Emperors and clothes

I’ve just finished Information and the Nature of Reality, a symposium edited by Paul Davies and Niels Henrik Gregersen. I like Davies’ writing, and it seemed worthwhile exploring some of the ideas being generated about the importance of information not only in relation to biology, but to cosmology. The collection also has contributions from philosophers and theologians, so a holistic view is on the table.

In an anthology from leading lights in such diverse fields, I expect to be out of my depth is much of the discussion. Neither is it surprising that definitions of “information” are a bit loose and variable, since nobody can agree on definitions even within restricted fields like genetics. I was certainly attracted by one of the “strapline” concepts, that the traditional description of the Universe as:


ought, perhaps, to be reformulated as:

Information->Laws of physics->Matter

If that’s the way the thinking is going, it obviously has some interesting implications about the relationship between science and religion.

However, as I was reading I began to suspect that my inability to comprehend fully might have as much to do with incoherent theorising as my own limitations. What is one to make, for example, of Seth Lloyd, a leader in the field of Quantum-Mechanical Engineering at MIT, when he discusses the Universe as a computer – no, actually a quantum computer? I’m not unhappy with that idea, having come across it before. But drawing on the old “typing monkeys”analogy, he admits that random events could never produce what we see in the Universe. But, he goes on, it is quite different if the monkeys were using computers instead of typewriters, since:

…there are short, seemingly random programmes that instruct the computer to do all kinds of interesting things.
One of the shortest programs instructs the computer to compute all possible mathematical theorems and patterns, including every pattern ever generated by the laws of physics!

In other words, random quantum events would generate increasingly meaningful information which the Universe would compute to produce increasing complexly ordered reality. Now, is it just me, or does this sound like perpetual motion? Would software engineers really feel threatened if their employers took on an army of chimps to do their work? Doesn’t it seem likely that the Universe would suffer error catastrophe long before it started implementing the laws of physics? In other words, isn’t this tosh?

So from that point I read with a little less deference. I was therefore a bit less willing to swallow unchewed systematic theologian John F Haught’s assertion that information=good and design=bad:

Information is a much more flexible notion than “design” as a vehicle of meaning. Thus it would be more appropriate theologically to speak of a narratively informed, rather than a mechanically designed, universe. Information allows theology to think analogously of divine action as occurring somewhere between the extremes of absolte randomness on the one side and complete redundancy on the other. But it does not require that there be no deviations from design.

Well, maybe that sounds good. We all like the idea of freedom, and “information” is a trendy word. Could you unpack it a bit?

The notion of “design”, by contrast, is intolerant of any such disorder. And where disorder is forbidden, novelty is also excluded, and along with it any notion of a truly living God.

Well that clinches it, apparently – design precludes novelty, and a God who was a designer wouldn’t be truly living. Case made, and equally trendy “Logos theology” can seamlessly fill the “information” niche. Certainly Intelligent Design is put in its place as an attempt like “creation science” (his quotes), to translate theological ideas into scientific propositions (p302).

But if we’re using “design”, like “information” as an analogy, it follows that human design, being intolerant of disorder, also excludes novelty. Humans would do better work with an idea of “narratively informed” information wandering somewhere between complete randomness and stasis. Whatever that means. the reality, of course, is that mobile phones, fashion, computer software, art or space technology are all thoroughly designed, with the possible exception of radio antennae shaped by mutation/selection programs that are themselves designed. Where is the lack of novelty in our human world? Where is the evidence that human beings, being inveterate designers, cannot be spoken of as “living”?

I have an idea that maybe we would do better to develop our philosophy and theology by deliberately avoiding the use of buzzwords like “quantum”, “information” and the like,  and limit ourselves to terms that are deeply unfashionable and therefore have to be more deeply considered. Otherwise, every disicipline seems irresistably drawn towards trendy tosh.

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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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