Information and methodological naturalism

I sometimes think that many commentators on faith and science don’t really understand the case being made for the inference of design from information. Here’s an attempt to explain it.
When I was a GP, I used to fantasise about the existence of a rare affliction called “Beauchamp House Surgery Disease”. When (in my imagination) I told patients about it, they would say with admiration, “You discovered your own disease??”. I would modestly reply that, no, it was discovered in Japan, but its name comes from the fact it always forms a pigmented rash spelling out “Beauchamp House Surgery.”

Understandably, this condition is a poser for science. Craig Venter likes to implant names into the genetic code, but cheats by assigning bases values according to his own code, and not what cell mechanisms can translate into proteins. But BHSD (as we professionals call it) is a real mystery. Naturally, there is a mechanism for its bizarre manifestation, but it’s clearly very complex. Research so far suggests that two fairly prevalent introns, when they are occasionally both inherited by one individual, undergo simple point mutations under the influence of a Coxsackie B virus and are expressed, activating a poorly understood cascade of control mechanisms that lead to localised pigmentation. Further work is underway on these pathways, and also on gaining an understanding of why the pigment occurs in stable patterns spelling out “Beauchamp House Surgery”. But since the underlying abnormalities are in non-selectable parts of the genome, there appears no selective advantage. As far as we can ascertain, they are purely fortuitous.

Of course, it did not escape anyone’s attention that the rash resembles (read “is”) an English phrase, and the wonders of Google soon showed the Japanese researchers what it meant. After the press furore died down, it became clear that nobody with any link to my erstwile outfit had any connection with Craig Venter – nor indeed that they had superhuman knowledge of how to manipulate the entire race’s genome. That seemed to leave either an exceedingly unlikely freak of nature, or an exceedingly capricious act of God. Science, of course, is only able to investigate the former, and has (as I’ve said) already made great process in unravelling the mechanisms involved.

But let’s look at that phrase, “Beauchamp House Surgery”. As a pattern in Latin Script it has a probability of 27^23. But as a pattern of pigment on skin incalculably less, of course. Yet if Google is to be believed it has one clear meaning in English. And that meaning, that information, oddly, is the same however it is instantiated. It triggers a Google search when traced in pigment on skin. But you’re reading it as light pulses on a monitor, and your computer received it as digital code. On the letterhead I designed it appears in black ink, and on my scrawled medical notes in ballpoint. Phone them up (please don’t) and the same information will be given via vibrations in human vocal cords, electronic equipment, and your tympanic membrane.

It’s also recorded in some as yet inscrutable format in our brains, in my case inextricably attached to other information from half a lifetime’s associations that constitute its meaning for me. But it has a basic semantic meaning even for you. And if methodological naturalism is to be followed science has absolutely no access to any of that meaning, because the skin pattern “Beauchamp House Surgery” has no semantic meaning unless it was deliberately encoded in the cellular systems. Like the genetic code it has merely the illusion of meaning, and the name given to it is a misleading, analogical joke. It just shows that even scientists can coin frivolous terms, like the brain fever bird or exploding head syndrome.

But is it really more scientific to say, “It’s a mystery we will never solve” than to judge on rational, empirical grounds that God, or some superior alien, has a bizarre sense of humour?

“All well and good,” someone might reply, “but you’ve not explained how this alleged being did the deed – and we have already gone a long way toward finding a natural mechanism.” But the point is that, in this instance, mechanism has absolutely nothing to say about the implicit meaning of BHSD, which is the one interesting thing about the condition. Whether God frontloaded evolution, acted by divine fiat, or in the manner of R J Russell’s suggestion, tweaked quantum events; or whether alternatively aliens abducted subjects and did a bit of genetic engineering, makes no difference at all. Information is undeniably there, once one overcomes ones scruples about its arbitrary exclusion by methodological naturalism. Its instantiation as pigment on skin is as accidental (in the philosophical sense) as the font you use to display the phrase on-screen. It would still mean the same in sky-writing or morse-code detected by SETI.

Back in the real world, such capricious diseases as BHSDS do not exist. The design being claimed is not capricious at all, but exceedingly rational and functional beyond the imagination of man. For TEs the important question is not how God might, or might not, act inside or outside the laws of nature. That’s interesting, but ultimately trivial. The big issue is simply the question of whether God-given infomation can be observed at all. Without methodological naturalism it can be. With MN it cannot be, on principle, since information is, like some Platonic entity, beyond the realm of material instantiation.

Or to put it another way, can the words of the λογος we claim as Christians to be behind the whole of creation be heard, or not?

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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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2 Responses to Information and methodological naturalism

  1. Avatar photo penman says:

    Hi Jon

    I have no axe to grind on this one, so here’s a question purely for purposes of clarification as I try to think through these things.

    “The big issue is simply the question of whether God-given information can be observed at all.”

    1 – Does this mean observed AS God-given information? IE, there are phenomena which, when observed by the human mind, must be interpreted as God-given information (and not flukes) if we are to retain our claim to reasonableness?

    2 – Is this intended to apply to every human mind, or only within the mental framework of theistic faith?

  2. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    Hi penman. Thanks for your interest.

    I really mean “observed to be information,” as opposed to “supposed to be the illusion of information.” I’ve written previously that the recognition of any design, including especially information, is always intuitive rather than proveable: we recognise other minds as a basic human characteristic, just as intuitively as we reason in conformity with external reality. Neither can be proven “scientifically”.

    If, as I say in the piece, information is non-material, its recognition is the recognition of mind. As we are sinful humans, that recognition can be denied, but since specified information is so statistically improbable (eg finding any English sentence in a scatter of objects), that denial is unreasonable. So “Yes” to your (1), but with a proviso that also applies to (2), as follows.

    As the ID people accept, exhaustive knowledge of the mind behind information is limited. How much do we even know of Shakespeare from his works? Still less of Jamie Oliver from a recipe. So in biology it could be super-aliens, rather than the Christian God. However, as a few centuries of philosophy shows, the God of philosophy is more like the Abrahamic God than most other candidates in terms of reason, unity, creativity etc, and these things are obvious in nature.

    And the Steve Fuller argument – that the Abrahamic claim that we are in God’s image underpins both our recognition of rationality and of God as designer – is another pointer to the Creator’s identity.

    It ends where natural theology always ends – with Romans 1. Our natural (though sin-occluded) reconition of the Creator has been knocked back by the logic of Darwinism. But in my view, the balance is being redressed in our age by the increasing knowledge of the immaterial nature of information, distinguished from the inevitable material nature of its instantiation. The sense of the phrase “Beauchamp House Surgery” exists however and by whomsoever it is expressed – but not by typing monkeys, who could only produce a random sequence that resembles information but means, and achieves, nothing.

    NB throughout this reply, please take “information” as “specified” or “functional” or “prescriptive” rather than in the Shannon sense, where meaning is irrelevant. “AAAAAA” contains less Shannon information that “FPDENY”, but neither has meaning.

    Does that help?

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