Information argument

Info

The young-Earth creationist Werner Gitt believes that Jesus is Lord, that humans have souls, and that the scientific theories of the Big Bang, abiogenesis, and biological evolu­tion are all false. Gitt argues that the genera­tion of information demonstrates the existence of an eternal and all-knowing conscious­ness, namely God.

He lays out his central premises as follows:

Matter involves mass which is weighable in a gravita­tional field. In contrast, all non-material entities (for example, information, consciousness, intelligence, will) are massless, and thus have zero weight…Something which is itself solely material never creates anything non-material…There can be no new information with­out an intelligent, purposeful sender.[I]

Stored information has mass. It was estimated, based on 2006 data, that the weight of all the electrons in motion at any one moment that encode the information stored on the Internet was equivalent to 50 grams, roughly the weight of a medium-sized egg.[ii] A concept held in con­sciousness is stored in the brain’s neurons in chemical and electrical form, so it has mass as well.

Gitt says information, considered on its own, apart from how it’s physically stored, is massless. But can information exist in a non-stored form? I know of no example and Gitt provides none. The physicist Jim Al-Khalili says all information must be physically encoded.[iii]

If information must be physically encoded, can it be more efficiently encoded in a brain or in other physical objects? Suppose we wrote on a piece a paper all information en­coded in a physical object, say, a peach—its color, consistency, PH level, water content, tensile strength, and so forth—down to the cubic nanometer scale.[iv] Such a task would be daunting, impossible even. Yet the various peach qualities we have enumerated consti­tute only a tiny fraction of the information encoded in the peach. To record all information in the peach would require writ­ing out the state of each subatomic particle at each possible time in­terval. In attempting this task, we’d come to appreciate that the peach itself is a magnificently concise and economical repository of that information.

Information about peaches or other physical objects is never fully or efficiently communicated in writing. Only a miniscule fragment of the information encoded throughout nature ever gets reflected in any con­sciousness—that is, imprinted on any brain’s structure.

This makes sense considering the survival function of brains. Our brains don’t need all the information available in our environ­ment. They need only enough to allow us to make survivable decisions. More than that would be a hindrance, since brains consume lots of calories. Biological evolution is a ruthless econ­omizer.

One of Gitt’s premises is that material entities never generate non-material entities. Yet consciousness is plainly generated by the brain. Gitt’s premise defies the consensus among neurologists and scien­tists in general, as well as most academ­ic philosophers. We dis­cussed this topic in Chapter 1 of Religion Refuted.

Many people share Gitt’s intuition that the mate­rial and mental are fundamentally dis­tinct types of entities. But that intuition is sus­pect. The physicist Max Tegmark, the philosopher Colin McGinn, and many others have proposed that con­sciousness is a phase of matter.[v] Einstein said, “Spinoza is the greatest of modern philos­ophers, be­cause he is the first philosopher who deals with the soul and the body as one, not as two separate things.”[vi]

Ein­stein showed us that space and time, which seem fundamen­tally dis­tinct, are aspects of one un­derlying en­tity called spacetime. Humans have his­torically viewed as separate entities what are really different aspects of a single thing. Who, un­aware of the theory of electromagnetism, could appreci­ate the com­monality between a magnetized chunk of iron ore and the covalent bond holding togeth­er the carbon dioxide you’re exhal­ing now? In this respect, a human is like a small spider who scamp­ers into the folds of a wadded-up ball of paper, resting her eight legs on what appear to her to be eight dis­tinct surfaces, without realizing that they’re all con­nected as a unity. The philoso­phy of neutral monism holds that matter and mind are aspects of something anter­ior to both.

The mental and material are both dauntingly mysterious. The mental is less mysterious in that we directly perceive it.[vii] But we don’t understand how it arises from brain matter. Adam Frank, a physicist and a professor of astronomy at the Uni­versity of Rochester in New York, reminds us that the essence of matter remains deeply mysterious:

…after more than a century of profound explorations into the subatomic world, our best theory for how matter behaves still tells us very little about what matter is. Materialists appeal to physics to explain the mind, but in modern physics the particles that make up a brain remain, in many ways, as mysterious as consciousness itself. [viii]

If mind is a kind of matter or a phase of matter, it surely isn’t bar­yonic matter as we understand it today. It’s intangible. Gitt reminds us that we can’t touch or see consciousness, whereas we can touch and see matter.

