"Information" in Big History

  • Tuesday, September 06, 2016 4:23 AM
    Reply # 4230155 on 4204470

    Hi Jack P (Which one are you, S1 or S2??) I hope you don't think my delay in responding to your last comment was born out of a sense of offence at your suggestion that my offerings constituted " a strong set of intuitions". Not at all, although it had been on my list to argue that point with you. I will not respond fully to your offerings at this point but want to thank you first for making them and secondly for taking the time to check in on my website. 

    I should tell you a tiny bit about myself and how I come to be sitting at this table. I have a background in the sciences but most of my working life has been in the theatre, although I do make some money on the side teaching maths and physics (the theatre being what it is). Some time back I started writing a book about acting and found myself asking; What is it that actors do when they act?? The most immediate answer that came to mind was: they play within the experience of the self. They use the experience of the self as a basis for fabrications of one kind or another. This got me asking; what criteria do we use to establish a concept of the "real" self?? What is this thing that we call "the self" that we live with day in day out. The only answer I could come to was that the "real" self was based in the genetic information that pertained to each individual. But then, it seemed to me that the idea that we would pursue concepts of self based on fidelity to our own genes did not have too much currency abroad in the world. While most of us inevitable operate out of the dictates of our own genes in terms of how we are, many of us (most of us, i would speculate) are aware that we need not be constrained by these dictates in deciding how we want to "be" and act accordingly. In the simplest of terms we do things like change the colour of our hair, put on make up, get plastic surgery or play with how we present to the world by changing how we dress. We pursue all kinds of initiatives that involve personal transformations of one kind or another and on a more serious level some of us pursue gender transformation surgery and make drug interventions to address the consequences of genetically inherited conditions. We do not let the genetic and the evolutionary dynamics that proceed from it in the wild set the agenda entirely.

    To cut to the chase for now, it seemed to me that we as humans (unlike our other living kin) had become unhappy with the limits of the genetic and the evolutionary dynamics that proceeded from it as a basis for how we functioned and presented in the world and undertook to make interventions accordingly. It is our "way" as humans to always try and find a better way. We have become aware of the dynamics of the "classical evolutionary" and have decided that we no longer want them to dictate to us as to how we are. So much of what we encounter in the human realm proceeds from this, especially the rule of law and moral codes of one kind or another.

    But if we consciously undertake to "improve" upon the dictates of the classical evolutionary, by what criteria do we undertake to do so? I am not going to go into any great detail in response to this question. Sufficeth to say that the question started me thinking in terms of the classical evolutionary as a phase in the context of a much broader narrative, proceeded by the molecular and the atomic (and the pre-atomic) and perhaps superseded by a subsequent phase which points to much of what we encounter in the human realm. The presiding questions as always are; if we accept that we are consequences of cosmic narrative, do we decided that that narrative has come to a conclusion in us or any aspect of our experience?? if not, by what dynamics do we continue to progress and finally and perhaps most importantly, how do we participate in those dynamics (if at all)

    I will be honest and say that I have not understood much of what you have offered here. That's not your fault. I need to brush up on my thermodynamics and information theory (there's always work to be done) but I really want to thank you for taking the time to engage and by all means good luck with your forthcoming publication. How we undertake to keep going is, after all, the burning question. (unfortunate choice of adjective perhaps). I am familiar with hierarchy theory, but felt that Mr. Koestler might turn in his grave if his beloved "holon" was used to point to a religious imperative at work in the cosmos. Oh yeah, and who said anything about a deity??

