Epistemology

The Rev. Dr Stephen Ames completes the series on genes as the language of God:

Our theme is asking if genetics is the language of God. John Wilkins has discussed in what sense can we say that ‘genetics’ is a ‘language’. His main point is that it is an analogy but one that is not illuminating. It evokes the idea of intelligible patterns in the structure of genes and the way they interact with the organism and environment to eventually bring living things into existence. A drawback for John is that it gives too much away to proponents of Intelligent Design (ID). I am not a proponent of ID.

Recall how talk about this discussion of the idea of genes as the language of God came about. On 26 June 2000 at the White House Bill Clinton as the President of the United States pronounced the first survey of the human genome 90 per cent complete. ‘Today,’ said Clinton, ‘we are learning the language in which God created life.’ Standing beside him was Francis Collins the Director of the National Human Genome Research Institute in America and headed an international race against time and commercial interests to sequence the 3.1 billion letters of the human genome.

The question whether genetics is the language of God comes through the religious belief that God is the creator of the universe, who sustains the universe in existence. Evolutionary science provides our best scientific account of how live has evolved, which includes the many new forms of life that have thereby come into existence.

For those who believe the universe is created by God, this is the idea that God creates ex nihilo – not from any previously existing ‘stuff’ – and sustains it in existence. Evolution and particularly genetics is part of how life in all its forms has come into existence. From a theological standpoint this is part of how God has created the life producing universe in which we live. Hence Clinton’s words and Collin’s book The Language of God, A Scientist Presents Evidence For Belief, (New York, Free Press, 2006).

This already provokes many questions. For example, aren’t religion and science in fundamental conflict? See the trials of Galileo – “By stifling the truth that was there for all to see, the Church destroyed its credibility with science.” [David Griffith after playing the lead role in Brecht’s play Life of Galileo in 1994.] Secondly, why supposedly, would God use evolution to bring life into existence? Doesn’t the book of Genesis present God speaking ‘let there be light’ it is was so, and so on for the sun and moon and plants and animals. God speaks and it happens. Another question is, ‘if God created everything, what created God?’ I will say a little about those questions later. For the moment let’s keep with our theme.

Galileo has something relevant to say. In 1615 he was asked by the Grand Duchess Christina to explain how to reconcile his telescopic observations and Copernicus’ sun-centred view of the universe with the Bible’s teaching that the sun, moon moved around the earth. Galileo answered in terms of God being the author of ‘Two Books’: the book of Scripture written in human language, and the book of nature, which God created, written in the language of mathematics and geometry. Because God is the author of both Books they cannot be in fundamental contradiction, when both are read correctly. (Of course how to apply Galileo’s principle will take us into another set of questions.)

Following Galileo’s view, not just genetics but the whole universe (multiverse), with its many levels and forms of intelligibility, including mathematics, may also be thought of as the many ‘languages’ of God. Here ‘language’ is used to highlight an analogy between human language and other different forms of intelligibility needed to understand the natural universe.

A Christian theologian, Maximus the Confessor (b. 580CE), understood the universe to be created through the divine Logos (Word) and as a result all creatures are many different logoi (words). Maximus would probably enjoy an idea shared by Prof. Paul Davies’ and philosopher of science Susan Haack; that scientific theories are analogous to a vast crossword puzzle with the ‘words’ being different theories interlinking, and the ‘clues’ being the empirical data of sciences.

One of John’s concerns is that speaking about genetics as the ‘language of God’ gives aid to the proponents of ID as they attempt to argue to God from the search for intelligent causes operating in nature. I am not a proponent of ID because I think it is a version of the ‘god of the gaps’ argument. By contrast it is quite possible to talk about the ‘fine tuning’ of the physical constants and laws of physics for the production of carbon based life, without presupposing or entailing a ‘Fine Tuner’.

Galileo is not doing this. He starts from the view that natural universe is like a book written by God (who created the universe), who as its ‘author’ has written it in the language of mathematics. This is a theology of nature. It seeks to interpret nature and mathematics in the light of a prior belief in God. It is not a natural theology, which attempts to prove the existence of God from using ordinary human reasoning about ordinary processes including all the natural processes that the natural sciences describe. This is what the ID movement is attempting to do. I think there are better alternatives. In any case, it is quite different from Galileo.

The idea of the ‘language of God’ or the ‘word of God’ meaning the language or word spoken by God is found in different religious traditions. For example for Hinduism Sanscrit is the language of the divine realm. In Islam Arabic is the language God chose to communicate the words of the Qur’an to the Prophet. In Judaism G-D gives speaks to Moses from the Burning Bush giving the divine name. Christianity believes that God has spoken in many different ways but now has spoken to us through his Son.

