Information and intelligent sources

Meyer has argued that complex specified information (CSI) necessarily comes from an intelligent source. Thus, his book emphasizes demonstrating that DNA information is CSI, and therefore must have come from an intelligent agent. I previously suggested that a better indication of an intelligent source of information is abstraction. Since CSI as defined by Meyer can include both functionality and meaning, it is not an unambiguous indicator of an intelligent source. Rather, abstraction is a more reliable indicator of an intelligent source. In this post, the concepts of information, complexity, abstraction, and intelligence are considered in more detail.

Consider tossing four coins. The resulting sequence of heads and tails would be one of 16 possibilities. The amount of information is proportional to the base 2 logarithm of the number of possibilities, or 4 bits. That can be more easily determined by counting the number of coins, but in the more general case the mathematical form is more useful.

Imagine taking these four coins and grinding them perfectly smooth on both sides so that the two sides are indistinguishable. In this case, tossing the four coins leads to zero information since all possible outcomes are equivalent and there can be only one result. This illustrates how physical complexity is necessary to store or convey information. Smooth coins do not convey abstract information. There must be at least enough physical complexity so that the two sides of each coin are distinguishable in order to represent classic heads/tails information. Of course some information is still present in the particular shape of the coins. Simple functionality can be present, such as serving as a slug in a vending machine.

Next, consider modifying the smooth coins in any manner so that the two sides are distinguishable. The assignment of “heads” or “tails”, or if one prefers “0” or “1”, is a process of abstraction. The label “heads” has no necessary relationship to the physical feature that distinguishes that side of the coin. The ability to make such an abstract assignment is a unique characteristic of intelligence. For this reason, information characterized by abstraction is a good indicator of an intelligent source. On the other hand, the presence of complexity, per se, need not require any intelligent agent.

Finally, we consider another case whereby the two sides of the coins are distinguished by its chemical properties rather than by any other feature. For example, one side could be copper and the other side gold. Tossing these coins on an oxidizing surface would result in a pattern of chemical reactivity that conveys complexity. No abstraction is involved but there is chemical functionality. Technically, the amount of information is the same in both cases, but in one case there is abstraction, an indicator of intelligence, while in the other there is chemical functionality, but no evidence of intelligence.

Four coins are too simple a system to meet the complexity requirement of CSI but the principle scales up. Abstraction at any degree of simplicity or complexity indicates an intelligent source. Functionality alone, with no abstraction, may or may not involve an intelligent source at any degree of complexity.

In summary, information is inherently associated with physical complexity. That complexity can be associated with significance as assigned by an intelligent agent through a process of abstract reasoning. Alternatively, that complexity can be associated with a type of functionality that depends on the chemical and physical properties of the system. It can also be a mixture of abstraction and physical properties. The unique indicator of an intelligent source of information is abstraction. For DNA, no such abstraction is evident. This does not mean that an intelligent agent is not involved, it just means that the existence of DNA information does not require its source to be an intelligent agent.

22 comments to Information and intelligent sources

  • William Powers

    Randy:

    You say, “The unique indicator of an intelligent source of information is abstraction. For DNA, no such abstraction is evident.”

    When would abstraction be evident? Can you give an example? You provide the example of an “arbitrary and contingent” side of a coin being assigned a 1 and the other a zero, or better one side assigned the physical state of a “causally” unrelated system, and the other side another causally unrelated state. But how do I see the assignment. What is evident?

    I have previously used a Morse Code Decoding machine as analogous to DNA protein synthesis. It is not clear to me whether you accepted this as a close analogy or not. The Morse Code Decoding machine is still a machine. It does what it does by physical necessity. In that sense it is like your functional information. Yet it appears to have features of abstract information since the assignment of dots and dashes to figures (letters) is contingent.

