Atheists: Is Information Real?

The following discussion shows that information is objectively real, and why.


  1. Information is a real cause because it produces real effects
  2. Information is not matter and it is not energy.  It is a separate entity on par with matter and energy.
  3. In the context of this discussion, information is a product of a complete encoding / decoding system.  No communication takes place unless correct encoding and decoding also take place.
  4. It is possible to determine the effectiveness of a communication system by judging whether it was encoded, transmitted and decoded properly. And this is the aim of Claude Shannon’s communication model. Anything which claims to be an example of a communication system must be able to be judged according to Shannon’s criteria.
  5. A “full” hard drive is no heavier than an empty one, even though it is full of information.  Information cannot be reduced (quantified) down to a single number, because it is not reducible to the medium that carries it.  Nor can information be produced simply by knowing the physical laws it obeys – which is why there is no material explanation for information.

Information is not real, it is just an abstract concept.

Dictionary definition of “real”: 1. Being or occurring in fact or actuality; having verifiable existence: real objects; a real illness. 6. Philosophy. Existing objectively in the world regardless of subjectivity or conventions of thought or language.

Information is real because it occurs in fact, because it generates cause and effect in space and time. Information affects real events, changes the direction of real energy. It’s just as real as an illness. Your discussion with me is real. The sentence you are reading right now on this screen is real. It is there whether you look at it or not, whether you understand it or not, whether you like or dislike me. The information in a rabbit’s DNA causes a rabbit to grow regardless of subjectivity or human conventions of thought or language, regardless of whether a human is around to understand it or not.

You’re just stating an anthropomorphism.  If the condition of an object is influenced by natural phenomena, how can you say the influence doesn’t have meaning?  Plants aren’t sentient beings but they still do respond to DNA patterns.

Nowhere did I say meaning in this sense requires sentience; in fact I have explicitly stated that these things operate without a conscious mind. Decoding requires meaning within the context of the system itself. I’ve used the Norton antivirus update example many times in this thread – when your computer goes to the Norton website for updates, both sides recognize the meaning of the handshakes, with no conscious mind present. This is not anthropomorphic, this is just an observation of what actually happens, and must happen for communication to take place.

If adding an intelligent receiver (a person) to a system suddenly adds meaning, then astronomy qualifies as coded information, because the astronomer is part of the encoding / decoding system.

Thank you for bringing this up. My point is precisely that in your example, an intelligent agent has to be present before any meaning is assigned by anything. Not so with computers or DNA, because in neither case does an intelligent observer have to be present for the meaning of information to be processed.

If your desk was affected by the incoming signal, then it’s a receiver. But you seem to be saying the desk lacks a supernatural receiver essence.

No, it just lacks an encoding / decoding mechanism in which the decoder interprets encoded symbols and processes information in the manner that DNA and computer codes do. It’s just a desk, and it vibrates. Maybe it resonates. Maybe it sings along (I worked in acoustics for five years, I can discuss that subject too if you wish.) But my desk processes no information, and it decodes nothing.

Shannon says that meaning is not part of his theory.  Meaning is dependent on the receiver, and we all know that two people can hear the same thing and interpret it completely differently.  Since meaning is receiver dependent there is no such thing as absolute meaning of a message.  Therefore semantics doesn’t exist.

Meaning is always contextual. But to say it therefore doesn’t exist doesn’t follow. In the above paragraph you have actually admitted that meaning does exist. You are imposing the limitations of Shannon’s theory on the entire world of information, and Shannon and Weaver are very clear that you cannot do that; that their theory only encompasses the performance of the communication channel. Every real example of an encoding / decoding system that I have offered – DNA, computer software programs, human language, etc etc etc – all of those systems without exception have a semantical component. Those communication systems transmit meaning in the form of some kind of instruction, request or plan.

Now Perry has a big problem.  If DNA has semantical information then where is the receiver?

Read Yockey, p. 35, Figure 5.2. The semantical information codes for every trait that is inherited via the DNA.

Werner Gitt recognized that a new theory of information is necessary to address semantics.  Perry doesn’t seem to understand that. Meaning is something only a conscious being can assign.

That is incorrect, as I have shown above in the Norton anti-virus update example.

The concept of meaning is without meaning and creates a circular definition.  You can’t establish semantic meaning without a rigorous definition, and a dictionary is insufficient.

You have wrongly insisted that meaning is part of the communication process, even though you already agreed that Shannons theory doesn’t address meaning.

A decoder simply takes the physical input from a receiver and maps it back to the desired alphabet.  In the Magma flow, the molten rock is both receiver and decoder because the core dynamo is determined by the direction of the earth’s magnetic field.  This is no different from a tape recorder.

