By Moses Bean
In all of nature only one species appears to be creative. We create questions that have never before been asked, recipes that have never before been tasted, and stories that have never before been told. We create symphonies, space shuttles, constitutions, and cartoons. And at the heart of this rational, creative ability is an undeniable, non-negotiable mystery—something that cannot be seen or touched; something that can only be translated.
At the heart of it is new information—words. For before we can create anything we first have to author a rational plan for it. For example, every cubic nanometer on the Space Shuttle Discovery began as a plan written in English, to be edited and edited again before it was ever translated into metal and fuel and silicon.
Physicists tell us that the same is true of every quanta of creation—that it is preceded by rational, creative data. As Dr. John Archibald Wheeler once put it, it is the “It from bit” mystery. The “it” refers to physical phenomena and the “bit” refers to a binary digit. How do physical things—“its”—arise from nonphysical bits of information? “How does something arise from nothing?” Wheeler asks about the existence of the physical world (Princeton Physics News, 2006). For a century now they have stared transfixed by how material particles spring out of seemingly nowhere, even as if from another dimension.
The Bible says the very same thing. “In the beginning was the Word,” (John 1:1) and, “By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things which are visible.” (Hebrews 11:1) It also says that we humans are spiritual beings. Thus the souls that inhabit our bodies are immaterial in the way that words are.
We will look first at the immaterial nature of information and then at the mystery of man’s ability to perceive, translate, and author it. And all the science will support the Bible’s claim that we are made in the image of the Author of life.
1.The nature of information.
It is an observable, testable, falsifiable fact that any and all data is immaterial.
Consider this very article you are reading. Perhaps the medium that you are using is a computer monitor. Or you could print the article out on paper and read it that way. Those are only two of the mediums through which this communication has been translated. It has also been recorded on magnetized alloy, which is the computer hard drive. It was also sent wirelessly from one computer to another via electromagnetic waves. It was also translated onto a plastic CD. And on top of all that it both began and ended inside people’s heads, so presumably it has been translated as, let’s say, a configuration or network of neurons.
So here is the beautiful, mind-warping question: what do these five physical things have in common?
• Several computer hard drives
• Some black-and-white paper
• Electromagnetic waves
• Plastic CDs
• Human brains
What these things have in common is information. And what is so astonishing is that it is possible for all five of them to have exactly the same information—i.e. this article—in common. This data that you are reading was recorded onto a hard drive, sent via electromagnetic waves to another hard drive, saved again on a CD, then printed out as black symbols on white paper, and also stored (at least some of it)some way or other in the grey matter of our brains.
The information is there in your computer, right? It’s not just in your head. You can save this article on a CD and male it to Timbuktu and all the information will be there apart from the other four mediums.We know its there because someone in Timbuktu could stick it into their computer and translate it to another medium, such as printing it out on paper. (Of course in the process their computers would translate it from a computer language back into English.) Even if they did not have a computer; even if some alien spaceship hijacked a mail truck and sped away with the CD, they could eventually figure out how to get the data off it. In fact, that would be similar to how biologists are still figuring out how to get data out of our DNA and translate it into English and a thousand other languages.
The point is that yes, we do know that the data is there in those mediums. Now here is the mystery…here is what warps the mind to no end…here is what left the likes of Galileo Galilei and Isaac Newton stunned speechless, staring in awe at the heavens…here is what Albert Einstein called “the eternal mystery of the universe”: those five media have no physical qualities in common. That is to say that they look completely different and also feel completely different. Surely they sound, taste, and smell completely different, too. So whatever it is that those things have in common—i.e. rational, creative communication—it cannot be directly or indirectly seen, felt, heard, tasted, smelled, or objectified in any concrete way at ll. Whatever it is they have in common, it has no tangible qualities. It does not feel like magnetized alloy any more than it looks like a collection of firing neurons. It is totally and completely invisible.
“Wait a second!” you declare. “The human brain is what links all the other media together! In other words if we ask, ‘What do the black-and-white paper, the computer hard drives, the radio waves, and the CDs all have in common?’ then the answer is ‘the human brain.’”
Slow down, step back, and take another look: only one of those things resembles a brain. The other four have no neurons in them. The five media have no physical properties in common. So whatever it is they do have in common—rational, creative data—is immaterial. The mediums for that data can come in all shapes and sizes, but the meaning of the data, the information itself—that has no shape or size or mass or charge or anything concrete about it. That is simply to say that the meaning of this article does not actually look like a little bitty piece of brain any more than it looks like black symbols on white paper.Those are both mediums for something (communication) that is immaterial.
