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A Sourcebook for the Worldwide Discovery of a Creative Organic Universe
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III. Ecosmos: A Revolutionary Fertile, Habitable, Solar-Bioplanet, Incubator Lifescape

C. The Information Computation Turn

Farnsworth, Keith, et al. Living is Information Processing; from Molecules to Global Systems. arXiv:1210.5908. As the information-computation turn rises, this October 2012 posting by mathematical biologists Farnsworth and John Nelson, Queen’s University Belfast, and Carlos Gershenon, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, describes a temporally stratified cosmos suffused with algorithmic programs from physical to ecological scales. In this software/hardware, 21st century scenario, nested, autopoetic organisms are seen to iteratively compute and evolve themselves. Informative patterns arise “spontaneously” as they are “instantiated” in animate, somatic form. A “major evolutionary transitions” sequence is then laid out across biomolecules, proto-cells, prokaryotic cells, microbial colonies, eukaryotes, multicellular organisms, and ecological networks.

The paper merits extensive excerpts to convey its reach and import. To avail a natural philosophy, in contrast to an arid string multiverse nothingness, along with other contributions herein, a second, immaterial generative source is added once again in a novel way. But sprinkled metaphors of gene regulatory machinery, cybernetics, biosphere as a network computer, persist. We’re getting closer, but not yet able to imagine an innately organic uniVerse, where such formative phenomena could take on the guise and visage of a cosmic genetic code – original and independent, universally exemplified, lately breaking through as conscious knowledge, languagome, by an ordained human witness.

We extend the concept that life is an informational phenomenon, at every level of organization, from molecules to the global ecological system. According to this thesis: (a) living is information processing, in which memory is maintained by both molecular states and ecological states as well as the more obvious nucleic acid coding; (b) this information processing has one overall function - to perpetuate itself; and (c) the processing method is filtration (cognition) of, and synthesis of, information at lower levels to appear at higher levels in complex systems (emergence). We show how information patterns, are united by the creation of mutual context, generating persistent consequences, to result in ‘functional information’. This constructive process forms arbitrarily large complexes of information, the combined effects of which include the functions of life. Molecules and simple organisms have already been measured in terms of functional information content; we show how quantification may extended to each level of organization up to the ecological. In terms of a computer analogy, life is both the data and the program and its biochemical structure is the way the information is embodied. This idea supports the seamless integration of life at all scales with the physical universe. (Abstract)

Information is therefore not just stored in nucleotides: it is the whole biological system that embodies effective information, hence biocomplexity as a whole is the storage of effective information in living nature. (9) The total of global ecological processes may be interpreted as a network computer, whose input is the physical and chemical environment of the planet and the output is a computed adjustment of these to maintain equilibrium. Seen this way, life is a computer running a model of itself in order to control its interior state so as to perpetuate itself in a changeable environment. This view, which goes beyond cybernetic self-regulation to reveal autopoietic computation, is closely allied to a growing thermodynamic understanding of living processes in which energy accountancy is integrated with informational interpretations. (16)

The information perspective shows life to be a) continuous with the abiotic universe and b) the consequence of a spontaneous increase in complexity through repeated combination of formative patterns such that they give context and thence function to one-another. (17) Considering life as information processing (computation) where the subject of computation is life, we are faced with a ‘program’ running on itself, the function of which is to output itself. Such recursion is familiar and much exploited in computer science. It highlights the fact that for life, there is no distinction between the ‘machine’ and the program - both are information; they are the same information, ordering and re-ordering matter and energy so as to persist. It would not be right to think of life as a biochemical structure on which a program is run, because life is the program and the biochemical structure is its embodiment. This is why we say that information is not just in DNA, but is in the whole biological system. (17) Now that functional information content can be quantified at every level of life, we anticipate its use in further deepening our understanding of life and its place in the physical universe. (17)

Feistel, Rainer. Self-Organization of Symbolic Information. European Physical Journal Special Topics. Online December, 2016. The Leibniz Institute for Baltic Sea Research physicist (search) continues his project since the 1980s, often with Werner Ebeling (search each), to achieve a theoretical explanation from cosmic structural, thermodynamic, and informational properties for life’s subsequent evolutionary emergence unto our retrospective human sapience. Into the mid 2010s a coherent scenario is becoming evident by way of innate, constant, self-organizing processes which result in a cumulative increase, storage, and practical veracity of knowledge. By this view a natural text-like narrative, as the quotes note, is seen to rise with and pass through organic development to our late articulation. By turns the physical universe gains a literary base, with which our linguistic intelligence can be connected and sourced. A further gloss might be to imagine a self-deciphering, reading, comprehending genesis, by way if its own genetic code, in order to commence our own future edition.

