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A conversation with JESPER HOFFMEYER and CLAUS EMMECHE

or

About InFORMation and SUBSTANCE

© by Josip Pajk

The authors published two very interesting articles on the WEB: Code-Duality and the Semiotics of Nature and From Language to Nature in which are presented some of the issues we on the Journal of Memetics discussion list were involved in recently. Moreover, some terms and states from this paper are very similar to the way as I understand them. As I'm not "at home" in genetics (I'm still learning) I was more attracted by the introductory part of the first article in which a more philosophic approach to the issues of information creation and "transmission" is given. I felt competent enough to give some comments to few of the states there presented. I hope the authors of this paper will forgive me for this and will believe in my good intentions of making an endeavor to clear some of the basic terms on which a great part of my present work is founded.

The citations from the paper are given here in cursive without any further reference to it, and the statements and terms I believe are of key importance for the understanding of this matter are bolded.

So, at the beginning of the article the authors made a very interesting point:

It may be illuminating to remember the latin root of the word information: informare. Clearly, to bring something into form is not transmission of information. I.e. while the blacksmith obviously brings the steel into definite forms, one would never say that he informs the steel. Rather the blacksmith, himself, has to be informed if he shall succeed in bringing the steel into the desired form. Information belongs to the mental sphere, not to the physical sphere of substance and action.

When reading this illuminating paragraph I put myself a question: Do we really have to limit the discussion about information only to live substance? Isn't it the main goal to find an appropriate explanation applicable in all cases, either for life as for non-life?

Strictly, to bring something (a structure, a system, a substance) in a (wanted?) form (state) IS the very essence of information "transmission" (informing). This concept may not be strictly bounded to life. The source and destination of information on the end points of the communication channel, even according to Shannon are systems' (structural) states. It is obvious that the source and the destination (and even the channel), DO NOT share the same substance. The substances at the source and destination are maybe of the same type, but not the same. The goal of information "transmission" is to influence the (substantial) state of the destination system (or structure). This could be done ONLY by changing the state of the own (source) system's (and thus the channel's) substance structural states. Or, in another words, could it be that we can "inform" something ONLY by "informing" (changing) ourselves?

A broadcast station's process of information transmission is in fact a controlled process of change of the structural states in the substance of ITS equipment. Those changes, if extended to the antenna as a substantial structure in direct connection with the environment, affects the electromagnetic state of the environmental (air) channel, the states of which at the end affects the antenna and other apposite receiving equipment (substance) at the destination system. Without this process of state changes in various non-living substantial structures there is no information "transmission" from the human speaker (a living system) at the station to other living systems eventually listening by their receivers. Moreover, even those living sender and receiver systems must pass through a process of their (organic) substance changes to produce and gain any information.

Even if "informing" someone or somewhat (like a cash-machine) through a more rigid (material) channel as a letter or a credit card this process of substance change in the sender, channel and receiver systems must also be performed. The only difference in this two transmission processes is in that the second message (letter) is a more durable (stabile) structure.

The relation between the blacksmith (as a living system) and the steel (as a non-living structure) is mutual. He change his and the channel (hammer's) states and brings the steel in a wanted form (he "informs" it), and the steel "informs" the blacksmith if he had succeed in this endeavor. But, the various states of the steel substance also "inform" any other structure (system) around them: the table, the air around the steel, the hammer; maybe a camera or another person in the room, etc.

It can be said that the communication channel established from the blacksmith to the steel (through the hammer) is direct (point-to-point, selective), and the channel from the steel to its environment (of which even the blacksmith is a part) is diffuse (point-to-multipoint, not selective). But this is not entirely true because even the blacksmith can not prevent himself of not informing with his presence (unintentionally) the same environment as the steel. The blacksmith as a system has a limited capability of selection, both in reception and delivery, action and reaction. He selects what of the many structural states of the steel are of his interest and influences "only" that particular states of his interest. The fact that he is susceptible, or selects (forms a mental model), only upon a limited number of this substantial states (shape, color, position) does not mean that the other substantial states of the steel does not exist and influence (and are influenced) (un)intentionally (by) him and the environment.

