Where does information come from?

I’m starting off this blog with a post about an interesting discussion I’ve been having* on on the Uncommon Descent blog about the claim, frequently made by Intelligent Design proponents, that  Chance and Necessity  cannot generate  information;  information can only be generated by a mind.

Clearly, to either support or refute this claim, we need clear conceptual definitions of “Chance and Necessity” and “information”.

William Dembski  uses Monod’s terms, “Chance and Necessity” to characterise natural processes, and indeed, devised an Explanatory Filter, for candidate exemplars of information-bearing patterns, whereby, if Chance and Necessity could be serially eliminated, Design could be inferred as the only remaining explanation.   There are various ways of defining Chance and Necessity, but for convenience it may be reasonable to regard “Chance” events as unpredictable events (e.g. quantum events) and “Necessity” as  reliable physical or chemical laws.  In a deterministic universe,  of course, once you have a set of starting conditions, all that follows is Necessity, and the opportunities for a Designer lie in specifying the starting conditions in such a way that the willed outcome is inevitable, and/or giving things a poke with a celestial snooker cue to keep them on the willed track. So in a deterministic universe, the ID question would be easy: were the starting conditions willed or a Chance first throw of the dice and/or are the workings-out of those starting conditions left to Necessity or tweaked to suit?  In a non-deterministic universe, which it seems we have, Chance has a potentially more interesting and active roll.  So the ID question becomes: can the events we observe be explained solely a combination of Chance quantum events and Necessary consequences, or can they be better explained by positing  an Intelligent Designer who could affect the way things unfold by nudging  quantum Chance and/or the otherwise Necessary consequences?

But what is meant by “information” mean, in the context of the ID claim? On Uncommon Descent,  I made the counter-claim that I could demonstrate that Chance and Necessity could indeed generate information, for any regular English usage of the word information.

One of the regular posters there, Upright BiPed, took me up on my claim, and my response was to ask him (or any ID proponent) was to provide me with a conceptual definition of information for which he believed ID claim was true.  My plan was then to operationalise the definition to our mutual satisfaction, and then to attempt to make good mine.

So what are candidate definitions?

Clearly, nobody is making the claim for Shannon entropy, as that would be easily falsified. Dembski’s concept of “specification” is all about narrowing down the set of Shannon entropy-rich patterns to those for which he considers “Design” a reasonable inference, by insisting not merely on a large amount of Shannon information (event-complexity”) as measured in bits, but also a large degree of compressibility, or “pattern simplicity” (“specification”), . When I first made my claim I was anticipating that the definition I’d be getting was something like Dembski’s Complex Specified Information (CSI). Dembski’s claim is that Chance and Necessity cannot generate CSI (or could only do so with such remote probability that the possibility is not worth entertaining).

However, Upright BiPed suggested something that in my view is much more interesting, in which “information” is defined not a property of a pattern, as with CSI, but the property of a process. One such definition is cited by Stephen Meyer in his book: Signature in the Cell, and is on of the Merriam-Webster definitions, namely:

the attribute inherent in and communicated by one of two or more alternative sequences or arrangements of something (as nucleotides in DNA or binary digits in a computer program) that produce specific effects

This makes a lot more sense to me, as I’ve said, and would mean that the ID claim, which I set out to refute, is:

Chance and Necessity cannot create information, where information is arrangements of things that have specific effects.

This definition invokes not only a pattern but some form of transmission protocol – information is not just a pattern but a pattern that has effects. And not just any effects – effects specific to a pattern. In other words there is a mapping between pattern and effect.

However, Upright BiPed also made an additional caveat, which is that to be  information, the mapping has to be achieved via some kind of  inert arbitrary intermediary (as is done by tRNA in mapping an RNA codon to an amino acid).

And in addition, I made the caveat that the specific effects should probably be functional in some way – e.g. promote faithful self-replication.

And so the the ID claim I aim to refute becomes:

Chance and Necessity cannot generate information, where information consists of arrangements of something that produce specific functional effects by means of inert intermediary patterns.

And this is the claim I am willing to attempt to refute, provided some ID proponent is willing to stand by the claim!

Alternatively, if you would like to supply an ID claim that you are willing to stand by, I’d be delighted to hear it.

Otherwise, welcome to The Skeptical Zone, have a free virtual beer in celebration of its first post, and post any comments, objections, suggestions, and criticisms you may have.

All are welcome.  The only rule is: Park your priors by the door :)

Cheers

Lizzie

*and I’ll take this opportunity to thank the UD community for the welcome they extended to me, and to extend my invitation to them, here, in return.

 

61 thoughts on “Where does information come from?

  1. Hi Dr. Liddel

    It’s been interesting to follow your recent foray at UD. I confess to thinking that your stay would be curtailed in some way, probably via “constructive dismissal”. I am in awe of your patience and forbearance in the face of the concerted provocation you have endured. Was it worth it?

  2. Definitely. I was pleased to find that things have moved on since my last foray, which lasted for one thread! Indeed, I have been made to feel very welcome by at least some regulars, and at least made to feel a welcome chew-toy by others :)

    I’ve been thinking of starting a site like this for a while, but never quite got the oomph to do it. The impetus really came from having interesting discussions at UD but finding the format extremely frustrating (as this one may become). A blog format isn’t really great for big rambling discussions, and I was forever losing track of which threads I’d had what argument with whom on. So at the minimum, I hope this blog might act as a backwater for extended discussions after the OP has long since slipped off the page.

