Information, fine-tuning and theistic evolution

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.

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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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23 Responses to Information, fine-tuning and theistic evolution

  1. Avatar photo GD says:

    Hi Jon,

    I have read Davies ‘Mind of God’ but not his other publication you mention. While this area will be discussed for some time by many theists and atheists, I also find Heller’s “Chaos, Probability, and the Comprehensibility of the World”, interesting, in which he states, “However, our theoretical structures give us back more information than has been put into them. It looks as if our mathematical theories were not only information-processing machines, but also information-creating devices.” H suggests that when mathematicians solve their equation, information has been made available that otherwise would not have been available. He also argues that one printed page would be enough to write down the entirety of physics in compressed form. Physicists have argued from a number of angles, and these may be summarised (for our convenience) as (a) chaos without laws and things just happen to have come about with things such as laws, and (b) there is order and an ‘arrow’ that results in the Universe we know.

    The former approach aims to understanding the Universe by reducing its laws and structure to a pure game of probabilities. I include a quote from Heller which is of particular interest to me, “Probability is just a measure satisfying one additional condition: the measure of the entire space should be equal to one. Consequently, the measure of any of its subsets is either zero or a fraction between zero and one. If this axiom is satisfied the measure space with its measurable subsets is called probability space, and the measure defined on it the probability distribution. Let us notice that so far there is nothing in our theory that would suggest an uncertainty or indeterminacy we intuitively connect with the idea of probability.”

    The various considerations that lead to a ‘God hypothesis’ rely on the argument from design, because our our universe looks much as if designed. However, the alternate argument is there might be immensely many universes.

    On your notion of ‘new things’ or continued creation, I refer to the accepted understanding that all of the elements of the periodic table were ‘new creations’ at some point in time, and we can find many examples of this nowadays (e.g. synthesis of new chemicals). I am not sure that information is the best way to understand this – I prefer an additional step in which human intellect generates ‘language’ (this may be symbolic, such as in maths and sciences, and also the type we use in our common communications. This gets us back to the long standing question – why and how is it that human beings render the Universe comprehensible? Communicable language (as information) is the product of human intellect – we need to better understand the unique aspects of human beings (intellect, spirit, identity) to progress this question.

  2. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    Hi GD

    Interesting indeed. The paucity of information in physics, though I didn’t mention it, is a significant factor. It’s great for reductionists to be able to conclude that from one or a few simple forms (of law) the infinite variety of the Universe came, including of course all the semantic information humans have created, but it stretches the imagination.

    “However, our theoretical structures give us back more information than has been put into them. It looks as if our mathematical theories were not only information-processing machines, but also information-creating devices.”

    I’m not quite sure what he means by that, but it reminds me of a mind-game my son shared with me last week, in which he suggested (humourously) that reality truly is created by human thought. He pictured a scenario in which a fundamental flaw was found in aerodynamic theory, and as the knowledge spread planes began to fall out of the sky. But I guess Heller has something more profound in mind!

  3. Avatar photo GD says:

    Hi Jon,

    I get it – although I think the “paucity of data in physics” is either a humorous response from you (or perhaps you have something else in mind) – physics and chemistry may perhaps ‘drown (?)’ in data and information. Perhaps you and Davies have another outlook concerning information – if so, I would be interested in hearing more from you. However I think the worn-out reductionist label should be avoided (I like what you have done to this site Jon – my comments may soon pass spelling and grammar tests, although I have my doubts).

  4. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    Sorry GD – a slip of the brain. I was alluding to the low information-content of the physical laws to which you drew attention. In a Laplacian universe, the interaction of those laws would presumably account for the actual mountains of data, or in other words all the data could be reduced to that page of compressed maths.

    In information theory terms those laws woiuld be the basic algorithms the universe computes, so no new information is needed to explain planets, mammoths or St Basil the Great.

    Most of us would consider that known physical laws underdetermine those events – if only because of quantum indeterminacy and chaos, let alone human or divine choice – so either there must be hidden laws or new information input into the universe. Dembski suggests that such information cannot simply arise de novo, evolution or no evolution.

    If you’ve not read much information theory I recommend digging into it – a good primer in the context of evolution is Hubert Yockey’s Information Theory, Evolution and the Origin of Life.

  5. Avatar photo GD says:

    Hi Jon,

    Information theory and laws – I guess we now have regularities, governing laws, and now algorithms. Seems a chaotic view of laws of nature.