    I hope you can still see my confusion.

    thanks,

    bill

  • Randy Isaac

    Bill,
    As I tried to clarify in my January 12 reply to your comment, the Morse Code analogy is NOT a close analogy to DNA with respect to the source of information. There are similarities, to be sure, and some similar principles of analysis can apply. But the key distinction is that Morse code and all information transmission and storage connected with it is based on abstraction while DNA is not. That’s the key difference.
    As for examples, besides Morse Code I already mentioned coin tosses. Another is computer code which I’ll address in a separate post in the near future.
    You asked how you could tell there was abstraction. Well, one way can be seen in the coin toss. The designation of “heads” or “tails” is enirely independent of the physical and chemical structure of the two distinguishable sides of the coin. It really doesn’t matter what feature distinguishes the two sides–it depends only on the assignment of a value by an intelligent agent. That’s why it has the trademark of an intelligent source. In contrast, the chemical reaction function I described was uniquely determined by its chemical composition and not on abstraction.
    Another great example is language. This has many different levels of abstraction. Think of the first letter of the English alphabet. The requirement is that there is a physical structure in a variety of shapes within the bounds that a person literate in English would recognize as having the meaning of the first letter of the alphabet. That meaning does not depend on the physical characteristics. It could be written in ink, in stone, in crayon, or whatever. Yes, there is a physical constraint but the meaning is not related to that physical criterion.
    In other words, in abstraction, the information is represented by the physical configuration whereas in functionality without abstraction, the information is the physical configuration. And therein lies the crucial distinction. Does that help? Keep asking since this is a critical point.

    Randy

  • Jon Tandy

    “In summary, information is inherently associated with physical complexity….The unique indicator of an intelligent source of information is abstraction. For DNA, no such abstraction is evident.”

    I’m still not sure how this could be stated with certainty. You seem to be saying that abstraction is only obtained by humans assigning arbitrary meaning to certain physical structures; and since we didn’t assign arbitrary meaning to DNA, it can’t be said with certainty to have been specified by an intelligence. However, I’m sure you would not agree to this simplistic characterization.

    It seems to me there are so many layers of complexity in the discussion about the complexity. With DNA, there are many layers of what might be called meaning or abstraction, but it might be “merely” physical/chemical functionality, which you seem to be saying can’t be said to have its source in intelligence. A particular pattern of DNA markers have meaning on a number of levels, from the ability to build particular proteins to hair color to conveying viral resistance. There are meanings and purposes to these physical structures defined by DNA, in terms of their purpose in the organism and its environment.

    If you would agree that abstraction is not something inherently defined by human-assigned meaning, I think a valid question is what would be an example of abstraction in nature. How does one define whether something in nature displays abstraction or not? If abstraction in nature cannot be defined and identified apart from human-assigned abstraction, then your statement seems to rule out the identification of intelligent information in nature by definition, which would seem to me a logical fallacy.

    • Randy Isaac

      Jon Tandy :

      I’m still not sure how this could be stated with certainty. You seem to be saying that abstraction is only obtained by humans assigning arbitrary meaning to certain physical structures; and since we didn’t assign arbitrary meaning to DNA, it can’t be said with certainty to have been specified by an intelligence. However, I’m sure you would not agree to this simplistic characterization.

      .

      I don’t think I used the term “human” but rather “intelligence.” Some non-human species can display a degree of abstract reasoning.

      Hair color and viral resistance are chemical functions and results, not abstract meaning or purposes. Yes, there are objective measures of abstraction. Perhaps I should take a little time to draft another post to help clarify. Your questions are very helpful.

      Your concern about this concept being simplistic or a logical fallacy might be valid if we were simply saying information is without an intelligent source of it doesn’t come from humans. But that’s not at all the point. They key is the relationship between information and the physical complexity that conveys that information. Is it one of necessity or of contingence? The former indicates a “function” type and the latter “meaning” from an intelligent source. I’ll try to explain in more detail in a separate post.

      Randy

      • Jon Tandy

        I do look forward to some explanation on the question of what defines the presence of abstraction in nature. Even in your last response, it seems like a “necessary” relationship between information and complexity indicates “function”, as opposed to being from an intelligent source. But what if everything in nature (from chemical properties to physical laws to complex structures) turns out to have a defined “function”? Does that mean by definition that we can’t say for certain that has its source in intelligence? What if the intelligent source designed everything to have function?

        And how can we say that meaning and purpose must necessarily be distinguished from function (if that’s what you’re saying)? This seems counter-intuitive, given what we know about intelligence and believe about the Creator, where meaning and purpose are often closely linked with function.

