Tag Archives: information

Deconstructing Dawkins, Part 1

Richard DawkinsToday, I wanted to look at an argument from Richard Dawkins’ book “The God Delusion” where he says “[A]ny creative intelligence, of sufficient complexity to design anything, comes into existence only as the end product of an extended process of gradual evolution. Creative intelligences, being evolved, necessarily arrive late in the universe, and therefore cannot be responsible for designing it.”[1] Or to put it in the classic form of a syllogism:

Premise 1:  Creative intelligences are highly evolved.
Premise 2: Highly evolved components appear late in time.
Conclusion: Therefore, creative intelligences can’t be responsible for any design activity occurring early in time.

This might sound reasonable until we look closer at the original question and recognize Richard’s bait-and-switch. The question at hand is whether unguided processes like physical laws, random interactions, and natural selection are responsible for the current state of the observable universe, or if a creative intelligence (God) is instead responsible. So we are baited with a choice between the natural and the supernatural, but then Richard pulls a switch and says that creative intelligences also are the results of naturalistic processes only. We find the coin toss is rigged, for the coin he’s using is really naturalism on both sides. He does this by assuming naturalism is true in the premise in order to conclude that it’s true. Now let’s flesh out some terms in his argument to show precisely how it supports the premises with the conclusion.

Premise 1:  Creative intelligences are highly evolved the result of unguided, naturalistic processes (because naturalism is true).
Premise 2: Highly evolved components The results of unguided, naturalistic processes appear late in time.
Conclusion: Therefore, creative intelligences the products of unguided, naturalistic processes can’t be responsible for any design activity occurring early in time, so they must somehow still be responsible for originating everything that exists, but in a non-designed way. Therefore, intelligent design is false, leaving naturalism as the true alternative.

We would certainly agree that unguided, naturalistic processes aren’t responsible for any design (ever), as design is an inherently intelligent process relying on choice and purpose in the mind of a designer. But to redefine “creative intelligence” as a naturalistic product is to try to rig the game so as to ignore the original choice between mind and matter as the ultimate causative agent. But aside from that tactic, and his assuming that naturalism is true in Premise 1 to determine that naturalism is true in the conclusion, can his first statement about sufficiently complex creative intelligences evolving be true? Actually, no. Dr. Stephen Meyer has highlighted the extremely low amount of functionally specific information that can possibly be formed by unguided processes like this:

“In a nonbiological context and absent intelligent input, the amount of specified information of a final system, Sf, will not exceed the specified information content of the initial system, Si, by more than the number of bits of information the system’s probabilistic resources can generate, with 500 bits representing an upper bound for the entire observable universe.”[2]

Meyer limits his statement of a theory of conservation of information to nonbiological cases, but that is precisely what we are talking about here when Dawkins speaks of a creative intelligence not being available to design the universe. Evolution would only be available (in theory) once a self-replicating organism had formed.  So even if Dawkins were correct that creative intelligences were evolved, he is left with no reasonable explanation for how that first life originated, or how the universe originated tuned so precisely for life to even be possible. This fine-tuning of the universe represents far more than 500 bits of specified information, yet more information than that exceeds the probabilistic resources of the entire universe. Once we are confronted with biological entities, the problem is only magnified. By Dawkins’ own admission, an amoeba has more information in it than 1,000 volumes of the Encyclopedia Britannica.[3] And we still have a long way to go before we get to the complex intelligence found in a human. Yet it’s highly unlikely that a human would be able to fine-tune the universe to the degree we observe. It truly is a fine-tuned system of interdependent fine-tuned systems. For the designer of the universe, we are talking about many orders of magnitude beyond that 500 bit limit. We simply have to have a Designer of incomprehensible abilities available, from the beginning (technically, from before the beginning of space-time), to account for the amount of information we find in the universe. This is none other than God, and it turns out to be Dawkins who is deluded in denying Him.

[1] Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, 2008, p. 52.
[2] Stephen Meyer, Signature in the Cell, 2009, p293-4. See here for a previous post looking at the Universal Probability Bound from which the 500 bit information limit is derived.
[3] Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker, 1996, p.116.

Inconvenient Verses

Scripture Reading in Park_smallThis week, I want to address a potential temptation for Christians: using God’s Word simply as an emotional crutch, as a kind of spiritual “motivational poster”. Friends, don’t relegate the Bible to such a low position! The Bible is one consistent story, from beginning to end, of God’s restorative grace. What it is not is a vault of feel-good pick-me-ups to pull out whenever you’re feeling down. Certainly,there is a lot of encouragement in there, but more importantly, there is truth. And sometimes the truth is harsh and doesn’t fit very well in a picture frame with inspirational pictures of eagles and waterfalls and sunsets and such. So what do you do with those uncomfortable, challenging verses? If your Bible is an emotional crutch, you ignore them. You skip over to the passages you like. But be warned, you do so at your own risk. So what should you do?

