When designed errors are the perfect design

[advanced IDCS topic for students of Electrical Engineering and Information Technology]
Shannon’s legendary paper: Mathematical Theory of Communication unwittingly lends support to the philosophical notion that perfect designs in one dimension must of necessity have imperfection in other dimensions.

We intuitively understand that we communicate much better with someone in a quiet room versus a noisy room. But Shannon’s genius was that he quantified this notion by relating maximum data transmission rate to the signal-to-noise ratio. The result of the paper was the now famous Noisy channel coding theorem.

To make his argument, he defined measures of information relevant to communication, the famous notion of “bit”. The notion of “bit” plays a central role in ID theories, but ironically, the notion of “bit” wasn’t the focus of Shannon’s legendary paper!

How does Shannon’s paper raise a philosophical notions that perfection in one dimension of necessity implies imperfection in others? Before answering, consider more accessible examples such as those I posted in The Shallowness of Bad Design Arguments:

The existence of bad design, broken design, and cruelty in the world inspires some of the strongest arguments against the Intelligent Design of life and the universe. I consider the “bad design” argument the most formidable of the anti-ID arguments put forward, but in the end it is shallow and flawed. I will attempt to turn the “bad design” argument on its head in this essay.

The “bad design” arguments have at least two major themes:

1. An Intelligent Designer like God wouldn’t make designs that are capable of breaking down

2. God (as the Intelligent Designer of Life) doesn’t exist because of all the cruelty and evil in the world

To address the first point, consider the synthesis of computer languages like: Java, C, C++, Ada, Pascal, Basic, FORTRAN, COBOL, Jovial, PL1, Modula-2, LISP, Prolog, etc.

The designers of these languages admit the possibility of syntax and semantic errors in the uninterpreted/uncompiled source code presented by programmers to a computer. Is it possible in principle to implement a computer language that is both non-trivial and capable of meaning while simultaneously impervious to software developers making errors (especially semantic errors)? I’d say no. And by way of extension, can there be a meaningful design without the potential for breakdown? Every example of engineering is vulnerable to breakdown. So, the hypothesis: “An Intelligent Designer like God wouldn’t make designs that are capable of breaking down” is rooted in pure theology, not in terms of any engineering experience. The potential for breakdown is the norm for intelligent design.

Furthermore, there is a rather peculiar property about reality. It seems appreciation for what is good is made possible by the existence of what is bad. Consider the Super Bowl where over 30 National Football League teams compete for the coveted title of Super Bowl Champions (the title went to the Saints a few years back, God bless them). But would such a title have any meaning if there were no losers in the NFL? This was an intelligently designed sport. It would be a flawed argument to say “the competitions leading to the Super Bowl are not intelligently designed because they result in losing teams”, yet the same sort of illogic is used by Darwinists to argue against ID.

How can we say an Intelligently Designed world would not admit the capacity for some to be at the losing end of a Divine Drama? We may not like it, but not liking something is not a justification for rejection of truth. I’ve often speculated the evil in this world might make meaningful the good in another world. This is not far from the thoughts of one insightful thinker who said almost 2000 years ago:

“For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, is working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory”

Paul of Tarsus
2 Cor 4:17

What Shannon realized is that the best way to transmit maximum amount of data is to allow the communication channel to transmit errors! Yes that’s right, let it transmit errors, and then correct it later. One could transmit a message very very slowly across a communication channel such that it comes across with fewer mistakes than transmitting it quickly, but the price to pay is that the communication is slow or the representation of data isn’t usably compact.

The best way to do things in sending things through internet wires or radio waves is to send it through the channel, allow noise to introduce errors (more errors than would happen if sent slowly), and then use things like Error Correction Polynomials at the receiving end to correct the mistakes. In the case of DVD’s and CD’s, data is deliberately allowed to be recorded with a modest amount of corruption onto the DVD’s and CD in order to gain maximum compactness. Then when the DVD’s and CD are played back, the playback machines employ Reed Solomon Error Correction to cleanse the errors away. The result is perfection is gained through imperfection!

But these facts don’t preclude shallow philosophies from being used against ID. Jerry Coyne argues that something isn’t designed because it is “imperfect”. His reasoning sounds more like he’s arguing that an airplane is not an intelligent design because it’s not as thermodynamically efficient as a train or boat. Would he say DVD’s and CD’s are not intelligent designs because they are deliberately designed with errors! Would he say deliberate designs with errors are unwise?

I’ve heard Darwinist biologists effectively assert, “an all powerful Designer would not incorporate errors or the potential for errors in his designs”, but such viewpoints are pure theological speculation, not based on math or anything in engineering experience. Needless to say, the abundance of such shallow thinking in evolutionary biology makes me for once agree with Coyne:

In science’s pecking order, evolutionary biology lurks somewhere near the bottom, far closer to phrenology than to physics

And in science and technology’s pecking order, evolutionary biology is far closer to phrenology than to engineering and Shannon’s legendary paper which showed that designs perfect in one dimension must of necessity be imperfect in others.


1. “When designed errors are the perfect design” seems to echo Paul’s words and various other Christian themes as to why perfect Design could still be consistent with God allowing sin (errors into the world) and then later correcting them (through Christ’s atonement), and letting “momentary light affliction” to build “a weight of glory.”