Numinations — June, 1998

It’s Alive!

© 1998, by Gary D. Campbell

Life is the collection of all entities that use information. Let’s “Numinate” and see if we can make this statement plausible. It’s short, and we shouldn’t have much trouble with what an entity is, or what a collection of entities is. “Life” is the thing we are attempting to define. The phrase, “use information” is where we run up against it. The definition draws a line: A thing is alive if it can “use information” and it’s dead (or lifeless) if it cannot.

Is a computer alive by this definition? A computer handles or processes information on behalf of its human “user” (there’s that word again). But, does a computer “use” information in its own right? The same could be asked of a virus. A virus contains information that is copied by the molecular machinery in living cells, but does a virus “use information?” To answer “no” to these questions, we need to understand how “use” differs from “contains,” “handles,” or “processes.”

”Use” implies function. It can imply a user and even a purpose. All of these imply a context. If you take the approach that a concept like “use” can be broken down into parts or assembled into a whole, you will never succeed in defining it. Some things can be handled like that, others cannot. There is, for example, the concept of an “emergent property.” It is easy for us to call an emergent property, such as consciousness, by a single word, but this does not make the concept of consciousness any less complex. An emergent property is something that disappears when dissected—just as life itself disappears when a living thing is dissected. An emergent property is something that arises from enormous complexity. Life is an emergent property. This does not mean it is mystical, nor does it mean that we can’t “Numinate” about it, it only means that we are dancing on the edge of a huge abyss when we do so. It is said that the longest journey begins with a single step. But, when you are standing on the brink of an abyss, that first step must be taken with care!

Let’s change tack and ask the question: “What is information?” The word “information” is defined by Webster as “the communication or reception of knowledge or intelligence.” Let’s shorten this, and say: “Information is the communication of intelligence.” We’ll assume that when communication occurs something is received, and that knowledge is a component of intelligence. The word “communication” generally means a transmission from one place to another. On a more technical level, communication also includes the processes of encoding and decoding. A communication is therefore intelligence encoded into matter or energy for the “purpose” of transmission, and decoded from that form into a form that is “usable” (whatever those words might mean in a given context).

The word “use” implies action within a context. Non-living things may form a pattern or environment or a “situation” for living things. But, like the living listener in the forest who hears the sound of a tree falling, and without whom the only event that occurs is a dispersion of energy, it takes a living thing to raise a “situation” to the level of a “context.” In the case of a sound and a listener, the distinction may be somewhat contrived—even unimportant. In the case of context and information, however, the precondition of life is fundamental.

For those familiar with information theory, information is always equivalent to a sequence of zeros and ones. Any information can be encoded as a binary string, but information theory never addresses use and context. When information is separated from its use and context, it is nothing more than a binary string. Information theory tells us how long a binary string needs to be to satisfy various constraints, but it tells us nothing about the meaning of a particular string of zeros and ones. Meaning is encoded as much in the use and context as in the information itself. This is why these things “emerge” and cannot stand alone.

Life and information arise together. Information in myriad forms can be found encoded within living entities. These forms, and their transmission from place to place, play various roles in the processes, plans, and goals of living entities and their various collections. In fact, many living entities are collections of smaller living entities. When a component of a living entity cannot be said to be using information in its own right, we have reached the atomic level of life. This is a level smaller than a cell, but not too much smaller. When an entity no longer has the potential for using information as it normally does, that entity is no longer living—it’s dead. An entity’s components may live on after the entity itself has died, but the death process generally works its way down to the smallest constituents. These non-living (sub-“atomic” or sub-living) pieces generally become food for other living things.

Life arises in a copying process. The smallest living constituent is assembled first, and larger components are assembled from replications of the smaller. The ways in which the final entity is able to use information circumscribe the destiny of that entity. This becomes, for a period of time, what defines that entity. Thus, the terms life and death are defined in terms of the beginning and ending of a particular entity with particular qualities.

New ways to synthesize information are invented over the course of evolution. Two species of entities could be compared in terms of the ways they both used information, and one could be judged more complex than the other on this basis. Generally, the more refined and complex ways to use information are layered on top of earlier ones, and this is perhaps the only basis for saying that one species is more “evolved” than another. The same can be said for the ontogeny of an individual.

You may have run across the phrase, “Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny.” This observation merely points out the remarkable parallel—not perfect, of course—between the growth of a fetus and the evolution of a phylum over time, from its one-celled ancestor to the form it has today. A copying process takes place when the cells of an organism divide during its growth (ontogeny). Another, but not too dissimilar, copying process takes place when organisms produce their offspring. Over the course of evolution, complex animals evolved from their single-celled ancestors (phylogeny).

Does a new human life begin at conception? No, because a human being can think and reason. Before we have developed that potential, and after we have lost it, we are not alive as human beings, we are merely life forms using information on some lower level. Conception produces a single cell. Much development occurs before a fetus even exists. A fetus develops through many stages before it becomes a human being. A fetus should be regarded as other creatures at similar stages of phylogeny to the ontogeny of the fetus. But, I digress.

For now, let’s get back to our two significant words: Use and Information. What does it mean to “use” anything? Does it imply purpose? Does it even imply a user? Purpose is a concept that has meaning in a human context. We apply the concept to any process involved with striving to attain some goal or objective. But, processes and structures can evolve, and evolution involves neither plan nor purpose. Thus, processes and structures can be “used” in the sense of playing a role or serving a function. In fact, much of what scientists do is to observe nature and identify the roles and functions of various processes and structures that they find there. Having thus “Numinated,” perhaps we have attained some comfort level with the word, “use.”

Consider once again the word, “information.” Think of two concepts that define a dichotomy, popular today, but barely recognized in the middle of this century when information theory first began to be studied. The dichotomy is that of hardware and software. Software cannot exist without a substrate of matter or energy. It is because it can have a substrate of energy that software can be non-corporeal. Software can be communicated. Software and information are virtually the same thing. Software can be “beamed up, Scotty!” Hardware cannot (although, by using information it can be copied).

Software can be translated from one substrate to another. This is exactly how and why software can be communicated. Hardware cannot be translated, it IS the substrate. It cannot be communicated, it can only be moved or transported. It can be described, but the map is not the territory, and it is a huge mistake to confuse it as such.

When information is used, a process of communication is serving a function in a larger process. If you can see evidence of this pattern, and it is active and ongoing, then the entity that contains it is alive (it might even be a society of living things). This is precisely the extent and the limit of the definition. In a sense, dualism is real! There is a conceptual and qualitative difference between mind and brain, or between the spirit and the body, just as there is between software and hardware, but there can be no physical separation of the two.

Thus, we have “Numinated” very generally about the use of information. The use of information not only defines life, information was “invented” by life. They emerged together. Living things use information in myriad ways. The more we learn about life, the more we study just this thing. Non-life does not use information, although we do build machines that store and transmit it for us. If something makes no use of information, it’s a dead, non-living thing.

If something does use information? — It’s alive!

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