Friday, July 15, 2005

In The Beginning Was Information

In Wednesday's blog post, Information From Randomness? and in Monday's, The Development of Information Processing, I compared information and energy: Both cannot be perfectly stored or transmitted.

There's another similarity: Both are essentially invisible, although we have ways of seeing them. We cannot see heat energy, for example, but we can generally feel and sometimes see its effects.

If I send a message by telephone, my words are first carried by sound (pressure variations in the air), then by voltage and current variations on wires, then by sound again. Then someone may write my message down, so that it is carried (and stored) by ink on paper. They could even rearrange Scrabble pieces to record my message.

Now, my information was transported from one place to another, and even recorded (transported from one time to another), but the information was not made of air, nor of electrons, nor of ink. Neither was the information made of the sound energy nor the electrical energy. It is not matter, not energy, but it needs matter and energy to be transmitted and to be stored.

The ancient Greeks had a word, logos, that comes close to our word, information. One definition that I found says that "it may refer to a word or a thought or a spoken phrase or an idea". Another authority says that logos meant a visible representation of an invisible thought. The Greek philosophers thought that there was a mysterious universal power in the logos. Heraclitus, a philosopher of ancient Greece preceding Socrates and Plato, thought the logos was the underlying order or reason for the activities of nature and the universe.

So when the apostle John wanted to introduce Jesus Christ to the Greek-speaking world as the invisible God in visible flesh, the one who spoke the world into existence and who holds it together by his power, he introduced him as The Logos: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was God." (John 1:1)

The scientist, professor, lecturer, and writer Werner Gitt took that phrase for the title of his book, In the Beginning was Information, which I reviewed at the "Chapel Summer Readers" night. Gitt saw his work as an extension of Claude Shannon's Information Theory. As such, Gitt's definition of information is broader that Shannon's definition. I cannot cover all that is in Prof. Gitt's book, but his theories provide great support for creationism. This, of course, has sparked much debate, and much of the objection to Gitt's ideas are confused by not recognizing that Gitt's definition of information is broader than Shannon's.

What I find especially significant is the fact that the only recorded information that we know of that is not recorded by mankind is the DNA that we find in all living things. The DNA has a four-letter alphabet, and these symbols are arranged in linear sequences that describe how to build the proteins of living things. Scientists say that theoretically, there can be other 'DNA languages' that work equally well for providing this information, but for reasons they cannot explain, there is observed only one 'DNA language' for all living things, from viruses to humans. If living things somehow evolved from a 'primordial soup', we would expect many 'DNA languages', just as we have many human languages.

There are scientists who search for signals from outer space hoping to find signs of intelligence. There is radio energy reaching us from outer space, but they search for patterns that might convey information. I wonder what would happen if someone launched a spacecraft that radioed back to earth a signal that encoded a DNA sequence. Would they recognize it as a sign of intelligence? I think they might -- at first. They would first recognize that the radio signal was actually carrying information, and that the information must have come from some kind of intelligent being. But as soon as they found out that it was DNA and that the implication was that DNA has information from some kind of intelligent being, they would change their minds, because they wouldn't like where the logic was leading them.


Yashca said...

Why would you expect many DNA languages? If everything shares a common ancestor, then only the one DNA language would be shared by everything.

JC said...

A good question, Yashca.

The operation of DNA is quite complex. (For example, see The Genetic Code - How to Read the Genetic Code.) If DNA evolved from simpler life forms, then the presumed common ancestor would predate DNA, just as it would predate other life features that vary.

This is especially so because there are a huge number of possible genetic codes (the number is about 73 digits long) that would all work equally well. If created randomly, then according to probability theory, all possible genetic codes should occur in roughly equal mumbers. And since they all work equally well, they should equally survive, and we should see multiple genetic codes, like we see multiple human languages.

The fact that we don't see multiple genetic codes is added to the long list of other reasons why it is not credible for life to arise from non-life through random chemistry. Search my blog for "DNA", and you will find six other blog articles that refer to DNA.