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Mark Perakh's Web Site

Olle, Tom, and "Active Information"

A brief comment

By Mark Perakh

Posted September 18, 2007

On September 16, 2007 Pim van Meurs posted to The Panda's Thumb a brief essay titled "How do evolutionary processes create information?".

As usual for Panda's Thumb's entries, PvM's essay invoked a stream of comments, wherein the discussion touched on Robert Marks's virtual informatics lab at Baylor, Dembski's (and ID's in general) role in it, and Tom English's reported cooperation with Marks.

Among other things, Tom English posted a comment there stating that Dembski's model of evolution as a search for a target is irrelevant to biological evolution. He also provided the reasons he chose to get affiliated with Marks's virtual informatics lab. He praised Marks as an outstanding scientist, and, while objecting to ID as such, acknowledged the legitimacy of the concept of "active information" (AI) promoted by Dembski (who, Tom suggests, has given up his Complex Specified Information concept replacing it with the AI).

Perhaps I can say a few words somehow relevant to both the question of the connection between ID and Marks's virtual lab, and to Tom English's remark about Dembski's model of evolution as a search algorithm.

In the past I posted at least two entries both on PT and on Talk Reason where I argued against Dembski's model of evolution as a search for a small target in a large search space. (See for example Dembski "displaces Darwinism" mathematically -- or does he?). As usual, Dembski ignored my comments, which is OK -- my intention was far from a desire to convince Dembski or to even find what his opinion is.

Now about Tom English's comment (I never knew there are two Tom Englishs: the one I have some knowledge about is imho a highly qualified expert on the No Free Lunch theorems). In his comments Tom asserts that Robert Marks is a great scientist and has nothing to do with ID.

While Marks may be an excellent scientist, I take the liberty to doubt the assertion of his being not in cahoots with Dembski and ID. Here are some facts (besides having Dembski affiliated with Marks's lab).

Some time ago a young Swedish mathematician Olle Häggström published an article critical of Dembski's concepts (see Intelligent Design and the NFL Theorems).

After a while, a reply to Olle's article was posted, seemingly authored by both Marks and Dembski (see Active Information in Evolutionary Search). One of the main themes of this reply is the idea that evolutionary algorithms can succeed (in particular outperforming blind search) only if they are assisted by what the authors call "Active Information." (AI). As opposite to what they call "endogeneous" information, suggest Dembski and Marks, AI can only be either front-loaded into the search algorithm, or supplied by an outside source -- which, most importantly, can be a certain intelligent agent (which is just another rendition of Dembski's earlier vigorously promoted "Displacement problem.")

Furthermore, Dembski/Marks's article maintains that evolution necessarily has certain "intrinsic" targets existing spontaneously, and therefore arguments denying Dembski's model of evolution as a search for a small target in a large search space are invalid, while his model is realistically representing biological evolution.

Notably, Marks and Dembski brazenly assert that Häggström's arguments not only do not negate Dembski's (and generally ID) concept, but in fact support ID.

Such categorical asseverations, unfortunately for Marks and Dembski, are not supported by any substantive arguments. They are just naked declarations. I see no reason to accept those assertions, but leave the detailed response to Häggström, who certainly is capable of defending his thesis better than anyone else.

Maybe Marks is indeed a great scientist in his field, but his (with Dembski) anti-Häggström paper seems to show, first that he shares Dembski's pro-ID views, and, second, that perhaps he is not really great beyond his field. (Just IMHO of course.)

Tom also asserts that, unlike Dembski's CSI, which Tom has strongly criticized, "active information" is a useful and reasonable concept. I agree that the concept of AI as such may be construed as reasonable. However, the question is not whether AI as a concept has contents, but rather whether or not evolutionary algorithms can only succeed if the AI is ether front-loaded or supplied from outside sources. This question is related not only to Dembski's "displacement problem" but also to the significance of the NFL theorems for biological evolution.

To start with, Dembski and Marks offer no evidence that AI necessarily must be added to what they call "endogeneous information." They simply claim that this is so. (In the same categorical but unsubstantiated way Dembski pushed his "displacement problem," the term now replaced with "active information." There is a difference though. The very existence of AI is a reasonable idea; however its necessity for biological evolution, as it was asserted by the "displacement problem," was an unsupported surmise).

In fact, as long as we stay within the framework of the NFL theorem, they are only valid for "black box" algorithms which by definition have no access to any information besides that accumulated by the search algorithm in the course of exploration of the fitness landscape and gleaned exclusively from that landscape. They neither possess a front-loaded AI nor receive it from outside during the search. This however does not prevent certain specific algorithms to immensely outperform blind search, which is just a routine occurrence. Therefore all the talk about AI is as irrelevant to biological evolution as the talk about CSI or the NFL theorems.