Since you realized this is a natural communications channel and proves you wrong, you have now moved the goalposts and insisted that there be semantical meaning also.  Sorry, you can’t do that.

Wdog, you have attempted to take “systems” in which a particular meaning is NOT assigned (magma etc.) and then said that they’re the same as systems in which particular meaning IS assigned (DNA, computer codes, tape recorders). But the only way you can do that is to assert that meaning is purely a subjective human construction. But this is false – read Yockey – the sequence of base pairs has explicit meaning in the form of proteins they code for. Meaning is assigned within the encoding / decoding system. It is not even possible to talk about decoding without reference to, at minimum, the next higher layer of meaning; decoding is the assignment of meaning to a sequence of symbols. So I cannot let you off the hook by letting you say that meaning is a purely subjective phenomenon. It exists whether a human is there to understand it or not.

The DNA process is complicated, well that’s no big deal.  Now Perry is saying it has ‘meaning’ in  the ‘message’ in the exact same way that a human assigns meaning.

Please do not misquote me. I did not say that. I said that it has meaning within the system in the same way that computer codes have meaning, and I observed that the system of symbols and their meaning has to be initially established by an intelligent cause. I have asked for a single counterexample and none has been provided. Big deal? Yes, DNA is a big deal, even if you wish to belittle it. Show a naturalistic cause for the information contained in DNA, with real empirical evidence, and then it won’t be a big deal anymore.

In DNA, where is the intelligent receiver that assigns meaning?  Perry doesn’t answer the question and doesn’t define the message.

Meaning doesn’t have independent existence because it’s receiver dependent.  Now Perry tries to weasel out of this by saying information is meaningful ‘within the system.’  Well of course, that’s what I just said. But that doesn’t solve Perry’s problem.

It makes the problem simpler, Wdog. You don’t have to have an absolute mathematical definition of meaning, all we need to do is be able to observe that meaning does cause plans to be executed within the system. And all you have to do in this forum is show that natural processes create encoding / decoding systems that contain such plans and execute them. You have not.

Since meaning is receiver dependent, and messages are only meaningful within a communication channel, how will we ever know the meaning of bee waggles or whatever?  If we guess the bee means ‘the flower is over there’ or ‘this way to the hive’ is that meaningful or not?  How will we know what bees mean if we can’t even understand each other?

I’m 100% for investigating bee waggles, and obviously to a great extent we can decode them, even though we’re not bees. But what’s relevant to this discussion is that the bee waggle is a code, there is an encoding/decoding system, there is a message, it has semantics (meaning) it is real, it objectively exists, and it causes real bees to do real things. Just like DNA. Just like computer codes. And here we are again with the frank observation that naturalistic processes do not account for the ultimate origin of such codes. Yet we observe conscious minds creating such codes every day. An undeniable inference of intelligent design.

Information doesn’t create cause and effect, any more than Maxwell’s equations cause electricity.

I’m reading your information and responding to it, that’s cause and effect. If your anti-virus software downloads an update from a server overnight, that’s cause and effect. Any specific arrangement of codons of DNA causes a particular organism to develop; that’s cause and effect. Arguments that information is not real have already been presented and failed.

We designed the monitor to turn off.  Someone had to think about it in the first place.  But things that are not designed do not have this property.

The bees waggle whether anybody is thinking about them or not. DNA decodes whether anyone is thinking about it or not. And all of these things are real effects, triggered by real causes.

A computer with a big program weighs the same as a computer with a small one.

Have you ever worked with a punch card computer?  I did.  Carrying the cards was a hassle, especially with a big program with a big deck of cards.  Drop the cards, you’ve got a big disaster scattered all over the floor.

My point is, the computer weighed no more with a program than without one.  Unlike DNA, programs are NOT physical objects.

Does this mean that your punch card does not contain a computer program because it is a physical object? Are you perhaps also saying that a hard drive (and its 1/0 magnetic states) or a RAM chip (and its 1/0 voltage states) are not physical objects with physical characteristics? Or that the AND/OR/NOR/XOR gates are not actual physical junctions with real electrons and real chemistry, processing information?

We used to use cards to store programs, but the program itself was an ethereal thing in the programmer’s mind.

You can weigh DNA but you can’t weigh a computer program.  DNA is a physical object, a computer program is not.

A book with words and letters or even Morse Code is a physical object. It weighs more with ink on the pages than blank pages would. Or if the pages were 100% covered with ink it would weigh even more, but would contain no information because we can’t see any letters. A punch card with program holes punched in it weighs less than a blank one. Or a punch card with ALL its holes punched out weighs even less than one with a program.