    I think that examination of the genetic code and questions about what life is and how it may have begun, as a scientific question, is extreme speculation on the bio-sciences and little can be seen as specific, accurate, quantitative, information in the sense that I understand the term. I cannot see how these (type) of discussions add to the fine-tuning outlook. I think you will find that, as facts go within science, simple problems such as the optical purity of molecules required for life, are still beyond the scope of the bio-sciences. Chemistry can show us that producing optically pure amino-acids (and we can include an array of other molecules essential for life) requires a great deal of skill – arguments of random, chaos, indeterminism, simply make the problems more difficult – this is not reduction of anything, but simple and clear facts of science. I cannot see how an end result (e.g. the structure and information in the genome) can help us think back to answer the question of how it began, nor the Darwinian outlook that it all began from simple life ‘things’ and now we have a ‘beautiful’ information laden bio-world. I think this is more fiction and less science. Regarding information in this context is unconvincing.

    It is reasonable to examine these systems, but focussing on a digitised information system simply makes the problem more difficult, because we need to add many other systems, such as enzymes, metabolic cycles, bio-signal-transmission, and we have not started discussing the brain – all of these are studied as separate systems, but there is the added complexity that life forms require an integrated form of differing complexity and type (species). Thus we would need to discuss these as integrated information system (almost takes us to irreducible complexity?). I cannot see how this line of reasoning would enable us to provide an ‘arrow’ of events from a beginning to the present even in the crudest way for the bio-sciences.

    Physics and maths give us insights regarding a beginning, and basic events since then – with lots of questions, but at least it gives us the ability to understand what we do not know using specific, accurately communicable language, such as maths (e.g. we do not know what dark matter, dark energy, and the like are, but we can state it in this way). The bio-sciences cannot make a beginning and still cannot show us specific areas of knowledge that would advance the field as a scientific enterprise (or if you like as a law-like effort) – thus I regard the Darwinian effort as descriptive, semantic, which results in a lot of controversy and arguments – lots of heat, little light.

  6. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    GD – I think you’re being a little hard on my framing of science in relation to information theory! After all, what are the laws but regular operations governed by constants of a certain value – ie they reduce uncertainty, which is the very definition of information. That much from Paul Davies – a useful insight, I feel.

    The rest of my piece I think is consonant with your doubts about the “scientific” nature of biological science: since necessity can’t explain biological outcomes, some other information has either crept in, or been hidden in there from the start. Scientific determinism, we agree, doesn’t work.

    The problem of optical isomers is, in fact, one of the issues Yockey specifically addresses, usuing it as the basis for saying that the question of the origin of life is unanswerable by science – I think you’d enjoy him.

  7. Avatar photo GD says:

    Hi Jon,

    I did not mean to be hard on your framing – I guess in the final analysis I am more interested in how we come to know/understand the laws of nature than the other issues. I sometimes muse on the possibility that we may, deep down, believe that human intellect/reason has added a something to Nature that we think ensures that it is what it is and we decide that these are laws. It is really an outlook that is still being framed within the scientific/ philosophical context – information fits in there somehow, somewhere, Nice discussion.

  8. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    Whether we actually add to nature by formulating laws is a tantalizing question – it would have seemed absurd before quantum theory gave such a great apparent role to being a scientific observer.

    What is certainly true is that the nature of the Universe we see is shaped by the theories we hold about it. A crude example of that would be the contrast between the modern person who sees a jackdaw and thinks “It’s a kind of crow”, and the medieval person who says, “It’s a thief.”

    More subtly I was reading a quote the other day by a European author to the effect that Darwinian evolution was a clear reflection of the nature of the society of English gentlefolk of Victorian times. That’s more widely true as well – the clockwork universe reflected the invention of clocks, and now I’m suggesting an informational universe to you reflecting the invention of computers!

  9. Avatar photo GD says:

    I think that the argument of perception (and that of the percipient and percept) as a mental state fits in with your comment in the last paragraph. As to quantum theory, I do not think I follow your thinking. The knower/observer cannot have full knowledge at the quantum level – this is how I understand the uncertainty principle.

    What I meant by adding something is more of the way we may think, because an objective truth that does not require a knower is a difficult concept to discuss (perhaps with the exception of atheists such as Lou and BioLogos?). As a consequence, we may see ‘natural law’ in a way we see legislated law in that the latter is ‘added’ by legislators. I do not think that when we refer to Nature’s laws, we should mean they are similar to added/legislated laws of the community.

