Can Chance Produce Information?

Can chance produce information? Is the question a Christian asked on his blog. I know I've seen it before and it's a poor argument but unfortunately he keeps inventing reasons and extra additions to show information can't come from chance. The whole argument and his question is here: A definitive answer to throw back would be greatly appreciated.
Atheist Answer: 

It's been a little while, and the Crazy Australian has in fact conceded that chance can at least produce something which we recognise as information. This Australian says, good on him.

This question is a common creationist approach. The application there is that information in a genome is not seen to increase after random recombinations. The response is that new information can take the form of a decrease in data as well as an increase (my usual example is that the valuable information each week on Big Brother is who will leave the house) so a recombination, which is partly both, is definitely an increase in information.

Completely random threads of information would indeed be unlikely to come to anything meaningful. Consider that, by the way: information, as defined in a computational sense by those who wish to manipulate, compress and optimise it, need not be meaningful in any sense other than representing the data of which it is comprised.

A bit of real-world pressure makes all the difference; this is the very core of natural selection. Changes to a genome which are harmful, ambiguous or negligible tend to die out when the living beings carrying them are outbred by beings carrying directly beneficial changes. It doesn't matter what the information in the genome means as such. Only survival value is of importance, and as it happens, information coherent enough to represent blueprints for complex structures like wings and stomach acid has substantial survival value.

You know, the real answer to this question is really extremely simple. Yes, chance can produce information, if there is such a thing as information. Chance can produce anything, given the right conditions. That's what chance means.

Applied to anything real, though, the true question is, "Can chance consistently produce information?" That's a little hairier, but it's moot when applied to evolution. Natural selection is not a chance process. It mines the random element of mutation for new genetic material, but the selection itself is the original Survival of the Fittest.

It's like rolling fifty dice and only picking out the fours, fives and sixes. You're guaranteed a fairly high average score per selected die. The game of evolution is rigged in favour of life.

- SmartLX


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Thanks :) I didn't see him

Thanks :) I didn't see him concede anything though, I see him still arguing against anything being information by chance, his argument being that it's only information because we have previous knowledge about the subject, because God gave us intelligence.... I did attempt to make the point earlier on that information is in fact analysed data, that it's only information because we say it is... Didn't work :P

Hopefully the above will.


Maybe I'm looking at the wrong poster in the thread, but run a text search for "at this point" and somebody concedes something, dammit.

His Library of Babel example devalues all information to the point of uselessness (another version would be the old thing about monkeys at typewriters for eternity) but the important thing is what information has a physical effect. It doesn't matter if the information produced is gibberish as long as it keeps you alive, and that information which keeps you alive is what is propagated when you reproduce.

It doesn't matter how much truly useless information (or non-information) is produced and discarded in the process. As long as something affects survival, it will be picked up in time. The real world is the arbiter of what is useful information and what isn't. No god is required.

It's refreshing to find

It's refreshing to find someone who reads the opposing view! HH, it's very difficult to argue when I don't see my own views in your statements of them.
I have conceded lots of ground, and never speculated anything about intelligence coming from God. (In fact, it was you who brought that up)

Will write a more considered response later.

Hi CA.

Hi CA, likewise it's refreshing to find someone who reads the opposing opposing view. I appreciate the concessions, and I realise you're really thinking hard about this as opposed to spouting anyone's party line. That's rare.

Yes, I brought up God and evolution and you didn't. That's because I'm not just addressing you, and I'm staying within the scope of my own site. You might or might not be a creationist or even a theist, but you're using an question of which many of both are very fond (and, of course, often think the answer is no) and my reply is geared more towards them.

I'm also trying to pre-empt your train of thought, in a sense. If you were to actually establish beyond doubt that chance cannot produce information and, further, that any natural process is a form of chance (admittedly, that's getting way ahead of you), what then would be your hypothesis on the source of information in nature?

If that's not where you were going at all, fair enough. Enough people have gone there already that it's worth addressing here.

Thanks for a stimulating question. Despite the above, I do think I've provided a reply for you by example.

HH means me SmartLX,

HH means me SmartLX, HealyHatman :) I would prefer to be called Healy over HH but "oh wells"

I didn't put your views in here, Hayes, because there were a lot of them - but I did of course want them accessible which is why I put in the link to the post in question ;)

He is most definitely a theist though SmartLX. He's a fairly decent one though, thinks gay couples should have the same civil rights as heterosexual married couples for example. He DOES have some rather odd views on other things but it comes with the Christian territory.


I did realise he meant you after I wrote, but I'm just as guilty of bringing up God first.

