Some thoughts on information and meaning (1)

A recent thread on Uncommon Descent (now deleted for some reason) was discussing information in living systems. One of their resident skeptics commented that it was significant that, for all the ID talk about information, nobody could give a scientific definition of it.

By “information” he was of course thinking of the “specified information” understood, by various alternative terms, in Intelligent Design circles, and he was implying that the inability to define it indicates that it has no real scientific existence. And indeed, anyone who has followed discussions on the design question will know how difficult it is to pin down a concise definition of the kind of information that carries meaning, and this often leads to people talking past each other.

Often those disputing the existence of design will default to the discussion of “Shannon information”, which has to do with information as the limitation of possibilities, and how that can be accurately transmitted, whether or not it means anything (so if I can send a random string of digits down a wire and have it arrive intact at the other end, Shannon’s work applies even though the message means nothing). Others have pointed out the truth that meaningful information, such as an English text, has “Kolmogorov complexity”, in that it cannot be compressed algorithmically – but that in this it is exactly like a random string, which is rather counterintuitive if one thinks of “information” as “ordered”.

Both these areas are of significance in thinking around “information”, but though one can easily define “Shannon information” or “Kolmogarov complexity”, the thing that matters most – information as meaning – resists definition. The UD skeptic, in suggesting that this calls into question its real existence, unfortunately hits at more than Intelligent Design – he denies a daily reality just as radically and destructively as the eliminative materialist’s denial of the existence of consciousness.

That damages science as much as anything, because although science cannot adequately define information, the truth is that science is information. Science is information with meaning, or it is not science. So why can’t science define its own central necessity?

The difficulty of definition, as with that of consciousness, is instructive. It actually tells us that this kind of information – by which our whole lives as humans are led – is strictly speaking outside the bounds of science. And that is because science has limited itself methodologically to studying efficient material causes (and consciously excludes final and formal causes). And it is quite impossible to define “meaningful information” in terms of efficient material causes, not because it’s hard, but in the same way that it’s impossible to build desires out of bricks.

Nevertheless I don’t think it’s really that hard to define such information. Here’s my starter for 10:

“Information is a communication from a sender intended to produce a particular effect in a receiver” (Definition of “Humpish Information”).

I’m sure that could be improved upon by philosophers, but let’s work with it for now. The trouble is, it’s not a scientific definition, because of one word: “intended”. This introduces final causation, purpose, teleology – and science doesn’t do final causation. “Intention” does not belong in science, if one can keep quantum uncertainty out of sight and out of mind. If that makes “design discourse” unscientific definitionally, so be it, but there is a logical absurdity in the insistence (frequently even by many TEs as well as skeptics) that someone inferring design should be responsible for saying how the designer got the information into the phenomenon in question.

For, as I have already said, efficient causes are secondary and orthogonal to “Humpish Information”. It’s true that all information available to us is physically embodied, and therefore subject to efficient causation, but the physical conditions do not determine the information. Here’s an illustration. Take the sentence:

Matthew 22:37 – Jesus said, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength.”

You (collectively) have just, presumably, read that communication here on some wide range of electronic screens in various fonts, and recognised it, at least, as being intended by its original writer to mould our attitude to God according to Jesus’s teaching. (You don’t yet know for sure why I sent it to you – though you do suspect I must have some purpose, some teleological final cause.)

Our granddaughter, in fact, brought it home from her church holiday club as their memory verse, but the first day could only remember the reference. She spoke that information to me. I looked up the passage in my NIV Bible, but once reminded of it she corrected it to whatever version the club used, from memory.

At the club barbecue that message was recited from memory by sixty children’s voices. But at the Sunday service, a selection of those children, given cards with the words on, arranged themselves across the stage in the relevant order and conveyed the same message silently by waving the cards over their heads.

Of course, that same message could equally be transmitted in any one of the many English versions and paraphrases (whether read in a book, or on Bible Gateway online, or read out, declaimed by an evangelist, or heard on YouTube…), or it could be paraphrased in a play about Jesus. Or it could be translated into any human language, or read in the original Greek, or transcribed into the Aramaic Jesus might have used… and all at any place or time where someone intended Jesus’s message to be conveyed. The information entirely transcends the medium.