Therefore the statement “DNA is a code” is only an analogy!

So does that then mean that the statement “a book with morse code on its pages is a code” is an analogy also? Or when you say “a punchcard is a computer program” is that merely an analogy too?

Even if I do molecular computers, the molecules represent the paper tape and not the program itself.  Do you understand what I’m saying?

Oh yes, I certainly do. Which is why I replied to Wdog last week that books are not reducible to paper and ink and DNA is not reducible to chemicals.

A book of random letters contains no message, a computer punch card with random punches contains no program. A hypothetical DNA molecule with random bases contains no plan for an organism. But a real book, a real punch card, and a real DNA molecule all contain real codes, represented by symbols composed of real matter that represent real, useful information and uniquely specify external objects, processes and ideas. But, as you indicate, the code itself is an immaterial entity.

That’s why MIT mathematician Norbert Weiner, the father of the science of cybernetics and a peer of Claude Shannon said, “Information is information, neither matter nor energy. Any materialism that fails to take account of this will not survive one day.” Information does not have a purely material origin.

Would you answer the question: Does a computer with a big program weigh more than a small program?

The weight does not change, not in the slightest. That’s because, as Weiner said, “Information is information, neither matter nor energy.” Which again highlights the non-material nature of information and code, and the inability for purely material causes to explain its origin.

It doesn’t matter what Marshall McLuhan said, don’t mistake the medium for the message.  Whether it’s paper tape, punch cards, magnetic strips or molecules, they are merely the medium.

Indeed. This example further reinforces my point: that the meaning contained in a code is independent of the communication medium. Indeed, I agree with you that Marshall McLuhan’s statement is irrelevant and in fact erroneous in this specific formal context.

So thank you for providing an example that reinforces my thesis, that naturalistic explanations may provide the materials, but still fail to explain the origin of the code. Why? Because the information in DNA is an immaterial entity and is only created by mental processes. Your highly relevant example using punch tape reinforces this fact.

Perry, you said “I make no distinction between the terms ‘information theory’ and ‘communication theory.’ Math is math.”

If you believe that it’s time for you to go back to school. Information theory applies to almost anything, but not communication theory.  DNA is no more applicable to information theory than the clouds in the sky, if you’re trying to promote Intelligent Design.

When I use the terms “information theory” and “communication theory” I am using them the same way they are used on the cover of Shannon’s book “The Mathematical Theory of Communication” (which uses the term “information theory” on the very first page) and, for example, the book “An Introduction to Information Theory: Symbols, Signals and Noise” by John R. Pierce (Dover Books). In these contexts the terms are functionally identical; in fact Mr. Pierce, in the preface to the Dover edition, says “I did not try to” change everywhere “communication theory” (Shannon’s term) to “information theory”, the term I would use today.” Pierce goes on to explain, on page 65, why his analysis applies to DNA just as it does to the “transmission of information” (his words) and Morse Code.

Communication theory requires three steps: Coding, transmitting, decoding.

And as Yockey demonstrates on page 35 (see earlier posts), DNA does all three.

OK, so let’s look at this in reverse: What do DNA and TCP/IP have in common?  Is TCP/IP a blueprint for something?  No.  Does TCP/IP self initiate its action without outside stimulus?  No.  Does TCP/IP physically interact with its environment?  No.  Does TCP/IP require a physical context the way DNA does, with the cell etc.?  No.  But DNA does all these things.

TCP is a communication system with a defined alphabet, as is the DNA communication system (Yockey, p. 33). TCP/IP physically interacts with its environment and requires a physical context (Ethernet cable, wireless or other physical; media; computer). It does make sense as a code that transmits information between two entities; that’s exactly what it is.

I’ll resist the temptation to cite my own Ethernet/TCPIP book, which was published in 2002 and cite another instead: Ethernet : The Definitive Guide by Charles E. Spurgeon. Spurgeon makes it quite clear that TCPIP interacts with its environment, requires a physical context, and transmits codes between two entities. Neither TCP/IP nor DNA is a blueprint.  See Yockey’s statement elsewhere about DNA not being a blueprint.

Earlier you said random number generators do not count as code because codes do not have to have meaning.  That’s wrong, because codes only need to be strings of symbols.  Shannon’s work doesn’t require the strings of symbols to be meaningful.  You’re grossly misrepresenting Shannon by inserting your requirement of meaning.