    Any way, enjoy the hols. Talk soon. Jack H. (S3)

  • Thursday, September 08, 2016 8:53 PM
    Reply # 4235400 on 4204470

    Thanks to Jack Healy for joining the conversation.  I appreciate your thoughtful comments and “priunits.”  (I sent you a separate e-mail on this as well). I've been a bit ill from a cold recently, so I'm late in responding to Jack H's comment about there being a math applicable to life. I should clarify and state that although life is predicated on known physics, chemistry and its associated mathematics, there is no physics or math that predicts it emergence from its more basic constituents (e.g. amino acids, lipids, nucleic acids, etc.). In contrast, in the early days of quantum mechanics, one of Paul Dirac's equations predicted the existence of antimatter before it was discovered in the lab. He was quoted as saying something like: "my math was smarter than I was."  Similarly, Peter Higgs’ and Francois Englert’s computations predicted the Higgs Boson 48 years before its confirmation at CERN.  My point is that the mathematics, which is a formal, precise description of relationships, has been so precise in physics that it has been able to predict aspects or even entities of what has become the "standard model" of particle physics before there was even empirical confirmation. The same goes for the opposite end of the size spectrum: astrophysics sometimes predicted what we should find before we empirically find it: e.g. black holes, remnants of the Big Bang (e.g. cosmic background radiation, ratios of hydrogen, helium, deuterium, lithium in the universe), and so on. Admittedly, huge mysteries remain like dark energy, particulars about planet formation, etc., so I don't want to overstate their successes either.

    When it comes to life, however, the only description that we have to explain its appearance is "emergence" – almost a fancy word for “magic” in this case. I don't have a better word and I'm not denigrating anyone or any field because I have nothing better to offer. My central point is this: when it comes to the prebiotic cosmic history, physicists and chemists can offer tremendous explanatory power. They know enough about the relationships of the cosmic constituents like quarks, strong nuclear force, gravity, leptons, stellar fusion processes, etc. to make amazingly accurate predictions - even if significant phenomena are still unaccounted for as mentioned above.

    I will even play devil's advocate for a bit and state that "information” might be a superfluous term when discussing prebiotic Big History.*  From my humble understanding (with a notable exception discussed below – thanks Jack P!), we can get by just fine saying that despite entropy, quarks and atomic nuclei came together under the strong nuclear force, atoms formed with the weak electro force, galaxies and smaller heavenly bodies formed due to gravity, etc. and gave us more complex structures and elements. Chaisson's energy flows work just fine here as well without needing to invoke "information." 

    When it comes to biotic Big History, however, I don't see how we can avoid invoking "information” as a fundamental constituent driving complexity and even making it possible. The list of key characteristics that define life varies according to which source you cite. Admittedly, metabolism, responsible for carefully modulated energy flows is one of them. But reproduction, evolution, responsiveness to the environment, and homeostasis are all universally agreed upon criteria as well and rely on the organism replicating information, allowing for at least some variance in information replication, and detecting, processing, and responding to external/internal information, respectively.  DNA, RNA, receptor proteins, hormones, and a nervous system to name a few of Earth life’s constituents require energy to function and replicate, but their fundamental function is to serve information in some capacity.  Stated another way, DNA’s, RNA’s and associated proteins’ main function, is to assure that the incredibly varied relationships of molecules, tissues, organs, and associated processes of an organism are maintained, and also reproduced nearly faithfully for the succeeding generation.

    *Thanks to Jack Pearce for pointing out Rovelli’s proposal that superpositional particles decohere when they relate with “something” in the universe. (Note: his position is not accepted by many if not most physicists).  If I understand correctly, the greatest difficulty in creating a working quantum computer is trying to keep superpositional particles from interacting, decohering and changing from qubits to classical bits of information – perhaps more empirical support for classical information being relational – and support for information's relevance even prebiotically. 

  • Thursday, September 08, 2016 9:52 PM
    Reply # 4235448 on 4204470

    Well, let's note some uses of maths in human existence 

    The Shannon version of BGS is used to facilitate human communication, power law statistics have been used to reflect distributions as diverse as earthquakes and wars, we use quantum related physics to fashion computation aids, and communication aids, we can fashion logistics curves for the behaviors of animal populations, we can model human and artifactual networks with mathematical concoctions, we can statistically predict death rates, and on and on. 

