Information, interpretation and life

Despite the existence of information theory, a firm definition of information of doesn’t seem to exist. Consider that information is still being investigated as a broader philosophical notion in the philosophy of information. And while I claim no special expertise in these areas, and no doubt should acquaint myself more fully with them, I’m going to start writing about information.

Over the course of writing posts on information I’m going to ponder whether information might be a fundamental property, similar to energy and matter. In this post I’m going to argue that for information to exist, something must exist to interpret it, and I’ll describe an example of interpretation at the most fundamental level–the genome.

To start, I’ll work from my understanding of the philosophical description of information credited to Luciano Floridi: information can exist as embodied information (information as something), descriptive information (information about something), abstract information (information in something) and instructional information (information for something).  Without examples this is pretty vague, but what is worse, perhaps, is that some things fit multiple categories of information.

Take, for instance, a genome. As a collection of long molecule chains, it is a physical embodiment of “information”. We could imagine that with the right knowledge and analysis, we could get from it descriptive information about organisms with that genome. This descriptive information though, is an abstraction of certain patterns of repeating base pairs: the information is in the pattern. Lastly, the information in the genome is a set of instructions for the construction of an organism.

Where does interpretation come in? In our everyday lives, we often read and write, listen and talk, see and signal. When we do this we are interpreting incoming information and communicating in outputting information. This information can exist without an immediate recipient in recordings, e.g., books and blogs, audio messages and songs, and images and videos. However, if the information becomes corrupted–and ceases to be readable–the information is lost. Without the capability existing to interpret the information, it has no more meaning than random (or perhaps orderly) noise.

If we consider genomes as information, we should ask: what is interpreting that information? Complex molecular machinery physically interprets DNA in the replication process. However, because of the scale and fundamental nature of the atomic and molecular structures involved in the replication of DNA, the physical laws of our universe provide the basis of this interpretation. Our genomes are instructions, interpreted by enzymes operating under physical laws, to structure matter into living organisms.

 

Genomes are interpreted by molecules working in concert with the physical laws of matter and energy at the atomic scale. This information could, therefore, exist and be interpreted anywhere in the universe that these molecules exist and the physical laws are the same.  In this way, life could be described as the process of the universe interpreting and creating information. This notion will be explored further and refined in future posts.

[Edit: clarifications and grammatical corrections. (24/12/2012)]

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5 responses to “Information, interpretation and life

  1. “Genomes are interpreted by molecules working in concert with the physical laws of matter and energy at the atomic scale. This information could, therefore, exist and be interpreted anywhere in the universe that these molecules exist and the physical laws are the same. In this way, life could be described as the process of the universe interpreting and creating information.”

    When you say that it seems like you are much closer to my position than it would appear from some of the comments you have made on Rick’s and my blogs. Perhaps we are not as far apart as either of us have thought.

    Rather that go into the discussion we have gone over before, let me pivot slightly to a different but related topic that I would like to get your take on.

    At an NPR blog, there have been a couple of posts on the “we’re living in a simulation” topic.

    http://www.npr.org/blogs/13.7/2012/12/23/167923290/wait-maybe-we-are-living-in-a-simulation

    A lot of this discussion is derived from a Nick Bostrom paper that argues we are most likely not real but instead living in a simulated world.

    http://www.simulation-argument.com/

    http://www.nickbostrom.com/

    This clearly relates to the entire question of information and reality because, if it were true, we would be nothing but information.

    Of course, the argument is somewhat like what a physicist once said of String Theory “not even wrong”, meaning that it is unverifiable, although the article linked in the NPR blog claims to be some sort of testing of the theory.

    A somewhat related topic can also be found here:

    http://tap3x.net/EMBTI/j6greene.html

    Let me quote from that discussion:

    “If conceived as a series of ever-wider experiential contexts, nested one within the other like a set of Chinese boxes, consciousness can be thought of as wrapping back around on itself in such a way that the outermost ‘context’ is indistinguishable from the innermost ‘content’ – a structure for which we coined the term ‘liminocentric’. ”

    The liminocentric view is not just that consciousness is like a set of Chinese boxes but reality is too. In other words, consciousness (information?) forms reality which forms consciousness.

    Sorry, if I’ve rambled too much outside the topic.

