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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Barry - #34969

October 16th 2010

Bilbo - #34926

“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.”

But if you are equating DNA to computer code, it isn’t computers you are producing, but code that might form computers, or at least provide specified instructions. And that is why the analogy doesn’t work.

So you haven’t dealt with the disparity at all. You’ve just continued to reiterate a failed analogy and not explained why Randy Isaac is wrong.

I also wanted to highlight this comment - “What are the chances of a random command actually coding for an actual function in a computer?” from your ealier post. How, exactly, does probability help you in the discussion of DNA replication?


Roger A. Sawtelle - #34989

October 16th 2010

Barry #34943

Thank you for your patience.

“There is so much wrong in this statement.” 

If you think that I must represent what happened in the extinction of the dinosaurs, please explain. 

“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.” 

You state that “genetic change and environmental change both create evolutionary pressure,” but you statement indicates otherwise.  You indicate that genetic mutations enable organisms to adapt to the environment, putting the engine for change on these mutations.  Do they occur by chance independent of the environment?  Or do they indeed take place in response to the opportunities present in the environment?  Again does dry land produce animals suited for it, or do animals suited for dry land rise out of the water when the land becomes dry?


Roger A. Sawtelle - #34990

October 16th 2010

Then you say, “If beneficial (genetic) adaptions don’t occur….”  Again the emphasis is put on genetic change.  Only if environmental changes come to quickly are there evolutionary consequences, and that is purely negative, extinction. 

In other words the environmental aspect of evolution that you describe is at best superficial and does not correspond the the claim that ecology has been integrated into modern evolutionary thought, such as found in Niche Construction Theory Also it indicates that you do not understand the Gaia Theory of James Lovelock, which is the heart of modern ecology as much as Darwin and Dawkins are at the heart of neoDarwinian thought.

Dawkins emphatically opposes Lovelock.  If you do not understand his ideas you can not say that you understand ecology, why it is important to the climate change crisis, and how it is different from Darwinism.


conrad - #34993

October 16th 2010

Barry,
Sorry I almost missed your comments.

I don’t know how Wickramasinghe did his calculations.

“Personal incredulity” is a nice mouth-filling phrase and I feel proud to have earned it,.. [especially without even having been aware I was accomplishing such feats!]

I must be even smarter than I thought I was.

I will try to be more alert on replying to you on the next blog.
Your challenges are well worth a reply, and I appreciate your interest.


Barry - #34998

October 17th 2010

Roger A. Sawtelle - #34989

” Do they occur by chance independent of the environment?  Or do they indeed take place in response to the opportunities present in the environment?”

Genes can’t see the environment Roger. They are completely blind to it. When the DNA of both parents combine and the proteins that code for genetic functionality form, this replication is not perfect. The frameshift in gene sequence is what produces mutations. Most mutations are irrelevant, conferring no advantage, some are deliterious and few of these organisms will survive, some might confer selective advantage for the environment. As these organisms survive and thrive their genes become more populous.

When the wings of peppered moths changed in the C19th it wasn’t in response to the environment. The mutation that produced slightly darker wings just didn’t confer selective advantage prior to industrialization - those moths would have been easier prey for birds and their survival was limited. When the environment changed these mutations conferred cumulative advantage. But the environment had zero influence over gene mutation.

Is that clear?


Barry - #35000

October 17th 2010

Roger A. Sawtelle - #34990

“Then you say, “If beneficial (genetic) adaptions don’t occur….”  Again the emphasis is put on genetic change.  Only if environmental changes come to quickly are there evolutionary consequences, and that is purely negative, extinction.”

Roger, genetic mutations can produce important advantages and lead to changes in organisms even when the physical envornment is static. That’s how sexual selection works. It is also how predators influence selection. So getting all hot and bothered about the environment (a term you unhelpfully use interchangeable with “ecology” (without ever defining their meaning I notice) makes no sense.

And Roger, “niche contruction” has yet to be shown as different in form and function from an organism’s phenotype. It’s such a fringe area of biology that I have to wonder why you seem to have latched onto it so quickly? Maybe you like it simply because it is counter to Dawkins view. Your problem, however, is that it is also counter to the view of pretty much everyone except the original paper’s authors. Can you explain to me how niche construction is different from phenotype function?


Barry - #35005

October 17th 2010

Roger A. Sawtelle - #34990

“Also it indicates that you do not understand the Gaia Theory of James Lovelock, which is the heart of modern ecology as much as Darwin and Dawkins are at the heart of neoDarwinian thought.”

