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The Advent of the Algorithm

The 300-Year Journey from an Idea to the ComputerDavid Berlinski

Mathematician David Berlinski, a Senior Fellow of the Discovery Institute, explains how the “algorithm” is sure to play a major role in the future of mathematics. An algorithm, Berlinski explains, is essentially a logical, mathematical procedure by which a goal can be accomplished in a finite number of steps. 

After recounting the origin of the algorithm within mathematics, Berlinski explains that it is the algorithm which has made possible the physical sciences. Turning his attention to molecular biology, and the genetic code specifically, Berlinski notes that algorithms are required to convert information from one set of symbols, the genetic code, into another set, the proteins. Berlinski believes these strings of information are far richer than analogous strings of information we find in say, a novel: “while Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina can only suggest the woman, her black hair swept into a chignon, the same message, carrying the same meaning, when read by the right biochemical agencies, can bring the woman to vibrant and complaining life, reading now restored to its rightful place as a supreme act of creation” (pg. 290-291).

Berlinski concludes on a philosophical note. While materialists like Steven Weinberg believe the universe is “pointless,” other thinkers in history, such as William Paley, believe that the complexity of the natural world require us to ask deeper questions. Intelligence, Berlinski believes, can be explained by algorithm. This is seen in that the intelligence which authored his book (if Berlinski would consider himself intelligent) was created via the algorithms which convert DNA-information to living, breathing assemblies of proteins.

From whence did this algorithm come? Berlinski analogizes from the reasoning of Kurt Godel, who saw that law and chance alone would not be expected to produce an increase in complexity. Darwin’s theory using blind natural selection acting upon chance mutations cannot account for the complexity of life as it has developed over time. Berlinski thinks that the rapid origin of biological complexity might require a process of “careful coordination and intelligent design” (pg. 321). Thus, science would be best to use the explanatory tools of law, chance, and the algorithm, which he calls “an intelligent artifact” (pg. 325). Applying Godel’s logic, complexity cannot be derived entirely from something simple. Complexity can be shifted, transferred, but the complexity in the universe can never provide a complete explanation for its own origin.