Thursday, March 24, 2011

A recent post at uncommon descent

MathGrrl says "Thank you in advance for helping me understand CSI. Let’s do some math!"

I confess to only skimming through this thread as it seems to be pretty much a rehash of the pro-ID, or we might say pro-mind, and the anti-ID, or we might say the naturalist/materialist/physicalist - NMPist - view which claims (apparently) that the source of biological information (complex, functional, specified, or whatever) is time plus natural selection, that is to say, the laws of physics. In other words, what is the CAUSE of information?

Most every biologist I've read, even on the pro-NDT side (Mayr, Crick, Dawkins, Coyne, etc...) has no problem with the idea that there is indeed such a thing as biological information. Dawkins actually says in "River Out of Eden" on page 19 that "Life is just bytes and bytes and bytes of digital information." I quote him not to offer a "proof" of this but merely to point out that since the discovery of the structure of DNA by Crick and Watson the idea of biological information has taken on ever increasing importance in biology and is widely recognized to exist. Laying aside for the moment whether or not it can be measured to mf's or mg's satisfaction.

Just for fun, let's consider human information. The kind that is created by, well, humans. Like this post. What is the source of this information? Is it also the laws of physics as the NMPist would have us believe? Or is it mind, as I would have us believe?

If we consider the prerequisites for human information I think we can identify at least 4 or 5 depending on how you count language. Let's count the symbols and rules of language as 2. Those rules operate within the laws of reason so these rules (Being, Identity, Non-contradiction, Excluded Middle, Causality) are pre-req 3. How are the symbols arranged in order to encode a message? It seems as though they must be freely chosen. Otherwise, how to account for the fact that I am typing this instead of that? There is no POSSIBLE explanation grounded in physical law for why I am typing this instead of that which suggests the question, well then, if physics isn't doing it then what is? That's for another time. The last thing that is (at least) required is intentionality or purpose. A "scientist" might say "causality." What is it that causes these letters to appear "out here" in cyberspace? It seems that whatever it is that is freely arranging these English symbols in a (one hopes) logical fashion is also intending to do this. Otherwise, obviously, it wouldn't be done.

To recap, we need:
Symbols, rules, reason, free will, and purpose. Without these there is no human information.

So the NMPist now has to explain the existence of this information in terms of the laws of physics. If he wants to be intellectually honest, that is. After all, if NMPism means that all that exists is physical then obviously it follows that all explanations of these physical things MUST be found in the laws of physics. (Never mind for a moment the glaring - embarrassingly so - fact that these laws are also abstract and therefore beyond the reach of "science" because they cannot be sensed. I doubt that anyone has ever tasted or heard the law of gravity.)

Can the laws of physics explain any of the things on my list? No. It is not even conceptually possible since information (although encoded in a physical substrate) is not itself physical. And if it's not physical then physics can't explain it.

Let me try to illustrate with some examples.

Why does "the dog" refer to Fido and "der Hund" also refer to Fido? Can this possibly be explained by reference to the laws of physics? No. It cannot. Why does "Es regnet" mean "it's raining in German and means absolutely nothing in English? Can this be explained by reference to physical laws? No. It cannot.

If b < c, and a < b, then a < c. This is necessarily true. Not even God can make it not true. So explain that in terms of physical law. Cannot be done.

Free will cannot be explained by reference to physical law. Indeed the thorough going NMPist denies free will because everything must be explained by reference to physical LAW. We have the delicious irony of the fool denying that he has free will even as he exercises his free will to form the thought that he has none.

Intentionality cannot be explained by physics. Indeed, this is why Dawkins and the rest rail against the idea of there being real purpose or design or intentionality in the universe. Let me offer a quick modus tollens argument to show the idiocy of this line of thinking.

If I did not intend to be writing this post, I would not be writing this post. But I am writing this post. Therefore I do INTEND to be writing this post.

For me, it is not too great a step to get from human information to biological information. There HAS to be a code for information of any kind. The code is not based on any laws of physics that I've ever read about.

In fact, Yockey (2005), the physicist, says they are not. Oh heck, let me quote him. He says on page 5 that:

"The belief of mechanist-reductionists that the chemical processes in living matter do not differ in principle from those in dead matter is incorrect. There is no trace of messages determining the results of chemical reactions in inanimate matter. If genetical processes were just complicated biochemistry, the laws of mass action and thermodynamics would govern the placement of amino acids in the protein sequences." BUT THEY DON'T. OK, that last part was me, not Yockey, but that was his point.

In addition to the code there must be rules (else how did we recognize the existence of the CODE?). There must be free will (the code is not determined by the laws of physics - although - obviously - none of the chemical reactions violate the laws of physics). And purpose. Sigh. Why would there be anything at all unless someone (or SomeOne) determined that there would be? At any rate, I do not expect this will gain any traction in the anti-ID camp but every now and again one has to try.

If mg is still reading you might ask yourself what "doing math" actually means. At its essence it's manipulating symbols according to various and sundry laws. Mathematics is a language too. A universal language. So how is it that you can manipulate those symbols freely?