The nonsense of insisting that efficent causes are informative for the information itself is obvious from reversing the demand. Rather than suggesting that finding information should enable one to determine something about efficient causes, one might demand that knowing efficient causes must reveal the information.

Suppose a Chinese anthropologist visited our church last Sunday. He describes in detail the practice of English children in taking pieces of card with symbols on them, performing a kind of shuffling dance, and then holding the cards above their heads to form a message. Skeptical voices back in China, however, say, “Well, you say you can detect a chain of efficient causes – you must be able to say what the message was about.” But if the researchers do not speak English, the information has no meaning, however detailed their study of the efficient causes.

The sender’s intention is everything in Humpish information. I’ve written about pareidolia before. Just now there’s a fascinating arrangement of twigs and leaves at the top of one of our ash trees which, if I gaze out at it against the evening sky, looks for all the world like a bearded apostle preaching, as it sways in the wind. But even if it were the spitting image of Raphael’s version of St Peter (and it’s not that far off!), it actually contains no Humpish information whatsoever. Paradoxically, if I posted a photo to convince you of the resemblance (or if God should intend it for some mystical experience in me), the same object would acquire the quality of information, through my intention.

On the other hand, actual understanding on the part of the receiver is not essential to Humpish information – only understanding on the part of the sender. The holiday club organisers, in order to achieve their intended effect, required kids who could read and understand English. But I could equally write a computer algorithm intended to produce an effect, knowing that the computer lacks any understanding. Likewise, I might train my dog to go left or right in response to signals, knowing that a very different process is going on from that of a human understanding language – though perhaps not so different from what army drill is intended to achieve. I could even put an important message in a bottle with no certainty that anyone would receive it.

All this has implications within the natural creation. Theologically, God created all things by speaking them into being – information pervades the Scriptural revelation not only in the “fiats” of Genesis 1, and the warnings about the use of God’s word in Revelation 22, but in the powerful speech-act implications of “The word of the Lord” in the Old Testament and the understanding of Jesus as the divine Logos in the New. On this understanding, all secondary causes are instantiations of God’s information, because they carry his original intentions forward.

Cosmic fine tuning must be seen that way – seen as Shannon information, the cosmological constants reduce the possibilities of the universe to just one specification. Seen in terms of Kolmogarov complexity, the values of the constants are just what they are – they cannot be algorithmically compressed. But in terms of Humpish information, that information, received (as it were) by the creation, produces the kind of universe God intended.

It seems that science must be blind to all three aspects, at least in part: Shannon information could be accounted for as local noise within an infinite multiverse. Kolmogarov complexity is formally indistinguishable from chance. And however significant CFT is for the order and beauty of the universe, until one admits intention into science, there is no information to recognise: somebody put the bottle on a shelf without seeing the message.

This also applies in what, indeed, is currently the most provocative informational phenomenon in nature, the DNA code. This is because it is uniquely semantic in nature: this (as has been ably pointed out by means that it involves what philosophers call “intensionality” (with an “s”, note), or “aboutness”: a nucleotide sequence represents only symbolically a protein structure, or levels of control function. It is particularly hard to see how complex symbolic associations (ie “linguistic” if we accept Francis Collins’ analogy or Watson and Crick’s description) could arise apart from an agent’s desire to communicate a message – that is, “intension” strongly implies “intention”. This is improperly recognised in science by calling DNA a “code”, and by habitually assigning its sequences to biological “functions”, rather than merely noting associations between nucleotide sequences, protein structures and chemical activity.

Nevertheless, for those who reject, or choose to remain agnostic, about the reality of intention in nature, then it is not a question of finding information hard to define – it is that “information” in the Humpish sense is an incoherent concept within such a system. That’s not to say it does not exist, nor that it is not of fundamental importance (if all things, as matter of fact, came into their particular existence through it). It’s just that one must remain forever blind to it, and concentrate ones attention instead on efficient causes which are, in the end, pretty inconsequential to why the world is at it is.

Unless you’re the kind of person who thinks that if the KJV was good enough for Jesus, then that’s the only place to read the great commandment. Subsuming information to observed efficient causes is much the same thing as that.