  10. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


    Quantum theory still leaves me reeling – as it did at A level – but there is serious discussion about the collapse of the waveform being an actual effect of observation, ergo of mind, ergo of the importance of mind to the reality of the Universe. Lots about that in the other Davies book. That’s what I was referring to, though it always seems a bit mystical to me.

    However, as much of it is written by physicists I assume it’s a legitimate point of view, though I’ve no way as an outsider of telling what “consensus” quantum physics says, and whether being a consensus gives it any authority or just a bias.

    I think we’re seeing natural law in similar ways as per your last paragraph: scientific laws are to the reality of natural law as theology is to God’s revealed moral law – an attempt to abstract, and liable to human error.

  11. Avatar photo GD says:

    Point on QT taken Jon – I have not kept up with the latest in this area re Davis, although I like what Heller has written (at least the stuff I can understand), but I have to admit that I am not impressed with Davies since his mind of God novel – I suspect you may understand why.

  12. Avatar photo GD says:


    An interesting paper by Gérard Battail, “Applying Semiotics and Information Theory to Biology: A Critical Comparison,” Biosemiotics (2009) 2:303–320. I will have to think about this outlook, but one quote sounds very interesting: “As fully relevant to information theory, heredity is very interesting in this respect. The verdict of information theory is final: the template-replication paradigm has to be replaced by that of genomic error-correcting code.” Unfortunately the insights that he suggests re biology are smeared over by an appeal to natural selection – I guess we may say that natural selection removes all ills to biology. His main point (that I can appreciate) is that DNA does not replicate (is not a perfect template) and simple replication would add errors – he points out, “The genome should not be copied, but made resilient to errors by means of an error-correcting code.” (the quotes are meant to be in italics?)

  13. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


    I’ve downoaded it to read later. Genetics is, of course, the area par excellence where information theory is significant, as the ID people have stressed repeatedly. Because the information involved is clearly semiotic (as Yockey was saying right back at the start of DNA and which was the whole key to the DNA code concept), and the parallels with error correction etc in human information systems so close, it’s pretty perverse not to involve information theory.

    Nevertheless you’ll have seen (on BioLogos apert from elsewhere) attempts to describe the whole genetic system as only analogous to an information medium. Yockey, who knows the field as well as anyone in the world, categorically denies that.

    Shapiro points to several different levels of error correction in the cell – which raises the big question of what makes for the “normality” the cell is so desirous of preserving – at least until the evironment makes a new normality preferable. Think about it – sexual reproduction, at least, is deliberately intended to produce variation in certain respects – error correction is designed to rigorously prevent it in others.

  14. Avatar photo GD says:


    Continuing the discussion on information; a couple of points that I think are relevant to this: (i) information is always about something. This would go against (at first glance) the: information=>laws of physics => matter (universe) you mention; and (ii) the information is relative (technical discussions show that it is relative to what is discussed), and (iii) the knower is still given a discrete setting within the information paradigm.

    I am not sure what you mean by, “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.” The constants may be found in equations, or they may be simple measurements (e.g. charge of an electron). So I do not understand what you mean by ‘deriving’ these constants from the nature of matter and energy. These constants point to a specific nature of what we observe and enable us to make phenomena comprehensible to ourselves, and we can thus communicate this to each other with an acceptable level of certainty. We may speculate what would happen if they were different, but that is the gist of the fine tuning argument – they are these constants only, and this gives us certainty that the Universe is unique (or as is the popular jargon, fine-tuned). Human beings are then confronted with this scientific certainty and construct arguments for or against the conclusions we draw – I do not think anyone has suggested there are other constants that we may somehow discover.

  15. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    OK: first let me discuss information itself again. As per the paper you last cited, there are different ways to look at information: “Shannon information” is about a transmitted “message” without reference to any “meaning.” If I write “dhi9e8(..G” and it arrives at your terminal in that form, it is correctly transmitted information, but devoid of semantic or other meaning.

    It’s much harder to define “real” information adequately – “aboutness” is one of the more difficult concepts in philosophy. Hence the various attempts by IDers etc (often, though, derived from non ID people) to think about “complex specified information” and so on. One of the slightly easier forms of this (easier than poetry, say) is “functional” infomation, which is “about” something because it does something definite, given the right translation/instantiation. Thus a gene codes for a protein that helps a cell survive.

