Information Theory Isn’t

May 31, 2006 § 11 Comments

(1) “The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy gray dog.”

(2) “:LKAF:Lcd asdlfjsadfl cvjvk vv awepoqvl vsxvcasd%”

Which of the two strings of characters contains more information? The first one, obviously. Here I use the word “information” to mean what we ordinarily mean by the word information.

According to a very useful but very poorly named branch of science – information theory – the opposite is the case. At least, the opposite is the case if we assume that an English speaker is reading the two strings, and that what we mean by “information” is the same thing that information theory labels as information.

But this is still counterintuitive.

Information theory isn’t about information in an absolute sense. It is about the communication of information from one context to another (similar) context. It is about generating a message or key in one context which can be used to select or “unlock” some particular information in another context.

It isn’t that the second string actually contains more information than the first. It is that more data has to be transmitted from one English speaker to another in a message in order to recover the second string from the message. An English speaker can make use of all sorts of assumptions to reconstruct (1); he can’t make any in order to reconstruct (2). So it takes fewer bits of data to transfer the first string from one English speaker to another. The exchange of the message requires less “information” (really less data).

Roughly speaking, that is about as far as “information theory” (or data transmission theory) gets you.

What is the point? The point is that when scientists and science journalists talk about the “information” in things like DNA, proteins, evolution, etc, they aren’t really talking about information. You and I conclude intuitively that if we receive the first message, we have received some information from an intelligence. We can’t say that about the second message. We conclude it in the case of the first message because the information had to come from somewhere, and specifically from some intelligence. The second message might have been produced by an intelligence, but because it contains no information we cannot say for sure. It may be just random.

A materialist or functional materialist who is familiar with information theory will often claim that the second message has more information in it than the first. But that is because he doesn’t know what he is talking about, even if he attempts to hide the fact that he doesn’t know what he is talking about behind a mysterious incantation of “information theory”.

Brother Ass

May 30, 2006 § 3 Comments

St. Joseph of Cupertino (1603-1668) was an Italian mystic whose life is a wonderful combination of a complete lack of natural capacity and an extraordinary supernatural efficiency. He lacked every natural gift. He was incapable of passing a test, maintaining a conversation, taking care of a house, or even touching a dish without breaking it. He was called Brother Ass by his companions in the monastery.

He was born on June 17, 1603 into a family of poor artisans. Because of his father’s debts, he was born in a shed behind the house, which was in the hands of bailiffs. He was sickly and often at death’s door during his childhood, and at age seven he developed a gangrenous ulcer which was later cured by a religious man. He was always despised by his companions who called him a fool. Even his mother wearied of him and repudiated him for his lack of any human value.

Kneedled in Orange County

May 29, 2006 § 1 Comment

“It may well be that kneeling is alien to modern culture — insofar as it is a culture, for this culture has turned away from the faith and no longer knows the one before whom kneeling is the right, indeed the intrinsically necessary gesture. The man who learns to believe learns also to kneel, and a faith or a liturgy no longer familiar with kneeling would be sick at the core. Where it has been lost, kneeling must be rediscovered, so that, in our prayer, we remain in fellowship with the apostles and martyrs, in fellowship with the whole cosmos, indeed in union with Jesus Christ Himself.”

– Cardinal Josef Ratzinger

(HT: Marion, via Open Book).

Speaking of Bad Analogies…

May 28, 2006 § 23 Comments

…this one is a howler.

Whatever one thinks of the immigration debate, an amnesty for illegal aliens is nothing like fining a speeder and then letting him drive – without speeding – again. Even if we assume that the acts are of equal gravity, it is more like granting a speeder a special dispensation to speed for the rest of his life, while specifically disallowing that dispensation for those who have not broken the law.

It seems to me that illegal immigration is a form of trespass. Trespassing can be minor, temporary, and incidental; or it can be ongoing, significant, and grave. Trespassing is something we may do licitly (even if not legally) when we are in immediate grave need. It is not something we may ever do licitly for the rest of our lives though. It is not something we may ever do merely to improve our station in life, even if our station in life is extremely modest. As soon as our grave need – that is, our literal starvation, etc – has been met, we must stop trespassing, and if possible make amends for it, or at least go back to the proper legal process.

Whatever the merits (or detriments) of amnesty as a practical matter, it seems to me that it represents a basic distortion of the moral law. It doesn’t represent forgiving the speeder, it represents a license to speed, a special license to speed for those who are already speeding while witholding that license to speed from those who are not speeders.

Amnesty in the case of an ongoing trespass doesn’t represent mercy to the lawbreaker, it represents a dispensation to break the law. Granting an amnesty would do violence to the common good. Those who have made sacrifices to keep the law should be granted at least no lower a priority than those who have not done so. Any other path is a basic violation of justice.

