Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Probably against my better judgment...

After months and months of rearranging it on this or that shelf, or under this or that pile of miscellanea, last night I began reading Mark Danielewski's House of Leaves. Why do I say this is probably against my better judgment? Mainly because right now I must focus on finishing the history of Providence University for their 50th anniversary gala this fall.

But even if I didn't have that on the front burner, I should at least try to develop the habit of finishing one book at a time, no? I mean, look at my sidebar: I'm reading the thousand-page Weigel biography of Pope John Paul II (and have been for a year now); I'm almost a month behind in Butler's Lives of the Saints (three weeks in China will do that to you); as of last weekend, I'm reading In Cold Blood (for the second time) with a friend before he goes to college; at the same time, I'm halfway through Süskind's Das Parfum (having received a new copy today from Amazon – having left my first copy on a bus at Hua Shan in China!); meanwhile, I'm waiting for my friend to finish a shared copy of Peter Hessler's River Town so I can finish the last two-thirds of it; also, perhaps just to scratch some compulsive bookworm itch ("That book's sat on the shelf long enough, damn it!"), for the last week, I have been chomping through William Lane Craig's Reasonable Faith (a pleasant return to straightforward apologetics after years away); and then, almost in the middle of the night last night, in fact, I picked up a bizarre seven-hundred page postmodern horror/love story!

Why? Because it was there. And so far, I must say, it's pretty good. No matter how "self-conscious" and "transparent" the book is qua fictional work, House of Leaves still somehow manages to draw you in. What's even stranger, as I flip between Johnny Truant's rambling annotations and Zampano's academic musings on The Navidson Record, I feel sudden scared chills rush over my skin, up my spine. Maybe it's because you're so consciously prepared not to be "taken in" by such a self-effacing fiction that, as it triggers subconscious associations and impulses, you are startled to find yourself engrossed in the steadily creepier web of the whole plot. I'm only on page 50, but I do intend to read it all; consciously having to put down this mysteriously "unputdownable" work promises that won't be too hard once I find the time.

In any case, reading as many books as I am right now, I had a philosophical thought.

Countless atheists and agnostics claim the pervasive order and beauty of both outer and inner space (i.e., cosmos and bios) don't probatively point to God. Such order, they argue, is perfectly accounted for on purely naturalistic grounds. The "design" we see is really just an athropocentric optical illusion.

Let me make a detour here to say I find such an argument specious, mainly because the orderliness within nature is recognizable only in contrast to the dominant, entropic tendency of nature to "decay" into random disorder. Further, you can't have your cake and eat it too. Arguing, in a sort of Darwinian-Kantian way, that the intelligibility and apparent design of the universe are merely functions of our anthropocentric impositions [categorizations] on the brute, well, naturalness of nature in fact erodes the whole basis for evolution.

A key premise of evolution is that the myriad of species and attributes emerged naturalistically from a prior biological base. But this premise can only be demonstrated by appealing to the apparent order and progression of species down the evolutionary tree. But how can we say these intelligible, orderly steps of evolution are not themselves but the result of our anthropocentric impositions on an otherwise undesigned, meaningless biological jumble? Being a nominalistic philosophy at root, Darwinism, on its own, can only say dolphins are dolphins and dolphins are not rhinoceroses, because we say organism A exhibits the traits we give to so-called "dolphins." From a purely, non-anthropomorphized perspective, dolphins are just clusters of matter are just rhinoceroses are just clusters of matter are just humans are just clusters of matter. And so forth. In short, using sensible human devices (statistics, physics, biology, etc.) to argue against the "sense" of the cosmos makes nonsense out of those very senses.

But forget these considerations for the time being. The thought I had about books goes like this:

Go to a bookstore. Buy a book, any book, preferably fiction. Read it. Enjoy it. Or don't. In any case, after you've read it, answer this question: "How do I know this book was written by a person?"

In other words, how do you know the story you just read was created intentionally by an intelligent being? How do you know a "supertextual" author wrote the book to convey a message, and that you are not simply imposing an anthropocentric meaning on actually meaningless, merely "textual" strings of inky "letters"? What in the book lets you know, and not merely assume, it was written purposefully? If all the order and beauty in nature can and should, be explained on purely natural terms, why not say the same for the novel, namely, that is is explicable in strictly natural terms? If the highly improbable fine-tuning of the universe is explained, with a shrug, as being a surprise only to us who are already here, by sheer random odds, to observe it, then why is it so absurd to claim said novel also came to be by sheer random, non-intelligent odds? In a word, "What more inherent 'proof of design' or 'evidence of a creator' is there in a paperback novel than there is in the universe?"

One simple answer is that you can identify the author; you can see her photo on the back cover; you can hear about her in the news; you can even go meet her at a book signing.

Alas, the problem with such a line of reply is that not only does that not prove deductively that the person signing your book really wrote the book (maybe it's a publishing conspiracy and the real author is an Indian boy scribbling away being stitching together Nike shoes in a sweatshop!), but it also doesn't get us "behind the scenes" into the author's presumed "cognitive theater." On naturalism, all events are naturally, and purely naturally, explicable. Even thought is a natural effect of purely natural (i.e., non-extra-physical) causes. But in that case, how can you really say the author wrote the book? On such a view, it's actually just a series of undesigned, random physical states of affairs that managed to "publish" the book.

