson opposes it and influences his collegues to go along with him.


Roger A. Sawtelle - #37565

October 30th 2010

R Hampton - #37462

So what does all life have in common, according to the Bible? A command from God to Reproduce - or as I put it, to survive long enough to produce viable offspring.

Response:  What you say is true.  God did command all creatures to be fruitful and multiply.  Life is good, but that does not limit the purpose of life to being fruitful and reproducing.  God created life because it is good.  Existence implies goodness, but does not say how or why it is good.  Goodness is found cooperation to acheive mutual goals.   

I am giving you a reference a special National Science Foundation report entitled Take One for the Team.  http://www.nsf.gov/news/special_reports/fibr/team.jsp

This study indicates that mutualism is the driving force in evolutionary system, not conflict.


Barry - #37813

October 31st 2010

Roger

“What you say is true.  God did command all creatures to be fruitful and multiply.  Life is good, but that does not limit the purpose of life to being fruitful and reproducing.  God created life because it is good.  Existence implies goodness, but does not say how or why it is good.  Goodness is found cooperation to acheive mutual goals.”

Why did 99% of God’s creations become extinct?


Roger A. Sawtelle - #37897

November 1st 2010

Barry: Why did 99% of God’s creations become extinct?

Response:  Because “extinction” is part of creation.  You seem to think that extinction is an end, but most times it is not.  There are multiple extinct species of humans, who made possible our existence and live in and through us.  So it is with all species. 

God’s creation is a process, not an end.  Life is a process, not an end or a result.  Ecology points to this process much better than neoDarwinism, because it points to the fact that not only life forms have evolved in this planet, but the planet as a physical environment has “evolved” in dramatic and basic ways in concert with biological change.  That is why life forms change and grow out of the old. 

Barry, you are still caught up in linear, two dimensional, western dualistic thinking.


Roger A. Sawtelle - #38723

November 5th 2010

I would like to add one more statement as to how ecological evolution differs from the Darwinian view.  Darwinian evolution is based on random genetic change and natural selection by conflict, in other words it is based on disorder.  Darwin called it aptly “war.”  It tries to explain order by disorder.

The Creation is caused by God bringing order and life, which God called “good,” out of chaos or disorder, that is not good.  The Greeks called the universe “cosmos” or order, and created philosophy to explore this order.  For theology, philosophy, and science the universe is basically orderly.  Disorder, such as sin, is an aberration.

For Darwin and Darwinism, disorder is the force driving evolution and atomistic life forms.  Thus life is basically without order, purpose, and meaning.  Ecology looks at life and evolution from the opposite direction.  Ecology sees evolution as working out all the diverse possibilities of life in the multifaceted biosphere of the planet earth in an interactive interdependent manner.  Ecology provides order to life even though it is not in the static form the Greeks sought through their invention of Being.  It is the kind of order YHWH brings to God’s people through covenants and history.


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