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“The World as Evolving Information”

Here’s an abstract to a speculative article by Carlos Gershenson on information. It is relevant to how intelligence might enter and be expressed in evolutionary processes. The article was posted yesterday at arxiv.org:

ABSTRACT: This philosophical paper discusses the benefits of describing the world as information, especially in the study of the evolution of life and cognition. Traditional studies encounter difficulties because it is difficult to describe life and cognition in terms of matter and energy, falling into a dualist trap. However, if matter and energy, as well as life and cognition, are described in terms of information, evolution can be described consistently as information becoming more complex. Moreover, information theory is already well established and formalized. The paper presents five tentative laws of information, which are generalizations of Darwinian, cybernetic, thermodynamic, and complexity principles. These are further used to discuss the notions of life and cognition, including their origins and evolution.

SOURCE: http://arxiv.org/….

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7 Responses to “The World as Evolving Information”

  1. Dear Dr. Dembski- In regards to this gentleman’s paper on viewing the world as information, it’s obviously way over my head, so I’m probably unqualified to comment, but I’ll venture this- to the extent that biology is viewed as information by scientists, it seems like a good thing to me. It puts the matter less in the hands of philisophical theorists, and more in the hands of objective mathematicians and statisticians. It seems likely that Intelligent Design is ultimatly going to be bolstered in the long run by this perspective on things ,even if the initial explanations presented for biological information complexity are predictably naturalistic and evolution-based. To the extent that evolutionists are persuaded into an objective, math and statistics based discussion of biological complexity, people like you have the opportunity to raise points about the NATURE of the complex information- ie. it’s specicifity. I have read your book- ID: the bridge between science and theology, ( again, way over my head ) and you really emphasised the difference between mere complexity and SPECIFIC complexity as the terms pertain to probabilistic analysis of biological origins. The writer of this paper seems to not adress the distinction between the two types of information very much, which probably explains the naturalistic slant on the growth of information complexity in biological sytems that he talks about. However, to the extent that discourse on biology heads into the field of information science ( where it surely belongs ), it seems that ID finds good, firm ground on which to present it’s arguments…. On a seperate note, I just want you to know how much I appreciate you for your courage and for your intellectual honesty. Intelligent Design is an idea with enough reasonable scientific, mathematical, statistical, and logical merit to at least be given a fair hearing in the marketplace of ideas. Obviously the keepers of the status-quo fear you, and your ideas, since there could be no other explanation for the un-deserved vitriol and agression that has come your way, just for trying to make a reasonable argument about something. You are our great champion and our standard-bearer, and I thank you for your un-tiring efforts to find truth, and to speak truth, as best you can see it. I do have an un-related question for you. I recently posted an essay on the topic of evolution versus intelligent design on my new blog, and have subsequently found myself trying to defend my arguments in advocacy for ID, against about seven diffferent atheists in the comments section, and at their blog-sites. One of the arguments presented by one of the atheists is that Evolution doesnt have to pass any probabilistic or statistical muster because it isnt based on chance. The guy says that evolution is a non-chance-based algorithm with factors such as natural selection and mutation which negate the probability problem of elemental particles becoming the specific, complex information present in DNA. I countered the natural selection explanation with the obvious irreducible complexity argument. My question is this – is there such an algorithm as the one that this guy is calling upon to explain how statisticaly impossible events can occur?? Has such a formula actually been computed or put forward by anybody, or is he just pulling this “algorithm ” business out of his you-know-what? I dont know how to respond to the algorithm claim. As a mathematician, and an expert on the subject, I was wondering if you could take a minute from your busy schedule to pop in real quick to the comments section and weigh in. I realize that this is a bit like writing to George W. Bush and asking him to personally settle a political argument that you had with your liberal neighbor last saturday out on the porch, but I thought I would at least ask. I figure that if I can get a comment from “Dembski himself”, I win by default unless he manages to drag Dawkins into it somehow. Incidentally, the discussions I have been having with at least 3 or 4 of the atheists have been quite civil and polite. I got just a few hateful insults from those who didnt care for reasoned debate,( which comes with the territory as you well know ) but by-and-large it’s been a good discussion. If you have time, the site is:
    htttp://tyharris.wordpress.com

  2. That link above should be (without the extra t in http):

    http://tyharris.wordpress.com

  3. Tyharris,

    Darwinism is based on chance, whether Darwinists want to admit it or not. You begin with a random (unguided) source of variation (mutation). You then watch as some of these variations hinder the reproductive success of some and help that of others. (Perhaps…if the signal-to-noise ratio is high enough. Experimental evidence says it is not.) And then those that surive better are the survivors. That is the extent of the “algorithm.”