    In either case (Shannon or specified), information is what reduces uncertainty: “dhi9e8(..G” has a unique value different from every other string of 10 ASCII characcters in the universe, even if it doesn’t tell you anything useful. If you knew I’d hidden a semantic meaning in it you’d be looking for a cypher.

    What I meant regarding natural constants is that, by being just what they are, they exclude every other possible value, and therefore constitute Shannon information – but are also in fact, the functional information that makes the physical universe turn out as it does (hence the fine tuning argument that says chance is an inadequate explanation).

    Those information values need explanation just as much as the matter and energy which exist, though they are neither matter nor energy. So what are they? Information, about the nature of the universe – maybe even, analogously, its basic operating system. To my mind, they are therefore equivalent to DNA, though much less rich in information (because you couldn’t put the world’s DNA information on one sheet of paper, as you originally said of the laws of physics in compressed form).

    All I intended from the idea of derived constants is that, in the hierarchy of nature, some observed values can be explained by the higher level fundamental constants, and I’ve heard that some workers have a suspicion that even two of the 4 forces may prove to be interdependent. If that’s not so, just think of secondary physical laws. In that case it’s an example of Kolmogorov complexity: ie mathematically reducible to the absolutely fundamental (“arbitary”) constants.

    The role of the “knower” in all this is problematic: in life, DNA only functions because cells “know” the code and can interpret its meaning, though obviously this is not “conscious” knowledge. It’s real semantic information, without rational intelligence.

    But one might well argue that true knowledge is a prerequisite of such information: computers only produce functions from code because intelligent humans set both up. Does the functional information in genes depend on God’s being the knower? And does the information in the physical constants also necessarily derive from God as the “knower” – humans just being privileged to tap into his knowledge?

    In other words, the big question is whether information as you have laid it out is possible without intelligence?

    Separate aspects (do you allude to these?) are (a) humans might perhaps extract only the small fraction of the universe’s meaning which we happen to be equipped to perceive as “information”. Or worse, we might impose a pattern on what is actually patternless – the equivalent of seeing a face in clouds. Both are seriously suggested, I think – but both science and religion depend on faith that the universe’s order is “as advertised”.

  16. Avatar photo GD says:

    The initial paragraph or two is fine Jon – we both understand that transmittable information may be just data that is reproduced within a complex system – and the ‘boundaries’ (for want of a better word), can be understood. We may then consider ‘observables’ or ‘measured’ values and delve into the world of quantum theory/mathematics. I suppose your outlook may be to consider these as ‘intelligent explicates’ of a system termed the Universe (If I understand your correctly). These comments take us to that of the individual intelligence (person) and what that may mean within the universe. I guess one way to discuss this is to note that it takes human beings to somehow deal with this knowing (or information) – anything beyond this takes us to all sorts of things, including some mystical quality that must eventually lead to human intellect – I do not find such an outlook appealing. I cannot get past the notion put forward by words such as unique, individual, soul, and intellect within these terms. I am less certain when discussing ID within the bio-world, but that is for another discussion.

    Religion adds (given) knowledge with faith and this gives it a certain type of ‘timelessness’ – science on the other hand has the luxury of admitting and depending on ‘not-knowing’ and thus can do a lot of error correction and forgetting its own knowledge. Religion however, depends on human language for its communication amongst us. Somewhere in all this we locate information.

  17. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    “…some mystical quality that must eventually lead to human intellect”

    Do I assume you’re talking here of some sort of emergent natural law like Conway Morris’s convergent evolution? And that your problem with this is the actual special experience of humanity? If so, of course, I agree.

    But let’s start from some given “information”, “I exist as a human” (let’s say “we” and then we can both be in the game!). Now it could, conceivably, be that this data is derivable from the existing information in the Universe – ie as you say some mystical quality, or maybe the outcome of known or unknown physical laws as the materialists claim. So that would mean, were the universe deterministic, you take the fine-tuned laws of nature and the initial conditions (the total initial functional information or algorithm of the universe), and stir for 12bn years, and out we come.

    But as we know, the universe is not even scientifically so determinate, so it could not “compute” us – or even the current position of the earth – that accurately (quite apart from being unable to account for man’s spiritual origins). So where did the “data” of our existence arise? Possible answers (at the conceptual, rather than the actual, level):

    (1) The initial “algorithm” had built in uncertainty or randomisation in the form of, for example, chaos theory. That would make humanity an unintended epiphenomenon, which is absurd as well as vanishingly improbable. That, incidentally, seems to be the necessary viewpoint of the “world free to create itself” crowd in TE. But this would be as contingent to God as to nature: playing dice, no more or less.

