Skeptic’s Objection to Information Theory #5: Alleged examples of Naturally Occurring Code


The following discussion shows efforts to demonstrate that many naturally occurring things in nature, like gravity, are codes – and why none of these things are actually codes according to formal definitions of information theory.


  1. The formal definition of a code according to Perlwitz and Waterman (see below) is a set of symbols that uniquely map a point in space “A” to a point in space “B.” In other words there is special symbolic correspondence between a letter or word (idea) and a real physical entity. The word “coffee” represents a beverage made from cocoa beans, for example. Symbolic relationships of this kind are only created in the mental world; they by definition do not exist in the purely material world.
  2. The infidels make many valiant (!) attempts to assert that any and all of the following natural phenomena are codes: Gravitational fields (a field is a field, but it is not a code, as it does not uniquely map a point in space A to a point in space B), crystals and snowflakes (they have edges and boundaries and growth patterns but do not contain any codes), magma flows and layers of rock and ice (one might possibly argue that these things are encoding systems but they have no corresponding decoding system, until someone shows up to inspect and interpret them), bee waggles and tree rings (yes! these things are most certainly codes – but they derive from DNA, and therefore don’t count as examples of naturally occurring codes, since DNA has not been proven to have a naturalistic origin), radioactive decay (same problem as gravity and magma flows), rhodopsin (an example of transduction; may be an encoding system but there is no decoding). Other arguments which are presented and refuted in turn: laminar flow, blood dialysis, flight, black holes, thunderstorms, pouring water. None of these examples support the naturalistic position.
  3. The infidels attempt to say that computer programs which create derivative computer programs are an example, but all computer programs ultimately have human origin – therefore they are examples of intelligent design.
  4. Chaos, fractals and complex systems: They produce stalagmites, stalactites, tornados, hurricanes, erosion, turbulence, sand dunes, rivers, ocean waves, planetary orbits, snowflakes and crystals. All of these things occur naturally with no help from a designer; they are excellent examples of self-organization. However none of these things produce codes. There is an infinite chasm between the most complicated forms of chaos and even the simplest codes. Codes have an entire dimension of order that chaos doesn’t have: Symbolic Information.

The formula for gravity is 1/r^2. The idea of an elipse is stored as coded information in this formula.

No; our description of gravity’s pull as 1/r^2 is a symbolic representation of its behavior, but gravity itself is just a force. Gravity and tornados and sand dunes and water molecules contain no code, no symbols, no encoding / decoding mechanisms. DNA, however does symbolically represent something other than itself: A plan, instructions for building a complete organism.

The 1/r^2 force of gravity by itself makes planets move in ellipses, and this exists without us. However, the situation is quite different in the case of a computer file of, let’s say, a JPG file. This relationship depends on our act of defining it.

Does the description of gravity, 1/r^2, give us a big ellipse or a small one? An elongated one or a round one? An approximately parabolic path? Or a spiral, as the orbit comes closer and closer and the object crashes? Does 1/r^2 describe the crash itself, which may be extraordinarily complex? Gravity may cause the object to burn up in the atmosphere and never reach the ground. Gravity makes cool air drop, so hot air rises . Gravity holds my chair to the ground and me to the chair. The possibilities that a gravitational field can give rise to are legion. It contributes to all of these things, but which of these outcomes does it specify in advance?

The answer, of course, is that it specifies none of these outcomes. It has no code that predetermines any single one of these things. It is simply one contributing force in all of them.

Why? Because 1/r^2 describes the strength of the field as a function of radius from a single point, nothing more. The equation for an ellipse can be given in a number of different forms, but 1/r^ 2 itself does not specifically describe an ellipse. Nor does it specifically describe a spiral, or a crash, or cool air dropping as hot air rises.

That’s because gravity is a force, not a code.

This is in contrast to DNA, which codes for every inheritable trait. It codes, in advance, for whether your eyes are green or blue. Whether your skin is white or red or black or yellow. Whether you are male or female. Whether your blood is RH Negative or O Positive. Whether you go bald or not, whether your chest is hairy, whether you are short or tall. The physical characteristics and biochemical instructions that DNA specifies in any particular instance would fill a very large book.