Information is encountered in two different appearances, in native form by arbitrary physical structures, or in symbolic form by coded sequences of letters or the like. The self-organised emergence of symbolic information from structural information is referred to as a ritualization transition. Occurring at some stage in evolutionary history, ritualization transitions have in common that after the crossover, arbitrary symbols are issued and recognized by information-processing devices, by transmitters and receivers in the sense of Shannon's communication theory. Symbolic information-processing systems exhibit the fundamental code symmetry whose key features, such as largely lossless copying or persistence under hostile conditions, may elucidate the reasons for the repeated successful occurrence of ritualization phenomena in evolution history. Ritualization examples are briefly reviewed such as the origin of life, the appearance of human languages, the establishment of emergent social categories such as money, or the development of digital computers. In addition to their role as carriers of symbolic information, symbols are physical structures which also represent structural information. (Abstract)

As the narrative historical may plausibly suggest, also for the general case, symbolic information is originally obtained from ambient structural information. Symbolic information has a purpose, namely the prediction of effects of future activities, derived from experience gathered in the past and safely stored away. Biological species carry symbolic information in their genes, collected over billions of years during the evidently successful struggle for existence of all ancestor generations back to the very originof life in order to equip recent offspring with inherited symbolic information as a recipe for their survival in the future. This method of transmitting information from the past to the future, using symbols as a “time capsule,” was overly successful in the biological, social, scientific and technological evolution. (2)

In this article, ritualization is understood quite generally as a universal qualitative transition from basic structural to the emergent symbolic information properties of signals or coded sequences of letters, in the course of evolution processes. Reitualzation had been defined previously in several ways such as the development of signal-activity from use-activity of animals, or as the self-organized emergence of systems capable of processing symbolic information. (3-4) The very first self-organized symbols appeared at the molecular level, namely as RNA and DNA chain molecules in protocells during the origin of life. (7)

Floridi, Luciano. The Logic of Information: A Theory of Philosophy as Conceptual Design. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019. In this third work of his Information tetralogy after Philosophy (2013) and Ethics (2015), the Oxford University scholar (search) presses a constructivist view whence human beings, lately immersed in a global sensorium, seem made and meant to take up future material and organic cocreation. The informed content and consent of our cumulative knowledge store (library of cosmos) can be a resource for such intentional imaginations. (Floridi is also editor of the Springer journal Philosophy and Technology, whose June 2019 Homo faber issue (32/2) explores the subject.) What accrues is a lively naturalism with a computational source that advises the more we know and share, the more we can altogether achieve a better future.

Thanks to Alan Turing, the Baconian-Galilean project of grasping and manipulating the alphabet of the universe has begun to find its fulfillment in the computational and informational revolution, which is affecting so profoundly our knowledge of reality and how we conceptualize it and ourselves within it. From this perspective, the philosophy of information can be presented as the study of the informational activities that make possible the construction, conceptualization and finally the moral stewardship of reality, both natural and artificial, both physical and anthropological. The philosophy of information enables humanity to give meaning to and make sense of the world and construct it responsibly. (213)

Floridi, Luciano. The Philosophy of Information. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011. The University of Hertfordshire Unesco Chair in Information and Computer Ethics continues his erudite advocacy of this “fourth revolution,” namely Alan Turing after Copernicus, Darwin, and Freud, to appreciate how our lives, now of worldwide extant, and the natural cosmos, are much more than material, they are primarily semantic and communicative. Check the author’s web page for more contributions.