I have left some questions to be answered now. Let’s start with a very common question: if God created everything what created God? This is asked by Prof Dawkins and by Peter Adam and by students I meet. The answer is that if God created everything then any supposed ‘contender’ for the job of creating God has already been created by God. The atheist physicist Lawrence Krauss made this point in his book A Universe from Nothing, Why There Is Something Rather Than Nothing, (New York, Free Press, 2012,p.173) made the point that if God is the cause of all causes, then you can’t ask what created God. People offer strong reasons for not accepting the idea of God – lack of evidence, the problem of natural evil, irrelevance, among others. But asking what created God is not a reason for rejecting the idea of God.

A second question: Isn’t there a ‘warfare’ or an inherent conflict between science and religion? This is known as the ‘conflict thesis’. It goes back to John W. Draper’s History of the Conflict of Science and Religion (1875) and Andrew D. White’s A History of Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom (1896). Historians of science since the 1960s have forced a profound rethink of this ‘conflict thesis’. Historical scholarship shows that deep theological commitments and motives underpinned the work of figures like Kepler, Descartes, Newton, Boyle who were the leading lights of the rise of early modern Science in Europe (16th–17th Century).

This brings us back to the Galileo Affair. It is very complex event set in the context of the Protestant Reformation and the Counter Reformation by the Catholic Church. When the Affair is used to promote the ‘conflict thesis’ a key point is the claim that Galileo showed us the truth about the solar system but the Church stifled this truth and destroyed its credibility with science. Galileo made stunning telescopic observations which certainly contradicted the old earth centred model of the heavens, with the sun and moon and planets circling the earth. However this didn’t prove the sun centred view of Copernicus. This is because all of Galileo’s telescopic observations could be explained by the famous Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe (1546-1601). In his model the sun circled the earth while all the planets circled the sun. The Jesuit astronomers of the day reproduced all of Galileo’s observations but espoused Tycho’s model. Galileo also supported his view with an explanation of the tides, which predicted a 24 hour cycle, not the observed 12 hour cycle. Galileo was alerted to this discrepancy but thought it could be explained by the odd shapes and varying depths of the ocean floor. The Galileo Affair does not support the ‘conflict thesis’.

Another question was why would God create a universe for some purpose and then use evolution to bring life into existence? For a fuller answer see my paper ‘Why Would God Use Evolution?’ in, J. Arnould OP, ed., Darwin and Evolution Interfaith Perspectives, (Adelaide, ATF Press, 2010), 105–128. Here are the ‘bare bones’. For some readers it may be the first time you have encountered theological reasoning. Here I am starting with a traditional idea of God that God is all powerful, all knowing and all good, who freely creates the universe ex nihilo and sustains it in existence. (This will be a theology of nature not a natural theology.) I am working towards understanding what kind of universe we might expect such a God to create (should such a God exist), by reasoning largely from the idea of God.

I draw on the work of a theological ‘giant’ Thomas Aquinas from the 13th century (see his Summa Theologiae 1a,103.6; 1a, 105.5). Aquinas asked whether God would create a universe in which things had their own real powers or would God be the only power in the world? Would it be the fire that warmed you or God in the fire that warmed you? Aquinas’ view was that God is the primary cause, creating from nothing and (continually) sustaining in existence all the secondary causes we see operating in the world. For Aquinas, God is that than which there is none greater. Therefore we should prefer to say that God creates things, with real causal powers, rather than with no real powers. This is because it is a greater exercise of power, which creates things that are not only good in themselves but the cause of good in others.

For Aquinas, God creates things in such a way that things have the dignity of also being causes, rather than, so I would add, the indignity of also not being causes. In God’s creation there are no ‘wall flowers’ – everything has a part, everything is a ‘player’.

On similar reasoning I should say that God maximises these features of creation, rather than minimises them. I should therefore prefer to say that this God creates a life producing universe, which is better than only producing an inert universe, or a merely mechanically interactive universe. Therefore we should expect that things make other things and overall creation makes itself as much as possible as a life producing universe. Of course this is easily extended to a life producing universe that produces intelligent life. This understanding of God claims to express at least one thing that is of value to God as creator: creatures as co-creators and that God maximises the realisation of that value in a created universe.

