Information from an Intelligent Source

In light of the comments by Jon and Bill, I’d like to devote this post to restating what I’ve already posted but in somewhat different terms to hopefully make it clearer. I’m trying to make two specific points.

Point #1: Meyer devotes his book to showing that CSI always comes from an intelligent source and since DNA information is CSI, then DNA information can only come from an intelligent source. He also shows that there are two types of CSI, “function” and “meaning”, and that DNA information is of the function type. My question and concern is that Meyer has not provided convincing evidence that CSI always comes from an intelligent source. Two problems come to mind. Firstly, his argument is inductive in nature, claiming that all examples of CSI are from intelligent sources. Unfortunately, it is not a compelling conclusion that CSI must therefore always come from an intelligent source. Secondly, all of his examples of CSI coming from intelligent sources are of the “meaning” type, and there is no reason to expect that information of the “function” type must have the same source.

Point #2: I also suggest that rather than using CSI as an indicator of information with an intelligent source, Meyer’s categories of “function” and “meaning” may be more appropriate and useful, if defined more precisely. The former type may or may not have an intelligent source while the latter always does, even if it isn’t complex or specified. How can “function” and “meaning” be distinguished? All information is physical and is embodied in physical complexity. In “function” type of information, the information has a necessary relationship to the physical complexity that conveys it, whereas in “meaning” type, the information has a contingent relationship. That contingency is based on abstract reasoning and is a clear indicator of intelligence.

Several examples may be useful to help understand these concepts. First of all, let us consider a simple coin toss. As stated in a previous post, coins with smooth, indistinguishable surfaces do not convey any information. The coins need some physical complexity. But that complexity does not have a necessary relationship to the designation of “heads” or “tails.” It is a contingent relationship meaning that the H or T designation is not required by the specific physical configuration. Even a picture of a head could be designated “tails.” Clearly, this is an example of “meaning” type of information and an intelligent source is required to generate it.

A second example is language. The first letter of the English alphabet is recognizable from its distinctive shape. But there is nothing in that shape that requires it to be designated as the first letter of the alphabet. Such designation is contingent and is based on abstract reasoning. In language there are many levels of meaning, from alphabet to word vocabulary to sentence structure. Intelligent sources provide that abstract meaning.

Another clear example is computer code and, in general, all digital information technology. All information is stored, processed, or transmitted as the binary digits, or bits, “0” or “1”. The physical configuration may be a voltage level, or a charge on a capacitor, or a polarization state of a magnetic domain. None of these physical states has a necessary relationship to either a “0” or a “1”. The assignment is arbitrary and, as long as the system is consistent, doesn’t affect the outcome. Therefore, all digital information is of the “meaning” type, at many different levels, and at the most fundamental level.

Numbers are also of the “meaning” type. Meyer uses several examples of telephone numbers to illustrate CSI. However, numbers can indicate an intelligent source even if they are not complex or specified. The number “3” for example conveys meaning of the number of objects. The physical configuration of the numeral does not have a necessary relationship to the number of objects. It is contingent and comes from an intelligent source. Imagine, on the other hand, that in a forest with no intelligent beings, three twigs fall from a tree and lie side by side on the ground. Their presence indicates three objects as a necessary and not a contingent consequence. It cannot be easily determined whether an intelligent agent had deliberately arranged the twigs to indicate “three” or whether they fell from the tree. Abstraction is not evident.

DNA information is of the “function” type, as Meyer points out. Close examination shows that this information has a necessary relationship to the chemical structure of the physical configuration expressing the information. The information conveyed and expressed at any step of the activity of a living cell is the chemical reactivity itself, not a contingent meaning assigned to it. Though many complex and specific functions are exhibited, there are no examples of abstraction in the operation of a living cell. Perhaps an intelligent agent is involved at some level but it cannot be determined from the nature of DNA information.

In summary, abstraction seems to be a useful indicator of whether or not an intelligent agent is required for the generation of information. Physical complexity is always a necessary part of information but that complexity may or may not be generated by an intelligent agent and it may or may not have meaning associated with it. Where we find evidence of abstraction, we can be confident of an intelligent source. One way to detect that abstraction is to examine the relationship between information and the physical complexity that embodies it. Contingence indicates abstraction while necessity does not. All the examples that Meyer provides to show that CSI comes from an intelligent source show contingence. DNA information does not. It appears that DNA information does not necessarily come from an intelligent agent.

7 comments to Information from an Intelligent Source

  • William Powers


    It seems to me that given your examples that there are examples of “meaning” information, all are “functional.”

    First, there is a “necessary” relationship between the DNA code and associated amino acids. However, this relationship is conceptually “contingent.” There is no “necessary” reason that UAU should be associated with Tyrosine. The “necessary” relationship is true of all “machines.” Otherwise, they wouldn’t work.