More and more refreshing the

More and more refreshing the longer I stay! A gracious opponent!!! Thankyou for apologising, even when you weren't in the wrong!
And of course I understand that you want to stay within the scope of your site, go ahead. And besides, abstract philosophy needs to be applied to the concrete to be of any worth.

I'm not a creationist, though I am a Christian. I'm an evolutionist who sees evolution as being complementary to faith, not in opposition. (A la the position of Francis S. Collins) I actually don't mind if chance produces information or not, theologically, though I find it an interesting question.

Of course, you are right to say that if we could establish beyond doubt that chance cannot produce information and that any natural process is a form of chance (what else?), then we would need to look for a source of information.

Now, to the argument itself.
Maybe I'm missing something, but here is how I heard you answer the question:
Of course chance can produce information.

Or, as you put it: "Yes, chance can produce information, if there is such a thing as information. Chance can produce anything, given the right conditions. That's what chance means."

Forgive me for being unconvinced. As far as I can see, you have merely asserted that ability to do anything is covered by the definition of chance, and then followed on from there.
1. Chance can produce anything.
2. Information is something.
3. Chance can produce information.

Can you justify your particular definition of chance?

I would have thought that chance, used in this way (as apposed to something 'having a chance') refers to the process by which something with a probability occurs. That is, chance is the selection of one possible outcome from a number of possible outcomes. Chance, therefore, presumes only to deal with real possibilities - and therefore, using it to show possibility begs the question.

To adapt your example, "It's like rolling fifty dice and only picking out the fours, fives and sixes" - you cannot get an average of 7.

(As an aside, just a tip: if you want to show creationists that DNA can have arisen by chance, its probably best not to use it as an example of something that has arisen by chance.)

hahaha hooray! I'm fairy

hahaha hooray! I'm fairy decent!
I'll call you Healy from now on. (HH is so much faster to type!!)

ergh. in my above comment, "as apposed" --> "as opposed"

Good point.

Good point, if I say something like "that's what chance means" I ought to back it up. If I say "anything" I really ought to add some sort of qualifier. Careless of me.

I define chance as the sample space of possible outcomes given what we know about the inputs or initial conditions. If we know nothing about these, from our perspective, anything is possible. But we usually know something, so "anything" is indeed an overstatement.

To apply this: if you roll one die, any of the numbers one through six may come up "by chance". As you will agree, the number seven may not because it's not on the die and therefore not in the sample space. I think our definitions of chance are similar enough.

We know a genome can contain information, and different genomes contain different information. We're living proof by our complexity and diversity. We also know the mechanical process by which genomes change: random minor recombinations of a sequence made up entirely of four elements (G, T, C and A).

If you could choose a sequence of precise artificial mutations, staying nevertheless within the practical limits of natural mutations, you could eventually add enough information to make an operational change (say, create a new skin colour). That means it's possible, however unlikely, for the same sequence of mutations to occur naturally.

Therefore the addition of what we would at least generally term information to a genome is within the vast sample space of natural mutation. It's equivalent to rolling a six, not a seven. Chance can produce information, in this case by replicating a hypothetical design exactly.

Thanks for the final tip, but I was trying a little more than that. For you I was presenting mutation as an example source of chance information. For the creationist audience I was exploring evolution on its own merits and demonstrating how straightforward it is, while stressing that despite the random element it is not a chance process. Rather ambitious, now that I consider it.

As a general point, I regard theism as superfluous to evolution (I would, wouldn't I?) but belief in theistic evolution a la Francis Collins and Ken Miller is perfectly reasonable from a base position of theism. That is, if you're going to believe in a god anyway, better to believe that he made life develop the way it really did than to try and change history to fit scripture.

Hi again! I thought about

Hi again!
I thought about this quite a lot over the weekend, might blog my thoughts later but here goes for now.

Firstly, we both "define chance as the sample space of possible outcomes" - and therefore I hope we agree that we cannot use the definition of chance to show that it is possible. Arguing in a tighter circle can scarcely be imagined!