    But more importantly, I find internet communities frustrating, though hugely interesting, because often potential opportunities to find common ground, despite hugely different unchallenged assumptions, get lost in a barrage of accusations of bad faith, willful ignorance and denial of the “obvious”.

    I’m kinda curious about what people find “obvious” :) And intrigued to find the self-same accusations launched at “evolutionists” by IDists and others as are launched by evolutionists at IDists (“blinded by your world-view”; “cognitive dissonance”; “willful ignorance”; “denial of the evidence”). And it’s not just this particular division – I’ve found exactly the same in politics, and even in statistics!

    So yes, worth while :) And I’ll stay there for as long as my welcome lasts I guess, unless this proves a more fruitful venue.

  3. I find it interesting the the UD thread is supposedly about Michael Denton, but it ignores Denton’s position, as he states in “Nature’s Destiny”:

    “it is important to emphasize at the outset that the argument presented here is entirely consistent with the basic naturalistic assumption of modern science – that the cosmos is a seamless unity which can be comprehended ultimately in its entirety by human reason and in which all phenomena, including life and evolution and the origin of man, are ultimately explicable in terms of natural processes…

    That was the second comment on the thread and was completely ignored.

  4. Well, the thread got hijacked by other issues. It’s a problem with a blog. If it starts to happen here, I’ll move to forum format :)

  5. Well, to answer the titular question, meaning arises from feedback. Any system that can encode changes in itself as a result of feedback is accumulating meaningful information.

    That’s pretty sloppy, but it can be operationalized.

    The only interesting question that ID asks is whether the differences observed in cousin life forms can be bridged incrementally. The problem with ID is that they don’t have enough confidence in their hypothesis to join the mainstream in trying to affirm the positive.

    That’s the only way to make progress. You can’t affirm the negative.

  6. Can you expand on your statement that “meaning arises from feedback”?

    How are you defining “meaning” there?

    I’m also interested in your statement:
    “The only interesting question that ID asks is whether the differences observed in cousin life forms can be bridged incrementally.” What do you mean exactly?

    I agree with your last point of course! There was an interesting thread that Gil started a week or so ago, in which a few commentators suggested actual mechanisms for designer involvement – “frontloading” and “injection”. Those are potentially testable, in that they are likely to make very different predictions from evolutionary theory.

  7. Meaning is found in the relationship between a symbol stream and a reader. That’s pretty vague. I’m trying to abstract your examples of meaningless and meaningful strings.

    Meaning is not an attribute of the string. It is what the string causes to happen when read.

    In the case of DNA, the sequences are read, various proteins are assembled, (etc.) and the result is a continuation of this cycle. Or not.

    Meaning is a process, not a thing.

    As for the statement about bridging, it is in reference to the question of continuity in descent, the infamous question of pathetic detail.

  8. I would agree that meaning is best conceived of as a process rather than as a thing. I think that was what Upright Biped was getting at with his “protocols” and what is nicely captured in the Merriam Webster definition of information, and as you put it here: “meaning is what the string causes to happen when read”.

    In which case, if I succeeded with my project, as long as something specific happened that could be mapped to a particular sequence, then I think I would have generated “meaning”.

    I’d really like one of the ID proponents to sign off on this.

  9. You expect them to give away the store?

    More likely they will goad you into saying something critical of KF and put you in moderation with the rest of us.,

  10. Well, if it happens, it happens, Petrushka. There is certainly a growing incidence of posts claiming that I am lying and/or trolling, which is getting pretty annoying. That’s why I wanted to get this place set up so that if I am banned, or my tolerance of being accused of dishonesty is finally breached, there is a place to continue discussions with any of the community who would like to do so.

    But I hope it won’t come to that.

    As I said, one of the purposes of this place is to set up somewhere where people do not assume things about other people, or at least “suspend disbelief” in contrary positions while they are here.

    Dunno if it’ll work :)

    But it stems from my profound belief that if people understood both their own positions and those of others better, the world would have less noisy penguins!

    Or perhaps if the world had less noisy penguins, people would understand their own positions and those of others better.

  11. Hello Dr Liddle,

    The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has a very thorough entry on “biological information” that addresses most of the issues raised in your discussion with UPB at UD, including the distinction between quantifiable forms of information (e.g. Shannon information) and messages bearing additional forms of meaning, as well as the notion of the “arbitrariness” of the genetic code.

    http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/information-biological/

    With respect to the question, “whence meaning beyond Shannon information,” I am put in mind of “one if by land, two if by sea”: one lantern in the steeple “means” the British army has chosen a land route, two signal a crossing at the Charles River. Obviously, the two bits of information required to specify these three three values (including “no lantern” = “no-troops”) don’t themselves bear the “meaning” of the signal at all. “British troops are crossing the Charles” is a hugely complex proposition that can only be understood upon being embedded in a language community with intimate experience with holistic notions such as “British” and “troops crossing the Charles.” The “protocol” by means of which the state of the two bits in question are assigned to these propositions (“we will agree that one lantern designates a land approach”) is just the beginning of meaning in the semantic sense, a pointer to the much more elaborate, holistic meanings embedded in this shared experience. In short, for meaning of this sort to be conveyed by the states of shannon bits, and for the protocol to work, both sender and receiver must have the right sort of shared history. That history provides a shared ground of knowledge and practice that is external to the message itself, yet essential to an exchange of meaning.

