Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Information Doesn't Get You God; The Bible Doesn't Get You Science

Have you ever been involved in an online discussion--on a blog, forum, social media site, etc.--and been completely flummoxed by your discussion partner's vague terms? It's totally frustrating because you're trying to hone in on details and facts while your interlocutor is making one sweeping statement after another. In these dialogues, if you don't want simply to walk away, you get to the heart of the argument only with extreme effort.

Recently, I was involved in a long and winding discussion at Uncommon Descent. By the end of it, I was able to get one of the discussion partners, "bornagain77," to explain to me what exactly his real argument was concerning the origins of the universe and the status of the Christian Bible.

Bornagain77 (BA77) had not, in my view, given a clear and straightforward description of what he meant by the expression, "God is the basis of reality." In particular, I was puzzled by "basis of reality," which could have referred in context to a material basis, a basis in physical law, or a logical basis. After some wrangling between us, he finally gave me this:
LarTanner, ‘the basis of reality’ is not a solid material particle as materialism had originally postulated but ‘the basis of reality’ is instead reducible to transcendent information as Theism had originally postulated. i.e. John 1:1 (Wheeler, Zeilinger). That transcendent information is its own independent entity, separate from matter/energy was confirmed with the refutation of the hidden variable argument (EPR; Bell, Aspect). That transcendent information exercises dominion of ‘material’ was established by quantum teleportation experiments (Zeilinger). That the transcendent information is ‘alive’ is established by the fact that a ‘decision’ must be made to create a temporal universe from that ‘timeless’ transcendent eternal reality that infinite transcendent information occupies (Craig), as well as by the necessity for a transcendent ‘first mover’ to explain quantum wave collapse to each point of unique observation in the universe (Planck).

etc.. etc.. etc..
I then tried to play back the main idea of his argument, as follows:
Ah… I think I’m seeing your point. Your claim is that the universe is made of immaterial information rather than material particles. You are drawing on quantum mechanics to make the case here.


If so, I take it that you see John 1:1 as a statement that “in the beginning” immaterial information was present before the macro-particles making up the visible universe.

Again, correct?
To which he responded:
1. Yes
2. Yes, It, immaterial information, is the only solution that satisfies all requirements necessary for the first cause, first mover, by empirical confirmation and moreover satisfies the questions of origins without leaving the bounds of empirical science as the absurd materialistic conjectures of the multiverse and many worlds do.
He later added this tidbit:
The falsification for local realism (materialism) was just greatly strengthened:

Physicists close two loopholes while violating local realism
Excerpt: The latest test in quantum mechanics provides even stronger support than before for the view that nature violates local realism and is thus in contradiction with a classical worldview. By performing an experiment in which photons were sent from one Canary Island to another, physicists have shown that two of three loopholes can be closed simultaneously in a test that violates Bell’s inequality (and therefore local realism) by more than 16 standard deviations.
I want to take the time here, as opposed to over at Uncommon Descent, to consider BA77's view. Let's list some of the main arguments he makes:
(1) BA77 claims that the universe, and everything in it, is fundamentally made not of particles or energy but rather of information.

(2) He asserts that information is transcendent, which I guess means that it's separate from and not necessarily constrained by matter.

(3) He brings in various arguments from areas in quantum mechanics to claim that information, beyond being separate and transcendent, is alive, intelligent, and (I think) eternal.

(4) He sees the Christian Bible (e.g., John 1:1, "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.") as making specific references to the true workings the universe, with these true workings revealed by branches within science, such as quantum mechanics.

(5) He sees Christian belief, including the statements of the Bible, as making true statements about the physical origins and workings of the universe.

(6) He sees Christian belief and materialism as irreconcilable and opposing views.