Secondly, I think I am prepared to concede that chance can produce a certain kind of information, the kind found in DNA. No doubt Creationists will dislike this concession, but I have no vested interest in that direction.
I make this concession because of the particular physical nature of DNA.
The whole point of DNA is to make amino acids, and thus proteins. The function of a protein is caused by its structure – the chemical elements (and hence bonds) as well as its shape (produced by the way it ‘folds up’).
So basically, to really simplify it, DNA contains the information to make shapes. But here is the really cool part: the bits of information in DNA have shapes themselves which are directly responsible for the protein shapes formed.
For (a very poor) analogy, consider a row of differently coloured marbles. A machine (analogous to the ultra-cool tiny machines that make DNA work) goes along the row and uses a colorimeter to ‘read’ the colour of the marble. For each colour there is a corresponding lego piece (ie molecule), which the very cool machine attaches to the previous piece. You could easily lay out the marbles in an order that would, say, build a bridge. To that effect, the marbles would contain information. The bridge’s function depends on its structure, and there is a direct causal relationship between the marbles and the structure.
It was a shame I couldn’t create a better analogy than marbles – ideally there would be a more direct relationship. But, though very different, DNA codes for structures in this way.
All questions of likelihood aside, it is conceivable that the row of marbles, pile of lego pieces, and the machine could arise by chance. And so it is with DNA, the molecule and all related machinery could theoretically be assembled by chance. The information in DNA also answers my original argument, that information produced by chance would be indistinguishable from junk – it is distinguishable by its effective functioning.
So I’m compelled to concede that in this way information can be produced by chance.

I hope you will permit me to shift the discussion in light of this, for you will notice something about the particular kind of 'information' in DNA: it is not very informative. You can read the transliterated human genome: what do you learn? Even if you study the molecule itself and can appreciate what each piece achieves, will you have encountered any meaning? (I am, of course, talking about meaning directly contained in the molecule itself, not that inspired by implication or metaphysical speculation)
You might suspect I'm cheating here. I suppose I am. My new question, then, is this: Can chance produce meaningful information?
I say no, not alone. I posted a thought experiment which helped me think about this.


Sorry, I just don't see the circular reasoning you mention. I'd understand if we had deliberately defined chance as something which can produce information, but all we could do was consider chance as we both understood it going in. And it does seem to have the capability, as we've both now reasoned independently.

Anyway, shifting the discussion is an excellent idea.

I know you wouldn't cheat; what you are definitely not is a sophist, and I admire that negative in itself. I do think you've done something strange with your implied definitions of information and meaningful information. Right now I can't really place your criteria. The following will therefore be not so much arguments as requests.

First to your thought experiment, the dice which produce the Oxford Dictionary by brute force chance. By implying it is not information you're suggesting one of two things here, and I'd like to know which: either you mean the real Oxford Dictionary contains no meaningful information, or (my guess is) you mean that the source of a piece of potential information at least helps to determine whether it is information, and whether it is meaningful.

I'd like you to justify whichever is your true thrust. If you would, pick a question and answer it:
1) Why isn't the content of the Oxford Dictionary information, or if it is, why isn't it meaningful?
2) If a deliberately written dictionary contains information, why does an identical but randomly generated dictionary contain none? How is source or origin relevant?

Regarding your final point about DNA: first one of us is going to have to define physical meaning without resorting to the metaphysical or inspired before we rule it out in a molecule. I'm not game right now, it looks hard.

I just think you're splitting things up a bit much; imagine trying to determine the meaning of "CAT" by examining the individual lines in each letter. A huge amount, probably the majority, of the world's information lies in combinations and permutations rather than raw materials. That's how the whole language fits into 26 letters.

Sorry, maybe I didn't

Sorry, maybe I didn't explain how that was circular well enough (I thought I was pretty much summarising previous posts)
If we "define chance as the sample space of possible outcomes" let us see our reasoning:
1. Chance can produce anything that is a possible outcome. (Our definition)
3. Therefore, chance can produce information.

The circularity arrises in (2.), which is unexpressed:
2. Information arrising by chance is a possible outcome.

This argument begs the question by assuming the conclusion in the premise. If we are discussing whether information can arrise by chance, we cannot assume that it can (Ie is possible).

Does that help?

All this does is show that we can't argue from chance's definition alone. My reasoning went a little differently when I condeded DNA:
1. Chance can produce anything that is a possible outcome.
2. DNA arrising by chance is a possible outcome.
3. DNA is a kind of information.
4. Therefore, chance can produce the kind of information of which DNA is one example.

The key difference here is that we have now justified why information is a possible outcome. If one was to attack this second argument I would suggest either (2.) or (3.) - probably (2.)

But that is not my concern.

It's perfectly reasonable to request those clarifications.

The most important words in my thought experiment are these: "in an otherwise empty universe"

The Oxford dictionary presently sitting in my study is indeed meaningful information - and it would be regardless of how it came to be there.

The thought experiment is as hard as I could make it - I'm not interested in straw-men. Essentially I created it by considering why a certain thing wasn't information, and trying to come up with something which would make it information.

