Dembski’s “Being as Communion” — a review

by Neil Rickert

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.

Information

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.

Summary

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.

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4 Comments to “Dembski’s “Being as Communion” — a review”

  1. “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.”

    There have always been different kind of ID proponents. 16 years ago (1999) Dembski openly published a book titled “Intelligent Design: The Bridge Between Science & Theology”, which clarified his position. He sees ID as something that is not purely science or purely theology (but has also scientific parts and can have also implications for theology). This book seems to be a sequel for that book “Intelligent Design: The Bridge Between Science & Theology”

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  2. Is Dembski’s hylomorphism also similar to:

    new age
    postmodernism
    word of faith (words are containers of it)
    Sun Myung Moon’s Divine Principle
    Hegelian dialectic and dialectic materialism
    transsubstantiation
    Ma’at, Goddess of Truth?

    new age
    God is information, and so are we and everything. So everything is God.

    postmodernism
    Nothing exists without relationships. Truth does not exist without relationships. Existence does not exist (sorry, Rand). Each one has his/her/its/trans-his/trans-her own relationships and thus his/her/its/trans-his/trans-her own truth. There is no absolute truth. Materialism, marxism, and evolution can be one’s truth. So can 2+2=5. Dembski defeats herself.

    word of faith
    Information is a force, bits are the containers of the force, and with this force you can create your own reality. So code and claim yourself a luxury car.

    moonies
    Moon’s book is full of gibberish about God’s word being a creative principle that initiates a cascade of dualities begetting dualities. Dembski’s book stands in dim contrast.

    Hegel and marx
    We all know that every program is bugged. Thus every piece of information sows the seed of its own destruction. Hegel deals extensively with such processes and generalizes sweepingly to the twin principles of negation and double negation. Of course we all know about the information that underlies capitalism (marx’s term of abuse for free markets) and its bug, exploitation of the working class. That hideous word, “class”, makes perfect sense in light of such Dembskian informatics, which denies the ontology of the individual. The classical certainties of the past are the opium of the people. The ideology of the proletariat is underlain by information that encodes victory in the class struggle. The community of women was created by information, since pornography derives its power from the relationship between pixels and lust. That spectre of communism, now hanging not only over Europe but the whole world, and most gloriously demonstrated in South Africa by the Jesuit-led ANC, has deathly designs on Western society that reduce Catiline to a quark.

    Catholic Church
    Accident and substance, matter and form. The information that underlies the adored wafer is that which was with god in the beginning, and it is that procedure which the priest invokes at the Mass. The information which once made the body of the lord what it was now makes the wafer the object of worship. Mary, the mother goddess, is made queen of heaven by her relationship to her son, which also relates her to the father. This disgusting perversion of the gospel now makes perfect sense. Your salvation is not authentic without relationships, so there is no salvation outside the church. It is not a matter of one on one conversion to a faith that stands on a promise grounded on a one-time sacrifice for all sin and excludes all other works of merit. Like all things, the gospel is subject to Dembski’s perversion of truth.

    Kemeticism
    The deification of information can be traced to ancient Egypt. Ma’at was the goddess of truth, balance, and justice. Some neopagans relate to Egypt, known in the ancient language as Kemet (the black dirt) and from which we evidently get “alchemy” (“khemeia”, the dark arts?) and “chemistry”. I once met such a neopagan on a forum whose mantra was, “there is no religion higher than truth”. And by truth he certainly did not mean classical truth. His truth was that I was a white devil and should stay out of black peoples’ business. On the latter point, he was right. I should not have been on that ghetto forum.

