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16 Reasons Why I Believe In God: (5) The Origin of Biological Information

James

The discovery of the

genetic code

in the 1950s brought with it the realization that information is a real part of nature.  In other words, we didn't just discover DNA and how it works, we also discovered that organisms are comprised of a third substance in addition to matter and energy - namely,

information

.  This raised new questions about life's origin, questions like, "How did the information get there in the first place?"

When we reflect on what information is, we discover that it has fundamentally different properties from matter.  For instance, information doesn't have mass or weight

(your smart phone weighs the same both before and after you download an app).  So, information is

real

, even though it's not physical.  But the most fascinating thing about it is that, in all our experiences, meaningful information always originates from a

mind

.

Computer programs,

Hamlet

, and messages in bottles all have two things in common:  they are "meaningful" information, and they all ultimately originate from minds - the mind of a programmer, the mind of Shakespeare, the mind of a castaway (or

Sting

).  We never experience meaningful information coming from anything other than minds, or from things minds have produced.

I am using the term

meaningful information

to distinguish from what scientists call

Shannon information

.  Shannon information is simply a measure of the improbability of an event or series of events.  But

meaningful

information, what some philosophers have called "specified complexity," is different - it contains Shannon information, yes, but also conforms to an independent pattern that communicates something, or performs a function.  Philosopher of science, Stephen Meyer explains:

Consider two sequences of characters:
"Four score and seven years ago"
"nenen ytawoi jll sn mekhdx nnx"
...The probability of producing each of those two sequences at random is identical.  Therefore, both sequences have an equal amount of information as measured by Shannon's theory.  But one of these sequences communicates something, while the other does not.  Why?... [T]he first of the two sequences has something - a specificity of arrangement [specified complexity] - that enables it "to produce a specific effect" or to perform a function, whereas the second does not.[1]

Meyer's point is that even though both sequences are equally improbable - that is, both contain the same amount of Shannon information - only one of them is meaningful information; namely, the sequence that says something.

When we look at the genetic information encoded in DNA, it appears by all accounts to be

meaningful

information, not just Shannon information.  Like the first of Meyer's two statements above, the specific arrangement of "letters" in DNA communicates something - it communicates vast amounts of instructions for a living cell.  To see what I mean,

watch this excellent 4 minute video

.

The recently published

ENCODE

project further confirms the fact that DNA houses

meaningful

information.  Researchers found that the information in DNA performs even more functions than previously thought, and discovered that some of the information remarkably has a

double meaning

.  But, if in our experience meaningful information always originates from a mind, then it gives us reason to believe biological information also originated from a mind.

Here's a paraphrasing of the argument as Meyer frames it:

  1. The best explanation for some phenomenon will appeal to presently working causes known to produce that phenomenon.
  2. In all our experiences, the only known cause capable of producing meaningful information is a mind.
  3. The information encoded in DNA is meaningful information.
  4. Therefore, the best explanation for the origin of information in DNA is that it came from a mind. 

It's important to remember that Meyer is offering this argument to explain the origin of the information in the very first living cell, not every individual cell or DNA molecule that has existed since.  If his argument works, what kind of mind could have created the first biological information?  It can't be the mind of another physical organism (although Meyer might disagree with me), because that organism too would depend on biological information of some sort, and would likewise require a mind to explain its existence.  So, in my view, Meyer's argument ultimately requires a mind that is not embodied in the biological sense that we are familiar with.  God, by definition, is such an unembodied mind.  Thus, the origin of biological information offers a good reason to believe in God.

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Common Objections:

1.  This argument commits the "

God of the gaps

" fallacy.

  No, it doesn't.  God of the gaps is an appeal to ignorance; it's like saying, "Because we don't know what made biological information, God must have done it."  But notice that is not Meyer's argument.  He uses abductive reasoning - sometimes called "

inference to the best explanation

" - which is common in science, to argue from

known

causes.  He's saying, "Because we know meaningful information always comes from a mind, the best explanation for the information in DNA is that it too came from a mind."  That's different from God of the gaps.