But that’s not entirely true. We can’t always touch and see matter. Consider neutrinos, tiny low-mass forms of matter that permeate the universe. Neutrinos are the second most common parti­cle in the universe (after photons). Dur­ing the second that just elapsed, rough­ly 100 billion neutrinos trav­eled through your pinky toe. How many did you see or feel?

I’m not implying that conscious­ness is made of neutrinos. My point is simply that not everything that is made of matter is readily seen or touched.[ix]

Gitt insists that consciousness isn’t made of particles that have mass. Well, that could be said of photons, too, yet no one denies that photons are part of the material realm.

As mysterious as consciousness is, it’s worth remembering that every mysterious entity that subsequently ceased being mysterious (or, at least, as mys­terious as it formerly was) did so by getting conscripted into the physical realm. It became explicable as manifes­tations of quantum fields. Unfortunately, quantum fields themselves remain pretty mys­te­rious.

In the meantime, the mysteries surrounding consciousness are just mysteries. They aren’t evidence of any grand consciousness. No one has ever credibly claimed to have wit­nessed anything (material or imma­terial) being created by conscious­ness.

Gitt disagrees. He says that new information is created only by consciousness. He contends that mutations in DNA, as a form of new information, must derive from some Intelli­gence. If Gitt had a better grasp of biology, it would unravel his thread of reason­ing.

Gitt’s belief that a mind is required to generate new information is also at odds with fundamental physics. The amount of information required to describe any physical object or system can be expressed as a string of binary digits, more commonly known as bits. Each bit has a value of one or zero (true or false). The more homogenous and uniform a physical system is, the fewer bits are required to describe it. In other words, a highly uniform or organized system contains relatively little information.

Conversely, the more random or non-repetitious a physical sys­tem is, the more information it contains—that is, the more bits of information are required to describe it. The most random state possible for our universe would be a state of maximum entropy. Physical pro­cesses that contribute entropy to the universe thereby contribute to the information content of the universe.

Life is organized matter. Being organized means being further from a state of entropy. In other words, it means containing less in­formation.

Think of life as an entropy pump. It sustains itself in a lower state of entropy by consuming energy (such as sunlight or other forms of life such as vegetables), and by expelling comparatively disor­ganized energy into its en­vironment. New information—that is, increased entropy—comes from the sum of all life-sustaining processes as well as other, nonliving physi­cal process­es that increase entropy.[x]

The premises upon which Gitt attempted to argue from inform­ation to divinity are, at best, highly dubious. His argu­ment for God therefore fails.

 

[i] John Aston and Michael Westacott, The Big Argument: Does God Exist? (Master Books, Inc., P. O. Box 726, Green Forrest, AR, 72638; 2005), p. 56.

[ii] The Telegraph (online 7:46AM GMT 03 Nov 2011), www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/internet/8865093/Internet-weighs-the-same-as-a-strawberry.html

[iii] Jim Al-Khalili, “Maxwell’s Demon and the Nature of Information” (~6 min. into video, cited 10/25/2013), www.youtube.com/watch?v=tqgvqeLybik

[iv] A cubic nanometer could contain something like three to five atoms, though it depends on the size of the atoms.

[v] Max Tegmark, Our Mathematical Universe: My Quest for the Ultimate Nature of Reality (Knopf, New York, 2014), p. 295.

[vi] George Sylvester Viereck, Glimpses of the Great (Duckworth, 1930), p. 372-373.

[vii] Galen Strawson, “Consciousness Isn’t a Mystery. It’s Matter.”, (The New York Times, May 16, 2016), https://www.nytimes.com/2016/05/16/opinion/consciousness-isnt-a-mystery-its-matter.html?smid=fb-share

[viii] Adam Frank, Aeon, “Minding Matter”, https://aeon.co/essays/materialism-alone-cannot-explain-the-riddle-of-consciousness

[ix] I learned that harsh lesson during puberty.

[x] I will give you two examples. First, suppose an atom of carbon-14 experiences beta decay to form an atom of nitrogen-14. This contributes entropy to the system that we think of as the original carbon atom because it results in the release of a neutron, an electron, and an electron antineutrino. More bits are required to describe this system after the beta decay than were required to describe it before the beta decay. Here’s another example. Suppose a photon from the sun strikes the rusty tin roof of my woodshed. Some visible light will be reflected from the tin roof, but most of the sunlight will be absorbed by the tin and will then be emitted in various directions as heat. In this example, one photon traveling in a single direction (straight from Sol to tin) will be split into many (maybe twenty or so) less energetic photons, each with a different path. These two examples illustrate that more bits are required to describe a higher-entropy system. The energy is, of course, conserved, but it is dissipated.

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