Information theory argument

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The information theory argument is often claimed to be an evidence based argument for the existence of a god. The argument is usually based on the claim that DNA, which occurs in almost all cells in living things, has "information" within it and information is something that can only be created by a mind. A variation of the argument claims that DNA is a language.

The argument is a variant of the argument from design and contains the same flaws. Among the arguments based on intelligent design, it is one of the more simplistic apologetics. It is also similar to the fine tuning argument in that it arbitrarily asserts an occurrence is significant.

Contents

Argument

Codes store information.

Deductive version:

  • DNA contains information
  • Therefore, DNA is a code
  • There is no other explanation for the code.
  • Therefore DNA had a designer.

or the inductive version: [1]

  • DNA contains information.
  • Therefore, DNA is a code
  • All codes we have ever observed have a designer.
  • Therefore DNA had a designer.

What is "information"?

Of course, the argument hinges on what constitutes "information" or a "code". There are several different meanings for information, but for the purposes of this argument the following meanings are significant:

  • The teleological meaning which implies a purposeful message or content from an intelligent mind.
  • "what is conveyed [...] by a particular arrangement or sequence of things." [2]
  • "Information is a message, something to be communicated from the sender to the receiver" [3]
  • "communicable knowledge of something" [4]
  • Raw data about phenomena, also known as "physical information". It exists without any purpose or intention.
  • "information is any propagation of cause and effect within a system" [5]
  • "another word for data" [6]
  • "design information", in which case the argument becomes the argument from design. This is a sub-type of the teleological meaning.

It is important to keep these distinct meanings separate. To confuse them in an argument would be a form of equivocation. Religious apologists who use this argument generally, but not always, use the first definition of information.

Counter Arguments

In what sense does DNA contain information?

If the first definition of information is used by apologists, that information is a message, they are asserting an intelligent mind in their axioms. They are therefore begging the question that a designer exists.

If apologists refer to the second definition, that information is raw data, then this information can clearly occur naturally, which also refutes the argument because a designer is no longer necessary.

What apologists hope is they can start with the "information is raw data" definition, claim DNA information is a code, and then use the implications of the "information is a message" definition to argue for the existence of God. This is equivocation over the meaning of information.

DNA is referred to as a code by scientists

"I shall discuss here the present state of a related problem in information transfer in living material - that of the genetic code - which has long interested me, and on which my colleagues and I, among many others, have recently been doing some experimental work... [emphasis added][7]"

This is hardly proof of anything other than the necessity for linguistic short cuts. Scientists mean DNA is a code in a different sense than the apologist. Again, this is equivocation over meaning.

DNA contains important content

The information in DNA is, in a sense, a "recipe" for a living thing. However, to claim this makes DNA a meaningful message itself is unjustified anthropocentrism, or strictly speaking, biocentrism. To put it very simply, DNA is a molecule with certain chemical properties that causes it to build proteins. It is no more special or magical than any other molecule.

Argument from ignorance

When trying to be methodical, apologists consider various possibilities.

"We can explore five possible conclusions: [Human design, alien design, chance, undiscovered physical processes, God] [1]"

The possibility of an unknown process is arbitrarily discounted. The apologists concludes "So the only systematic explanation that remains is (5) a theological one", which is an argument from ignorance. Also, the referenced apologist didn't bother including evolution as a possibility, which is a notable omission. Note that this objection does not apply to the inductive version of the argument.

Evolution is the origin of "information" in DNA

DNA "information" arose through evolution by natural selection. The notion that information of this short cannot naturally occur is false.

Unreliable inductive reasoning

The inductive version argues that since we have never observed "information" occur naturally. Since we only have limited experience of the universe for a limited time, this conclusion is open to doubt. The inductive argument in this case is a hasty generalization.

Aliens as an explanation

Apologists argue that aliens are not a satisfactory explanation:

"could well be true but only pushes the question back in time [1]"

Saying it pushes the question back in time is not a rebuttal of this possibility. Aliens are a simpler, more probable and therefore better explanation than God, which also pushes the explanation back in time but to a greater extent.

Infinite regress

If we accept the premise that DNA contains information, and that only minds can create information, then it is safe to assume that for minds to create information they must contain information too. This then begs the question, who created the information in god's mind? Doesn't god then too need a creator resulting in an infinite regress?

Chance as an explanation

"Chaos can produce patterns, but it has never been shown to produce codes or symbols. Codes and symbols store information, which is not a property of matter and energy alone. Information itself is a separate entity on par with matter and energy. [1]"

While exceedingly unlikely, the chance occurrence of "information" in DNA is a better explanation than a God that somehow spontaneously occurred by chance. However, evolution does not say the information in DNA occurred by chance because evolution is not a theory of chance. Characterising it as such is a straw man argument.

Which God?

This argument establishes no particular God or theology.

DNA is really, really complicated!

Apologists [8] sometimes cite Richard Dawkins to impress their audience with how DNA is very complicated:

"Every single one of more than a trillion cells in the body contains about a thousand times as much precisely-coded digital information as my entire computer. [9]"
"Each nucleus, as we shall see in Chapter 5, contains a digitally coded database larger, in information content, than all 30 volumes of the Encyclopaedia Britannica put together. And this figure is for each cell, not all the cells of a body put together. [9]"

Again, this does not make any case that DNA requires a mind to have initially created it. Complexity, in itself, implies nothing.

References

  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 Perry Marshall, If you can read this, I can prove God exists, cosmicfingerprints.com
  2. [1]
  3. [2]
  4. [3]
  5. [4]
  6. [5]
  7. [6]
  8. [7]
  9. 9.0 9.1 Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker, 1988

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