Re: Emergence of information out of nothing?

From: Howard J. Van Till (
Date: Wed May 01 2002 - 17:08:59 EDT

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    I am well aware of the fact that you (and many others) would like to see my
    "Robust Formational Economy Principle" to fall flat on its backside, but I
    don't see these appeals to quantities of "information" as helpful. The
    following is a list of things that quickly (and perhaps with need for
    adjustment) come to mind on this issue. I'm sure there's lots of room for
    refinement, but time is limited. Anyone interested in our differences should
    read what we have put into print.

    1. There seem to be as many definitions of "information" as there are people
    who wish to apply this concept to the formation and historical modification
    of organisms. Semantic information is particularly problematic.

    2. Meaningful numbers are rare, in large part because there is little
    agreement on which "reservoirs of information" need to be considered and how
    to compute (or even estimate) actual amounts in these reservoirs.

    3. Focussing on the concept of quantities of information in thinking about
    how evolutionary development may have taken place strikes me as missing the
    key element -- dynamic action. Atoms act and interact. Molecules act and
    interact. Organisms act and interact, with each other and with their
    environments. My encyclopedia is full of stored information, including lots
    of information on biological topics. What does that stored information do?
    ABSOLUTELY NOTHING. There is no action whatsoever in my encyclopedia. The
    dumb thing just sits there. Evolutionary development is ACTION, not
    quantities of inert stored information.

    4. Because of vast uncertainties concerning what definition of information
    might be relevant to biological evolution, and because of uncertainties
    about what reservoirs of this relevant information need to be considered,
    and because quantitative estimates of it are highly uncertain, and because
    focusing on quantities of "information" (by whatever choices of definition
    and location) seems effectively blind to the fact that atoms, molecules,
    organisms, and environments act and interact, I find it much more meaningful
    to think about the universe's "formational economy" -- its resources, its
    capabilities for action, and its potentialities for functional
    configurations and the means of achieving them.

    5. In what meaningful way has anyone talked about or computed the
    "information" resident in the properties and formational capabilities of
    atoms, molecules and organisms? In what meaningful way has anyone talked
    about or computed the "information" resident in the huge space of
    potentialities for viable organisms? In what meaningful way has anyone
    computed the amount of "information" resident in the biological fitness
    functions that at least give us a hint of the "forces" relevant to the
    dynamic action of biological history?

    > A recent paper by C.J. Hogan confirms what could be expected, that right
    > after the big bang, the universe was extremely poor in information.

    What definition of "information" is being used this time?

    > This is of interest in connection with Howard Van Till's claim that God
    > gifted "biological systems", among other things, "from the beginning,
    > when the creation was brought into being from nothing", with all of the
    > capacities needed (H.J. Van Till, "Special Creationism in Designer
    > Clothing: A Response to 'The Creation Hypothesis'", PSCF 47 (1995),
    > 123).

    > The amount of meaningful or semantic information contained in a system
    > may be defined as the minimal length of an algorithm capable of
    > specifying it (M.V. Volkenstein, "Punctualism, non-adaptionism,
    > neutralism and evolution", BioSystems 20 (1987), 289).

    Fine; a numerical amount of some form of "information" (same as Hogan's???)
    is computed. Where is the story of what configurations of atoms, molecules,
    or organisms actually have the capabilities to DO? Where's the consideration
    of biological ACTION?

    > This would
    > exclude all features irrelevant for meaning or functionality. The
    > meaningful information contained in today's biosphere may be
    > approximated by a (purely theoretical) minimal set of genome parts
    > "streamlined" to include the code for whatever is really required for
    > the organisms represented in the biosphere, but nothing else.

    Is this the same kind of "information" computed by Hogan? Is this the only
    kind of information relevant to biological processes & events?

    > Its amount
    > is such that the improbability of its generation by random-variation /
    > natural-selection processes, starting with a prebiotic universe, is
    > vastly transastronomical.

    Where's the consideration of the full menu of the universe's dynamic
    formational capabilities? Do we pretend to KNOW everything that the
    universe has been equipped (by God, I think) to do?

    > In Howard's model, there are just two alternative possibilities to
    > account for the presence of this information: either: (A) it was given
    > by the Creator in "the beginning" and was somehow "stored" in the
    > prebiotic universe, or: (B) it emerged at least 10 billion years later,
    > at and after the beginning of life, without any external input of
    > information. (A) is what Howard seemed to prefer in the quote above,
    > which is contradicted by Hogan, while (B) looks at least as unlikely.

