Phlogiston, Vitalism, and Information

History is littered with bad ideas. In the realm of politics, bad ideas can kill you; in economics they can impoverish you. In science … well, what can we say about Wikipedia’s list of Superseded scientific theories?

The list is long, the drool is deep. Some of those superseded notions were well intentioned, but simply wrong. They were abandoned with relatively little fuss — like this entry:

Miasma theory of disease – the theory that diseases are caused by “bad air”. No experimental support, and rendered obsolete by the germ theory of disease.

Other items on the list, like Vitalism — the theory that living things are alive because of some “vital force” independent of nonliving matter — were rather goofy from the start. Another example would be Phlogiston theory — proposing that that combustibles contain a substance called “phlogiston” which was released into the air upon combustion. It was superseded by the discovery of oxidation.

And we all remember the Luminiferous aether — which simply doesn’t exist. Some superseded notions still linger in various fringes of society, like flat Earth, the geocentric universe, astrology, etc. You’ll want to review the whole list for laughs.

Why do we mention those things? Because it seems that another one is currently being concocted. Yes, dear reader, you guessed it. We’re talking about the Discovery Institute’s new claim that there’s a mysterious phantasm they call “information” that exists in and organizes the universe, including all living things. Despite certain intentional similarities in terminology, Discoveroid information has nothing to do with information theory, which Wikipedia says is “considered to have been founded in 1948 by Claude Shannon.”

The thing the Discoveroids call information seems vaguely similar to vitalism. No one can detect it with the instruments of science, but the Discoveroids claim they can somehow sense its presence by using William Dembski’s Design Inference, commonly called his Design Filter. We wrote about it here: The Discoveroids and Their Magic Filter.

It’s a good thing the Discoveroids have Dembski, because otherwise they’d never know about this information stuff. Discoveroid information is playing an increasing role in their campaign against the theory of evolution and science in general. Does it exist in a beautifully arranged snowflake? They say no. In an amoeba? They say yes. How do they know? They just do.

Before they invented this phantasmal information stuff, their imaginary designer — blessed be he! — performed only a limited number of tricks. One of those was overcoming the Great Barrier between micro- and macro-evolution. We described that in Discoveroids Dance the Micro-Macro Mambo, where we said:

The imaginary distinction between micro- and macro-evolution depends on a magic barrier between them, which somehow prevents one from gradually becoming the other. That imaginary (and unevidenced and unexplained) barrier says: “A species can mutate thus far and no farther!” It’s the reason creationists give to invoke the intervention of a deity (or an intelligent designer) who is somehow able to overcome the barrier and thus provide the appearance that life evolved naturally over eons, in a long chain of mini steps. Therefore, creationism requires belief in a two-part dogma consisting of: (1) the Great Barrier; and (2) the miracle that breaks through the barrier. … We imagine the designer — blessed be he! — creeps into the genome when no one is looking and, like a sleazy used-car salesman, he resets the invisible mutation-counter from “maximum” back to zero so the creature’s descendants can then continue to mutate to the next level.

What else did the designer do? We’ve forgotten most of the nonsensical claims, but they still insist that he put together the bacterial flagellum. There were one or two other tricks — he mucked around a bit in the Precambrian, and he sometimes adds new features to the genome, which couldn’t possibly evolve because the odds against it are too great — oh, he also fine-tuned the whole universe. Otherwise, the designer didn’t have much of a portfolio. Until now.

The Discoveroids’ latest claim is that the designer makes things complicated. To do that he adds the mystical ingredient of information. It’s something like pixie dust. It’s in your DNA. Without information, DNA is just … well, it’s a big molecule. But when the ghostly goodie of information is added — Shazam! Yes, it’s rather like vitalism, but the Discoveroids don’t want you to notice that.

But what is information? It’s not matter, not energy, not anything you know. It’s information! And it’s a big deal. It permeates the entire universe. The concept is discussed in the TalkOrigins Index to Creationist Claims: Information cannot be created by either natural processes or chance, so there is a law of conservation of information..

Dembski has a new book on it, gushingly described in several Discoveroid posts, most recently here: Bill Dembski’s New Book Is Out and Ready to Order; Pre-orders Are in the Mail. We haven’t read the thing, and in all likelihood we never will, but we notice that it comes with a slogan: “Information all the way down.” Klinghoffer says:

[I]n the end, as at the beginning, there is information. Of course this casts the argument for intelligent design in a fresh and important new light, which is why we’ve been telling you that [Dembski’s book] is the next big thing in ID.

It’s good that they keep inventing these new campaigns from time to time. It gives the intelligent designer something to do. Without the Discoveroids, he’d just be another imaginary entity who provides imaginary solutions for imaginary problems. We’ve got enough of those already, and they’re boring. But thanks to the Discoveroids, we now have an endless source of entertainment.

Copyright © 2014. The Sensuous Curmudgeon. All rights reserved.

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18 responses to “Phlogiston, Vitalism, and Information

  1. Doctor Stochastic

    I would guess that the “Shannon Information” in the book will greatly exceed the “#6 Information” contained therein. (Big channel capacity, little scientific or other content. Maybe the Copyright Notice and date of publication.)

  2. Doctor Stochastic

    Two things did contribute the persistence of phlogiston theory. It did to some extent explain smelting and allowed predictions of the behavior of other ores. (If heating with coke worked good for one ore, it should work for others.) Second, the truncation of Lavoisier may have increased the reluctance of scientists to work for The Republic.

  3. I dislike making fun of old ideas. It hasn’t been easy for us to discover what little we know. There are lots of ideas that had to be tried out. Who would have gotten away with something like quantum theory in the 18th century as an explanation of electricity? Who would have gotten away with Godel’s incompleteness proofs in the 19th? Are they any less ridiculous than phlogiston?

