Information as design: Information theory and DNA
To understand this form of the argument, we must first understand the different kinds of order. Some order is the product of chance and random factors, while other kinds of order can have no other explanation than intelligent design.
Specified order is simply a string of repeating information, CAT CAT CAT, for example. This is a naturally occurring kind of order and can be found in things like crystals, nylon, or snowflakes.
Unspecified complexities are non-repetitive and random. They also are naturally occurring. Things like the sound of howling wind and the shape of a rock are good examples.
Specified complexities are non-repetitive and non-random. They are not naturally occurring. In contrast to the howling wind and the shape of a rock, examples of specified complexities would be music or a statue. Even the sentence you are reading right now is an example of specifically complex order. The way we recognize a specified complexity is if it is contingent. “Contingency,” says William Dembski, “is the chief characteristic of information.” A rock’s shape is determined by the laws of nature that are brought to bear on it by its circumstances. There are no other possibilities for its shape. However, a statue can be any shape its sculptor wants it to be. It is not determined; it is contingent.
If you were asked, “Is there any information on this page?” what would your answer be? If you answered “no” then you are correct; there is no information on this or any other page in the world. The only things on this page are squiggles of ink (albeit specifically ordered). In fact, you could have exhaustive knowledge about the printing process and know all about paper and the chemistry of ink, but still not know what was said on the page. If information was a property of the page, then we would never have to learn to read; the information would just fly off the page and impose itself onto our minds whenever we looked at it.
So what is information? It is communication between minds. But in order for minds to communicate, there must be a common language. The language must exist and be understood prior to any ability to communicate. For example, the language of written music (the staffs, notes, and values) must exist prior to attempting to play or even write the music. The music may exist in a composer’s head, but it cannot be communicated without the convention of notation.
Every language is a set of tokens and a set of conventions for the use of the tokens. A token stands in for something intangible. For example, the number “1” is not really an actual number “1” but a token or symbol representing the number “1,” which is a non-physical entity. There are no actual letters on this page, simply tokens representing the letters. In English, the tokens are A, B, C … X, Y, Z. Because letters and numbers are non-physical entities, they have no location or appearance. That is why we need tokens to represent them. Each token has a convention or way in which to use the token. The letter “A” has certain usages that, when connected to other tokens, make words. Then the words are connected to make sentences, and so on. The point is this: The rules of language were established before we could use them to communicate, even on the most primitive level.
Thus, if you were eating alphabet soup and the letters in your bowl spelled “I LOVE YOU,” you would immediately understand that this is not a communication from another mind. Your soup would not be declaring its passionate affection for you. The same is true if you were to go to the Grand Canyon and you saw “STEVE WAS HERE” etched in the canyon wall, and you knew it was made naturally with wind and water through erosion; you also would know it contained no information. In fact, it would not even be English, just squiggles cut into rock that resemble the tokens and conventions used in English. But this resemblance would be entirely unintentional and therefore communicate nothing.
What about an unlimited number of monkeys with typewriters? Given an unlimited amount of time, could these monkeys ever write Hamlet? The answer is no. Even if at some point they happened upon the exact same sequence of letters as Hamlet, it still would not be Hamlet. It would be a string of letters that resembled Hamlet, but it would be void of any information. This is because there was no intention to communicate behind the monkey’s actions; there was no true use of language, only its tokens. The tokens would be empty.
A great example of how scientists make use of this understanding of information theory is seen in the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) project. SETI listens to radio waves and searches for a specifically complex string of information.
The idea is that specifically complex signals (such as the first 25 prime numbers in a row, as in Carl Sagan’s novel Cosmos) can only come from an intelligent agent wishing to communicate.
Recently, our understanding of DNA has given new force for those making the argument for design based on information. That DNA contains information is not in dispute. In fact, it stores and retrieves information, corrects any errors when it copies itself, contains redundant information so that if a gene mutates it can be turned off and not cause any damage, overlaps so that it can provide information to more than one protein, is expressible in mathematical terms (it’s digital), and houses as much information as an average volume of an encyclopedia. But, as we have seen, information is not intrinsic to naturally occurring physical objects.
Just as a sound is an agent that carries the tokens and conventions used in speech for communication, DNA is simply an agent housing a set of tokens used to convey and store information that is necessary for the body to develop and function. But before DNA could be useful, there had to be a language established. The genetic code had to exist prior to the existence of DNA and come from outside the DNA. Information did not emerge from DNA itself, any more than a bowl of alphabet soup can say “I LOVE YOU.” The best explanation for the information found in DNA is that it was imposed on the DNA by a mind.
The primary objection to this conclusion is a presupposition that all things are a product of random, non-directed forces. We call this worldview “naturalism.” But as we have seen, this position is bankrupt in terms of explaining how the information came to be included in the DNA and how the language of the genetic code came to be at all. As Dembski points out, “Neither algorithms nor natural laws, however, are capable of producing information.” Information needs an informer, someone who orders things in a certain way to communicate specific content.
This post is an excerpt from the Holman QuickSource Guide to Christian Apologetics by Doug Powell. It is used with permission. You can purchase this resource in its entirety here.
Published May 23, 2018