Table of Contents: 1: What is the Philosophy of Information? 2: Open Problems in the Philosophy of Information 3: The Method of Levels of Abstraction 4: Semantic Information and the Veridicality Thesis 5: Outline of a Theory of Strongly Semantic Information 6: The Symbol Grounding Problem 7: Action-Based Semantics 8: Semantic Information and the Correctness Theory of Truth 9: The Logical Unsolvability of the Gettier Problem 10: The Logic of Being Informed 11: Understanding Epistemic Relevance 12: Semantic Information and the Network Theory of Account 13: Consciousness, Agents and the Knowledge Game 14: Against Digital Ontology 15: A Defence of Informational Structural Realism.

Floridi, Luciano, ed. The Routledge Handbook of Philosophy of Information. London: Routledge, 2016. The Oxford University professor of Philosophy and Ethics of Information is the main advocate of this conceptual movement. Here he gathers a luminous collection across four parts: Basic Ideas, Quantitative and Formal Aspects, Natural and Physical Aspects, and Human and Semantic Aspects. Chapters consider computations, mathematics, probability, algorithms, logic, processing, AI, data, quantum, teleology, communication, and a lot more. We especially note Information Metaphysics: The Nature of Reality by Terrell Ward Bynum (search).

Gershenson, Carlos. The World as Evolving Information. Arxiv:0704.0304v3. The author is presently a postdoctoral fellow at Vrije Universiteit Brussel and the New England Complex Systems Institute. I find this August 2007 paper to be a concise review of an innately semiotic cosmic and earthly milieu, with a sense of what deep revisions that would imply. In such regard, five ’laws’ are proposed of: information transformation, propagation, requisite complexity, criticality, and organization.

An October 2010 update to the paper with more laws of information, now appears as volume 3 on arXiv, and soon to be published in Understanding Complex Systems by Springer.
Postdoc Gershenson is now a full time researcher at the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico, and also Editor-in-Chief of Complexity Digest.

This paper discusses the benefits of describing the world as information, especially in the study of the evolution of life and cognition. Traditional studies encounter problems because it is difficult to describe life and cognition in terms of matter and energy, since their laws are valid only at the physical scale. However, if matter and energy, as well as life and cognition, are described in terms of information, evolution can be described consistently as information becoming more complex. (Abstract)

Ghavasieh, Arsham and Manilo De Domenico. Statistical Physics of Network Structure and Information Dynamics. Journal of Physics: Complexity. February, 2022. University of Trento and Padua theorists consider a deeper, physical basis for network topologies, and their active informative content. In regard, they note how ubiquitous these phenomena are being found across every scale and instance. See also Statistical Physics of Complex Information Dynamics by the authors at arXiv:2010.04014.

Over the past decade, network science has well advanced the analysis of natural and social systems from quantum to deep learning phases. Specifically it allows one to define information-theoretic tools for use with a grounded physical basis in terms of a statistical field theory of computational dynamics. We discuss the some salient theoretical features of this framework and selected applications to protein–protein interaction networks, neuronal systems, social and transportation networks, as well as quantum network science and machine learning. (Abstract excerpt)

Gleick, James. The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood. New York: Pantheon, 2011. In 1987 Chaos: Making a New Science by this science journalist told so well the cast of players and approaches beginning to engage nature’s complexities that the endeavor rose into public awareness. A generation later, in the age of Google, his second opus seeks to identify, chronicle, and define this title property as the quintessence of universe and human. The work begs a long review, for it is a capsule of our situation. As a starter, the text struggles with a mix of metaphors. Jorge Borges’ infinite library with all knowledge but no catalog is apt, so is John Archibald Wheeler’s self-realizing, ‘it from bit,’ cosmos. But does raw randomness rule per Richard Feynman, Jacques Monod, and Gregory Chaitin, or a textual reality that “computes its destiny” per Alan Turing? Is a “program” really running universe and us with its own content and intention? But a magnificent read, leading to these further ruminations.