My thoughts on the above points:
(1) The claim that the universe is made of immaterial information needs to be handled carefully. I cannot simply take the claim on BA77's word, and I cannot rely only on these articles and videos that he has selected. BA77 is not himself a working cosmologist or quantum researcher, as far as I know. Even if he were, I would be well-advised to read up on available work in the relevant areas, especially work that makes BA77's claim in a properly nuanced way. It has nothing to do with BA77 or his views. I simply need to know much more to be able to agree or disagree with him. I also know how easy it is to have essentially true statements get misunderstood and misapplied. For instance, "Social Darwinism" is a decent example of a misapplication of Darwin's theory of evolution.

After some cursory research of my own, my emerging view is that BA77 may be too ambitious in making information alone the fundamental building block of the universe. For example, Anton Zeilinger, whom BA77 cites, gives the fundamental principle of quantum mechanics as an answer to the question "What can be said about an elementary system?" Zeilinger's answer is that an elementary system carries one bit of information (see New Scientist article here). But information therefore seems to presuppose a system. If there's no elementary system, there's no bit of information. Information seems to be encoded into the system, and the behavior of the system is determined by its informational content. Indeed, BA77's assertion that "transcendent information is its own independent entity, separate from matter/energy," seems to be contradicted by Zeilinger himself:
In the history of physics, we have learned that there are distinctions that we really should not make, such as between space and time… It could very well be that the distinction we make between information and reality is wrong. This is not saying that everything is just information. But it is saying that we need a new concept that encompasses or includes both.
Almost needless to say, the above scenario suggests that information in no way "exercises dominion" over matter. It suggests, rather, that information doesn't "exercise" anything and that a human value like "dominion" can only be applied awkwardly.

(2) I think #2 falls if information is not separate and independent, as seems to be the case based on where my thoughts above in #1 end.

(3) See #2. Information may have several or all of the properties that BA77 mentions. But it follows from where my thoughts end in #1 above that information, while duly amazing, need not be identified with gods or godliness.

(4) This claim seems to me to be balderdash. Forget for one moment the problems of translating John 1:1. How does reading this verse as proto-quantum mechanics not constitute a vast and irresponsible stretch? The Greek word "logos," as used circa 30-100 CE, cannot reasonably be interpreted as "information" in a quantum theory sense. Now, I appreciate the creativity involved in reading the Bible as a code for the physical workings of the universe, but to get a quantum reading in this one verse, we also have to excise it from the following verses, in which it seems pretty clear that the logos ("word" or "saying") is metonymy for Jesus. So this claim doesn't hold up at all for me, and I see this kind of free reading as an example of the believer projecting herself or himself into the mirror of religion.

(5) See my thoughts in #4 above.

(6) I suppose that Christian belief and materialism are indeed irreconcilable. It may also be true that materialism is becoming less tenable, which is what BA77 seems to claim with the link to the article on the new Bell test. This article, incidentally, describes work performed by Anton Zeilinger's group, so BA77 is clearly a fan of the Z-man.

However, let's think about local realism for a moment. BA77 seems to equate local realism and materialism, but they are not the same. Local realism says that distant objects shouldn't simultaneously be affected by measurements we take of a different, close-by object. Local realism makes clear sense in a materialist framework. The violation of local realism, on the other hand, doesn't make clear sense in a materialist framework. If local realism can be violated at the quantum level, as seems to be the case, is materialism falsified? Maybe.

But look at the other side: Does the partial or total failure of materialism mean the truth of Christian belief? No, not at all. Does the partial or total failure of materialism mean the truth of theism? No, not really. Are materialism and theism the only alternatives? No. I have said before that I am probably a materialist:
I probably am a materialist but I really don't know enough about either materialism, its philosophical alternatives, or the data behind it all to have a cogent opinion.
Clearly, I'll need to revisit my position and perhaps revise it into a cogent opinion.

