Insights for the deeply romantic and deeply skeptical

Metastability: A Necessity For Happiness and Evolution

In physics a system is called "metastable" when it's stable in a variety of different states. There's an analogy in personal life. You feel free innovate when you're confident that you'll be safe and stable exploring, when, in effect "it's all good." Here we explore the relationship between metastability, happiness and the joy of learning. Read More

"Martin Seligman, a founder

"Martin Seligman, a founder of positive psychology speaks to this percentage game approach, saying for example that trauma early in life is more likely to cause depression because, when you’re younger, you’ve had fewer experiences so a trauma looms larger relative to the good."

Boy, did that ever resonate! And for people like me, who had really abusive, friendless childhoods, a "new experience" is just a bad experience we haven't had to endure yet. Other people just don't get it. Why can't you just be happy and jump in? You go first, I'll watch.

That's how dating was for me, too. If you have one bad experience, it's one bad experience. If you have 11 bad experiences, 1 middling experience, and no good experiences, why bother?

I sincerely hope this is useful to you

I apologise for withholding my name in this reply to your profound and very personal comment.

Yes, I know exactly how you feel because my experiences from early childhood have been uncannily similar to yours. Jeremy made this very important statement:

"Still, we have some leeway in making an activity all good, for example asking a non-rhetorical 'what’s the worst that could happen?' and conceiving of some way you can get back on your feet even if your worst-case scenario comes true."

Fly on the wall, you and I are having this discussion because we have both been through not just the worst that we thought could happen, but much worse than that. So far, we have survived this repetitive [insert appropriate word] many times.

I can't speak for you, but whenever I try to relax I just get overwhelmed by melancholy, which I'm sure is a perfectly natural reaction to a really abusive and friendless childhood. My confidence, self-esteem, self-efficacy, happiness, and desire to live were all beaten out of me by the age of four, which was when I learnt that I didn't deserve to be given food so I stopped ever feeling hungry. Fifty years later, despite endless psychotherapy, I still wonder why I bother to force myself to eat a good meal once every few days. I guess it's because my only joy is in giving to others the love that I never received, despite often being taken advantage of for doing it.

After much studying of the subject, I'm not altruistic even though I'd really like to think I am: I give love to others probably because I occasionally get a little in return -- something I never received during my childhood.

Sorry if that was depressing. I cope by have a wicked sense of humour, listening to some exquisite modern jazz, and surprising myself occasionally by making myself a really tasty dinner.

My heart goes out to you and I send you my best wishes for your future.

Thanks for the reply.

Thanks for the reply. :-)
You and I have coped in different ways to similar experiences. I like myself and think I do deserve care, while recognizing that no one owes it to me. I'm also introverted by nature. The result is that I simply devote myself to taking care of me and enjoying my time as I see fit, rather than trying to either force other people to like me, or trying to force myself to fit their lives. It's not going to happen, so I'll stay over here and be me, and other people can go over there and be themselves.

Oddly, I only feel melancholic or isolated when around others, not by myself. I LOVE cooking, and do rather too much of it, and I also like the fact that when I'm alone, the music is my choice, the food is my choice, and no one is bitching at me about nothing being good enough. I kind of feel sorry for people who have never lived alone.
Best wishes back at ya!

And thank you very much for your reply

Thank you very much, you have made my world a better place to inhabit. I relate to everything you wrote, especially "Oddly, I only feel melancholic or isolated when around others, not by myself." In my case, it is when I'm mixing with others that I feel totally isolated from humanity -- as if I don't belong because I come from a different planet.

On my own I can please myself and I do enjoy cooking. I've learn't to do things with a combination microwave fan oven and grill that most people wouldn't dream of attempting! It's been a fun trial and error learning process. I'm still learning how to adjust cooking times, temperatures, and shelf positions in a conventional oven to achieve the results I want from cooking a combination of different foods. I much prefer cooking for others, but once I start cooking for myself I begin to feel hungry, which is what I need to learn.

I also kind of feel sorry for people who have never lived alone.

Take care and thanks again.

:-) Isn't it great how much

Isn't it great how much better you can listen to yourself when you aren't meeting the demands of others? Thirst was the thing I lost and had to relearn.

