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Data Basic I

Is Information, Not Matter, the Foundation of Life?

by Denyse O’Leary

Recently, after some delay due to their controversial nature, the papers of the Origins of Biological Information conference (Cornell University, 2011) were published.1 In the Introduction, Baylor computer-science professor Robert Marks II asks readers the following questions about information:

• When a paper document is shredded, is information being destroyed? Does it matter whether the shredded document is a copy of an un-shredded document and can be replaced?

Article originally appeared in
Salvo 26

• Likewise, when a digital picture is taken, is digital information being created or merely captured?

• The information on a DVD can be measured in bits. Does the amount of information differ if the DVD contains the movie Braveheart or a collection of randomly generated digital noise?

• When a human dies, is experiential information lost? If so, can birth and experience create information?

• If you are shown a document written in Japanese, does the document contain information whether or not you know Japanese? What if, instead, the document is written in an alien language unknowable to man?

These questions, even unanswered, help us understand life from the perspective of information theory, as opposed to materialist theory. As Norbert Weiner (1894–1964), the father of cybernetics, once said, "Information is information, neither matter nor energy."2

Relational but Not Causal

Very well, what is information? Generally, we know it by its characteristics. It is fundamentally a relational notion, as Marks's fellow information theorist Bill Dembski points out. It exists, among other things, as a relationship between realized and unrealized -possibilities.

Information is created by ruling out possibilities. For example, when we say there is a car parked outside, we provide information only if there could, in fact, have been no car parked outside.

Information increases when we increase its resolution. It is as if we were looking through a microscope, seeing more and more detail as the magnification increases. For instance, suppose we say that the car parked outside is a blue Honda Civic. That rules out dozens, perhaps hundreds, of possibilities. Suppose we then say, "That's Aunt Madge in the driver's seat." Well, then, it is probably the new car we'd heard she was buying. Now we are down to a very few possibilities, one of which is very probable.

Information relationships are not causal ones. The car does not cause us to see it. We do not cause the car to be there by seeing it. But when we do see it, we make information connections. The situation is not at all like one billiard ball hitting another and causing it to move, because the car's presence does not force us to make those connections. The information is the unforced, immaterial connections themselves.

When we discuss the vast amount of information in life forms, we are referring to a constant stream of connections made, of messages sent and received, even though most of the participants are not themselves conscious. But the living bodies so managed do provide a substrate for consciousness.

Needed for a Coherent Picture

One of the root problems in science today is how to link matter and energy (measured in grams, liters, joules, and so forth) with information (measured, when it can be, in bits and bytes). That such a link is needed may be gleaned from a recent article in Scientific American, where we learn that

[m]any physicists think that particles are not things at all but excitations in a quantum field, the modern successor of classical fields such as the magnetic field. But fields, too, are paradoxical.

If neither particles nor fields are fundamental, then what is? Some researchers think that the world, at root, does not consist of material things but of relations or of properties, such as mass, charge and spin.3

But it is information that is fundamentally relational, not particles or fields. Mass, charge, and spin are pieces of information about material things. If we can't integrate information into our picture, we don't have a coherent picture. Note, I did not say a "complete" picture. We may never have that. But perhaps many scientists today would settle for a more coherent one. 

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