I have since extended it even further: Suppose, then, by a freak of chance, a computer just happened to be brought into being from a pile of molecules. This computer is capable of scanning letters and thus 'reading'. It is able to 'read' a word in the sentence, find it in the dictionary, then look up all the words used to define it, then look all the words up that were used to define all those words etc - all the while using the grammar to decode the syntax of the defintions. It does this for each word of the sentence, and then also syntactically analyses the sentence.
After processing for a sufficient time, the robot has followed every thread needed: an immense and complex database has been created, in which every entry is related to many millions of others as in a web or the connections in the brain.
As a result, the computer is able to 'understand' the sentence. If comprehension-type questions were asked of it, it would be able to give coherent and consistent answers.

Is there any meaningful information?

This is the beauty of the experiment: On its face, it seems obviously meaningful information. But if it can be shown not to be, then we will be hard pressed to immagine another way.

So why don't I think there is any meaningful information in this universe (which is empty apart from the computer, the word CAT, the phrase, the dictionary and the grammar)? (Ok, even suppose there were cats etc)

Simply because the computer has not found any meaning. To understand what I mean, imagine every word in the dictionary was replaced with a symbol. Now the computer has simply a massive database showing relations between symbols according to 2 'symbol arrangement guides'.

We really do not need to imagine at all, however, since words are not more than symbols. The computer will have a complex ability to relate these 'words' together - but if a cat were to walk past it, the computer would not be able to say anything at all about the cat. The computer has lots of information, but none of it is meaningful.

I'm finding this difficult to express, but I hope you are following it. Ask yourself whether it would even matter if all the words used were substituted for their grammatically equivalent (ie adjective for adjective) antonym.

What is required for it to become meaningful? Not much, now that we already have all of this. In fact, all that is needed is this: an injection of meaningful information.

If you but tell the computer that CAT corresponds to the object now walking past it, suddenly the computer possesses meaningful information (ok, it might be that the computer needs more associations than just one, let it be so)
Once you tell the computer what the symbols or 'words' represent, ie you inject meaningful information, it has meaningful information.

This is what was significant about the universe being otherwise empty - a human speaking English would be able to recognise CAT and identify one and thus provide the injection of information needed.

Are you following so far? I feel like I have written too much, perhaps I should stop and let you respond.

Suppose your proposed

Suppose your proposed computer arising by chance had at its disposal not the dictionary, but wikipedia?

If chance can make a computer with advanced artificial intelligence capabilities arise next to a spontaneously formed complete version of the Oxford English dictionary, then chance could also probably cough up wikipedia or at least an encyclopaedia.

Now when the cat walks by you don't just have a word you've got a picture to go with it.


So do you think that

So do you think that argument stumped him or did he just get bored?

That was what I was talking about though... I would make an example of chance producing something we know as specific information and he'd say something like how it's not really information for X obscure reason, and where does information come from, etc etc...

I think he was TRYING to say that it's only called information because we're sentient and we're only sentient because of God. Something like that but I couldn't be sure.


He might be waiting for a response from me too.

I've been off on holiday and need to catch up on this before I weigh in. Not long now though.

Circular? No.

Regarding the circular reasoning issue...yep, I'm with you. The reasoning with the unwritten '2' describes my original "that's what chance means" argument. The four-step argument you use to represent your own argument applies to my later DNA example as well, though I established 3 before 2. So we're very much on the same page with respect to this. Let's move on properly.

You've defined meaningful information as requiring a kind of meta-information; a link between information and a subject. "A cat is an animal" is not meaningful information until you've said, "That's a cat." So what is meaning? Application?

Okay, the moment I typed "what is meaning" I realised we're really in at the philosophical deep end here. We may lose all meaning ourselves if we try to push this all the way, so although I'm highly suspicious of your definition I'll stick with it.

What makes it all meaningful in your example is for a person to come by and explain the connection between the information and the world. I daresay that with a spontaneous webcam (same one it uses to read?) and some image recognition software, the computer could work out for itself that it shares its universe with a genuine cat, and perhaps play a screensaver with plump mice and catnip.

This sort of information could instead happily occur spontaneously in the same way as the rest of the information has come about. Suppose the computer has a random "brainwave" that a cat, one instance of a hypothetical construct it "understands", is in front of it. That's meaningful to the computer, whether or not it's true.

Something like this can happen to people. In A Beautiful Mind (and of course in real life), John Nash saw complex ciphers in random arrangements of letters subconsciously selected from bodies of text. Schizophrenic delusions, but they still could have told him that someone was about to bomb his house.

