Medium, Message, and Intelligent Design

One of the topics creationists like to bring up is the idea that DNA molecules constitute some kind of “message” which we can use as the basis for concluding that intelligence was involved in its invention. We could, of course, point out that analogies between DNA and “words” are just that—analogies. We can use analogies to help our limited minds grasp the complexities involved, but in the end, saying that DNA is “like” a string of words only tells us how we perceive DNA, not necessarily anything about DNA’s origin. And if we think about what a message is, and what distinguishes a message from a natural configuration, we can demonstrate that there is an even better reason for rejecting the “DNA=words” argument.

When Geisler and Turek were trying to make the “DNA=words” argument, they used the example of a teenager coming home from school and finding a note on the refrigerator that said, “Scott, take out the garbage—Mom.” They somewhat snarkily suggest that if Scott had studied evolution in school that day, he could argue that the note was just the result of undirected natural forces spontaneously assembling apparent “messages” out of natural materials, and thus avoid his chores.

They don’t happen to mention the other possibility—that if Scott had been to Sunday school and had heard about angels and demons and their supernatural powers, he could just as easily “explain” the note as the magical handiwork of a mischievous imp. But let’s look at the facts and see which “theory” holds up better.

What is it about the note that causes us to identify it as artificial, and not the result of undirected natural forces? First of all, it’s ink on paper. That is, the note is written in a medium which expresses a message, but which is not the message itself. Secondly, the message is an abstraction, on multiple levels. The pattern of the ink on the paper corresponds to individual symbols or glyphs which represent well-known sounds. These glyphs (and the sounds they represent) combine to form verbal symbols, which are another level of abstraction, representing certain concepts or grammatical functions. These verbal symbols have meaning in a particular language (another abstraction) and context (another abstraction).

It’s important to notice that at no point do the physical properties of the paper and ink tend towards the spontaneous combination of molecules in the particular patterns that make up these various interdependent layers of abstract symbols. Contrast that with DNA molecules: the “message” isn’t the slightest bit abstract. Instead, the physical properties of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, and various other atoms cause them to tend to combine spontaneously in molecules that can, under the right circumstances, become quite lengthy and complex. In fact, life as we know it would not be possible without this fact, because all biochemical processes work by atoms and molecules spontaneously combining and interacting according to their electrostatic physical properties. And the “message” itself is simply the functional combination of these physical atoms. No symbolism or abstraction is involved.

Of course, a creationist could still argue that the specific configuration of the DNA molecule is something that cannot arise by undirected natural processes. But he’d just be guessing, and he’s not likely to have invested any significant research into the natural processes involved. Abiogenesis is still an open question, but the results are promising, and spontaneous generation of organic molecules is not something that requires any violation of the laws of organic chemistry, so it’s not really all that implausible (barring a preconceived agenda against it anyway).

What about Scott and the trashcan full of garbage? Well, if he has paid attention in science class, he’ll know that the chemical processes that generate DNA molecules aren’t the sort of processes that write notes with multiple layers of symbolic abstractions. The symbolic abstractions are what distinguish intelligently-designed messages from mere spontaneous combinations, so science can’t excuse him from doing his chores. If it’s any consolation, though, the supernatural explanation is still as valid as it ever was. If the garbage is too stinky, Scott can explain away the note as some sort of spontaneous miracle. That “explanation” works on anything.

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