Dembski on conservation of information

May I draw your attention to a very good and accessible article by William Dembski on conservation of information for dummies? It’s very suitable for mathematical dummies like me, but also for those of a Darwinian persuasion, whose responses to Dembski, from my reading over the last years, have all shown a complete lack of understanding of the issues he raises.

It emphasises that the input of teleological information is a logical deduction from what exists, not a fanciful explanation in competition with other, equally rational, possibilities. I was particularly interested in what he says about the Universe itself being the result of a search, which is a novel but actually obvious way of regarding it. Since no search comes without the cost of information, the existence of extremely high contingency organised events (like the whole of biology) is simply impossible unless (a) the information in some form was present at the origin of the Universe or (b) it has been input at some stage since.

Dembski’s demonstration of the incoherence of Multiverse theory as an explanation is also excellent –¬† all it has done, he shows, is make the search space completely inaccessible – and as Dembski says, the very existence of things is equivalent to our being able to find them in a search. One electron buried somewhere in the Universe may as well not exist for all the difference it makes to us. Wonderful stuff.

Note the implications of this for Intelligent Design, or more broadly for the whole concept of Theistic Creation: the finding of the necessary information alone is sufficient to demonstrate its input from an external source. The “how” of that input is a secondary question that is theoretically accessible to a science that is emancipated from naturalism.

It is quite compatible with what seem to be Simon Conway-Morris’s or Michael Denton’s ideas of extreme fine tuning of the original Big Bang, constraining the possibilities of matter to make intelligent life inevitable. But as a matter of scientific fact we as yet have no significant evidence of any primordial mechanisms sufficient to the purpose, let alone how they might operate. Indeed if the Universe were so loaded in favour of organisation, we would be unsurprised by the appearance of design in it, whereas our universal experience is that disorder, not order, increases in the world. Evolution would be a law-like process, and probably observable on any scale in the lab. But it isn’t.

One could suggest a new input of all the necessary information at the origin of life, in the manner of Mike Gene’s front-loading. He gives some evidence for it, but so far it is not overwhelmingly obvious apart from the increasing likelihood that even LUCA was as complex as cells are now. James Shapiro’s suggestions of an inbuilt propensity for organised change in cells might also seem evidence for front-loading, since it is hard to conceive a point in evolution when random mutation and natural selection could ever have been effective, if they are no longer sufficient. The challenges to the continuation of life were ceratinly as hard at the beginning as now, and probably a lot harder. But if the seed of all the varieties of life was indeed present from the very start of life, we certainly don’t have enough evidence¬† of the fact at this point.

That leaves only intermittent input of information to be considered, either at some particular level of evolutionary change (at speciation, for example, or via R J Russell’s quantum direction of mutations), or during acts of special creation. The difference between those two, on reflection, would be relatively trivial: if evolution by blind search has been excluded on logical grounds, it’s no longer crucially important whether new software is installed in existing life, or in newly-created cells. I take it to be that, rather than any particular religious or Biblical commitment, that makes Dembski at best agnostic about common descent.

Conservation of information is not, however, consistent with the idea of a Universe “allowed limited freedom to create itself”, where that is understood in any other sense than truly creative, rational freedom – vitalism, in other words. If “free” means “random”, then such freedom is simply insufficient to achieve anything. A designer could, of course, build in some variability to the information he inputs (“if hot, then black: if cold then white” or “generate code 1-4 here with equal frequency”) but that would show the freedom of the designer, not the design

Proof of God?  Of course not. No more so than the overwhelming impression of design was prrof of God. But it is evidence that the major alternative to that impression of design is gravely deficient.

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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