    The question then becomes: do exchanges of information observed in living organisms resemble the expression of meaning in this sense? As the above linked article indicates, some have taken seriously various forms of that notion while others disparage it. Advocates of ID desperately want it to be so, in the full sense that “DNA is a just like a language,” because they wish to compel their assumed conclusion that a designing agency originated both ends of the conversation. Prior UD discussions make this clear; for an example, see this discussion, starting with Mark Frank’s comment:

    http://www.uncommondescent.com/intelligent-design/the-odds-that-end-stephen-meyers-rebuttal-of-the-chance-hypothesis/#comment-343377

    However, given that there are no candidate designers, and advocates of ID are (for strategic and political reasons) unwilling to speculate on the characteristics of such designers, operationalizing this notion isn’t likely to get far.

    If “a designer communicating” is therefore not a workable model of the origins of semantic information in living organisms, what sort of natural history can result in shannon bits bearing semantic information in this way? Ruth Millikan’s teleosemantic theory (expressed in her mind-bending book “Language, Thought, and other Biological Categories”) proposes one kind of history that fits the bill, namely the right sort of history of selection. However, I am confident that nothing short of a fully semantic definition of meaning that assumes the notions of intelligent senders/receivers will satisfy Biped and the others at UD, because it is that sense of meaningful information that compels their assumed conclusion. This is the circularity you repeatedly encounter. As in all of these discussions, they are working backward from that conclusion and crafting their definitions accordingly. Not a process that lends itself to neat operationalization.

    Of course this is a huge topic and I don’t want to go on and on (OK, I already have). But I will join others in admiring your heroic patience and civility in wrestling with these notions at UD. As you grow your blog, be mindful that the moderator at UD has expressly stated that disparaging statements made viz UD on blogs other than UD are grounds for being banned at UD.

  12. It’s great to see you here, Lizzie!

    And to be able to comment free from the shackles of moderation purgatory on Uncommon Descent.

    Regarding your OP, I wonder whether A Deflation of Genetic Information by John Wilkins is relevant here?

    ABSTRACT: It is often claimed there is information in some biological entity or process, most especially in genes. Genetic “information” refers to distinct notions, either of concrete properties of molecular bonds and catalysis, in which case it is little more than a periphrasis for correlation and causal relations between physical biological objects (molecules), or of abstract properties, in which case it is mind-dependent. When information plays a causal role, nothing is added to the account by calling it “information”. In short, if genetic information is concrete, it is causality. If it is abstract, it is in the head. (My emphasis)

    http://evolvingthoughts.net/2010/01/update-genetic-information-paper/

  13. When information plays a causal role, nothing is added to the account by calling it “information”.

    Bingo. That says everything I’ve ever tried to say about the subject in one sentence.

    The difference between information as a property of language,and what DNA does is that DNA participates in chemistry. Superimposing a layer of abstraction and reasoning from assumed properties of the abstraction is just equivocation.

    DNA causes things to happen in the sense that it is deterministic chemistry. ID can play word games with the fact that the “code” is arbitrary, but the relationship between the code and the reader is the result of chemical history. It is all deterministic.

    That is why creationists have trouble with the fact of evolution as well as with the mechanism. If they admit the history, they admit the mechanism.

  14. By the way, the folks at UD have a new topic dealing with cancer. They are citing an AIDS denier as a typical evilutionist and calling for you to comment.

  15. Thanks for all the posts, guys. Remember to let me know if you’d like OP posting privileges. I’d like this to develop as much like a forum as a blog can.

    Reciprocating Bill: that’s a helpful articulation of the issues, and thanks for the link.

  16. I’m glad to see you have this set up, Lizzie, and I wish you the best in your efforts. I must agree with Petrushka, though, that you’re very likely to be banned at UD for the sin of trying to make them define their terms.

    Under no circumstances will Upright BiPed or any other intelligent design creationist assist you in testing their claims.

    I know we’re supposed to leave our priors at the door. Consider this a prediction instead. ;-)

    Good luck. I hope to be proven wrong.

  17. The one thing that is not “deterministic chemistry” and which gives the “code” thing more weight, is the fact that the codon-amino acid mapping is implemented by a set of tRNA molecules that could equally well be any subset of a large number of possible subsets of a total set of 64*20 molecules (for 20 amino acids and 4 bases) as long as each codon was represented not more than once.

    So it has a kind of arbitrary look about it – indeed it is an arbitrary mapping which makes it more like a symbol system than a template system.

  18. So it has a kind of arbitrary look about it – indeed it is an arbitrary mapping which makes it more like a symbol system than a template system.

    Calling it a symbol system doesn’t make it non-deterministic. Given the existing reader, the “interpretation” of the code is deterministic, even though the code itself appears to be arbitrary. The existing reader cannot do otherwise than what it does. It cannot get bored and decide to do a perverse reading.

    Now the question that ID asks is how did the reader/code relationship come about.

    I assume that ID posits it was designed. Evolutionists posit the code and the reader evolved together. On can never prove the history of the existing system, but one can demonstrate that such a system can and does evolve.

    With luck and hard work, we will demonstrate that such a system will self-assemble.

    My own little program, (linked to my screen name) can create new words. Words that are not in its dictionary and not in any dictionary. They look like words; they’re pronounceable in the language of choice; they follow the spelling conventions of the language.

    They are created because the selecting environment assigns a fitness score based on subsets of words rather than whole words. The selector never knows when it finds a whole word, and it assigns no special fitness score to whole words. But it nevertheless finds whole words.

    One interesting aspect of it is you can model the connectedness of fitness space. Languages differ in the degree to which their words can be bridged by single letter substitution or addition. That’s related to what I intended when I said ID had one and only one interesting idea.