Surely it can’t be that simple! Yes, it really is. We can know (even with infinite accuracy) that any and all information is nonphysical based simply on the fact that it can be translated through different physical media. What is being translated? What is data? What are words?
In His book, Programming the Universe, Seth Lloyd, Professor of Mechanical Engineering at MIT, tells how he begins his graduate course on information by teasing his twenty-odd students with the question, "What is information?" None of them even try to offer an answer—nor does Lloyd in his book. Indeed, most scientists avoid that question and its follow-ups like the plagues of Egypt. Dr. Hans Christian von Baeyer, a professor of physics at the College of William and Mary, in a 2003 wrote a book titled Information: The New Language of Science, in which, like Lloyd, he doesn’t even try to answer the question; nor does a 448-page textbook titled Information Science published in 2006 by Princeton University.
But the mystery is not that we do not know what words are; the mystery is that we know for certain what they are not. They are not physical. So how in the world are we able to comprehend and author them?
2.The nature of an author.
At the heart of our rational, creative abilities is language—our capacity to perceive and use the meaning of words and sentences. And that ability is one and the same with our ability to do mathematics, for numbers are nothing more than words and equations are simply sentences whose main verb is equal.
In fact, grammar is so mathematical that laptop computers today have exceptionally good editing programs. In other words, we are actually doing simple forms of math when we discriminate between singular and plural; between right and left (as if translating a mathematical graph); between comparatives and superlatives (for example: good, better, best = “On a scale of 1 to 10…”); between definiteness and indefiniteness (identifying the one and only requires that we can count to one); amongst past, present, future, future perfect, pluperfect (simple translations of a timeline); etc. Furthermore, when it comes to vocabulary numbers are the universal method of translation. Consider that translation programs on computers depend entirely upon the counting system called binary. We can store entire libraries, in various languages, on a computer hard drive because mathematics and communication go hand-in-hand.
All we are observing here is that all language forms patterns. Meaning is conveyed through patterns of sounds and symbols. So which came first, language or math? We cannot separate the two, much less answer that question. If we could not do math, we could not do language.
Now we concluded in the previous section all information—which would include mathematics and language—is immaterial. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that all of modern science agrees that our mathematical and linguistic ability is simply innate. It cannot be explained. But, most will say, it is so very easy for us to do that it does not really need to be explained. Here is Dr. Keith Devlin, executive director of Stanford University’s Center for the Study of Language and Information, and consulting professor of mathematics, theorizing on when we acquired the ability:
Numbers arose when our ancestors first recognized that collections of, say, three oxen, three spears, and three women have something in common: threeness. The pattern here is one of numerosity—the size of a collection. Numbers themselves are the objects invented to describe those patterns: the number 1 describes the pattern of oneness, 2 describes twoness, and so on. Once you have numbers, you can see patterns between those numbers, for example 2 + 3 = 5, and in this way arithmetic arises.1So…we must simply take the ability to perceive patterns such as “threeness” and “twoness” for granted. That is what they are all going to tell us. Here is the conclusion of the National Research Council’s Committee on Developments in the Science of Learning:
An ever-increasing body of evidence shows that the human mind is endowed with an implicit mental ability that facilitates attention to and use of representations of the number of items in a visual array, sequence of drumbeats, jumps of a toy bunny, numerical values represented in arrays, etc.…Young infants and toddlers also respond correctly to the effects of the arithmetic operations of adding and subtracting.2
The body of evidence to which they refer is a series of experiments done with infants. Psychologists and neuroscientists have found through repeated studies that even four-month-old babies already have not only basic counting ability, but also basic arithmetic. Infants arrive in the world “endowed” with it.
Pick up any book on the subject. It does not matter whether the authors think that numbers exist in the world outside of our heads (i.e. Platonism) or not. Dr. George Lakoff of Berkeley and Dr. Rafael Núñez of the University of Lausanne ambitiously titled their book Where Mathematics Comes From: How the Embodied Mind Brings Mathematics into Being. What’s their answer?
We are born with a minimal innate arithmetic, part of which we share with other animals. It is not much, but we do come equipped with it. Innate arithmetic includes at least two capacities: (1) a capacity for subitizing—instantly recognizing small numbers of items—and (2) a capacity for the simplest forms of adding and subtracting small numbers.3
Is this not rather astounding? Everyone is telling us that we must take mathematical ability for granted. We cannot explain it, so we must accept the fact that it is intuitive. We must accept on faith that humans are able to perceive and use abstract meaning. But since all of our conscious ability is manifest in perceiving and using information, is this not exactly the same as saying that the human person is a rational,creative, abstract phenomenon—a.k.a. a soul?
