Informative Nature

Informative Nature April 6, 2015

William Dembski’s latest, Being As Communion, sets out a metaphysics of information, and argues for what he calls “informational realism.” Reality is information all the way down, but that information is real. It is reality.

What is information? Dembski says it’s “about realizing possibilities by ruling out others. Unless possibilities are ruled out, no information can be conveyed” (19). “It’s raining or it’s not” doesn’t convey information because nothing is ruled out. “It’s raining” rules out the possibility that it’s not, and so is (minimally) informative; “it’s raining at a rate of more than an inch per hour” is information-rich because it excludes all manner of other possibilities. 

On this definition, nature itself is informative. That “the moon assumes a stable orbit around the earth” rules out the hypothetical possibility of an unstable orbit. That it has the orbit it does thus conveys information. This is also the fundamental basis for Dembski’s claim that reality is relational, also all the way down. If things convey information, and that information is of a not-X quality, then a things information is defined by its difference from X. A thing is what it is at least by its distinction from a possible thing that it could have been. 

(I register a an objection to the suggestion that the relationality of things is negative at the foundation, actualizations in opposition to possibilities. This is not, for Dembski, the only relation in which thing stands to thing, but it is a basic one.)

Natural selection itself is a communicative process: “Natural selection does not so much select for adaptive advantages as rule out maladaptive disadvantages, excluding the latter from survival and reproduction and thus eliminating them from the evolutionary tree. Natural selection is in the business of ruling out possibilities, thereby producing information in the structures and organisms it has retained” (19). 

A clever twist, that, turning natural selection into an important illustration of nature’s capacity to generate information.

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