Archive for October, 2010

October 29, 2010

Information, consciousness and all that

by Neil Rickert

There’s another thoughtful response from gpuccio at the UD site though I believe it to be mistaken.  Since it raises issues that are a common source of confusion, I want to discuss it here.

Here is how gpuccio opens his comment:

The point is that we in ID believe (for reasons) that design is the product of a conscious intelligent being who imparts a specific form to an output for a specific purpose. And that complex functional information is a sure mark of design.

That almost sounds as if it could be the basis of a scientific hypothesis.  However, to make it a scientific hypothesis, you would need

  • A way of characterizing “conscious intelligent being” that could be applied objectively, reliably and repeatedly by multiple independent experimenters;
  • A way of characterizing “complex functional information” that could be applied objectively, reliably and repeatedly by multiple independent experimenters.

If you had such clear characteristics, and their reliability had been tested broadly – not just with conscious humans and human information systems – then you could begin to seek evidence to corroborate or falsify the hypothesis.

The difficultly is that both “consciousness” and “information” are very slippery concepts.  We are not close to being able to suitable characterize either.  And without some such characterization, then you are talking philosophy or theology, rather than science.

I mostly want to talk about information in this post, because it is not nearly as slippery as consciousness, though it is still rather slippery.  Dembski attempted to characterize information with his work on “complex specified information.”  In my estimation, that effort was a failure.

There is no reason to believe a priori that consciousness, intelligence and purpose are exclusive characteristics of humans.

Agreed.  However, there is a great deal of disagreement over what those terms mean.  People disagree over whether dogs are conscious.  For the record, I do consider dogs to be conscious, but I am not at all sure how to assess whether ants or bees or butterflies are conscious.  The AI people think that intelligence is achievable by logic coding in computers.  I disagree with them.  So obviously, I disagree with the AI folk on what “intelligence” means.  And the question of what we mean by “purpose” is another can of worms.  In short, none of those terms are suitable for use in science.  This does not mean that science cannot investigate them, but in order to investigate them, it will need to be able to better characterize them.  And if it can more precisely characterize them, then it can only study what it has characterized, which might be different from our ordinary meanings for those terms.

So let’s get back to information.

Our primary example of information, is human language.  And the idea that information requires consciousness, very likely comes from our experience with human language.  Computer programming languages are very different from human language, and the lack the richness of natural language.  Computers that are entirely mechanical and that have no purposes of there own, are easily able to use computer languages, but nobody has been able to have them fully cope with natural language.  The type of inference that you want to use would seem to lead to

  • computers can use computer languages;
  • therefore computers are conscious.

However, nobody believes that conclusion.  That’s why one has to be very cautious about reasoning from analogy.

The genetic code is far simpler than computer languages, so we should be even more cautious about analogies there.

When I am using a key to unlock my front door, then I don’t think of that key as being information.  Rather, I think of it as having a mechanical shape such as is needed for the mechanical operations of the lock.  If, however, I had a combination lock, then I would have thought of the combination as information.  I hope you can see the difference there.  With a combination lock, the combination can be remembered, transmitted, written in the form of numbers or other symbols that are detached from the causal operations.  And it is that detachment or abstraction that leads me to think of it as information, rather than as a mechanical shape.  DNA is far more like the mechanical key with mechanical shape.  However, when scientists write down a genetic code as a sequence of letters, that is more like the combination for a combination lock, in that it is detached from the causal operations.

Information and consciousness

The main reason that I have interest in questions about information, is that I have been studying issues related to human consciousness.  And you cannot study consciousness without considering the role of information.

Many AI proponents take a very broad view of information.  If there is a lightning flash nearby, and that causes surges (perhaps small surges) in the wiring in your home, they would consider those surges to be information.  Some of them even go so far as to say that the moon is a computer, and it is computing its orbit as it goes.  These are examples of the overuse of metaphors.  And my main reason for taking a restricted view of what is information, is to avoid that kind of nonsense.

My preferred view is to consider something to be information, only within the constraints of an information system.  That makes “information” a relative term, relative to the information system being considered.  If I am talking on the telephone, and the TV is on in the background, then I am going to be considering the telephone conversation to be the information, and what is coming from the TV I will consider as noise to be filtered out.  This sort of filtering, distinguishing between information and noise, is an important part of what a cognitive system does, and it is actually an important part of what any information system does.  Even the ethernet card on your computer is designed to filter out noise that is not part of the ethernet signaling.