    Islam
    The Quran denies that God has a Son (and kills with death dissenters) but apparently teaches that Allah and his word are coeternal. Even misinformation can be divine, since god is a deceiver.

    gnosticism
    Gnostics used to look to hidden information for spiritual formation. They denied that Jesus was God incarnate and believed that matter was evil. Dembski might not call matter evil, but he certainly downplays its Creator-endowed goodness by denying its ontology. Is a resurrection that cannot be real without taking stock of relationships any better than a phantom? I do not know what to make of it. It is a very unincarnational incarnationalism if there ever was one.

    lordship salvation
    If jesus is not lord of all, then he not lord at all. jesus is not lord already, you must make him. You make jesus lord by your relationship with him, which you establish by obedience. And obedience becomes perfect by evolution. jesus informs everything you do because your life is not your own but is bought with a price. John Macarthur accurately describes your relationship to jesus as slave to master. If you think one individualistic thought, you have not made jesus lord. If you save your life ontologically, you will lose it relationally. Saving faith does not exist except in relationship to good works.

    Kurzweilianism
    The same information that underlies the thoughts that our brains ooze (gotta relish the wickedly materialistic sound) might one day reside on a motherboard.

    Star Wars
    Long long ago in a galaxy far away, they called it the Force. We earthlings call it the Information. May the Information be with you.

    Fantasy and games
    If you read fantasy or play RPGs, you will never think the same way about them again. Information is real. Oz, Glinda, Narnia, and Potter must be real. Santa Clause exists. It’s all in code. There are no false myths. Those monkeys that you play with are real and they really hate bloons. The monkey god must be real and he really demands sacrifice. You may think these things are innocent, harmless, or even beautiful and worthy to think on. But even the disgusting and abominable things that you shudder to think of must be real. The Dembskian revolution leaves nothing unturned.

    Global warming
    Enough people have a relationship to the groupthink that it is real. It is a mistake to think you can get to the truth of the matter by checking the data, since in the individual facts, isolated from their context, the truth is not there. There aren’t enough deniers. The debate is over.

    Obama
    The gargantuan uh information that is in the uh healthcare bill is uh for the good of the sheeple. They uh need it though they uh do not realize it because uh healthcare does not exist in a uh vacuum. You get the uh point.

    The silliness could go on. Seriously, I am sick and tired of the deification of information that is Dembskianism. After all the sins have been committed, blasphemies uttered, individuals denied love, and idols worshiped, do we not see that these things are not of God? Young earth creationism may be misguided on some points, but it is committed to real truth. That God created in six days is a truth claim. Like it or not, you know exactly what you are dealing with. And for that, I admire it.

    Facts are not batons to beat brothers over the head with anymore than is food. But truth is real. Let everyone be persuaded in his own mind over most matters, as the new commandment dictates, but not at the cost of the faith. The gospel is real. Heaven is real. Look and live.

    The truth is not defended with mush. Sadly, it is now apparent that much of Dembski and ID criticism is justly deserved.

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    • Is Dembski’s hylomorphism also similar to: …

      Well, no, it isn’t. His hylomorphism comes from Aristotelian ideas that are now out of fashion.

      Yes, Dembski has confused ideas about information. But then, so do you. Having confused ideas about information seems to be commonplace.

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      • This is why I used to stay away from philosophy. Common sense was more useful. I have no use for quibbling about quidditas and esse. Aristotle gave us flawed physics that kept gravity hidden from us and held the earth at the universe’s center. He is not the place I’d go to for science. If philosophy is about fashion, it is not to be trusted. The Bible warns us about being taken captive by fine arguments, calling them pseudoscience (1 Tim 6:20). Many philosophers, classic and modern, professing to be wise have become fools.

        It is common sense that reality is pretty much what we perceive it to be. Vain philosophy denies it a thousand times and insults our five senses and the God who designed them. Faith tells us that there is something beyond our senses. Science corrects our common sense by introducing it to new phenomena such as elementary particles and curved spacetime. Mathematics sharpens our minds and deepens our appreciation of subtleties. I have relished proofs of counterintuitive theorems and experimental surprises but have never had any use for silly gibberish about dualities and complementarities, such as you find in Hegel and Bohr.

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