Wednesday, 14 December 2016

This is Brand New Information

Actually, it's not.

In his debate with Justin Schieber, (see also notes here), Max Andrews makes the claim that a mind is the best way to account for the origin of "brand new information".  In For Your Information, I discussed how for there to be information of the sort of that Andrews talks about in his thesis it is necessary to have someone who cares, for example by presupposing a god-like being external to the universe or multiverse.

Now I want to look at the "brand new information" claim, as separate from the need for a transmitter, channel medium and receiver of such information.

Remember that information in this context is an inverse measure of the probability of what is being considered, or its "surprisingness".  A linked concept is entropy, which is the lack of order and predictability.  Effectively, what creationists are arguing when they claim that the universe has information is that its current condition is surprising - in other words, this is just another way of framing the "fine-tuning" argument.  The notion that the universe has a surprising amount of information is, therefore, tautological.  (There's an endless loop in this: "The result here was more surprising than we had expected, which was a surprise in itself.  This added surprise to the result, making it even more surprising and the realisation that the result could be more surprising than we initially found it to be was another surprise.  Finding that there was one more layer of surprise was also, in itself, yet another surprise.  And this only added to the surprise.  By this point, our eyebrows had lifted so high that our heads were banging on the ceiling.  Which we hadn't expected at all.")

The other way of looking at information is to consider how many questions need to answered to fully specify what is under consideration.

These perspectives can easily lead to confusion, in much the same way as consideration of entropy can lead to confusion.  When we look at a white kitchen bench, from which all the various implements and so on have been removed, we could say that it is very ordered.  Then we put a neat pile of flour on it.  In a sense this too would be very ordered, because the flour is tightly located in its neat pile.  Say though that we compulsively spread the flour thinly over the benchtop so that it has an even covering of 1mm.  This too seems to be very ordered.

Entropy is a measure of disorder, but more strictly it’s a measure of how many states a system can be in.  And this always increases in a closed system (as expressed by the Second Law of Thermodynamics).  When we think about it this way, we can see that the pile is low entropy - because when we ask about where a particular bit of flour is, we can always be answered with "in the pile".  There are limited states in which the bit of flour can be found (it's not zero entropy, because there are different positions in the pile for the bit of flour to be found).

Compare this with the situation in which there is no flour on the bench and the bench is completely empty.  The answer to the question "where is this particular bit of flour?" is "what do you mean, what bit of flour? there is no flour!"   This might confuse things a little, but we can easily see that there are no locations in which flour might be, so entropy in this case is zero.

The same applies to space and energy.  Empty space (truly empty space) has zero entropy, presumably nothing (no space) with nothing in it would also have zero entropy.  A system involving space in which energy is clumped very tightly has low, but non-zero entropy and a system involving space in which energy is spread evenly has high entropy - and the more space there is, the more entropy there can be in the system.  (It might be tempting to think of the universe as being driven by the second law of thermodynamics but this law is more descriptive than prescriptive.  It describes the nature of the universe, it doesn't necessarily determine it.)

Entropy and information are conceptually linked.  The more order there is in a system, the less "surprisingness" there is in it.  The more disorder there is, the more "surprisingness" there is and therefore the more entropy in a system, the more information there is associated with that system.

This means that, in its initial state, the universe contained very little information - because it was in a very low entropy state, or rather because it was in a very low entropy state compared to the current entropy state of the universe (there is no upper limit for the entropy of an open or an expanding system) which means there was a much less information in the early universe than there is today.

Now this is a point on which some apologetic fine-tuning enthusiasts appear to want to have their cake and eat it too - such as the people at BioLogos.  Admittedly, it's a subtle point when one argues about the information associated with the initial conditions of the universe, including the "degree of its entropy".  Effectively, they are arguing that there was a surprisingly large amount of information in the initial conditions including the fact that there was amazingly small amount of information (ie, low entropy).  Note that Guth's argument doesn't help them particularly because even though it explains away the low entropy, it does so at the expense of suggesting that the "initial conditions" may not have been initial conditions after all ("the universe need not have a beginning").

Let's get back to the "brand new information" claim.  Well, there's more information all the time, because entropy is (as a whole) increasing all the time, as per the second law of thermodynamics.  Plus the universe is expanding, so that the Berkinstein limit for the universe is increasing, and thus the potential for entropy is also increasing.  Perhaps it could be argued that there was a sudden jump in entropy from zero (when there was nothing, including no space and no time) to non-zero (when the universe was in a hot dense state, prior to the big bang), but this was to what is considered to be an extremely low state of entropy - so this is not particularly surprising given that we've noticed that the universe tends towards increased entropy and it would be natural, if there were to be an increase from nothing, that this increase would be to "very close to nothing".  The sudden appearance of large swathes of entropy would indeed be disturbing, but that's not what the data indicates.

But perhaps this isn't what Andrews and his fellow fine-tuners mean.  I don't think it is.

I think they are thinking of the pre-universe as being a sort of tabula rasa, a clean slate, a blank page, a clear bench and then - shazam - meaningful stuff appears.  Not just an extremely low entropy concentration of energy, but also some sort of predetermined, inbuilt rule book detailing how energy and space-time should interact in order that humans should emerge about thirteen and a half billion years later.  This is akin to not only putting a pile of flour on the bench, but also precoding it miraculously form a very specific form of bread.  Which works perfectly if we consider ourselves to be as important as bread in the analogy and not something more simple, like a meaningless spot of mould in an obscure crack on the bench that would be totally invisible to the non-existent owner of the kitchen.

Consider a different sort of tabula rasa.  A white expanse on which there is one fleck of black.  Say that this expanse could be broken up into a million billion data points and the fleck covers one and only one of these.  That single fleck represents a lot of information, because it's very surprising that only one point on the grid is black - it's one in a million billion.  But can we really say that this information could only originate in a mind?  No, I don't think so.  The wind could have dropped that fleck there.  It could be a tiny bit of ant poo.  While it might take some effort to uniquely identify which spot on the expanse contains that fleck, it's not necessarily of great import.

But again, I don't think that this is what these apologists really mean.

What I think they mean is that if you sat down and decided to not only design a universe, but to design this one, specifically this one, then you would need a lot of information.  Imagine the amount of data required to accurately model the universe in all its detail!  It would be staggeringly huge amounts of information.

But this is exactly the same (in principle, if not in scope) as trying to model the state of the Earth's weather systems.  The reason our weather models fall over after a few days is because inaccuracies creep in.  We don't have enough information to adequately model weather indefinitely (and we never will), the only accurate model of the Earth's weather system is wrapped around the Earth - being the weather.  But we only try to predict the weather into the future, we don't try to design a specific set of weather conditions from first principles.  The fact that there are huge amounts of information associated with the weather at any given moment does not confer importance to that state at that time.

Similarly, you'd have to do some very impressive work if you created a universe from scratch and wanted, as a result, to have some dishevelled, rather grumpy person writing about how you didn't exist some thirteen or so billion years later.  But again, that is presupposing a creator and an intent.  Without the creator and the intent, there is no special information and nothing to get so excited about.

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