Information Means Something

December 10, 2012

DNA, G-d, Origins of Life

This entry is part 8 of 9 in the series DNA

As Stephen Meyer notes, information means something.  Information is intricately related to intellectual activity.  Intellectual, conscious people organize, communicate and record information.  What’s more – they create information.  And, of course, they encode information.

As such, the discovery of information at the heart of the cell and all of life has real, significant and meaningful implications.  At the very least there are philosophical and/or theological implications.  There may even be scientific implications as the intelligent design community claims.   Either way, the implications have to be faced head on and related to – not simply explained away or brushed aside to deal with at a later time.

And the main implication (or at least the one that I want to discuss) is that ultimately speaking the source of biological information must be an entity or agent capable of intelligent activity.  You simply can’t get specified, functional information without an intelligent source.  That’s simply how the world works.

Or is it?

Not So Fast

Perhaps I’m a bit too quick to jump to conclusions.  It’s all nice and good to talk about ultimate sources and meaning, but let’s think this through first.

Maybe there is a naturalistic process that can produce information?  Maybe there is a chemical or physical explanation that accounts for the specialized sequence of nucleotides in DNA?  Maybe it is just a matter of time until we discover the answer.  After all, the fact that we don’t currently understand something does not mean that we will never understand it.  We just need to give the scientific process time to work its magic.

These are serious points which should be taken seriously.  So let’s do just that.

I Can Explain That (Eventually)

First, let’s talk about the possibility that someday we will discover the answer.  That is definitely possible.  It has happened more than once before where a scientist (even one as prominent as Newton) has mistakenly resorted to invoking G-d to explain some physical phenomenon that ultimately speaking had a naturalistic explanation.

This is, of course, the famous G-d of the Gaps.

This is a legitimate concern.  What seems impossible to understand today, can be basic high school classroom material tomorrow.  So shouldn’t I be a bit more patient before making such dramatic claims.

Perhaps, but there are two main reasons why I stand by my claim.

The first (and more minor) reason is that no one knows the nature of future scientific discoveries.  Today, science seems to be overflowing with evidence that the ‘physical’ world has a decidedly non-physical, intellectual foundation.  An absolute beginning to the universe, fine-tuned properties of nature, molecular machines, genetic codes, cellular communications – all of this and more screams out to a higher, purposely acting, intellectual power.

Who is to say that future discoveries and explanations won’t just reinforce this?

Or, put more simply, who says that future scientific discoveries will remove G-d from the picture?  Perhaps it will make Him an ever more present and crucial part of the picture?

The truth is that we just have no idea what we’ll discover.  Who could have predicted relativity, quantum mechanics, the Big Bang, DNA, molecular machines or cellular communication?  The scientific discoveries of the 20th century literally turned our understanding of the world upside down.  And as we have come to understand the significance of these discoveries we have found more and more room for G-d in science, not less.

Of Turtles and Explanations

But there is a more fundamental reason why appeals to future scientific discoveries and explanations just won’t cut it here – and that centers around one deliberately used word:  ‘ultimately’.

The word ultimately means that when all is said and done, somehow or other,  in some way or other, an Intellectual force was involved.  That is to say, the fundamental source of biological information is intellectual, not physical.

That means that science can work on discovering all of the naturalistic explanations that it is capable of, but eventually those explanations will come to an end (it’s simply not naturalistic explanations all the way down).  And when they do end, there will be something left over, something unexplained, something akin to the fine-tunings of the universe and the need to set initial conditions of the Big Bang so that it bangs in the right way.

Now, it could be that we have already discovered that something – the information itself.  Or it could be something yet to be discovered.  Either way, it is there.

The reason for such a claim is that ultimately speaking you don’t get specified, functional information from naturalistic processes or blind forces of nature.  The only current, conceivable exception to this  rule is to postulate a system where chance can rule – such as large chunks of time or an infinite number of universes.

The problem for chance, though, is that it is rarely ever given a chance to succeed.    The large chunks of time that scientists like George Wald liked to throw about (“time is the hero”, “time performs the miracles”) turned out not to be there (as Scientific American, and perhaps Wald himself, eventually admitted).  The first cells seem to appear shortly after the earth cools off.  Life as we know it seems to explode onto the scene rather than gradually evolve.

And in terms of an infinite number of slightly different universes – we’ll let time tell us whether or not to take that theory seriously.  Perhaps there is more than one universe, and perhaps science will someday figure out a way to demonstrate that.  But until they do, I see no reason to take the consider the idea.

After all, there is no end to speculative ideas, one could waste one’s entire life pursuing or refuting them.  I prefer to do neither.  As I like to say, discover it, study it, understand it – and then we’ll talk.

So given that I don’t think that chance has much of a chance at explaining biological information (or any other grand, ultimate question that chance is used to invoke), I don’t take it very seriously.  If others want to pin truth, knowledge and all of eternity on some speculative chance-based theory, so be it.  Just leave me out of the conversation.

Changing Our Perception

So, as we were saying, information is an intellectual property.  It is not created by laws or random processes.  It is created, as far as we know, by a mind.  What’s more, such a claim doesn’t stifle scientific inquiry (it may even encourage it).

One can still wonder if there is some sort of naturalistic process that can account for biological information.  Of course, one is not obligated to do so.  One can take think the pursuit is a waste of time and/or research dollars, but the option is open to those who wish to take it.

While science may march peacefully on, it’s won’t quite march the same way.  Something has changed here – something of fundamental importance; namely, our perception of how we relate to the nature of and ultimate origins of life and the cells that make up life.

In short, biological information puts G-d back into the biological picture (after all, I imagine that’s who most of us think the Intelligent designer is).  It states that life was purposely created.  It says all this and more because that is what information says.

G-d, Creation and Information

In light of the above it is interesting to note that all of this fits rather nicely with the first chapter of the Bible.  When reading the story of creation, it’s important  to note that (for the most part) G-d speaks reality into existence:

  • And G-d said, let the earth bring forth vegetation…
  • And G-d said, let the waters team with crawling life…
  • And G-d said, let the earth bring forth living creatures…

Speech is obviously an intellectual activity.  What’s more, it is one of the primary ways in which we communicate and transmit information.

How interesting to note, then, that information is at the heart of biological organisms.  And that information doesn’t seem solely confined to DNA.  Cellular communication also involves information.  Indeed, often times the very physical structures of living creatures depend upon information (more on this another time).

Information permeates life.  Or, as I once heard, life is matter shaped by information.  Perhaps one aspect of creation is G-d transmitting or communicating that information to matter.

G-d created the earth so that it can bring forth vegetation and living creatures – if it ‘knows’ how.  G-d similarly created the waters so that they can team with crawling life – if they ‘know’ how.

But, of course, the earth and the waters do not know how, the material doesn’t possess any knowledge.  Only G-d possesses that knowledge – a knowledge which he imparted to the physical world at each and every stage of creation.

That knowledge might appear in the form of intricately structured physical environments working in conjunction with sophisticated genetic codes and algorithms.  Or it may appear in other ways unbeknownst to us.  Either way, at some point or other information needs to be imparted to the system – and the Torah’s portrayal of how G-d created the world seems to fit in very nicely with that fact.

Image from Wikipedia

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