The Nature of Consciousness

Piero Scaruffi

(Copyright © 2013 Piero Scaruffi | Legal restrictions )
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These are excerpts and elaborations from my book "The Nature of Consciousness"

The Edge of Chaos

The US computer scientist Chris Langton (who organized the first Artificial Life conference in 1987) showed that physical systems achieve the prerequisites for the emergence of computation (i.e., transmission, storage, modification) in the vicinity of a phase transition, “at the edge of chaos” ("Computation at the Edge of Chaos", 1990). When a system is in a highly ordered state, the transfer and modification of information becomes impossible. When a system in in a highly chaotic state, no pattern of information can persist over time. As systems become less orderer and less chaotic, a compromise is reached, whereby information can exist, can be manipulated, can be transferred. In technical terms, information becomes an important factor in the dynamics of cellular automata in the vicinity of the phase transition between periodic and chaotic behavior, i.e. between order and chaos.

The idea is that some systems undergo transformations, and while they transform they constantly move from order to chaos and back. This transition is similar to the "phase transitions" undergone by a substance when it turns liquid or solid or fluid. When ice turns into water, the atoms have not changed, but the system as a whole has undergone a phase transition. Microscopically, this means that atoms are behaving in a different way. The transition of a system from chaos to order and back is similar in that the system is still made of the same parts, but they behave in a different way.

The state between order and chaos (the "edge of chaos") is sometimes a very "informative" state, because the parts are not as rigidly assembled as in the case of order and, at the same time, they are not as loose as in the case of chaos. The system is stable enough to keep information and unstable enough to dissipate it. The system at the edge of chaos is both a storage and a broadcaster of information.

At the edge of chaos, information can propagate over long distances without decaying appreciably, thereby allowing for long-range correlation in behavior: ordered configurations do not allow for information to propagate at all, and disordered configurations cause information to quickly decay into random noise.

A fundamental connection therefore exists between computation and phase transition.

The edge of chaos is where the system can perform computation, can metabolize, can adapt, can evolve. In a word: these systems can be alive.

Basically, Langton proved that Physics can support life only in a very narrow boundary between chaos and order. In that locus it is possible to build “organisms” that will settle into recurring patterns conducive to an orderly transmission of information.

Langton’s theory related phase transitions, computation and life: he built a bridge to link together Thermodynamics, Information Theory and Biology.

Likewise, the US physicist Murray Gell-Mann argued that living organisms dwell at the edge of chaos, as they exhibit order and chaos at the same time, and they must exhibit both in order to survive.  Living organisms are complex adaptive systems that retrieve information from the world, find regularities, compress them into a schema  to represent the world, predict the evolution of the world and prescribe behavior for themselves. The schema may undergo variants that compete with one another. Their competition is regulated by feedback from the real world under the form of selection pressure.  Disorder is useful for the development of new behavior patterns that enable the organism to cope with a changing environment.


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