Being As Communion:

A Metaphysics of Information

by William Dembski

It's been a very long time since I was last stretched so much as this book did to me.

The purpose of this book is to establish a credible -- indeed compelling -- alternative to (atheistic) materialism as an explanation for the universe as we know it. Dembski admits to being a Christian, and although he argues more forcefully for theistic evolution than for recent fiat creation, he tries to hide his preferance and show that his case applies equally to either perspective. I agree that it does, and for his intended audience that's not an unreasonable fence to straddle. Better yet, he argues that his philosophy of information does not even require a god. I did not find this alternative very convincing, but I never found materialism convincing either. Atheism is necessarily illogical (see also my review of Vox Day's Irrational Atheist), so Dembski is shooting a dead horse, but since so many people are trying to ride that equine coffin, it is necessary from time to time to put another bullet into its perforated head.

The basic argument that Dembski makes in this book is that information is more fundamental than matter. He admits to a certain amount of dualism [p.137], that (as the materialists claim) information can be a byproduct of matter, or else matter can be a byproduct of information. That's rather subtle, so I won't try to reproduce the argument here. Read the book, it's awesome. I sort of expected him to point out that the only difference between (for example) one carbon atom and three helium atoms is informational, where the protons and neutrons are, but he didn't go there. He did, however, beat around very near that bush on all four sides.

By starting with the "world" (in philosophy, the "world" is the sum of everything that is true, which need not be limited to the material universe: it would also include any supernatural beings that happen to exist, and also perhaps any disembodied information), Dembski one-ups the materialists. Maybe materialism is true, maybe not, but the materialists predispose the question by assuming that answer; Dembski seizes the moral high ground by starting on a level playing field.

Information, according to Dembski, is the elimination of possibilities. When everything is possible, you know nothing at all. It only makes sense in a context of what he calls a "matrix of possibilities," which might be understood as a sort of list of what might be possible in the present circumstance. Then information eliminates some of them. When it eliminates all but one, then you know that one thing for a fact. More often it eliminates some (but not all) of the options, which increases the probability of the remaining options, so that the total is still unity. Certainty is still a probability, but equal to 1.

Therefore, we can do computations on those probabilities, and derive mathematical theorems about what can be known within those matrices of possibilities. Claude Shannon did the foundational work there, and discovered that his formulas resembled those used to describe thermodynamics and entropy. I heard of this in my first year of grad school, and after thinking about it, realized this would be absolutely devastating to Darwinism, as I pointed out elsewhere. The Darwinists do two things in their defense: They absolutely refuse to do any further research on Shannon's seminal work, so it never sees any scientific publication, and then they ridicule what the Christians are doing with the "No Free Lunch" (NFL) theorem by calling it "religious entropy," as if guilt by association somehow makes it untrue. But this is supposed to be a review of Dembski's book, and he (rightly) says none of that. He mentions Shannon's work, then explains it in terms of removing possibilities.

Some possibilities are removed by the nature of things. There are no unicorns in the real world. Others are removed by intelligent activity, that is, "teleology" or purpose. Forensics is a whole science predicated on determining whether this person died "by natural causes" or by the teleological activity of another person. The Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence makes no sense at all without the pressuposition of that distinction. This is a problem for the Darwinists:

The rule that science refuse teleology seems... less a requirement of science as such than a logical consequence of materialism: if materialism is true, then no fundamental or real teology can exist in nature for science to study;" [p.50]
Dembski goes on to describe in general terms what he calls "materialist-refuting logic" (he points elsewhere for the specifics), then reaches back to the ancient Greeks (Aristotle and others) for the distinction between matter and information. I can't do justice to his analysis here in this review, you should read the book.

One important contribution to my understanding of the issue comes with his identification of "probabilistic miracle" as the materialistic explanation of the origin of life [p.67]. This is an awesome concept for apologetic purposes, because it essentially demolishes the atheistic ridicule of creationists as appealing to miracles, because they do too. Dembski later popped my bubble by pointing out that there is no reasonable way to calculate the odds of the fine-tuning, because we do not have access to the other possibilities in the equation. Odds are calculated on the basis of frequency of occurrance, and the only possibility that actually occurred is the real world, so there is no frequency to measure [p.129]. Sigh. But waving the astronomical numbers around, however innumerate it may be, and watching the (presumed) consternation of the atheists, is fun anyway. The atheists themselves resolve their dilemma by positing the hopelessly unscientific but philosophically (think: religiously) satisfying supposition of multiple (perhaps an infinite number of) universes, of which the one we inhabit just happens to resolve all those cosmological constants favorably.

