Information Sources

Question from Louis:
Where does new information come from? Material does not generate information.

Answer by SmartLX:
New order and information is generated where there is a local decrease in entropy. (If the concept of entropy is new to you, pause here and read my article on the subject.) Entropy can decrease in an area when energy is transferred to it from a connected area, because the transfer increases entropy in the source area and the overall entropy stays positive.

The application of this to our general situation is that the sun generates a huge amount of entropy by burning itself up, and the resulting energy radiates to us where it can fuel the emergence of all kinds of new stuff. Considering evolution in particular, which is usually the reason for asking an atheist this question, new information enters the genome via the events of natural selection between organisms. When a gene makes it significantly more likely for a subset of a population to survive and procreate, useful information in the genome is favoured and junk is slowly weeded out (though there’s plenty of junk still in there, no matter what organism you’re looking at).

For a simple way of understanding how simple selection acting upon random mutations can create order and recognisable information, imagine a row of ten random digits, e.g. 1907632438. If you repeatedly randomise all ten digits with no further guidance, you might get some coincidences but it will remain random. Instead of that, you fix a digit in place for one round if it is larger than the digit to its left and smaller than the digit to its right (for the two on the ends, only one of these rules is applied) and randomise the rest. Over time the numbers will tend towards an ascending order from left to right, and it might be inevitable that if the digits are all unique then the final sequence is 01234567890, without any number ever being deliberately chosen. Making this actually happen would be an excellent programming exercise for any students out there.

3 thoughts on “Information Sources”

    1. Of course. That’s what natural selection is, although it’s not a conscious or direct reaction so much as the physical effects of being “influenced”. For example if it gets too hot, some organisms die, improving the chances of those that don’t.

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