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What Can We Reasonably Hope For?

A Millennium Symposium Published in First Things

In a memorable scene from the movie The Graduate, Dustin Hoffman’s parents throw him a party to celebrate his graduation from college. The parents’ friends are all there congratulating him and offering advice. What should Hoffman do with his life? One particularly solicitous guest is eager to set him straight. He takes Hoffman aside and utters a single word — plastics!

In participating in this symposium, I feel like that guest. On the relation between religion and science in the coming millennium, I offer one word — information! Information is the primary stuff of the coming age. With the rise of the computer, we have come to appreciate the importance of information for technology, communications, and commerce. But already we are getting glimmers that information is something far more fundamental.

Mathematician Keith Devlin, for instance, ponders whether information should be regarded as “a basic property of the universe, alongside matter and energy (and being ultimately interconvertible with them).” Origin-of-life researchers like Manfred Eigen increasingly see the problem of the origin of life as a problem of generating information. Physicist Paul Davies sees information as poised to replace matter as the “primary stuff,” and with this replacement envisions a resolution of the mind-body problem. As he puts it, “If matter turns out to be a form of organized information, then consciousness may not be so mysterious after all.”

Although the information revolution is now in full swing on the technological front, it has lagged behind in the sciences. In part this is because information theory as originally developed in the 1940s was a purely mathematical theory that focused exclusively on the transmission of alphanumeric characters across communication channels. This limited conception of information is now being extended and generalized in ways that someday will allow us to fundamentally rethink the sciences.

Consider physics, for instance. Physics since Newton has sought to understand the physical world by positing certain fundamental entities (particles, fields, strings), specifying the general form of the equations to characterize those entities, prescribing initial and boundary conditions for those equations, and then solving them. Often, these are equations of motion that on the basis of past states predict future states. Within this classical conception of physics, the ultimate accomplishment is to formulate a “theory of everything” — a set of equations that characterize the constitution and dynamics of the universe at all levels of analysis.

But with information as its fundamental entity, this conception of physics gives way. No longer is the physical world to be understood by identifying an underlying structure that has to obey certain equations no matter what. Instead, the world consists of various systems that convey information, and the job of physical theory is to extract as much information from those systems as possible. Thus, rather than see the physicist as Procrustes, forcing nature to conform to mathematics, this informational approach turns him into an inquirer who asks nature questions, obtains answers, but must always remain open to the possibility that nature has more information to divulge.

Nothing of substance is lost with this informational approach to physics. As Roy Frieden has shown, the full range of physics as developed to date can be embedded within this informational approach (see his Physics from Fisher Information: A Unification, Cambridge University Press, 1998). The one thing that does give way, however, is the idea that physics is a bottom-up affair in which knowledge of a system’s parts determines knowledge of the system as a whole. Within the informational approach, the whole is truly greater than the sum of its parts, for the whole can communicate information that none of the parts can individually.

A universe with information as its primary stuff is radically open, and the physics describing it places no limits on what a physical system can in principle communicate. Physics without information as its primary unifying principle, on the other hand, always attempts to put reality back together from the bottom up. And while rebuilding the whole from its parts can admit a certain degree of novelty and unexpectedness, the information revealed will in the end (as in complex systems theory) still be determined by its parts.

Why are these considerations important to religion and faith? A world in which information is not primary is a world seriously hampered in what it can reveal. We’ve seen this with the rise of modern science — the world it gave us reveals nothing about God except that God is a lawgiver. But if information is the primary stuff, then there are no limits whatsoever on what the world can in principle reveal. In such a world, a man called Jesus can reveal the fullness of God, and bread and wine can reveal the fullness of this Jesus’ life and death. A world in which information is the primary stuff is a sacramental world; a world that mirrors the divine life and grace; a world that is truly our home.

William A. Dembski is a fellow of the Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture at the Seattle-based Discovery Institute. His latest book, Intelligent Design: The Bridge Between Science and Theology, was recently published by InterVarsity Press.

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William A. Dembski

Founding and Senior Fellow, Center for Science and Culture, Distinguished Fellow, Walter Bradley Center for Natural and Artificial Intelligence
A mathematician and philosopher, Bill Dembski is the author/editor of more than 25 books as well as the writer of peer-reviewed articles spanning mathematics, engineering, biology, philosophy, and theology. With doctorates in mathematics (University of Chicago) and philosophy (University of Illinois at Chicago), Bill is an active researcher in the field of intelligent design. But he is also a tech entrepreneur who builds educational software and websites, exploring how education can help to advance human freedom with the aid of technology.