Dembski and the scholars he quotes apparently dearly want Darwinistic evolution to be true, but the NFL theorem remains a problem. At least he is willing to deal with it, which is more credit than you can give the atheists. I guess that's why he distinguishes between nature and intelligence as providers of information. Many years ago, when I was still reading the American Scientific Affiliation's journal (they called themselves "scientists who are also Christian" where the order seemed significant), I noticed the name Howard Van Till from Calvin College, because he seemed to promote a deistic God who set the universe in motion by means of the Big Bang, then used (Darwinistic) evolution to create all life forms, including humans, without further application of miracles. It seemed pretty fantastic so I didn't look closely, but what he was writing back then appeared to me something like vitalism, neither good Darwinism nor good Christianity. Calvin College seems to have gotten their head back on straight since that time, much to the consternation of the Darwinists, but Dembski argues from N    FL something indistinguishable from Van Till's idea (although not by name).

As Dembski explains in some detail (ch.18), NFL (which he equates with Nobel winner Peter Medawar's "Conservation of Information" or CoI) prescribes that if something has some probability P (like rolling boxcars is 1/36), but you can take steps to improve that probability (like knowing that the first die came up six), the cost of that knowledge is no less than the improvement it gave you (that is, you only get that first six with a 1/6 probability, so it's still 1/36). Chance offers no information at all, so the information in Darwinism necessarily comes from Natural Selection (NS, which the Darwinists themselves also insist). The probability of getting the DNA of a particular organism by chance is astronomical, so obviously information was added (possibilities were removed) by NS. "The whole magic of evolution," Dembski tells us, "is that it explains (or purports to explain subsequent complexity in terms of prior simplicity." But CoI requires the information to come from somewhere, and Dembski sort of implies -- but I never saw him actually say -- that God (or some other information source) inserted that information into the environment, from where it could then act on the random mutations to achieve the intended evolution. In classic vitalism the magic "vital principle" is in all living beings, but in Dembski's version, it's somehow in Nature. My problem as an information theoretician, which Dembski does not address, is that there's nowhere for all that information to be encoded, not to mention that it doesn't solve the Irreducible Complexity problem. CoI is real, but there is no credible alternative to miracle, either the kind recorded in the Bible, or else the insane crazy probabilistic miracles the Darwinists depend on. My experience trying to engage atheists in this arena is that they cannot handle it, and immediately shut down all communications. Thoughtful atheists now know never to give out direct contact information, so to preserve this nuclear option.

Although materialists like to believe that their materialism is an inference from science, Dembski points out that

Locke and his fellow empiricists saw... that an empirical science never observes matter as such but rather must infer matter from observation... The problem is that observation itself cannot tell us what stands behing observation -- hence Locke's "I know not what." ...There is no way to stand outside the observational act and verify that reality does in fact match up with observation (what would such verification be except further observation, which defeats the purpose of the exercise).
A full quarter of his text consists of explanatory footnotes. If you are in the habit of ignoring footnotes, make an exception for this book. There is good stuff there. Dembski's note on the paragraph above quotes Chesterton rather more forcefully:
Why should anything go right; even observation and deduction? Why should not good logic be as misleading as bad logic? They are both movements in the brain of a bewildered ape [p.81]
C.S.Lewis made the same point somewhere, and Dostoyevsky gave us the flip side of the same coin, "Without immortality all things are permissible." The atheist essentially cuts his own legs off at the knees, and has nothing to stand on in moral or logical debate. Anything he might attempt to say is just "movements in the brain of a bewildered ape," or as another bard famously said, "full of sound and fury and signifying nothing."

This brings us to the central core of Dembski's thesis, and the middle of the book. If material cannot give us the information needed for the real world, and if it cannot even confirm its own observations, is there any hope for information? Obviously Dembski thinks so, he wrote the book. Consider that while information (as we know it) requires matter to encode it, it does not depend on matter. Physical devices likie a USB drive do not change weight when you add (or remove) information, and the same information can be encoded on a variety of vastly different material devices. The Turing Machine is an abstract mathematical device that has never had any existence in physical reality, yet we build all sorts of mathematical proofs (information) from it. It is "information all the way down."