DNA codes for these characteristics the same sense that magnetic fields on your hard drive code for Aunt Mildred’s picture.

That’s because DNA is not a force, or a field, or a boundary, or a purely chaotic phenomena. It’s a code.

Crystals have information coded in their structure because you can predict the direction of crystal growth.

My toddler has a box of square wooden blocks, and if I tilt the box towards one corner and shake it, they’ll naturally line up in lattices. But none of those blocks contains instructions to assemble a lattice. They’re just blocks.

Likewise, the edges of crystals are boundaries, but they are not codes. Whatever molecule is next to a boundary is next to a boundary, but there is no symbolic relationship. A water molecule all by itself contains no plan or instructions to build a specific structure or a particular molecule; but DNA does.

The distances of alpha particles from a speck of radium provide coded information about the time of decay of each nucleus. Perry, you are just presenting assertions by simple fiat.

If we say the temperature in the room is 70 degrees F, we have used a convention of symbols to describe a very real characteristic of air. However “70 degrees F” is the symbolic representation of a man-made encoding / decoding system; the air itself is just molecules in motion.

Now if mercury is sitting in a tube (a naturally occurring thermometer, let’s say) and it rises when the temperature rises, we still do not yet have an encoding / decoding system. However, if we take a red pen and mark degree marks on the tube so that the rising of the mercury corresponds to a specific temperature, now we do have an encoding / decoding system, and when we read the thermometer, we have coded information.

This is consistent with my definition of “coded information” as “a system of symbols used by an encoding and decoding mechanism, which transmits a message that is independent of the communication medium.”

Just like the molecular motion that we interpret as temperature, alpha particle radiation is not coded information until meaning is assigned to it. Alpha particles are being radiated, but what message do they symbolize that is independent of the particles themselves? Did the count go up because the speck of radium moved closer to the sensor, or because we added more radium? The alpha particles have no symbolic relationship until we assign a meaning to their arrival, just like we do with temperature.

Examples of naturalistic things that are purported to be codes

1. Flight. Birds and insects do it, humans copied it. This is an examples of something that has been systemized, codified and reproduced.

Birds are a product of DNA. This still doesn’t answer the question of where DNA came from; this is a circular argument.

2. Laminar flow. Fish use it. And now, submarines .. Again, systemized, codified and reproduced.

Laminar flow is not a system of symbols and does not qualify as a code by any formal definition from information theory. A flow does not a fish make. Fish are a product of the code in their DNA, and submarines are the product of design.

3. Blood dialysis happens in your kidneys. Again, systemized, codified and reproduced. 4. Oyxgen scrubbing is used in submaries . Copied from aligators . Again, systemized, codified and reproduced.

Blood dialysis and alligators are products of DNA. This still doesn’t answer the question of where DNA came from; this is a circular argument.

5. Black hole and neutron star formation is a complete process. Not one step can occur out of place. Must happen in the right order. Not necessarily linear.

Contains no system of symbols, no encoding / decoding mechanism.

6. Multiple storm cell growth exhibits elements of communication. Is definitely systematic.

Does not contain code or communicate based on any information theory definition.

7. Magma flows are a code

Earth magnetic field example:

Source of signal is current direction in the dynamo of the earths core

The medium is the magnetic field generated and the space it occupies

The reciever is molten rock at the mid atlantic ridge

The message is the direction of the current in the core, or the direction of the induced field

The mapping of source to reciever is 1:1 as the current direction in the earth’s core uniquely defines a magnetization direction the the molten rock as it solidifies. Noise sources can all be identified and we have a complete and natural shannon -weaver communication system and a well defined natural code. Perry said all it took was one example to disprove his claim.

I think you have forgotten my original definition of coded information, from the very beginning of this thread: I define “Coded information” as a system of symbols used by an encoding and decoding mechanism, which transmits a message that is independent of the communication medium. In Earth’s magnetic field (or rhodopsin , or layers of ice on the South Pole, or whatever), there is no decoding mechanism. Framing it within Shannon’s model, yes, you arguably have a transmitter but you still do not have a receiver. With DNA you have both.

