book review: Being as Communion

Being as Communion: a Metaphysics of Information
by William Dembski (2014)

I became aware of this book via a comment by Kristor at The Orthosphere, and it sounded interesting.  Dembski is one of those intelligent design eccentrics, and being one of those with strong materialist prejudices against which the book is written, I probably would not have come to it on my own.  I’m glad I did read it, because I learned that intelligent design doesn’t claim what I thought it did.  Its claim is that life arose from exterior design or teleological features of matter unknown to physics.  So the elan vital is one possibility they’re raising.  Not that I’m more sympathetic to Bergsonian weirdness than I am to creationism, but once again I find that hostile sources are never, ever reliable on their opponents’ beliefs.

By the way, Dembski describes an interesting paper by John Hawthorne and Daniel Nolan on what teleological causation would be like.  The key is that it would be nonlocal in configuration space, giving higher than locally expected probabilities to system changes that are on the path to some attractive goal.  This nonlocal dynamics is to be contrasted with the nonlocal kinematics (the state spreading over/sampling a range of possible property values) of existing quantum mechanics, although the phenomenon is still reminiscent to me of quantum tunneling.

In this review, I will concentrate on what I take to be Dembski’s two core claims, namely his advocacy of an ontology in which information is primary and his arguments that his mathematical work on search algorithms poses a problem for natural selection.

Information, not matter

People intuitively feel that information is a description of the world, a complete description perhaps, but not the world itself.  However, Dembski–like the early Wittgenstein–proposes an ontology of facts rather than things.  He goes so far as to propose that matter is a myth.  By matter, he means Aristotle’s prime matter.  The world may be information “all the way down”, and information is necessarily formal.  Prime matter is indeed an odd theoretical construct, and Dembski would not be the first reader of Aristotle to come away wondering what metaphysical “work” it is actually supposed to do.

Dembski himself stipulates that information is only meaningful as a constriction of a larger “matrix of possibilities”–the state is a region in configuration space, to use more standard terms.  These state and space correspond fairly closely to the Aristotelian act and potency.  Among Scholastics, potency is usually identified with the material subject (and not only among scholastics–recall Wigner’s definition of an elementary particle as an irreducible representation of the Poincare group, basically identifying the particle with its state space).  One could “formalize” the state space by embedding it in a larger state space, but then the larger state space would be serving the potency role.  Taking this process to the extreme, we have as our state space all possibilities, the bare potential for anything, which is precisely prime matter.

Another peculiarity of a world without matter is that it would be a world without individuals but only types.  If I am information, then I can be instantiated multiple times.  One may use spatiotemporal contiguity to identify distinct me worldlines, but this is all.  One might define a particular instantiation of me to be the one at a particular time and place, but in using this event to define rather than merely identify this me, it would be meaningless to say that this me could have been elsewhere at that time.  Now, there are good reasons to believe that elementary particles lack haecceity in just this way, and since we are composed of these particles, perhaps we should be open to the possibility that macroscopic objects like us also lack individuality, but it’s a radical shift, demonstrating that matter–if it exists–does significant metaphysical work.  For truly individuated beings, one could again expand their state space to include all possibilities, leaving what Aquinas sometimes called–as I recall–designated matter.

Conservation of information

Dembski announces early on that he will not concern himself with precise definitions.  Nevertheless, he does define information as improbability.  He recognizes that this makes information dependent on an overall sample space and probability distribution, but he fails to consider that it is also crucially dependent on an arbitrary choice of coarse graining, i.e. what blocks of sample space count as distinct states.  For example, in classical statistical mechanics, if one doesn’t coarse grain at all, then the concept of entropy (and hence information) disappears (all states have multiplicity 1, entropy 0), and any configuration of N particles is as informative as any other.  To take Dembski’s favorite subject of natural selection, it is indeed more informative to say that an organism is perfectly adapted to its environment than to say merely that it is not perfectly adapted, but it might be equally informative (i.e. marking out an equally small volume of sample space) to say that it is maladapted in precisely one particular way.  For all he is able to show, Dembski’s concerns about natural selection creating information may be beside the point.  One almost feels embarrassed for him as his “materialist” interlocutors try to explain the obvious, that natural selection takes a lot of information from the environment–think of all the ways maladapted organisms may come to a poor end!  Natural selection is the way environment (in)forms organisms.  Dembski’s rejoinder is “Where did the environment’s information come from?  Where was it right after the big bang?”  In fact, the observable universe shortly after the big bang had a lot of information in it (imagine a full description of all density and temperature perturbations), depending on one’s coarse graining.  I contend that the supposed growth of information that impresses Dembski may well be a mirage of his coarse graining according to his subjective interest rather than any physically-motivated principle.

Given the above, I don’t think I need to go into the details of his work on search algorithms after all.  Much more argument is needed than is given here to establish its relevance.


Although Dembski doesn’t believe in matter, he does not believe that everything is information.  God Himself cannot be information because his state is not embedded in a space–to use the traditional expressions, He is pure act.  The most rewarding part of the book for me was the unexpected recapitulation of Aristotelian ideas in new guise here and there.

One Response

  1. […] Prime matter:  Do we really need it?  Could it be rather that everything is information?  Possibly, but this would have some surprising consequences.  I make this point while reviewing William Dembski’s Being as Communion. […]

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