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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chip - #34797

October 15th 2010

Hi Randy,

DNA and computer code information: same or different?

The same.  You say, “If a living cell reproduces, it functions—otherwise it dies.”  Of course.  And in exactly the same way, if code compiles, it functions—otherwise it throws an exception.  How are these substantively different?  Bottom line:  any such system—be it biological or technological—is ultimately validated by the fact that it has to work

What are the chances of a random command actually coding for an actual function in a computer?

Answer:  miniscule, at best.  I don’t have nearly the level of faith required to believe otherwise.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #34813

October 15th 2010

R Hampton,

Thank you for referring me to this article.  It is most informative.  It seems to me if you read the whole article that there is a definite split in modern evolutionary biologists between the neoDarwinists who support Dawkins’ anti-ecological position, which is very clearly documented and those who support a view closer to mine, which includes niche constructionism.

Now the article says that a majority of the European scientists supported Dawkins.  If modern evolutionary biology equals Dawkins who opposes ecology, how can you say that modern evolutionary accepts ecology as part of its understanding of evolution?

If you want to say that some evolutionary biologists accept ecology as part of evolution, that seems to be true, but it no way means that my criticism of Dawkins and neoDarwinism is invalid.  My criticism is the same as that of the niche constructionists, and is based on science.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #34814

October 15th 2010

Part 2

While we are on the topic of Dawkins’ “extended phenotype”, have you noticed that his emphasis in the importance of genes and their role in behavior downgrades the importance of the brain?  One of the examples in the news article is the building of birds’ nests.  Do genes control the building of nests or are they somehow learned activities as are many animal activities?

Dawkins and Dennett seem to want to prove that genes control all behavior, not the brain.  Dawkins has written that our genes control us, not we control ourselves.  Is this what neoDarwinistic evolutionary biologists really believe?  If our brains are controlled by our genes, why do we need education?

nedbrek - #34816

October 15th 2010

Roger, have you read “Selfish Gene”?  There, Dawkins makes it pretty clear that the construction of a brain with the ability to learn is a function of genes, thus “genes are responsible”.  That’s all he means by it.

Chris Massey - #34826

October 15th 2010

Roger wrote,

” Life forms compete by cooperating.  What they need to say is that life forms adapt to survive by cooperating, by working together for a mutual goal of mutual welfare, benefit, and survival. “

I’m afraid I don’t agree with this.

The article R Hampton linked was right on point. The discussion of beaver dams made the case well. One can imagine an allele that not only benefited the beaver, but had spin-off benefits for other species. BUT, the benefit for the other species is incidental and basically irrelevant to evolution. Nature has no way of preferring such alleles over purely selfish alleles. Unless some benefit is actually felt by the beaver, his reproductive success will be no greater than average. Selfish genes (since we’re quoting Dawkins) are far more likely to drive evolutionary change. An allele whose benefit is felt only by another species will only increase in frequency within the population through genetic drift.

October 16th 2010

IMHO Richard Dawkins is an idiot.
But of course I mean that in a nice way.

Barry - #34890

October 16th 2010

Roger A. Sawtelle - #34672

“Karl Popper criticized neoDarwinism as being a tautology, because survival = fitness and fitness = survival.  No one has been able to answer this criticism…”

That’s because Popper was wrong. And you have misunderstood his original claims to assume within species selection rather than speciation.

Still, the one one good thing about Popper is that when he realized he was wrong he published his change of mind. “I have changed my mind about the testability and logical status of the theory of natural selection; and I am glad to have an opportunity to make a recantation”

By the way Roger, I clicked through to your website. Could you define what you think is the difference between “environment” and “ecology” as a pressure influencing natural selection? You make so many basic errors in what you think evolution is (not surprising when you are not a scientist), that it might be helpful just to clear up this major misunderstanding, particularly because you seem to mention it on every thread where you comment.

Barry - #34891

October 16th 2010

“It is almost easier to assume that DNA was created in the laboratory by some intelligent being.”

conrad, we call arguments like this “personal incredulity”. The fact that it is easier for you to imagine an “intelligent creator” (wonder who that might be?) doesn’t mean that happened. That’s why it is important to do the science. Here are the papers that explain how and why the chemistry works…
- Mott ML, Berger JM (2007). “DNA replication initiation: mechanisms and regulation in bacteria”. Nat. Rev. Microbiol. 5 (5): 343–54
- Kelman LM, Kelman Z (2004). “Multiple origins of replication in archaea”. Trends Microbiol. 12 (9): 399–401
- Nasheuer HP, Smith R, Bauerschmidt C, Grosse F, Weisshart K (2002). “Initiation of eukaryotic DNA replication: regulation and mechanisms”. Prog. Nucleic Acid Res. Mol. Biol. 72: 41–94
- Baker TA, Wickner SH (1992). “Genetics and enzymology of DNA replication in Escherichia coli”. Annual Review of Genetics 26: 447–77

Let me know what you think when you’ve read them.

