# Science and the Question of God, Part 4

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.

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.

### View the archived discussion of this post

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R Hampton - #35851

October 22nd 2010

Roger A. Sawtelle,
Natural selection isn’t random. No where in evolutionary theory (Darwinism or neo-Darwinism) will you find such a claim.

Barry - #35994

October 23rd 2010

Roger
“we are discussing Darwinian Natural Selection, rather the whole process of evolution?”

What are you trying to do Roger? Ignore the last 160 yrs of scientific discovery and attack a strawman? The fact that you are pretty clueless about evolutionary biology is obvious, so how would I know what you think “Darwinian natural selection” is? The reason I ask is because this statement - “Third, you have failed to say how the astroid hit that caused the mass extinction of the dinosaurs can be placed into the Darwinian understanding of natural selection.” - is so mindcrushingly silly, that I wouldn’t know where to begin. Who said it was an asteroid? How do you know it was an asteroid? And even if it was an asteroid, how is this problematic for evolution?

Barry - #35995

October 23rd 2010

Roger

““suggested that your comments did not reflect current knowledge about the environment and ecology.  Particularly because I am the non-scientist, I do not think that it is my place to lecture you about the basics of ecological theory and world view.”

Roger, when you suggest that my comments don’t “relect current knowledge about the environment and ecology” you ARE lecturing me. Unfortunately it is you that doesn’t understand how these are different as evidenced by the fact you use the terms interchangeably and incorrectly. Tell me how any of your interpretations of these terms changes what we already know about evolution?

“(See River Out of Eden, p 133)  If I am wrong, then please provide a reference of your own.”

I do understand Dawkins’ meme theory Roger. Show me exactly where he discounts “learning”.

Barry - #35996

October 23rd 2010

Roger

“Roger: “I maintain that the facts support the niche construction theory.”

Barry: You haven’t presented a single “fact” Roger. But by all means maintain it.

Response:  Dawkins did not provide a single fact to support his views in the article provided.”

Roger, do you see a problem with your line of reasoning here?  You claimed that “facts” supported your view of niche construction. I pointed out you hadn’t stated any facts. Rather than provide me with those facts you allege that Dawkins din’t provide any facts to support his views either.

Do you at least begin to understand why scientists get tired of people who pretend to know what they don’t know?

Roger A. Sawtelle - #36526

October 26th 2010

“R Hampton - #35697
October 21st 2010

Roger A. Sawtelle,
Exactly. And how does the environment select? By simply existing.

Consider our bodies - every moment it naturally selects against parasites, viruses, etc. without having any intent to do so other than to rid itself of these pests. Some of these unwanted individuals will have genetic advantages that allow them survive, even thrive, in our bodies. As such, our bodies also inadvertently select for successful invaders, but there is no design.”

You rightly compare the body’s immune system to natural selection, but you say that the immune system selects for & against invaders, inadvertently, not by design.  My point is that this non-random natural selection is exactly what the immune system is designed to do.  That is its function and purpose.  Without it no life form can live.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #36528

October 26th 2010

Part 2

How can the immune system work of selection be inadvertent?  It cannot.  Neither can the work of natural selection be random.  That the existence of symbiotic bacteria in the gut of people living in a culture with a specific diet is a matter of chance is not accurate, even though genetic change does have a random aspect.  It is an adaption to an environment as you have indicated & thus is part of the great ecological design of the biosphere.

Barry - #36721

October 26th 2010

Roger - #36526

” My point is that this non-random natural selection is exactly what the immune system is designed to do.  That is its function and purpose.  Without it no life form can live.”

Roger, the immune system isn’t “designed’ to perform that function, it adapted to be able to form that function. The organisms that evolved that function clearly had higher suvival rates and the genes propagated. There was no “design” anywhere. Without that adaptation we wouldn’t be having this “conversation.”

Barry - #36724

October 26th 2010

Roger - #36528

“That the existence of symbiotic bacteria in the gut of people living in a culture with a specific diet is a matter of chance is not accurate, even though genetic change does have a random aspect”

I don’t think R Hampton used the word “chance” Roger. He described genetic mutation as “random”, meaning unpredictable. We know how frameshift in gene replication takes place. It is random. But you do understand that this is different from saying adaptations occur by “chance”?

“It is an adaption to an environment as you have indicated & thus is part of the great ecological design of the biosphere.”