    (2) The information has been added subsequent to the original creation. That might be by miraculous event(s), or by God’s circumventing natural law, or by some “nature compliant” process like God’s ordering of quantum events. I can’t think of any more – can you? That’s essentially the broadest ID position.

    But whichever version of (2) one favours, or even if one simply rejects (1) as impossible, then the data “we exist as humans” cannot be accounted for by science: if you like, the algorithm of the Universe has been upgraded to include new information. God’s new creative work has altered the outcome of the initial universe: it is not a closed system.

    There are, we discover, currants in the cake that weren’t in the original recipe. Is it possible to know enough about the cake, and the recipe, to be able to demonstrate that fact with any confidence?

  18. Avatar photo GD says:

    Science and information are the result of human activity and intellect. To try and circumvent lengthier discussions, I suggest we need to understand that: (a) we humans are just that, self-aware individuals that have formed communities and (b) we have, throughout our recorded history (or knowledgeable as human information), considered an indefinable, but yet part of our awareness, a ‘something’ that we often term the spiritual. Our history that is kept as part of what we know as ourselves is as important in the context of knowledge as anything science and philosophy can provide.

    Briefly, all of these considerations take us to the (necessary) position of (a) theist and (b) atheist. How we handle each of these two options is, in one sense, the history of humanity.

  19. Avatar photo GD says:

    I will have to get back to your “currants in the cake that were not there before” at some other time Jon. Adding information that was not there (in the way I assume you treat information) is a hard one to discuss within a theological context since, for example, we need to consider information in time and also outside of time, and how can we present information in this way within our discussions (perhaps theologians have attempted an answer and I will have to look for this). I can understand human agency treated as unique in the sense that humans can entertain a range of possibilities, but it is difficult to consider the Universe as unique in that sense as its possibilities are bound within its being of matter energy space and time.

  20. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


    The issue of God’s action outside of time is an important one (though maybe partly tangential to the discussion we’ve had so far). A few unrelated considerations:

    (1) The Deistic idea of God’s only acting (as Creator) “at the beginning” privileges one particular time over the whole of the rest. Why should we expect that? That’s one reason why “creatio continua” makes basic theological sense.

    (2) Creation could be seen as one simple act of God in eternity, yet working out a result in a universe subject to time. So there’s no reason why that one act should not include sequential events. In “information” terms, the events would necessarily occur in time, ie at specific historical times, as newly-appearing information. So if, for example, biological change over time were the result of quantum wave functions collapsing in specific ways ordered by God, that would not be “tinkering” by God, but the consequences of his single creative act appearing in time. Yet it would be as much a rational creative act as cosmic fine tuning is.

    (3) A related way of looking at this is of God’s creation consisting of “the-universe-from-start-to-finish”, not “the initial state of the universe” (taking into account from the start such things as “free-human-and-angelic-acts-from-start-to-finish”). Icing a cake happens after cooking and involves new ingredients, but is not an afterthought to the original recipe.

    (4) This picture is analogous to how God can be simple, unchanging and so on in the classical way and yet act and speak to us. From our point of view, the unfolding revelation of Scripture, say, is “new information over time.” From God’s, it is his eternal gospel, complete in itself.

    (5) So the new currants in my cake are consistent with them having been in God’s plan eternally, though not (in terms of my initial anaology) in the “recipe” of the universe’s founding laws and initial conditions.

    (6) This approach does, of course, require that the universe is not seen as a totally closed system, at least informationally. It could be compatible with conservation of mass-energy, too, though would you say that those conservation priciples are anything more than working approximations to assist human science? Is anything fundamental compromised if bread and fishes for 5000 should consist of newly created matter and energy?

  21. Avatar photo GD says:

    I would not argue (or at least find fault) with the points you have made Jon. I however, would consider the matter is a different way:

    (a) What you and I know differs from what we may say about God (self-evident to faith) in the sense that I use the term ‘to know’. So yes, you and I would legitimately consider something new, and attribute that to God, and since we would communicate it between ourselves, it would be information, and thus conform to your statements.

