This is by way of bringing together some thoughts related to “information” and its place in the Universe. Theistic evolutionists of the BioLogos persuasion typically support the idea of cosmic fine tuning, but reject Intelligent Design arguments. This distinction is largely based on the idea, as in John Polkinghorne, that the first relates to the stage of ex nihilo creation, whereas the latter implies God’s “interference” in the natural processes he has set up. Bear that distinction in mind as we proceed.
Physicist Paul Davies, who is not a conventional theist but who recognises the importance of the transcendent in creation, has had a great deal to say about the place of information in the Universe (for example, read his The Mind of God, or his own contributions to Information and the Nature of Reality. In a previous post I quoted his summary of the materialist reductionist view of reality:
And his own suggestion about what might be the greater truth:
Information->Laws of physics->Matter
Information, as Davies points out, is an immaterial concept but no less real for that. One might remember that early physics was based entirely on the interaction of matter – action at a distance was outlawed. But the new, “immaterial” concept of energy had to be added. As it happens, Einstein was able to show that the two are interchangeable, but physics would have been no less successful had it had to settle for two fundamental components. So information as a separate entity may step on reductionist toes, but that doesn’t invalidate it.
If, as is currently the case, the fine tuning of the cosmological constants cannot be derived from the nature of matter and energy, then Davies’s summary is undoubtedly valid. Matter and energy derive their properties from the constants, which just “are” – and they are information in the form of values that might well have been different. Even contemporary materialist cosmologies like the “vacuum fluctuation” of Lawrence Krauss do not buck this fact, since it is the laws of physics – information – that govern his “quantum nothing”.
The only plausible way of writing the primaeval information of fine-tuning out of cosmology is the many-worlds multiverse, in which infinite variations of cosmological constants occur, but we only inhabit the rare region that favours our existence – it’s a blind search with miniscule probability but infinite time. Apart from the arguments that require even such a multiverse to be fine-tuned, Bill Dembski points out in an article I have quoted before (I shall return to it later) that entities which cannot be searched, like the multiverse, effectively do not exist. There may well be a magic goblin at the centre of the earth, but he explains nothing so may as well not be there.
So far, then, I suggest to TEs that they consciously consider fine-tuning in terms of a third entity in the universe besides matter and energy – information. And that, of course, meshes well both with theism’s concept of a Creator God, and Christianity’s affirmation of the Λογος as the agent of that creation.
Now back to Dembski’s article on conservation of information. His thesis is that, mathematically, information can be shown not to be generated by any kind of “search”, but rather to be a necessary component of any search that outperforms a random walk. So, supposing there is treasure on an island with a 1:100,000 chance of digging the right spot. A treasure map increases the odds of success to 100% over a blind search – but whoever drew the map either had to do the random walk himself, or buried the treasure at a chosen location – in which case the information content that aids your treasure-hunt is the same. Dembski argues that any search method is subject to the same constraints, including, of course, random search + selection in evolution.
One key point he makes (derived from J S Mill’s study of logic) is that though evolutionary computer programs can be written that achieve results, there are many more such programs that achieve nothing – the difference is in the information that distinguishes the programs. So when Ken Miller, for example, says that mutation and selection (or mutation, drift, and selection etc) are sufficient to account for evolution, he is ignoring the many scenarios in which they could result in extinction instead. Some other factor in evolution as we actually see it accounts for its observed success. And if the characteristics of evolutionary algorithms are a guide, that “something” is inherent information that provides a treasure map – or at least some drunken directions – that make the search more successful than a random walk would be.
To connect this to my initial discussion, I must say that on the basis of Paul Davies’s summary, the existence of that information in principle, as a primary element of evolution, is all that matters as a demonstration. One might, or might not, be able to investigate where it came from in any instance. The likelihood is, though, that it would prove impossible to do more than observe its results using scientific methods, since science measures only matter and energy and, as Davies says, information is antecedent to both, and is immaterial in nature. So it would be hard to pin down whether the information comes from the organism, the environment or neither.
One possibility is that it’s hidden somewhere in cosmic fine tuning – which is another way of saying we might discover laws of emergence, and so on, sufficient to account for the detailed outcomes of life. TEs should have no problems with that if they’re happy to attribute fine-tuning to the mind of God. But they would surely have to modify what they understand about mechanisms of evolution – and even more their theology of the non-directive God. There was a time, after all, when cosmic fine tuning was unknown, and it was assumed that the cosmos was just “bound” to turn out this way from chance and necessity – the detection of cosmic fine-tuning information has simply proved that wrong-headed.
We haven’t, however, discovered any trace of such emergence yet. If we did, it would not prove God’s existence – but it would prove very difficult to explain in materialistic terms except by the unsearchable multiverse myth.
But the contentious point, where TEs reject ID, is the addition of any new information subsequent to the Big Bang. Miracles aside, this is where the role of quantum events discussed by both Polkinghorne and Russell must be considered as an example. If, as most believe, quantum events are not determined by local conditions but are materialistically indeterminate, then in information terms they are without doubt adding new information to the universe – the only question being whether it’s some kind of coherent information or just random noise (Shannon information, in the jargon). One again, science might provide some evidence for which in the form of observing its results: if quantum events were shown to prescribe successful evolutionary searches, or even (as some have suggested) if cells were found to engage in quantum computing in their response to the environment, then the theist ought to conclude that new quantum information is as fine-tuned as that of the cosmological constants.
Theologically, that would merely be a concrete example of creatio continua, which is what the doctrine of God’s sustaining of creation has always implied, and which Scripture confirms in various ways, including God’s special providence. That would bring a truly Christian angle to Davies’s Information->Laws of physics->Matter scheme, and rescue theistic evolution from the statistical deism that has dogged it in its recent incarnations.
The big question is whether the big names in TE could bear the fact that this would bring them closer to the Design crowd, and to the Creationists too. Time may tell.