The first part of this sentence is exactly right, but there is no “ecological design of the biosphere”, whatever that means. You should have said “It is an adaptation to the environment” and stopped there. Nothing else is needed.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #36928

October 27th 2010

Barry #36724

I don’t think R Hampton used the word “chance” Roger. He described genetic mutation as “random”, meaning unpredictable. We know how frameshift in gene replication takes place. It is random. But you do understand that this is different from saying adaptations occur by “chance”?

“It is an adaption to an environment as you have indicated & thus is part of the great ecological design of the biosphere.”

The first part of this sentence is exactly right, but there is no “ecological design of the biosphere”, whatever that means. You should have said “It is an adaptation to the environment” and stopped there. Nothing else is needed.

Response: You are talking apples and oranges again.  I repeat, there are two aspects to the evolution process, genetic variation and natural selection.  You are confusing the two by making it one.  Genetic change is primarily by chance.  OK.  Natural selection is not by chance, to which R. Hampton agrees, but instead says that it is inadvertent, or accidental, which seems to be a form of random chance.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #36929

October 27th 2010

Part 2

If natural selection does not take place by random chance, what is the basis for it?  What determines whether a life form is selected in or out?  Your point of view seems to be that adaption to the environment is the basis for selection.  I agree, but lo and behold you do not want the science of environment, that is ecology, included in how we understand how natural selection and evolution work.

You want to continue the old tautology, it happens because it happens; it happens because of adaption and because of adaption it happens.  In other words you are taking reason and rationality out of evolution.  Everything just happens through the magic of adaption without any further explanation whatsoever.  This is what physicalists want people to believe, there is not intellectual basis to reality, there are no natural laws, just inadvertant patterns of nature.

It is like saying that I open the door by turning the key in the lock, not because I know that the key fits the lock, but because I have been conditioned to do this by adaptional memes which control my behavior.

R Hampton - #37032

October 27th 2010

It is like saying that I open the door by turning the key in the lock, not because I know that the key fits the lock, but because I have been conditioned to do this by adaptional memes which control my behavior.

Life is replete with examples of genetic (non-learned) behaviors that developed through evolution. Yes, initially it’s a random act. But then comes the reward which, presumably, benefits the “unlockee”. The genes that prompted this behavior are passed on to it’s offspring who also have this “urge” to put keys into locks and reap the rewards, and so on… I imagine certain aspects of sexual reproduction evolved in line with this key/lock scenario.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #37131

October 28th 2010

R. Hampton,

I am glad that we are agreed on the lock and key analogy.  For me the lock is an environmental issue important to the flourishing of a life form, while the key is an potential response or adaption to solve this problem.  Thus the lock on the door to my abode is important to keep unwanted persons out while the key allows me and my family access.  The problem of safety and access is an important environmental problem that is solved in part by the key and lock.

Now one place where we disagree is that you do not think that it is important to understand how the lock and key work, just the fact that it does work.  As I have said, science is in the business of finding out how things work, not just describing is a general way that they work.  Thus we ned to understand our environment and how it works to best work within that environment.  The old pollution creating days and ways must stop if the biosphere is to survive.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #37133

October 28th 2010

Part 2

The other place where we disagree and one of my points before is that you put all the emphasis on genes which both generate behavior & pass on behavior to offspring.  That seems to go against what science has learned about the ability of animals to learn.  It seems that the act of birds flying south in N. America is a learned behavior, not a genetically programed behavior.  We know that some apes have learned to make tools and teach their offspring how to use them.

Thus it is clear that the genes do not control all behavior.  Animals are able to learn from experience and from observing their elders.  This is especially true of humans who are also evolved creatures, but not limited to them.  Humans also can think through problems and issues so they are not limited to trial and error problem solving, which seems to be the Darwinist method.

The example of sex is an interesting one.  We can say that sexual reproduction is very important to the evolutionary development of life on earth, however it is hard to see what benefit it has for the individual.  It seems to me that it is a good example of where the long term needs of the biosphere override the short term benefits to the individual.

R Hampton - #37212

October 28th 2010

Roger,
1. Science does work to understand why the key/lock works as it does, but it is not necessary for the organism or the environment to know that (and how could it?) House cats have an insatiable urge to investigate small spaces, crevices, and the like even if raised in a pest free home by cats similarly reared. The instinct is strong because it was naturally selected and conserved over thousands - its a tremendous advantage in hunting rodents. Thus the tamed house cat who never crosses the path of a mouse or vole may never know why its compelled to act as it does.

2. Of course animals do learn, but that does not argue against the fact that genetically programmed behaviors exist or that they evolved.