        • Randy Isaac

          Jon, I’m not sure I fully understand your concerns. Your first paragraph seems reasonable to me. Perhaps an intelligent source did design everything to have function. I’m only saying it isn’t detectable through these means, not that it didn’t occur.

          In your second paragraph, you might be going farther than I did in distinguishing meaning and purpose from function. I’m using “function” to refer to ordinary physical and chemical processes. A red stop sign executes a function of reflecting wavelength of sunlight in a particular range and shape. That is function. Meaning is that we interpret the sign as a message to halt. It is not required by “redness” but by the meaning and purpose intelligent beings have assigned to it. Generally, our world is composed of a blend of function and meaning. I’m only suggesting that abstraction is a useful indicator of the action of an intelligent agent while the absence of abstraction means we don’t know for sure.
          And I just put up that post so I look forward to your questions on that one.

        • Randy Isaac

          Jon, I’ve been thinking more about your request for what defines abstraction in nature. I would suggest any use of symbols would be an indicator. Primates are known to use some degree of symbolism. It is well known that pets interpret many actions symbolically. Yes, I know that can be understood as a trained response and lead to the “Pavlov’s dog” discussion, but that seems to me to be some degree of abstraction.

          Perhaps my emphasis on contingence was too strong. I’m not sure how best to articulate it, but wouldn’t there be a distinction between the contingency that accompanies abstraction and the contingency that nature could be otherwise? My point is that abstraction indicates the action of intelligence since abstract reasoning is one evidence of intelligence.

          Randy

      • Jon Tandy

        Randy,

        I’m still trying to understand the point about abstraction, following your recent comments. Thanks for your patience. Let me try several different thoughts out here.

        1. I had asked earlier what defines abstraction in nature, and are there any non-human examples. You responded with the use of symbolism in primates. At the risk of abstracting and distracting from the primary subject, Meyer’s Signature in the Cell, I want to start from your example and try to take the concept further, and see if it can apply downward toward the level of the cell.

        The example of primates is a good example of symbolism. You also gave the example of a stop sign – its mechanistic “function” of color reflects certain wavelengths of light. We abstract the color and shape to understand that the sign means “stop”. I would like next to apply that concept to Kettlewell’s moths. Their color has a function, in reflecting frequencies of light in white or speckled brown. A bird may see the white moth, and based on prior experience interpret that shape and color of a white moth as a tasty snack. A speckled brown moth on a speckled brown tree doesn’t result in the same information through abstraction in the bird’s perception, and it may therefore be less likely to go in for a meal. Is this a fair example of abstraction (or meaning, or contingence)? If so, what does it tell us about the presence or the source of information based on the function or meaning of the color of the moths?

        2. I would like to go further down, from the example of primates and birds, to similar examples at the level of smaller and more primitive organisms, to the complex action of virus or nerve or blood cells in response to various stimuli, and finally to the workings of DNA itself to see if the argument from analogy helps to clarify function and meaning at those levels, and to discover what we can say about intelligence or the source of the information.

        But my previous example already causes me to pause for a timeout to ask some more questions. If the example of the bird represents abstraction, and complex information (translation of functional shape and color into the meaning of “moth” and “tasty snack”), what does that say about intelligence? The bird must be exercising some level of intelligence to make the abstract connection, and further to exercise the “free will” (in a sense) to choose one action or the other, but one could argue it is instinct based on prior experience rather than intelligence. But how could we say that instinct rules out intelligence?

        More importantly, Meyer’s argument is that CSI comes from intelligence. Does this mean that the bird creates the complex specified information in its own brain, that constitutes its perception of the moth? Does a speckled brown moth therefore convey less information than a white one (it wouldn’t seem so based on a functional view of frequencies of light, but it would seem so in terms of the meaning as understood by the bird). Meyer’s assertion is that CSI proves the existence of intelligence, and tries to reason from there to an intelligent designer of the information or its source (is this a fair summary?). But in this case, the conclusion seems much more trivial – the perception of information is created in the mind of the observer, and thus doesn’t help at all in proving the existence of a Creator of Moths (or of Birds).

