NOTE: this is NOT a mathematical proof, a formal logic paper, nor even a science paper. It’s a blog post that contains interpretive statements and some shortcuts to get to the point. Maybe not even the point (s) I meant to make. also, i’m sure there are typos.
aka a Story.
My mostly-borrowed thesis: Everything is Information.
Various smart folks have put forward this basic theory. And I’ve personally come to believe it as truth.
Seth Lloyd put this basic theory forward in a clear way for a popular audience in his book “Programming the Universe”.
The universe is made of bits. Every molecule, atom, and elementary particle registers bits of information. Every interaction between those pieces of the universe processes that information by altering those bits. (page 3, Introduction)
Lloyd proceeds to draw out the universe as a computer paradigm and make a compelling case that everything is just information processing. It’s a paradigm many others have proposed but I really like the straight-forwardness of of Lloyd’s book.
Now I can’t prove his theory or this entire thesis that Everything is Information. I think Lloyd and others have done a really good job making a case for this view. I’m going to essentially treat it as an axiom and develop a train of thought from there. In the end of my explorations I’m led to a somewhat less borrowed thesis.
Art (and in particular STORY) is the most effective way humans can understand the universe and thrive
I can’t prove this either but why not shine a light on some data, some ideas, some commentary to perhaps make it easier to engage with this theory?
This thesis results from following a common thread to responses to questions like:
- What is a thought?
- Who am I?
- What is behavior? where does it come from?
- what is moral? what is a law? what do we value?
- what is computation? what is a general computer?
- is the universe/multiverse a computer?
- how did it all begin? how does it all end?
- why do people laugh? what is humor?
- what is art? why is some art good and other bad?
- what are forces? what is DNA in the abstract?
- what is mathematics?
- what is language? communication?
- what is time? what is space? what is motion? what is change?
- what is death? what is life?
- what is love? is love just a word or a real thing?
There’s certainly a large body of work (UNDERSTATEMENT!) attempting to answer these questions rigorously and thoroughly. By my interpretation of the work that I can actually consume, process and synthesize it all leads back to the kernel that the most fundamental concepts are information and the processing of information. Everything is information, nothing is information. A bit. 0. 1. Infinity. Blackholes. Planets. People. DNA. RNA. Animals. Humans. Language. Emotions. Behavior. Math. Love. Computers. Paintings. Books. Bosons. Time. Space. Existence. Non Existence.
What is is information. What happens is processing information aka computation.
Humans are a specific class of configurations of information. Survival is maintaining this class of configurations throughout processing. Evolution is the transformation of this class of configurations of information. Understanding is the processing capability to be aware of information configuration and processing (this is so strange loopy meta like). Thriving is a human ideal/feeling (also information configuration) of not merely surviving (passing genes on) but of actually playing a material and unique part of processing information.
What is Information then?
Seems to be a basic question to ask.
To be sure, this word information in communication theory relates not so much to what you do say, as to what you could say. That is, information is a measure of one’s freedom of choice when one selects a message.
This comes from Warren Weaver’s introduction to Weaver and Shannon’s “The Mathematical Theory of Communication.” This is a classic, the classic, book on information theory. It is a good place to start even though the language is somewhat anthropological.
I take the above quote in a broader sense that information is a measure of anything’s freedom of choice to be something else, to interact with other information. Everything has infinite freedom. Nothing has infinite freedom. All the various “things” or configurations of bits into bytes into megabytes and so has various measure of potential to be something/anything.
Whoa. That’s a mouthful of abstraction and ambiguity. Such is the danger of trying to talk about these topics!
[Remarkably reviewing entries on Wikipedia for Information yield a pretty confusing set of paths to explore the basic idea of information. WolframAlpha yields a variety of definitions, usage patterns and related terms that also lead in a wide variety of directions and abstractions. And perhaps, more interestingly, the choice was made to map the basic query “information” to pretty much EVERYTHING in WolframAlpha.]