    I have proposed that BGS and power law curves are ubiquitous in depicting the degrees and some of the forms of ordering in a wide variety of   phenomena. 

    So we have an extensive set of mathematical techniques for dealing with life phenomena on a probabilistic basis. And we have a basis for a theory as to why we need to model phenomena on a probabilistic basis. 

    So I am not sure I am tracking my Amsterdam found, and much appreciated, friend -- whether he is S1 or S2, which itself may be a probabilistic question -- as to lack of maths as to life processes. 

    (Note I did not say we have a single and global math.)

    Jack P. 

  • Friday, September 09, 2016 9:22 AM
    Reply # 4238913 on 4204470

    Guess I'm stating my point well, and I've discussed this with physicists as well, who agree.  Yes, there is a plethora of math that can be applied to various aspects of life. To name a few, metabolic rate and longevity compared to body mass, digestive efficiency, neural electrical impulse rates, etc.  However, there are no formulas (or physical theory or chemical theory) that predict the appearance of life or even its key characteristics.  From what I've learned, the math used for defining quantum chromodynamics (the interacting "color" forces of quarks) is considered "hairball" and is worthy of an entire doctoral thesis - and we are just talking 3 interacting forces to form a neutron or proton. Even the simplest of life forms like archeae or bacteria have countless interacting processes and constituents. Perhaps that's a core reason why no one has been able to approach anything like [amino acids squared + the derivative of lipids - the cube of nucleic acids] * k log W . . . = Life.  Still waiting for a biological equivalent of Paul Dirac or Peter Higgs.  I suspect that it will be a very long wait.         

  • Friday, September 09, 2016 5:28 PM
    Reply # 4242227 on 4204470

    Not to say that the wait is over, or even close to over, here are some things which may help close in on the beginning of life and how it has developed

    “Energy Flow and the Organization of Life”


    Here Morowitz and Smith postulate that life originated and and still functions as a means of channeling energy flows where there is a energy differential to be dissipated. They then set out sequences of chemical reactions which served this function, upon which life structures have been built, and which are still core-embedded in life.

    Now let's take a nice encapsulation of what life has come to be, from Lee Smolin

    “A distinguishable collection of matter, with recognizable boundaries, which has a flow of energy, and possibly matter, passing through it, while maintaining, for time scales long compared with the dynamical time scales of its internal processes, a state-configuration far from thermodynamic equilibrium. This configuration is maintained by the action of cycles involving the transport of matter and energy within the system and between the system and its exterior. Further, the system is stabilized against small perturbations by the existence of feedback loops which regulate the rates of flow of the cycles.” Smolin, “The Life of the Cosmos”. P135.  

    Ok, so let us take into account the basic origin point suggested by Morowitz and Smith, and a set of characteristics which eventuate from such an origin point, described by Smolin. 

    What is the development dynamic, from the early chained chemical reactions to elaborating eventuations, so to speak? 

    Let us take counsel of the Drake equation as it applies to a vast probabilistically realized universe. There are many potentials for development between M&S and Smolin,  and current earth life. Per Drake's tiered conditional probability format, in the Universe at large, there are many partial realizations of the realization of the format outlined by Smolin, and the @4 billion evolution into proliferating actuality on Earth. 

    All realizations occurring, I again suggest, on a log normal, 'power' curve.

    I realize this conceptual construct is abstract, but it is  more specified than 'emergence magic', and we do have the (from the U's point of view self assigned) task of explaining as best we can how we got here. That is part of 'Big History'. 


    Jack P



  • Thursday, September 15, 2016 6:42 PM
    Reply # 4252411 on 4204470

    Hi Ken, Jack.

    I think its my turn. Sorry for the delay in responding. Forgive me if this is a bit long and "rambly" if that's a word!! (it is now) Any way, here goes.