Imprudential Judgements

May 26, 2006 § 11 Comments

Some people seem to be under the impression that I don’t think a decision to go to war is a prudential judgement. That is a misunderstanding. A decision whether or not to go to war is a prudential judgement, and it is a prudential judgement which must necessarily be made by the competent authority in order to be just. That means, among other things, that it – the decision to go to war itself – is a prudential judgement that is not made by the Pope.

What I disagree with the George Weigel faction of the pro-war Right about isn’t whether or not going to war is a prudential judgement which must be made by the competent authority. What we disagree about is what that entails. Contrary to what George Weigel implies (at least equivocally), “prudential judgement” is not a code phrase meaning “there is no right answer”, or “there may be a right answer but we can’t know what it is”, or “there may be a right answer but George Bush is in a privileged position in determining what it is, so shut up”.

When talking about abortion the Church teaches that a decision to have an abortion is always evil. It is not a prudential judgement: that is, the moral status of the act does not depend on any surrounding facts or circumstances. A decision to go to war is a prudential judgement: that is, it’s moral status does depend on surrounding facts and circumstances.

But just because the moral status of a particular act depends on surrounding facts and circumstances, that does not mean that it is impossible to know the moral status of that act. “Prudential judgement” is not code for “shut up, you can’t possibly know that this act was wrong”.

Veritas, Baby!

Wrong Reason

May 23, 2006 § 12 Comments

During Lent, Professor Edward Feser published a three-part series of articles on the Just War doctrine as applied to the Iraq war over at Right Reason (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3). I’ve been asked by someone who is smarter than me what I think of the series.

I did make some comments at the time in the second article, comments to which Professor Feser responded.

I’m not much of a fisker, and in any case I don’t think the lengthy series needs detailed fisking in order to see what is wrong with it. Professor Feser addresses his series of articles specifically to Catholic traditionalists who reject Vatican II and question the legitimacy of the Church as she is today, and says that those particular people have no sound intellectual basis upon which to claim that the Iraq war was manifestly unjust. He is right, in a sense. When you are arguing with a lunatic you can rightly claim that the lunatic has no sound intellectual basis for any conclusion at all, on any subject.

When I asked him about the Just War doctrine as currently understood, he replied:

The trouble with appealing to the Vatican’s post-Vatican II statements about just war is that they have been unsystematic, often vague, and their level of authority has been unclear.

So to summarize Professor Feser’s argument, as I understand it:

1) JWD as understood prior to Vatican II is too much of a muddle for us to reach a definite conclusion whether or not the Iraq war was just.

2) JWD as understood right now is too much of a muddle for us to reach a definite conclusion whether or not the Iraq war was just.

As far as I can tell, Professor Feser is dancing at the same postmodern we-can’t-reach-any-definite-conclusions-about-Iraq-so-shut-up dance as George Weigel. Professor Feser is a better dancer in my opinion, and he carefully circumscribes who he is dancing with. His three-part series can be read as legitimately reaching the conclusion that if the just war doctrine is assumed at the outset to be hopelessely vague, one cannot draw any conclusions about the Iraq war from it. There are other legitimate but equally mundane conclusions, including some unflattering but in my opinion true assessments of parts of paleoconservatism.

But if you went to Professor Feser’s series expecting a broad, balanced discussion of the Just War issues surrounding Iraq, you showed up at the wrong dance.

Can’t we all agree that somebody is wrong?

May 21, 2006 § 37 Comments

The irony of seeing the Right take a postmodern Rodney King tack whenever discussing the Iraq war is beyond anything that even a good novelist could have written. In fact a good novelist would not have written it pre 2003, because it would have been seen as simply unbelievable, as too fundamentally implausible for anything but bad fiction.

So much for the political Right being champion of the idea of an objective right and wrong. No progressive Democrat could possibly have turned the political Right into the unserious thing it has become of its own volition. Real life now imitates art in the form of “reality TV”, where the more unserious a person is the more likely he is to “win” in the struggle with “reality”. Black is white. Day is night. Reality is television. And objective right and wrong means that it is impossible to reach a firm, objective conclusion on whether starting the Iraq war was or was not just.

Note to progressive ninnies: the Pope’s opinion on the justice of a particular war – which depends not only on principles but on the facts on the ground – isn’t any more privileged than yours, mine, or anyone else’s. Note to George Weigel conservatives: the President’s opinion on the justice of a particular war isn’t any more privileged than yours, mine, or anyone else’s.

“Competent authority” means that in order to be just, the war cannot be carried out by a mob: it must be carried out by the rightful authority. It. Does. Not. Mean. That. The. War. Is. Automatically. Just. If. The. Competent. Authority. Initiated. It.

(HT: Open Book)

Where Am I?

You are currently viewing the archives for May, 2006 at Zippy Catholic.