A Paradigm Shift in the Making: William Dembski's Revolutionary Breakthrough
Editor's note: We are delighted to welcome Professor Mary Simpson Poplin as a new contributor to ENV. What follows is Dr. Poplin's Foreword to William Dembski's forthcoming book, Being as Communion: A Metaphysics of Information. Dr. Poplin is a professor of education at Claremont Graduate University and has conducted extensive research on highly effective teachers in urban poor schools. She is the author of the books Is Reality Secular?: Testing the Assumptions of Four Global Worldviews and Finding Calcutta: What Mother Teresa Taught Me About Meaningful Work and Service. The latter book was inspired by her work with Mother Teresa in Calcutta.
Dr. Dembski's book will be published this autumn. Until September 30 it available for pre-order to U.S. residents at 34 percent off the suggested retail price, including free shipping. That is, $22.95 instead of $34.95. To order now, see here.
Scholars have long acknowledged that scientific revolutions, along with their paradigm shifts, happen in human history. Yet rarely do we have an opportunity to witness such a shift first hand or to have such a clear and careful explanation of one. William Dembski's painstakingly detailed explication of the shift from the material age to the information age in science and philosophy is a brilliant and rare example. As both a philosopher and a mathematician, Dembski is metaphysically and methodologically able to delineate this shift, having previously written in both areas as well as developed a statistical method for inferring intelligent causation.
This book extends his earlier work and asks the most basic and challenging question confronting the 21st century, namely, if matter can no longer serve as the fundamental substance of reality, what can? While matter was the only allowable answer of the past century to the question of what is ultimately real (matter's origin, on its own terms, remaining a mystery), Dembski demonstrates there would be no matter without information, and certainly no life. He thus shows that information is more fundamental than matter and that intelligible effectual information is in fact the primal substance.
Dembski understands information as essentially a decision, in which certain possibilities are realized to the exclusion of others. He represents information using "matrices of possibilities," in which the realization and exclusion of possibilities can be verified through methodical investigation of inductive and deductive evidence. He does not deny the material world or that intelligence and information can be partially described by their material manifestation (DNA, for example).
Rather his argument is that intelligence creates information, which in turn can manifest itself materially, and that intelligence is thus the preeminent first cause. This puts matter causally downstream from both intelligence and information, making it a subordinate and derivative concept. Dembski points out that matter is too "informationally poor" to act with real purpose, arguing instead that the informational systems we see in nature require a teleology or intelligence of a sort not reducible to matter in what Thomas Nagel calls a "dead [material] environment."
Dembski not only takes information to be the fundamental substance, but also clearly believes (as do I) that this substance ultimately originates with a personal God who intentionally gives being to the world, ordering its material structure and guiding its inhabitants for a purpose. However, Dembski does not try to convince us here; he suggests that this belief is not prerequisite to rejecting the reigning materialist plausibility structure and regarding it as demonstrably false. Here he helpfully brings into the conversation atheist philosophers of science, such as Thomas Nagel and others.
While many scholars see the intelligent design movement, of which Dembski is one of the eminent scholars, as simply a challenge to the reigning materialist evolutionary hypotheses (cosmological, chemical, and biological), this book reveals the movement to have far larger aspirations. The controversy over neo-Darwinian evolution, for instance, is but one miniscule piece of a much larger challenge to the basic assumptions we have held about the fundamental makeup of the world. Dembski extends his proposal that the basic stuff of the world is information by underscoring its comprehensibility via intelligence, purpose, and communication. At its core, information is always communicated, foreshadowing the emergence of human communication and the communication systems of all living things. Hence the title -- Being as Communion.
Being as Communion challenges the very way we see and think about the world at its most fundamental level. To accept Dembski's notion that information serves as the ultimate source of reality, we must shift paradigms, not unlike the task of physicists when they accepted Einstein's interpretation of space-time, and yet still had to hold in mind the valid insights of Newtonian mechanics. Dembski honors what we know about the material world, and yet he situates this material within the higher and more universal reality of information and purpose.
Dembski takes us step by step through a series of brilliantly written chapters, unveiling both the challenge to the old and the theoretical and scientific possibilities of the new. Although Dembski cuts no intellectual corners, much of this book is remarkably accessible and a pleasure to read. Nonetheless, non-mathematicians, like me, will find some chapters quite challenging (for instance, Chapter 7, on the mathematical theory of information). I encourage readers to keep reading or skip the parts that seem on the first read too technical. Dembski paints a big picture, and the important thing is to see that picture first.
He is proposing no less than a revolutionary breakthrough in epistemology. His unification of information under the aegis of intelligence in effect reopens the possibility of the original raison d'etre of the early university, namely, that all true knowledge forms a unity that together describes reality.
Each short chapter systematically assembles all one needs in order to make the intellectual shift to this higher rationality. Dembski asks what is the single most fundamental aspect of the universe. He answers that it is not simply matter but intelligently formed information that has a purpose and the capacity to communicate.
Sit back and reconsider your basic assumptions about what is most real.