    (b) What however, would a statement such as, “…..biological change over time were the result of quantum wave functions collapsing in specific ways ordered by God, that would not be “tinkering” by God, but the consequences ….” mean within the context of ‘God ordering… (or God causing), or consequences of (God doing…)? It is still unclear to me why you use phrase(s) such as these. As the cause beyond causes, and without being subjected to causes, uttering the name of God would encapsulate all possibilities that we as human may consider and also we would consider our own limitations and anticipate additional possibilities that may become apparent to us as time unfolds. Even though this would be real to us, we are not in a position to know if God had caused it then, before, or any specific information that we could ‘link’ to an action of God. Miracles are thus given that meaning because we attribute them specifically to ‘an act of God’ in some manner.

    Philosophically I find the question. “What is activity?” very interesting (or perhaps I may re-phrase it as ‘activity as something in all reality, including life-forms’, as our unique capacity for humans to consider the Universe as intelligible, or at least a portion of it to be accessible to our intellect. Our uniqueness enables me to postulate that we may add or remove ‘stuff’ from the world, and is an argument that would say that to a limited extent we can be ‘lawless’ while nature itself is subject to the regularities we have discussed so often. This aspect o human action can also be considered new, but I am not sure if it fits within your view of new information. I guess I may begin to see some relevance to arguments on evolution as a means by which new things appear on the planet, but I will need to think on this for some time. Synthetic chemists have created new compounds for many years, but we do not think of these in such terms – they are all subject to nature and are thus within nature and not new to nature in the sense that I understand it.

  22. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


    It’s likely to be good that we see things in different ways – as Mary Midgley says (I’m reading her at the moment) reality is not actually reducible to only one way of seeing. Our difference over the action of God are a case in point – currently I can’t see where you’re coming from because I can’t quite see where you have a problem with my phraseology. My impression is that you’re unwilling to tie the transcendant God down to mechanisms, which he doesn’t need, and I have no problem with that.

    There are two main things in my mind here. The first is that God creates by his word of power, which can even be personalised as Christ the Logos. The connection with my concept of information is obvious: what was hidden in the mind of God is communicated to bring it to existence. The communication here is, one assumes, to what is created: “Be an electron with such a mass and charge,” or “Be a Stegosaurus.”

    The second is that what God says remains visible within the universe, according to the “information” he has given it in creation. There is, therefore, some interface where any part of creation receives its actual being, and at whatever point that is, God’s word of power can be perceived in the world. Thus, the cosmological constants, etc, show what he said (or part of what he said, to be accurate) in bringing the universe into being, and is visble as fine tuning to our minds. The fossils, or DNA code if we had it, of Stegosaurus, show what the Logos spoke to bring it to being, however that might have happened.

    Scientifically, we are I think permitted to try and see “how that word was spoken”, as it were. If we detect an electron in motion, we would assume that we can explain it largely as a consequence of what we know from scientific laws. We need no further logos to explain it, other than our faith in God’s sustaining (and the complexities beyond Newtonian motion, of course!).

    If evolution truly did follow “naturally” from basic physics, then we could say the same thing about the Stegosaurus. But if there are no laws sufficient to explain that process adequately, then whilst faith says, ” No matter how or when, God spoke and there was a Stegosaurus,” do you not think that it’s legitimate to ask, “How and when has God acted in providence or miracle to bring this to be?”

    On a new track, re your last para, I would say that the privilege of human will does indeed allow us to add to the universe – but clearly not in the way of matter or energy, which are conserved to us if not to God. And that addition is by our being little “logoi” in God’s image and adding information, which is immaterial – you synthesise a new chemical that nature would never form spontaneously, though it does not negate the “rights” of nature. In the same way making a firm, or writing a blog, inserts an immaterial information layer that is new to the universe, though quite compatible with its laws.

    Both human invention and human sin come from that God-given power – though I think we’d agree as “classical theists” that our “new information” is in some incomprehensible within, rather than cutting across, the ultimate Logos of God. So your chemical, and your synthesis of it, was known to God if not to nature. And Judas’ sinful betrayal was “what God had determined before should happen.”

  23. Avatar photo GD says:

    Thanks for that Jon, it will give me something to mull on – the response I would give now is that I do not see myself as a scientist (or for that matter any other scientist) able to decide if God spoke ‘fish’ and this came about, or if He decided that fish will exist and within His domain that was the same as fish existing (even though to us, we may have found that fish came about x billion years ago). So linking God to man discoverable mechanism (as an unacceptable outlook) is not a bad way to view my comments. I do not equate this (i.e. fish existing although we found them x billion years ago) with foreknowledge by God, but perhaps we can continue this discussion later.

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