Roger, I know the Gaia Theory very well. I couldn’t care less whether you think it contradicts Dawkins or not (and I know he and Gould did criticize the theory)  - and you really must stop bringing him up. So, I have a question for you. Please explain, in scientific terms, the mechnism that apparently closely integrates the biosphere with the atmosphere, cryosphere, hydrosphere and lithosphere? Please tell me how you would test this apparent linkage and what predictions the existence (if any) this linkage would enable you to make? I assume you’ve read Kirchner? I also assume you think he was wrong? Why was he wrong when testing showed all of the conditions for “strong” Gaia failed?

And what on earth (sic) has this to do with “information” in DNA?


Chris Massey - #35023

October 17th 2010

Roger,

I see that others have taken up the mantle of knocking your ideas around. So I won’t repeat much of what has been said.

I’m left wondering how exactly you think life evolves. I know you think ecology is key, but how does it do it? By what mechanism? Surely you don’t think that a species can undergo evolutionary change without a change to its genes. I assume you think that gene change is involved. But do you posit that the environment somehow determines which genetic mutations occur, brining about mutations that benefit the whole ecological system (rather than just sifting out the winners and losers after-the-fact as per natural selection)? If so, how does the environment do this?


sy - #35062

October 17th 2010

The problem is the origin of the genetic code. It is certainly possible for RNA based forms of life to develop without a designer, but the genetic code is a symbolic form of information that could not arise spontaneously. I will be happy to post references if requested, and when I have more time.

What is interesting is that life without a code could arise, and evolve through a form of selection, but the kind of life that we actually have (which can evolve into us) requires the additional complexity provided by the huge diversity of proteins that are encoded by a DNA based set of genes. It is the transition from simple ribozyme based replication and catalysis to code based translation that is difficult, if not impossible to ascribe to selection alone.

BUT, with the formation of a genotype phenotype linkage through a genetic code and translation machinery, all is possible via selection.


Barry - #35085

October 17th 2010

sy - #35062

“...the genetic code is a symbolic form of information that could not arise spontaneously.”

Are you using “symbolic” in the sense that Isaac describes above (in which case the sentence is meaningless), or in some other sense? And who is saying the genetic code arose “spontaneously”?

“What is interesting is that life without a code could arise, and evolve through a form of selection…”

But we are dealing with reality, not speculation. We know DNA exists and we know how it controls genetic function. We also know which proteins are involved and in what sequence, and pretty much what they trigger.

” It is the transition from simple ribozyme based replication and catalysis to code based translation that is difficult, if not impossible to ascribe to selection alone.”

It’s a difficult area, no doubt. But the fact that this can’t yet be fully explained does not justify the term “impossible” or your inclusion of the term “alone”. What else, other than natural selection, do you think might be involved?


Bilbo - #35109

October 17th 2010

Barry - #34969

But if you are equating DNA to computer code, it isn’t computers you are producing, but code that might form computers, or at least provide specified instructions. And that is why the analogy doesn’t work.

Randy:  “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.

I guess I don’t understand Randy’s distinction.  If a computer isn’t fed information that corresponds to its code, it cannot process it, and doesn’t function.  If a cell isn’t fed information that corresponds to its code, it cannot process it, and doesn’t function.  What’s the difference?

cont.


Bilbo - #35110

October 17th 2010

Barry - #34969 cont.

I also wanted to highlight this comment - “What are the chances of a random command actually coding for an actual function in a computer?” from your ealier post. How, exactly, does probability help you in the discussion of DNA replication?

Just as getting meaningful computer code by random processes is highly unlikely, so getting meaningful DNA by random processes is highly unlikely.  So originating DNA is highly unlikely.  Replicating DNA, given all the proper cellular machinery, is highly likely.  Getting new meaningful DNA by randomly mutating previous DNA…is another question.


Barry - #35115

October 17th 2010

Bilbo - #35109

“What’s the difference?”

Computer code doesn’t self-replicate…it can be programmed to copy, requiring an intelligent agent, whereas cells do not.


Barry - #35116

October 17th 2010

Bilbo - #35110

“Just as getting meaningful computer code by random processes is highly unlikely, so getting meaningful DNA by random processes is highly unlikely.  So originating DNA is highly unlikely.  Replicating DNA, given all the proper cellular machinery, is highly likely”

Don’t know what you mean by “meaningful”. In what sense isn’t DNA replication “random”? And given the regularity and predictability of the fact of replication, what do you mean by “unlikely”? What do you mean by “originating”? Other than natural means, what other testable explanation for the origin of DNA would you suggest?


