Category Errors or the problem of information

Some of you have never had the pleasure of arguing with a creationist. And you have no idea the joy that comes from seeing their little squishy faces. One of the things that creationists talk about. A LOT is that “Information can’t come from nothing; you need an intelligence to “write” information…so explain DNA!…smartarse”

DNA is an amazing substance. It’s just a chemical, simple in many ways but what it does is so complicated that we still don’t really know exactly how it works. The popular consensus is that DNA carries information from our parents and ancestors but just saying this is a category error. Because the way that we use the word “information” and its associated connotations, suddenly “information” is being used in an eccentric way.  What we really mean is that it carries “Data”. Why am I being so pedantic? Well let’s look at it.

Information requires a sender, a receiver and a decoder. We humans are “intelligent receivers”, which means that we are capable of divining information from inert sources such as data sets. Data is raw, it’s not directed or intelligent, it requires no sender and it requires an intelligent receiver for interpretation.

A rock falling is not consciously giving out information, a boiling kettle is not intelligently sending a message, a blooming flower is not consciously trying to tell bee’s that it’s ready and yet as an intelligent receiver I can take all this information, gather facts and create assumptions. To an intelligent receiver the world is filled with useful and not very useful data.

Further muddying the water is the human tendency towards apophenia and paerodolia.  Seeing patterns where none exist and divining meaning from random data.

In 1967 the first signals from Pulsars were detected. Pulses of extremely loud broad spectrum bursts were separated by 1.33 seconds, originated from the same location on the sky, and kept to sidereal time. It was first thought that these were too regular to be anything but an indication of alien life. Finally they were signalling us. They even called the signal LGM-1 or Little Green Men. But of course it turned out that this was not a signal. We thought it might have been information..but it was only data. We now know that a Pulsar is a spinning pulsating star. Spewing out gigantic bursts of broad spectrum radiation from one side of the star. But for a moment that star looked like an intelligent signal. This is a form of paradolia. But the signal has no intrinsic intelligence behind it, it is we that brought meaning to it.

So to intelligent receivers we can divine data from different sources and we can also make mistakes.

And this is the mistake we make with DNA. It SEEMS intelligent and yet the evidence says that it’s not.

So we are special, we as intelligent receivers have the ability to make sense or data, but what of our poor dumb companions on this planet. Could intelligence have evolved? Without an intelligent receiver? The answer must be, yes.

Evolution to an unintelligent receiver presents no problem because natural selection overcomes its lack of intelligence. By giving living organisms the harsh lessons, those that are pre-disposed to dangerous action do not get to reproduce. Those that make mistakes do not get to reproduce. Over LONG periods of time the organism “learns” even if it does not have any cognisance of the useful information that has been imparted.

Creationists like to talk about information as if it has an intrinsic value and life of its own. The analogy is inevitably bought to computers who have to be programed. The trouble with this analogy is that computers only contain the representation of information, not the information itself. The words, not the meaning. What good is information if you cannot receive it? In effect a computer is a long delay line between a sender and a receiver just like a book is. But the map is not the territory. As amazing as they are, they have yet to evolve beyond sophisticated calculating and information retrieval systems. Computers cannot yet comprehend the information that is stored within them. I’m not going to get any deeper on this because this is close to where we run out of understanding. Some might ask “How do we know that humans comprehend the information we are receiving” and that’s an excellent question. One I am not equipped to answer.

Creationists believe that because we are calling DNA “information” then it must have been encoded from an intelligent source. “Information can’t come from nothing” they say and they are right. But data is just there. It requires no intelligence to have placed it anywhere, merely a set of forces that are in action in the universe to have something happen to observe or be acted upon. They believe that since a computer is programed, DNA must have been programed. But DNA is not information. It is a representation of learned and earned chemical interactions that have happened over some millennia.

There is an old joke.

Three people are arguing about what the world’s greatest invention is:

“It has to be vaccines” says Greg, “think of how many lives have been saved because of vaccines, diseases that would have run ramshod over populations have been nearly eradicated”

“Vaccines are good” says Dawn “but I think it has to be the Telephone, the telephone has been at the forefront of every communications advancement that we have made, because of it we are able to talk to people on the other side of the world, we are able to speak to astronauts on space stations because of this one great breakthrough”

“You’re both mad” says Jim, “Clearly the world’s best invention is the thermos”

Greg and Dawn look at him incredulously.

“The Thermos?” Says Dawn”

“The thermos” Says Jim defiantly “think about it, it keeps hot things hot and cold things cold, I mean…how does it know?” Back when I heard this joke Jim was Irish.

Yes, DNA contains meaningful data but no more meaningful than the match is to paper. It creates complicated reactions. The only reason that we see DNA as a code is because we have invented codes. We have cyphers. We have bought meaning to DNA not the other way around.

We are, as far as we can tell or know right now. Unique. There is nothing like the human experience that we know of in the world. But that does not mean that we were created by an even bigger, more powerful version of ourselves.