    A couple of points. To start Ken, I’m not sure the comparison to the success of the mathematical predictions at the sub atomic level are valid entirely. For a start, they actually were predictions in that the associated entities had not been encountered prior to the maths pointing to their existence. Life on the other hand, we already know to exist, but-and here’s the problem- we don’t actually know what it is?? Or at least, we can not say clearly what it is. We might be able to point to the attributes of a living thing, but life?? What would the mathematics actually predict? The mathematics might predict a development in the phenomenon that we know as life. Is life a well defined thing, as is the Higgs Bosun? Should we entrust that task to mathematics? Can we? Is mathematics an adequate tool for us to fully describe our reality and to process it accordingly (the mathematicians might be horrified at such a notion!! Soon I may find myself being bombarded with lemmas and corollaries for suggesting such a thing!!)

    Jack, you give us Lee Smolin’s  “encapsulation” (which is an interesting word in itself). Frankly, Lee needs to get out a little bit more, do some karaoke or line dancing. When was the last time the man was in a night club?? If these comments (of mine) were made in a context other than Big History, they could not but be made entirely in jest, but not here. What interests me about this discussion is that in considering the narrative of Big History, we are all trying to bend (or trim it) it to the virtues of particular disciplines, usually our own.

    Ken, you seem to be at a loss as to why the mathematical successes  at the levels of the subatomic and the super-cosmic are not replicated in an analysis of life. There are two issues in this for me, firstly, if we ask, what is the fundamental polarity of the cosmos? It is not between the micro and the macro as far as I’m concerned. It is between the micro and the human. The most recent offerings of the story are not the elements and details of the macro cosmos, but us, the humans. The fundamental narrative of the cosmos is the one that has lead to humanity. Any star is just a vast collection of entities that are in the early stages of that journey. If you consider the average hydrogen atom, if the concept of narrative pertains to it, the only one of which we know is the one that will lead in time to the likes of us (where else can it go?) or else end up in some dead end along the way. When two hydrogens end up in a helium, they have taken the first step on that journey. (4.7 by 1027  in a particular kind of an assembly are now apparently called Jack, unless my friends and family have gotten it wrong this morning)

    The other thing, and this might sound like an alarming thing to suggest, is that perhaps the subatomic is relatively simple by comparison. We have a sense of it being very complex. Why do we think that? Some of the greatest minds of all time have been devoted to finding out about it. But perhaps the complexity lies not in the thing itself but in the lengths we have had to go to in order to access it and also in that we have had to part company with our conceptions of what makes “sense” in order to understand it in any way at all.

    Ken you say that “there is a plethora of maths that can be applied to various aspects of life”. Maths works very well when it is possible for us to quantify something within our perception (or indeed within our capacity to conceive of that thing) but maybe the cosmos as we find it expressed in ourselves has aspects that have “evolved” beyond our capacity to quantify them. It is premised on the assumption that our “evolution” with the cosmos that contains us will always be faithful to an ability to apply mathematics. {Why do I put “evolved” in inverted commas?? To distinguish it from what I might call, “classical (Darwinian) evolution” which, as I see it, is simply a phase in a much larger cosmic narrative, which as far as I can see is not concluded in anything of which I am aware and so still “evolving” in all its aspects (though not perhaps by “classical evolutionary” means)}

    Jack P, you mention “the (from the U's point of view self assigned) task of explaining as best we can how we got here. That is part of 'Big History' “ You’re right. It is part of Big History, but it is a part that some of us choose to pursue. And for me the most interesting part of that is the choice. Will our continued progress in “Big Historical” terms always involve us making that choice? Even now, is the only valid progress to understanding by necessity tied to us realising our experience as a set of empirical facts? As we have evolved to Maths and Science, so too perhaps will we evolve beyond them given cosmic precedent, unless that narrative that gave rise to them has come to a conclusion in them? Has it??

