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Philosopher Thomas Nagel is a committed atheist much reviled for insisting that a Darwinian account of the origin of the human mind cannot be correct. He noted in 2013 that the scientific revolution that began in the seventeenth century "depended on a crucial limiting step at the start: It depended on subtracting from the physical world as an object of study everything mental—consciousness, meaning, intention or purpose." It had a grand run, he says, but the wheels fell off when it tried to fit immaterial entities like subjectivity and consciousness into a material framework.1
Article originally appeared in
Indeed. Let us note but pass over in charitable silence—as unintended but classic evidence of the problem—physicist Max Tegmark's proposal that an undetected substance, "perceptronium," accounts for consciousness.2 Information is real but by nature immaterial. It is not even, in itself, causal, but only relational. It naturally inhabits "consciousness, meaning, intention or purpose." And even though it has no physical dimensions, all living things are stuffed with it.
Necessary Material and Immaterial Elements
As the Synopsis and Limited Commentary to Biological Information: New Perspectives (2013) puts it briefly, a life form's communications network needs at least three material elements: information senders and receivers; physical transmission media; and filtering devices to detect and fix or eliminate faulty or false signals. It also needs at least three non-material elements: a grammatical language like the genetic code, understood by both the sender and the receiver; information to transmit, which is neither matter nor energy but inherently conceptual (for example: "This environment is too hot"); and meaning and purpose.
Meaning and purpose? In a bacterium, for example? As the Synopsis puts it, "Living communication networks must communicate all the essential specifications for exactly what needs to happen (the meaning) to enable life to be alive (the unifying purpose of all biological information)" (p. 10). In context, the information might amount to something like "This environment is too hot" (the meaning) and "Withdraw now to avoid damage" (the purpose).3
The information that most life forms embody and transmit does not involve subjective consciousness or reasoning. Still, it becomes obvious that the chance origin and Darwinian evolution of life—the theory approved in the academy (and sometimes court-enforced for schools)—simply does not account for life's information systems. That fact is the making of another scientific revolution, whose implications are only gradually becoming apparent.
A Question Dissolved
When I first began to study these issues over a decade ago, I sometimes wondered whether I would wake up one morning to learn that researchers had discovered the way in which Darwinian evolution really did happen. That is, I thought I might learn how a long, slow chain of favorable mutations was accidentally generated and then meticulously conserved in survivors, resulting in vast networks of information. In retrospect, I realize that I simply did not understand the nature of the problem back then. What I understand now is that life is largely information, and no information system can be built in that way.
It was as if, centuries ago, I had wondered if the alchemists would one day hit on a formula for turning lead into gold. The question could not be answered even today by a simple yes or no. Why isn't "no" the correct answer? Because it amounts to no more than a prophecy that the alchemists will not find the secret formula. That's true, but the correct answer is that there is no secret formula. The belief that there is one stems from a misunderstanding of the nature of metals. The periodic table of the elements, their natures and relationships, reveals the answer—by dissolving the question.
A Collapsing Paradigm
But now, here is a more sobering question, not easily dissolved: How much damage will a continuing refusal to adopt an information-based approach to the nature of life do to the life sciences? In an Author's Note to Synopsis, Cornell geneticist John Sanford, mindful of the fact that Springer-Verlag had backed out of publishing Biological Information: New Perspectives, observes,
I do not think any of the contributing authors to the proceedings had any intention to offend anyone. It is just that it is increasingly clear that the long-reigning neo-Darwinian paradigm is collapsing—and despite many efforts to deny what is obvious—clearly "the emperor has no clothes." The extremely sophisticated hardware and software systems that enable life simply cannot be built by any trial and error system. In particular—it is very clear that software can never be developed one binary bit at a time. Apart from a fully functional pre-existing hardware/software system, a single bit has absolutely no meaning.4
It was one thing for alchemists to toil at turning lead into gold, while knowing nothing of the periodic table. But for their successors, the Darwinians, to insist on continuing a fruitless quest despite available knowledge points to deeper problems than ignorance. •
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