The point is that, while I'm not an Intelligent Design man myself, I see a major point I think too many of that movement's critics too often elide. Namely, the issue is not order but information. The deeper and higher we look into nature, the more information we see. We do not merely see beautiful fractal spirals or enchanting flower buds dancing to the tune of Fibonacci's sequence. Rather, we are finding information, capable of conveying "plots" and "subplots" to the myriad of "characters" in the cosmos. DNA, for example, does not merely line up in a mathematically orderly fashion. Rather, it conveys highly specific information for highly specific messages and tasks. Not only that, but with every round of sexual reproduction, it reassembles into new arrays of information without ever assembling as sheer orderly sequences. Indeed, a string of DNA arranged in a Fibonacci sequence (or some other purely orderly sequence, like AAATTT AATTCG AAATTT AATT...etc.) would be useless as reproductive information! Order, then, is not what drives life; information is. Likewise, to recall the questions I posed leading into this discussion, novels are not simply orderly; they are manifestly works of personal information-sharing. Structures of order have their place in creation just like page numbers, the table of contents, glue, and the pulpy texture of paper do in novels: they provide the phenomenological framework upon which information stands (and against which it stands out) and holds together. A book is not just order -- and if it were (e.g., AAAAAAAAAAAB BBBBBBBBBBBBBBC CCCCCCCCCCCC, etc.), it would be that much less a novel! -- it is information. So much more so for the cosmos.

On two counts, then, we have reason to open our eyes to the Creator in the looking glass of creation. First, there is the matter of order. A jumble of pages, bits of glue, and a paperback cover strewn over the floor, no matter how legible the words may be on the paper, clearly suggest no sentient publisher assembled the book. Words may have been written, but their arrangement shows no intelligent order. Second, there is the matter of information. Even if we saw no overarching order into which the pages fit, we could still tell, if we examined individual pages out of order, someone intelligent had written the information. But in our cosmos we see both information and order. A book full of empty or unintelligible pages, even if in the right order and nicely glued together, does not point to much "supertextual" intelligence. A book full of intelligible words and sentences, but totally out of order and in a shambles, also points away from a supertextual author. The cosmos, by contrast, points beyond itself just like a book: by virtue of both its order and information.

Take note that the issue is not that this information has to "speak" to us. Rather, it informs behavior at numerous, non-anthropic biological levels. For the sake of argument, we can grant that "order" or "design" is just an arbitrary assemblage of data that, from our order-seeking perspective, comes into focus. If you look wide enough for long enough, at some point you can find all kinds of "order." Code breakers can, if they try, find an orderly sequence in the encryption string; all they have to do is define there pattern loosely enough, and, voila, a pattern emerges! But until they find a sequence that is informative, the order, no matter how visually obvious, actually keeps them totally in the dark about the meaning of the code. Indeed, a code comprised of purely orderly sequences would end up making no sense as information For example, if "AABB GHGH FIFI, etc." were extracted from an apparently random code simply because they display order, they immediately become new sub-codes -- and are still just as meaningless as the original random code. By contrast, once a code breaker extracts information from the code, even if it seems disorderly (e.g., B BN IVOHSZ [ = I AM HUNGRY]), then he's on the right path. The only truly unbreakable code is one that is not there. Unless the code breaker knows there is a code writer, he will look in vain at alleged sequences of order. Replace code breakers with humans (or readers), and the code writer (or novelist) with God, and you should see the thrust of this analogy.

Keep in mind that the issue is not one of anthropic intelligibility throughout nature (since obviously vast tracts of biological information are gibberish to us, and vice versa). The issue is that information is by definition not a purely natural phenomenon. Nature does not write anything simply because nature does not think anything. Nature, in other words, cannot inform anything, because it is not informed. Information, if it makes any sense, is inherently selective (think of the code breaker finding selected clusters of meaning amidst randomness). In turn, selective information is inherently communicative; picking this or that sequence of letters is the essence of conveying information. Finally, communication is inherently personal; rocks may exhibit molecular order, but they certainly don't pass that along as crib notes to neighboring boulders. So, even if dolphins aren't "literate" (i.e., conscious of reading information), they do at least "respond" (metaphysically dialectically, not to say psychologically dialogically) to information, all the while ignoring countless structures of non-informative order. Humans may be (and probably are) the only species that is self-aware as information readers, but all levels of biological life are sensitive to the "commands" of created information. And, once again, the pervasive informative nature of reality points to conscious, personal selection on a vast, supernatural scale.

But, for some reason, that's not good enough for non-theists. Silly Christian, none of that information really points to a creator. Much preferable, it seems, to the evidence of informative design throughout creation, is the illusion of information in the local Borders. Since, if the informational nature or creation is insufficient to indicate its supernatural Creator, then so is the informational (selective, personal, non-merely-orderly) nature of a Terry Pratchett novel insufficient to point to its supertextual author.

[BTW, once all the squabbling is done about how clear or unclear, how probative or non-probative, how informative or uninformative, creation is, there is a second, deeper philosophical issue to press, but one that I have chosen not to delve into at this time. Namely, assuming, on naturalism, that even if we did know a book proves there is an author, we still cannot claim the author's sentience and intentionality have any bearing on the production of the book as a transmission of information. This is because, on naturalism, mental states, as non-physical entities, have no causal effect; only physical states cause other physical states. So, since the author's mental states have no causal "power", we cannot claim any mental state of hers went into producing the information in the novel.]

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