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Further Reading

SCIENCE: Deprogram

The Law of Conservation of Information: Part II

If Information Theory Is Right, Darwinian Evolution Isn't Even Possible

by Denyse O'Leary

Article originally appeared in
Salvo 31

Intelligent design theorists did not invent the term "conservation of information" (CoI). Biologist Peter Medawar (1915–1987) used the term in the 1980s to describe systems that cannot create new information. A number of theorists, including computer scientists Thomas English (1996), and David Wolpert and William Macready (1997), demonstrated the idea, which came to be called No Free Lunch (NFL).

Essentially, a targeted search only performs better than a random one if we have independent information that improves our chances of finding what we're looking for. If we don't have the long-sought map directing us to where "X Marks the Spot!", we must dig up the entire island to find the pirates' treasure.

The cultural impact of Darwin's theory of evolution (which asserts that new information is created through competition among life forms) is so great that few ever ask whether the evolutionary mode of creating new information is even possible. For one thing, anyone who asks such a question in an educational setting could find himself facing litigation.

Nevertheless, some do ask it, ID theorist Bill Dembski and Baylor professor of engineering Robert Marks being two of them. They started to work on the CoI idea a few years ago. But Marks's dean at Baylor reacted by actually shutting down the Evolutionary Information Laboratory in 2007, though it later started up again and has performed well.

Output Cannot Exceed Input

To the extent the dean hoped that Christianity would make peace with naturalism, he was right to worry. As Dembski puts it in Being as Communion,

CoI applies to search, showing that searches must employ existing information to successfully locate targets, and that locating targets through search never outputs more information than was inputted into the search initially. Searches, in finding targets, output information. At the same time, to find targets, searches need to input information. CoI shows that the output cannot exceed the input.

At first, Dembski's approach does not sound intuitive. But that is because we usually search for things we reasonably hope to find. We look for misplaced keys, but there is a finite number of places the keys could be (where did we go since we last used them?). We look for an address, but naming and numbering conventions greatly narrow the scope of our search. More ambitiously, we look for a cure for a disease. But if we work in medical research, we probably already know a lot about the human body and about the disease.

CoI theory says we must include the value of the information we already "own" (know), instead of assuming that this advantage somehow doesn't count. And when we do factor it in, we will see that the value of acquired information amounts to that of the unguided searches we do not need to make.

What if we had to solve a problem never encountered before, in an unknown environment? That is what a life form must do in order to, say, evolve from a cow into a whale. From a CoI perspective, Darwinian evolution, as usually described, is simply impossible, due to the odds against the chain of events happening without prior information, without guidance. And remember, Darwinian evolution means evolution without guidance.

So CoI doesn't "disprove evolution," as hoped or feared. It only says that evolutionary processes, far from creating novel information, shuffle the existing information around.

The Matrix of All Matter

Design theorists say that the existing information probably arose originally from an intelligent agent, because that is the only source of information that we know of. As Dembski notes, the defining property of intelligence is its ability to create information.

Is the agent God? The Christian God? It's difficult even to address such questions in a public square seemingly dominated by enraged atheists. Anyway, that isn't the kind of question that science can typically answer. But the use of science does not compel a negative answer. All we know is this: At bottom, the universe is information. Not matter. Which is precisely what the great physicists have said.

It from bit" symbolizes the idea that every item of the physical world has a bottom—a very deep bottom, in most instances, an immaterial source and explanation.

—Pioneer information theorist
John Wheeler, 1911–2008

All matter originates and exists only by virtue of a force which brings the particle of an atom to vibration and holds this most minute solar system of the atom together. We must assume behind this force the existence of a conscious and intelligent mind. This mind is the matrix of all matter.

—Physicist Max Planck, 1858–1947,
originator of quantum theory

It was not possible to formulate the laws (of quantum theory) in a fully consistent way without reference to consciousness.

—Mathematical physicist
Eugene Wigner, 1902–1995

So the great naturalist project, in which so many thinkers have put their hopes from the mid-19th century onward, in which man appears as an accidental animal, has totally failed. Not because it is untrue, but because it is impossible.

It isn't just wrong. It isn't even possible. 

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