    Ken, you give the following encapsulation of life “Admittedly, metabolism, responsible for carefully modulated energy flows is one of them. But reproduction, evolution, responsiveness to the environment, and homeostasis are all universally agreed upon criteria as well and rely on the organism replicating information, allowing for at least some variance in information replication, and detecting, processing, and responding to external/internal information, respectively. DNA, RNA, receptor proteins, hormones, and a nervous system to name a few of Earth life’s constituents require energy to function and replicate, but their fundamental function is to serve information in some capacity.  Stated another way, DNA’s, RNA’s and associated proteins’ main function, is to assure that the incredibly varied relationships of molecules, tissues, organs, and associated processes of an organism are maintained, and also reproduced nearly faithfully for the succeeding generation.”

    This is good, but when myself and Lee Smolin are going clubbing,  you’re welcome to come along too (you too Jack, so’s you don’t feel left out). To me, as I have already stated, it is necessary to consider the living and more especially the human in the context of a narrative that started with the big bang. If we look at living things and especially humans in the context of all the “things” (priunits) that stock that narrative many interesting things emerge. An imperative towards increased size of entity. In turn, a decrease in the total number of priunits. More recently an imperative towards an increased term (life span). All the entities that stock that narrative are just that, “entities” and it has produced in us an entity that can realise them as such and comment on them accordingly. All the entities that stock the narrative tend to be well bounded and mutually exclusive and so lend themselves well to presentations of “unity” that can be perceived by us and named accordingly. Odd to think that the cosmos as we encounter it in ourselves is passing through our capacity to use language.

    The fundamental process that drives this narrative of entification (thingisation) is one of assembly and each phase is characterised by a different mode of assembly. Atoms assemble in one way. Molecules in another. Each new phases of assembly makes an increase in entity size possible.  In our retrospective process of naming, the very first living things were entities that were given to a process of assembly that meant that they could not be called molecules. Molecules may “blob” in all kinds of ways. What was different about these “blobs” that in time became the gateways to life as we now know it? To a large extent they were characterized by a presenting, containing membrane. Interesting to think that the first life forms did not have any DNA and so grew until they became unwieldy and then disintegrated, only to start all over again (what ever that means) DNA’s first function was not to serve replication but division. The divided entities would be replicas of one another, DNA being what it is.  The cells that have survived to us were ones that were inclined to divide before their imperative to growth brought them to a point of disintegration. They ceded this imperative to growth to the hope of a future mode of assembly in which they could participate, and the gamble paid off. Interesting to think that an original cell (i.e. one that does not come to us by way of division of an existing cell) has not emerged for over 4 billion years. The next mode of assembly was the one that produced multi-celled entities. Reproduction is a particular mode of assembly based on genetic codification. It is interesting to think that we have an inclination to reproduce but also to produce a new frontier of cosmic entities by participating in various modes of assembly. Teams, nations, choirs, armies, organisations, companies etc. Units to which we are like cells in much the same way as our cells are to us. (we might witness some of this kind of carry on at the night club!!)

    Perhaps if we are to define life we must do so both intrinsically and extrinsically in respect of any given living thing Perhaps it is such that it will be constantly moving out from under the stasis of definition and in turn always giving the poor frustrated mathematicians the slip!!

  • Monday, September 19, 2016 9:34 PM
    Reply # 4258229 on 4204470

    Lots of material. I will do my best to keep it brief. In response to Jack P's comment regarding Smolin's argument about life channeling energy efficiently, feedback loops - okay,  and the said can likely be said about less complex structures from hadrons on "upwards." However, it still doesn't get to the root of what ultimately causes life to become manifest. There is nothing known in the realm of physics or chemical laws that predicts the "emergence" of life. It is still a profound mystery that no one in the discipline of life origin science have come close to replicating, although some bits and pieces of its constituents like some amino acids, lipids, and sterols are created easily. As an analogy, in medicine  we know more and more about migraines and many other diseases, but still don't know what ultimately is the cause of the migraine - still peeling the layers of the onion away. In short, short we can quantify many things regarding life as in the discipline of biometrics, but can't quantify or even qualitatively, as of yet, describe the sequence of structures and processes leading to biogenesis.