Now let’s pause here and ask what this theoretical idea of the God created universe might look like in fact. Can theology take us that far? The answer is ‘no’. Here is why. On the idea of God we are working with, God freely creates the universe ex nihilo. Because it is freely created we cannot derive in detail what the creation will look like from the idea of God. We should expect it to be an intelligible universe and open to rational explanations because God is all knowing and all powerful. Because the universe is created ex nihilo it means there was no prior ‘stuff’ that God used, so we can’t figure out from the ‘stuff’ what the universe might look like since there was no ‘stuff’. How could we find out what this God created universe might look like in fact? We would have to go and look, use all our senses to gather data and use our reason to understand it in different ways.

If you think that our universe is created by such a God then this would be the way to find out what kind of universe it is. This could take at least three quite different forms. One is scientific, another is theological and the other poetic. For example Charles Darwin, naturalist extraordinaire, did go and look and after gathering lots of data and lots of hard thinking came up with the theory of evolution by natural selection about the evolution of life by natural selection. He showed we are living in life producing universe. Secondly, If we used the ideas drawn from Aquinas then we could say that God uses evolution because what is of value to God is creatures as co-creators, all the way from the simplest to the most complex creatures. Perhaps one or more of the exoplanets astronomers are finding will have the ‘signature’ of life. Thirdly, an example of a poet extraordinaire is Gerard Manley Hopkins (see for example his poems, God’s Grandeur, and, The Windhover).

Finally, we come back to the question about what the Bible says on God creating the world. Everyone quickly turns to Genesis chapters 1 and 2. (A helpful book is S. C. Barton, and D. Wilkinson, eds., Reading Genesis After Darwin, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2009). The above discussion seems very different. There are three brief points to make.

Firstly, it is a question of how to understand the text. St. Augustine (354–450CE) in his On The Literal Meaning of Genesis interpreted Genesis as saying the earth received the causal power to bring forth plants and trees, not that plants and trees were specially created. The above account expands this idea.

Secondly, there are many other accounts of creation in the Bible. For example John’s Gospel (1:1–4) speaks about the divine Word through whom all things were created (this was mentioned above in the work of Maximus the Confessor.) The above discussion fits well within that account of creation.

Thirdly, Galileo’s ‘Two Books’ principle says that if we are confident of our scientific knowledge of some part of God’s creation we ought to allow that knowledge to inform biblical passages that are speaking about the same part of creation. Galileo’s principle calls all who accept it to seek the theological message that God give us through the biblical passage.

 

 

This will be my final post in this series. In the next, Stephen will respond, giving a theological account of the importance of language as a literal, not metaphorical, way of understanding the world for a theist.

For those who do believe in God, the issue is: Does God speak a language of natural causes? That is, if God creates things (depending upon the religion, either out of nothing or out of prior stuff), does he use a language of nature to do it? In Genesis 1, God says “Let there be..” and the heavens and the waters of the deep are separated, and many theologians have understood this to mean that God makes things into an order by simple commands. That is, there is a divine language.

But the metaphor of a language of physics (natural law) or a language of biology (DNA) suggests something different from creation. It suggests that in order to get a certain outcome in physics or biology, God must use the laws of physics or biology. This might be theologically problematic. How you sort that out as a believer is going to depend upon one of several options (some of which are considered heresies in orthodox Christian circles).

The view that God must use natural law assumes that God cannot intervene in natural processes, and this is widely rejected by theists. But there is another version: that God uses natural law but intervenes (as it were, in the boundary conditions) to give the right conditions for his desired outcomes. This was a view used by Darwin’s correspondent and defender, Asa Gray, who said that God channels variations on which natural selection acts, to be useful (that is, to serve up the mutations that selection needs to evolve a population in the “right” way). Let’s call this Interventionism.

Another view, is that every event that happens, from the decay of a single atom to global warming, occurs because God directly makes it happen. Laws and regularities in the natural world are just God being consistent. This is called Occasionalism. If one believes, as most theists do, that God causes some things to happen (either as miracles or as natural processes he wants to occur), then there is a spectrum from full-blown occasionalism to infrequent interventionism. Only if you think God created the laws of physics and thereafter never intervenes (perhaps because he has made the universe so that it must end up serving his Plan, which raises hairy questions about determinism), do you think that the “language” of the world must be some causal process like physics, or more locally, genetics.

So I would suggest that the theological issues are more complex than the metaphor of God using a language suggests. This is the latest version of God as a geometer/mathematician (a view found throughout the scientific era: e.g., Galileo, Descartes, Blake) using mathematics as his language of creation. Stephen will have something to say about this in the next, and final, post.