        I’d better pause for now and collect my thoughts before going further, but I’m curious if this makes sense to anyone else.

        • Randy Isaac

          Jon,
          Much of your line of reasoning has to do with the definition of intelligence and the distinction between intelligent thinking and instinctive or traines responses. That discussion is many decades old and, though interesting, probably doesn’t help us very much. For this discussion, one might assume that there is a continuum of intelligence, from virtually nothing to the human-type, and we are interested in detecting an agent of at least the level of human intelligence.
          By the way, regarding the question of intelligence in non-human species, I can highly recommend the book edited by Simon Conway Morris, The Deep Structure of Biology”. The contributors range from theistic to non-theistic perspectives and provide various angles on convergence and related issues. One contributor argues that even plants and bacteria and similar species exhibit traits of intelligence. That depends on one’s definition of intelligence and it goes deeper than the one trait of abstract reasoning that I’ve been using.
          So, granting that there’s quite a range of ambiguity in how we define intelligence, I’m suggesting that we stick to relatively clear indicators of high intelligence such as abstract reasoning. Functionality, be it complex or specified, is not sufficient.
          Where does that leave us with regard to your example of birds eating moths? Some would argue that this is an indication of bird intelligence and others that it is a trained response. Either one works for me but I might lean toward an elementary form of intelligence. The bird sees meaning (food!) in the physical shape and color of the moth. That color in and of itself doesn’t determine the nutritious value of the moth.
          Hope this helps a little. Thanks for exploring this further.
          Randy

          • Jon Tandy

            Randy,

            I had a purpose in writing the example of birds perceiving the functional complexity of frequencies of light reflected from moths on trees, but in the process of making the argument it went in kind of an unexpected direction. Let me try to clarify, and then go on to another example.

            My purpose was to explore your argument of the basic distinction between functional and abstract information, by presenting a series of arguments from nature. But in the process, the example of birds and moths revealed maybe something else. The “functional” complex information exists in the form of the complex interaction of frequencies of light reflected off the moth and the bark of the tree. Of itself, this conveys no abstraction. It is in the bird’s perception of those frequencies of light that the abstract connection is made between “certain patterns of color” = “FOOD”. If I were to look at the same moth, I by no means make the connection that moth=food. This makes the abstract relationship highly contingent. Thus the abstraction about that original source of complexity exists in the mind of the bird, whereas the functional complexity exists simply as properties of material and light.

            This example might present an interesting dilemma for ID, which I’m not sure my earlier comments made clear. ID tries to argue that complexity in the source material (DNA) necessarily infers a designer (or Designer) of the complexity. In my example, does the complexity of the source (light reflecting from a speckled white moth sitting on a speckled dark brown tree) infer anything about the design of the placement of that particular moth on that particular tree? Does it infer anything about the design of the tree, or the design of the moth? No, I don’t believe that intelligence can necessarily be derived from the complex information in this case. Is this akin to the argument you are making from functional complexity in the DNA?

            Second, we humans observe DNA and perceive it to contain “complexity”. Earlier generations, before the invention of the electron microscope, would have inferred from direct observation that living cells contain little to no information, because they couldn’t observe them at all. What if the abstract information that we perceive in DNA exists only in our minds as the observers, not in the DNA itself? The bird observes something that contains functional complexity, and in its own brain, the bird creates the complex, abstract relationship (moth=food) based on its own perception of the information. Are we doing the same thing by looking at the DNA and inferring the existence of complex information? This may get too deep into epistemology, and distract too much from the main theme of the discussion.

            Next, I want to present another argument from analogy that I hope will help me understand better. If we listen to a Beethoven symphony, we hear a complex interaction of frequencies of sound. It is complex on several functional levels (interaction of individual frequencies, interplay of different instruments which produce distinct tones, action of various key and time signatures, repetition of musical themes, and finally the purpose or function of the symphony as a whole). Most of that, except the last, can be described as purely “functional complexity”, if I’m not mistaken. On a more abstract level, the music has an abstract purpose (why was the music written, what was its intended effect, was it intended to make us think of a military march or a mountain valley in springtime, was it intended to make us happy or somber, etc.).

