Dembski on getting information into the Universe

I shall pass over the chapter in Being as Communion in which Dembski applies his informational metaphysics to “energy”, except to say that it attempts to consider information as a dynamic, relational thing rather than as something static. In chapter 14 he demonstrates how the universe is not a system closed to information, even if it is insisted that conservation of energy be maintained. And this applies whether the physical nature of the universe is seen as indeterminate or deterministic.

To regular readers here, I can cover these very quickly. For those who hold that quantum events are undetermined by hidden variables, he follows R J Russell’s line (either independently or without attribution) that God could direct the outcomes of quantum event to influence outcomes, so long as he followed the statistical norms, without violating natural law. Russell, in his treatment, expresses uncertainty as to how often God would do this.

Dembski’s overall metaphysics, however, covers this is a more theistic and less clunky way. The danger in Russell’s approach is that it will seem as if God “cheats” by manipulating quantum events, thus finding a loophole in natural law, and then covers his tracks by readjusting things to make it look random. However, if in fact the statistical pattern of quantum events actually mirrors the way that God customarily deals with the bedrock events of the world (much as using English to write a post will produce a predictable statistical character distribution) all that is happening is the usual input of new information into the cosmos. It becomes a nice distinction whether one calls it “natural” or “supernatural” – such distinctions are based on materialism anyway.

If it is held that natural law is deterministic, then Dembski simply says, as many others have before, that God, by frontloading the laws and boundary conditions, could simply input all the information ever needed for his purposes to prevail. He points out that this even allows for libertarian free will, provided the classical view of God’s omnipotence is held, for by foreseeing our free choices, he could frontload events to follow from them.

To be honest, this seems to me too much of a sop to an outdated physical determinism, which is neither matched by science’s known character nor by a reasonable (or biblical) view of God’s ways. Nevertheless, one still hears the old criticism of Leibniz that a competent God would make the universe causally self-sufficient even from Presidents of BioLogos. D.’s point is that neither frontloading nor quantum events that can be regarded as “natural” make a scrap of diffence to the “informational porosity” of the Universe: there is no valid reason from science to exclude it.

As an aside, D. points out that the many-worlds interpretation of quantum theory is actually deterministic, in that every possible outcome occurs, each determined by its past. I add that what that also means, however, is that there would really be no informational significance in the universe apart from the laws, for information implies the closing off of possibilities, whereas the many-worlds multiverse instead multiplies them prodigally to infinity. The whole universe is utterly meaningless, yet still has the insoluble question hanging over it: “Why all of this rather than nothing?”

D.’s aim in this chapter is to defuse the claim that God “could not” affect the universe by adding information to it, by dealing with the strongest scientific positions denying it. But in realistic terms, those who are not doctrinaire materialists will admit that the universe cannot be so self-contained as all that anyway.

Laws are nothing but observed patterns in science, and Alvin Plantinga has been among those who point out that God has no obligation to follow generally observed patterns. That aside, many laws are also admittedly approximations (such as Newton’s inverse square law), used in preference to more accurate relativistic laws because the latter would be too unwieldy. Similarly measuring events accurately by correcting classical physical laws to their truer quantum equivalents would take more computing power than the universe possesses.

Thomas Nagel (mentioned in a previous post in this series) is right to say that there is sufficient slack in physical laws to allow plenty of room for his proposed teleological laws within their boundaries – but equally there is plenty of room for direct divine action, if that be not the same thing expressed differently.

Similarly, it is easy to forget that many of the laws we have, since Maxwell’s time, have been statistical in nature. It is, of course, vanishingly unlikely that apart from Maxwell’s demon all the molecules of a gas will move to one side of a container. But it might not take such gross statistical acrobatics to accomplish some purpose of God. Once again, one can gain pretty accurate statistical patterns from human societies, but all of them reflect conscious purposive decisions, and it is those, not the statistics, that make human culture.

I return at the end of this piece to a question I’ve asked several times recently, both here and elsewhere. Why would a Christian theist have any desire for the universe to be a closed informational system? The Deists of old tied it all up with God’s perfection and competence, and visions of the incongruity of having to tap his watch to keep it going. That kind of polemic is still used nowadays, but in today’s non-deterministic universe is entirely without substance. If nothing else has been a trend in theology, God’s active relational nature has been: why would a Father, or his Word and Spirit, not act immanently in his world?

The other defence for a closed universe is the ability to do science. “How can we discover the pattern of nature if God breaks it? When the world looks orderly, how could God cheat by (for example) creating life miraculously?” With all due respect to the scientific community, one has gently to point out that the universe does not revolve around them, any more than a teacher can complain that God doesn’t make all children good learners. God never promised us comprehensive understanding of the universe, however intelligible we find it (and how ever telling of our “imageness” that intelligibility is). But he did promise to be with us always.

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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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