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Further Reading

SCIENCE: Deprogram

Data Basic III

Is Information, Not Matter, the Foundation of Life?

by Denyse O'Leary

We've looked at a few ways in which an informational perspective on the universe differs from a material perspective. For example, information is a relationship between realized and unrealized possibilities. It is created by ruling out possibilities. It increases when we increase its resolution. The first six digits tell us that a phone rings in one small region. A unique ten-digit number reaches our friend's cell.

Informational relationships are not causal but connective. The phone number does not cause calls; it only connects them. Information, such as the number, is an immaterial reality stored and conveyed in a variety of material media.

Article originally appeared in
Salvo 28

ID theorist Bill Dembski is publishing Being as Communion: A Metaphysics of Information (Ashgate Publishing, UK) this year, as the third book in a series on information theory and intelligent design. The first two books were The Design Inference (Cambridge, 1998) and No Free Lunch (Rowman and Littlefield, 2002). Being fleshes out further implications of adopting an informational perspective on the world, as opposed to a materialist perspective.

The Informational Realist Perspective

Dembski terms himself an informational realist. For him, the starting point is the actual world and all the possibilities that it realizes to the exclusion of others, thereby generating information. The "actual world" is not synonymous with "the universe" as commonly conceived; it is rather, following philosopher David Lewis, "the way things are, at its most inclusive."

From an informational realist perspective, whether the world is or is not purely material is a secondary question to be decided later. The primary fact about the world is that it generates possibilities, and therefore uncertainty. Certain possibilities are realized to the exclusion of others, thus creating information and reducing uncertainty.

How does this play out? Materialists, for example, do not believe there is free will. How can they? Free will is an adaptive illusion in beings evolved by mindless chance.

An informational approach does not start with the materialists' unsupported "mindless chance" claim but with the simple observation that information works by ruling out possibilities. Free will is really "free won't," the agent's power of "no."

Incidentally, creativity also means ruling out possibilities. As Michelangelo explained,

In every block of marble I see a statue as plain as though it stood before me, shaped and perfect in attitude and action. I have only to hew away the rough walls that imprison the lovely apparition to reveal it to the other eyes as mine see it.1

Speaking of blocks of marble, materialism makes matter the starting point for inquiry, and analyzes it down to its smallest constituent part—currently, the quark. Information, by contrast, must find the correct level for a given analysis. There are countless quarks in Michangelo's David, but David isn't in the quarks. Michelangelo could get to the quarks only by losing touch with David along the way.

A Problem with the "Next-Best Candidate"

Smaller probabilities signify greater information (reduction of uncertainty). If our friend's phone number is missing the last two digits (of which we are uncertain), it reduces uncertainty only slightly. Dozens of people have similar numbers—though, happily, not thousands. Suppose two of us have recorded the correct last two digits, but in reverse order. We are now down to two possibilities. The correct sequence, when we arrive at it, banishes uncertainty altogether, resulting in a huge increase in information.

Informational realism accepts more possibilities, even marginal ones, at the outset than materialism does. If the correct possibility is accidentally erased from consideration, the project has failed. Worse, the failure may not be apparent if the "next-best candidate" is chosen from among the remaining possibilities.

We can observe this problem with materialist explanations of, say, the origin of consciousness. Because all non-material origins for consciousness are ruled out in advance, the materialist must choose the "next-best candidate" from among a growing flock of theories that mainly arouse pity for the theorist. His only consolation is that he has satisfied the demands of his worldview.

A Big Surprise Coming?

The informational realist starts with the fact that intelligences create information. As Dembski puts it, "That's what intelligences do for a living. In fact, that's all they do for a living." Human intelligence is seen as natural but not -material. It is, however, instantiated in a human being, who has a -material body (including a brain).

Materialists, by contrast, see intelligence as a byproduct of unintelligent material nature. The reason they tend to be intensely attached to Darwinian evolutionary theory is that they consider the evolutionary process to be a blind mechanism that acts like an intelligence and can even create intelligences (the Blind Watchmaker). The evidence for this, however, is in the same category as the evidence for the alchemists' Philosopher's Stone, which was said to be able to turn dross into gold.

From an informational realist point of view, nature could be material or more than material. Or it could consist entirely of relationships (information) and therefore not be material at all. Materialist assumptions come unbidden to us because materialism is an accepted frame of reference. In the same way, for millennia, people supposed that the earth was the dull, heavy planet sitting in the center of the solar system while glorious heavenly bodies soared all around. Maybe we are in for as big a surprise as they were. 


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