The illusion of illusion

In my last post  I looked at how the real heart of Darwinian evolutionary theory is a mental concept, comparable to the Anthropic Principle, that enables one to conceive of design witout a designer. This is what makes the theory so malleable to any actual data.

I want to  carry on with the example I was using there of the first self-replicating molecule, as it’s relatively uncomplicated to imagine. The question, you’ll remember, is whether it makes any difference (for a theist) to consider such a complex and closely specified self-replicating molecule as the work of God-as-designer, or as the work of God-as-behind-a-rational-and-scientific-fluke-of-extreme-improbability. I concluded that the only real difference is that the latter demolishes what we know about chance from the rest of science.


The improbability in this case relates directly to the basics of information theory. I think it is a well-grounded assumption that such a complexly-sequenced molecule, presumably of RNA, would not be the result of the laws of chemistry. Some biochemists, including the good Dr Fox, hint at chemical affinities between nucleotide bases. But do they seriously consider that such bonds are strong enough to be able to give rise to a specific long polymer that can self-replicate, but also weak enough that they do not hinder mutation and natural selection to produce, in time, the myriad of DNA sequences we see today?

Since, then, there is no chemical law-based reason for such a specific complex RNA molecule to arise, the sequence must contain information. The question is, what kind of information? If it arose randomly, then one can only be talking of Shannon information, the highly complex sequences that contain no necessary meaning. The genetic code, as anyone working in bioinformatics assumes, behaves as Shannon information and follows its laws.

Biologists sometimes object that the DNA code is only analogous to information, but in the Shannon sense this is just false. Their case is usually made on the basis of the chemical affinities I have mentioned (and generally in order to dismiss any spectre of intelligence). But weak material biases don’t negate, though they might degrade, Shannon information. The keyboard I’m typing on has some keys needing more stretch than others, and certain letters are in close proximity. This might affect the frequency of certain errors, or the commonness of random combinations, but it’s still Shannon information if it is transmitted (as the genetic message is) and complex (ditto).

The next question is if it is more than Shannon information. The usual ID approach is to look at the effects of the DNA code, and extrapolate back to a designer as a necessary source for the specified information. I want to take a slightly different tack and say that, by definition, specified information has a designer. If it hasn’t, there is nobody to specify it. Meaning, as such, arises from the activity of an entity capabable of conveying that meaning. As an analogy, take a random letter generator that, by chance, produces a sentence like “Darwin was right.” The probability of that is 26^16, so unlikely, but not impossible. The sentence is intelligible, but in point of fact has no meaning because no meaning was intended. So its Shannon information is real, not analogical. Its specified information, however, is not even analogical – it is pure illusion. Even if it contained the formula for a Unified Theory of Everything, ie if it were usefully functional, it would still contain no specified information, but the illusion of specified information.

You will quickly see (at least when I point it out) the parallel with the Darwinian Theory as a purely mental concept. Life (or in my example, the first self-replicating molecule) produces the illusion of design through the illusion of specified information. You will realise also that, just as the thesis of illusory design in unassailable by actual data, so illusory information is unassailable by design arguments. A fluke event might, if one chooses to interpret it that way, have produced even a complete bacterium from scratch with “nothing irrational or unscientific about it” by generating the illusion of specified information.

Let me apply that now to individual viewpoints. The naturalist, or the theist wedded to Open Theism or Process theology, who looks at our first replicating RNA molecule, will say, “There was no designer, or the designer kept his hands off and allowed his creation freedom of operation.” God did not in any sense constrain the outcome. If God happened to be pleased with the result, it’s the same situation as the reader whose computer generates “Darwin was right.” The forces of nature did not generate meaning, but the illusion of meaning which, in this case, led on up to the whole realm of life and, of course, human existence.

On the other hand, to the Directed Panspermia advocate, or the theist who believes that God willed the actual outcome, it makes absolutely no difference how he did it. Whether he frontloaded the Universe, or worked a creative miracle, or directed quantum events, or simply, in some unspecified Calvinist manner, had oversight of chance, then the Shannon information in that RNA is also truly specified. It contains real information, not illusory information. It contains genuine meaning, because God (or the aliens!) meant it to happen.

This, then, is the real metaphysical division in the world of science. It’s not between theists and atheists, or between methodological naturalists and creationists. Your worldview is determined, with regard to the origin of life, solely on whether you consider, like Darwin, that RNA, and by extrapolation DNA, contains real specified information, or the illusion of specified information. Everything else is trivial detail.

Jon Garvey

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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