I have been mulling over the philosophical works that were of most influence upon me when I was developing into the warped and twisted thing I am now. Add your own in the comments.:

Herbert Marcuse, One Dimensional Man. This book got me interested in philosophy and social issues. I was 16 when I read it.

David Oldroyd, Arch of Knowledge. This book gave me a historical approach to the philosophy of science that has never left me. Although badly typeset, it is rich with information and context of scientific philosophy. I wish it were reissued, properly set.

Antony Flew, An Introduction to Western Philosophy: Ideas and Argument from Plato to Popper. This book grounded me in the traditions of western philosophy in a way nothing else did. Flew attends to the core arguments in their own words. This is a book to buy and reread, and I have gone through several copies giving them away to students and interested lay folk.

Stephen Toulmin, Human Understanding. This was the first evolutionary epistemology I ever read, and to my mind Toulmin got most things pretty well right. It took me thirty years to find a copy of my own.

David Hull, Science as a Process. I did my masters on this book, and David became a mentor. I still think his conceptual inclusive fitness account of science is correct, although I now do not think he entirely got the history of systematics all that right.

In addition to these are the usual canon fodder: Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logicophilosophicus, Philosophical Investigations, and On Certainty; Locke’s Essay; Hume (anything of Hume, really, but especially the Treatise); and a few deviants, like F. H. Bradley’s Ethical Studies, and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (I read it as a lad of 14. I now disagree with almost everything it in apart from the joy of riding motorcycles).

What philosophical books warped you?

[Morality and Evolution 1 2 3 4 5 6 7]

So far I have made out the following arguments:

  • Evolution does in fact debunk moral realism, as the fitness bearer for a moral claim is the agent in relation to others in their group, not the truth of the claim
  • There is no Milvian Bridge, therefore, from success due to actions based upon moral claims to the truth of those claims
  • Instrumental facts necessary for taking successful action are not moral facts
  • Morality is based upon the Primate Standard Social Structure of social dominance relations, as instantiated in humans (uniquely, perhaps)
  • It relies upon there being classes of agents in a large society, as the number of individuals we can track is sharply constrained
  • With the Neolithic transition to sedentary agrarian populations, we began to need rules of behaviour that exceeded small group size norms
  • With the arising of states, we began to develop rules of the city, in which loyalty and cooperation is owed to institutions
  • With industrial/colonial states, morality becomes an economic, consequentialist, system of rules

This leads to some conclusions that many may find objectionable: as the environment (and here I mean all the affordances of the surroundings of a social group, including other groups and trading opportunities, as well as agriculture and other natural resources) changes, the optimal rules also change. Morality is therefore not something that is constant among human populations. Some rules may stay more or less constant, but the overall scheme does not, and hence neither do the underlying justifications for moral rules.

This deeply undercuts the reason for an evolutionary ethics, a popular enterprise in the late nineteenth century that built upon the long standing tradition of finding moral exemplars in nature (even in the book of Proverbs: “Go to the ant, thou sluggard. Consider her ways and be wise”, 6:6). Evolutionary ethics proceeded in two ways:

  1. Look for a human universal moral nature, and argue that this gives us moral ends
  2. Look at other species for exemplary cases and argue that this justifies human morality

The trouble with 1 is that the human universals always tend after a while to evaporate, or turn out to be over interpretation by researchers keen to find precursors to Christian, European, capitalist social norms, in part to justify the universality of those norms, and in part to justify the subjugation of other cultures as being incompletely evolved and in need of paternalistic oversight (by colonialists). Evolutionary psychology continues to do this from time to time (as, to be fair, also does most other psychology of a certain kind). It seems it is very hard to not think of one’s own values as somehow privileged and the best. I’ll get back to that.

The trouble with 2 is that it fails the phylogenetic test. What ants, antelope or antbirds do has very little bearing upon what humans do. Even if they inhabit the same or a closely analogous environmental challenge, as soon as you delve into the details of how behaviours are enacted and what particulars in the environment these other species exploit, the analogy quickly goes away. In short, as I have argued in my book The Nature of Classification, you get nothing out of an analogy that you didn’t insert in setting it up, and so it is again too easy to privilege one’s own moral values.

The famous Naturalistic Fallacy presented by G. E. Moore in his 1903 Principia Ethica was in fact a direct attack upon the idea that we could get moral goods (“the Good”) from observation of natural facts, and was a rebuttal against the evolutionary ethicists such as Herbert Spencer. No matter what fact one describes, one can always ask “but is it the Good?”. I believe evolution implies that nothing is the Good in and of itself. As Shakespeare so rightly had Hamlet say: “there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so” [Act II scene 2]. Moral claims cannot be justified by facts unless a hidden premise is added that such facts are good or bad, and of course this is viciously circular. Evolved capacities may permit cooperation and enhance fitness; they do not justify values.