A particular ‘meaning’ (as you use it here) is assigned in the magma problem, and I have just explained it.

You have asserted that magma has meaning and then in the same breath say that meaning does not exist. That is a contradiction.

What I have asserted is that magma has no meaning inside of its own encoding / decoding system, because there is no decoding system in magma. But certainly when we come and inspect the magma we can infer meaning from the data we collect.

The orientation of the fields frozen in the magma means something specific about the direction of the earth’s dynamo when it was frozen. Meaning here is defined as the full physical reality of the core/magma system – just like DNA.

It requires no conscious or intelligent designer.

It doesn’t have an ‘existence’ at all, it’s just part of the description, it contains no semantics.

Meaning as I use it here is observing the entire functional system, whether DNA or the Atlantic Ridge magma flows and understanding what it means.

There is no meaning within the boundaries of the magma system, because it is impossible to say whether the “message” was “decoded” properly or not. In fact it is impossible to say that it was decoded at all, because there is no decoding system. The magma merely reflects whatever condition it was in when it hardened. If a meteor fell in the magma while it was cooling then the path of the meteor distorted the direction of the frozen magnetic field. Was that a corruption of the “signal”? No. Because the fact is, the meteor was part of what happened and the meteor has not interfered with any decoding’ process at all. That’s because there is no decoding of any kind happening until a human shows up and tries to interpret it.

On the other hand, when a sequence of codons within DNA lead to the development of a functioning organism, that is an objective fact that exists independently of anyone’s observation or opinion. That’s because DNA replication is an encoding / decoding process. Furthermore, if a meteor destroys the DNA and the organism doesn’t replicate, then decoding has failed. This also is an objective fact, regardless of anyone’s opinion or observation. It is not subjective.

The decoding system in layers of magma is very simple, it’s the magnetic particles oriented in the field. The receiver is the molten magma at the Mid-Atlantic ridge. The magnetic particles correspond one to one to the direction of the earth’s magnetic field.

So how can there not be a receiver when the message is not only received but recorded in the rock for us to observe? We have a sender, a receiver, and a response that is 1:1 corresponding to the signal. The message is defined and easy to see.

This does not constitute a decoding mechanism, because no meaning is assigned to the particle orientation by a decoder within the system. To you and I , perhaps these things have meaning, maybe even a great deal of meaning. But within the system, no. This is no different than ice / water. Does ice in cold temperature and water in warm temperature constitute an encoding / decoding system? No, because there is no decoder. Same with the orientation of these magnetic particles – there is no decoding system there either.

Your point 2 part A (“all codes are designed) is also wrong. You’ve stated that all codes are created by a conscious mind. This is not true. We have provided many good examples that contradict this point but you still fail to understand where you were contradicted. Two of those examples are repeated for the ninth or tenth time: Ant pheromone trails and bee waggles. There is no consciousness there; no consciousness is writing the code they leave or describe. Compare this to robotic white line followers.

I responded to this earlier when I talked about computers getting their updates automatically over the Internet. No intelligence on either end there. But intelligence had to program the software or the robotic line follower in the first place.

I personally do not know whether ants and bees are conscious or intelligent or not; I’ll leave that debate to people smarter and more informed than me. But supposing they are intelligent, then the pheromone trails and bee waggles are designed by the ants and bees. Supposing they are not intelligent, then the pheromone trails and bee waggles are derivatives of instructions that reside in their DNA. Which brings us right back to the question – if there is no designer, then show me a physico -chemical process that creates the instructions (coded information) in DNA.

Relative to the gravity discussion, I had said: “1/r^2 describes the strength of the field as a function of radius from a single point, nothing more.”

This determines the shape of the orbit. 1/r^2 specifically describes the shape “conic section”, but not its size or orientation – just as plant DNA specifically describes the shape of a leaf, but not the size of the plant, the number of leaves etc. Therefore the analogy between the 1/r^2-force and DNA stands; the differences are quantitative, not qualitative.

