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Bill Dembski: Is information a primitive concept, on a par with matter and energy?

Continuing with James Barham’s The Best Schools interview with design theorist Bill Dembski – who founded this blog – this time on whether Wheeler was right.

TBS: Here is our other question regarding information. There are quite a few physicists out there—of whom John Archibald Wheeler is perhaps the best known—who regard information as a primitive concept, meaning that the entity to which the term refers is on an ontological par with matter and energy, or particles and fields, or whatever else one takes to be the absolutely basic building blocks of the universe. Do you agree with this? If you do, how do you feel about the company you are keeping? If you don’t, then what sort of more synthetic account would you give of information?

WD: Yes, I remember reading in Wheeler’s biography that he had his particle stage (everything is particles), then his fields stage (everything is fields), and then his information stage (everything is information). I remember Stanford’s Keith Devlin also making a similar point twenty years ago about information possibly being a fundamental entity (he subsequently backed away from this).

I would agree that information is fundamental entity and am happy to put myself in this company. Perhaps it’s easier to take this view nowadays than in previous generations. We are awash with information. This is an information age. Moreover, we all know about information going through multiple transformations and embodiments.

When you send an email, your fingers type at a keyboard, producing ASCII text. This is then transformed into some other symbol string so that it can be moved across the Internet without error (using error-correcting codes). Then, that information needs to be reconstituted at the other end.

The same sorts of processes are going on in life. Information is transmitted from DNA to RNA to amino-acid sequences. It’s not just that we see alphanumeric-type items arranged sequentially in biology, but that we see transformation from one such sequence to another. Although it no longer surprises us, it should surprise us that there is such a thing as a genetic CODE.

Think about it—to code something is to take a character string in one form and transform it into another character string, where it can be useful in a way it wasn’t before the transformation. Alan Turing, Claude Shannon (left), and others were dealing with and developing the mathematics for such codes in the 1940s, and then, lo, in the 1950s we find that such codes are in all our cells. This is remarkable.

I think we’re just scratching the surface of information in nature. I’ve got a massive, one-volume encyclopedia of physics on my shelf with publication date 1992. Neither among the main entries nor in the extensive index does the word “information” appear. Since then, it’s been gaining momentum. I predict that information will play an increasingly dominant role throughout the natural sciences in coming years.

Next: What would a school lesson plan of ID consist of? How many lessons or hours would be required to study and understand the theory?

See also: Is there any such thing as information in the abstract or is it always information for an agent?

What does Bill Dembski think of David Abel’s “prescriptive information” theory?

Bill Dembski: Two different concepts of what ID is: Internal vs. external teleology
Pressing Bill Dembski on his conception of ID

Dembski on why ID’s struggle is going to be long and hard

Bill Dembski answers, How do we explain bad design?

Bill Dembski on the problem of good

Bill Dembski on young vs. old Earth creationists, and where he stands

Bill Dembski on the Evolutionary Informatics Lab – the one a Baylor dean tried to
shut down

Why Bill Dembski took aim against the Darwin frauds and their enablers #1

Why Bill Dembski took aim against the Darwin frauds and their enablers Part 2

Bill Dembski: The big religious conspiracy revealed #3

Bill Dembski: Evolution “played no role whatever” in his conversion to Christianity #4

So how DID Bill Dembski get interested in intelligent design? #5b – bad influences, it seems

So how DID Bill Dembski get interested in intelligent design? #5a

Bill Dembski: Trouble happens when they find out you mean business

What is Bill Dembski planning to do now?

What difference did Ben Stein’s Expelled film make? Dembski’s surprisingly mixed review

Bill Dembski on the future of intelligent design in science

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3 Responses to Bill Dembski: Is information a primitive concept, on a par with matter and energy?

  1. Why are matter and energy seen as “primitive concepts”?

  2. I think that if there are inviolable conservation laws, then we start to think of these things as “primitive concepts”. As in Einstein’s: Matter + Energy = Constant

    Counter-example: Would this make Leptons and Baryons a “primitive concept”?

    Alternatively, if the Greeks thought it was primitive, then philosophers have argued about it for 2500 years. As in Plato’s: Matter + DemiUrge = Universe

    Counter-example: How about Stoic “Logos”? Or how about Aristotelian “Form”?

    Maybe it means: “If a physicist can’t explain what it is made of, then it is a primitive concept.”

    Counter-example: Lawrence Krauss’s : Nothing

  3. Indeed, I find it truly amazing that that construction of a protein relies on a code. One sequence of elements (DNA) is converted into a different sequence of elements (RNA) according a specific rules that are able to control the assembly of a string of yet a different set elements (amino acids) such that they can be configured into a protein.

    I would consider a code a special kind of information that is possibly at a higher level of abstraction than the information embodied in the DNA sequences themselves. Without the code specifying the translation of one form of information into another, there would be no proteins constructed at all.

    The complex specified information in the DNA is useless without the code. Is not the existence of a code even a stronger indication that an intelligence was involved in the creation of life?

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