  19. Hello, Dr Liddle

    Thanks for taking the time and trouble to set up this site and my compliments on the way you have handled the discussions at Uncommon Descent. I promise not to be as ‘civil’ as some of the contributors there.

    On the question of my view of information, for what it’s worth, it was articulated far better than I could have done in the John S Wilkins paper A Deflation of Genetic Information which I see Pedant has already cited above.

    As I see it, we are inescapably locked into Matrix-like models of an objective reality – the thing being modeled – which we assume exists outside us. Unlike the Matrix simulation, however, our models are not created by some super artificial intelligence but are real-time approximations based on the limited amount of information supplied by our senses. That internal modeling ‘engine’ is also able to create further ‘models withing models’ with which we are able to infer or predict properties of objective reality which we cannot directly or immediately observe.

    The deep mystery for me, however, is the origin of the laws – for want of a better word – without which this universe would not exist, what gives Nature its nature. I try to imagine being able to observe the primordial singularity or the very early universe shortly after the Big Bang. Would there have been anything in those unimaginably extreme conditions that would have led us to predict the world we see around us now? Yet either the seeds were already there or they were added later from somewhere else, both of which possibilities are equally weird.

  20. Good luck on your new forum! I must confess to getting bogged down in the number of posts per day that has become the new norm on UD, as well with some posters (you know who) that seem to be more worried about scoring debating points than shedding any light in the darkness. Personally, I think the supposed increase in page views comes not from anyone reading the posts, but from the fact they must scroll back or forth through a dozen others in order to find the one they were interested in just a long weekend ago.

  21. Hi Petrushka. Got a date and title for the post you are referring too? It’s hard to find something specific these days there without a road map.

  22. Elizabeth, you said:

    “But it stems from my profound belief that if people understood both their own positions and those of others better, the world would have less noisy penguins!”

    While I admire your positive attitude, I would think that you must know that people have to want to understand the positions of others if they’re going to understand them, and ID-ists obviously don’t want to understand.

    If you’re going to go through with your information test, you might as well just use whatever definition of information you like, because you’re never going to get agreement on any reasonable, coherent definition from ID-ists. The fact that ID-ists won’t even coherently define their own oft used terms (e.g. “information”) shows that they don’t even understand their own terms, and it shows how empty their claims are. They just like to throw some sciency sounding terms around and hope that nobody will notice that there’s nothing to support them.

    By asking them for a definition of information, you’re digging into one of the fundamental (yet undefined) terms for their claims. You’re essentially threatening (threatening to them anyway) to falsify their entire religious belief system, by possibly showing that information can come about or be passed on by material, evolutionary means. That, they will not be a party to.

    If they really wanted to understand their own position or the positions of others, they would have strictly and coherently defined every term they use a long time ago, and they would welcome independent tests of all their claims. In fact, if they were ‘intellectually honest’ and truly scientific, they would have properly and rigidly tested all of their claims long ago on a wide variety of biological and non-biological things and would have made the results available for all the world to see.

    Still, I think your blog is a good idea. Maybe some ‘fence sitters’ will see that science is worthwhile and productive, unlike unsupported beliefs.

  23. You’re essentially threatening (threatening to them anyway) to falsify their entire religious belief system

    I find it amusing and ironic that this discussion started on a thread the was supposed to discuss Michael Denton.

    When it became obvious that Denton accepts naturalistic evolution, the IDers dropped him like a hot potato. The only thing Denton attributes to divinity is setting up the game. No interference, no intervention, no special creation. No challenge to abiogenesis, no challenge to common descent, no challenge to rm+ns.

    I’m sad that no one ever takes this to them when Denton is mentioned.

  24. Just to say: I haven’t forgotten about this thread, but it’s on the back burner for a few days while I get some other stuff shorted out.

    (I see I haven’t managed to get rid of that “Comment” box in the editor yet…..)

  25. On UD, kairosfocus says:

    “GEM of TKI

    PS: isn’t it interesting that ever since April we have yet to see a cogent answer to the force of the simple expression:

    Chi_500 = I*S – 500, bits beyond the solar system threshold.”

    Of course there could be no “cogent answer to the force” as far as he’s concerned, and there’s also the fact that UD blocks and bans the people who are likely to question or challenge his claims. So, I’m wondering if Elizabeth would like to start a thread (or just let it be discussed in this thread) about the “simple expression” kairosfocus posted?

  26. The whole truth:
    On UD, kairosfocus says:

    “GEM of TKI

    PS: isn’t it interesting that ever since April we have yet to see a cogent answer to the force of the simple expression:

    Chi_500 = I*S – 500, bits beyond the solar system threshold.”

    Of course there could be no “cogent answer to the force” as far as he’s concerned, and there’s also the fact that UD blocks and bans the people who are likely to question or challenge his claims. So, I’m wondering if Elizabeth would like to start a thread (or just let it be discussed in this thread) about the “simple expression” kairosfocus posted?

    Yes, I was thinking that too. Would you like to write one?

  27. Elizabeth, I appreciate the offer, but I’m not qualified to comment specifically on that particular “simple expression”, at least in the way that more qualified people could. There are other things that kairosfocus says that I am qualified to take on but I think that you or someone else would have more intelligent things to say about that particular expression. I just have a feeling that some people would like to comment on it (and other things in the thread I linked above) but have been prevented from doing so because of the moderation policy at UD.