This sets up a conundrum that confronts me when I am asked why I am moral, as I said in the introduction to this series. Yes, apes follow norms, and enforce them, and we are apes. What else would I expect? But why am I moral in this way, and not some other? Insert your favourite moral monstrosity here involving Nazis…

And that is a harder question. Why do I continue to think that it is moral to look after the weak and poor in my society, even though Market Fundamentalism has taken over and discarded them? Why do I think I have a duty of care to look after anyone’s children in distress, not merely those I am closely related to? How is this justified?

And this gets back to my privileging my own values. Of course I do. As Hilary Putnam once wisecracked, I should use somebody else’s values? They are mine and would lead to a world I would prefer. But I cannot justify them beyond saying they are what I regard as virtues. In other words, moral foundations are not ever justified; they are chosen or acquired in some manner, and perhaps reflected upon if one is some kind of a philosopher (amateurs welcome!). A duty is a duty because it is a duty. I am a virtue ethicist, which is a shock, because evolutionists are not supposed to be. I do not justify, though I might explain, my values. They are just my values. Whatever ants, crocodiles and eland may do, I am a human being who prefers a certain type of world, and so I act to bring it about. Utilitarian considerations of greater fitness are almost irrelevant.

This rather existentialist position is not, I think, popular among moral philosophers, although it is very popular among so-called Continental philosophers who read their Nietzsche (from whom I did not get it, by the way, and whose moral norm choices I would tend to repudiate). It raises all kinds of difficulties, such as the “what about the Nazis?” objection. But I think I can deal with those. In the end, evolution explains why we have moral norms and why some moral norms are widespread (especially those that favour relatives – nepotism is a moral rule and more widespread than ethics texts indicate), but it doesn’t ever justify moral rules except instrumentally.

For the record, most of my moral rules are of a Millian liberal bent (not my public polity rules, but in private, I should be free to do what I want so long as nobody’s rights are violated). But I cannot justify this beyond a fundamental value that my life is my own to do with as I wish without undue coercion. I can’t prove this; but just try to take it away.

We tend to think that there must be a fundamental moral set of facts that justify our (or perhaps someone else’s) moral norms. I think this is a mistake of language (the language game of moral philosophy, inherited from theology), as any good Wittgensteinian should. I think moral specifics are justified by moral generalities, and there the justification game stops. I must be moral – I’m a pretty normal ape. But I can only be moral according to my values, and there’s an end to discussion.

So, to answer in more detail my theological interlocutor: I am moral because that is the human thing. I am moral this way because I want a world without interference in people’s lives, especially mine and my children’s. This is because I care about them, and to be consistent I must care about others (bring in Rawl’s Original Position argument here). I think it works for apes like us.

References

Moore, George Edward. 1903. Principia Ethica. Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press.

Rawls, John. 1971. A theory of justice. Cambridge MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

In seeking tales and informations [Henry VIII, Act V, scene 3]

For some time now* I have had problems with the notion of information. Not, please note, with this or that piece of information, but with the notion itself, especially in the natural sciences. In this age of computers and internets, we have taken to mistaking the thing described for the thing itself, and treat information as a property out there in the world, not a representation in our heads and language.

Let me set the scene. Back when Dawkins wrote about biology, he proposed the idea that genes were a special case of what he called the Replicator:

A replicator may be defined as any entity in the universe of which copies are made. ["Replicators and Vehicles" 1982]

Notice the word “copy”. I can copy things in a number of ways, from imitation to tracing, but Dawkins has a particular sense in mind, which he explored in an especially purple prose passage in The Blind Watchmaker (1986):

It is raining DNA outside. … [downy seeds from willow trees] The cotton wool is mostly made of cellulose, and it dwarfs the tiny capsule that contains the DNA, the genetic information. The DNA content must be a small proportion of the total, so why did I say that it was raining DNA rather than cellulose? The answer is that it is the DNA that matters… whose coded characters spell out specific instructions for building willow trees… It is raining instructions out there, it’s raining programs; it’s raining tree-growing, fluff spreading, algorithms. That is not a metaphor, it is the plain truth. It couldn’t be any plainer if it were raining floppy disks. [Chapter 5, p 111]

DNA, and the replicators they are a special case of, are information. This is not a metaphor. Similarly, physicists will occasionally assert the same claim about physical things. The physical world is just a mathematical construct, and things like electrons have only mathematical properties, says Max Tegmark, a physicist at MIT:

… all the properties that electrons have are purely mathematical. It’s just a list of numbers. So in that sense, an electron is a purely mathematical object. In fact, there’s no evidence right now that there’s anything at all in our universe that is not mathematical.

