Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Turing vs. the Creationists

Today we bring you your daily dose of breathtaking inanity from the creationist blog Uncommon Descent. A poster named "niwrad" (that's "Darwin" spelled backwards - the creationists are oh-so-clever) finds yet another reason to reject Darwinism.

"niwrad" draws an analogy with computer programming, and then "explain[s] as clearly as possible exactly what a program is". He goes on to say, "In order to process information – i.e. create software – it is necessary to create data and programs. Data is passive information: it cannot change or decide anything by itself" while "a program, in its simplest concept, is a blueprint specifying the reiteration of basic decision structures, about what to do and when to do it."

He/she then goes to say, "The argument which I am putting forward here cuts through these definitional controversies, because from my informatics-based perspective there are really only two possibilities, which can be summarized as follows: either (a) genes are data (which corresponds to the above old definition of a gene); or (b) genes are functions (which corresponds to the new definition)", gives incoherent reasons for rejecting both views, and concludes, "To sum up: Darwinism, from an informatics point of view, has absolutely zero credibility."

Poor "niwrad". He/she/it never learned much computer science, because we have known at least since 1936 that the artificial distinction between "program" and "data" is illusory. The existence of a universal machine shows that we can treat programs and data in the same fashion. That, indeed, was one of the fundamental insights of Alan Turing in his famous paper, "On computable numbers...". As Kleinberg and Papadimitriou remark, "Indeed, our style of writing programs and then executing them is so ingrained in our view of computation that it takes a moment to appreciate the consequences that flow from a universal machine. It means that programs and data are really the same thing: a program is just a sequence of symbols that looks like any other piece of input; but when fed to a universal machine, this input wakes up and begins to compute. Think of mobile code, java applets, e-mail viruses: your computer downloads them as data, and then runs them as programs."

Furthermore, we know from the field of DNA computing that very simple abstract operations, corresponding to the physics and chemistry of DNA, can simulate universal computation.

If creationists want to avoid being defeated by the ghost of Alan Turing, they need to spend more time reading about what is known in computer science and biology, and less time proclaiming (as "niwrad" did) that "God, also in this case, expects far less from us than what He Himself did and does".

11 comments:

RBH said...

One word: LISP.

James Cranch said...

I don't know my history of computing very well.

But, since the first recognisable electronic computers, has there ever been a computer that draws a fundamental hardware distinction between data and code?

I would guess (and hope) not.

Norm Olsen said...

That post, like so many others at UD, reminds me of this comic:

Overturning Science

EastwoodDC said...

James writes: "... has there ever been a computer that draws a fundamental hardware distinction between data and code?"

Indeed, there have been many - thought they were generally considered dinosaurs by the 1970's. We had an IBM 402 Accounting Machine or a very similar model, at my high school: http://www.columbia.edu/acis/history/402.html

Martin said...

By this same argument, since the brain makes no distinction between processor and RAM, "consciousness, from an informatics point of view, has zero credibility."

I guess that IS true for creationists.

IvanM said...

Ha! Now you've got me imagining Turing as a replacement for MC Hawking in the song F**k the Creationists.

Takis Konstantopoulos said...

If creationists want to avoid being defeated by the ghost of Alan Turing, they need to spend more time reading about what is known in computer science and biology.

But if they do that, they may start thinking in rational terms and thus abandon their field (creationism/intelligent design). They wouldn't want to do that!

Blake Stacey said...

One remarkable thing about the creationists who try to do mathematics (Dembski being the prime example) is that they make no contact with the actual mathematics of evolutionary biology. For them, it's always about "disproving Darwinism" by meaningless mumblings about search algorithms, instead of, say, quantitative fitness measures in population genetics.

stvs said...

OT: Please wipe up Andrew Brown's moronic droolings about information in his post about Craig Venter's accomplishment. I'd do it myself, but I don't have a blog or the required patience to address such combined ignorance and stupidity.

"But at this moment of complete victory for materialism something odd has happened: the chemical and material world turns out to be entirely shaped by something called "information".

"Life is basically the result of an information process – a software process" says Venter, and "Starting with the information in a computer, we put it into a recipient cell, and convert it into a news species". But though this information clearly exists in some sense, it's impossible to say what kind of thing it is, because it isn't a thing at all. Whatever this may be, it isn't material, and it isn't bound by physical laws. Information turns out to be as elusive and as omnipresent as God once was."

Blake Stacey said...

"But though this information clearly exists in some sense, it's impossible to say what kind of thing it is, because it isn't a thing at all. Whatever this may be, it isn't material, and it isn't bound by physical laws."

Ah, so the Dow-Jones Average is a sign from God! Or, as the case may be, His opposite number. . . .

Tanin said...

hehe. Even modern game "animation" is actually virtually evolved behavior using genetic algorithms. The behavior of the characters in the games are evolved in advance and are as unpredictable as real people.