3. The (genetic/biological) goal of all life is to live long enough to reproduce viable offspring, and sex indeed benefits individual. By mating with another, its offspring will retain half of its genetic legacy, while acquiring new genes. The result is that the offspring’s genome is more adaptable while the accumulation of harmful mutations (compared to similar asexual species) is actually reduced. These findings have been documented in the lab and the field.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #37307

October 29th 2010

R. Hampton 3. The (genetic/biological) goal of all life is to live long enough to reproduce viable offspring, and sex indeed benefits individual. By mating with another, its offspring will retain half of its genetic legacy, while acquiring new genes. The result is that the offspring’s genome is more adaptable while the accumulation of harmful mutations (compared to similar asexual species) is actually reduced. These findings have been documented in the lab and the field.

Response:  On what basis do you make the statement that the goal of life is to live long enough to produce viable offspring?  If this is a genetic/biological goal, are there any other kinds of goals of life?  Since this goal is not rational, does this mean that life is irrational?

While science knows that sex benefits the species, and the ecology, but not necessarily the individual, how can the gene know this?  Again the system works by a rational design, but those involved do not have to think.  An automobile engine works by a rational design, even though it is unable to think.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #37310

October 29th 2010

Part 2

R. Hampton 2. Of course animals do learn, but that does not argue against the fact that genetically programmed behaviors exist or that they evolved.

Response:  The argument is not against the fact that genetically programmed behaviors exist, but that your statements and the statements of Dawkins, etc., put the emphasis exclusively on the genetic basis of behavior, including Dawkins’ statement that humans are controlled by DNA, (rather than their minds.)

As far a I can tell Dawkins has not, nor does he seem interested in developing the case for the evolution of rational behavior.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #37311

October 29th 2010

Part 3

R. Hampton 1. Science does work to understand why the key/lock works as it does, but it is not necessary for the organism or the environment to know that (and how could it?) House cats have an insatiable urge to investigate small spaces, crevices, and the like even if raised in a pest free home by cats similarly reared. The instinct is strong because it was naturally selected and conserved over thousands - its a tremendous advantage in hunting rodents. Thus the tamed house cat who never crosses the path of a mouse or vole may never know why its compelled to act as it does.

Response:  Cats may display behaviors which seems no longer evolutionary or ecologically needed.  This behavior may be genetically programmmed or not.  It is hard to say.  What is clear according to reports is that infant animals who have been saved from the wild after the death of their mothers, usually by poachers, cannot be returned to the wild after growing up because they lack survival skills, which appear to be learned.  Also there are also reports that female animals raised in captivity do not have the mothering skills humans once thought were instinctive.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #37313

October 29th 2010

Part 4
Getting back to the key and the lock.  Clearly both are important and necessary.  The key is useless if it cannot open the lock.  The lock blocks the way until it can be opened or circumvented.  While you and neoDarwinism see the key, or the genes, as most important, it seems to me that the lock is actually more important and shapes the key, not the other way around.  The species must find the right key, the right adaption to fit the lock of the environment.  Until it does so it is subject to extinction by ecological natural selection.  This is why ecological natural selection is the key to understanding evolution.

R Hampton - #37408

October 29th 2010

Response:  On what basis do you make the statement that the goal of life is to live long enough to produce viable offspring?  If this is a genetic/biological goal, are there any other kinds of goals of life?  Since this goal is not rational, does this mean that life is irrational?

If life does not reproduce viable offspring then that is the end of life. Thus it is the goal of life to sustain itself by reproducing. And yes, its a genetic goal. Certainly then can be other kinds of goals, but this is the only one common to all lifeforms (that we know of). Your assessment of it being an irrational goal, however, is an opinion and thus subjective. If you believe God is responsible for life - regardless of the mechanisms involved - then God is also responsible for giving life its goal. I would say that makes life - and in fact the entire universe - divinely rational.

R Hampton - #37412

October 29th 2010

your statements and the statements of Dawkins, etc., put the emphasis exclusively on the genetic basis of behavior

I’m not going to speak for Dawkins, but that is not at all what I believe. To go back to the house cats, certain hunting skills are learned. The mental capability is genetically inherited while the specific skills are passed on socially or by re-discovered by individual house cats. Those who acquire those skills are likely to have higher survival rates and better provide for their offspring, so a brain capable of learning hunting skills is strongly conserved by evolution.

Conversely, house cats do not “dance” or “sing” as part of their mating rituals, so they do not need a brain capable of learning dance steps or melodies. Because there is no advantage to such a mutation, if it did/does occur, there is no evolutionary pressure to conserve it over successive generations.

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