    I have some other ideas for topics of discussion here but I’ll wait until I’ve thought about them more before proposing them. In the meantime I want you to know that I appreciate you letting me post comments here, and that one of the reasons I get blunt about religious sanctimony is because I’m sick and tired of arrogant people saying or implying that there’s something wrong with me and other people, and that our lives are an amoral or immoral waste, just because we do not or may not believe in any god or a particular god.

  28. The whole truth:
    Elizabeth, I appreciate the offer, but I’m not qualified to comment specifically on that particular “simple expression”, at least in the way that more qualified people could. There are other things that kairosfocus says that I am qualified to take on but I think that you or someone else would have more intelligent things to say about that particular expression. I just have a feeling that some people would like to comment on it (and other things in the thread I linked above) but have been prevented from doing so because of the moderation policy at UD.

    I have some other ideas for topics of discussion here but I’ll wait until I’ve thought about them more before proposing them. In the meantime I want you to know that I appreciate you letting me post comments here, and that one of the reasons I get blunt about religious sanctimony is because I’m sick and tired of arrogant people saying or implying that there’s something wrong with me and other people, and that our lives are an amoral or immoral waste, just because we do not or may not believe in any god or a particular god.

    Yes, it’s deeply annoying :)

    I’ll do a post as you suggest. Probably later though – I’m a bit thinly stretched right now, entirely through my own fault.

  29. The whole truth,

    Regarding religious sanctimony, if you take away their sanctimony, they hardly have anything left. Think about how satisfying it must feel to be absolutely certain that you not only hold the one and only TRUTH, but are morally superior to those who don’t.

  30. Elizabeth,

    Yes, Elizabeth, you are too thinly stretched. There is so much error on Uncommon Descent that it’s hard to resist correcting each and every instance. I am in awe of your reasoning, knowledge, and eloquence. But I respectfully suggest that we all would be better served if you will more selective in picking your targets.

  31. Elizabeth:

    Have you seen this comment by faded_Glory?

    I actually have some symphathy for the idea that information requires involvement of a mind. I think though that this is the case on the receiver side, not necessarily on the source side.

    http://www.uncommondescent.com/intelligent-design/michael-denton-on-mathematics-and-stardust/#comment-393522

    The rest of faded_Glory’s comment fleshes out that thought admirably:

    Take an outcrop of sedimentary rocks. These strata were deposited by physical and chemical forces plus a dose of contingency. I doubt anyone sees a need to invoke a mind for the deposition of sediments?

    To a geologist these rocks contain a lot of information. They allow him to reconstruct the ancient depositional processes and environment. But if nobody is looking at it, it is just a pile of rocks without conveying much information at all.

    DNA may be in the same place – it takes a human mind to identify the information in it, but that doesn’t mean there was a mind involved in the generation of it. And I am not yet convinced that the material interactions in the cell really are a form of ínformation when nobody is looking at them.

    I think that nails the concept of “information.” Do you agree?

  32. Well, it makes sense.

    But what has been sort of frustrating is that what I really want to know is: in which sense does anyone who makes the claim that Chance and Necessity cannot generate information mean “information”.

    It can mean lots of things. Words have tend to do so. I happen to think that the claim is false, almost irrespective of definition, but the problem (as I see it!) has been getting a definition that a) someone will stand by when inserted into the claim and b) is non-circular, i.e. does not render the claim circular, as in: “Chance and Necessity cannot generate that which can only be generated by Chance and Necessity”, or the definition circular (defining information in terms like words like “representation” without providing a definition of “representation” that does not include the word “information”).

    Anyway, Upright BiPed has been gracious in his latest offering, and I will try to address his longer post there (when I’ve had time – this week is a bit mad for me). And, of course, I’d be delighted if he’d like to drop by here :)

  33. Heh, thanks Pendant. One tries.

    Nice site this, Lizzie, and I also must add my voice to those who have thanked you for you admirable and stimulating presence on UD.

    Back to information. From all these discussions it is clear that the word is frought with conceptual and definitional problems, and that there are about as many understandings of the term as there are users – quite possibly even more!

    Many people on UD have a tendency to re-ify information (and not just information). I think they see it as some kind of platonic entity that has an existence somewhere on its own, independent from material substrate. If they are wrong on that account the discussions will go nowhere but into the long grass.

    I am more in the camp that sees information as a process, associated with particular configurations of matter and energy. A (potential) interaction with non-trivial consequences.

    There, how’s that for vagueness lol.

    So I try to find analogies. Here is another one:

    Information is a bit like Charity. It needs a source, an intermediate and a receiver. Charity is when person A (source) gives money (the intermediate) to person B (the receiver). Charity is not a thing, it is a process, a chain of interactions. Leave out the receiver and all you have is a pile of money that benefits nobody. Leave out the intermediate and all you have is two people going though some meaningless motions. Leave out the source and all you have is theft.

    You need all the parts plus the process for Charity to come into being. The word ‘Charity’ does not refer to a thing, it is an abstraction, a label we stick to this particular process of entities and interactions.

    Not a perfect analogy, they never are, but perhaps one that clarifies how Information is not a thing by itself, how you can’t isolate information from an object that contains it. Things don’t ‘contain’ information, they are part of the information, and you need to know, or at least suspect, the entire chain before you are justified to call the presence of information.

    Feel free to rip this apart lol.

    fG

  34. The next question then is about the nature of the sender, or to give it a more neutral term, the source.

    As per my sedimentary rock example, I am pretty certain that common usage of the term Information does not require the source to be an intelligent entity or a mind. Physical and chemical processes alone, with a dollop of contingency, can be a source of information. This should not be controversial: science could not exist unless we assume that Nature creates things that inform us about other things. And not just science: many living things couldn’t exist unless they are capable of getting information from their physical environment.

