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This blog compiles the occasional musings of Randy Isaac who was ASA Executive Director from 2005 to 2016 and is now ASA Director Emeritus.


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Detection of Intelligent Design

Posted By Randall D. Isaac, Wednesday, February 27, 2019

On January 1, 2019, Stephen Meyer published a post called “Intelligent Design Is Detectable by Science” on the blog. His main point can be summarized in this way. Functional (aka complex specified) information is necessarily and universally linked to intelligence so that when we observe functional information in DNA we can reliably infer that there must have been an intelligent agent. Since scientific methods can detect functional information in DNA, then an intelligent agent is detectable by science.

Meyer justifies the linkage between functional information and intelligence by citing a wealth of examples where we know such information requires an intelligent agent. His inductive argument relies solely on examples of human-designed systems such as language and computer programs. He then assumes without justification that this necessary linkage between information and intelligence can be extended from the human design realm to the biological realm. Yet he offers no indication of how and why functional information is connected to intelligence and no rationale for the universality of such linkage. This is a critical missing step in Meyer’s logic that needs to be supplied before his conclusion can be credibly considered.

I would suggest that one possible linkage between functional information and intelligence is abstract reasoning. Whenever functionality of information is determined by abstract relationships, then intelligence is indeed necessarily involved. However, when functionality is determined by physical relationships instead of abstract relationships, then no conclusion can be made about intelligence. In the case of biological systems, functional information of DNA is determined by the survival and ability to reproduce of the organism. This is a physical and not an abstract relationship. Thus it would seem that the connection between functional information and intelligence cannot be extended to the biological realm.

Tags:  information  intelligent design  theistic evolution 

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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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Tags:  information  theistic evolution 

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Theistic Evolution: The Source of New Information

Posted By Randall D. Isaac, Monday, February 12, 2018

Part 1 of the book we are discussing is devoted to a scientific critique of theistic evolution. The crux of the critique is that evolution is not a viable scientific theory and therefore it doesn’t make sense to try to connect it with Christianity. The claim that evolution is not viable has two main prongs. One is that evolution cannot account for the creation of new information as needed to generate the current biosphere. The other is that there is insufficient evidence for universal common descent. I will address the latter in the next post and I have already partially considered the first one in a previous post. In this post I want to focus more specifically on this first claim that evolution cannot create new information.

The first claim is sometimes called the “Law of Conservation of Information” which can be simply summarized as “new information can only be created by an intelligent agent.” The ubiquitous increase in complexity and information observed in the biosphere is therefore evidence that evolution is an inadequate explanation of nature and that there must be an intelligent agent that we as Christians worship as our God.

Very simply, there is no such universal law. It is an invention of the ID community to extend the concept to biology and is repeated often enough to become familiar to many. In their book An Introduction to Evolutionary Informatics, which I reviewed in the June 2017 issue of PSCF, Marks, et. al., trace the origin of this so-called law to Lady Asa Lovelace. She worked closely with Charles Babbage on mechanical computational machines and pondered the ability of machines to behave like humans. In the ensuing years, there have been many debates about whether artificial intelligence really exists and whether computer simulations can truly generate new information. Those who argue that computers cannot do so have coined the term “law of conservation of information” to lend credence to the argument. I do not wish to argue in this post whether or not computer simulations truly generate new information without it being inserted by intelligent agents. I believe it depends considerably on the precise definition of information being used. My main concern is to point out that whatever merit it may have in computer simulations or in artificial intelligence, it is not a universal law and there is no basis for extending it elsewhere, particularly to biology.

It must be pointed out that the definition of information used by the ID community is very different from that used in the scientific discipline of Information Theory. Marks, et. al., make this point very clearly. They reject the physical view of information as defined by Claude Shannon and Rolf Landauer and other pioneers of information theory, claiming it is of no interest to them. Rather they only want to focus on the meaning of information, which was explicitly excluded by Claude Shannon. This resonates with the general public who think of information more as who won the Super Bowl or what’s on sale at Walmart than the physical basis of information. The meaning of information is contextual and cannot be quantified. Therefore, it cannot be addressed scientifically in the same way as physical information..

An example of physical information would be the material shape of a letter of the alphabet, whether the distribution of ink on paper or a trace in the sand. Another example would be any sequence of letters or numbers. The number of ways in which letters of the alphabet can be arranged in, say, five letter words, can easily be quantified. In contrast, the meaning of the shape of a letter of the alphabet or of a sequence of five letters cannot be expressed as an equation or some universal criterion. It is not a physical entity but an abstract relationship.

Interestingly, meaning can also refer to a physical function as well as an abstract relationship. Specifically in biology, the meaning of a DNA sequence and the protein for which it encodes can be a specific necessary biochemical reaction. Even though the meaning is a physical process, it cannot be quantified since the need for a particular reaction is dependent on the environment, on the biochemical reactions leading from the DNA to the protein, and on the survival needs of the larger organism in which it exists.

Steve Meyer is well known for popularizing the law of conservation of information with a simple assertion. He often repeats some variation of this theme: “All our experience is that information is generated only by an intelligent source. Thus biological information can only come from an intelligent designer.” To illustrate his point, he cites in some depth a variety of examples such as language, computer software, telephone numbers, engineering marvels, etc.

This striking example of inductive reasoning would normally be rejected by the ubiquitous observation of information being generated without an intelligent agent, just as the 1697 discovery of a black swan falsified the inductive expectation that all swans were white. Dennis Venema has amply provided numerous such examples in his 14-part series at this BioLogos site, and we can all observe it in every reproductive event in the biosphere. But no, the position of Meyer and colleagues is that all these examples are not truly “new” or are inadequate to account for macroevolution or simply show that there must have been an intelligent designer to generate all this information. In my opinion, this is circular reasoning to the extreme.

To make a credible case, Meyer should have analyzed the examples he offered in an effort to understand just why the examples he cites require intelligent sources and whether those requirements exist in the realm of biology. I have personally asked him to do that but he has not done so. I would suggest that the reasons why his proffered examples require intelligent sources is that they are all instances of human-designed systems. All of them involve abstract relationships in some form for either the formation, operation, or verification of the system. Since abstract reasoning is one of the hallmarks of intelligence, it follows that each of those systems requires intelligence. In sharp contrast, no abstract relationship has been detected in the biosphere. All activity involves some kind of biochemical reactivity. Some would counter that the genetic code is an abstract relationship but it is only our human description of that code that is abstract. The actual nucleosomes, amino acids, ribosomes, etc. perform their physical activity without involving any abstraction in formation or operation. Even the verification, meaning the effectiveness of enabling survival of the organism, is physical. No abstract relationship is required. Hence, Meyer’s appeal to “all our experience” cannot be extended to biological information.

Virtually the entire book, from the supposed scientific critique to the philosophical and theological critiques based on it, depends on this fundamentally flawed claim that new information requires an intelligent agent. Without it, the critique of theistic evolution fails.

Tags:  evolution  information  theistic evolution 

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Evolutionary Informatics

Posted By Randall D. Isaac, Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Now that the Ellis book review is in process for publication, it's time to move on to the next challenge. This time I will attempt a review of the forthcoming book in February 2017, Introduction to Evolutionary Informatics, by Robert Marks, Bill Dembski, and Winston Ewert. Their website gives some indication of what it is about.

In contrast to the Ellis book, I will not bore you with notes and comments along the way. I would, however, be greatly interested in any perspective that any of you may have on this subject. If you have any knowledge of or interest in this topic, I would love to hear from you. It would help me.


Tags:  evolution  informatics  information 

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