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Further Reading


Gandalf on Mars

What Bleeping Codes Say About Intelligent Design

by Richard W. Stevens

I first saw Gandalf in 1974. No, not the wizard of The Lord of the Rings. This Gandalf was the colorful box attached to a PDP 11-40 computer, its lights blinking almost rhythmically amid a tangle of wires in the slightly dusty lab office. It had a label in faux Olde English lettering with that whimsical brand name.

What was this device named Gandalf? It was a modem, an electronic machine that translates information from one symbolic form to another. A modem is a device that modulates (encodes) and demodulates (decodes). Modems allow computers to communicate with one another over telephone lines, cable connections, or wireless links.

The 1974 Gandalf modem converted digital data into tones to send over a telephone line, and also converted tone codes coming in via that line back into digital data. If your personal computer or e-phone connects via WiFi, then there are two modems involved to convey data over that connection.

In short, a modem is an encoder–decoder device. With a wink to J. R. R. Tolkien, let's call any device that receives information, encodes it into symbols, and can receive the same kinds of symbols and convert them into information, a Gandalf system. And let's consider this idea: the existence of a Gandalf system gives strong evidence of intelligent design.

"Houston, Captain Midnight Got Here First"

Imagine that astronauts have landed on Mars and discovered there a smooth, concrete-like pyramid, with letters engraved on its surface in two columns. The left-hand column displayed letters from the Roman alphabet, and the right-hand column displayed the corresponding letters from the Greek alphabet.

Surely such a discovery would have electrified the astronauts, and they would immediately report back to earth the exciting news that they had found clear evidence of intelligent life on Mars. And let's say that they also discovered a Captain Midnight (Ovaltine) Secret Decoder Badge, the kind used by American kids in the 1950s. Then the astronauts would report the even more astonishing news that the intrepid Captain Midnight had visited the Red Planet before them.

Either way, whether the astronauts dug up a Roman-Greek letter conversion chart or a secret decoder ring on Mars, their instincts would shout: "Intelligence found!" In fact, if a Gandalf system were discovered there, the whole world would trumpet the proof that intelligent life existed on Mars.

How could finding one Gandalf system command that unshakeable conclusion? The answer seems obvious: no undirected material forces are known that can (1) create a code, and (2) create the corresponding encoder and decoder devices. With all the scientific knowledge we command, we cannot conceive of a purposeless, undirected mechanism that can design a code and assemble the coding devices. Gandalf systems simply do not occur naturally among the non-living, non-intelligent elements of the universe.

Wizards See the Future

If Gandalf systems do not arise from undirected non-living forces, then how do they come to exist? Well, first, in order to make a Gandalf system, you need to know the code. That means, at minimum, you must know:

• The symbols that represent the incoming information;
• The outgoing symbols that correspond to the incoming symbols; and
• The techniques for receiving and sending the symbols (e.g., printed letters, audio sounds, light flashes, radio signals)

Knowing the code means recognizing that one symbol equates to another. For example, if you know Morse code, then you know that "• • •" equates to "S," and "– – –" equates to "O." Thus, if you hear "• • • – – – • • •," then you recognize "SOS," the international distress signal that regrettably did not work out so well for the Titanic.

To decode a coded message, you must know the code in advance. Before you can understand "• • • – – – • • •," you must know the Morse code for the two letters.

Knowledge of the code underlies a Gandalf system's magic: expecting the future. In building a Gandalf system, the designer implicitly expects two realities:

1. That the device will actually receive information to encode; and
2. That some other device somewhere will be waiting to receive the coded message that the Gandalf system sends out.

Every Gandalf system is set up to carry out its functions as soon as certain foreseen events occur. Gandalf #1 stands ready to receive a message in a predefined format from its host computer, and when it does, it will encode the message for transmission to Gandalf #2. When it sends its message, Gandalf #1 uses a particular outgoing code only because its designer foresaw a future reality wherein Gandalf #2 would receive and decode its symbols.

Gandalf Contra Darwin

Dressed as neo-Darwinism, secular humanism, or resurgent atheism, the "scientific" contender in the worldview wars is materialism (aka naturalism). Materialism declares that the entire universe operates by physical laws of energy and matter alone. If intelligence exists at all, it has resulted from a combination of purely impersonal, undirected, purposeless material forces.

Consider the implications of this. If a Thoughtless Thing is impersonal, undirected, and purposeless, then the Thing does not know or even care about future events. Therefore, that Thoughtless Thing cannot and does not plan for future conditions. It does not foresee its own future nor the future or even the existence of any other thing.