            An ID argument would say, this obviously contains all the elements of complexity, and therefore it must have had an intelligent designer to produce such music. We should be able to infer a designer of the music, even if we never saw the symphony play, or even if we couldn’t see the CD player that was reproducing the sounds of a prior performance. However, I think there is a fallacy in this, because we are relying on prior, privileged information. We already know perfectly about symphonies. We know about cellos, what sound they make, and how they are made. We know that symphonies were written by historical individuals, and performed by groups of humans who are brought together intentionally for that specific purpose.

            As a counter-example, let’s take a different complex set of interacting frequencies. Stand at a beach and listen to the roll of the waves, the cry of seagulls, the wind whistling off the crags of rock. Or stand in a forest, and listen to the different voices of animals making sounds, the wind rustling through leaves, the sound of a rippling brook. On a functional level, there is no less complexity contained in this set of sounds. There are individual frequencies of sound combining together, many different voices of animals and non-living things, there are varying timing and pitch, there are even repetition of patterns of sounds. Each of the individual sounds has a proximate cause, and many have an intentional purpose in the mind of the animal creating them. But from the complexity of sound in a forest that this particular arrangement of “music” and the functional elements creating the “music” , can we infer that the whole movement was produced by the direct action of a Designer of Forest Music?

            I believe ID would have to admit that a Beethoven symphony and a forest symphony have equivalent levels of complexity. And for consistency, I believe they would have to argue that the complexity in a forest symphony necessarily implies a designer of the music, just as with a Beethoven symphony or the structures built by the action of DNA. But I think to do so would be to invalidate most of their argument from complexity. It leads either to a faith statement that God (er, the designer) is causing every bird to chirp and every leaf to rustle; or it pushes back the design argument to the ORIGINS of the birds and leaves and sound, not necessarily the proximate causes of the individual sounds themselves. In which case, it seems to me that it becomes unuseful as any statement about the understanding of science, or of music for that matter.

            This is one of several problems in Paley’s watchmaker argument. We have prior, privileged information about watches, we know about factories in which they are assembled, and we know about the gears that are put together as their parts, as well as the purpose of the watch. But what if we find a completely unknown substance, for instance what if we discover a geode for the first time? Does the physical complexity in an unknown substance necessarily imply that an intentional designer created each and every geode, or other structure?

            Sorry for the length of the post.

            • Randy Isaac

              Excellent comment, Jon. I think you grasped the essence of it. I might just observe again the ambiguity of how we use the term information. Information is physical and without physical complexity there is no information. We also use the term information to refer to the abstract meaning that we assign to a particular physical complexity. If we start with the abstract meaning, then we can construct rules whereby we can transform the physical complexity from one system to another and preserve the meaning. For instance, your cell phone message converts from sound waves to a vibrating diaphragm to an analog signal to a digital signal to a radiating electromagnetic wave, etc. But when we start from the physical complexity and want to deduce whether or not there is abstract meaning that an intelligent agent has assigned to it, we have a very difficult problem. Dembski’s explanatory filter is offered by the ID community as a solution to that problem. Meyer builds on that and says it also has to meet the causal existence and adequacy test. The big question in this book is whether DNA, which we all agree is very complex and has a lot of specificity, provides any evidence of being the result of an intelligent designer. Meyer claims he has made the case in his book while I am not convinced.
              Randy

        • Randy Isaac

          Jon,
          As I’ve been pondering your series of comments, I’d like to add a few more observations. One is that I get the impression that your line of reasoning is toward a detection of a minimal level of intelligence. Where is the line between instinct and intelligence, you ask. But the indeterminate intelligent agent whose existence Meyer seeks to demonstrate is rather far from that minimal characteristic.
          The ID community, in general, seldom discusses more specific characteristics of the indeterminate intelligent agent. They strongly oppose the use of the term “supernatural” to characterize the agent, claiming that this term is used solely for political purposes to keep ID out of the classroom. Yet, Christian communities are encouraged to connect the idea of an indeterminate intelligent agent with their understanding of God.
          When we look more closely at what Meyer claims this intelligent agent can and has accomplished, the basic capability is clear. This agent is able to synthesize a large number of biomolecules with full cognitive awareness of the functional characteristics of each biomolecule and its variations when expressed in a fully grown organism. In essence, the ID argument is that the causal agent must be intelligent because the function of the myriad biomolecules requires intelligence.
          Thus this intelligent agent is far beyond the minimum detectable agent. It is in fact well beyond anything the human mind can even conceive. Since we are asked not to use the term “supernatural” we can see that the term “indeterminate” must be defined as something like “unfathomably beyond natural”.
          Back to the fundamental argument. What evidence is there of intelligence in the causal factors of a functioning living cell. Meyer says that the presence of DNA information provides that evidence because of our perception that complex specified information always comes from intelligent agents. But as I have tried to argue, evidence of intelligence is based on abstraction (”meaning”), not on complex specified functionality. Such abstraction is not evident in DNA.
          What then explains the existence of complex specified functionality without abstraction? We will see in future posts how nature has some remarkable methods to carry out rather amazing designs.