Gravity alone does not uniquely determine anything other than itself. Gravity does not conform to my definition of coded information, nor does it conform to Perlwitz , Burks and Waterman’s definition of a code.

Your point 2 part B is also wrong. You’ve stated that there is no natural process known to science that creates coded information. Not true. Think of water pouring on a slanted surface or rippled surface – in gravity it “codes” itself to run and find the lowest point. It even exhibits intelligent activity! Do you realize how challenging it is to code a program to do that in a 3 dimensional gradient map?

Chaos produces complexity (indeed, beyond our ability to compute, that’s what the Butterfly effect is all about) but chaos does not produce codes. There is no encoding / decoding mechanism when water is pouring, nor is there a system of symbols.

Chaos does produce codes. A simple random number generator, if let run long enough will produce order like arrangements, words even some simple sentences. Who knows what would emerge if let run long enough? In chaotic systems there are periods of predictability.

Pouring water most definitely has encoding. When it strikes a surface or goes down a tube, it exhibits ordered behavior, with no brain or consciousness. If there was no coding, it wouldn’t obey the laws of physics, would it? Plumbing and hydraulics wouldn’t exist if pouring water wasn’t a code.

The behavior of water running downhill is not a code, based on Perlwitz , Burks and Waterman’s definition, or Shannon’s, or any formal definition in information theory. There is no specific mapping of letters of alphabet A onto alphabet B. Remember that even a simple random number generator, to exist, requires letters to be defined by a conscious mind first. That said , this random number generator still does not produce code. It just produces random letters, which by themselves do not constitute a decoding system.

“All programming algorithms are ultimately designed by conscious minds. There are no known exceptions.” Perry, this is categorically false. There are plenty of computer programs that generate algorithms. There are even algorithm generating programs that were generated by algorithm generating programs. Of course they were written by humans, but humans derived them in the first place from nature. Nature was the first author if you like, and I mean figuratively. Humans programmed an evolutionary process.

A computer algorithm can create an algorithm that creates an algorithm, but the first one is still programmed by someone. The fact that we copy them from nature does not prove that DNA occurs naturalistically – that’s a circular argument. Let’s be clear that when I say “naturally” or “naturalistically” I don’t mean “mother nature” such as we say in casual conversation. I mean “naturalistic” in the strict scientific sense, i.e. derivable from known scientific laws. And in that sense, neither DNA nor codes of any kind (using formal definitions from information theory) have never been shown to emerge from lifeless, unintelligent processes. Natural laws explain their operation but not their origin.

Originally Posted by pmarshall : Instructions, by definition, require a mapping from probability space A to probability space B. Therefore any set of specific instructions is necessarily a code.
Yep. Back to snowflakes, gravity, inorganic chemistry, etc. You keep walking in circles.

Gravity contains no specific mapping of symbols from probability space A to probability space B. Nor does it contain any instructions. It is just a static force. That’s why HRG continues to be unable to show why 1/r^2, all by itself, specifies any particular outcome. He has said that it creates ellipses; yet 1/r^2 is not an equation for an ellipse. In fact an equation for an ellipse cannot be derived from gravity alone. Gravity alone codes for nothing.

By your contrived definitions, we can never find a code that arose naturally. Because you assert that all known codes have conscious minds as designer, giving language, Morse code, etc as examples. Then I show you a counterexample. You say “not so fast, as we’ve already agreed, all codes have conscious minds as a designer”

Please be careful not to misquote me. I freely accept any example that conforms to Perlwitz , Burks and Waterman’s definition, or Shannon’s, any formal definition of code in information theory. The reason we have precise definitions of words is so we can distinguish the nature of one thing from that of another. I have not asserted that we all agree that all codes (according to formal definitions of code) have conscious minds as a designer. I’m just waiting for one naturalist to produce an actual, empirical counterexample.

DNA alone specifies nothing; it requires a full complement of m-RNA, t-RNA and ribosomes to specify a protein.
In the same way, Gravity, with the help of planets specifies ellipses, orbit times (3rd Keplerian law) , …. Other attractive forces specify other shapes etc.

