Monday, March 19, 2012

the matter and anti-matter of information

I've just finished reading a wonderful article by David Hunter Tow- Director of The Future of Life Research Centre - 

I wonder if Tow has read Kauffman (I know I seem to be obsessed with Kauffman these day, but...) the views that are expressed in Tow's article are consistent and maybe a logical extension of them. Below I use italics to indicate where I have quoted from Tow's article.

Before I start paraphrasing Tow, I'd like to elaborate some of my thoughts on the nature of information. Gregory Bateson, defined information as 'difference that makes a difference' or 'news of difference' (that makes a difference). Bateson's concept of information lead him to formulate an epistemology of 'pattern'. He contrasted this epistemology from the epistemology underlying the standard scientific - physics world views, which he called an epistemology of energy (e.g. that which can describe the events of billiard balls on a pool table). As Kauffman has confirmed - this epistemology is inadequate to describing complex, living and evolutionary systems. 

What is fascinating about Bateson's views of information and its corresponding epistemology of pattern is that pattern includes the world of 'meaning'. That is meaning which is a non-energetic relation of cause-effect. That doesn't mean energy is not involved, but what it means is that energy is not the cause of the reaction. For example - a man says he loves a woman - the energy involved in the exchange is simply the auditory energy that causes sound vibration to trigger sensory mechanism in the ear of the woman. However, the reaction to those words - e.g. the meaning - arises from the woman's own energy - she may swoon with rapture and become repulsed with horror. The 'meaning' arises as difference that really has no energetic base (even though the woman's brain must generate energy no matter what the response - it is not the energy itself that determines the response). 

It is not the energy that is transmitted in a printed word that stimulates a reaction it is the meaning of those words that stimulates action. Yes energy is involved but does not determine the particular action. In fact it is possible for the exact same amount of energy to be involved in completely different actions stimulated by differences of meaning 'which' in of itself has no energetic base. Although meaning is transmitted through a medium (which involves energy) it is not the energy itself which 'contains' the meaning 

Another example Bateson used is useful (I was going to say fun - but I don't want animal lovers to get me wrong). If you kick a dog - the subsequent behavior of the dog obeys the 'laws of physics' only for a short time. The next reactions of the dog will depend on the 'meaning' the dog creates for the kick. In essence, the dog will process the meaning at least through the four 'F's' - should the dog Fight, Feed, Flee or F*ck the kicker? This reaction can't be approached via an epistemology of energy.

Let's try another example, stem cells are 'pluripotent' (essentially they can take on many forms - so that the same 'cause' has potentially many different 'effects'). The choice of what form it takes has to do with the context it is in - chemical/molecular gradients, etc.). Here differences are vitally important but these differences can't be assessed by caloric variables, rather there are complicated multiple gradients (patterns) that are differences that make a difference. One could probably take different situations whereby the average quantity of other molecules, and energy are equivalent but are ordered differently through the gradients. What produces different outcomes for the stem cells therefore are the pattern of gradients rather than the overall energy and molecular quantities.

This is much like what can happen when water turn to ice - it is not the actual amount of energy change that 'causes' a phase transition - but the contextual condition that 'enables' the phase transition. A change of one degree of temperature from 99 to 1 degree celsius is indistinguishable. But the identical change of energy difference between 1 and -1 degree celsius enables a change in the conditions of change. This change arises not simply by a unit of energy change but arises in the medium itself (the change could be argued to be 'self-energizing'.

Bateson went on to discuss the inherent 'non-materiality' of information (as constituted by differences & patterns of differences). Fundamentally an actual 'difference' is itself non-material although it does require mediums to propagate and through various transformations (e.g. Shannon's Theory, being all about ensuring that the various transformations do not gain or lose the initial 'differences' or pattern of difference as information). 

The key point for Bateson is that while energy (and matter) definitely carries information - information itself is not the energy. Pattern can undergo all sorts of 'transformations' through various media and retain a fidelity.

In responding to meaning-patter it is not the caloric content of the message that is important - it is the pattern upon which the living entity organizes a meaning that is important. The expression of a message of love can be 'perceived' through many forms (touch, sound, sight) regardless of the caloric content.

While meaning is not 'free-floating' of dis-embodied, etc. but neither is it measured or reducible to energy or matter. Pattern itself is embodied but is non-material in that it is transformable through all sorts of matter-medium. To send a signal - is to enable a pattern to be transformed (with fidelity) through various media (matter/energy). What is send/transformed is not the actual matter-energy but a non-material pattern. Pattern in turn has 'meaning' only in relation to context and the entities involved.

