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Theistic Evolution--Functional Information (ASA talk)

Posted By Randall D. Isaac, Saturday, August 4, 2018

It’s been a while since I’ve posted since I’ve been busy with preparations for the ASA meeting at Gordon College. One of the sessions included three presentations responding to this Theistic Evolution book. Denis Lamoureux gave a presentation addressing the theological critique, my talk covered the scientific critique, and Jim Stump addressed the philosophical critique. The links in that sentence take you to the multi-media recordings of those talks. In this post, I would like to briefly summarize the talk that I gave. A copy of my slides is attached.

As I have indicated in a previous post of this series, the primary, pervasive scientific critique of theistic evolution in this book is the dominant argument for ID from information. It says that evolution cannot be the cause of the generation of new information like that in the genetic code and that it has been shown that an intelligent mind can and must generate such information. The basis for this statement is the assertion frequently made in lectures, videos and books by Steve Meyer and other advocates of Intelligent Design that “all our experience shows that information can only be generated by an intelligent mind.” Applying this principle to biological systems means that the genetic code could only have been generated by an intelligent mind. Hence, evolution is not valid and ID is.

Let’s take a closer look at that assertion. First of all, it is an inductive argument which means that it could be falsified by any counterexample. Inductive arguments also need some rationale for extending the inference beyond the scope of the known examples. Secondly, it is important to understand the definition of the term “information” as used in this sentence. It is not the same as the term “information” used by scientists in information theory. It is not the same as “Shannon information” used by communications engineers. Rather it is known as “functional information” also referred to as “complex specified information” or “algorithmic specified complexity.” This specific type of information is meaningful information referring only to information that has the appropriate meaning.

As an example of functional information, consider the sentence in the assertion itself. It is composed of 63 letters and 13 spaces and a period. As printed above, this sentence has relevant meaning and is therefore functional. If these letters and spaces are randomly scrambled, the result would be gibberish and the information is no longer functional. What is the probability that continued attempts at random scrambling would eventually lead to a meaningful sentence, and this assertion in particular? Zero, or so close that it is essentially zero. In scientific terms, there is still information in the gibberish, it just doesn’t have meaning. In functional information, there is no information in gibberish, only in the desired sentence or any sequence that bears the same meaning. Only an intelligent mind with a knowledge of English could construct such a sequence in a practical timeframe.

Meyer then cites numerous examples from language, phone numbers, software, engineering designs, etc. to show that each of these requires an intelligent mind to achieve functional information. He then asserts through inductive logic that this requirement of an intelligent mind is a requisite for all types of functional information. Since the genetic code is clearly an example of functional information in a genome, then he says an intelligent mind must have been involved in establishing that code. However, he does not articulate the basis for a connection between intelligence and functional information.

My observation is that in the biological realm, there are ubiquitous examples of the generation of new functional information without the involvement of an intelligent mind. Every act of reproduction involves the rearrangement or modification, whether through sexual crossover or mutations, of the genetic base pairs in the genome. In all cases, this amounts to new functional information whether infinitesimally new or significantly different. The only intelligence that might be observed is that from mate selection in higher organisms but no direct modification, notwithstanding the current promise of such gene-editing ability in the future. Specific examples of new information in biology are provided in the informative series of 14 blog-posts by Dennis Venema. Every event of reproduction therefore seems to be a counterexample that falsifies the inductive logic of the assertion that all functional information requires an intelligent mind.

My proposal is that functional information is connected to intelligence through abstract relationships in the determination of functionality. One of the most important defining hallmarks of intelligence is the ability for abstract reasoning. Therefore, whenever the criterion for functionality involves an abstract relationship, intelligence is necessarily involved. This applies to all of the experiences to which Meyer and other advocates appeal. However, biological systems do not require any abstract relationship for determining what information is functional. The criterion for functionality of any organism is to survive and be successful in reproduction. This is an existential criterion and no abstract relationship is involved. It cannot therefore be inferred that intelligence is required for biological functional information.

To repeat this conclusion in different terms, it is the determination of functionality that indicates whether or not intelligence is required. If information is determined to be functional or not through an abstract relationship, then intelligence is required. If no abstract connection is needed to determine functionality, then it cannot be asserted that an intelligent mind must have been involved, though it might have been.

My conclusion is that the fundamental principle of the Intelligent Design paradigm is unpersuasive. No compelling evidence has been brought forward that nature cannot generate new functional information like the genetic code nor that intelligent minds were required to do so. The ID philosophy has not been shown to be a viable scientific perspective to be considered alongside the theory of evolution.

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Comments on this post...