    Notice, “Natural Selection” did not do anything. Natural Selection is the differential reproduction we spoke of; it is the organisms doing all the work. They have to out-reproduce and fix their genes. NS is a description of the work they are doing. It is not a cause at all, but an effect.

    We get confused because Artifical Selection is a cause, which causes differential reproduction. “Natural Selection” doesn’t cause to differential reproduction; it is the differential reproduction. It doesn’t cause anything further.

    So what are the causal factors in that scenario? The random mutations cause an organism to either reproduce more (beneficial), or less (deleterious), or the same (neutral). These mutations happen randomly, but are distributed in a way that is very skewed towards deleterious and neutral ones. Almost all are near-neutral. Therefore, differential reproduction is usually more a product of chance (enviornmental factors and plain luck) than of any genetic differences.

    Anyway, since NS is not a cause of anything, it cannot take a random process and make it non-random. It cannot do anything, since it is an effect only.

  4. While I certainly have sympathies for the notion of the ‘world’ as ‘information’, I had some difficulties with the paper. (I am not very familiar with the contents of the cited papers, and so am looking for precisely at the logic involved).

    1.)While defining ‘information’ as anything that an ‘agent’ can perceive or sense, the notion (Notion#2) of ‘agent’ I don’t think is sufficient. As I do on with the list, this will become more apparent.

    2.) The definition of “complexity” likewise appears insufficient. “The amount of information required to describe a process, system, object, or agent determines is complexity.” Does this apply to quantum mechanics, for example? To explain QM requires sophisticated mathematical language found in very thick textbooks, when, in fact, the minute changes occurring in molecules and systems of molecules are a simple, spontaneous responses to “first order information”. Quantum numbers are but simple integers. So, where is the ‘complexity’, at the atomic level, or at the level of the mind?

    3.) Speed of comlexity: “Since more complex information will be able to produce more variety, the speed of the complexity increase will escalate together with the complexity of the information.” How does this jive with the fact that science tells us that bacteria “evolved” almost as soon as earth was habitable for life, yet bacteria did not change into eukaryotic forms for another billion and a half years? Bacteria represents incredible complexity versus hurricanes and feldspars. Why the stasis then?

    4.) What does he mean by “propagate”? He writes: “Propagating information will try to maintain itself as much as possible, but transforming information will try to vary as much as possible….In other words, “critical” information will be able to propagate better than stable or variable one, i.e., as fast as possible.”

    The problem I see is this: If information A is ‘perceived’ by agent A’, and then transformed by A’ into information B, then information A no longer exists. So, in what way can you say that A is ‘propagated’?

    It would seem that the author has a so-called ‘information cascade’ in mind. But here is where the problem of an inadequate understanding of what an’agent’ is arises. If there is a string of ‘agents’, A’> B’> C’>…n’, each of which transforms their informational input into appropriate output, namely, B, C, D,… n, then is ‘agent’ n’ receiving information A, or information (n-1)? How do we distinguish this case?

    5.) His notion of the genesis of “organization” seems ad hoc. He writes: “Information produces constraints that regulate information production.” Is that what we really see? Has anyone “seen” these constraints be produced? Does he mean here AI programs? Probably so, yet he goes on to say a bit later in the paper: “Following the law of information organization, this also implies that living information produces its own constraints (organization) to regulate itself.” This is, indeed, what we see in biology, but what he states seems to be no more than an inference. He supplies no proof or examples of such “organization” being “produced”.

    This, then, leads him (I’m sure on the basis of AI algorithms) to state that: “All information will have constraints from other (environmental) information, but we can measure … the proportion of internal over external constraints to obtain a ‘degree of life’….Certainly, some artificial systems would be considered as living under this notion.” This is a little wild, methinks.

    7.) His use of the word “cognition” is in error. He says that the word ‘cognition’ comes from the Latin cognoscere, which means to ‘get to know’. Perhaps he’s not familiar with Latin languages, but the use of the word “cognoscere” is used only in an ‘interpersonal’ way. It is knowledge of a ‘person’, not a thing. To “know something” is ‘sapere’, from which we get “sapientia”, or wisdom. The ‘–gnoscere’ part looks very much like the Greek word ‘gnosis’–which is the word for ‘knowledge’. Hence, ‘co-gnoscere’ is to “know along with”, more on the order of “self-awareness”, and hence “personal knowledge”. This whole word play seems to be just a way to sneak “cognition” into the arena without first developing an adequate definition of ‘agent’–for then a ‘cognitive agent’ would have to be differentiated from other forms of ‘agency’.