If you want to consider DNA as part of an information system, I don’t have a problem with that.  But it does require identifying the information system and identifying what is the information.  As for a role for consciousness, it is in the human identification of DNA as an information system.  So we decide what we will consider to be consider to be the codes, what we will consider to be encoded.

When we look at what actually happens in a cell, we see only causal actions.  If what the cell is doing can be said to be purposeful, then we are only talking about the purposes we ascribe to the cell.  We have no basis for saying that the cell has intrinsic purposes of its own.

The ID position seems to take information as an absolute universal, rather than as something relative to an information system.  And that kind of thinking can be very misleading.

I don’t expect ID folk to suddenly change their ideas on my say so.  I would hope that they can at least understand that there are legitimate reasons for disagreeing with their view of information.

October 25, 2010

On machine-information metaphors

by Neil Rickert

A recent post by David Tyler at Uncommon Descent has drawn my attention to a recent paper by Pigliucci and Boudry, “Why Machine-Information Metaphors are Bad for Science and Science Education“.  I am posting this as a form of participation in the discussion of such use of metaphors.

We often use metaphors as part of our communication.  And they often work very well as communication devices.  I don’t have a problem with that.  But there is a problem when people take them as truth, rather than as mere metaphors.  Pigliucci and Boudry are particularly concerned with the use of metaphors in biology, such as the idea of DNA as a blueprint for the organism and the idea of the cell as a factory.

The machine metaphor has always seemed misleading to me.  My own experience in the world tells me that we humans are not machines.  Indeed, I see biological creatures as very different from designed things.  Perhaps the worst of the machine metaphors is the one that sees the brain as a computer.  That has always seemed doubtful to me, so I find it no surprise that AI (artificial intelligence) has made so little progress in the 60 years since Turing’s famous paper.  That we make heavy use of metaphors should already be evidence against such mechanistic theories of brain function.

In Linguistics, the mechanistic thinking from Chomsky has dominated the field for some time.  Yet it is surely mistaken.  The Wittgenstein view of language as a form of life seems to present a rather more realistic view of natural language.  In philosophy we see what seems to be an excessive reliance of logic with its mechanistic rules of inference.  Typically, within epistemology, knowledge is defined as justified true belief (or something similar), and that seems rather too mechanistic.  And then the all too frequent arguments that deny free will are based on an overly mechanistic view of the world.

David Tyler does not understand Hume’s way of thinking:

It has always surprised me that David Hume’s arguments are considered weighty. The preceding generations of scholars did have a rationale for thinking that there is a relationship between the Creator’s design and human design.

And yet surely Hume is simply pointing out what should be obvious to the observer of nature.  It should be obvious that the world is not the product of design.  For sure, I can look at Kepler’s laws of planetary motion, and see intelligent design in those laws.  But the intelligent designer was none other than Johannes Kepler himself.  If Kepler’s laws were part of the design of a mechanistic world, we would expect them to be followed exactly.  Yet they are only an approximation.  It took great skill and knowledge for Kepler to come up with a mathematically simple approximation that worked so well.  But it is not evidence of an intelligently designed world.

So, yes, I do see the overuse of such metaphors as bad for science, bad for philosophy, bad for theology.

October 21, 2010

Illinois politics – my recommendations

by Neil Rickert

I am writing this for the benefit of those of my readers who live in Illinois – all zero of them.

Bill Foster for congress

I will voting for Bill Foster.  This is one of those rare occasions when there is a candidate that I can vote for, instead of the default of voting against a candidate.  Foster is my first congressman.  Before Foster, this district was represented by Dennis Hastert.  But I always had the sense that Hastert was representing the interests of the Republican party more than the interests of his district.  Before I moved here, I was in a district where Cardiss Collins was congress woman.  But I always had the sense that Collins was representing the interests of the Democratic party more than the interests of her district.

With Bill Foster we have a thoughtful intelligent representative, with a background is science.  While I don’t agree with Foster’s every vote, I do see him as representing the district and being more than a rubber stamp for his party.

Patrick Quinn for governor

I am not a big fan of Quinn.  So when I check his name on the ballot, that will mainly be a vote against his opponent (Bill Brady).  My objection to Brady is not that he is a Republican.  I have voted for Republicans in the past.  My objection is to his economic plan for the state, which is to cut taxes as a way of increasing revenue.  Anyone with even a tiny bit of common sense can see the obvious flaws in that plan.