Barry - #34893

October 16th 2010

“Chandra Wicksramasingh is an astrophysicist who claims 13.7 billion years is not enough time for ‘evolution” to do all that.”

You mean “Wickramasinghe”. This is the problem when you reference a Prof. of Applied Math and Astronomy as your authority on DNA replication.  conrad, can you explain the assumptions that Wickramasinghe made in his calculation? It’s a pretty basic error, I just wondered if you knew what it was. This is very similar to the argument creationists use when they claim that evolution could not produce all the variation we see on earth today. Is that your argument also? I ask because I’m trying to work out whether it’s just the math that is the problem, or the rate and pace of evolutionary change that you don’t understand.

Barry - #34894

October 16th 2010

Bilbo - #34654

“Compare this to computer code.  What are the chances of a random command actually coding for an actual function in a computer?  And if the computer doesn’t function, then it won’t survive, just as a cell won’t survive.

So computer code and DNA code are the same.”

Bilbo, didn’t you read the opening post? Particularly this section near the end.

“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.”

Can you deal with this and tell us why Randy Isaac is wrong?

Roger A. Sawtelle - #34895

October 16th 2010

Chris,

The problem with your thinking is that you have the cart before the horse.  Change in life forms comes primarily because of change in the environment, not change in genes.  The dinosaurs became extinct and mammals became dominant, not because their genes changed, but because of climate change that put dinosaurs at a disadvantage, took away their habitat. and created more niches and habitats suitable for mammals.

Environment change produces species change, ehich in turn can create new niches for new life forms.  Ecology rules.

I expect that you are familar with zero and nonzero sum game theory.  It demonstrates that when people cooperate, and work together, life is a nonzero sum game and everyone benefits, but when people act selfishly and try to get as much as they can, the total of the benefits is greatly reduced.

Many people have a hard time learning this lesson.  In nature it seems that life forms “know” it instinctively and that is what symbiosis is all about.  The apple tree produces many more seeds than it needs to reproduce.  Humans and other animals benefit from eating the fruit and also help scatter the seeds so they have a better change to germinate.  Humans also cultivate the trees.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #34896

October 16th 2010

Part 2

Life forms are not selfish or altruistic in any human, conscious way, but they exist in an interdependent ecological system where species and individuals interact normally for mutual benefit.  An important word here is mutual, which avoids the false dualism of selfish and altruistic.  Life is about working with others for mutual goals that help everyone.  That is also what love is about, not selfishness. Life is not Darwinism and Dawkins.  Life is ecology and common sense.

Nedbrek, I have read the Selfish Gene and the other books that Dawkins has written.  If you have read them then you are aware that he says that behavior is controled by “memes” and memes are controlled by genes.  There is no place for a thinking brain in this process.

Cal,

I do not agree with Richard Dawkins, but I know that one thing he is not and that is an idiot.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #34899

October 16th 2010

Barry #34890

Thank you for your comment.  I quote the statement of Popper that you reference in my book.

I am afraid that the issue is not as simple as you indicate.  John Horgan, who interviewed Popper at the end of his life, reported that Popper was still upset by the fact that natural selection, & that specifically was the problem, was nonfalsiable.  On the other hand he could not deny that evolution is a certifiable fact and at that time Darwinism was the only scientific explaination.  Ecology had not burst onto the scene to offer a scientific alternative explanation.  Also he was impressed with the fact that it seems to explain how organisms developed resistance to penecillin.

I think that Popper recanted (a strange word for a scientist) & called it a good HYPOTHESIS (meaning that it was not scientifically proven) not because he was convinced he was wrong, but he could not explain why he was right, based on the apparent success of Darwinism.  Now we can say that evolution is true, but Darwinian natural selection is bogus.  Ecological evolution is the answer that P needed.

Environment is the thing.  Ecology is the study of the thing.  Ecology also can be used for process behind the thing.

Rich - #34904

October 16th 2010

Bilbo, Barry:

I’m not competent to enter into a technical discussion about computer science and DNA, but there is a new book out by someone who appears to know a bit about it, and might be relevant to your discussion.