          • Jon Tandy

            Randy,

            I’m not intentionally trying to detect a minimum level of intelligence in nature. That is kind of a sidebar from my actual comment about birds, but I’ll write more about that in a separate post. My feeling in your responses to Meyer is that they (ID supporters, if not Meyer himself) would say that you’re missing the forest for the trees. In fact, maybe missing several forests, because of looking at the bark of the trees. The information about the cell, and DNA in particular, is presented by ID to show the absolutely amazing complexity in the inner workings of living things — but then they step out to the 1000 foot view and ask how could all this amazing complexity possibly have come about by pure chance, without intelligence. For you to focus simply on the functional elements of DNA at a chemical level, without taking into account the whole as the sum of the parts, seems to miss what is actually going on in DNA, and in ID arguments about DNA. (However, it may be that Meyer has actually contributed to the distraction, as I’ll question below.) It seems like you can deconstruct any living or non-living thing, artificial or natural, into the product of simply electro-chemical reactions, and infer (using your argument) that there is insufficient evidence of intelligence at work.

            Let’s take another example, hopefully somewhat analogous. The human mind is tremendously complex. In fact, I think we would have to agree that the human mind IS intelligence (although the intent of Meyer’s argument is to go beyond that, and argue that it must also be the PRODUCT of intelligence). The human mind functions on the basis of complex interactions with various parts of the brain. The brain, in turn can be broken down into nerve pathways, synapses, etc., and ultimately to the action of individual neurons being fired and received. It seems to me that your argument would focus on the action of individual neurons as being entirely “functional” (devoid of abstraction) and therefore not necessarily indicative of the action of intelligence; whereas, an ID type of argument would look at the action of the whole. Individual neurons (the parts) don’t just fire on their own, but they operate in response to and as part of the whole (the human mind). Thus, you can’t just look at the functional elements as functional-only complexity and rule out design (intelligence).

            Let me see if I can anticipate the response. I’m guessing you may agree that the action of neurons represent a sort of functional complexity, but that we can’t infer intelligence on the basis of the neurons alone. It might, but it might not be sufficient evidence on its own. Action of higher, more complex structures and interactions of nerve endings and brain lobes are likewise not sufficient evidence of intelligence. We have to go to higher levels of abstract reasoning in the interpretive actions of the human mind to have sufficient proof that intelligence is driving those neurons into action.

            Is this a reasonable view of ID, that it tries to take the DNA and cellular “information” or “complexity” as merely background information in order to make a 1000-foot-view argument about the design of the organism as a whole? Is it possible that Meyer, in his effort to establish an argument about design has inordinately detracted from the larger argument by focusing too much on the low-level functional elements? If so, how else could he have made his argument without focusing on the functional complexity? And (this may take more time to answer as you get further into Meyer’s arguments), if intelligence can’t be inferred from the purely functional aspects of DNA, like neurons, at what point can a valid argument be made for abstraction and intelligence when taking into account in the whole structure of the living organism?