I agree, though, that sharing food is better. I used to make desserts and take them to work, before the whole world started dieting. Somehow, a bowl of steamed broccoli just isn't the same as a mocha caramel cheesecake!


Now I'm offended!

Thanks for your article Jeremy. Well, you did invite me to comment again after our debate over your usage of meta-meta. I should've replied "I'll be back..."

I (tongue-in-cheek) have to say that a polynomial function was not described as meta function by any of the superb mathematicians who tried their best to teach me mathematics.

I know full well that both engineering and psychological problems tend to get stuck in a local minima unless one has the knowledge/wisdom to understand that the polynomial has many other local minima to get stuck in. In engineering the goal is to find the best-fit minima in order to solve the problem as accurately as possible given the cost and time restraints of the project. Obviously, with hindsight and time better solutions can always be found.

No criticism intended, I'm just pointing out why someone with a totally different background from yours may dislike your usage of the term meta.

Best wishes,

Does this help or hurt my

Does this help or hurt my case:


The Wikipedia page on metastability describes a dynamic system in which a point of quasi-stability is reached before enough energy is eventually applied to move it into a position of optimal stability (its most stable state).

What is the position of optimal stability for each person on Earth? Nobody knows. The only way to find out is to experience many positions of quasi-stability then pick the one that produced the most contentment and joy -- not a course of action I would recommend for anyone other than those who thrive on the adrenalin produced by taking huge risks.

When tragedy occurs, a person may react either by clinging tightly to their current position of quasi-stability or by allowing this "energy input to the system" to move them forward to find a new position of quasi-stability (which will be more, less, or the same level of stability as before).

Thinking back to my days as a student... I was sure that I was making my life optimally fun and that I was pursuing my optimal career. Since I've retired I occasionally make people roar with laughter by saying: "I'm no longer young enough to know everything!"

Obviously, if I knew back then what I have since learnt, I would've made very different choices about almost everything. Like most people, I never reached my position of optimal stability, but I can increase the stability of my current position by remembering the highs and letting go of the lows.

I'm not trying to be argumentative, I just cannot begin to understand why you have used the science of system metastability in the context of contentment, joy, and teaching students. Personally, I feel this is a domain mismatch error.

Fair enough brother Peter

I work part time as a researcher on one of the more serious efforts anywhere to distinguish clearly between physics and life, energy and information, matter and mattering, ( so I too find my metaphor a bit troubling. Still, we're looking carefully for both parallels and contrasts and there are real ontological analogs, we believe, for example between physical work and mental work. And we're keeping in mind a distinction between heuristic and ontological metaphors. My ideas about meta-stability are about three weeks old, so I'm still not sure whether my analogy to metastability is heuristic (an "intuition pump") or ontological.

My background is also in micro-economics, a field which in it's pure research form (its core questions and assumptions) I respect as the most careful social science for analyzing the dynamics of value. From it I take a core assumption: Ignore ultimate value but assume everyone has some values. I talk in the article about rolling toward ultimate success. Given metastability I might never get there, but given micro-economics my definition of ultimate success is strictly subjective and at a given time. I've reached my definition of ultimate success and found it disappointing; I've sought ultimate success and changed my mind and definition of it.

As for no longer being young enough to know everything in my jazz bands I sing two songs with that theme. Dylan's line "I was so much older then; I'm younger than that now." and Van Morrison's line "And I shall never grow so old again." Amen to that.

So is it a domain mismatch error? I'm not sure yet. These weeks I'm playing seriously with the possibility that what we think of as resilience or robustness is in some ways analogous to metastabiltiy and I'm watching for the parallels and contrasts. So I welcome your challenges, and don't mean to swat them away here. I wonder what you think about it if we assume that while no one is young enough to know objective standards and values, still everyone has in-the-moment changeable, subjective values that would make some states more stable than others, and that we experience more room for serious play in contexts in which we subjectively feel that the possible outcomes are "all good." For example this conversation. I think I report accurately that my gut is open to you proving that mine is simply a domain mismatch, in part because being older I've learned how to readily use the powerful dignity-maintaining utterance "I stand corrected." Both corrected and still standing. ;-)

I thoroughly enjoy thinking with you and look forward to your response if you have one.


Different domains

Thank you very much for your detailed reply, Jeremy. As always, I really enjoy your replies and learn many things from them.