    Given that this is almost trivial, I guess that when people say that the presence of information entails involvement of a mind they don’t refer to the source of the information. Unless of course they define Information as requiring a mind to originate, and also reject the common usage where information is considered to be present in sedimentary rocks, tree rings, stellar spectra and gazillions of other natural entities.

    So if this mind doesn’t have to be the source, where does it come in? Does there have to be a mind at the receiving end for the process to be Information? Clearly it can be, but does it have to be? How about computers? Does the CPU receive information from the hard drive? I’d say yes,because if not, why consider a hard drive to contain information at all?

    Finally then, does a mind have to be present during the interaction process? Again,I don’t think that this is a necessary requirement. My computer runs perfectly well when I’m asleep!

    The more I think about it the more I start to wonder if the involvement of a mind in information is only a requirement at those times when minds consider and discuss information! At other times, it seems perfectly capable of originating, being transmitted and being received without any mind being involved at all.

    To close with another analogy: does the colour Red need a mind? Yes, it does – when people are considering and discussing the colour Red! At other times Nature is perfectly happy to go about the business of producing, transmitting and receiving light with a frequency of 400–484 THz all by itself.

    fG

  35. The mapping may seem arbitrary, but there is good evidence that it didn’t start that way. I talk about this in one of my critiques of Meyer’s book SITC. Click my name for a link to the article (PDF).

  36. Hi Lizzie,

    Just wanted to echo the thoughts of other posters and thank you for setting up this blog. Also to commend you on your contributions over at UD. You have a clarity of thought that is rare on both sides of the debate, and a level of tolerance and patience that everyone should aspire to.

    Dave

  37. As a long time admirer of Febble and her foibles on TR, I’m delighted to see that Dr. Liddle has decided to start her own discussion forum/blog.

    One of the issues I don’t see discussed very frequently Is the importance placed by Dembski and others (KairosFocus) on the quantity of information in the various ID claims.

    As to definitions, for the purposes of this post, I’m willing to use the operational definition of “bits of information” as the number of binary choices necessary to reliably establish ( remove the uncertainty of ) the specific effect (functional meaning) from among the realm of alternate possibilities, a la Merriam-Webster.

    Lizzie states the ID claim she intends to falsify as:
    “Chance and Necessity cannot create information, where information is arrangements of things that have specific effects.”
    yet my understanding of Dembski’s claim In “The Design Inference“, is not that Chance and Necessity cannot create any meaningful, (specified) information, but only that the design inference is justified if the quantity of information under consideration exceeds the “UPB” level of complexity for “CSI” defined as approximately 500 bits, This is also reflected in KF’s “Chi metric”. I believe most ID advocates are willing to concede that Chance and Necessity can produce modest amounts of information, just never enough to exceed the 500 bit threshold.

    Now, not all ID advocates adhere to this metric, but the ones that do tend to dismiss the possibility of accumulation of information through the ratchet effect of inheritance. I’ve even seen the claim (KF), that if the 500-bit threshold is not crossed “all at once”, it doesn’t count as CSI. I’ve never been able to understand this objection, other than that if the accumulation/ratchet is accepted, it obliterates the claim that CSI necessarily entails teleological design, or at least requires the additional dependent claim of insufficient time/resources to reach the CSI threshold, a much weaker claim.

    In order to preclude the possible moving of goalposts, any falsification of the “no CSI from Nature” claim probably needs to also show at least the plausibility of information accumulation.

  38. If we grant that information can be quantified somehow as the number of bits in a genome that are operative in creating the phenotype, we have said nothing about the history that placed those bits.

    The question being asked is one of history. Did the bits accumulate through variation and feedback, or were they placed by the intervention of a nameless, entity having no attributes.

    GAs tell us that any arbitrary string can be created by variation and feedback, so the basic mechanism of evolution is sufficient.

    The remaining questions have to do with sufficient time and sufficient connectability.

    By connectability I mean, can the universe of viable (functional) sequences connect all the sequences required for common descent, assuming known processes of variation. The related question is, has there been sufficient time.

    Those are questions for biochemistry, and the equivalent to the question of whether geologic time is sufficient to account for observed geologic structures.

    Douglas Axe tried to demonstrate that protein sequences are not connectable, but he failed to ask the relevant question: Are modern sequences connectable by descent? He asked if modern sequences could be bridged by mutation, without considering common descent.

    He also assumed that modern sequences represent a target or goal, rather than the result of divergence and selection.

  39. Sorry your post got stuck in the spam filter!

    I did enjoy your very thoughtful review. I’m still making may way through signature, and while I agree there is much to admire (Meyer deals with some issues exceptionally clearly), I am finding it it frustrating – frequently, Meyer will imply a serious chicken-and-egg problem as though it is insuperable. Chicken-and-egg problems are only insuperable if they are Irreducibly Complex Chickens and Eggs, and he does not demonstrate that they are!

  40. Dennis Venema,

    The mapping may seem arbitrary, but there is good evidence that it didn’t start that way.

    Am I correct in that you have used the words “good evidence”, where others might have used “speculation” or “investigative research”?

    Perhaps you could elaborate on what exactly constitutes “evidence”, or even “good evidence”, as opposed to interesting ideas.