    In regards to Jack P's first paragraph, during its history particle physics also would discover many particles before they were predicted, e.g. the muon, and eventually the figured out how to categorize them so that they made some sense.  As you mention, at this time, we only know some of the fundamental qualities of life, at least as it appears on earth - and even then, we aren't sure what to do with viruses (are they living, or just chunks of matter that replicates in the right circumstance).  However, we also don't fundamentally know what "energy" is either. It is only defined by its key quality: the capacity to perform work.

    I need to point out that I'm not at a loss about math's, physics' or chemistry's failure to predict the emergence of life at this time. Math, physics, etc. can't describe subjective experiences, novels, or why a bunch of molecules organize and function in a particular way that writes poetry or worries about a new wrinkle on their face when looking in the mirror.  It's to be expected given the inherent complexity of known life - nevermind "higher" life with self-awareness. Of course, math has other inherent limitations beside those pointed out by Kurt Godel and Allan Turing - As much as I admire the age of enlightment, the romantic counter movement had great points to make as well.

    I also don't think that hydrogen is a good candidate for a basic unit of complexity or priunit, if I interpret your web site correctly.  There are many other components that would be left out like neutrons (present even in helium nuclei) photons, bosons, whatever dark matter and energy are, etc. Even and especially in information theory, one needs also to be sure that it doesn't contradict the extremely well worked out and proven tenets of thermodynamics, nevermind quantum, etc. If a proposed hypothesis doesn't take into account the laws of thermodynamics, or at least be consistent with them, it will have to be incredibly persuasive. It's been stated something like: "you can mess with any other area of physics if you want, but woe to anyone who opposes or ignores thermodynamics."  Also, incredibly large structures like massive suns and galactic clusters predate tiny entities like us. In other words, there clearly isn't a progression from small to large, although there appears to be one from simpler to more complex - at least on Earth, with some notable historical setbacks.

    In ending, I just need to add that after just listening to a series of lectures by one of the pioneers in origin of life science (Robert Hazen), it still isn't known WHAT came first (metabolism vs replication, spherical membrane of lipids vs a "sheet" of life, etc.) or if multiple things (e.g. membranes, citric acid cyle, RNA)  somehow fortuitously came together to "create" life. So far no one has been able to create nucleotides under any simulated early Earth environment, including tidal pool, clay surfaces, deep sea vents, etc. Admittedly, the lectures are about 5 years old, but if anyone has uncontestedly figured out how life originated, it should have hit the presses big time.

    I do think I'm wandering a bit from the core discussion of "information's" role or lack of in Big History. Hope to get back on track.  Apologies for rambling.

  • Tuesday, September 20, 2016 7:50 AM
    Reply # 4259029 on 4204470

    I would suggest close attention to the  Morowitz and Smith discussion. As I read, and re-read, it, it does seem to me to suggest a way to 'predict', or approach, life initial organization, and a way to consider its subsequent paths of evolution on this Earth. 

    Whether is will become the dominant paradigm remains to be seen, but it is a very rich conceptual approach, which I would recommend to anyone interested in what life is and how it came to be.


  • Wednesday, January 11, 2017 1:46 AM
    Reply # 4535071 on 4204470

    Here is a 'screen shot" so to speak, on Amazon, of the development of the Smith/Morowitz explanation of life generation as a (chemical) pathway to facilitate energy reservoir differentials.


    I have ordered the S/M book. 


  • Sunday, January 29, 2017 3:13 AM
    Reply # 4573784 on 4204470

    Here is a lengthy treatment of an attempt to create a virtual, or  conceptual, structure which mimics the processes of life. 


    This document is deeply into the language of correlations and quantum registrations

    Jack Pearce

© International Big History Association
Powered by Wild Apricot Membership Software