Tuesday, January 13, 2004

The Scientist and Clark Goble asked me to perhaps explain my apparently enigmatic comments of the previous week. Put succinctly the issue is that of information. Now we can view information statically, as the mere content of something's state. This might be for some particle its momentum, potential energy, spin, and so forth. For more complex entities we can have considerable more information. We might even say that the information about an entity is that entity's meaning.

Now information contains within it not just what the entity is but also by extension a lot of what the entity may become. For instance knowing the mass, size and momentum of a pool ball I can say what its future state will be. If I have several pool balls I can do the same.

DNA, so conceived, is information in the same fashion. It is quite complex, of course. Far more complex than simply knowing the types of sub-molecules in the DNA. Just like the pool balls I can describe the future of the DNA's effects only as I know the information of what else is around. Considered as a very complex molecule its information isn't simply the computer program like "code" that we hear about. It also is the information about its molecules and atoms and how they interact with other substances around it. The manifestation of that DNA molecule can, however, be perfectly described as information. Indeed we can think of it as pure information.

Now I recognize that is a rather unusual way to think about it these days. Well, perhaps not. After all the long printouts of A's, T's and so forth is information. We just assume that somehow those codes describe a person independent of the real information which is the molecule acting as a very, very complex set of pool balls indeed. So complex that we can on describe its possibilities in very vague terms. Those vague terms may sound very exciting and precise. But compared to the information we are talking about, it makes up only an extremely tiny fraction of the meaning of the DNA. When you consider all the things the DNA will encounter, both as one particular molecule or all the molecules like it, then things get inconceivably complex.

Now why do I suggest we think about it like information? Well think about these words coming to you right now. They contain information. You act on them. What I'm suggesting is that the way all these DNA molecules act is in a fashion much like this. There are differences, of course. But differences of degree, not kind. In the physics of the interactions the atoms in the DNA act far more precisely than the way we interpret words. But ultimately we can describe both as information. Just as reading these sentences produces an idea, so to do interactions in the DNA produce new states - new information.

Now once we start thinking of all this as interactions and modifications of information we can generalize. When I see an email message that says, "meet me at 9," some complex events take place and eventually we have all sorts of molecules moving throughout my body causing me to take up my coat and leave my office. Information of one sort - words - leads to an information change of an other sort - the signals causing my leg muscles to contract eventually moving me towards the door. But ultimately it is all information.

If the spirit can interact, we can thus describe that interaction as a kind of information that interacts with other information (whether that be ideas, words, or perhaps even DNA molecules). Now if we can consider a lead atom floating into a cell information then we can consider a spirit information. We can see how a spirit can interact in many fashions. Further we see that information of all sorts can interact. We are conditioned to think of the arena of words and the arena of chemistry as fundamentally different. But they really aren't. They are all information.

When I talk of an information function I mean nothing more than information that transforms itself in certain respects. For instance two pool balls colliding transform their information in accordance to the laws of Newton. (Or at least close enough for our discussion) Now that is clear enough for pool balls, and perhaps even molecules. (Although even a simple molecular interaction would require a supercomputer to work out) But consider words. When you read a particular word, say the word "blue," why do you react the way you do. Do you consciously think about what the letters b-l-u-e mean? No. There is an information-function that creates some chain of significations leading to your experience of reading that word. Consider that in that chain are many very complex molecular interactions. But fundamentally this is all information-functions. Put simply, it is a kind of code. But not a precise code, such as we have for pool balls. Rather a code that is somewhat ambiguous and certainly depends upon many factors. Perhaps when you read that you simultaneously think of the blue sky outside. Perhaps you think of how sad you are when you feel blue. Perhaps you think of B. B. King and the blues. All those are part of the information-function. Somewhere there are complex codes describing all this - in their way perhaps even more complex than what happens when a DNA molecule and and RNA molecule meet.

Why do I bring all this up? Am I simply being verbose for verbosity's sake? Perhaps Mr. Goble will accuse me of such. However I simply wish to point out that intelligence is a form of information. It is information with associated functions. A spirit consists of this information and these transforming functions. So does DNA. So does a lead atom. All these things are information and have associated functions. The universe is so filled. Not only is the universe filled with them but all of them transform your body. We can't limit our discussion of DNA to just the DNA and neglect the lead atoms. But we also can't neglect the words you hear. It is all one great continuum - each having an effect.

My point was not to disagree with the Scientist, but perhaps to radicalize what he said. You must excuse an old man rambling on somewhat. The danger in terseness is difficulty. Now I've pontificated far too much and will be thought the old man who talks far too much. My one defense is that I so responded only upon nudging. I hope the other elders here will forgive me. I do think that thinking reality as a collection of entities, information and functions is a rather helpful endeavor. Perhaps if someone asks kindly, I'll even mention briefly how this conception of reality and religion ties into our namesakes of the 19th century...