Digital Intelligent Design?

In reply to this new video arguing for Intelligent Design:

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Mark Chu-Carroll writes:

They claim that DNA is “digital information”. What does that mean?Three possible definitions of digital information:

  1. Information consisting of a collection of numbers.
  2. Information encoded in any discrete form which can be represented by a sequence of symbols.
  3. Information which can be stored in the memory of a digital computer.

In a mathematical sense, it’s not a well-defined term. There are several different definitions of it, and those definitions have very different meanings. Just given the term “digital information”, you can’t necessarily decide whether or not a given entity can be described using digital information. You need to pick a specific meaning. That’s exactly what the disco gang is relying on: they’re using one definition of digital information to claim that DNA is “digital” (definition 1), while using a different definition (definition 3) to argue that the fact that it’s digital implies that it’s like a computer.

DNA is, arguably, digital. After all, you can describe a piece of DNA as a sequence – an ordered string of letters. So sure, in that sense, it’s digital.

Of course, in that sense, lots of things are digital. All chemicals are, in that sense, digital information – because you can describe a chemical by a notation consisting of a series of characters. In fact, you can treat a chemical as a representation of symbolic information: a crystal of salt can be interpreted as a representation of “NaCl”; a solution of sulfuric acid can be interpreted as a representation of the string “H2SO4.”

Just pointing out that something is “digital” in that sense doesn’t really tell us anything.

But that’s the basic argument that Disco is using: that because we can interpret DNA as something that is, in some sense, “digital”, that therefore cells are just like digital computers that process DNA, and that therefore they must be designed. It’s the same old argument from incredulity: “I can’t imagine how this could have happened without an intelligent agent doing it, therefore it couldn’t have happened without an intelligent agent.” The only thing that’s new here is that they hide that argument behind the word “digital”. DNA is digital information, and since that means that the cell is like a giant supercomputer, it must be designed like our supercomputers.

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About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.


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