  41. Lizzie,

    I just noticed this when following a link at AtBC:

    My original claim, as I recall, was something along the lines of: it can be readily demonstrated that the signature of intentional design is also the signature of Darwinian evolutionary processes, and by “signature”, I meant “CSI”.

    When I realised you meant something else, I was willing to have a go at falsifying your claim as well. But as I have failed to operationalise your claim as a testable counter-hypothesis, I concede I cannot falsify it.

    Which is a shame, as it would have been fun.

    If I might ask, do you intend to continue to participate on UD in the hopes of getting Upright BiPed to agree to an operational definition or is that project shelved unless and until Upright BiPed shows some willingness to work with you constructively by posting here?

    As I’ve mentioned before, I am thoroughly unconvinced that any ID proponent is interested in actually testing any of the claims they make. While I still wish you the best of luck in proving me wrong, at the very least your efforts over the past few months have clearly demonstrated that several oft repeated ID claims are completely lacking in clarity, let alone scientific support.

  42. Patrick:
    Lizzie,

    I just noticed this when following a link at AtBC:

    If I might ask, do you intend to continue to participate on UD in the hopes of getting Upright BiPed to agree to an operational definition or is that project shelved unless and until Upright BiPed shows some willingness to work with you constructively by posting here?

    As I’ve mentioned before, I am thoroughly unconvinced that any ID proponent is interested in actually testing any of the claims they make.While I still wish you the best of luck in proving me wrong, at the very least your efforts over the past few months have clearly demonstrated that several oft repeated ID claims are completely lacking in clarity, let alone scientific support.

    Well, we seem to have reached an impasse.

    UBP did say “go ahead” on one of my proposals, but wouldn’t go as far as to lay claim to the hypothesis that would be falsified.

    And, frankly, given the “dishonesty” crap, I’m not motivated to push it any more. I have a fairly tough hide, but there can be one too many accusations of dishonesty, after which my soul starts to sour.

    But I’m sort of interested in why communication broke down. Clearly Upright BiPed thought he was being crystal clear, and that I was simply muddying the waters. And of course, my perception is the exact reverse.

    The key to so much of science is to clarifying the relationship between high level concepts and low-level measures, and I think some people have an actual principled resistance among to the very concept that high level concepts can be broken down into measurable pieces. Indeed the whole notion of “construct validity” and “ecological validity” reflects concerns about losing things in translation. But yhat’s why Upright BiPed’s definitions seemed circular to me, and why mine, presumably, seemed to miss the point to him. It still seems to me that it was the implicit reductionism in my proposed operationalisations that was bothering him – somehow those words like “inert” and “protocol” and “representation” and “break in the causal chain” must capture something missed by a mere physical description of a virtual molecule’s interactions with another virtual molecules.

    And it wasn’t helped by some fundamental misunderstandings. I still don’t know what Upright BiPed meant when he seemd to claim that a categorical variable has no variance, and at some level, I suspect that slip reflects a deeper misunderstanding about how quantitative hypotheses are tested – perhaps a sense that categories are somehow immaterial and so exempt from statistical analysis.

    In fact the whole idea that “information” and “patterns” are “immaterial” and thus somehow omitted from “materialist” models is quite pervasive, I think, even if not made explicit. It certainly dogs the Mind/Brain debate – the idea that if something “reduces” to physical processes, somehow something must have been missed in the reduction.

    Well, sure – wholes have properties not possessed by their parts, which is why correlating their parts in the context of the whole, tells you something interesting about the whole!

    Interesting.

    Hmmm.

  43. Elizabeth,

    But I’m sort of interested in why communication broke down.

    I don’t think anyone could seriously attribute any blame to you, considering the way you conducted yourself. You have managed to remain sanguine in the face of much provocation for much longer than I would have predicted.

    I think it was worth the effort. ID proponents had the opportunity to support their concept on their own ground. You demonstrated the strength of their concept most clearly.

  44. KF’s go-to dodge seems to be “No I’ve laready calculated CSI elsewhere” when he obviously hasn’t. He hasn’t even come up with good *estimations*

  45. Well, there seems to me to be real confusion between arguments – is the argument that Darwinism can’t work because the search space is too sparse? (Which at least is a decent argument IMO)

    Or is it that Darwinism can’t work in principle because Information Must Be Conserved?

    Or is it that Darwinism can’t work because life falls into some rejection region of some unspecified null pdf?

  46. Which is why your strategy on insisting on a clear definition from the commenter “UB” was so effective. There as many concepts as there are ID proponents, it seems. Otherwise you’d be cutting off the Hydra’s head.

  47. From reading the discussion between Lizzie and UprightBiped over the past months (I must say that the latest UD formatting makes it very painful to keep track of comments in chronological order) my takeaway is that UBP has an idiosyncratic view on information that is very different from Dembski’s. He repeatedly asserts that information has a very specific method which must be used in order to confirm its existence. As he says, “this is the method Nirenberg and Matthaei used to win the Nobel Prize, and it’s the only method known to exist. To confirm the existence of information – any information – one has to isolate the representations, decipher the protocols, and document the effects. ”

    Now, how does all this relate to Dembski’s concept of CSI? Where in UBP’s description is the complexity? Where is the specificity? Why does Dembski never mention repesentations or protocols? What sort of overlap, if any, is there between UBP’s and Dembski’s take on information and how it points to ID? Why would anyone be tempted to think that UBP Information and Dembski CSI are the same thing, or even related? If not, who the heck is UPB and why would anyone care about his personal definitions, let alone spend months to try and falsify them?