            • Randy Isaac

              Jon, I don’t think anyone is arguing that complexity alone can make the case for intelligence. The argument from incredulity is impressive but not compelling. And I think looking at the forest and not the trees is just looking at a higher level of complexity. The ID advocate would say it takes both complexity and specificity to make the case for an intelligent designer. Meyer goes on to say that according to Lyell, Darwin, and Scriven, one must also show existence and adequacy of the causal agent. Meyer thinks he has done that and I don’t believe he has.
                As for detecting an intelligent designer from the neuron, I don’t see where there is a sign of abstraction. Does the collection of neurons lead to intelligence itself? Ah, that’s a whole different question and very interesting in and of itself. But that’s not our topic here.

          • Jon Tandy

            Randy,
            One more quick response regarding animal intelligence. I am not necessarily trying to determine what levels of animal or other “natural” intelligence can be identified. I think that’s probably a distraction, because the original concern is about determining the existence of an intelligent creator of design and designed things.

            But perhaps in a way it is still a question. You are trying to show how “functional” information can’t be relied on to prove intelligence, and are instead proposing that information from abstraction is a more reliable indicator. This means we do have to identify whether there are intelligences in nature that can create such abstraction, or whether it must be a human or superhuman intelligence.

            One of my earlier questions was whether abstraction can exist outside of human (or superhuman) minds. Perhaps it can, down to the level of bird brains, or caterpillars, or further down to the level of white blood cells that act in seemingly intelligent response to bacterial invasion, or possibly even down to the action of components within the cell, or DNA. That was my original intent with the line of argument I started trying to outline last week but never finished.

            If so, maybe Meyer has a case to be made. Maybe he even made the wrong argument, when he identified the information in DNA or cells as just “functional” type of CSI.

            On the other hand, even if abstract information can be identified at cellular levels, does it necessarily require a superhuman mind to have created it? I’m not sure that conclusion necessarily follows. If not, then even your modification of Meyer’s assertion doesn’t necessarily provide sparkling evidence of a designer.

            • Randy Isaac

              Yes, Jon, I have no problem with the notion that non-human organisms demonstrate intelligence through capabilities such as abstract reasoning. Animals and birds certainly display capabilities that would indicate that. I don’t see how that capability works its way down to organisms without a brain. Yes, there are those who argue for intelligence in plants and bacteria but that type of intelligence doesn’t seem to include abstraction of the type we are considering.
                Randy

  • William Powers

    Randy:

    You say, “You asked how you could tell there was abstraction. Well, one way can be seen in the coin toss. The designation of “heads” or “tails” is entirely independent of the physical and chemical structure of the two distinguishable sides of the coin. It really doesn’t matter what feature distinguishes the two sides–it depends only on the assignment of a value by an intelligent agent. That’s why it has the trademark of an intelligent source. In contrast, the chemical reaction function I described was uniquely determined by its chemical composition and not on abstraction.”

    Suppose that the logging of 0s and 1s was done by some machine. That is, a machine uses two independent states of a causally independent system to log the random sequence of heads and tails. Someone who never saw the machine constructed, perhaps even an alien, when comparing this machine, a Morse Code Decoder, or protein synthesis using DNA would, I suggest, conclude that they were all similar in kind.

    Given what you have said in the remote past, it seems that you may agree. If that is the case, then the difference between abstract and instrumental information has to do with how the information is created. If the information is created by unintentional means, it is instrumental. If created by an intelligence, it is abstract.

    This “how” is somewhat problematic. Can “intelligence” be observed? How do we know when “intelligence” is being used, even when we observe the construction. We don’t want to say something like, “If men are involved, intelligence is involved.” If I watch a house being constructed or a car put together, where is the intelligence? Why is this in any way different from a “machine” which obeys physical law from beginning to end?

    Chance and intelligence can masquerade as the other. Both involve the interaction of causally independent systems. Chance events might be defined as what happens when two or more independent causal chains interact with each other. When agents act upon a physical system, the agent can be viewed as an independent system of influence from the physical system upon which it acts. It is the independence that permits events to be “arbitrarily” assigned 0s and 1s. But it is conceivable that the same association might have been established by chance.

    This is the problem that Dembski attempts to address with specified complexity, which might be seen as an attempt to map the order behind an event into the human mind, i.e., to think the creator’s thoughts.