The notion of a self-energized 'pattern' only relates to living systems and their action to the world/context they organize. Thus a soft kick to a dog can produce a bite or indifference - the intensity of the of the dog's response may have less to do with the 'energy' transferred' by my kick. The response is 'self-energized' dependent on the meaning the dog 'attributes' to my kick. 

Thus while, differences-as-pattern need to be-become embodied - they themselves are not the material medium that embodies patterns. If information (as patterns of difference) were material these patterns could not be transformed across various other mediums. In a sense this could be used as an argument for another type of 'mind-body' dualism. But what I think is a better argument is the concept that Kauffman calls 'enablement' information-matter are mutually enabling merging the virtual and the concrete.

One of the interesting questions that arises from this view is 'Where do new patterns come from?"

Thus, what is very interesting about the idea of life arising from capacities of re-cognize and transform information - is that the information itself is completely non-material.  

Tow notes:
However adaptive living systems may be primarily differentiated by their capacity to utilise and process information by storing, monitoring and transforming it. Information is coded, stored and processed in the neural network structures of the brain and nervous system, the DNA, RNA and protein structures of the cell including its microtubule scaffolding, as well as the myriad other chemical, sensory, signalling and metabolic feedback loops that allow life to function within a complex environment.

By transforming information, life evolves towards greater complexity. The more complex life becomes, the better it’s able to learn, adapt and continue its trajectory in the universe.

There is an inter-being implication of a co-determining immaterial message, medium and transformational events.   We as humans may be on the threshold of understanding the vast scales and scope of the nature of the message, the medium and the events. 

A new twist has recently added an extra and crucial dimension to this story- the discovery of a form of life based on inorganic chemistry. Up until now, all life on earth has been assumed to be based on organic biology- carbon in the form of amino acids, nucleotides and sugars etc. But Professor Lee Cronin at Glasgow University has engineered a form of self-replicating, evolving, non-carbon based cell with life-like properties. It has opened the possibility of creating micro organisms from inorganic chemicals- proving that evolution is not just a biological process. This suggests that there may be many alternate sets of non-carbon life forms and that the evolutionary principle may have much more general application than previously understood. 

Applying a more abstract concept-theory-philosophy of life we can 
hypothesize that life is a universal emergent phenomenon that occurs in systems that are far from equilibrium, as Ilya Prigogine originally proposed. 
While evolution has been understood as a fundamental physical process that giving rise to biological phenomena, this understanding has limited our view of life & living systems within an original biological straightjacket. Life as it has evolved on Earth, may be just one local solution or instantiation within a vast landscape of possible options, biological or otherwise - we have studied only a tiny fraction of a much bigger picture. 
In this way we can understand that the trajectories of human science and the corresponding spaces of adjacent, enabling, possibles opens up new instantiations of that immaterial message that is life.
Now science’s Pandora’s Box has been opened to release three players in the great game of life- biological, synthetic and virtual. All three will have to learn to co-exist and accommodate with each other, As the biological, technological and social barriers dissolve they will eventually merge into a new entity- Meta-life- a universal autonomous manifestation of intelligence. 
These developments clearly demonstrate that life is now at the threshold of its most significant transformation. In the near future, the links between AL, SL and BL will be virtually seamless. Powerful AI techniques in the form of neural nets, swarm systems, fuzzy logic and evolutionary algorithms, will merge with the massive pattern analysis capacities of the Web’s computational intelligence; complementing human decision making at a fundamental level and creating a permanent nexus. 
Another important implication of understanding that life is not the matter it is constituted by (but embodied in) is that the Universe has not adapted to the highly improbable set of conditions essential to triggering our form of life. Instead, life has adapted to the physical conditions set by the universe- which itself has adapted to the physical and chemical properties of the much larger multiverse. The larger multiverse is more than the past's bifurcations of moments of choice - but also an ever widening possibilities space.
Biological processes might in fact be the means of selecting those laws of physics that best boost life’s own survival. The prerequisite conditions for such opportunistic systems will narrow down the range of possible structures to a small proportion of available configurations, including but not limited to those in which the laws of physics support life as we know it. 

I think this view is important 'qualifier' when we undertake to understand the notions of sustainability, of life, of evolution, of ecologies - if only to to think about these thing in ways that are less vulnerable to human-centric nostalgic romance. As McLuhan remarked (in the 60s) when an environment is new we perceive the old environment for the first time - more particularly: 
It is peculiar to environments that they are complex processes which transform their content into archetypal forms. As the planet become the content of a new information environment, it also tends to become a work of art. Where railway and machine created a new environment for agrarians, the old agrarian world became an art from. Nature became a work of art. The Romantic movement was born. When the electric circuit went around the mechanical environment, the machine itself became a work of art. Abstract art was born.

Are we are entering an age of abstracted life?