Information as the foundation of metaphysics – and science

The next three chapters of Being as Communion are really the centre of the book as far as arguing for its subtitle – “A Metaphysics of Information” – is concerned. So what’s wrong with matter as the foundation for understanding the physical world? Briefly, matter cannot give a complete account of information, and matter itself can only be inferred from the informational “signatures” of the particular forms it takes. Information explains matter, but not vice versa. Ergo information is prior.

Dembski uses the analogy of a dehydrated fruit drink called “Tang”, made of “orange juice solids”, to show the effects of materialist reductionism. Once science has, supposedly, reduced the world to its material components, reconstituting it never quite restores the real world – there is a missing explanation for truth, beauty, and even the faculties which are the sole means we have for inferring matter itself – our perception, consciousness and reason:

For materialism, when matter carries information it does so accidentally in the sense that nonteleological rather than teleological forces of nature are thought ultimately to underlie the information.

D. takes us on a tour of the philosophy of science from Newton to Einstein, via Locke, Berkeley, Descartes and through to the logical positivists, to show the intractable philosophical problems raised by materialism that were even anticipated by its ancient father, Democritus: if all knowledge of matter comes via the senses, then observation is logically prior to matter. Most scientists are oblivious to this, but it is philosophically crucial, because “observation trades in appearances, not necessarily in reality” and “cannot tell us what lies behind observation.” As G K Chesterton said,

Reason itself is a matter of faith… The young sceptic says, “I have a right to think for myself.” But the old sceptic, the complete sceptic, says, “I have no right to think for myself. I have no right to think at all.”

So, Dembski concludes:

When we do science, we don’t encounter matter in its raw state nor do we encounter sensory experiences in their raw state. Rather, we encounter certain patterns to the exclusion of others. In other words, we encounter information. The material and sensory features associated with those patterns are secondary. Indeed, those very features are themselves patterned and thus informational. The patterns, or equivalently the types of information conveyed, are primary.

Which makes matter a rather redundant concept – an abstraction. “I’m happy to think of physical objects as real,” he says. “But their reality is, I would argue, always inferred from the patterns, the information, they leave behind.” Where this leads is to greater congruence both with the understanding of knowledge presented by philosophers like Michael Polanyi, and to the materialistically disturbing “mental” implications of quantum science. D. quotes Peter Kosso in his introduction to the philosophy of science:

We are forced to give up the notion of pure, unadulterated information from the world. Better to think of observational information not simply as given by nature but as actively taken by the observer in an activity that is guided by the theories, beliefs and concepts in the mind of the actor.

None of this eliminates materialism “by definitional fiat”, but it can no longer treat itself as axiomatic and must prove itself against informational models by showing that fundamental material objects can be reconstituted into the whole of reality. It must somehow “get outside” the information by which it is known – and as D. concludes in ch 10, if the biblical account of creation by divine utterance is taken at face value, there may be no outside to information – and in any case, such a search will always be circular, for we only ever know matter by its informational signature.

Chapter 11 builds on this to make the case for his own “informational realist” position, that matter is not just fundamentally information-rich, but “information all the way down.” He begins by drawing a computer analogy of software running on simulations of other software, and also points out that true Turing machines are impossible to build, being wholly mathematical machines.

There is an interesting interaction with the perceived objections of an Aristotelian hylomorphist, in which he makes his case that the concept of raw matter does little metaphysical work, and is absolutely dispensable as a foundation for scientific inquiry, though he does concede that it fulfils a role like that of, say, Arabic numerals as a convenience to thought.

As I said in an earlier post, later in the book he confesses that this complete demolition of matter is partly meant as a stimulus to thought – his overall thesis does not depend on it, but only on information’s primacy. But he ends this chapter by saying, “With no disrespect for mythology, matter is a myth,” which he explains by adding that, like any decent myth, matter provides a useful narrative to explain the world, but one which is outliving its usefulness.

Chapter 13 deals with how information may be embodied, or even transposed to a different form. This enables him to explore questions like the difference between mathematical and material information, human identity and its continuation through resurrection, angelic intelligence and so on. I don’t think I can usefully summarise this partly speculative reasoning. But one useful point arises in answer to comments made on a previous part of this blog series: the relational nature of information (“informans-informandum“) potentially forms an infinite regress, which in D’s thought as a Christian is broken by the act of God in creation.

God himself (he argues from basic theological principles) is neither information himself, nor a medium for information. God creates information, but God in his being does not contain or exhibit information. “Accordingly it would not be possible to measure or otherwise investigate the ‘information content’ inherent in God.” In this way D. reminds us that he is presenting a metaphysical view of the created world, not of God, who remains (in words quoted from Chrysostom) “ineffable, invisible, incomprehensible, ever existing and eternally the same.” The apophatic tradition is not challenged by an information-based metaphysics – but materialism is. Open Theists and Theistic Personalists won’t like it, then.

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.
This entry was posted in Philosophy, Science, Theology. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Information as the foundation of metaphysics – and science

  1. Ian Thompson says:

    You say “matter cannot give a complete account of information, and matter itself can only be inferred from the informational “signatures” of the particular forms it takes. Information explains matter, but not vice versa. Ergo information is prior.”

    We could equally well argue:
    Information cannot give a complete account of substance, and information itself can only be inferred from the substantial interactions of the particular things that have specific forms of information.

    It is frustrating to see these arguments about what is first or ‘prior’. It cannot help but remind me of the story of Isaac and Jacob’s birth order, and the ensuing disputes!

    Rather, we must admit that form and substance are both essential to any thing, any being. Form (or information) cannot exist by itself, since it must either be of a mind (which exists) or a body (which exists). Similarly, substance cannot exist by itself, since it must always be in some form. We never see substance here and form over there: they are the metaphysical components of every being.

    • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:


      As I said in my first reply to you, I’m inclined to see the need for matter metaphysically too, though I’ve certainly not done full justice to D’s argument for “Info only” in my summary. I may also not have emphasised enough the point that, metaphysics apart, he questions the need to include matter in the scientific account, seeing that it is always secondary inference from the information about it.

      But then my own viewpoint may be influenced by a certain Aristotelian bias. I may have a better basis to argue from when I’ve finished reading Arthur Eddington’s book – he seems to have been of the view that mind is prior to matter, or even instead of, in the dawn of the quantum age. You may, of course, have looked at his views anyway, since it’s your field.

      Once again, though, there is a confessed element of polemic in D’s writing – the central thrust is that information is real (not epiphenomenal on matter), primal and investigable. Rubbing shoulders with an Aristotelian approach is co-belligerence, not competition.

Comments are closed.