No one dares admit that.
But they might still call our abilities miraculous. Dr. Charles Yang of Yale put it this way: “This is the miracle of language, the ability to arrange sounds into infinitely many ways to convey infinitely varied meanings.”4 And this is perfectly analogous to the “it from bit” mystery, for as mathematician Roger Penrose put it, “It appears to be a universal feature of the mathematics usually believed to underlie the workings of our physical universe that it has a fundamental dependence on the infinite.”5 So the ability to do language and math is both miraculous and innate. “Underneath every utterance of baby-talk, or every turn of phrase in Shakespeare, lies an elegant, intricate, and infinite engine that forms our thoughts, expresses our feelings, and shapes our mental life.”6
From the mouths of infants and nursing babes is established recognition of the power which all of creation proclaims. (Psalm 8)
3. Conclusion: The Image of the Creator.
That which we call a soul would by any other name remain a mystery. For even if we give it another name we still cannot give it any tangible qualities—nothing to touch or see. So whether philosophers call it a superseded ontology or biologists call it a system of memes or neuroscientists call it a network of qualia, etc., all their abundantly abstract and relentlessly esoteric words are still referring to the same thing: that invisible, untouchable, silent phenomenon summed up in the word you.
“Me?” Yes, you. What are you? Are you nothing more than a bag of bones, or does someone live inside that body? Is the mind that is using your brain in fact the same thing as your brain and nothing more than your living, active brain?
That would be, on the face of it and at the root of it, a nonsensical statement. It would be exactly like saying that the music of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony is nothing more than a stack of paper. After all, the entirety of the music was originally recorded on paper though very few people can appreciate it by reading it; instead, we need to hear it. We must have it translated from paper (or cassette tape or CD) into sound waves. What exactly is being translated? Whatever it is, it cannot be touched the way a disc or a stack of paper can. There are no gray areas here, or semantic games or rhetorical tricks: the statement is undeniably, non-negotiably false. The meaning behind the media is distinct. The music cannot be seen or touched or…even heard by your brain (i.e. in the sense that a tape recorder does not “hear”. Beethoven himself did not direct it until after he had composed it). It is immaterial.
Similarly, it is also false to declare that we are nothing more than our living, active brains. That is why scientists and philosophers must resort to foggy terms, like “qualia” and “meme” and “superseded ontology”, to discuss what goes on inside our skulls. The meaning of these words cannot be seen or touched—only translated.
So if we are not our brains, then what are we? “I think; I use my brain to translate and store information; I perceive and potentially even author the meaning in music and movies; therefore, I am…what?! ”
We do not know what the soul that is using our brains is. However, we do know what it is not. It is not physical. We are not physical.
The Bible says that God created us in His image. “Then God said, ‘Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness.’” (Genesis 1:26). It also says that just as a rudder steers a ship, our tongues can steer our souls (James 3:1-12). That is why God commands us to meditate on His Word and pray according to it, asking His Spirit to guide the intent of our hearts. “For the word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” (Hebrews 4:12)
1Devlin, Keith. The Math Instinct: Why You’re a Mathematical Genius. Thunder’s Mouth Press. New York. 2005. pp. 30.
2The National Research Council Committee on Developments in the Science of Learning. John D. Bransford, Ann L. Brown, Rodney R. Cocking,editors. How People Learn (Expanded Edition): Brain, Mind, Experience, and School. National Academy Press. Washington, D.C. 2000. p. 89.
3Lakoff, George and Rafael E. Núñez Where Mathematics Comes From. Basic Books. 2000. pp. 51. Lakoff's claim that other animals possess a "minimal innate arithmetic" is entirely speculative. For all we know crows and other birds do not comprehend numerosity any more than a spider comprehends geometry, any more than a bat comprehends sonar, any more than a communications satellite comprehends English.
4Yang, Charles. The Infinite Gift: How Children Learn and Unlearn the Languages of the World. Scribner. New York. 2006. pp. 1.
5Penrose, Roger. The Road to Reality: A Complete Guide to the Laws of the Universe. Alfred A. Knopf. New York. 2005. pp. 357.
6Yang, Charles, pp. 22.
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Copyright 2008 Matt Connally