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III. Ecosmos: A Fertile, Habitable, Solar-Bioplanet Lifescape

C. The Information Computation Turn

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.

Hayles, N. Katherine. How We Became Posthuman. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999. In a work on the transformative dynamics of cyberspace, a humanities professor perceives an active, formative information at the root of living systems. Insights abound: bodies are like books; our world is becoming virtual as informational patterns increasingly take over materiality.

Hayles, N. Katherine. My Mother was a Computer. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005. For past centuries, an era’s definitive machine, such as steam engine or telephone, became the image of natural reality. Hayles, a Duke University “postmodern literature critic” is well regarded for showing how complex system themes now pervade the arts - check Amazon for her Chaos and Order: Complex Dynamics in Literature and Science (1991) and How We Became Posthuman (1999). In this work, as the quotes note, she entertains the iconic computer model that has taken over our age and lives. Early chapters specify a “computational” universe, from Stephen Wolfram, Edward Fredkin to Harold Morowitz whose The Emergence of Everything (2002) views an ascendant evolution due to “interactions between components” which self-organize into a multilevel sequence. But per third quote, may one gain a deep insight that genetic phenomena is a complementarity of digital and analog, DNA and AND? Later chapters take on writers such as Neal Stephenson, Shelley Jackson and Stanislaw Lem who try to express reality as some sort of dynamic simulation. However might imaginations finally reach and read “Methinks it is a grand cosmos to child genesis?”

This view of materiality goes hand and hand with what I call the Computational Universe, that is, the claim that the universe is generated through computational processes running on a vast computational mechanism underlying all of physical reality. (3) In this context, “My mother was a computer” can be understood as alluding to the displacement of Mother Nature by the Universal Computer. Just as Mother Nature was seen in past centuries as the source of both human behavior and physical reality, so now the Universal Computer is envisioned as the Motherboard of us all. (3)

The Regime of Computation, then, provides a narrative that accounts for the evolution of the universe, life, mind, and mind reflecting on mind by connecting these emergences with computational processes that operate both in human-created simulations and in the universe understood as software running on the “Universal Computer” we call reality. This is the larger context in which code acquires special, indeed universal, significance. In the Regime of computation, code is understood as the discourse system that mirrors what happens in nature and that generates nature itself. (27)

Take DNA replication for example. DNA is often understood to operate as a digital code, in the sense that it is discrete rather than continuous. With the sequencing of the human genome, however, it has become clear that sequence is only part of the story, perhaps even the less important part. Protein folding, an analog process that makes use of continuous transformation in form, is essential to understanding how the genome actually functions. The combination of the two processes, the digitality of DNA and the analog process of protein folding, gives the gene its remarkable power of information storage and transmission. Similar cooperations between digital and analog processes occur everywhere in nature and in contemporary technologies. (29)

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