Alexi Giannoulias for U.S. senate

I don’t know enough about Giannoulias to know how well he will do as senator for Illinois.  So my vote will really be a vote against Mark Kirk who favors idiotic economic policies.

October 19, 2010

The camera analogy(1) – introduction

by Neil Rickert

This is intended as the first of a series of posts, where I draw an analogy between the camera taking pictures, and people getting factual data.

When we express a factual statement, that statement is often called a representation.  That is because what is expressed in the statement represents something about the world.  A photograph, such as we take with a camera, can also be considered a representation.

In order to avoid confusion, let me be clear about how I am planning to use the analogy.  When we express verbal descriptions, those could be descriptions of what we taste or smell or feel, and not just descriptions of what we see.  In using the camera analogy, I still want to consider all possible ways of getting factual data.  That is, you should not assume that I am limiting the use of the analogy to visual data.  I restrict the analogy itself to a camera, since adding audio equipment (for sound) only make the analogy more complex and harder to use.  Thus I use a restricted analogy for simplicity, but I intend to apply across all of our sensory modalities. I also want to be clear that I am not attempting to use the camera analogy as a form of proof.  I want to use it only as an illustration.

And now to use the analogy.

When we use a camera to take photographs (to make representations), there are two things involved.  There is the camera, which is the apparatus that is used to form the representations.  And then there are the photographs, which are the representations.

There is a kind of duality between these two things.  When I use the term “duality”, I am not thinking of Cartesian dualism.  Rather, I am thinking of mathematical duality such as is seen in various parts of mathematics.  If you are not familiar with any examples of mathematical duality, that won’t actually be a serious problem for you as reader of this post.  If I make a change to the camera, then that will result in a change to the photographs taken.  For example, if I change from a standard lens to a telephoto lens, then the resulting photographs will have more details of distant objects.  It is this relation between changes to the camera and changes to the resulting photographs that I am thinking of when I talk of a duality.

Using the analogy to look at how we form descriptions of our world, we notice the same thing.  There is an apparatus – namely, our sensory system and our brains – and there are the representations formed with that apparatus, namely our perceptions of the world.  And there is the same sort of duality between apparatus and representation.  If we change the apparatus, that changes the perceptions.  Wearing gloves change feel of what we are touching.  Squinting changes visual appearances.


Philosophy appears to be largely based on the assumption that the apparatus is fixed.  And if the apparatus is fixed, then the representations are all that is important.  Hence the emphasis on beliefs.  The main goal of this post was to raise awareness to the possibility that the apparatus could also change.  And if the apparatus changes, then that is important in our relation with the world.  In short, it is (or should be) a game changer for philosophy.

Future posts in this series will discuss some of the implication for philosophy if the apparatus is not fixed.

October 17, 2010

The evidence for God

by Neil Rickert

Jerry Coyne takes PZ to task (“On P.Z. Myers on evidence for a god“) because PZ asserts that he won’t be persuaded of a god’s existence.  Presumably, Coyne thinks that PZ is being just a tad too dogmatic.  After all, PZ can only go on the absence of any evidence of God, and that no evidence has been seen does not prove that there is no God.

I want to suggest that is all wrong.  In fact there is an enormous amount of evidence of God, and both PZ and Coyne are well aware of that evidence.  That PZ firmly rejects religion, and that Coyne rejects it not quite as firmly, is because they are well aware of the evidence.  For what is clear to anybody who has looked carefully enough at the wealth of evidence, is that God is a cultural construct.  I am suggesting that PZ is not going by the weak “I haven’t seen any evidence of God”, but instead is going by the quite strong evidence of God as a cultural construct.

We should be clear, that there is nothing inherently wrong with cultural constructs.  As I write this, it is a fall Sunday.  And many people will spend time today watching football.  The game of football is a cultural construct, and evidently one that many people value.  For sure, there is a physical component to football.  But if we were to watch football purely as physical activity, then we would be watching inane (and perhaps insane) behavior.  It is the culturally constructed game that makes those physical activities meaningful.

Come to think of it, I am writing this post for the blogosphere, which is another cultural construct.

If there is nothing inherently wrong with cultural constructs, why do atheists reject God?  It seems to me that their rejection is because they find the associated culture to be abhorrent.  They see the culture of theism as promoting ignorance, intolerance and hate, and they want to have nothing to do with such a culture.

October 12, 2010

Terrorism, and our reaction to it

by Neil Rickert

This morning, I was pleased with what I heard on NPR, a Diane Rehm Show discussion “Understanding the Threat of Terrorism“.