Now I can clearly understand that our different backgrounds are indeed the reason for us viewing certain concepts from very different perspectives: from different domains in my parlance. I have specific reasons to mention a possible domain error, but this is neither the time nor the place to explain them. My remit is to learn, it should not be to coerce others into accepting what I have learnt (probably incorrectly) -- this is a fault that I need to work on.

I shall attempt to answer your question: "...everyone has in-the-moment changeable, subjective values that would make some states more stable than others...".

1) Yes, I totally agree, however, my personal understanding is that this is the antithesis of the science of system metastability.

2) If I remember correctly, recent neuroscience and evidence-based psychology strongly suggests that we are hard-wired to obtain homeostasis on a minute-by-minute basis. Note: this is an iterative, not an immediate, subconscious adaptive mechanism.

3) Our subjective assessments are based on our emotions, which are derived from the plethora of somatic sensors scatted throughout our body. These assessments are, unfortunately, heavily biased by our hugely varying levels of neurotransmitters and hormones throughout each day, week, month, and year. They are also heavily biased by our experiences, which get updated many times each day (even by many of our 10,000 to 60,000 thoughts each day).

4) There is no self, there is no "unique me" inside our body. This is a very disturbing finding for most people. Professor Bruce M. Hood has written about this in his excellent book "The Self Illusion: Why There is No 'You' Inside Your Head". Warning: This is not suitable reading for those who wish to cling to their sense of identity!

Well, I could go on and on about the differences between being driven to optimise minute-by-minute homeostasis and trying to find a position of life-long optimal stability. Rather than bore everyone to sleep I shall end by hoping that you have found something of interest.

Convince yourself that there's no self

I hope you catch the irony in your line: "This is not suitable reading for those who wish to cling to their sense of identity!"

Those what??? What did you say? Those selves you mean?????

I think I read his book, and anyway I know plenty of others who follow that line of reasoning. The User Illusion, by Noretranders for example. It's actually the most popular approach to this stuff in science these days--Material eliminativism--you are nothing but a bunch of physic-chemical switches, or the Buddhist counterpart (On having no head, for example).

So now we get to square off delightfully. I'm with material eliminativists like you in defying the argument that there's a core, physical, soul-atom, unique me inside us, a view sometimes called preformationism (the belief that there's a self pre-formed in us or for that matter in the universe called God.) But neither eliminativism or preformationism work. We don't just cling (a shaming word), even the non-clinging like you cling apparently, in that you employ self-reference throughout your message.

I come not to bury selves but explain them. I'm an emergentist, meaning I believe selves are real--they do real intentional work in the world. With Terry Deacon, I'm working on an ontology of epistemology, the the physical origins of selves, and we're making decent progress. Here's a draft distillation of that book "Incomplete Nature" I pointed you to above. If you (yes you, yourself are interested in exploring a sounder challenge to your idea that there is no self).

Great talking with you.


I humbly apologise

I had no intention of causing you offence or disrespecting your articles so I humbly apologise for my ineptly worded comments.

Best wishes,

Hey Pete

I woke this morning picturing how my response to your comment might have come across as frustrated, or at least an attempt at dominance, what with it's rhetorical questions with all those question marks after. I read us as having found an easy directness within strong affinity. I'm sorry that I misread how safe you felt playing and sparing with me. I figured we were just talking and arguing ideas. I felt no disrespect from you at all and took no offense.

You did deserve my humble apology

Thanks Jeremy. While I was writing yesterday I lost track of time and didn't realize how tired I was getting. I went to make a mug of tea then noticed is was around 4 AM!

My comments were indeed ineptly worded. My worst blunder was "Warning: This is not suitable reading for those who wish to cling to their sense of identity!" What I meant was that I'm fairly sure all of us would want to cling to our sense of identity if someone or something was about take it away from us or change it in some way.

It took me a great deal of courage to start reading Bruce Hood's book because I knew part of my old familiar "self" would be torn away from me. This is exactly what happened and it was very unpleasant for a while. Now that I've adjusted to what I learnt I can see it was something that I really needed to learn.

You can imagine how distressed I was to find I had implied that you cling to your sense of identity and I don't. My humble apology was very much in order because it appeared that I was hurling an insult at you.

My error led to totally screwing up the whole meaning of my comment.