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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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4 Responses to Some thoughts on information and meaning (1)

  1. Avatar photo Merv Bitikofer says:

    Speaking of needing to be read several times! I’m sorry I’ve only just now given this article its first read –having been busy with school and getting my own article posted.

    I’m afraid I’ll probably showcase my initial ignorance here by spouting off a simplistic reaction in ways that may simply repeat what you already said above with some jargon that is mostly still unfamiliar territory for me.

    But one thing I do take away from this is a new appreciation of the difficulty involved in defining information. If you personally asked me a question such as: “do you have any oatmeal in your house?”, and I gave an affirmative answer, my answer would indisputably qualify as information to you (or anybody who was aware of the question). But if I flipped a coin in order to determine how I would answer your question (and informed you that my answer was thus determined without any regard to veracity), then that same one bit of information suddenly becomes useless. And yet it would be entirely indistinguishable by any analysis from the truthfully determined answer. In fact if I didn’t tell you that I had determined my answer by coin flip, then you would be under the mistaken assumption (assuming you thought me trustworthy!) that you had received useful information when in reality you hadn’t. –Unless the coin flip happened (50% chance!) to coincide with the truth of the matter in which case the useless information became accidentally useful to you! What a potentially tangled web! There must be some big word in philosophy that applies to all this. It seems that information might mostly be in the mind of the sender, and may somewhat less reliably exist in the mind of the receiver, and the state of it between those two intelligent agents might be surprisingly mysterious indeed, at least in some cases.

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      You got it, Merv – and the “intelligence” of the sender (and of the receiver in semantic communications) is the key issue that makes the definition of “ordinary” information difficult in information theory, so that neither Shannon nor Kolmogarov can distinguish meaningless from meaningful information.

      Your point about the coin flip shows why to accept the existence of “information” in biology ought logically to mean accepting intelligent design (small letters), because a naturalistic process of blind search through random variation and natural selection would not be information, but merely the false appearance of information (I discussed that in my pieces on pareidolia a while ago). In the same way, “function” would in fact be be a misleading anthropomorphism for any particular process which fortuitously occurs in living things without killing them.

      “Accidentally useful” might well apply to my seeing the Virgin Mary in my potato, but not to biology, because “useful” is itself a teleological word implying a final cause like “staying alive”.

      On the other hand, we might suppose that God, desiring me to venerate the Virgin, either manipulated the growth of the spud, or knowing that it fortuitously resembled her, directed my attention to it in some way. But in that case, and however he did it, it would no longer be a pareidolia, but genuine information from God to me, with an end in view.

      On one recent BioLogos thread, someone suggested the Molinist idea of God knowing what chance (or free human choice) would turn up in any possible universe, and then only creating the universe where that open-endedness serves his specific purposes. I’ve discussed similar ideas with Bilbo and Mike Gene in the past. But that’s really the same as your flipping a coin to answer my question, but only sending me the answer when after enough tosses it corresponded to the actual oatmeal situation and became true information. Crazy, when you could just determine to be intelligently truthful!

      I’ll maybe do a third post (one on “meaning” going up imminently to confuse people some more) on the related and interesting question of how something true (like “triangles have three sides”) differs from something real (“an actual triangle exists”).

      As for me, I have no oatmeal in the house, but there may be some rolled oats… and of course the trusty Weetabix.

  2. Ron S says:

    Excellent article Jon – I always enjoy what you write.

    These issues are complex and that seems to pose a problem these days. We are fascinated with “Are you smarter than a fifth grader” but understanding some things requires significant contemplation and involved reasoning skills well above the grade 5 level.

    Bravo for pointing out the complexity involved in this topic.

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      Thanks a lot, Ron.

      I’m always trying to push my own thinking forward, because (after all) it’s hardly likely that the way creation fits together is dead simple… though on the other hand Darwinian natural selection has managed to stay in fashion for 150 years despite its simplistic plausibility!

      But in a way it’s only necessary to do the work because others make such heavy weather of the most obvious insights – like the axiomatic nature of design in nature, which somehow isn’t allowed to be admitted to science nowadays.

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