    I doubt very much that Hogan's computation has any relevance to this
    question. In no way does it deal with what things can DO or what
    configurational potentialities characterize the "being" of the universe.
    Formational capabilities and configurational potentialities are profoundly
    relevant to what happened in the course of the universe's formational
    history, but entirely absent from the typical discussion of "information."
    > C.J. Hogan, "The Beginning of Time (Perspectives: Cosmology)", Science
    > 295 (22 March 2002), 2223-2225, writes: "... The holographic principle
    > [L. Susskind, J.Math.Phys. 36 (1995), 6377] limits the amount of
    > information carried by quanta during inflation to less than [pi]/H^2 in
    > Planck units. This bound is greater than about 10^10 bits, but it is
    > certainly not infinite; indeed, the amount of information needed to
    > specify literally everything during inflation may be small enough to fit
    > onto a compact disc. The universe thus began with rather little
    > information, and practically all the complex structure we see now
    > developed from within in the absence of external influences. Entire
    > galaxies developed from almost structureless single quanta..."
    > (inflation would have occurred within the first 10^(-32) s after the big
    > bang; H is the Hubble constant).

    If "information" is of central importance,then how did galaxies actually
    FORM? Did they forget that they failed to have enough "information" to do
    that? Oops!

    > This implies that a concept of "creation's functional integrity" must
    > assume that all of the biological information contained in the biosphere
    > emerged by self-organization, by random processes, out of nothing, and
    > in the absence of external influences.

    Balderdash! "Out of nothing"? "Random processes" alone? Once again, where is
    due attention paid to the wealth of the universe's formational capabilities
    and configurational potentialities? Self-organization is driven by what the
    universe has been equipped to DO, and what configurational potentialities
    are part of its very being, not by pure randomness, not out of nothing.

    > Biological systems, therefore,
    > cannot be counted among the entities "gifted, from the beginning, with
    > all of the capacities needed".

    Technically correct. As you have pointed out numerous times, biological
    systems were not there at the beginning. Neither were atoms or molecules, of
    course. But the potentialities for atoms were there at the beginning, and
    they formed in time, as thermal conditions permitted. And the potentialities
    for molecules were there from the beginning, and they formed in time as
    atoms became available and thermal conditions allowed. And the
    potentialities for structural configurations like stars, planets and
    galaxies were there from the beginning, and they formed in the course of
    cosmic history. In each case, resources employed their formational
    capabilities to actualize configurational potentialities that are resident
    in the being of the universe. And I doubt that they needed to sit down and
    do "information" computations to see if they were permitted to do so. They
    used their capabilities for ACTION.

    > So far, this doesn't even take into
    > consideration the fundamental distinction between the maximum
    > information carrying capacity, which Hogan talks about, and the
    > (smaller) functional information relevant for biological systems.
    > In "Creative Providence in Biology", PSCF 53/3 (Sept.2001), 179
    > (, I wrote regarding
    > the mechanisms of evolution: "The amount of information a biological
    > system can glean from the environment, by means of the process of
    > mutation and natural selection, is vastly insufficient, and this process
    > operates much too slowly... to date, the talk of 'emergence of
    > information by self-organization' is not supported by any relevant
    > theoretical, observational, or computational evidence and is therefore
    > rather vacuous." This applies to all genuine novelty during evolution,
    > and, a fortiori, to the origin of life.
    > In his "Does God Choose Among Hidden Options?" PSCF 54/1 (March 2002),
    > 67, Howard suggests the synthesis of simple compounds like
    > glycolaldehyde in space as an indication that life could very well
    > emerge spontaneously.

    What I was actually pointing out was that, contrary to earlier pessimistic
    estimates regarding the formational capabilities of atoms and molecules, the
    universe's formational economy was in fact sufficiently robust to do things
    that chemists and astronomers had once thought highly improbable. My
    suggestion was, therefore: Don't underestimate what the universe (by its
    Creator's creativity and generosity) has been equipped to do.

    > E.L. Shock, "Seeds of Life? (Astrobiology)",
    > Nature 416 (28 March 2002), 380 writes:
    > "... It appears that nearly every experimental scenario produces organic
    > compounds of some form... complex organic compounds should be expected
    > in any sector of the Solar System that is rich in volatile elements...
    > Studying the chemical building-blocks of life shows that they are
    > ubiquitous and can exist in the absence of life... it follows that
    > process-driven investigations into the emergence of life may need to be
    > cast in a different way, which takes into account the materials involved
    > but is not directly tied to them. This, I believe, is a major challenge
    > for the fledgling field of astrobiology."

    Sounds reasonable to me.

    > And of more traditional origin-of-life research, we might add. The
    > presence of abiotic organic compounds doesn't even address the question
    > of biologically relevant coding/coded information. I eagerly await the
    > first appropriate publications in this "fledgling field" - which, during
    > the last 50 years, has not produced any results relevant for the
    > emergence of semantic information.

    No, it has probably been more interested in the formation of actual physical
    things by processes involving creaturely ACTION.

    Howard Van Till

    By the way, the subject title, "Emergence of information out of nothing?" is
    intriguing. Who has suggested such a thing as "emergence out of nothing"?

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