I really enjoy our discussions. The only thing I don't feel safe about is my poor ability to write what I mean. When I make another mistake like this I hope you'll be able to easily spot it and ask me about it.

But I wasn't offended, I was doubting your assertion

Nice to have you back Pete,

At our best we struggle to figure out how to say what we mean and also to figure out what we mean. This kind of philosophizing is a peculiarly stubborn attempt to think clearly, which entails facing squarely, playfully and honestly into our inconsistencies. You were and are being inconsistent in ways that might pique your curiosity.

Why if the self is such a vaporous illusion do all of us embrace the idea that we are ones? I know I do. I know you do. I've never met anyone who doesn't, not even the most enlightened Buddhists.

Really, don't apologize, scan that long article I sent you. Tell me what you think. Yes you, the self you are, tell me, the self I am, and us the selves we are what you the self you are, think of it.

Cheers and fondly, reliably un-offended and happy to play seriously with these ideas with you.


What the huh??!

I didn't feel disrespected in the least. I felt engaged. Please don't apologize. And if you feel like it respond to the content of my last comment. I think we're on to interesting topics. Sorry if I gave you the impression a sorry was in order.



As an outsider watching the

As an outsider watching the conversation, I was also surprised by the apology, as I perceived it the same way you did. I hope Pete returns, as I was finding the exchange stimulating.

re As an outsider watching

Thanks for your comment, it was much appreciated.

One problem is the time difference between locales. E.g. if I have a good sleep then am busy for most of the next day it may seem to those in other locales as if I suddenly stopped writing a slow but steady stream of comments for no obvious reason.

The other problem is that I still cannot figure out why some of my comments appear almost immediately after sending them yet others can take the best part of a day to appear.

Combining those two factors results in a bit of frustration for me, but must be very confusing to some of the readers at times.

Please join in with the exchanges.

Best wishes,

Glad you're back! :-) I've

Glad you're back! :-)
I've also noted the lag on some posts and not on others. However, the difference in time zones is one of the things that makes the internet so valuable; people who live far apart might otherwise never talk to each other at all.

As for joining the exchange, I'm finding the conversation fascinating, but also over my head, as it's a relatively new topic to me. I don't want to intrude where I don't know enough to be able to add much. You've both got good pointers to further reading, though.

Pointers to further reading

Many thanks for your kind words.

You may enjoy reading these two books:
The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark by Carl Sagan.
Critical Thinking: A Concise Guide by Tracy Bowell & Gary Kemp.

The order of reading is very important because Sagan amply demonstrates why acquiring critical thinking skills (an initially boring and laborious task) is essential in the modern world.

I could say more, but Sagan's writing is far more profound and inspiring than anything I will ever be able to write!

Thanks! I've heard of both

Thanks! I've heard of both books, but haven't read either, or the other two mentioned in this exchange. I value critical thinking, but have no idea how well I do at it. There's always room for improvement!

re Convince yourself that there's no self

Note: This paragraph is not my answer, I'm clearing this stuff out of the way now so it won't hinder our ongoing discussion. From a strictly scientific perspective, the title of your comment is illogical. You first show me solid evidence for the "self" (yes, solid evidence because the plural of anecdote is not data); show me a peer-reviewed paper published in a top-quality journal on the hypothesis that was derived to explain the solid evidence, including the test methodology and test results, and I'll be happy to critique it for you. This is how science works. The burden of proof lies with the claim-maker. "What can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence." -- Christopher Hitchens.'_razor

I'm sure we both agree that only a total fool would attempt that sort of approach to dismiss the existence of a "self". We've already established that we are both convinced that a "self" does exist, due to the combination of: our own experiences; the overwhelming anecdotal evidence; and the results of many studies. As there is currently no science-based explanation we have to use the evidence-based approach and be guided by (more accurately, auditable by) philosophy, especially the areas of epistemology that address knowledge and the scientific method.

I've read your long and very interesting article you linked to. It has made me aware of the vast differences between the way the two of us understand some of the topics we discuss.

The article stopped me in my tracks near the beginning where you mention science and genetic information. You wrote: "How does a chemical become information about something? Not only is this question unanswered, it’s hardly asked." Not being rude, but the reason the question is hardly asked is because it's the wrong question: the right question was answered ages ago and the answer is not in dispute. The answer just so happens to not fit your definition(s) of information.