The author is Don Johnson, and apparently he has Ph.D.s in both Computer Science and Chemistry, earned from respectable state universities.  He has written a new book, The Programming of Life, which is now available from Amazon, and which has (so far) three very positive reviews.

I haven’t read the book and cannot comment, but it seems right on the topic of this thread.

http://www.amazon.com/Programming-Life-Donald-E-Johnson/dp/0982355467/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1287237179&sr=8-1

Larry - #34912

October 16th 2010

The very first “positive comment” of that book on Amazon contains the completely absurd statement “the author points out that all human organs previously thought to be vestigial are now known to have functions—at the molecular level this means there is no “junk DNA”.” This is standard creationist nonsense that has been refuted over and over again, even by creationists who know what they are talking about. It’s quiet clear that whatever his qualifications Mr Johnson isn’t “competent to enter into a technical discussion about DNA” either.

Rich - #34916

October 16th 2010

Larry:

Like many commenters here, your idea of “research” is apparently looking up something quickly on the internet, reading it hurriedly, giving it two minutes’ thought, then racing back to some web site to announce your opinion.

Did it occur to you that maybe “the author” made only the point about human vestigial organs, and that the *reviewer* added an interpretive gloss about junk DNA?  I would want to look at what the author says before assuming the reviewer has correctly rendered the argument of the author on that point.  Enthusiastic reviewers have been known to turn ideas of an author in the direction of points they want to make themselves.  So I would not condemn Johnson, in advance of reading him, on the basis of what might be just a sloppily expressed fusion of report and opinion.

But it’s nothing new for people on this site to condemn on hearsay books they haven’t read, so I’m not surprised at your reaction.

Bilbo - #34926

October 16th 2010

@Barry - #34894

Can you deal with this and tell us why Randy Isaac is wrong?

I thought I did when I wrote:  “  And if the computer doesn’t function, then it won’t survive, just as a cell won’t survive.

Perhaps I should have put scare quotes around “survive,” though.  We could continue to produce computers that don’t function.  But nobody would buy them.

Barry - #34941

October 16th 2010

Roger A. Sawtelle - #34899

“I think that Popper recanted (a strange word for a scientist)”

Popper wasn’t a scientist Roger, he was a philosopher of science.

“Popper was still upset by the fact that natural selection, & that specifically was the problem, was nonfalsiable”

Roger, this is completely wrong. Popper’s concern wasn’t that the theory of evolution was “unfalsifiable”, but that it still didn’t explain everything and he exhorted scientists to “go on looking”. However, regardless of what you think Popper said, we know what it would take to falsify the theory of evolution, so this is a moot point.

“(Popper) called it a good HYPOTHESIS (meaning that it was not scientifically proven)”

Science doesn’t deal in “proof” Roger. It never has and never will. What do you mean by “not scientifically proven”?

“Now we can say that evolution is true, but Darwinian natural selection is bogus”

That’s what you say Roger, but you’re not a scientist. We know a lot more now about what Darwin got right and wrong. No serious biologist dismisses natural selection. I suggest you publish your academic paper and confound all of them.

Barry - #34943

October 16th 2010

Roger A. Sawtelle - #34899

“Ecological evolution is the answer that P needed.”

Roger, I’ve tried hard to understand what you mean by ecology in relationship to evolution. What you refer to as “ecology” is well attested to in evolution. In post 34895 you claim “The dinosaurs became extinct and mammals became dominant, not because their genes changed, but because of climate change that put dinosaurs at a disadvantage, took away their habitat. and created more niches and habitats suitable for mammals.”

There is so much wrong in this statement. Genetic change and environmental change both create evolutionary pressure. Genetic mutations that confer selective benefit accumulate in the population and over time enable organisms to adapt to subtle changes in the environment. If beneficial adaptations don’t occur the organism can become extinct. If the environment changes too quickly for the organisms to adapt they will become extinct, or migrate to more favorable environments.

This is so well understood by evolutionary biolgy. It is nothing new.

Rock - #34951

October 16th 2010

Contrary to what the author asserts about the unbounded growth or change in information and the complexity of information, each theory that he refers to deals with constraints, limits, bounds on information processing.
Shannon, e.g., states that the fundamental problem of communications is the reproduction of information with arbitrary precision or fidelity. Fidelity represents a real constraint upon information processing.
Why is fidelity a problem?
How is fidelity related to “specificity,” “functionality,” and to all to semantics?
Do IDers have a theory of semantics?
I didn’t think so.
Maybe due to some confusion, as the author mentions. But there seems to be a lot of that going around.

I would appreciate any information the author has supporting the contended statements.

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