Continue reading Inconvenient Verses

Alphabet Soup


I explained a few weeks ago how any kind of observed design actually requires a designer, by definition. If we correctly observe design, we can reasonably infer the existence of a designer. But how do we know we’ve correctly observed intentional design?  We don’t want false positives or false negatives (while thinking you were healthy when you had cancer could be fatal, mistakenly thinking you had cancer when you don’t, and having an unnecessary amputation isn’t desirable either). And so the atheist is often concerned that we Christians are falsely attributing intentional design by God to naturalistic processes. Let me start by saying I appreciate those concerns. So today, let’s look at the evidence for intentional design in nature in the form of information.

The presence of information is a key part of confirming design because true information is always the result of intelligence. Waves makings ripples in the sand are an unguided process that may generate patterns, but not information. On the other hand, someone writing their name in the sand has guided the movement of the sand so as to convey data (their name) using symbols (letters) arranged in a non-random order (J-O-H-N) with a goal (for others to know that John was there).  If we walk down that beach later and find that name in the sand, we recognize this was not the work of the waves, but rather an intelligent agent, because codes (i.e. the English language) are not generated by physical-chemical processes alone. Meaning is conveyed by the willful choice of certain letters to form certain words in a certain order, but natural processes do not possess a will – only intelligent agents do. This then takes us back to the causal agent required of design.

If I hand you a piece of paper that has been moved at a constant speed under an eyedropper filled with ink, will the series of evenly spaced dots provide you any information? The repetitive pattern of dots are arranged as they are out of necessity. What if the ink drops were splattered randomly on the paper where there was no pattern whatsoever? The first is highly specified (identical spacing and size of dots) but repetitive and not complex. The 2nd is complex (in that it would be very difficult to intentionally reproduce it), but completely unspecified. Either way, no useful information is conveyed. But what if the ink drops were from an inkjet printer that was plotting a set of framing plans for a skyscraper? Has information been conveyed? Certainly, but how can we know that? The symbols on the paper exhibit specified complexity. They are a product of neither chance nor necessity. They also have a clear purpose: If you follow the instructions presented, with the materials specified, in the order prescribed, you will have successfully constructed a tall building. These characteristics can differentiate legitimate information from repetitive patterns and random noise.

Now let’s apply what we know about information to DNA.  Deoxyribonucleic acid is composed of 4 bases (Guanine, Adenine, Cytosine, and Thymine) attached to the famous double helix backbones of sugars and phosphates. These bases match up in pairs (G&C, A&T).  One DNA molecule can have 220 million of these base pairings. The entire human genome, the transcript of all the base pairings in all of human DNA, is 3.4 billion units.  Printed out in small font, this takes over 100 volumes of 1,000 pages each. While DNA is still mind-blowing 50+ years after it was discovered, and we’ve still only scratched the surface of understanding it, does assigning letters to these bases and filling books with them make this a language? Are these letter sequences conveying information? Actually, the ability of DNA to store and transmit information has not been lost on scientists. In 2012-13, 2 different groups managed to encode text, pictures, and audio data into DNA’s code, synthesize actual DNA from it, then sequence that DNA to get the original data back with 100% accuracy.  In fact, DNA makes for a far more stable data storage medium than our current typical magnetic disks. It’s also estimated that one cup of DNA could store 100 million hours of hi-def video[1].

Let’s compare this 4-letter “alphabet” to some other alphanumeric codes. Consider this: our common number system is called Base 10 because it uses the ten digits 0-9. Our computers use “binary”, a Base 2 system that only uses the numbers 0 and 1, because these can represent physical states of on and off. Hexadecimal (Base 16) has been used in computers to reduce storage requirements. It uses the digits 0-9, then adds the letters A-F. In this way, you can count to 15 with only 1 digit (F) compared to the 4 digits needed in binary (1111). The English alphabet that I’m using to communicate right now is a sort of Base 26 code. You have 26 symbols to use for each character, and if that’s not enough to convey an idea, then you need to keep adding characters to form words, stringing those into sentences, paragraphs, books, and rambling blogs…. Knowing how base systems work, what do we see when we look at DNA? We see a Base 4 code for conveying information. Interestingly, a 2006 paper in the Bulletin of Mathematical Biology asked the question of why DNA is a Base 4 code and not a binary code, or Base 6, Base 8, etc, and concluded that Base 4 actually maximizes the rate of replication over every other option.[2] Dr. Werner Gitt looked at DNA from a data storage standpoint and concluded that the 4 letter “alphabet” and 3 letter “words” (codons) used by DNA for synthesizing proteins were the most efficient system possible in terms of minimizing space requirements in the cell, simplifying encoding/decoding of the data, and maximizing redundancy for error checking[3]. So the framework for efficiently storing and communicating information is there, but is there actually information there? Like the set of framing plans, if you follow the data found in human DNA you will end up with a human. In fact, this is carried out every time a baby is conceived as a new human is constructed from the plans found in its DNA.  The data found therein is extremely specific, highly complex, and has intent or end-purpose. Therefore, it does indeed seem to be true information, requiring an intelligent source, and providing an additional jigsaw piece in our design puzzle.

1. http://phys.org/news/2013-01-dna-storage-million-hours-hd.html
2. “Why is the Number of DNA Bases 4?”, by Bo Deng, Dept. of Mathematics, University of Nebraska – Lincoln. Published in the 2006 Bulletin of Mathematical Biology.
3. “Without Excuse”, by Werner Gitt, PhD, 2011.