    While I might laud the effort, I think there are substantial logical hurdles here. I believe it is because he starts with a Darwinian presupposition that the errors emerge in his “bottom-to-top” description. I would suggest that if he took a giant step backwards to look at the scenery, then, observing all the intellectual effort that has gone into the development of AI, he would then reason that “complexity” is the result of intellectual activity, and is a “top-to-bottom” affair; i.e., the human mind constructs computers and computer algorithms, and not the other way around.

  5. Atom, I think you misconstrue natural selection’s relationship to artificial selection in post #3. Artificial selection is ‘causal’ only insofar as there is a filter (in this case it is an intelligent agent) dictating which organisms, with which traits, are to be propagated into the future generations. In natural selection, the very same process occurs, except that the ‘agent’ is the whole of the environment of the organism (including other organisms). It is the environment that serves as a filter. It is at this point, evolutionists believe, that nonrandomness (in the sense you mean) is introduced. While the initial mutations are effectively random, the interplay of the genotype/phenotype with the environment is not random (unless the genotype is neutral). It is determined by the specific characteristics of the environment and how the genotypes are evaluated by that environment. “Natural selection” refers to this entire system and its behavior. The organisms do not do “all the work” as you suggest above; the environment plays a crucial role.

  6. Dr. Dembski:

    RE: The World as “evolving” information:

    This reminds me of the whole bruha over SETI’s sharp rebuke to you a while back. The idea here being that SETI looks for “artificiality”, while by contrast ID claims that “specified complexity” cannot be said to be done by natural processes or natural patterns and thus nothing is “governed” or “purposed” or “artificial” in biological systems. They just simply ARE. Thus, SETI has responded that their search being in comparison to ID is “false analogy”.

    I.E.–Genes don’t “tell” things or transmit information in the normal everyday sense of the word in the way one might find a “message” from some distant star system.

    I am by no means an expert in Information Theory, but I after some others determined that I had my head handed to me over on some VERY anti-theistic, “progressive secular” sites like the DefCon America blog over ID being mere “pseudoscience”, I do have two comments in this regard to get off my mind while I’m still able:

    1) This notion (evolving information) is simply part of a larger materialist notion that information, like genes, “evolves” over vast epochs of time and thus explain easily the APPARENT “specified complexity” of every living thing, including and up to all human interactions including the problem of Induction(CS Lewis notion of free choice being key to understanding the human mind’s decision-making capability), which for a long time was the major “demarcation” line that divided humans from the animal world. That is to say, materialists and atheistic evolutionists have now claimed that with the creation of programs that can “think” and all but explain evolutionary processes being “beautifully simple” (see Dawkins’ claim about Eye Evolution), once the mathematical parameters are known better.

    2) Is it possible, however, that SETI missed the whole point by contradicting themselves? Let me explain: If the natural processes on Earth alone account for the Whole World as evolving information and everything we do and say and think and transmit is therefore an outgrowth of evolutionary processes making amends to survive, then too SETI’s search for “artificial” encoding against some primordial background cosmic radiation is…artificially placed. That is, if human transmissions are no more meaningful and “thought through” than those of termites and monkeys and frogs (who also communicate by various means, both visual and chemical), then it stands to reason that SETI’s alien transmission sources are ultimately “naturalistic” also. They may very well be highly advanced creatures eons older than us, but SETI says the evolution of life elsewhere in the cosmos is “just what is expected” from current theory.

  7. Thank you for this post. I have been in a debate on a site that call themselves “internet_infidels”. The subject was ID and the DNA.

    The arguments of the evolutionists was analogue to this article by Carlos Gershenson. The only problem is that they did not make any distinctions at all and they also acknowledged some of the issues presented in this article.

    I resolved the argument by showing that if DNA has a purely natural cause then all natural phenomenon would fall in the same class of information. The only kind of information my/any consciousness can care about is the “active” type and hence I conclude that their position warrant the following definition of information.

    Information is: “Any entity that has been caused by bounded intelligence inside our reality and unbounded intelligence causing our reality.”

    I personally think that the Design Inference is in principle adequate to find information that originated inside our reality/system, what Roederer might refer to as “active information” that seems to me to be the same as “complex specified information” in the Design Inference. On the other hand information purely caused by “unbounded intelligence that caused our reality” or passive information is a problem because the Design Inference might assign a false label of “passive information” to something that actually is complex specified information according to its causal past.

    In conclusion I can only remark that it is interesting to see human thought “naturally converging” on this understanding of information.

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