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 🙂



*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. Alan FoxAlan Fox

    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.

  2. faded_Glory

    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).


  3. 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?

  4. RichRich

    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.

  5. Cubist

    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”.

  6. Cubist

    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.

  7. Sledgehammer

    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!”.

  8. Neil Rickert

    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.

  9. Neil Rickert

    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.

  10. Patrick


    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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