Warren weaver says, “Two messages, one of which is heavily loaded with meaning and the other of which is pure nonsense, can be exactly equivalent, from the present viewpoint, as regards information. It is this, undoubtedly, that Shannon means when he says that “the semantic aspects of communication are irrelevant to the engineering aspects.” But this does not mean that the engineering aspects are necessarily irrelevant to the semantic aspects. To be sure, this word in communication theory relates not so much to what you do say as what you could say.” Shannon’s theory can be grossly misapplied to make it appear that noise is really information, but nowhere in this thread have I ever made this error.

Ignoring for a moment the origin of the codon pattern itself, Yockey says proteins and DNA are the result of an evolutionary Markov process.

The origin of the codon pattern itself is the subject of this entire thread, not the proteins. And Yockey is emphatic that there is no naturalistic explanation available for this pattern.

Your page numbers must be a typo. Pages 33-35 are a probability tutorial the first chapter and make no reference to biology or development.

You must have a different book or edition than I have. Mine is ISBN 0-521-80293-8 Hardback. In any case I’m fully aware of everything Yockey has said in your quotations, and Yockey’s conclusion that the origin of life is scientifically unknowable remains. There is no naturalistic explanation for the origin of life.

Since semantically meaningful information is a logically flawed concept, it’s really quite meaningless.

Do you intend that to be a meaningful statement or a meaningless statement?

DNA has no semantics

Shannon says that engineering aspects are relevant to meaning, but that point is irrelevant to this discussion.  You said a random sequence is not a code and that is clearly wrong.  A random sequence can be a message to the right receiver, which means a code does exist.

Please notice that after telling me for quite some time that semantics does not exist, you have just said that it does, as long as it “could be” meaningful to somebody somewhere.  You have contradicted yourself.  You are certainly right in your present view that semantics does exist.

Now the sun may constitute a message to your brain as seen through your eyes, but it does not become coded information until it is decoded by you. Before you show up, and by decoding the data assign meaning to it, there is no coding system. The same is true of a random number generator – you can set up a receiver which collects the numbers and *assigns* some kind of meaning to them. But before meaning is assigned you do not have coded information from random numbers. The numbers are the numbers, nothing else, they represent nothing other than themselves. But all real world coding/decoding systems, by definition, assign meaning within the system itself.

The ASCII communication between your keyboard and your computer assigns specific English alphabet letters and numbers to ASCII code. TCP/IP assigns meaning (a specific function) to every bit and byte, coding at one end and decoding at the other. ASCII doesn’t understand the English but the ASCII system does map the relationship between the English character and the code. Codons in DNA represent specific proteins. In all of those systems, symbols have meaning within the system itself by virtue of a decoder, which exists whether there is an outside observer or not. That by definition is what semantics is concerned with.

You still have not proved that DNA contains semantical information or meaning.

“The sequences of nucleotides or amino acids that carry a genetic message have explicit specificity. (Otherwise how does the organism live?) Of course, the genetic message, when expressed as a sequence of symbols, is nonmaterial but must be recorded in matter or energy.” (Yockey, 2005, p. 7)

“The genetic code is a mapping of the mRNA code letters in the genome on to the code letters of the proteome. It is not merely a table of correlations. The mRNA genetic code, shown in Table 2.2, shares a number of properties wit hthe Postal ZIP + 4 code, the ASCII computer codes, and the Universal Product Code. The genetic code is distinct and uniquely decodable.” (Yockey, 2005, p. 19)

Receiver reacts to a signal

In your computer monitor example, the information existed as an abstract concept before the monitor was made.  We understand this because we designed it.  But you can’t apply the same reasoning to DNA because we did not design it.  You are just presupposing your own conclusion.

The monitor turns on / off whether anybody is thinking about it or not. Un-real things do not cause real events. Real events are only caused by real things. Therefore the information which causes any real event to happen is real. In the same way, the information in DNA, which causes real organisms to develop real features, is also real.

It seems you’re arguing that it’s not the information that requires a supernatural explanation, or the encoding.  You’re saying the receiver requires a supernatural explanation.

I’m saying it’s the coordination of the three in a complete system that requires intelligence.  Intelligence is required, for example, to make a thermometer, even if the glass and the mercury and the ink to paint on the side are already there.  Refer to my definition of coded information in post #28.

A receiver is merely a passive mechanism that is affected by a signal.  What about this requires a supernatural explanation?

Within the terminology that you have chosen here, anything might get labeled as a receiver. But a “passive mechanism that reacts to a signal” is by no means a decoding mechanism. Sound vibrates my desk, so is my desk a receiver? Oh, I suppose. And if my desk was piezoelectric it would even generate a voltage in response to the vibrations. But in Shannon’s model there is *always* a decoder. A “decoder” and “receiver” are not the same thing.