Ambigamy

Insights for the deeply romantic and deeply skeptical

From Matter to Mattering: The Origin of Life's Meaning

A new theory of the meaning you feel, made as simple as possible but no simpler
Jeremy Sherman
This post is a response to Scientists Are Wrong About the Meaning of Life by Dr. Jeremy E. Sherman

In my last article I argued against the counter-intuitive conventional wisdom in science these days which treats any physical change as information. I argued that information emerges with life, and I promised that in this article I would give a short description of how it might have happened based on the work of U.C. Berkeley Professor Terrence Deacon.

I argued that information isn’t a thing, a change in a thing, or even a change in one thing causing a change in another. Rather information is a relationship between a living interpreter and changes in its environment.

Gregory Bateson defined information as “A difference that makes a difference,” which sounds like two differences but, given that “makes a difference” is a pun, is actually three:

1. A difference sensed: (I see a stop sign)

2. Makes a difference in response: (I brake)

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3. Which makes a difference for a living being (braking at the stop sign kept me from getting hurt)

Information isn’t the stop sign, it isn’t the change in whether there’s a stop sign in front of me, it isn’t me seeing and then stopping at the stop sign. Instead it’s those things with respect to consequences for my wellbeing, not always life and death but always some potential consequence to my likelihood of continuing to sense and respond.

It’s easy to ignore what goes into keeping a living being sensing and responding. Your innards do a lot of work, for example to keep your eyes and braking foot in coordinated and in operating condition.  You can tell how much work it takes by how quickly those things decompose at death. What distinguishes life is its ongoing internal work to keep regenerating its parts in the face of constant degeneration and decomposition. Information makes a difference to your ability to do that work.

Computers don’t do any such work.  They’re maintained from the outside. So even though computer scientists talk about computer’s innards sending and receiving info to each other, really, that’s animist bunk. Changes within a computer are just physical behavior, a changed bit here changing a bit there, like cue ball hitting an eight ball.  It’s not interpretive behavior because the one bit didn’t evolve or learn to respond to the other bit for it or the computer’s own wellbeing. The differences are meaningless to the computer. The differences you sense and respond to make a difference to your being able to sense and respond.

Your innards work to recompose you but your innards aren’t just one homogenous thing.  Think of them as a lot of things working to maintain each other. Your eye senses and responds to food that regenerates your foot.  Your lungs sense and respond in ways that keep your heart pumping, and your pumping heart splashes lifeblood back into your lungs.

Your body parts aren’t solids either, not like a billiard ball which is made of the same molecules throughout its existence. Your organs are made through molecules that, passing through do some work before passing on.  In living beings it’s processes maintaining processes, processes dependent on each other in that should one of the processes break down the others’ wellbeings are at stake.

Think of it like organizations too. A business has its organs, its departments that maintain each other. The departments are not things so much as processes performed by worker all of whom are potentially replaceable, temporary workers like the molecules in your body.

A business employs already-living beings.  Your body does some of that too, employing bio flora, for example.  But to get at the origins of life, you can’t start with living beings any more than you can say that the very first living being was created by a prior living being we’ll call God.

If you believe as scientist do, that matter came before mattering, chemistry before life, you’ve got to be able to explain how living interpreters ever emerged from chemical processes.  In other words you’ve got to find chemical processes that could have fallen into regenerative synergy each facilitating the regeneration of the other, two simple chemical processes, for example, that keep each other going, much simpler than heart and lungs but still that same kind of synergy.

There are two such chemical processes that make decent candidates.  One is a sort of chain reaction, molecules of certain type we’ll call A converting molecules of a different type we’ll call B into more molecules of type A.  In real world chemistry there would be a lot more than two types, but we’ll keep this simple. 

Should some A’s come in contact with some B’s we’d see an accelerating growth of A’s. Each A converts B’s into more A’s which would, in turn, convert still more B’s until the B’s were depleted, all turned into As.  At that point the chain reaction’s growth would stop and the A’s would float away. This chain reaction process is called autocatalysis.  We’ll call it autocat for short.

The other chemical process produces encapsulations--shells, tubes or spheres.  When certain flat molecules we’ll call C’s float freely nearby each other, they stick together side to side forming sheets that then close in on themselves, and for a time are like capsules, at least until the wear and tear dissolves them into its component molecules. We’ll call C’s production of capsules, autocap

By themselves autocat or autocap are short-lived processes. But imagine if autocat didn’t just produce more A’s, but C’s also into the bargain: A’s interact with B’s making both A’s and C’s.

As the A population grows, depleting the B’s, it’s also producing more C’s which form caps that might happen to encapsulate some A’s together like little autocat starter kits. Should these starter kits float away and break open where there happen to be more B’s, autocat would start again, making more A’s and C’s which in turn could form new autocat starter kits.