Such a Thoughtless Thing cannot and will not create a code, let alone an encoder–decoder device. Why not? Because to encode a message now presumes the belief that the message might be decoded later—in the future. Similarly, to build a decoder device today presumes the belief that a coded message will arrive in the future. Yet a Thoughtless Thing cannot and does not imagine any future event.

No Thoughtless Thing—no impersonal, undirected, purposeless material force—can create a Gandalf system. Neo-Darwinism's mechanisms, undirected mutation and natural selection, are Thoughtless Things. Therefore, neo-Darwinism's mechanisms cannot create a Gandalf system.

No Gandalf, No Cell

The prevailing, science-based worldview says that neo-Darwinian mechanisms produced all life on earth. On earth we notice that animals and plants are composed of cells. Their cells operate with DNA and RNA systems that both encode and decode information about building proteins. Encoder–decoder systems in cells—those are Gandalf systems.

But neo-Darwinian mechanisms cannot be the source of the cells' Gandalf systems because:

1. No known undirected material forces can produce codes with their matching encoder–decoder devices; and
2. Undirected material forces are logically incapable of creating codes and coding devices.

Chemistry and physics lack the tools to create Gandalf systems. As Dr. Hubert Yockey wrote in a 1981 article in the Journal of Theoretical Biology, "Nothing which even vaguely resembles a code exists in the physio-chemical world."

Cells Compare to Computers?

Does this Gandalf system analogy apply to systems other than computers? While this article cannot explore that entire topic, the Modest Physical Church-Turing Thesis, a thesis widely believed by philosophers of science, may be worth mentioning. (What would it be called if it were not so modest?) Gualtiero Piccinini provides a thorough discussion of this thesis in a July 2010 article in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (online), but in simplified lay terms, it says that, if you can specify a usable translation process (a function) with a defined set of rules for converting from one set of symbols to another, then you can perform that translation using a Turing machine.

Why is the "Turing machine" important here? Because a Turing machine is defined as an extremely simple computer that itself uses a Gandalf system (encoder–decoder) to operate. That universal model of computing, the Turing machine, requires a Gandalf system.

The Turing machine conceptual model is theoretically capable of modeling any step-by-step physical process or procedure—that is, any algorithm—in the universe. Increasingly, scientists are realizing that biological systems are essentially machines executing algorithms. Executing an algorithm, as with the Turing machine, requires a Gandalf system for encoding and decoding information.

Computer scientist Corrado Priami, in a 2009 article, "Algorithmic Systems Biology," describes the logical connection between biological systems (like the cell) and computer-like functions: "The underlying metaphor is one that (1) represents biological entities as programs being executed simultaneously and that (2) represents the interactions of two entities by the exchange of messages between the programs."

Priami observed "the need for a deeper involvement of computer science in biology and the need of an algorithmic description of life." In making the connection between biology and algorithms, Priami recognizes the necessary encoder–decoder processes involved in both.

In his book Signature in the Cell, Dr. Stephen C. Meyer, a philosopher of science, shows that the "cell's information-processing system" operates using the same key elements of computer-based information processing systems, including mechanisms for digitally storing, encoding, decoding, and executing instructions for operation. In a 2000 article for the journal Computers and Chemistry, Dr. Yockey confirmed: "The genetic code is constructed to confront and solve the problems of communication and recording by the same principles found . . . in modern communication and computer codes."

Nobody would treat the finding of a Gandalf system on Mars as ho-hum. Such a discovery would signal the presence of an intelligent being on that planet who built the encoder–decoder device and specified the codes. Trillions of biological cells on earth, operating as they do with codes and coding devices mimicking computer science equivalents, likewise provide evidence of intelligent design. Now comes the real challenge: finding that designer. 

Sources Consulted
• Stephen C. Meyer, Signature in the Cell: DNA and the Evidence for Intelligent Design, pp. 367–368 (Harper Collins, 2009).
• Gualtiero Piccinini,
Computation in Physical Systems, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (July 2010),
• Corrado Priami, "Algorithmic Systems Biology," Communications of the ACM, 52:5, pp. 80–88 (May 2009).
• Hubert P. Yockey, "Origin of Life on Earth and Shannon's Theory of Communication,"
Computers and Chemistry 24:105–123 (2000).
• Hubert P. Yockey, "Self Organization Origin of Life Scenarios and Information Theory,"
Journal of Theoretical Biology 91:13–31 (1981).

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