    • Hi James,

      > When you say that it seems like you are much closer to my position than it would appear from some of the comments you have made on Rick’s and my blogs. Perhaps we are not as far apart as either of us have thought.

      I think it’s pretty easy for people to rationally arrive at different conclusions based on different knowledge and interpretations of evidence. Maybe as we discuss these topics more we can identify further where these differences lie. 🙂

      Thanks for the links, there is a lot of interesting information there.

      From this post I was planning to head towards saying that everything can be described as a form of information. Up to and including consciousness. So the idea of us existing in a simulation doesn’t seem beyond the realms of possibility to me.

      I’ve come across the “simulation argument” and it raises some interesting questions. Though I do agree that refuting the hypothesis that we live in a simulation may be impossible. The fundamental physics of a universe that houses us, as a simulation, could be completely different to our own. So there might not be any experiment or theory that could definitively say if we are in a simulation.

      The usual definition seems to be that the simulation would be the result of some incredibly powerful computer process. But would the actual intentional creation of a universe with the physics of matter and energy we observe be any less a “simulation” to those who constructed it? I don’t think so.

      As an aside, it would be interesting to see how many people could accept the possibility that we’re in a simulation, yet refuse to accept the possibility that there might be a “god”, and vice-versa, despite the ideas being roughly equivalent.

      I don’t think I’ve heard the term “liminocentric” before, but the premise that consciousness may somehow be represented as a structure that loops in on itself intuitively seems correct. Our conscious awareness loops back on itself, such that we can perceive our own consciousness and even think and imagine sights, sounds and other sensations. I think this has been crucial in the success of human intelligence. We appear to have evolved the “right” neural structures to perform conscious acts of computation much like those performed in the electronic computers we now build. We share capabilities of accessing and writing to memory, and many basic and complex manipulations of that information.

      What is telling about the nature of consciousness, I think, is that we are really only consciously aware of the abstract result of our perceptual processes. There are neural structures that lend perceived qualities to our sensations. Incredibly specific deficits can appear in our conscious awareness from localised brain damage. So the organisation and function of these neural structures would appear to be representative of these sensory abstractions. I’m not sure if another theory might describe this apparent relationship better.

      > In other words, consciousness (information?) forms reality which forms consciousness.

      I’m not sure if I’ve read into this too much, but I tend to think that the relationship between reality and consciousness is pretty one directional. Our perceptual systems try to describe the surrounding world, our conscious gleans the abstract results, and then we may perform an intentional physical act on the world around us. Though our conscious experience of reality is fundamentally formed through the abstractions that arise from the neural processing of sensory signals, the matter and energy that underlie reality would exist without consciousness. Where you looking at it more from a philosophical perspective of the formation of our subjective experience of reality?

      Toby

  2. Intuitively to me the liminocentric view seems right but I can’t point to any real scientific or philosophical evidence for it. I think perhaps my ayahausca experiences of embedded realities could be leading (tricking?) me into the view.

    Keep in mind that I don’t talk about this view this just in terms of mind or consciousness. We have the phenomenon of life itself which came about through the encoding of information in matter seemingly without consciousness as we ordinarily use the term. How did the information get encoded in matter? If inside is as outside, then we could look at the development of life and then consciousness as something coming from the Universe as a whole and growing from inside. Consciousness and mind represents the next step up from unconscious life and is built on the paradigm of life and metabolism – the assimilation of the world. We could speculate there might be other steps beyond what we currently regard as consciousness. This could be a sort of a consciousness across many organisms, such as the animistic belief in spirit animals, or various god and goddesses. At some higher level still, the Universe itself becomes conscious, although “supra-conscious” might be better term.

    This might sound a little off the deep end and quite a contrast with my more typical hard scientific viewpoint but I think it is interesting to speculate on it. I would be happy to talk about this if Rick can put something together.

  3. Guys, these are precisely the types of conversations I had in mind. I have a prior commitment until 1/12, but after that I promise it’s off to the races.

    Side note: I’ve seen the Drew Berry stuff before and I’ve gotta say- they’re AWESOME. Totally changed the way I look at life on the molecular level.

  4. Pingback: Simplicity in the Physical Laws | Daniyal's Thought Radiator

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