Moreover -- and this is where it gets interesting -- the computer I am writing this review on, and the computer you are reading it on, have the same intrinsic property, that they are "information all the way down." The computer pretends to be a text editor (when I so choose) or a web page viewer (when you so choose) or anything else we program it to be. The program is pure information. Furthermore, we can program a computer to pretend it's a computer. That's the essence of a Turing machine, that it can pretend to be any computing machine at all, and similarly, any ("TM-capable") computing machine can pretend to be a Turing machine. Mostly I use my own computer in that mode, it's a PowerPC pretending to be a 68000 pretending to be an IttyBittyStackMachine computer. I once ran a simulation on my Mac pretending to be a PC pretending to be a Mac running real software. It was incredibly slow (typically an order of magnitude for each level of simulation), but that's an observational thing, not ontological. The simulated computer has no material existence at all. It gets better: we can run simulations of real-world physics on these computers that have no material existence. Concludes Dembski:

For all we know the universe may itself be a giant computer simulation running not on an electronic machine composed of integrated circuits but on a purely mathematical device, such as a Turing machine. [p.94]
Information is more fundamental than matter because you can make matter out of information, but not the other way around. More than that, matter can be made to operate in ways that cannot be predicted from the nature of the matter itself, but requires an understanding of the information involved. Thus materialism is a reductionistic concept that does not take into consideration factors that are necessary for the understanding of the matter at hand [p.103]. Or maybe I took a wrong turn, because Dembski doesn't argue that point forcefully. I still think it's a good point, sort of like the carbon-helium thing he never mentioned.

Dembski goes on to argue that the materialists have no way of knowing that their universe is indeed closed to external meddling by God. Even if we grant them causal closure, that is, no energy transfer from outside the universe, they still have no way to prevent informational closure, that is, information from outside the universe. Obviously, God can make chance events to conform to His will, so some materialists insist on a deterministic universe, where there are no chance events for God to control. Dembski still argues credibly that information can leak in: God merely needs to set up a causal chain of events at the time of the Big Bang that results in the information being presented when it is needed [p.117]. This is how he gets his deistic God who injects information into the NS process. The bottom line is that the materialist has no defense against God sneaking into his universe, and he cannot know it even happened (except it's obviously divine in the presentation, like a prophet calling for a miracle, then it happens by natural causes). Not all of the Biblical miracles can be explained that way, but it's a logical chink in the atheist's armor.

Not quite 30 years ago I happened to see an announcement promoting Richard Dawkins' then-new book The Blind Watchmaker, which mentioned his software simulation of evolution and an associated $1000 prize. I thought it would be great fun for a Creationist to win his prize and sent off for it. Two people beat me, by a couple weeks (see my account here). Early in the book Dawkins mentioned a program he wrote to "evolve" the line "METHINKS IT IS LIKE A WEASEL" from Hamlet. As a mathematician and a programmer, I could not reproduce his numbers. Basically, he cheated. Darwinists do that, although usually without realizing it, because they only copy the wrong data from somebody else, without examining it critically. Dembski does not mention that, but he does discuss the Dawkins Weasel program, which starts with a random jumble of 28 letters and spaces (no information), then ends up after 47 "evolutionary" iterations with the targeted line [p.179]. The program's selection process adds information. It obviously came from somewhere, because it wasn't magic. The program was designed to do that, add information, and the entire target string is already there in the original program. I know, I wrote a program to do the same thing. If NS adds information to the biosphere, then the information must already be in that NS environment. Dembski says it is, but I don't believe it. How are trillions of bits of future DNA information encoded in the hot bubbly earth as it cools down from the primordial gas of the Bib Bang? OK, maybe God could do it that way, but it would take a far greater miracle than just fiat creation on Day Six. Besides, God told us how He did it, and encoding that much information into the volcanos of the primordial earth isn't in the story, not God's version of it. He was there, Dembski was not.

It's a remarkable chapter. If "selection, replication, and mutation" were all that's necessary to get (Darwinistic) evolutionary progress, then Spiegelman's 1967 experiment should have turned up more complexity. But instead:

This looks like Darwinian evolution in a test tube. But the interesting result was that this evolution went one way: toward greater simplicity [p.184]

According to Dembski, the source of all information -- and therefore also all matter -- is communication, hence the title. Finally, I guessed where he might go with this, just two pages before he cited Genesis 1, where God speaks the universe and everything in it into existence.

It's an awesome book, read it yourself. But don't try to speed-read it, you won't succeed. Take time to savor the logic and implications. It's worth the extra time.

Tom Pittman
2015 May 30