That's an extreme example, but false yet meaningful information occurs in our brains all the time. Perhaps a feeling that a loved one is in danger, or that the ball will stop on 31 black.

It's actually fine from my perspective if you don't accept that the above is meaningful information. If your idea of meaningful information can only come from true awareness, so be it, because the sort of information you've ruled out is well above the level of the information needed to bring about the current universe.

The physical information expressed in a water molecule, a fusion explosion or a DNA strand is quite meaningless by these standards. It's just atoms and void as ones and zeroes, words in no language at all. The world can nevertheless be built on this supposedly meaningless information.

Eventually intelligence can arise which finds (and defines) meaning in any or all of it, true or false. Once there is consciousness and purpose in the universe, meaning is everywhere. Whether that purpose comes from gods, humans or both is another matter.

To be clear, we don't see eye to eye on the meaning of meaning (meta-meaning?). However, though I expected you would ultimately imply through all this that what is cannot be without a god (in essence, the Cosmological and Design arguments) your interpretation has left room for the natural occurrence of meaning (after the natural occurrence of brains). Francis Collins would say God set up those natural occurrences, and I'm sure you'd agree. I'm happy to leave it at that.

If you want to carry on discussing meaning in those deep waters, blog about it and we'll talk on your turf for a change. I reckon I've defended atheism to Healy's satisfaction and my site's expectations, so I'll visit you simply as an amateur philosopher.

Thanks CA, it's been stimulating.

Hey guys, thanks for

Hey guys, thanks for responding. I haven't read them yet... uni is hectic until at least the 6th June. After that, I should be back.
Until then,

The Return of the CA

Yeah, I figured you were busy when your blog posts got really short. No rush, go study good and hard.

Chance Information

For a simple example of chance producing information, take a walk along the beach. The waves have sorted out the shells according to size. So if your question is "which shell is larger?" the answer is in it's position on the shore line.

(Actually, it's more by weight than size, but you get the idea.)

No one planned this sorting, and waves come in randomly (by chance).


Healy, Are you brain dead? You must be if you think this an answer, an answer to a point I never made i.e. straw man.

I never said unqualified information. Read my qualifying and evolutionary necessary adjectives attached to the noun 'information'.

I've quoted in full the text that Healy believes is the answer. I just love the guy's use of Big Brother as proof that evolution can create novel information.

Listen Healy, mate, I gave up doing pot, LSD and cocaine 20 odd years ago. I suggest you do the same. It does wonders for your intellect.

Rereading the answer, I reckon the atheist has been doing way too much acid and bongs. Why don't you write to him Healy and suggest he should lay off the drugs.

Apparently you're a terrible atheism Guru and you also deal in drugs. Which is the kind of stuff I've come to expect from John over at the creationist website.


Nasty, aren't they?

Before I'm accused of using drugs, even jokingly (and with very poor humour, at that), I would at least like to have earned it with the pleasure of actually using them. I have not.

The Big Brother example is intentionally silly, but that's not the same as wrong. Ridiculing it is not the same as refuting it.

If they can't be bothered to refute my explanation, they can chew on Richard Dawkins' one instead. Even if they do mine later, they can do his next.

You may have seen the oldish video of Dawkins fuming silently after being asked a similar question. He was angry because by the nature of the question he had realised creationists were in his home under false pretenses. The video was then edited to give the impression that he was "stumped". (Search YouTube and see how many different versions of it have been spliced together.)

He explained the circumstances publicly and then, just to be thorough, he answered the question at length in the article linked above. Go look at the size of it; that's what it takes to answer this question in full.

Even if there were no answer, and Dawkins were genuinely stumped, saying that that there is no natural way for new information to emerge is an argument from ignorance. To avoid this, one would have to prove that it is impossible for information to emerge naturally (and let's face it, in this context "naturally" means "without divine help"), not just point to the lack of a good explanation.

At the moment we're in a better place than that, because there are good explanations out there. Dawkins' is one. I'm sure PZ Myers has had a go at some stage. You might even find something by Francis Collins or Ken Miller, from Hayesy's "theistic evolution" camp.

Healy, I don't know if you do this already, but please link back here when you quote me elsewhere. I notice that Hayesy above is the only theist we know you've brought back with you, and I'd like to make sure that everyone who reads my stuff knows where to find us. Thanks.

I linked directly to this

I linked directly to this post in fact. It was in a huge argument that has been going for about 150 comments on a creationist blog. So copy-pasting your entire post would have been a little on the messy side and wouldn't have exposed them to this webpage.


Absolutely. Just checking. Thankyou.