Scientific confirmation of non-local causality can only tell us that the universe is more interesting and less familiar than we thought--even in our wildest religious fantasies. Confirmation of non-local causality tells us nothing about deities, the supernatural, bibles, divine plans, covenants, the afterlife, morality, sin, or anything that makes up the meat and potatoes of religion. Thus, to use non-local causality as a data point in favor of theism is not only premature but disingenuous.
Want more information?
Computational Capacity of the Universe

Implications of a Holographic Universe for Quantum Information Science and the Nature of Physical Law

The Reality Tests

Stephen Meyer's Bogus Information Theory and then Reply to Paul Nelson

Test Your Knowledge of Information Theory

Violation of Local Realism with Freedom of Choice

When and Where Did Information First Appear in the Universe?


  1. "As far as I can see, any confirmation of non-local causality tells us nothing about deities, bibles, the supernatural, divine plans, the afterlife, sin, or anything that makes up the meat ans potatoes of religion. To use non-local causality as a data point in favor of theism is not only premature but disingenuous. Confirmation of non-local causality can only tell us that the universe is more interesting and less familiar than we thought--even in our wildest religious fantasies."

    I salute you for engaging this idiot. I couldn't have indulged him that long! In the end your conclusion is right on. What the hell does any of this new-agey misapplied dumbassery have to do with actual religion? Does he think the guy who wrote John was some kind of plugged-in quantum physicist?

  2. Rabbi,

    BA77 seems like a bright guy. It's hard to know what statements belong to him (I assume he is a male). He has a definite knack for collecting information--videos and articles--and then assigning it value within a particular theistic framework. Unfortunately, he rarely connects the dots between the claim he seems to advance and the data dump of videos and articles. It may well be that he's so bright that he doesn't see how the ordinary unwashed, like myself, need have it spelled out exactly how the "evidence" relates to the claim.

    The basic science he references usually seems to be right at a macro-level. It just doesn't say all that he argues it does, and then the Bible also doesn't say the same thing as the science. It's basically double-liberal reading both ways. But the biblical "evidence" is usually the weakest part of his spiel because it's much easier to see that the Bible often doesn't quite say what he claims it does. The science he gives is often so jargon-ridden that it's hard to decipher unless one is already familiar with the field.

    He seems to have this very personal, I KNOW FOR A FACT kind of belief. Ironically, he also made said one or two things about my "education" (in scare quotes) that makes me think he himself is not a fan of the university system--but this is a wild guess and I bring it up to add to the picture that he is very much personally and psychologically invested in the ID-theism axis.

    In any event, BA77 was probably patient with me. I was overly snarky and didn't read as carefully as I could have in some cases. But such is the way it goes on the interwebz.

  3. Larry I think you are extraordinarily kind and patient to engage in debate with BA77 - but perhaps a little foolhardy. In the past I have occasionally responded to his comments and regretted it. You rapidly disappear into a morass of what might be non sequiturs if you can fathom what they mean. He is now on my "do not read" list.

  4. Mark,

    I'm genuinely interested to understand the reasoning followed by folks like BA77. I think of him (I assume BA77 is male) and others, such as "GEM of TKI," as very bright folks with several key intellectual flaws:
    (1) They revel in being outsiders. As far as I can tell, they don't have or want any sustained engagement with working research communities in their disciplines of interest.
    (2) They are monumentally unclear about "connecting the dots" between the hard data they frequently cite and the conclusions they reach. Just ask GEM, for instance, what the FSCI threshold is to determine when something is or is not a hallmark of design.
    (3) They are overly enamored of boogeymen, notably materialism. Materialism is the great evil, and it's always evil, almost cartoonishly so. Sometimes materialism encompasses atheism, naturalism, and scientism. Sometimes it doesn't.

    A perfect example is a recent, long post by GEM on ID foundations. He begins with a slightly modified version of Behe's IC concept and winds his way to seemingly support "guided evolution." Yet for all the huffing and puffing in the essay, there's no concrete support marshaled for the concept--only a long quote from A.R. Wallace (sp.?)--and no description of what kind of guidance, when, or how.


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