    Lizzie, if I were you I wouldn’t be bothered by UPB, his definition of information and how to detect it. He is pretty much on his own, the cheering from the sidelines notwithstanding. Would you spend all this energy on a debate with, say, Ilion? I guess not. Then why bother with UPB?

    If you have any energy left you could rewind the discussion all the way back to Dembski’s CSI. It is very telling that nobody on UD has taken up your challenge on the original concept as presented by one of the leading theoreticians of the movement (I can’t call it a discipline). Even when Dembski waded in eventually, he limited his comment to the issue of Fisherian vs. Bayesian hypothesis testing and never even engaged the ideas posited by UPB let alone endorse them. That should tell us something.

    UPB’s incredibly boorish behaviour alone would fully justify you backing out of the discussion, let alone his refusal to subscribe to an operationalisation of his own definition. Ignoring him from here on will surely result in a triumphant outcry from the usual suspects on UD, that you have walked away because you can’t back up your position. Just let that slide. If you were to re-issue your challenge but focussing on Dembski’s CSI you would prove that claim false. It would be interesting to see if there is even any one single person on UD who would be willing to step into the ring and work with you to subject Dembski’s claims to experimental testing. I seriously doubt it, unless it would be vjtorley, and he is a much more civil person than UPB (as long as you steer clear of questioning biblical atrocities, that is).

    fG

  48. Yeah, I’ve had enough. I realised that I was an experiencing an actual aversive reaction when I clicked on a UBP response link, so definitely time to bail out!

    I’m still intrigued though, by the disconnect.

    What does it take to be convinced that another person is lying to you – when they aren’t?

  49. Elizabeth: Yeah, I’ve had enough. I realised that I was an experiencing an actual aversive reaction when I clicked on a UBP response link, so definitely time to bail out!I’m still intrigued though, by the disconnect.What does it take to be convinced that another person is lying to you – when they aren’t?

    You’ll be lying a long as you don’t confirm what he thinks. A system that is impervious to reason.

  50. I think your mistake was clear: You were trying to engage in a scientific discussion with a religious zealot. Wasn’t it Upton Sinclair who noted that you can’t get someone to understand a fact when they believe their salary depends on them not understanding it? Similarly, you can’t get someone to understand a fact when they believe that the fate of their immortal soul depends on that fact not being true. I don’t pretend to have any understanding of the cognitive mechanisms which religious faith exploits and distorts, but the observed behavior of religious people when confronted with ideas that they believe to be in conflict with their religious beliefs is, it seems to me, pretty damned clear evidence that religious faith *does* exploit and distort a variety of cognitive mechanisms. And as best I can tell, the behavior of the whole UD crowd, UBP in particular, can accurately be characterized as “religious zealots rejecting what they perceive as a threat to the One True Faith they all hold”.

  51. Darwinism — evolution — can’t work because it *must* not work. It’s analogous to the anti-vaccine movement, whose members Know For A Fact that vaccines are evil and wrong; anti-vax’ers change the ‘window dressing’ of their arguments, but the immutable, unchanging core of those arguments is *always* that vaccines are evil and wrong. Similarly, supporters of the ID movement Know For A Fact that evolution Just Can’t Work, and they cling to this Eternal Truth regardless of what ‘window dressing’ they surround it with. If you’re trying to get a committed ID supporter to change their mind about evolution, evidence and rational argument won’t do the job; what you need is a deprogrammer.

  52. My jaded view on the whole UBP-Lizzie affair is that they all (including Dembski) know, or strongly suspect, that CSI is unmeasurable, that the EF is flawed, and that Darwinian procecess can create information of any reasonable definition, and further, that the selection-inheritance ratchet can accumulate arbitrary amounts of it.
    UBP came up with a contorted, hyper-specific., but still vague enough to defy operationalizing, definition of information that he believes encapsulates the the DNA-to-protein transcription process, for which there is no current Darwinian explanation.
    To falsify his idiosyncratic definition, a GA simulation would have to produce the entire transcription process in fine detail from scratch, that in the end, would be pointed at with the declaration: “see? the simulation was designed!. Gotcha!”.

  53. Cubist: I think your mistake was clear: You were trying to engage in a scientific discussion with a religious zealot.

    Yes, I would say that is right.

    I have mostly tried to avoid engaging in long arguments at UD. I’ll sometimes raise issues, to see how people respond. But when they respond with nonsense, there isn’t much point in continuing.

  54. Elizabeth: Well, there seems to me to be real confusion between arguments – is the argument that Darwinism can’t work because the search space is too sparse? (Which at least is a decent argument IMO)

    You have to keep in mind that they are attacking a strawman version of evolution. They are not interested in learning the real version, because that would be harder for them to attack.

  55. Lizzie,

    I think you hit the nail on the head with your comment on August 16th:

    OK, Upright BiPed, I’m going to be frank: I think the reason we have failed to communicate in this conversation is not because I have been difficult, or evasive, or dishonest (obviously), nor do I think it is because you have been. I think it is because I am coming at this as a trained scientist and you are not

    No ID proponent on UD has the necessary background, nor even the interest, in the scientific method to understand the importance of the operational definitions you are trying to create. That alone demonstrates that they do not hold their views for scientific, or even rational, reasons.

    Cubist has identified the core issue in his/her comment above. ID cannot be wrong because that would make the ID proponents’ religious beliefs wrong, and those are beyond question. This is why no ID proponent will ever willingly make a testable prediction — the risk isn’t just that an hypothesis will be overturned but that a tenet of faith could be challenged.

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