    It seems, however, that, as Dembski says, that this is insufficient. What must be compared is independent systems. The one system is the inanimate, unintentional system of physical reality as we know and model it. The other is a model of human intelligence. Both are human models. That’s why we can understand them. Comparing these two systems one can attempt to judge whether an event is the product of one or the other. For the sake of a naturalistic bias, it is only when the unintentional physical system has a sufficiently low probability and one can imagine a specification that chance is rejected.

    We seem to do this all the time. Clocks and Morse Code Decoders are intelligently designed. It seems to me that were I to come to this with no or little bias as possible, that if I judge clocks as designed, I would have little hesitation in judging the human cell as designed. This judgment is made on the basis of some crude intuition, and perhaps only expresses what Dawkins asserts: that biology looks designed (but, of course, isn’t).

    All of this is confused and opaque to me. I don’t care whether everyone agrees that the inference to design is outside the scope of modern science. This is mere formalism. The assignment of chance and design appears almost arbitrary, which makes the assignment as significant as assigning 0s and 1s. And why should this be surprising? When Jonah was revealed by lot and Matthias the same, it was God who was presumed to speak.

    bill

    • Randy Isaac

      Perhaps consideration of decoders or intermediate machines is complicated matters. It is confusing to me, at least. No, “how” the information is created is not an issue at all. The simplest way to think about it is to consider whether the information conveyed by physical complexity has a necessary or a contingent relationship to that physical complexity. The latter indicates abstract reasoning and indicates an intelligent source.

      As I replied to Jon Tandy, give me a chance to draft another post to explain this in more detail, restating it in what are hopefully clearer terms.

      Randy

  • James Patterson

    Greetings! I’ve been trying to get back to reading this thread for the past month. Very interesting discussion, but I’m afraid I only made it to the first post before I came upon a question for you, Randy. You said:
    “Finally, we consider another case whereby the two sides of the coins are distinguished by its chemical properties rather than by any other feature. For example, one side could be copper and the other side gold. Tossing these coins on an oxidizing surface would result in a pattern of chemical reactivity that conveys complexity. No abstraction is involved but there is chemical functionality. Technically, the amount of information is the same in both cases, but in one case there is abstraction, an indicator of intelligence, while in the other there is chemical functionality, but no evidence of intelligence.” (emphasis mine).
    Hmm. How did the two sided coins come to be? How did they form, such that exactly one side was gold, and the other copper? How is it that they are exactly formed such that when flipped (presumably via some random action) exactly and only one side touches the oxidizing surface?
    It seems as if the coin or slug, with two sides, one gold, and one copper, was designed by a human intelligence.
    With regard to abstraction, there would be a visible difference between a coin with sides labelled H and T, and there would be a visible difference between the gold and the copper sides. If the “chemical functionality” was observed, and interpreted as being consistent with either the gold or the copper sides (thus indicating which specific side touched the surface) then that would involve abstraction, just as observing the actual H/T coin would, to see which side it landed on. As a matter of fact, since there is both an action (the gold/copper coin lands on the oxidizing surface) and a reaction (the coin surface reacts, leaving a specific chemical functional mark) that can both *potentially* be interpreted, the example you gave seems to have more information, not less.
    I am not so clear on the concept of abstraction, either. This seems to me to be what is interpreted from the information?

  • Randy Isaac

    James, the origin of the coin or object is irrelevant to the point of the example. It might be designed and made by an intelligent agent or it might not be. It doesn’t matter. The point is that it is the physical characteristic that is the difference and not the meaning associated with that characteristic. Yes, you are right that in a coin labeled H and T, there is a physical difference. But here’s the point. In one case the difference is represented by the physical configuration and in the other the difference is the physical configuration. The H and T could be any kind of physical configuration, it doesn’t matter. It’s just the meaning ascribed to it by an intelligent agent. For the chemical reaction to occur, it has to be the right chemical. That chemical could have been obtained by an intelligent agent or by other means.
    Randy

  • James Patterson

    I understand what you’re saying reasonably well. However, one of the things that I see over and over is intelligent agents (humans) using examples that are generated by intelligence to demonstrate CSI. I must say that’s a bit problematic. Quite like Dawkin’s computer program that “proves” evolution exists – he designed it!
    I challenge you to provide an example that does not involve something created by an intelligent agent. It would certainly make your argument stronger.
    James

 

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