The smallest amount of information is a bit. a 1 or a 0. that can be processed as open or shut, on or off, charge or no charge, etc. Put more bits together and things get interesting quickly. two bits and you get 4 numbers, little words, on, off, sort of on, sort of off and so on. You can build up the multiverse from this. You can write configurations of information that process other information aka “programs”. So the universe has a very large measure of information – lots of freedom of choice to configure bits.
And a little tangent here… don’t you need another concept “energy” that gives you the fuel to process information. Um, if you need that definition you can use it. It’s really just a short cut to get around defining everything in terms of information. e.g. how much energy a system has is just information about the rules for processing information.
Which then leads to wonder why there seem to be specific rules (information) about how to process information that give us this universe we experience. It’s not at all clear that this is true in the universe – that there are fundamental rules that cannot be different. The universe (this specific configuration of information) may have rules that it probabilistically are most likely to play out, but there’s not a requirement in the space of all possibilities.
It’s unlikely I’ve convinced you of Wheeler’s premise “it from bit” but hopefully there’s some understanding of how I interpret things.
What is Information Processing? What is Computation?
Well, in short, it’s the transformation of information configurations into other information configurations. Oh, sure, we can pick this a part and try to get more rigorous, which again, I’ll just refer folks to the smart people better able to draw all that out.
Processing could be random, a computation, simply letting time pass, anything really.
Computation is a bit more specific but still nebulous. Computation is a refinement of the general processing in the form of function or a program or an algorithm – a set of instructions or rules by which the processing occurs. I think it’s good to have this really abstract thing called processing and something more specific like computation because when you dig deep into things like computability you need these distinctions. Not all processing is computable processing.
However, in general I don’t really make much of a distinction going forward.
Now to make sense of any of this and make progress we have to tackle the universe of information configurations and how they come to be and how we figure them out.
What is Exploring The Space of Possibilities and Why Does That Matter
The universe is always computing. It’s exploring all possible configurations of information. We experience and/or observe just a tiny tiny bit of these configurations.
Computing/processing (observing, understanding, modeling, sharing) ALL information configurations takes more time and energy than any of us have. Heck, processing even a small portion of information takes more time and energy than we have. (wait, pause! by limits time and energy… I mean this current configuration of information we are in the form of cells, organs, brains, humans has instructions to transform into other information aka we die.)
The survival of humanity and of an individual depends on exploring ways of avoiding extinction in the face of information processes that change us (kill us, destroy the genetic code, etc).
If one’s goal beyond survival is to live well (thrive) by whatever definitions we concoct then we also need to explore the universe of possibilities at that level as well. And yes, I believe, our class of configurations, humans, has some embedded and learned processing instructions to do this. Perhaps it wasn’t always embedded but the process of evolution (or whatever other processing model is in place) seems to have selected a class of configurations that tries to thrive over those that just maintain the gene code.
There have been attempts to explain and interpret EVERYTHING through mathematics, physics, computer science, philosophy, religion, and so forth. All of these attempts are models of how it all works. Models of information and processing information that are more or less useful for figuring out ways to survive (and then to thrive). These are narratives or stories. Some more “formal” and “coherent” or “logically consistent” than others i.e. less open to interpretation and varied application of those interpretations.
What becomes apparent as you dig into each of these narratives and their connections to each other is that to actual make use of these narratives in our own lives consumes considerable amount of energy – more than our instruction sets provide. In short, you could not actually get through a day if all you did was try to use “math” to navigate life. Mathematical interpretation of all this information adds a layer of information that becomes all consuming to other forms of information processing that actually keep you alive much provide understanding.
Cutting to the chase, which is so hard to do, is that there are infinite number of information processing methods to gain understanding at work all the time. Math is one approach (well, it’s infinitely rich as well). Chemistry is another approach. and so on. All are universal processors – given enough time/energy they will explore the right possibilities.
And here we get to the BIG THESIS is that ART and STORY are the most efficient ways to explore the right information processing for humankind to improve chances of survival of the species and of an individual.
How Does Art, Story Compute and Explore the Right Possibilities more Efficiently
For whatever reason human nervous systems seem to be big fat pattern recognizers. That is they “see” patterns and change information configurations (behave) based on patterns. Successive exposure to the same pattern or similar patterns tends to reinforce specific behavior aka learning. (see experimental analysis of behavior for things like matching relation, etc. and various other learning theory and neuroscience material).