    Every example of “meaning” information can be transformed into a “machine.” For example, a machine could be created that associates one physical state (e.g., one side of a coin) with a set of lines (call it an “H”) and another physical state with another set of lines (call it a “T”). Presuming that there are only two possible physical states, a series of H and Ts could be “necessarily” associated with the two physical states. This is functionally identical to the Morse Code Decoder. There is no physically causal relationship between the H & Ts and the two physical states EXCEPT within the created machine, otherwise they have no regular causal relationship with each other.

    This is an important distinction. There are no physically causal relationships between the DNA code and specific proteins EXCEPT within a living cell.

    As I said, all the examples you give of “meaning” information can be mapped into this kind of relationship, that’s why we call a computer a machine.

    I conclude, then, that there is no distinction between “meaning” information and “function” information. If there is an distinction, it exists in your mind and is not evident in the physical relationships you discuss.

    Information remains in your post undefined, but it seems that you define it as a relationship between physical states. As soon as you say, “all information is physical” this conclusion appears inevitable since I can always create a machine that will relate the two physical states. In creating a machine, the relationship now becomes “necessary.”

    It seems that to get at this distinction of intelligence one must consider the prevalence of this relationship. If that relationship is found only in the physical manifestation of that relationship (i.e., within the Morse Code Decoder, or a computer, or perhaps within a cell), then one might conclude that some form of intelligence is involved. One might begin to consider the probability of such a relationship. But to do this one must get into probabilistic resources.

    I don’t know whether I’m helping or not, but I admire your patience with our thick skulls.


    • Randy Isaac

      Perhaps I should emphasized more clearly that often function and meaning are both present. If one wishes to examine “information” and determine whether an intelligent agent was involved, I’m suggesting that a better way than determining if it is CSI, as Meyer does, is to see if any abstraction, or contingent meaning is involved. There could be all sorts of functionality as well, that doesn’t matter. If the abstraction is there, intelligence is indicated. If not, intelligence could still be involved but it is not clearly indicsted.

      Yes, information is physical. As I tried to explain, if there is no physical complexity, or configurational entropy, there is no information. No, this is not a statement of metaphysical materialism nor are we discussing consciousness or brain function. Those are all valid and interesting discussions but separate from this discussion. The physical complexity that comprises information can occur with or without intelligence. The question is whether or not we can determine what type of information requires the action of an intelligent agent. I may be wrong, but it seems to me that the presence of abstraction (with any kind of functionality) is one possibility that works.

      I still find decoding machines to be additional complexity and I’m not sure I can give clear answers. I see no reason why you can’t build a detector to do a translation. The machine would work only for a specific configuration, but that wouldn’t change the underlying nature of the information source.

      Yes, there are multiple codons that can code for the same amino acid. That doesn’t imply contingence but redundancy.


    • Randy Isaac

      I woke up this morning thinking about your comment and realized I hadn’t responded fully to your first paragraph: “First, there is a “necessary” relationship between the DNA code and associated amino acids. However, this relationship is conceptually “contingent.” There is no “necessary” reason that UAU should be associated with Tyrosine.”

      I had missed your point about wondering whether the relationship between a codon and the associated amino acid might not be a contingent one instead of a necessary one. That’s a very good point and I’ll have to think about that some more. At first blush, it seems to be a different kind of contingence and not one that clearly indicates abstract reasoning. The key is abstraction and I may have overemphasized the role of contingence in perceiving abstraction. I’ll give this some more thought. Good question.


  • William Powers


    I’m glad that you’ve caught something of my drift. I’ll await any thoughts in this regard.

    Before you penned your previous reply, I had intended to ask you the following question that may or may not aid your deliberations.

    Consider a machine that associates heads and tails with two physical states (you could call them 0s and 1s).

    Now consider the DNA/RNA machine that associates tri-nucleotides with amino acids.

    What is the difference between the two?

    This is probably not the best analog to the DNA machine. After all, the DNA machine is a functional, indispensable part of a large, complex organization. Whereas, the flipping of coins and the recording of the results appears trivial and without significance. In this sense, it is the DNA machine, and not the coin flipping machine, that appears imbued with meaning.

    But perhaps this is part of the distinction. The DNA machine is functional, the coin flipping appears disconnected from function and purpose.

    Consider the movie Contact. What they detected almost seems to have been taken from Dembski’s Design Inference. The aliens were broadcasting a sequence of prime numbers. There appears to be nothing to account for this signal. It appears to serve no purpose, no functional “physical” purpose. Whereas, DNA serves an essential “physical” purpose.

    It is this inability to discover any “physical” function that draws us to conclude that it must have “another” purpose, perhaps an intelligent one.