Notice the synergy.  Autocat alone is self-depleting.  It converts all the B’s and then bye bye.  Autocap alone is self-depleting.  It forms caps that last a while and then dissolve. 

By producing C’s in addition to A’s, autocat makes more autocap possible, and by encapsulating some A’s, autocap makes more autocat possible.  We call this synergy between two common chemical processes an autogen, a candidate for the origins of life.

Far fetched? Technically no.  Autocap and autocat are common enough in basic chemistry.  And remember life itself is pretty far fetched, so the synergy between these two chemical processes wouldn’t have to be all that common. 

Informational? No, not yet.  The autogen isn’t alive and it hasn’t evolved any interpretive abilities, and yet self-reproducing, an autogen is actually doing life-like synergistic work that keeps each of the two processes—autocat and autocap plus the overall process from decomposing. Autogens could form continuous lineages of that synergistic self-regenerating work. 

And “could” is the key word here. The work they do is only potentially fruitful in making more of themselves, depending on whether those caps break open in the presence of more B’s or spill their A-guts into a B-free void with no potential for producing more A’s and C’s to keep the process going. No recat; no recap—end of the line for the unlucky autogen lineages.  Congratulations not in order.

These autogens are at the mercy of circumstances, but notice that with autogens we get the first something we could say is at the mercy of anything -- the autogen’s synergistic continuity which is either preserved or it isn’t.

Autocat and autocap are by themselves one hit wonders,  transient processes that inevitably degenerate, indeed in the case of autocat, accelerating its own degeneration because the more A’s it produces the faster it depletes the nearby B’s. But with autogens there’s potentially fruitful continuity and therefore consequence, for staying in the synergistic game.

With autogens there’s no interpretation yet, just the potential for some autogens to get lucky by breaking open where there are more B’s to convert. Still, one kind of lucky that an autogen could get is accumulating a way to interpret its environment.

As we’ve said, our ABC version of the autogen story is a huge simplification. In real world chemistry there would be a lot more molecule types involved, and some of them are interchangeable.  A real world autogen would involve lots of variations on A and B producing various versions of C. The autogen lineages produced would therefore vary, some more likely to maintain synergistic continuity than others.

Imagine one lineage that happened to produce C’s that stuck together better when B’s weren’t around, and in the presence of B’s tended to loosen, the cap breaking open and spilling its A-guts. This lineage would have a fruitful advantage because it would be more likely to stay open and closed when it should. I’d call this an interpregen, an autogen that interprets.

Why it’s fair to claim that it’s interpreting, actively sensing and responding in potentially fruitful ways?

A normal autogen has two states, autocat and autocap, the open chain-reacting state and the inert closed state.  The cap (our autocat starter kit) is sort of like a seed, best broken open where there are B’s to get the autocat going again. Sometimes there are B’s around sometimes there aren’t. 

Two states—closed and open; two environments--B’s present or absent: That means the normal autogen has two ways to interpret correctly and two ways to interpret incorrectly.  Right is closed when B’s aren’t around and open when B’s are around; wrong is open when B’s aren’t around and closed when B’s are around. 

The regular autogen has no way to regulate when it’s open and closed, but the interpregen, with it’s B-loosened shells has a way to interpret when to be open and closed.  It preserves itself closed until opportunity knocks. In the presence of B’s the caps open, spilling their A-guts and growing more A’s and C’s. Think of the fruitful savings! Congratulations are in order.

We can say an interpregen has evolved a way of interpreting, because in effect its cap senses and responds to the presence of B’s, responding in a way that has a direct and fruitful affect on whether it stays in the game of sensing and responding.

Is an interpregen a living being?  That’s debatable. If you define a being as something that exhibits interpretive work, sensing cues fruitfully keep from decomposing, then yes. If you define a living being as having DNA, producing its own energy, or having other features common to life as we know it, then no. 

But is it working with real information?  Yes. The B molecules that break open the capsule is physically a lot like something bumping a switch or a cue ball hitting a billiard ball.  But consequentially it’s more than that, a truly fruitful cue, with real consequences for the survival of an interpregen lineage. Maybe the interpregen’s ability to sense and respond fruitfully like this is the birth of the information age, really. And maybe your family line started way back then. If so, congratulations are really in order.

Congratulations are also in order if you got all that.  This is not easy stuff to understand. We tend to prefer simpler answers than this, of course, but remember, we're trying something difficult, a plausible explanation for what has mystified us since the begining of human civilization--what meaning is and how it started. If the answer were simple, we'd have it by now. And we still don't. This is just one possible explanation. Scientists know that they could get it wrong, like an autogen starter kit that busts open where there are no B's to grow on. 

 

 

Jeremy Sherman is an evolutionary epistemologist studying the natural history and practical realities of decision making.

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