Information vs. Other Stuff

One common creationist objection to evolution is “where did the information come from?“.

There are many responses to this. But one thing that often gets lost in the noise is: it doesn’t matter.

What matters is, how do new organs appear? How do new body parts, behaviors, genes, chromosomes appear? As long as that happens, it matters not one whit whether “information” goes up, down, or sideways. In fact, if you define “information” as “the entropy of the universe, with a minus sign in front”, it’s easy to demonstrate that evolution requires a decrease in “information”.

The problem is that it’s fairly easy to show with a few examples that “new” organs, aren’t actually new, but really just variations on a theme. Think of bat wings and human hands, for instance. There are also many known types of mutation, including gene duplication, that can plausibly lead to the sorts of variation we see.

These examples are simple and clear enough that lay people can understand them. So creationists focus on “information” and play the same game as with “kind”, “God”, and “designer”: use a word that everyone thinks they understand, at least somewhat, rely on handwaving, intuitive arguments to make their case, and stubbornly refuse to provide a formal, testable underpinning for this intuition.

There’s a big difference between understanding a thing, and merely knowing the name for it. The “where does information come from?” argument plays on the fact that you can have a name for an ill-defined concept. So my advice is to treat “information” the same way as “quantum charm” or “GDP” or “melanoma”: if you don’t have a good idea of what the term means, ask your interlocutor to clarify until you’re sure you’re talking about the same thing.

And if it turns out that under some definition, an increase in “information” is impossible, well, who cares, as long as it doesn’t prevent the evolution of limbs and organs?

Science, Theology, and Information

Creationists like to ask where the information for evolution comes from. I thought I’d turn that question around a bit.

Back when I studied information science in college, the instructor said that the information content of a message is a measure of surprise. That is, if you’re trying to communicate as tersely as possible (because you’re trying to minimize your bandwidth usage, or because you’re being charged by the word, or whatever) you shouldn’t waste precious bits describing high-probability events. If you’re playing hangman or Wheel of Fortune, it’s less surprising to learn that the word contains an E or a T, than to learn that it contains a Y or a Z. And if someone told you that the (English) word is composed of Latin letters, you’d wonder why they were wasting your time.

So if information is a measure of surprise, then being surprised means that you’re learning something. And in this respect, science certainly delivers. A quick search yielded examples like:

“The universe keeps making strange things stranger than we can think of in our imagination,” said Jon Morse, head of astrophysics for NASA.

“We were surprised to find that subtle modification of only two amino acids in this very large protein can prevent the onset of disease.

The investigators were however surprised to find that the the degree of modifications on the histones continued to be about the same.

Speaking by phone from Japan, Kawaoka said he was surprised how effective T-705 was against avian influenza and how superior it proved to Tamiflu.

So the $64,000 question is, are creationists, Intelligent Design researchers, or theologians ever surprised by their work? How often do they say things like “A year ago, I would have bet you $100 that the answer was X, but after checking, it turns out that the answer is Y. Who knew?”

I can’t think of any such instances. Nor have I been able to find any. And if they aren’t surprised, are they really learning anything?

Now, one could argue that theologians have been at it for so long that all the big discoveries have been made, all the important conclusions arrived at, and new discoveries are so minor or so few and far between that they don’t make the news anymore.

But the cumulative sum of all these discoveries should be considerable. And someone who got them all in quick succession should certainly be surprised. That is to say, theology students and seminarians. What are they surprised to learn?

If Bart Ehrman and Daniel Dennett are to be trusted, by and large seminary students are surprised to learn just how little evidence there is to support the notion that the Bible was inspired by God; that many of the epistles are likely forgeries; that politics played a huge role in how the Bible was put together. That is, information from history, archeology, literary analysis, and the like.

Surprising things that they don’t learn, on the other hand (as far as I know) are things like “Well, that one-god-in-three-persons thing you learned is fine for Sunday school, but it turns out that there are 4.129486… persons. We’re still working on figuring out whether that number is rational or irrational.” Or experiments showing how brain damage affects the soul. Or sonograms and MRIs showing how and when the soul enters and leaves the body, and how that affects debates about abortion and euthanasia. Or “if we compare religions from around the world, we see this pattern that shows that Jesus also appeared in Australia and South America.”

Again, maybe they do learn these things. But if so, I’ve never heard of them, even they’re the sort of thing you’d think would crop up when theists accuse people like Dawkins of ignoring sophisticated theology.

So again, I have to ask: if theologians aren’t surprised, how can they be said to learn anything?