Learning is essential to avoiding “destructive” information configuration transformations (ya know, death).
So this thesis comes down to figuring out which ways of processing the universe teach the species (and its individuals) efficiently.
And this is where this essay has no ability to prove anything with rigor. That said, here goes.
Efficient learning involves efficient presentation of stimuli and efficient processing of that stimuli. In other words, to effectively teach someone you have to be able to communicate information with them in such a way that they can consume it, process it and learn from it with the limited time and energy they have to avoid destruction. There are some basic survival things “learned” in the gene code… various fixed action patterns like suckling and crying that get us going, but after that learning has to take pretty quickly to avoid the million different ways we can die at any given moment.
Now, before we get all crazy, let’s consider that humankind very much could have a different strategy for survival. But the fact is our current configuration is such that we take 9 months to bake in the womb, we come out needing lots of help and have a very long rearing stage while our brains and bodies grow and get to the point where we can pass on the gene code (can make eggs and sperm and mate). Having a person live this long and to select a viable mate makes learning some complicated stuff very quickly essential. And if you keep thinking about all this you end up looping in about did big brains create the need to learn or did stimuli start evolving brains (bad example) and all sorts of other statements we can never verify.
So here we are with this species. Over the centuries we’ve taught generation after generation how to survive and then how to contribute to the survival of the species. Which, to me, seems to rely on convincing each other to not just survive but to thrive so we’re more attractive to each other and all feel like living long enough to be fruitful and multiply.
What appears to be mostly true from history is that our primary way of teaching is through narrative. We concoct stories that are devoid of formal specifics and instead have some memorable themes, lessons and characters – you know, patterns we can interpret in a wide variety of contexts.
These stories come in the form of fables, religion, traditions, paintings and what not. ( I am not suggesting MEMEs. )
Stories seem to be really robust information packets. They can be poorly told and retain information value. They can carry on through various mediums. They are primitive packets of human information that survive generational death.
Formal mathematics, science texts, and what not are very dense information packets requiring very specific processing capability (a long time spent learning math!).
In essence stories help us avoid dying due Computational Irreducibility. Most things we experience, see are computationally irreducible. That is, to fully understand them would take forever and infinite energy. Stories provide a description of how the world works that our pattern recognition systems can story up a bunch of stories that help us react without needing complete knowledge. Stories are usually comprised of metaphors or rather we are good at using stories metaphorically to expand their utility. Bears eat people is equivalent to Big Brown things with Claws eat People and so on. (worth reading is Metaphors We Live By and responses like this)
It’s quite possible that with modern computers we’ll escape our current configuration computing limitations and we can describe the universe and the world around us with ever more precision and have enough time to not just live but thrive.
As it stands now, we’re still a world that relies on the telling of stories.
Our businesses need PR and business plans. Our politicians need platforms and slogans. Our kids need fables. Our families need traditions. Our economy needs advertising.
If we could simply process ALL INFORMATION we wouldn’t need short hand or interpretive information packets.
What Are The Implications
I think if we eliminate the need for story we’re not going to at all resemble this information configuration known as human. It’s neither bad nor good. Just different.
I think Story = Human.
I think we’re seeing, in some aspects of culture, the erosion of story and thus humanity. Facebook and twitter are more and more turning the daily experience into more and more specific, formal bytes of what’s going on. It’s quite possible that as web content gets more algorithmically generated we’ll just use algorithms to interpret it and as we get our phones and smart devices to do more and more stuff for us we’ll probably lose the ability and/or the need to tell stories and we won’t know the difference or care.
Humans aren’t efficient by very many measures. What we’re efficient at is telling and interpreting stories. This may not turn out to be a good ability for long term survival. I don’t even know of species survival is a good thing.
I do think everything is information and we’re part of that everything and that stories are a nifty little thing in the configuration of all things. and that of all the big questions I’ve chased down in life almost all of them have the best answers found in a story. It is a tale told by an idiot perhaps…..