    But however ill-advised you think of any of the explanations you care to deride from ages past, from the Rape of Persephone explaining the change of seasons to the homunculus theory of reproduction, they largely attempted to offer an account of why this way, rather than something else.

    Not so with Intelligent Design. It is reduced to saying “please, don’t let evolution be real”. Maybe because somebody dreams up an imaginary connection between Hitler and Darwin. Maybe because of an unattested “Law of Conservation of” nondescript “Information”. Maybe because it isn’t fair to give “alternatives” equal time in K-12 classes. But, in any case, it isn’t fair to ask for “pathetic details”, like what happens, when and where.

  4. According to the “Miasma theory of disease” if one had to sit through a bad opera, was that a case of mal aria?

  5. michaelfugate

    Dembski appears to use the Greek logos interchangeably with information and although there are many meanings of logos – his is decidedly theological. It is in essence the means by which his god achieved ex nihilo creation – the magic spell spoken to conjure the universe. If one believes this – and apparently Dembski does – then this permeates the cosmos, but what it actually is far from certain.

  6. Information also does not mean, “meaning,” yet the IDudes conflate those two quite a bit, if at least by implication.

    From Amazon: “For a thing to be real, it must be able to communicate with other things. [Really?] If this is so, then the problem of being [the “problem of being” being?] receives a straightforward resolution: to be is to be in communion. So the fundamental science, indeed the science that needs to underwrite all other sciences, is a theory of communication. Within such a theory of communication the proper object of study becomes not isolated particles but the information that passes between entities.”

    Oh–perhaps I’ll read and review this book! He may be straying into my area.

  7. Discoveroid information is playing an increasing role in their campaign against the theory of evolution and science in general. Does it exist in a beautifully arranged snowflake? They say no. In an amoeba? They say yes. How do they know? They just do.

    Before they invented this phantasmal information stuff, their imaginary designer — blessed be he! — performed only a limited number of tricks. One of those was overcoming the Great Barrier between micro- and macro-evolution.

    Perhaps it should be “Blessed Behe,” after creationist Michael Behe. After all, he was certainly creative enough in making stuff up about how evolution doesn’t work and creationism does.

  8. •how information can help us understand the existence of the soul.

    These topics, the particularly the “soul” one, are of course religious in concept, but that is something Dembski and the DI cannot avoid. So now Dembski is stating it’s possible to understand the non-science realm of religion and introduces his soul argument, that possibly he can actually weigh the soul, detect its presence, etc?

    Thos who want to delve deeper and acquire this gem will shell out $104 for the hard copy. As Dembski himself said he’s in the book writing business now to make money, no more, no less, and he’ll continue to dupe and milk his followers.

  9. The question is whether Dembski believes what he writes, or if he is only writing to make money and earn his little bit of fame in the ID world. I think he might have actually convinced himself that there is, in fact, some sort of ineffable “information” underlying everything. He’s written about it so long he has probably come to believe it.

    It reminds me of writers who create vast, complicated worlds for their characters to inhabit. J.K. Rowling is a great example, and within her alternate reality everything is consistent, there are explanations for unusual events and rules, etc. etc. It all makes sense in the context of her magical world, but that world is, of course, not real. I think Dembski and Behe and others have created a similar alternative reality of ID, in which they write books like this about some aspect or another in great detail and continue to add to the canon – but like Harry Potter, they are only writing about the internal workings of their artificial world.

  10. @Ed
    I am a believer in the intoxicating power of creating.

    Based, in my case, a simple exercise I was performing, for my own amusement, in making an alternative to evolution. I don’t recall any of the details, but I do remember the point where I began to realize that it was all fitting together. Of course, it was all nonsense, and don’t have the talent of a novelist, but I realized I had to stop before I started taking it seriously.

    And I realized that it would be helpful to seek the reaction of others.

    But in the case of ID “theorists”, they cannot rely on their peers to provide needed criticism. In a sense, it is like a leader coming to believe what his sycophants are telling him.

  11. IDudes! Kristine is my new BFF!

  12. Religion says science is bad because it has no absolutes and they fear the constant changes. Science’s greatest gift is its ability to change to fit the new facts; where religion like all dogmas is almost universally wrong about almost everything. Science has contributed much to all our lives where religion or other dogmas have contributed only pain.

  13. Eric Lipps suggests:

    Perhaps it should be “Blessed Behe”

    He’s not worth the attention.

  14. SC, never mind the “Blessed Behe” suggestion. I prefer the giant’s rhyme from Jack and the Beanstalk : (with a minor modification in the second line)
    Fee, Fie, Foe, Fum,
    I smell the blood of a Disco bum!
    Behe alive or Behe dead,
    I’ll grind his bones to make my bread!

  15. “he also fine-tuned the whole universe.”
    He? They! There are about 30 natural constants which all had to be fine-tuned, which means about 30 First Causes, which means about 30 Grand Old Designers.

    While I side with TomS I’d also like to point out that we don’t mock the people back then who argued for phlogiston and homunculus, but those right now who still advocate it.

  16. Long ago I really liked the TV show “The Prisoner”. Each episode started with this dialog: voice1 “What do you want?” voice2 “Information”. voice1: “You won’t get it.” Voice2: “By hook or by crook, we will!” Maybe Dembski was voice2.

  17. I’d like to suggest an acronym for this new form of information. Since it is obviously derived from divine machinations, and also is intended to obscure in a manner similar to the weather phenomenon of the same name, the term Function of God or F.o.G. would seem appropriate.

    It could be attached to every variable in any equation. Of course the first act of any mathematician would be to remove each occurrence and then carry on.

    Other suggestions?

  18. Dean says: “I’d like to suggest an acronym for this new form of information. … the term Function of God or F.o.G. would seem appropriate.”

    Maybe we’ll have a contest.