We get the “it” from “bit”. Some mischievous philosophers have even suggested that we do, actually, live in the Matrix, although what the Matrix lives in is unclear…

So, why am I unhappy? Is this wrong? I think it is.

To get at this I need to hit you with a little bit of natural philosophy from the Greeks, in particular from Plato and Aristotle. Plato famously proposed that the real world was the world of Forms, or ideas (the Greek word he used was ideai, from the root eidos, meaning appearance, something seen). Forms were more real than what you see around you. A physical circle is at best an imperfect instantiation of the real circle, which exists nowhere in physical form.

Aristotle, in contrast, explained the physical things in the world by supposing that they had matter, which filled space and gave weight (made from several admixtures of the four elements, two light and two heavy) which the scholastics called substance (substantia, meaning that which stands under), and form, the structure and mathematical properties of a thing. This matter/form dualism is called hylomorphism, from the two Greek words hule, meaning stuff (it originally meant “wood”) and morphe, or form. Hylomorphism was intended to be an alternative view to atomistic materialism, which had become a widely held (and generally atheistical) view in his day. Epicurus, his contemporary, had an entire philosophical school based upon the older Democritan atomism [see this excellent review just revised in the Stanford Encyclopedia].

Now hylomorphism was roundly demolished as a scientific hypothesis when Daltonian elements were named and investigated in the nineteenth century. By 1900, terms like “substance” (for matter that is propertyless apart from mass and extension in space) and “form” had taken on a largely philosophical sense that differed extensively from Aristotle’s own views. Instead, an increasingly elaborate atomism had won the day, far beyond anything Epicurus or Democritus had posited. The properties of things, including their mass and filling of space, were the result of fields in space-time.

And yet, a kind of hylomorphism remained, even in science. Biologists argued that form determined many properties of organisms in ways that could not be reduced to their parts, and this kind of thinking remained and was co-opted by the molecular biologists and geneticists in the 1950s, especially since around that time, computers were getting going and information was a hot topic (it had not been much prior to that time). Thus, we get the “Central Dogma” in genetics:

The central dogma of molecular biology deals with the detailed residue-by-residue transfer of sequential information. It states that such information cannot be transferred back from protein to either protein or nucleic acid. [Crick in 1958]

Read physically, this means only that the structure of the DNA molecule is not reproduced from the structure of proteins, a perfectly reasonable account of the molecular processes. But because Crick used the word “information”, some scientists, including Dawkins, took this to mean genes are informational entities, that “code” for organismic traits from the molecular level up to the entire organism and even beyond.

Likewise, physicists like Tegmark, Wheeler and so on, who say that the physical world is “just” information can be read as saying that there is physical structure in the world. This is harmless.

But this is not how “information” is interpreted usually. Instead, we get the idea that information is itself a kind of universal property that underlies all physical things. Information, which is the modern equivalent of Aristotle’s morphe, has become the equivalent also of Aristotle’s hule. And this is where I part company.

When scientists talk about the information content or the informational entropy of something, they can mean several things. They can mean the entropy of the string of characters that are used to measure or describe that thing, like a mathematical description of a process, or a sequence of symbols like the G, T, A, and C, of DNA. But DNA is not composed of G, T, A, or C. It is composed of molecules, nucleotides, that bear the symbols as names, and they have properties that mean that occasionally they do not follow the mathematical or semantic descriptions of these names. For example, there is a “fifth nucleotide”, 5-methyldeoxycytidine (5-mC), which can pair up in 5′-CG-3′ dinucleotide positions. 5-mC is a molecule in methylation molecules, which themselves modify the expression of the DNA. The informational entropy (or information content) of a sequence is therefore just a measure of how the DNA is represented. 5-mC can even breech the Central Dogma.

The point here is that the representation abstracts away from the physical properties of the molecules. Measures of the informational entropy are therefore actually measures of the abstract representations, not the things themselves. But suppose we had a simulation or representation of the things right down to the level of quarks (if that were physically possible): would the informational entropy of the objects be identical to the physical properties? Would we have the physical informational entropy of the objects? I’ll get back to that. First I’d like to consider some of the other meanings of “information” in science.