This is a conflation of two entirely different things. One strand of DNA, all by itself (yes, even without a cell to reproduce in – ask a geneticist), uniquely and specifically defines: male or female; cat or dog or antelope or human; blood type; number of vertebra; and a long list of other things. The fact that the growth is subject to environmental factors (cell could die or whatever) is quite secondary. In contrast, gravity, all by itself, uniquely defines nothing.

You either don’t realize what “gravity” means, or you are equivocating. A law uniquely defines something – by the definition of the word. A gravitational field uniquely defines that which is expressed by its mathematical formulation. If you are unfamiliar with that formulation, pick up a physics textbook and read it.

Gravity does not uniquely map a point in probability space A to a point in probability space B, thus is not a code according to the following formal definition: Given a source with probability space [Omega, A, p( A)] and a receiver with probability space [Omega, B, p(B)], then a unique mapping of the letters of alphabet A onto letters of alphabet B is called a code. Here p( A) is the probability vector of the elements of alphabet A and p (B) is the probability vector of the elements of alphabet B. ( Perlwitz , Burks and Waterman, 1988). Gravity is a force, but it is not a code.

Any molecule that self assembles in bulk contains a code.

Only if it fits the Perlwitz definition. No non-living molecules do.

Maybe you could call your body the message of your own DNA since that is the end product of the DNA action. That kind of communication is really no more than the type of communication a proton has with an electron.

DNA codes for specific characteristics of your body, after Perlwitz . A proton has no such relationship with an electron.

Rhodopsin is a chemical that isomerizes when a photon of light hits it. The ‘message’ is created when the photon has isomerized the molecule, there is noise since the photon may not be absorbed, or there may be some other excitation of the molecule. The information gained is the presence of the photon and the ‘coding’ is simply the way the information is gained. So the ‘code’ is the two states of the molecule and what they represent. So why is the code representing the two states of rhodopsin designed by a conscious mind instead of simply existing due to the laws of physics ?

The absorption of certain frequencies of light, by itself, does not represent coded information, because there is no encoding/decoding system. But in the context of your body, of course, the states are coded and transmitted to your brain so you can perceive color. Refer to my post several weeks ago about thermometers and temperature. Similarly, freezing temperatures turn water into ice, but that does not constitute coded information until a decoding system is introduced.

Perry, you never supplied us with a physical description of how to apply communication theory to things like rhodopsin and DNA.

Read Shannon’s book “The Mathematical Theory of Communication” and observe Figure 1 in the first chapter: Information source / transmitter / signal / noise source / received signal / receiver / destination and note its isomorphism with DNA in Yockey , p. 35. A Rhodopsin molecule, all by itself, contains no such communication system. Nor does it produce any code according to Perlwitz’s definition.

Light receptors in CCD arrays (cameras) occur in non living things, in fact anything with a color to it has molecules that respond to light and we may determine a ‘code’ for their response. But what is the significance? This is an example of a naturally occurring code, thereby overturning Perry’s assertion.

Nowhere did I ever say that all things containing code are conscious. CCD arrays are not conscious, of course. But they are designed by conscious minds.

Many phenomena of nature are not derivable from the basic laws but are still consistent with them. Weather and superconductivity are two examples.

That is demonstrably incorrect. Weather patterns can be derived purely from physical laws, given exact knowledge of the constants and initial conditions. Superconductivity is also a function of well known physical properties of some materials, predictable from our knowledge of molecular behavior.

Everyone knows that the equations for weather are not solvable, and only powerful computer simulations provide insight. The problem of predicting weather patterns is much greater than just the problem of initial conditions.

We cannot deterministically predict weather, certainly not. But if you set up the initial conditions, weather does happen, naturally. And it can be modeled on computers etc etc , that’s where the Butterfly Effect came from. But in the same sense there is no naturally occurring set of conditions which creates encoding / decoding systems such as we see in DNA. Weather occurs naturally. Spontaneous generation does not.

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