I’ve had a copy of Dembski’s new book for a little more than a week. That has been enough time for me to read it in preparation for this review.
The title itself is strange, at least to me. It is a title that suggests that this is a book on religion. It isn’t, though it does not completely avoid religious ideas. The more complete title is “Being as Communion; A Metaphysics of Information.” And that suggests that it is a book about information. To some extent it is, though it also comes across as a diatribe against materialist metaphysics.
Dembski begins this book with:
What does the world look like if the fundamental stuff of reality is not matter but information? That is the question animating this book. We live in an information age. Yet we also live in an overwhelmingly materialist age in which the things that seem to us most solid and inspire the most confidence are material. Information itself therefore tends to be conceived in material terms, as a property of matter. But what if information cannot be reduced to matter? To turn the tables even more sharply, what if matter itself is an expression of information?
The book is oriented toward presenting that position, where information is fundamental. I would have to say that I did not find it very convincing.
One of the problems with the word “information”, is that there are many different meanings in common use. For myself, I find Shannon’s account of information (described here) to be the most useful one, but the ID (Intelligent Design) community has not favored that view of information. I had hoped that Dembski’s book would at least clarify for me what the ID proponents mean by “information.”
Alas! After reading the book, I am none the wiser on what Dembski takes “information” to mean. In chapter 3, we read:
Suppose Alice tells Bob, “It’s raining outside or it’s not raining outside.” Alice has clearly made a statement and it clearly has a meaning. And yet, we would likely say that Alice hasn’t really told Bob anything, that her statement is uninformative.
Here, Dembski seems to be using a semantic conception of information. By contrast, the Shannon conception of information is as a string of symbols, with any meaning left to the sender and receiver of the information. The information content, from Shannon’s perspective, does not depend on the meaning.
Later, in chapter 11, Dembski writes:
Aristotelian hylomorphism, for instance, conceived of substances as a combination of matter (Greek hyle) and (in)form(ation) (Greek morphe).
There, Dembski seems to be taking information to be the intrinsic property of shape or form of an object, which is an entirely different conception of information. In chapters 17-20, he refers to work on computer search and theorems, such as the “No free lunch” theorem of Wolpert and McReady. But those referenced results are specifically dealing with Shannon information.
I see this lack of a clear concept of information to be a serious flaw, perhaps even a fatal flaw, in Dembski’s proposed metaphysics.
Is this Berkeley’s idealism?
Chapter 10, “Getting matter from information,” reads as if it is an argument for something along the lines of Berkeley’s idealism. Dembski sees information as starting as words from the Christian God, and he sees information as the source of what we claim to know about matter.
However, Dembski does attempt to clarify this in the final chapter, where he writes:
Informational realism is not informational monism, the view that information is identical with the totality of being. Informational realism, as the view that information is the primal stuff or fabric of reality, is a relational ontology, asserting that things exist insofar as the interact via information with other things.
So perhaps he did not intend it to be making the case for idealism, which was how I had read the earlier chapter.
Intelligence and teleology
Dembski appears to identify intelligence with teleology. Dembski’s own view is that teleology issues from the Christian God. But he broadens this to also allow the kind of natural teleology suggested by Thomas Nagel in his “Mind and Cosmos.”
This would seem to make room for intelligence as part of nature. In particular, it would seem to be consistent with the view of many theistic evolutionists, who see God acting through nature. To me, this appears to be a huge turnaround. ID proponents have been critics of theistic evolution. Yet here Dembski is proposing a view of intelligence would appears to me to be consistent with the views of theistic evolutionists.
Many biologists will agree that biological organisms exhibit apparently purposeful behavior. They have coined the term “teleonomy” for this, to distinguish it from the more expansive version of teleology favored by theists. It is not completely clear whether Dembski would accept that as enough intelligence, but he has surely moved closer to that view.
Is this the death knell of the ID movement?
Only time will tell, but it looks to be a possibility that this book is signaling the failure of ID. In the past, ID proponents have argued that ID is science and is not religion. But here, we see Dembski openly admitting his religious motivation. The book seems to have weakened the argument of ID against theistic evolution. And it seems to have broadened the notion of intelligence to no longer insist that it implies an intelligent agent or being.
I found the book easy to read, and others with a background is science or philosophy are likely to agree. Overall, I believe it fails as a metaphysics of information. And it does not make a case for ID as science.