Another meaning of “information” is the semantic meaning: what one thing (e.g., a gene) represents (e.g., the phenotype). This is the “information as signal” view, based loosely or strictly on Shannon’s Communication Theory account. One thing “refers” to another (in Shannon’s theory, the received message “refers” to the sent message). This, as Shannon noted, is not a theory of the content of a signal. After all, a gene sequence does not represent the phenotype by describing it. A similar view is Wiener’s notion of information as control, the cybernetic account. It is very hard to think of these kinds of information underpinning the physicists’ view above. Here, the properties are just informational, or as they put it, mathematical. Program-style accounts of genes are in this class.

A third kind of information is the information, or rather the accuracy, of measurements. This is called “Fisher information” after its originator. It is roughly the point on a curve of measurements where the second derivative is zero, or where the error curve is flat. This cannot apply to either physical or biological information, as it is a measure of how well and closely we can measure a physical system. Ironically, it is in my view the only actual physical sense of information, since it requires a physical state to be measured, and a physical system to do the measuring.

So let us get back to the physicists’ claim that the universe is just information. I have argued before [see note] that if an electron has mathematical properties, this is not the same thing as saying that the electron is just a mathematical object. An analogy might make this clear. Suppose I program my computer as an orrery, a simulation of the solar system. If I do this, the computer represents the mass and physical constants as numbers, and processes them according to the mathematical equations of physics. But that solar system in my computer doesn’t have the mass of a real solar system (luckily for me, and everyone else on earth). Instead it has an abstract mass, and the ways the abstract sun and planets interact is, well, abstract. A mathematical description of a system like the solar system is abstract. Apart from instances of that description in physical objects like heads, paper or computers, it exists nowhere in space or time. Consequently, abstract properties do not cause anything in the physical world.

Moreover, the abstractions must leave something out. As the genetic A, C, G, and T leaves out the actual physical properties of adenine, cytosine, guanine, and thymine, which can do things occasionally the symbols cannot, even the most well specified and detailed representation of a thing, at least above the fundamental building blocks of the universe if we ever can say we have them, will leave out properties and capacities we are not interested in representing, and so they will, sometimes but inevitably, deviate in their representation from the actual things. And if we have the fundamental objects (quantum fields?) of the universe, we could not compute the system without first constructing a computer capable of dealing with the whole system, and for a universe, that would have to be a universe-as-computer.

When physicists or philosophers say that we are living in the Matrix, or equivalent statements like the properties of atomic and subatomic objects are merely mathematical, they make a classical mistake, even worse than getting involved in a land war in Asia. They are mistaking the representation of a thing for the thing. The late medieval scholastics like Lombard knew this error and named it long before Saussure: the sign is not the thing signified. The word is not the world. If we are living in the Matrix, what does the Matrix live in? We know of no information processing system that is not, itself, physical.

This is the New Hylomorphism. Information is, as a commentator on Antievolution.org said, seen by Intelligent Design proponents as a kind of caloric or phlogiston. But it isn’t. It causes nothing at all. An abstraction cannot cause a physical process, and to think otherwise is a category error, unfortunately common among theoreticians as well as Intelligent Designists.

The notion of “information” in genetics is an honorary one. It can only mean causal specificity, not anything involving “real” information (on this, see Griffiths and Stotz’ Genetics and Philosophy). And since we have no real reason to adopt hylomorphist views on the real world any more (atomism, or its linear descendants, won the battle), one has to wonder why some scientists and some philosophers think it necessary to reintroduce form as information. Replicators are not informational objects; they are molecules and systems of molecules (Griesemer 2005, Waters 2000). For this reason I much prefer the notion of a “reproducer”, which is a physical entity (or class of entities).

It is time that we stopped making this mistake in science. It is time to give up on hylomorphisms, old or new. In the end, these metaphors (and they are metaphors) only mislead us.

I think that is enough about information from me [too much information].

References

Crick, Francis H.C. 1958. On Protein Synthesis. Symp. Soc. Exp. Biol. XII, 139-163.

Dawkins, Richard. 1982. “Replicators and vehicles.” In Current problems in sociobiology, 45-64. Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press.

Dawkins, Richard. 1986. The blind watchmaker. Harlow: Longman Scientific and Technical.

Griesemer, James R. 2005. “The informational gene and the substantial body: on the generalization of evolutionary theory by abstraction.” In Idealization XII: Correcting the Model. Idealization and Abstraction in the Sciences, edited by Martin R. Jones and Nancy Cartwright, 59-115. Amsterdam: Rodopi Publishers.

