The Nature of Consciousness

Piero Scaruffi

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These are excerpts and elaborations from my book "The Nature of Consciousness"

The Origin of Biological  Information

A different but similar non-biological approach to life is based on information, and directly influenced by Cybernetics and Information Theory. Life is viewed as information capable of replicating and modifying itself.

The US anthropologist Gregory Bateson argued that the substance of the biological world is, ultimately, "pattern" (not this or that chemical compost), a position that allowed him to seek a unified view of cognitive and biological (and cybernetic) phenomena. His definition of information stretched beyond mere computation: a bit of information is a difference that makes a difference. Thereby implying that, in order to be information, a pattern must affect something. (Also, information is not a thing, it is a relation).

The pioneering work of the Spanish ecologist Ramon Margalef in the 1960s set the stage. He viewed an ecosystem as a cybernetic system driven by the second law of Thermodynamics. Succession (the process of replacing old species with new species in an ecosystem) is then a self-organizing process, one whereby an element of the system is replaced with a new element so as to store more information at less energetic cost.

The German biophysicist Bernd-Olaf Kuppers found an elegant way to reconcile the paradox of increasing information. Life is biological information, and the origin of life is the origin of biological information. Information has different aspects: syntactic (as in information theory), semantic (function and meaning of information for an organism's survival), and pragmatic (following the German physicist Carl-Friedrich Von Weizsacker, "information is only that which produces information").  Since evolution depends on the semantic aspect of information, there is no contradiction with the second law of Thermodynamics, which only deals with the structural aspect of matter (i.e., the syntactic aspect of information). The origin of syntactic information relates to the prebiotic synthesis of biological macromolecules. The origin of semantic information relates to the self-organization of macromolecules.

The US biologist Christopher Langton emphasized that living organisms use information, besides matter and energy, in order to grow and reproduce. In living systems the manipulation of information prevails over the manipulation of energy.  Life depends on a balance of information: too little information is not enough to produce life, too much can actually be too difficult to deal with. Life is due to a reasonable amount of information that can move and be stored.  Life happens at the edge of chaos.  Ultimately, life is a property of the organization of matter.

As the Canadian biologist Lionel Johnson put it (“The Thermodynamic Origin of Ecosystems”, 1998), a bio-system can be compared to an information processor, whose job is to continuously extract, store and transmit information. Two fundamental and opposed forces compete, one leading towards increased uniformity (and lower information) over "ecological" time and one leading towards increased diversity (and greater information) over "evolutionary" time. This results in a hierarchy of living organisms, which has at the top the one species that developed the best strategy of energy extraction and storage, the highest resource utilization and the least dissipation (this is a reworking of a principle due to Alfred Lotka in the 1920s). Extracting information requires an energy flow, which in turns causes production of entropy. This can also be viewed from the point of view of communication: dissipative structures can exist only if there is communication among their components, whether in the form of genetic code (communication over time) or societies (communication over space). The bio-system is, ultimately, an information processor and a communication network.

Predating Freeman Dyson's definition of life, the Hungarian chemist Tibor Ganti views life as the combination of two systems: metabolism and information control. The simplest form of life, in practice, is the "chemoton": an autocatalytic cycle coupled with an information molecule. Ganti's living organism, therefore, looks more like a computer than a program, because it includes the "hardware". Life without the hardware is not life, it is just the process that generates life. It also takes that "information molecule" to have life.


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