While Gleick’s first landmark about nonlinear theories conveyed a sense of promise, by 2011 a weariness unto despair before insensate algorithms and a boggling multiverse seems to have set in. The well-studied chapter essays seem unawares of deep contradictions. After scene-settings about early alphabets, calculating engines, and other aspects, “Life’s Own Code” narrates how the presence of generative nucleotides became known, much through linguistic script, editing, and transcription analogies. Apropos, I visited the Santa Fe Institute in 1987 to hear a talk by Harold Morowitz, Stuart Kauffman was in the audience, an expectation of breakthroughs in the air. In the quarter century since, self-organizing, complex adaptive network systems have indeed been found from galaxies to genomes. A double domain is indeed revealed of an explicate, scale-invariant recurrence and an implied, implicate, mathematical source.

But a Ptolemaic physics has hardened over the same span. Two versions obtain – a material machine sans design or destiny, or a computational turn to hard matter and soft programs. Insightful reviews of the book that broach a way forward are Freeman Dyson’s (search), and Geoffrey Nunberg’s essay in the New York Times Book Review for March 20, 2011, about what to make of this literal “vital principle” or “primal substance” that so subsumes. From a global vista, one wonders if just by a shift of imagination, a woman’s bicameral mind, an organic gestation that every other age and culture reveres could be recovered. If via a biological procreation, an informational within of things could be realized as a “cosmic genetic code” of parental entity and empathy complements, a ‘methinks it is a genesis” moment might dawn. We could be that close.

Goonatilake, Susantha. The Evolution of Information. London: Pinter, 1991. Innovative conjectures and ideas on the operation of informative codes in genetic, neural, and cultural settings within a self-organizing universe.

The central thesis in this book has been that several phenomena covering a wide variety of disciplinary fields can be scientifically discussed by examining their information flow lines. (167)

Goyal, Philip. Information Physics – Towards a New Conception of Physical Reality. Information. 3/4, 2012. In this online paper, the SUNY Albany theorist summarizes the history and waxing status of this new formulation of quantum phenomena. Again taking John Archibald Wheeler as prescient exemplar (see quotes below), a major revision of cosmology is merited that includes, indeed requires, sentient observation by emergent aware entities for its full manifestation. By these lights, the classic, mechanical model of “matter moving in space by universal laws of motion” can be surpassed by the novel inclusion of the knowing, self-recognizing personages.

The concept of information plays a fundamental role in our everyday experience, but is conspicuously absent in framework of classical physics. Over the last century, quantum theory and a series of other developments in physics and related subjects have brought the concept of information and the interface between an agent and the physical world into increasing prominence. As a result, over the last few decades, there has arisen a growing belief amongst many physicists that the concept of information may have a critical role to play in our understanding of the workings of the physical world, both in more deeply understanding existing physical theories and in formulating of new theories. In this paper, I describe the origin of the informational view of physics, illustrate some of the work inspired by this view, and give some indication of its implications for the development of a new conception of physical reality. (Abstract)

“It from bit” symbolizes the idea that every item of the physical world has at bottom—at a very deep bottom, in most instances—an immaterial source and explanation; that which we call reality arises in the last analysis from the posing of yes-no questions and the registering of equipment-evoked responses; in short, that all things physical are information-theoretic in origin, and this in a participatory universe. (J. A. Wheeler, 584)

As described in Section 3, many developments in physics and other disciplines over the course of the last century have paved the way for the emergence of this informational view. One can discern a number of key stages in this emergence: Shift from the view of a physical theory as a description of reality in itself to a description of reality as experienced by an agent. Mach’s emphasis on the primacy of the experience of an agent over the concepts of a physical theory, thermodynamics as a theory explicitly constructed to interrelate the macro-variables accessible to limited agents, and quantum theory with its highly non-trivial model of the measurement process have all helped to shift the focus of physical theory from being a description of reality in itself to a description of reality as experienced by an agent. (584)

Haefner, Klaus, ed. Evolution of Information Processing Systems. New York: Springer, 1992. A good technical survey of the information perspective. Haefner’s introduction presents the basic concepts of a hierarchy of information processing at physical, genetic, neural, and social levels.

Hao, B.-L., et al. Fractals Related to Long DNA Sequences and Complete Genomes. Chaos, Solitons and Fractals. 11/6, 2000. A self-similar geometry distinguishes molecular genetic networks, which is then seen as a reflection of the underlying structure of nature.

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