Griffiths, Paul, and Karola Stotz. 2013. Genetics and philosophy: an introduction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Tegmark, Max. 2008. “The mathematical universe.” Foundations of Physics 38 (2):101-150.

Waters, Kenneth. 2000. “Molecules Made Biological.” Revue Internationale de Philosophie 54 (4):539-564.

Note

I posted this on Panda’s Thumb, but I thought I would repeat it here.

I occasionally get books for review unsolicited, and many of them are not worth noticing. However, Kostas Kampourakis’ Understanding Evolution is a wonderful resource for students of all kinds, including biology students.

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Kampourakis, a philosopher at Geneva, has compiled and discussed sensibly a range of topics concerning evolution. He begins with the conceptual difficulties people have in understanding the evolutionary process, and why. In chapter 1, he discusses how we know about evolution, what questions it answers, and considers two cases that are close to home: domestication and epidemiology, the evolution of disease.

The evolutionary questions are about why living things evolved the way they did, about speciation, the process of evolving new species, and the hypotheses that these require. He talks about explanation (especially “inference to the best explanation“) and the use of scientific method in evolutionary biology. The sections on domestication of animals and on epidemiology are satisfyingly complete.

Chapter 2 covers religious objections to evolution, including, of course, creationism and intelligent design. He discusses the arguments made by ID, especially in the context of atheism and agnosticism. Arguments from design in nature are expounded and given a thorough treatment, including “artifact thinking” and complexity.

The he discusses world views in conflict, especially relating to Richard Dawkins’ views, and then more widely the views of both theist and atheist scientists. Gould’s “nonoverlapping magisteria” and Simon Conway Morris’ inevitability thesis are also reviewed. There is a nice discussion of the differences between knowing and believing and various kinds of methodological and metaphysical naturalisms.

Chapter 3 is titled “Conceptual difficulties to understanding evolution”. Here he discusses psychological essentialism in detail, and the “design stance” that Dennett identified. The problems of conceptual change, which I have published on myself, are then discussed. An example he uses is the shift from geocentric thinking to heliocentric thinking, and it is a good case study. The discussion on essentialism and design thinking, especially of artifacts, appeals to the psychological literature in detail.

Chapter 4 gives a complete and up to date account of how Darwin himself came to his theories. In particular he discusses how Darwin thought varieties became species, and gives a nice timeline of Darwin’s intellectual development. The chapter concludes with a discussion of how scientists and the religious reacted to the Origin.

Chapter 5 is about common ancestry. Usually books of this type focus upon natural selection, as if that were where Darwin’s originality lay. Kampourakis knows that Darwin’s true novelty lay in this idea instead. He explains how genealogical thinking allows us to reconstruct and classify the history of nature, and how thinking in terms of a historical tree of life made all the difference (and was Darwin’s first and main problem to solve). There’s a good discussion of molecular evolutionary biology here.

He gives an account of an often misunderstood notion in biology: homology. This is followed by phylogenetic classification and construction, and a discussion of the question of apparent similarities in biology: convergences (analogy, or homoplasy). Many clear and useful diagrams make the chapter even easier to follow. Then he considers the role of developmental thinking, and how evolution often modifies the timing of development.

Chapter 6 is titled “Evolutionary change”. It discusses “deep time” and dating of taxa and their divergence. Here he notes that while selectionist accounts are important, much evolution is stochastic, that is, chance. He discusses the difference of within-species evolution (microevolution) and between-species evolution (macroevolution) and gives a good summary of scientific ideas about these, especially the “major transitions” literature. The “selection-against” and “selection-for” distinction is explained here. Speciation and extinction are also explained. Then he returns to the question of inference, in a historical science like evolution.

Finally, in his concluding remarks, he discusses what evolution does, and does not explain, especially with respect to ethical and religious questions.

Each chapter has a good reading list, and the material is up to date in both science, and philosophy and history. He takes stances throughout but does so explicitly, allowing the reader to decide what to think for themselves.

This is an excellent, and long-needed book. The education of evolution in schools is now so poor in many countries, that this can act as both a primer and as an invitation to think further, and I would recommend it unreservedly to anyone who wants to know what evolution really is and means. It is not cheap, but neither is it as expensive as many books of its kind. Buy a copy.

I have done quite a lot of blogging under this heading lately so I thought it might be useful to get all the posts used in order:

On beliefs

On religion
On the arguments
On science and religion

Concluding posts

Many other posts from this blog have been used in the book manuscript, and this is not the order in which they will appear, but you can find your way around from here.