Stealing from God: Turek’s Flawed Information Argument

In chapter three of Stealing from God, Turek asks us to imagine walking along a beach and seeing the words “John loves Mary” scribbled in the sand. We would never think that a crab making random marks on the ground was responsible. And the reason we wouldn’t, he says, is because “John loves Mary” contains information: That’s how we know that someone with a mind was responsible. But, Turek goes on, DNA also contains information. In fact, it contains far more information than “John loves Mary.” Therefore, we should conclude that a mind was responsible for it as well.

There’s just one problem with this argument:

The reason it makes no sense to believe that “John loves Mary” might have been scribbled by a crab is not because it contains information. Rather, it’s because it is extremely unlikely at this level of complexity for an accidental pattern to end up matching a given pattern — just as it is extremely unlikely for a shuffled deck of cards to come out in perfect suit order. It is because of this that we can conclude that the scribbles contain information, and not the other way around.

Scribbles in that particular pattern do not necessarily mean what we take them to mean. If, by some amazing coincidence, we saw a crab actually scribbling such a pattern, it wouldn’t be informative — at least not in the same way. We could not conclude, based on such markings, that there is someone named John who loves someone named Mary.

So Turek has it backwards. We don’t start with the fact that there is information, and then conclude that a mind is responsible. Rather, we start from the fact that such a pattern was almost certainly created by something with a mind (as anything else would be extremely unlikely), and then conclude that it therefore contains information.

But, someone might counter, when it comes to DNA, we already know that it contains information. After all, DNA is basically a complex biological “program” — one that, in the words of Bill Gates, is “far, far more advanced than any software ever created.” So doesn’t it follow in this case that a mind must have been responsible?

Not based on Turek’s argument. We may conclude that if a particular pattern was created by a mind, it contains information. But that doesn't mean we can argue in the opposite direction, from the fact that a pattern contains information to the conclusion that it must have been created by a mind. One could, of course, appeal to something else. One might use some version of the argument from design, for example — though that, too, can be refuted. But that’s not Turek’s strategy. Instead, he insists on claiming that atheists would never believe that a pattern like “John loves Mary” could occur naturally because it contains information, and thus are inconsistent when they believe that DNA occurred naturally. And that’s just false.

Franz Kiekeben is a former lecturer in philosophy and the author of two books on atheism, The Truth about God, and Atheism: Q & A. He has also written for Skeptic magazine and published academic articles on determinism and on time travel.