This article is written in response to Matt Young’s “How
to Evolve Specified Complexity by Natural Means.” Both pieces appeared on
The mathematician George Polya used to quip that if you can’t solve a
problem, find an easier problem and solve it. Matt Young seems to have taken
Polya’s advice to heart. Young has taken Shannon’s tried-and-true theory of
information and shoehorned my notion of specified complexity into it. The
shoe no longer fits, and so there must be something wrong with specified
complexity and the implications I draw from it--notably the law of
conservation of information.
Young’s basic argument is that information conceived as improbability is
subject to Shannon’s theory and the 2nd law of thermodynamics, but that
information conceived as the specification of possibilities is not and
actually runs counter to the first construal of information. Thus my entire
work on intelligent design is supposed to devolve to an equivocation over the
use of the term “information.”
There is no equivocation in my work over information. What I do is define a
type of information--specified complexity--that enriches Shannon information
but at the same is not reducible to it. What gives specified complexity its
traction in detecting design is a coincidence of two things: (1) an event
that under a chance hypothesis has small probability and therefore high
information content in the first of Young’s senses; and (2) a pattern that is
objectively given and complexity-theoretically tractable, and yet matches the
It’s that coincidence that makes the design inference work. It is the same
coincidence that makes ETI detection work. And it is the same coincidence
that makes Fisher’s theory of significance testing work (in which
events--i.e., the high information carriers--coincide with rejection
regions--i.e., the objectively given patterns).
Even a cursory reading of my Cambridge monograph The Design Inference
would have made this clear. But instead, Young cites semi-popular work of
mine directed toward a theological audience (in particular, Intelligent
Design: The Bridge Between Science & Theology). Young as a physicist
claiming expertise in information theory has no excuse for not engaging my
technical work (no mention of The Design Inference in his article).
Even so, let me offer one concession. Although I developed my theoretical
apparatus for design-detection at length in The Design Inference, I
did not there develop the information-theoretic connections. Moreover, until No
Free Lunch (2002), my treatment of the information-theoretic connections
was semi-popular. Charitable readers with the requisite technical background
were thus able to fill in the details and see the merit of my previous
information-theoretic work. Uncharitable readers like Young, on the other
hand, have been eager to attribute confusion on my part.
Young seems especially to be taking his cues from Victor Stenger, Mark
Perakh, and others who claim that I’m all mixed up about information theory.
Perhaps I am. But let’s make a deal. Start to engage my technical work on the
information-theoretic underpinnings of intelligent design by reading and
citing The Design Inference and especially chs. 2-4 of my newest book No
Free Lunch. Having engaged that material, give me your best shot.