Thursday, July 07, 2005

Menuge responds to Carr

Steven Carr asks:

Is Dembski's formulation of Complex Specified Information intended to be a nauralistic method of detecting CSI without any need to consider of the 'meaning' of any such information?

Menuge replies:

A good question. It seems to me that contemporary biology assumes that genes contain assembly instructions for proteins, and so information in at least the sense that a computer program contains information that (conditional on certain input) sepcifies the output. It does seem implausible to say that they only contain this information in the eye of an interpretive beholder--the instructions seem to objectively specify the configuration of the end product. It seems to me, therefore, that there is teleology right there in the instructions--they do, objectively point to an end product, and this is typically denied only because teleology is banished in principle from nature by an unduly restrictive definition of "nature." The fact that the intructions aren't trying to make proteins and do not have intentional states is not a convincing reason to deny a more primnitive sort of teleology. In this way, design need not always be thought of as supernatural: design can be something present within nature, so long as nature is rich enough for teleology.

The difficult question here is the status of the "specification" (independent pattern). A skeptic might say that the specification, e.g. a coherent body plan, or a functional specification of an irreducibly complex system is somehow subjective. I would disagree. Design specifications may be abstract, but science discovers that geometrical and mathematical relations obtain in nature all of the time and they are abstract. So the fact that specifications are "abstracta" not "concreta" (to use Dennett's distinction) does not seem to be a convincing reason to deny that they are objective. For example, scientists who have studied the bacterial flagellum (whether Darwinists or not) find it hard to deny that it objectively meets the design specifications of a miniaturized outboard motor. Likewise, biomimetics works because some natural systems happen to implement engineering principles in striklingly efficient ways, sometimes outperforming unaided human ingenuity. Ruse may say that design is only serving as a useful metaphor, but if a metaphor is that systematically useful, isn't it worth considering whether it is more than a metaphor (the "If it looks like a duck; quacks like a duck, then just what reason is there to deny it is a duck?" principle).

In all this, it does seem that meaning in any rich sense is not presupposed in our description of the system. One could in principle build a machine that could detect CSI by pattern matching, although only a human scientist with intentional states could understand the information detected.



Steven Carr said...

Menuge wrote 'What's puzzling about the passage below is how we can specifiy what the information that is being transmitted is without talking about its meaning.'

But a CSI detecting machine can, according to Menuge,pattern match the specification of the information without knowing about the meaning of the specification.

Is *specified* information something that cannot be detected by naturalistic methods, or can only human beings detect specified information (as only agents can understand the meaning of the specification)?

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