Sunday, March 2, 2014

DNA is code, Redux

The universe is a computer simulation, or so I'm told. That's been something my brother has been chirping about in recent months. He's a scientifically minded person, but I wish he'd apply a wee bit more critical thought into some of these things.

He tried to hook me on Mysterious Universe, a podcast out of Australia. I lasted about 15 minutes before their complete void of any skepticism had me yelling at my computer, and drove me away. The episode I tried, immediately had some guy who was talking about an experiment he was setting up to finally prove that paranormal things, like ghosts, exists. Meh.

He likes that podcast, and it doesn't surprise me that the notion he's buying into, that the universe is a computer simulation, isn't setting off his logical-fallacy alarm.

It's an Argument from Analogy.
Here's the short and sweet of it. The universe shares some attributes/behaviors with computer simulations. Therefore, it's a computer simulation. 

Just like my cat shares some attributes with a table (has four legs that it stands on; can place objects on top of cat), therefore, my cat is a table.

Consider this high-tech Venn diagram.

A venn diagram showing an overlap between A and B, sharing attributes X and Y. Z is only in set B, and not in set A.
The idea behind an Argument from Analogy is that if A shares attributes X and Y with B, that therefore, Z as an attribute of B is also shared with A. 

In this case, the idea that the universe is ran on a "computer" is the false equivocation. They haven't demonstrated that aspect. 

This argument lead me into thinking about another argument you've probably heard.

DNA as Code

I've spoken about this before, but I'll recap. DNA is like a code. The rest of the code we know about, has a programmer. Therefore, DNA has a programmer... a.k.a. God.

Do you see how it's an Argument from Analogy?

This past week, I think I found a way to put this to rest (hopefully). The reason why this argument can appear to be convincing, is because it has some semantic smokescreen obscuring the problem. It basically comes down to definitions.

So I ask, hypothetically theistic reader, what is "Code"? More specifically, does this definition of "code" mandate an intelligent mind having programmed it?

If the answer is yes...

Emus - Courtesy Wikipedia
If yes, then DNA isn't code. We haven't demonstrated that anyone programmed it, so by that very definition, it doesn't qualify as code. 

It'd be like defining a bird as a creature who flies, and then assert that an emu is a bird, even if they have never been demonstrated to fly. Then, the best you've got is "well, all other birds we know, fly", forgetting the possibility that the emu may be the only bird in existence that can't... but to argue that the emu must be able to fly because the other birds can, is silly.

If the answer is no...

If no, then whether DNA is code or not, doesn't logically lead to the existence of a coder-God, and the comparison is therefore moot. The argument crumples.

Since birds are not defined by the ability to fly, the emu qualifies as a bird again. Since the definition doesn't require flight, whether the emu can fly or not, is immaterial.

And with that, the discussion is over. The argument that DNA is code gains no traction, because it requires actual empirical evidence that DNA (all of it, really), was designed by an intelligent mind - with independent verification.

They wouldn't be scraping this "DNA is code" argument out of the bottom of the apologetics barrel, if they had any such thing.

An argument from probability

There's one approach they could take to argue that it's probable that DNA is code, based on precedence. That's where the "All the rest of the code we know of was programmed by intelligent minds" argument spawns into existence.

The core problem with this argument is the question about how we quantify the quantity of code we're wondering is programmed or not, versus the code we know is programmed.

Let's set up a bit of a Reductio ad Absurdem - pushing the argument to its extremes, to show why the argument breaks.

On one extreme...

Before humanity was coding anything, or even writing at all, that would mean that the ratio of known-programmed code to hypothetical-programmed code was 0:100.

... meaning, 10000 years ago, the probability that DNA was programmed by intelligent minds was 0%?

On the other extreme...

Let's suppose that humanity puts its full combined human effort to write as much legitimate code as possible, utterly dwarfing the quantity of "DNA code" by a factor of x1000, 10000 years from now.

... does that mean, that 10000 years from now, the probability that DNA was programmed by intelligent minds will be 99.9%?

How can we have a coherent, valid assessment of this probability, with any amount of accuracy or credibility, when the probability of DNA being code depends solely on how much code humanity has arbitrarily chosen to write?

Any probabilistic argument must have more solid grounds for assessment, otherwise, these probability values may as well have been yanked out of the depths of our collective asses.

You may try to argue that DNA has information (or even specified information), and that's how we know it was programmed by an intelligent mind. If so, just do me a favor, and replace all instances of "code" in my explanation above with "information", and re-read what I've said. The debate about information is identical.

Keep in mind that those who use this argument aren't trying to demonstrate that DNA is code. They're starting with that as an already-established premise to argue for a God. That's the key point of failure - whether DNA is actually established as "code", "information", etc.

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