Paul R. Bruggink says...
Posted Saturday, August 4, 2018
Your slides are an excellent summary. Thank you for posting them.
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Tony Isaac says...
Posted Sunday, August 5, 2018
Thank you for the insightful post! It does a good job of highlighting the basic difference between those who believe in intelligent design, and those who believe in un-guided evolution.

Your counter-example has some limitations. The process of reproduction does result in seemingly random mutations in each generation. However, these mutations are well-controlled. There are numerous processes within mitosis that take great care to fix any mutations that might cause "damage." Further, there are redundant larger-scale processes within organisms that root out and destroy cells that escape the first level of "error" correction. These processes have a purpose: to preserve and perpetuate life. This is, at a molecular level, a truly abstract purpose.

It is not necessarily true that only abstract meanings require intelligent design. Abstract meanings are assigned to op codes in computer programs, for example, clearly requiring intelligent design. But analog algorithms, such as electrical impulses used in traditional telephone service, do not have abstract meaning, yet certainly do require intelligent design. A house, or an 19th-century factory, also require intelligent design, though the design of each do not depend on abstract meaning.
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Randall D. Isaac says...
Posted Sunday, August 5, 2018
Thanks, Tony. First, let me clarify that I did not claim (or at least did not intend to claim if I did so) that only abstract relationships require intelligence. There may well be other conditions that require it. My point was that abstraction is something we know is connected to intelligence as usually defined. It occurs virtually always in human designs and certainly in all examples offered by Meyer for his argument. It does not occur in biological systems so unless some other factor is identified as connecting functional information with intelligence, we cannot assert that there MUST have been an intelligent mind connected with it. It does not rule out the possibility and of course we all believe in the intelligent design of our creator that designed all processes.

No, the error correction processes at any level are not abstract in any way that I can see. Having a purpose or function is not evidence of abstraction nor is the function of correction. I submit that the criterion is when the determination of functionality involves an abstract relationship. As far as I know, that never occurs in any of these biochemical correction processes. They fix physical abnormalities in an amazing array of complexity but I have yet to see any evidence of an abstract connection. Ultimately, the only determination of functionality in biology is survival and success in reproduction. That is not an abstraction.

I would also point out that your example of analog algorithms does involve abstraction in the following sense. What determines whether the algorithm is functional? The answer is when the system achieves the result that matches the intent or design of the engineer. That is an abstract relationship. that nature cannot comprehend. Similarly, houses and factories are functional when they conform to the blueprint or provide the intended usefulness, and that is an abstract comparison.
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Tony Isaac says...
Posted Sunday, August 5, 2018
<< Ultimately, the only determination of functionality in biology is survival and success in reproduction. >>

This is an assertion commonly made by those who already believe that life came about through un-guided processes, because they have no other choice within that belief system. No objective observer (someone without these pre-existing beliefs) would conclude, observing the exquisite design and functionality of biological systems, that survival and reproductive success are the ONLY determinations of functionality in biology.

The design of biological systems is not simply "good enough" for survival. The designs we see are sophisticated, nuanced, and redundant. Is it a mere accident that we humans can argue about the nature and origin of our existence? Does this reasoning contribute in some way to our ability to survive and reproduce? I think not.
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Randall D. Isaac says...
Posted Sunday, August 5, 2018
Great questions, Tony, but first, I will respectfully disagree with your assertion that this is based on a belief in an unguided process. I refer you to Jim Stump’s talk which is linked in this post. No, we all agree that it is guided at a theological level. This assertion is based on empirical evidence and common observation. If you are thinking of God having a plan or specific design for the characteristics of an organism and that functionality should indicate whether that design is fulfilled, then you are operating on a very different level from nature and we’ll let science defer to theology.
You do raise a good question about what does “functionality” mean. Yes, we see very sophisticated, nuanced, and redundant systems in an organism . Does that in any way alter the criterion for survival and success in reproduction? I don’t see how. If you are presupposing that there exists an independent plan for an organism to have a particular set of characteristics including capabilities, intellects, etc., and then define functionality as whether the organism meets that criteria, then you could invent an abstract determination of functionality. But evolution doesn’t do that and doesn’t need to. All it cares about is survival and success in reproduction. The capabilities of abstract reasoning and the characteristics that you call sophisticated, nuanced, and redundant are traits that can help a species to have differential reproductive success. But for an individual organism, survival and success in reproduction is the only measure that counts and those traits help enhance that success but aren’t the goal in and of themselves.
As for the fact that we humans argue about the nature and origin of our existence, I don’t see a direct impact on our ability to survive and reproduce either. Indirectly though, it is a byproduct of our cognitive abilities which do greatly enhance our “cooperative interdependence,” as Jeff Schloss put it in his plenary talk on Monday. That ability helps our species survive. Evolution will settle for anything that sustains the species.
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