Ambigamy

Insights for the deeply romantic and deeply skeptical

Scientists Are Wrong About the Meaning of Life

What information really is, how science has it wrong but will get right.

It’s said that we’ve entered the information age only in the last century but technically, it’s not that recent.

We intuit that information is what a living being receives when it senses a change and responds to it in potentially fruitful ways: You sense a stop sign, you stop, and it saves your life; a bacterium senses sugar, moves toward it, and lives another day. 

Since living beings have been around since the origin of life, the information age really started way back then.  Before life--no info; with life--info.

Some say information has been around longer than life. The religious or spiritual would say God or a higher power has had the ability to sense and respond to changes in fruitful ways since the beginning of everything.

And believe it or not, most scientists say every physical change is information, an atom bumps and atom, a rock bumps a rock, a cue ball bumps an eight ball, a computer changes a zero into a one—every change since the beginning of the universe is info. 

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These scientists take too literally an colloquial way we talk about information. In everyday talk, we treat the sensed change (for example, the appearance of a stop sign) as the information, when really we mean the whole package--sensing, responding and its potentially fruitful consequences.

For example, when the phone rings, we might say the change from silence to ringing is “information that there’s a phone call.” But think about it--the physical change from not ringing to ringing isn’t, by itself information.  It’s not information to your cat, houseplant or chair, but to you, because you sense and respond to it, potentially fruitfully. The ringing is only information to living beings, and not just any beings either but only those who have evolved or learned to interpret it as such because it is potentially fruitful for them.  Treating the ringing phone as the information is treating the part as the whole, the way we do when we call executives “stuffed shirts” or the whole meal, “the dish.”  

“Well, then” say such scientists, “the change is only information when it changes something else. The phone’s ringing caused you to get up from the couch. Information sent; information received. That’s just like the change in the position of cue ball changing the position of the eight ball.  The eight ball, in effect, received information from the cue ball and responded by moving. Likewise, one binary switch in a computer receives information from a prior switch and responds by changing its position."  By this reckoning, information is any physical change that causes a change, and since that’s been going on since the beginning of the universe, so has the information age.

This also fits our everyday language, for example when we say “he changed my mind” or “reading the word dog caused me to think of one” as though the information wasn’t just the sensed thnig but the sensed change and the resulting response combined. 

By this reckoning, there’s no real difference between a cue ball changing an eight ball, one computer bit changing another, the phone’s ringing changing you—in general, an input change causing an output change. 

We could call this the Input/Output (I/O) theory of information. It’s extremely popular among scientists, and is the assumption behind the idea that computers are brains and brains are computers, both of them massive quantities of physical changes causing physical changes. According to the I/O theory then, there’s really no difference between the behavior of billiard balls, computers, brains, and indeed the whole universe. The whole ball of wax is just things causing things to change.  The universe is just one cosmic computer.

If the universe were one big computer, just an unbelievably massive collection of things changing things, all of it information, then who is all that change information potentially fruitful for?  God, perhaps, but if scientists aren’t going buy God’s existence, then no one really, which is why it’s popular to say that science proves that we’re nothing but meaningless meat computers.

When scientists say that all there is to information is input and output they blur a crucial distinction between physical and interpretive behavior.  The eight ball moving as a result of the cue ball is strictly physical behavior.  The eight ball isn’t taking a cue from the cue ball, and likewise the computer switch isn’t sensing something from some prior computer switch. 

Only we living beings take cues from sensed changes and only when we’ve evolved or learned to, again because it’s potentially fruitful for us to do so. Physical behavior is I/O, whereas interpretive behavior is sensing and responding, potentially fruitfully.

At best, claiming that I/O is information is just another case of everyday shorthand whereby we treat the part as the whole thing. Calling sensing and responding the whole of information is like calling thunder and lightning the whole of a rainstorm.  It’s two parts not one, but really information entails all three—sensing, responding and potential fruitfulness.  Yes, any change in the universe could become information but only when some organism has evolved or learned to detect it because it’s fruitful. There’s no information without potential fruitfulness to some-“one,” a living being for whom it is potentially fruitful.

Einstein said a theory should be as simple as possible but no simpler. The I/O theory is too simple and that’s why even though we’re in the thick of the information age, most researchers can’t tell you what’s the difference between computers and brains, physical change and interpretive or informational change.  Informational change always involves a living being for whom it is potentially fruitful to sense and respond.

What then are living beings? You’re one. You sense and respond often fruitfully, though not always.  Sometimes you overreact, sensing that some change would be fruitful to respond to when it isn’t. And sometimes you under-react missing the cue, some change that would have been fruitful to respond to, alas, had you sensed it.

Still, for the most part you sense and respond fruitfully. Your ancestors sensed and responded fruitfully too, all the way back through the eons to the origins of life (the information age), successfully enough that your ancestors were able to fruitfully multiply all the way down the generations to you.

Information is changes interpreted by living beings, and though we living beings are made of stuff we’re not made of stuff the way a billiard ball or computer is. With a billiard ball, it’s the same molecules throughout its existence. You however are different molecules over time. You’re made through molecules, molecules passing through, which means one kind of information you damned well better seek hungrily and fruitfully is where your next dish of molecules is coming from or else you’ll die. 

Think of what happens to your ability to sense and respond when you’re dead.  It’s not just that they stop sensing and responding; your eyes, nose, hands and mouth decompose at a ghastly rate.  Like all living beings you have to run to stay in place, doing real physical work to keep re-composing yourself faster than you decompose, and for that you better interpret right.  From this we get a firmer grip on what fruitful means.  You’re in the interpretive game, sensing and responding right or else your interpretation game ends.

Living beings do active real-time work to keep their ability to sense and respond from decomposing, work that involves their innards sensing and responding to changes too, from protein folding to axon flushing, from wound healing, to eye watering, work fueled and performed by the steady influx of those molecules just passing through, but working while in residence to keep you from decomposing.  

We living beings are in the anti-decomposing game, all that work done part to part in your body to keep you alive, sensing, responding recomposing and reproducing fruitfully. Because that work is either fruitful or unfruitful, suddenly there’s information, meaningful sensing and responding. For us living things, changes aren’t just matter but mattering.

What we sense and respond to matters, having consequences for whether we keep sensing and responding. Interpret wrong and you might be bounced out of the interpretation game, taking a whole lot of interpreters down with you.  That’s evolution, survival of the fittest interpretations, and thereby the fittest interpreters. 

If you’re reading this, congratulations are in order.  Apparently your interpretation processes have been fit enough. Your safety record is impressive, about 3.5 billion years without a fatal accident to your family lineage.

Notice too that your interpretation processes have changed a bit over these 3.5 billion years or else you’d still be doing what the first and lowliest living being ever did. You have evolved and learned, changing which changes you sense and respond to, doing so in ways that have worked well enough that the continuity of your innards’ made-through work has not been broken once, your father and mother’s bodily work fruitfully passing the work baton onto you and before them your grandparent’s bodily work, their parents, and on and on back almost four billion years. 

Living beings are that continuity of work, a continuity of molecules passing through and working to defy decomposition every step of the way--pretty amazing, and what’s also amazing is that if we could identify that first and lowliest being we would be able to mark the true beginning of the information age. 

In my next article I’ll share one guess at how life and information started, brought to you by a researcher named Terrence Deacon and his team (me included)  working on this problem for about 20 years. 

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

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