The reason that it's called genetic information is because, as with all forms of information transmission, it is subject to the universal laws of information theory. Stochastic processes, for example, corrupt genetic codes just as they corrupt all forms of digital data transmission and analog information transmission.

Ask yourself "How do photons become information?" then think about the optical fibre cables enabling us to have this discussion and think about the information we receive via gazing up at the night sky. The photons don't become information unless we misuse the term information by committing what I refer to as a domain error (others may prefer referring to it a contextual error).

I can sort-of accept most of your article because I agree with many of your high-level concepts, but I cannot accept some of your core tenets and assertions. I'm not claiming they are wrong, just that I would be wrong to suspend my critical thinking and areas of expertise in order to agree with you. Your argument is inductive and, to me, its inductive force is seriously weakened by what I consider to be some shaky core premises plus unreasonable rhetoric near the start.

The concept of a "self" as being a strong influence on our behaviour and our (mis-)interpreter of reality is something I do not contest. I can even concede that, for most practical purposes, we effectively have what is commonly understood to be free will.

What I cannot (and will never) do is reject recent and emerging evidence from cognitive neuroscience that increasingly debunks not only our overwhelmingly convincing concept-of-self, but also all of the psychology that was/is based on hopelessly flawed assumptions.

I was blissfully unaware of some of the things you mentioned, such as material eliminativism. I have absolutely no interest in reading pop-science, pop-psychology, New Age, etc. etc. because none of that will ever be able to properly answer serious questions about the "self" and ethics.

I assume that you thought I had been misguided by the plethora of writers who earn their income from serving up the findings of neuroscience in a form that maximally sells rather than one that maximally informs (sensationalism sells, science does not).

The huge problem with so many existing models in psychology is that they totally fail to properly include the time domain. A superb example is executive functions: there's so much debate over it that many think I'm an ass simply because I'm untrendy by refusing to drop the final "s". I won't drop the "s" because the notion of having only one seamless executive function in my brain is even more absurd than having none at all!

The reason I mentioned Bruce Hood's book and described it as excellent is because of his rare ability to understanding the extreme importance of using sub-second data capture in order for us to begin to unravel the true nature of the "self". If you take the time to fully absorb even just the first few chapters of his book then you may discover why its title is so profoundly accurate.

If we want to understand and accept the precise science-based reasons why free will does not and cannot possible exist, yet ethically we can still be held accountable for possessing it, then it is necessary to firstly understand the plethora of intricate timing mechanism in the brain. Reading a few books will most probably cause confusion rather than enlightenment on this hotly debated subject.

Like many things in life, without firstly gaining a strong command of the core principles of a subject it is not possible to gain true knowledge of the higher-level concepts. At best, we can hold only beliefs and opinions.

One final point to make up for not showing any banter in this reply. You said in another comment "You were and are being inconsistent in ways that might pique your curiosity." If we ever meet in person (which is sadly very unlikely) then I shall do my very best to reply to that with such a funny answer it will make you laugh many times during the rest of your life. The truth is often much stranger, and far more unbelievable, than fiction!


Thank you Pete

This clarifies where you're coming from, our points of affinity and of difference. I don't have time for a full answer here, but I'll identify two differences. You subscribe to the overgeneralization of Shannon's communication theory that is so popular among scientists these days. By his own account, and in the immediate critique of it by folks like McCullough, his theory doesn't speak at all to how information comes to represent things, how it gains the about-ness and for-ness that for example make such a huge difference in outcomes to saying yes to a binary yes/no question when it's "Will you marry me?" vs. "Do you want chips with that?"

Secondly, you do sound more like a logical positivisit than I'll ever be. Not in practice where I find you as rhetorical and intuition-driven as the next guy, the next guy being for example me, but in your claims of having the higher ground, as though you are somehow only working from evidence and pure reason, while the likes of me are more impressionable and deluded. I'm a Peircian fallibalist. I trust science as the best way to make guesses, but I admit that they're still guesses that make it harder for me to get on my high horse and express my sense that I'm a scientists and others aren't.

Again I'm not taking offense. But I am sparing on content, in pursuit of truth that emerges from arguments among friends, in our case scientific friends.