One of the guests was Christopher Preble of the Cato Institute.  Normally, I am underwhelmed by what I hear from the Cato Institute, for it usually has a political orientation far to the right of what makes sense to me.  However, in this case, I happened to agree with a lot of what Preble had to say.  He is co-editor of “Terrorizing Ourselves: Why U.S. Counterterrorism Policy Is Failing and How to Fix It.”  The view he expresses is one that I have long held, namely that our government’s anti-terrorism policy has been doing Osama’s work for him, by instilling fear in the American people.

October 12, 2010

I’m here! So what next?

by Neil Rickert

Over at the BQO site, Michael Shermer discusses the question “Why is there something rather than nothing?”  Personally, I think that’s the wrong question, so the title of this blog post is what I consider a more important question.

read more »

October 7, 2010

On evidence

by Neil Rickert

In a recent blog post about the scientist’s operating manual, John Wilkins asked about evidence gathering by scientists.  I commented:

What is missing in your account, is that often evidence is not readily available. Scientists often need to be creative in coming up with ways of getting evidence. And, at times, this requires being creative in finding new concepts with which the new evidence can be expressed.

So here I am, expanding on that comment.

I will start with a couple of examples, to illustrate the point.


My first example, from physics, is the Michelson-Morley experiment.  Michelson and Morley had the idea of measuring the aether drift by comparing the speed of light in two different directions.  Now that sounds simple.  We could measure the speed of light in each of those directions, subtract the two measurements, yielding the difference.  The problem, though, is that it is difficult to measure the speed of light with anything close to the precision that would have been required for such a simple approach.  So, instead, they came up with a creative plan to build an interferometer, whereby they could split a beam of light, have part travel in one direction and part in another, then recombine them in a way that wave interference could be observed.  That inventive experimental design allowed observation of a difference in speeds at a far higher precision than was available for the direct measurement of the speed of light.  The experiment showed no detectable aether drift, and this was taken as evidence against the aether theory of light.

Defining a new species

For my second example, I will use a hypothetical case from biology.  Let us suppose that there is a species, call it spX, of insects being studied.  The biologists are studying the habitat and the ethology of insects of this species.  As they proceed with their studies, they begin to realize that this should be considered to be two species rather than one.  So they name a new species, call it spY, and they provide criteria to distinguish between organisms of spX and organisms of spY.  As a result, there are now many more expressible facts.  For example, facts which state differences between the behavior of organisms of spX and those of spY are now expressible, whereas they were not expressible before the new species was defined.  As in the Michelson-Morley example, this allows the expression of information which is more precise than would have been previously possible.


The Michelson-Morley experiment is well known, and it is reasonably common for biologists to define new species.  It seems to me, however, that the epistemic significance has been largely overlooked.  Epistemology is often presented as if there exists a fixed set of true propositions, and our job is to find out what those propositions are.  What I observe, however, is that the set of expressible propositions is not fixed.  New methods of getting evidence, or new concepts (such as that of the species spY), expand the set of potentially expressible true propositions.  So there is more to acquiring knowledge than simply picking up the facts.

The example of defining as new species fits rather well with what perceptual psychologist Eleanor Gibson described in her 1969 book “Principles of Perceptual Learning and Development”.  For it is an example of a newly acquired ability to discriminate between organisms of spX and those of spY.  Gibson used the term “perceptual learning” for acquisition of such abilities.  And since the Michelson-Morley experiment also allowed for more precise observations, that could also be considered an example of perceptual learning.  Our scientific knowledge is growing in ways that are not adequately described by epistemology.

October 4, 2010

The Behe vs. Barr debate

by Neil Rickert

The video of a debate between Michael Behe and Stephen Barr has been made available online.

I found this via a post at Uncommon Descent.  No doubt the UD poster favors Behe’s argument for intelligent design, but I thought that Barr gave an excellent argument against ID in the science classroom and was the more persuasive of the two debaters.

Barr, a U. of Delaware physicist, is himself a Christian.  He does not object to intelligent design as a thesis or hypothesis.  But, he argues, it is philosophy and not science, so it does not belong in the science classroom.

The main thrust of Barr’s argument is that if the philosophy of ID is allowed in the science classroom, then that opens the door for the philosophy of atheism to also be allowed in the science classroom.  And he believes that Christians should want to keep both of those philosophical positions out of science.

The video is around 70 minutes.  Even if you think ID to be entirely mistaken (as I do), it is worth listening to Barr’s argument.