Planes, Trains, and Information Systems

Planes, Trains, and Information Systems

When I was a child I always enjoyed school field trips. Now, as an adult and philosopher the conceptual field trips of the mind can be equally satisfying as they offer even greater insights. Join me on two such trips and encounter signposts that direct our attention beyond the cosmos to an ultimate Mind. So let’s take off—hope you packed a bag.

Leaving on a Jet Plane

You’re on a plane flying across the Pacific Ocean when catastrophe strikes. The aircraft develops engine problems and the pilot is forced to crash land in the ocean. You alone survive the crash and, after drifting at sea awhile, somehow reach the shore of a small, apparently deserted island. However, upon further exploration you are shocked and exhilarated to discover the letters “SOS” written in the sand on the beach.1

Timeout #1 for Philosophical Reflection

Would anyone immediately think that the wind and waves had formed the letters in the sand through pure natural chance and accident? No. Instead, one would conclude that someone was there, or had been there, on the island and had intentionally left a message. Why?

The letters “SOS” constitute a universal distress signal (in popular usage, “Save Our Ship”—or, in this case “Save me from this deserted island”). Thus, the mere presence of the code necessitates an intelligent messenger. As thoughtful human beings, we intuitively associate a message (containing information) with an intelligent source (a sender or a coder). Astronomer Carl Sagan asserted that just one such coded message received from outer space would constitute clear evidence of the reality of extraterrestrial life.

All Aboard!

Let’s take another trip––hopefully not so risky this time! You climb aboard the Amtrak Train in Los Angeles and are headed south to visit the San Diego Zoo. You fall asleep on the journey. When you awaken, you look out the train window and see some shiny white rocks on the local hillside that are arranged to spell out the message: “WELCOME TO SAN DIEGO!”

You’re pleased to have arrived so quickly to your destination city, but then a voice comes on the loudspeaker informing passengers to pay no heed to the apparent sign on the hillside. The Amtrak official explains that an earthquake along with the natural effects of rain, erosion, and gravity arranged the rocks on the hill. In other words, the arrangement of the rocks was caused by random chance and accident.2

Timeout #2 for Philosophical Reflection

Let’s suppose you came to accept the conductor’s purely naturalistic explanation––a tough sell––of the arrangement of the rocks. There’s one conclusion that would follow: if the arrangement did occur naturalistically without a mind to place them in proper order, then the “message” (or information) seemingly contained therein could not be trusted to function as a reliable sign or billboard. In other words, since the rocks have come by chance, you can no longer logically believe on the sheer basis of the rocks alone that you have, in fact, arrived in San Diego.

Naturalism’s Potential Logical Defeater: An Untrustworthy Brain-Mind

In a naturalistic scenario, human sensory organs and cognitive faculties ultimately came from what amounts to chance and accident. Atheistic naturalists reject the idea that there is an intelligent and purposive mind behind the intelligibility of the cosmos. Therefore they conclude that a human person’s capacities to apprehend truth through observation and rational analysis came from a source or mechanism that lacked these profound qualities. But therein lies the potential logical defeater for this secular worldview.

If humankind’s sensory organs and cognitive faculties resulted from purposeless and reasonless natural factors (like the rocks on the hillside), then those faculties should––by the same line of reasoning––not be considered trustworthy to provide true “information” about reality. Yet committed evolutionary naturalists implicitly trust their faculties without even a second thought. Oxford mathematician John Lennox summarizes the naturalist’s fundamental problem:

“Either human intelligence ultimately owes its origin to mindless matter, or there is a Creator. Strange, is it not, that some people claim that it is their intelligence that leads them to prefer the first to the second?”3

Explaining Complex Information Systems

The amazing, intricate information system known as the DNA code dwarfs in complexity the simple codes and signs mentioned in our philosophical trips. In fact, software magnate Bill Gates has said that “Human DNA is like a computer program but far, far more advanced than any software we’ve ever created.”4

If relatively simple computer software requires the most intelligent, purposeful minds to create it, then what is the best explanatory hypothesis for the origin of the DNA code? Most people carry a deep-seated intuition that there is something more beyond the scenes of the physical cosmos—namely that there is a reason and a purpose for the whole show. The mysterious information systems found in the world and inside of human beings seem to serve as powerful signposts or pointers to an ultimate, super-intelligent divine mind (Psalm 19:1–4;Romans 1:19–20).

  1. The idea of an SOS found on a deserted island comes from Peter Kreeft, Fundamentals of the Faith: Essays in Christian Apologetics (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1988), 24–28.
  2. The idea of rocks on a hillside randomly spelling out a message comes from Richard Taylor, Metaphysics, 4th ed. (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1992), 110–16.
  3. John Lennox, “Challenges from Science” chapter 6 in Beyond Opinion: Living the Faith We Defend, gen. ed. Ravi Zacharias (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2007), 133.
  4. Bill Gates with Nathan Myhrvold and Peter Rinearson,The Road Ahead, rev. ed. (New York: Penguin, 1996), 228.