I encourage you to take a look at the book I was attempting to distill in that long article. Incomplete Nature by Terrence Deacon. And here's a link to a two part article on the problems ignored by treating all change as information, and the solution:

In ongoing conversation and friendship,


The absurd misuse of Shannon's communication theory

The science of a building brick does not begin to describe how bricks come to represent buildings. It isn't supposed to. It's a pity McCullough and others seem to have failed to understand such a fundamentally important point. I do not subscribe to the overgeneralization of Shannon's communication theory; quite the opposite is true, as I shall demonstrate using science rather than opinion :-)

Let's consider a digital television system using satellite communication. Shannon's communication theory was used to determine the size of the communication dishes and the transmit power levels required to convey the information, over the intended area of ground coverage, with a low enough error rate for the system to deliver acceptable performance to the viewers. Communication theory also enabled the network operator to perform communication system cost-benefit analysis during the system selection and design phases of the project.

Do we see and hear the information sent over this communication system? No, not ever. What we observe is not the communication channel information (the digital codes), we observe the programme content information that was encoded into digital codes, sent via the communication channel, then decoded by our TV receiver. These two types of information are worlds apart and Shannon's communication theory has nothing whatsoever to do with the programme content information. The programme content information is the sole purpose of the complete information distribution system, which consists of many subsystems -- each of which has specific branches of science associated with it.

This communication channel could be used to convey an architect's instruction for a building. Based on my previous post, I now ask "How does a modulated radio signal become a building?" An obviously silly question that is rarely asked. To criticise Shannon's communication theory for not being able to address this question is far beyond being silly; it is even beyond absurd. It isn't even funny: this type of monumental tragedy should not be occurring in the 21st Century. The reasons that it is still occurring are manyfold and I have zero desire to write several books to explain most of them.

Suppose the picture and sound on my TV start to break up and freeze. I notice that there's a heavy snowstorm overhead. The most likely explanation for my TV reception fault is that the weather has locally attenuated the satellite downlink signal, which reduces my received signal-to-noise ratio, which increases the error rate in my received digital codes to the point where my receiver is no longer able to provide acceptable performance. Shannon's communication theory definitely applies in this situation because it enables us to derive the relation between signal-to-noise ratio and error rate for the communication channel.

Sometimes the picture and sound on my TV start to break up and freeze on a good weather day. Does Shannon's communication theory still apply? It might if there is a heavy snowstorm over the satellite uplink dish. However, it would apply to a very different link in the system chain: the uplink, which does not carry the same information as the downlink. There are many other causes of these same fault symptoms, such as the onset of electronic component failure, which has nothing whatsoever to do with communication theory.

Suppose I now start to talk about the term "channel information" and question the use of the word information in this term. Am I talking about the communication channel information (if so, which link in the system chain) or the TV channel information (programme content). Who could ever figure out what the heck I'm really really talking about?

I hope that I have at last managed to make it crystal clear that the word information is completely meaningless unless we specify very precisely the domain (context) in which we are using it. The word information is as meaningless as me stating that an object has a temperature of 30 degrees. We all know what degrees are, but I haven't specified whether I mean kelvin, Celsius, or Fahrenheit therefore I am conveying nothing to the reader other than I expect them to correctly guess the units. This simply isn't good enough. It's sloppy, arrogant, incompetent, and strongly suggest that readers should be highly skeptical of everything I say and write.

If anyone reading this thinks for one moment that I'm having a personal dig at Jeremy then they haven't read, and fully understood, The Demon-Haunted World by Carl Sagan. This book should be a mandatory element of basic education.

There are several reasons why I enjoy science. The most important reason is because science would not be self-correcting if it was unable to withstand the harshest of criticism. The scientific process includes peer-review, which to many sounds like a close-knit community that does not tolerate outsiders or dissenters. Nothing could be further from the truth, science is not a dogmatic religion. A few school children have changed our scientific knowledge for the better. Yes, even a child can formally challenge the established work of experts. I think this is beyond delightful, I find it awe-inspiring that experts can fully accept a child as their scientific peer.

In science there are no authorities because philosophy has taught us than an appeal to authority is one of the vast number of logical fallacies that humans so frequently fall foul of. Okay, so are there any experts in science? No! There are experts in certain narrow fields, but no human mind is capable of being even reasonably competent in all areas of science. This is why the scientific method mandates peer-review.