2.  This argument denies the theory of evolution.

  No.  Meyer himself might deny evolution to some extent, but the argument is perfectly compatible with the theory of biological evolution.  Evolution, as Darwin conceived it, is a process that begins once you already have a self-replicating organism (i.e. biological information) in place.  But Darwinian evolution can't explain how that first organism got here.  In other words, evolution can't explain the origin of the first life.  At best, evolution only explains how that life changed over time once it began.

3.  This argument requires God's supernatural intervention, which violates the laws of nature.

  A few things:  First, it does not necessarily require supernatural intervention.  God could have built the required information for life into the universe from the very beginning, so that the emergence of life was guaranteed.[2]  Second, God could intervene without violating any laws of nature.  If at the quantum level the universe is truly indeterministic, it may be "open" to input of information or energy from the outside.  Laws such as the

law of conservation of energy

would only be violated if nature is in fact a "closed" system.  But that is up for debate.  Lastly, if God exists, then he is the

source of the laws of nature

.  They're not something outside of him that he must obey.  Hence, he could "violate" the laws if he wanted.

4.  The information in DNA is determined by the laws of physics and chemistry.

  Incorrect.  This objection arises from an often overlooked and remarkable fact:  the information in DNA and RNA is read vertically down the spine of the molecule, where

there are literally no chemical/physical bonds determining the arrangement

.  Notice in the RNA diagram to the right (and the DNA animation above) that the "rungs" of the helix "ladder" have no connections between them.  Each rung is only connected on the side.  But it is the specific

vertical

sequence of these rungs that creates the information, just like the horizontal sequence of letters in this sentence create its meaning.  Think of magnetic alphabet letters stuck to a blackboard.  The laws of magnetism determine that the letters will stick to the board, yes.  But the laws don't determine the sequence in which those letters are arranged - there is no magnetic bond between the letters; only between each letter and the board.  Similarly, the laws of physics and chemistry determine that each "letter" (or "rung") of the DNA/RNA molecule will stick to the spine, yes.  But the laws don't determine the sequence in which the letters are arranged - there is no chemical/physical bond between the "letters."  And just as you can have a random sequence of magnetic letters that mean nothing (think of Meyer's example above), you can presumably have a random arrangement of DNA "letters" that are functionless.  So, while it's possible that the formation of a DNA molecule could happen purely by the laws of physics and chemistry (although the odds are extremely low), the meaningful

information

that molecule might contain is not determined by the laws.  It is either due to complete chance, or something else.

5.  Scientists have demonstrated in the lab how RNA molecules can form on their own.

  First, that's not quite accurate.  What scientists have demonstrated is that, in a highly controlled lab environment, and with selective guidance, simple RNA molecules can form "on their own."  That is very different from a molecule forming in the wild without any selective guidance at all, where there are hostile elements present that would easily disrupt the desired reaction.  Second, even if RNA molecules could form completely on their own in the wild, it does not mean that meaningful information was produced.  As I said in response to the previous objection, you can presumably have an RNA or DNA molecule that is functionless, just like you can have a string of alphabet letters that are meaningless.  If a functionless RNA molecule formed on its own in the wild, it would be an example of nature producing

order

(something it does quite often), not meaningful information.

6.  There can be no such thing as a mind that is unembodied.  Minds are by-products of physical brains.

  There are excellent reasons to think minds are not merely by-products of our brains.  And that increases the plausibility of there being a mind that is unembodied.  I'll explain more in my

next post

.  Stay tuned!

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Update 3/19/2014

: I added the partial sentence, "and discovered that some of the information remarkably has a

double meaning

," to reflect the most recent findings of the

ENCODE project

.  Researchers found that DNA has a second set of instructions hidden within the first (think of a secret message hidden within a newspaper article); which only strengthens my argument.

RNA Image:  TransControl - Wikimedia Commons

DNA Animation:  brian0918 - Wikimedia Commons

Further Reading:

*To better understand the goals and limits of this blog series, please read the

Introduction

, if you haven't already. Thanks!

Endnotes

1.  Stephen Meyer,

Signature In the Cell

(New York: Harper One, 2009), pp. 90-91.

2.  If the universe had the information built in from the beginning, so that the universe seemed capable of producing the information in DNA through natural processes, we would still have to ask, "Where did the information that was built into the universe come from?"  If the so-called

law of conservation of information

is true, then deterministic processes can only produce as much meaningful information as is already built into them.