    If this makes sense, we do not find intelligence so much in the construction of houses or bridges, but in games and play, i.e., in the purposelessness than only makes sense for intelligence.

    This result appears counter-intuitive. For it is not in the immensely “meaningful” and “purposeful” functionality of DNA and the whole complex of chemical machinery that we most find intelligence, but rather in the functionally otiose activities of intelligent play, which, we apparently reason, can have no other source.

    Whether this makes sense in whole or not, I suggest that something like this is behind the prejudice to reject the DNA/RNA chemical machine as a sign of intelligence, but to take the assigning of heads and tails to 0s and 1s as an expression of mental abstraction.


    • Randy Isaac

      Bill, you brought up decoders, encoders, translation machines, and the like a long time ago and I’ve been trying to make sense of all that. I’ve finally realized that such devices add no inherent insight to whether or not the system has an intelligent source. Like the original physical complexity that conveys information, a decoding machine may or may not be constructed by an intelligent agent. Just because it functions, doesn’t mean it was from an intelligent source. In general, there may or may not be abstract meaning associated with the physical states that are being translated.
      You cited a Morse Code decoder as an example. Such a machine will do its translation work independently from any abstract meaning that may or may not be associated with the signal. Its existence, by itself, adds no new insight to that question.

      No, I don’t think the detection of function and purpose, or the lack thereof, is a reliable guide to the action of an intelligent agent. It may provide additional speculation but it still seems ambiguous.

      I’d still like to bring you back to abstract reasoning as the clearest indicator of an intelligent agent, even though it may not always be clear whether or not abstraction is present. I am puzzled by your use of the word “prejudice” in detecting whether or not there is intelligence connected with the origin of DNA information. I’m merely suggesting that it is not sufficient to claim that DNA information is complex and specified to detect an intelligent source. There must also be evidence of abstraction and the translation machinery that converts codons to amino acids does not provide evidence of an intelligent source.

      Good questions, Bill. You are helping me think this through. Thank you!


  • William Powers


    When this conversation began, I had expected that you would say what you seem to be saying here: there is nothing in any machine as machine that indicates that it was “designed,” i.e., came into being by an “intelligence.” That seemed to be consistent with what I thought you had said previously. However, you introduced examples, like the assigning of heads and tails, and of computers, all of which I thought were analogous to a DNA “machine,” but you thought were different.

    You have previously said, I believe, that ID cannot be in the scope of science. This appears consistent to me with the idea that “intelligence” is “non-observable.” You suggest that “abstraction” is evidence for “intelligence.” But still don’t “see” how we observe “abstraction.” Specified Complexity is an attempt to infer this notion of “abstraction.” But you don’t think it adequate. You are correct that “abstraction” need not be present only in complex events. But remember that Dembski is trying to avoid the possibility of a false positive. So he makes the inference to design a much more difficult task than that required by MN.

    I introduced the idea of “prejudice” because I couldn’t see why you would be distinguishing these machines.

    So the question is what you actually observe (if that is possible) when “abstraction” is present. You’ve rejected that it might be seen in how something comes to be. You’ve apparently rejected my playful suggestion that it is seen in the “playfulness” of the event. You’ve also apparently rejected that it is seen in a necessity that exists in the machine alone and no where else. Yet we all, I think, believe that some machines are intelligently designed. Dembski suggests specified complexity, which requires an intelligence to perceive. So it is a kind of thinking the designers thoughts. Of these, I find most appealing the notion of playfulness, for it is something that only an intelligence can appreciate.


    • Randy Isaac

      Bill, a decoding or translating “machine” simply transforms complexity from one physical system to another. It could be a diaphram that vibrates in response to the sound waves that hit it or it could be your Morse Code machine that translates signals from a receiver to a teletype. That machine does nothing about meaning. It may be all garbage. It may be meaningful. We don’t find the meaning in the machine but in our interpretation of the information. If the meaning we assigned to the input is equal to that we assign to the output, the machine works properly. Whether or not there is intelligence involved in making the machine isn’t necessarily obvious. Meyer says if it is complex and functions, then it is. I would suggest that’s not a sufficient condition. A better sufficient, though not a necessary one, is abstraction.

      You state that “You have previously said, I believe, that ID cannot be in the scope of science” but I don’t recall ever saying that. Please let me know if I did and I’ll correct it. I did say, or at least try to say, that intelligent design detection is very much a legitimate part of science–as long as it involves design agents that can be independently observed and their design methodology independently studied.

      While abstraction may not always be easy to detect, I think it is rather straightforward in many cases. Morse code, computer code, language, coin tosses are obvious. Other examples may not be as clear. But DNA information has no evidence of abstraction as far as I can tell. That is a key differentiation.


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