Jeremy, please do not think I'm expecting you to reply to all or any of the points I have made in this and my previous post. I have no desire to distract you from your very interesting work. Although this reply will display on the website under your previous comment, it isn't specifically addressed to you -- I have tried to write some things that may be of interest to Fly on the wall.

As always: many thanks, no disrespect intended, and my sincerest best wishes,

" I have tried to write some

" I have tried to write some things that may be of interest to Fly on the wall."

You succeeded admirably! Between the two of you, I think you're going to make my summer reading list rather unwieldy! You've both mentioned books that I do want to read. And what you've posted here is very clear and well-illustrated, despite my not having read Sagan.

Good. We agree but...

...what then is content?

We boh agree with Shannon that reduction from possible to realized difference is the medium through which information passes, and not the information itself. So what is information my dear scientist. How does interpretation of realized difference happen?


Does this puzzle provide some sort of answer?

In the following list can you accurately describe the information and, if different, the content, realization, and interpretation(s): molecule; RNA; DNA; gene; chromosome; cell; neuron; synapse; neurotransmitter; organ; eye; thought; speech; hand gesture; a long essay; art; a lifetime of human existence.

It seems like a reasonable question because the list is a sort-of linear progression from the first item to the last item (in terms of complexity and information content) and each item depends on combinations of atoms.

Is it possible for anyone to answer the question? If yes then who could; if not then why not?

I certainly can't answer the question because I don't know the context of the question. I can't even begin to imagine a context that would be suitable unless I adopt Humpty Dumpty's attitude as I describe each item in the list.

"'When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, 'it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.'" -- Lewis Carrol.

Ignore my puzzle

After many hours of thinking about my puzzle it has provided me with a partial answer. See my comment: The Stop Sign -- I've identified the information.

The Stop Sign -- I've identified the information

I've been trying to identify the information in your stop sign example since I first read it. It's really obscure, which is why it's taken me quite a while. Here's my solution...

The physical stop sign never changes therefore, as a signalling device, it appears to be useless/broken (like having traffic lights permanently at red or a flag permanently in one position).

The stop sign is part of a traffic flow control system and it definitely works, but how? Forget interpretive work performed by the driver, we'll investigate the functionality of the signalling system for just one vehicle approaching it (to keep it as simple as possible).

A functional equivalent is: A vehicle stops at the "STOP" sign; when the traffic is clear the sign changes to "GO" then resets to "STOP" as the vehicle goes past to ready it for the next vehicle.

Now, let's translate this equivalent model back to the real version. The traffic detector is the driver who knows that the stop sign means "STOP" until the traffic is clear. When the traffic is clear the meaning of the sign changes to "GO" even though it still physically says "STOP".

The driver mentally changes the "STOP" instruction to the "GO" instruction, just as if the sign itself had changed to "GO".

So, even though the physical sign never changes, its meaning does change and this is what enables it to act as a stop/go signal in the traffic control information. The fact that part of the traffic control system is the driver is irrelevant -- this just makes it a distributed control system rather than a centralized control system (such as traffic lights).

What conclusions can we draw from this? When we look at the physical layer of this traffic control system the stop sign conveys to the viewer a red symbol and the word STOP. It is not a signal, it is a static sign.

If we now look at the functional layer of this system the stop sign is indeed a stop/go traffic control signal, it is not a static sign.

When we are dealing with complex multilayer systems (e.g. organic) it is often extremely difficult to define component parts as symbols, signals, information, functions, etc. because the meaning changes across the layers.

What is information? I suppose the most sensible way to start answering this is by asking "Who wants to know, and why?"

You're courting mysterianism

You're courting mysterianism here, acting like what info is really can't be known, or is entirely subjective, which is a weird option for a scientist but not uncommon.

I think info can be defined, but that you have to block three exits to concentrate your mind on the question.

Eliminativism: Everything is just efficient cause, physical switches interacting: X bumps Y and moves it. Therefore info is just switches.
Vitalism, dualism: There's an invisible functional layer of stuff, invisible matter that does all the functional mattering.
Mysterianism: There's no knowing.

Maybe read these two summary articles if you feel like it, a recent attempt to define info based on the Terry Deacon research.



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


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