Information Theory

Information is at the heart of all meaning, human or otherwise, in the universe. To support that claim, though, we first have to ask what information is, or more usefully, how it works. We generally recognize information when we see it, especially if we possess the necessary equipment to interpret it. Language, binary code, equations, images; these are all forms of information.

A key aspect of information is that it is more than its physical components. A copy of War and Peace would be nothing more than a pound of paper and a bottle of ink were that ink not arranged in a specific way. Likewise, genetic code is more than a chaotic cocktail of phosphates, adenine, guanine, thymine, and cytosine.

Importantly, a pattern only counts as information if a mechanism exists (or has the potential to exist) that is capable of reading that information and doing something useful with it, such as constructing new forms from physical matter, copying information, or generating new information. Genetic code is “code” because of the capacity for biological organisms to read it and construct dogs or cats or people from it. War and Peace is information because human brains are capable of interpreting it and converting it into new information (the experience of Tolstoy’s story).

A mechanism capable of reading information and acting on it can only operate when supplied with energy; that’s basic physics. For information to be active, then, requires a) a pattern in the universe (of either matter or energy), b) a mechanism capable of reading that information, c) a mechanism capable of acting on that information, and d) a supply of energy that allows the mechanism to operate. When these things are combined, information itself acts as a new system. Physical matter and “reality” serve as the vehicle, but the information patterns themselves function as a system within a system. “Mind” is not synonymous with “brain” because “mind” refers to the information patterns processed, created, and stored in the brain. To borrow a computing term, matter is hardware, and information is software.

Life is a direct result of information operating in and controlling the reality that contains it. There is no clear-cut physical distinction between a tree and its environment. At a molecular level, there is a soft boundary between root and earth, or air and sky, but the tree is constantly consuming nutrients from the earth and adding back to it, pulling energy from the sun and breathing oxygen into the atmosphere. Informationally, though, there is an entity that is the tree: its genetic code. And when the tree passes its genetic code on, with some modifications, to its offspring, the information itself guides the reorganization of matter in the universe, through the mechanism of interpretation and action contained within the seed.

At its most basic level, the mechanism for reading genetic information is inherent in chemistry. I suspect that was how life began in the first place; the right combination of chemicals and energy created a mechanism slightly better at reading and acting on information. The rest was evolution. Though each animal, each plant, was a fragile and temporary collection of organic materials, each was also a specific genetic signature, a specific information pattern. Changes in those patterns in offspring and the resulting shifts in the physical world they influenced — Dawkins’ idea of “survival machines” — determined how good each information pattern was at replicating itself, and the information best at it survived and evolved, while the rest fell apart and were forgotten (equivalent to the ink in a book fading to the point of illegibility).

For quite some time, the entire soul of an animal was its genetic code, and nothing else. When the creatures produced by genetic code began developing brains, though, a second kind of information was added to the mix: the ability to learn. Because the information only existed in and could only be interpreted by the brain of a single creature, though, mind-information couldn’t replicate, and thus couldn’t evolve. The brains that contained the information, though, could and did, and with mammals a trickle of mind-evolution began. Brains of individual creatures became complex enough to learn behavior from other members of a species, and to pass on mind-information to future generations.

At some point a tribe of hairy ape descendants figured out how to communicate in more complex ways than body language and single-reference noises, and language, the most powerful information vessel since genetic code, began to change the world in vastly new ways. That was when human cultural evolution began to run in parallel with our biological evolution, and, because language can transmit information much more quickly and more fluidly than sexual reproduction, cultural evolution quickly outstripped the geologic pace of its genetic counterpart.

Let’s take a moment here to illustrate the idea of cultural evolution and language as evolutionary information. To do it, we’re going to use a common anti-evolutionist analogy. Suppose you’re walking in the forest, and you find a watch. You pick it up and immediately recognize it to be different from the trees and grass, and therefore designed. The conclusion of this is somehow supposed to be that the grass and trees were just as intentionally designed as was the watch, even though the fact that you recognized the watch as “designed” was the reason you picked it out from among the grass and trees in the first place.

That’s not very useful, though. If we think in terms of information theory, the reason you picked up the watch was not that it was designed, but rather that it evolved differently.

Think for a moment about what it means to design a watch, and you’ll see what I mean. At no point in history did some caveman with stone tools sit down and create a Swiss watch. Instead, the information about making things evolved slowly over the course of thousands of years: first, how to tell time by the sun, then by sundial. Metalworking, machinery, precision tools, ideas about physics and potential energy and the lengths of days all had a progression, an evolution, before they got to the point where a watch design was possible.

We are deceived by the fact that we can see the watch being made, as each part is tooled out and put together. The key, though, is that the watch is being constructed from an information pattern, by the mechanism that exists in the designer’s brain — in exactly the same way the designer himself was constructed from an information pattern (his genetic code) by a mechanism that existed in the fertilized egg he sprang from.

Instead of focusing on the watchmaker, focus on the watch. Imagine humans as simply the physical means of watch production, and as supplying the selective pressure that drives watch evolution. We start with a very simple watch-idea (a sort of proto-watch) in the form of a stone sundial. This works, but selective pressure (it’s not very accurate, doesn’t work at night, and is really hard to lug around) drives the evolution of the sundial to smaller, lighter, more accurate models. The moon is brought into play, knowledge of astronomy; an astrolabe is constructed. But now the selective pressure is toward simplicity, as the astrolabe takes a lot of knowledge and time to read properly. In other fields of thought, information about how to make machines evolves into being, and is spliced into the watch evolutionary line. A clock is made, massive, but accurate, and easy to read, and equally useful at night or during the day. Selective pressure moves back to portability, and clocks continue to shrink in size until finally you have the information pattern that details how to construct a fine Swiss pocket watch. That information is copied out millions of times to create millions of watches, as if you were to clone a person millions of times, or print a million books. Then someone accidentally drops one in the forest and a human, picking it up, naively assumes it to have been simply “created” by another human, ex nihilo.

The point to all of this is that the evolutionary identity of the watch or the watchmaker is not in their physical manifestations, but rather in the information used to make them. Genetic information, then, can be seen as one half of the human soul–one half of the identity that makes a person who and what they are. The other half is the information contained in the brain, the memories, relationships, knowledge, philosophies, beliefs, ideas all run on the neural hardware put in place by the genetic code.

Proper understanding of how information acts in concert with the physical world of the universe we live in is key to understanding human meaning by other means than simple nihilism or resort to divine creation. Fitting, since it is evolution — of watch and of watchmaker — that makes the concept of an absolute “creator” unnecessary. More on information and meaning in a future post.

One Comment

  • [...] 2+2=4 is also a definitional truth. Mathematics is the language humans have developed to describe an orderly universe, but mathematical truths are only absolutely True in the abstract. When put into practice, they can be very, very accurate, but can never perfectly describe any given aspect of the universe — for the simple reason that any perfect description would be in effect an identical copy of our universe (more on this in a future essay on information theory). [...]

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