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

8:42 AM James 5 Comments

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.

5 comments :

  1. While I think it's hard to convince skeptics with an argument from DNA to God, I do think that the existence of DNA is an extremely powerful vindication of Aristotelian final causes. Here you have an unconscious molecular structure that seems to inherently "point at" something outside of itself.

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  2. Anonymous, I agree with you. DNA most definitely shows there is teleology in nature. I love it when Aristotle's metaphysics are vindicated! :-)

    You're correct about most skeptics being unimpressed with a DNA-to-God argument. Taken in isolation, I would be too. However, when taken cumulatively with all the other reasons to believe in God, I think DNA strongly confirms theism. Nature is much more likely to display teleology and final causes if God exists, than if he doesn't.

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  3. Okay, I hope all of my comments aren't getting annoying. :)

    I posted a link to this series on Facebook recently and a friend of a friend commented on it, specifically referring to this post and I wanted to know your response to his objection. He has two main objections, the first is this:

    "'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.'

    "This is simply not true. The phosphodiester bonds between different nucleotides most certainly does determine their arrangement, though it does not determine the order of those nucleotides. These are not letters 'stuck' to a spine, the letters are both the letters and the spine itself."

    It seems to me that you're both saying the same thing here and I think he just didn't understand your argument. It seems like you're both saying that there are scientific laws that determine how the "letters" are arranged on a single strand, but when you "read" it vertically, because you jump back and forth between strands, there's nothing determining the actual sequence they're "read" in. I hope I'm understanding this correctly, because, again, I really don't science good (I also don't English good sometimes).

    Here's his second objection:

    "He goes on:
    "'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.'

    "No, the odds are not low that a DNA molecule can form, particularly when assisted by lattice molecules such as RNA (ask me about da RNA world hypothesis). The odds that a DNA molecule coding for a particular protein are low, but if you stick a bunch of nucleotides in a drop of water with the right catalysts and you'll get DNA.

    "The information encoded in that molecule is also determined by physical laws - for each set of nucleotides (called a codon) you (eventually) form a specific amino acid which is assembled into a protein. There is no need to speculate on either something else or chance to create the meaningfulness of DNA - all that we mean when we say that is that the proteins DNA encodes assists that particular molecule of DNA in propagating itself. If a sequence of DNA spits out a shitty protein that can't function that protein is no more or less meaningful, it's just not useful."

    This one seems to be more a difference of philosophy, and I think he's misrepresenting what you mean when you say DNA is "meaningful." But I'm not as sure as with the first.

    I'd be very interested in hearing your responses when you are able to respond.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Hi Thaddaeus, no apologies necessary. I always enjoy a thoughtful comment!

    You are exactly right about both of his objections.

    First, when he says, "The phosphodiester bonds between different nucleotides most certainly does determine their arrangement, though it does not determine the order of those nucleotides," that is exactly what I meant - the bonds do not determine the order of nucleotides. But the order is the very thing that creates the information, just like the order of letters in this sentence create its meaning. So, I think my argument still stands. Perhaps I didn't word it clearly enough in my article. I don't English good sometimes, too. ;-)

    Second, he says, "if you stick a bunch of nucleotides in a drop of water with the right catalysts and you'll get DNA." When I said that is unlikely, I meant in the "wild." In nature, we don't have a controlled environment like in a laboratory - we don't have a drop of water with the right catalysts. Instead, we have a hostile environment where things are not controlled or guided, and there are chemicals and variables to disrupt the process. So, I still maintain that the formation of a DNA molecule in the wild is possible, but highly unlikely.

    You are exactly right when you said it is a difference of philosophy. When I say "meaningful information," I mean nucleotide sequences that create functioning proteins. There are many sequences that create non-functioning proteins - those sequences are not "meaningful," they are gibberish, just like random letters that don't create a meaningful sentence.

    I hope that helps!

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