Barry - #35117

October 17th 2010

sy - #35062

“BUT, with the formation of a genotype phenotype linkage through a genetic code and translation machinery, all is possible via selection.”

Sorry - I overlooked this comment. It explains the concern I raised in my previous questions. Thanks.


Bilbo - #35119

October 17th 2010

Barry:  “Computer code doesn’t self-replicate…it can be programmed to copy, requiring an intelligent agent, whereas cells do not.

But that’s begging the question, isn’t it?

Don’t know what you mean by “meaningful”.

Functional.

In what sense isn’t DNA replication “random”? And given the regularity and predictability of the fact of replication, what do you mean by “unlikely”?

Your second question seems to answer your first.

What do you mean by “originating”?

Going from a state of no DNA to a state of at least some DNA.

Other than natural means, what other testable explanation for the origin of DNA would you suggest?

So far, all natural explanations fail the test.  The most reasonable explanation seems to me to be ID.  Whether that is “testable” I wouldn’t know and wouldn’t care.  I care about being rational, not “scientific.”


Roger A. Sawtelle - #35151

October 18th 2010

Barry and Chris,

I see that we are talking past each other to some extent, in large part because this medium does not encourage the presentation of my position in a coherent manner. 

In my understanding of Darwin’s concept of evolution it consists of two interdependent aspects.  The first is the existence of variations, now generally seen as genetic mutations. The second is natural selection by which a variation is selected to survive or not. 

I have not really questioned the first gentic aspect of the process, except to question its dominance,  even though you seem to think that I have.  My basic problem with Darwin’s idea is how natural selection works?  You say it seems that if a genetic mutation gives an organism an evolutionary advantage, then it survives and flourishes.


Roger A. Sawtelle - #35153

October 18th 2010

Part 2

Okay, but what is an evolutionary advantage?  The most obvious one is the enhanced ability to catch a prey or to avoid capture by a predator.  This evolutionary “advantage” also would seem to be an enhanced adaption to the environment, so the question arises as to whether evolutionary advantage and better adaption to the environment are not the same thing.  I would say yes. 

In terms of the moth as you said the genetic change was necessary to produce necessary to change the color from white to grey, but is the reason why this change was evolutionary advantageous was because the change in the environment, then both aspects were necessary and NATURAL SELECTION was based clearly on a ecological basis, where the moth adjusted and adapted to its environment to flourish and survive.

Darwinists tend to fixate on prey and predator when talking about natural selection, but that is not a good illustration, because prey and predators are not competitors for survival.  The predator needs the prey to survive and the prey benefits from the control of the population provided by the predator and both are vital to the efficient working of the ecology.  Survival is based on niche & adaption to habitat, not conflict.


Roger A. Sawtelle - #35154

October 18th 2010

Part 3
Dawkins at the end of his book Climbing Mt. Improbable describes the very improbably complex symbiotic relationship between a species of fig trees and wasps.  Both the wasps and the trees are necessary for the survival of each other, but each has to give up a biological advantage to adjust to the other and make this relationship work.

This is the miracle of life that even Bro. Dawkins acknowledges and it is based on both genetic and ecological interaction.  I stress ecology more because that is the point I am trying to make concerning Natural Selection.  You stress genetic variation more because that is the basis of traditional biology, but the reality is IMHO that both are essential.  You can’t have one without the other.  Genetics proposes and ecological natural selection disposes.

Now Barry brought up the topic of sexual selection and leave it up to sex to mess up scientific theories.  If we are agreed that the evolutionary purpose of sex is to produce more variation and thus the possibility of more genetic change subject to ecological natural selection, then I think that this can be explained.


Barry - #35156

October 18th 2010

Roger A. Sawtelle - #35151

“...this medium does not encourage the presentation of my position in a coherent manner.”

With due respect Roger I don’t think it is the medium that is the problem. You just have to lay out your idea from beginning to end. If it isn’t making sense it isn’t the medium that’s the problem.

“I have not really questioned the first gentic aspect of the process, except to question its dominance…”

“dominance” isn’t a word I understand in this context Roger. Dominant over what? Another way of creating variation that isn’t genetic? Before you presume what you think that we think you have said, why don’t you tell us exactly what you think happens to produce genetic variation? Just lay it out.

“My basic problem with Darwin’s idea is how natural selection works?  You say it seems that if a genetic mutation gives an organism an evolutionary advantage, then it survives and flourishes.”

We know a lot more about natural selection now than Darwin did Roger, so it’s probably a good idea to get a little more up-to-date before throwing any criticisms of natural selecetion around. I answered your question in #34998 and 35000. Why do you ask questions I’ve already answered?


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