It is obvious that substance structures as the steel and the blacksmith's body are incapable of establishing direct (selective) communication channels (only systems have this capability), but they undoubtedly shape or forms (informs) their environment, that is, other structures and systems in it. If this would not be the case how could be possible, in a first place, to instatiate any new information about the physical (substance) sphere in the human mental sphere? What was than the first information source, and who (what) was the very first receiver (destination)?

Why is information always and exclusively bounded with life? Hoffmeyer and Emmeche have a good explanation for this:

Correspondingly, forms themselves were not, in the antiquity, seen as belonging to the physical sphere. Forms were induced on, not derived from substance. They reflected human or Godly will. Thus, to bring something into form presupposed a person in whom the idea of the form must first have occurred. And this occurrence, the idea, was the root of information.

What brings into form the substance of a rain drop, a mountain, or a galaxy? The physical (substance) sphere (matter-energy transition processes) exists regardless of our (human) or any others idea (consciousness) of its substantial structure (form) and (trans)formation processes. Does not a hole in a stone surface informing (brings in the form of its shape) the water in it. Rigid, matter and labile (dissipative), energy structures interacts in "spontaneous" physical and chemical processes constrained only by a steady (rigid) informational structure (natural laws of physics and chemistry) derived exclusively from the intrinsic characteristics of this two types of substance structures. Consciousness is only another (although complex, dynamic) informational structure derived from, and supported by the interaction of matter and energy (another substance) in a particular organism (human body, nervous system).

A stone will always fall down when thrown, the sun will always "rise" on East and "fall" on the West. These (natural) regularities are stabile informational (observable) structures not influenced by anyone's will. It is very easy to suppose that behind this regularities some divine intention (commander, creator) is laying.

'To recapitulate: a system in which commands function smoothly is one in which information and signal are indistinguishable from each other. This is the behaviorist ideal. The system is threatened the moment someone behaves not as he "ought" to, but as he might wish to, thereby creating a climate in which the "new" might be born' (Foerster 1980).

One of the characteristics of all rigid systems in which commands function smoothly are also their limitations immanent to such rigid (unchangeable) structures. The set of all the rules and commands (signals) allowed in such system is limited and unchangeable. Someone can not "invent" a new rule for this system and expect it will work as smoothly as before. However, new commands (substantial signals) are allowed but they are also constrained by the steady and unchangeable rules of the system.

Nature is such a rigid system. Gravity, thermodynamics and all other natural laws (constraints) were not "invented" but discovered (their regularity observed and explained) by physics and chemistry, and were "in charge" long before we humans started to be conscious of them. They are unchanged from the beginning of our world. Without this steady natural rules any scientific work would be impossible. To paraphrase Dawkins: memes (ideas, mental forms) could be made only about something enough stabile that can be given a name, as are raindrops or a mountain. Processes also can be such stabile "things" if they are repeated in an enough stabile form that could be observed.

But even in such a rigid system, as nature undoubtedly is, life with all its uncertainty have arisen and still evolves. How it could happen? There is a good explanation for this.

Look at any game with rigid rules, chess, for example. Even if the framework in which it happens is steady and limited, there is an unlimited number of possibilities how the game can take its course. If two players move the figures in a non-intentional way (without a strategy) but are, day by day and game by game, "playing by the rules", there is a great chance that some of the games will "look" as played by intelligent players having a strategic intention. But, the big question is, how and when something that is happening by chance and only sometimes look as intelligent (intentional) behaviour, becomes "really" intentional? How and when "non-life" evolved in "life"?

The only explanation I have is that is enough for one or both (even as non-live) players (interacting structures) to have, not the intention, but only the capability to accumulate (memorize) the resources (whatever they are) gained by winning (by chance) in this game. If both players have this possibility and the resources are limited, it is obvious that loosing any of the particular games played will result in loosing some portion of the resources previously acquired by the "looser". As it may be (wrongly) understood, the first players of this evolutionary "chess-game" were not molecules in a "primordial soup". Matter and Energy started to play this game long before that (and still are), in the very moment after the "Big Bang". The intrinsic laws of their constant (inter)change must be enough to explain how life could arise on Earth, or better, how the substance that was not Earth became the form of Earth as we know it today with all its (organized) complexity.

Rigid regularities as is the cyclic process of Earth rotation around its axis and around the Sun are probably the main cause for the "evolution" of other more complex "living" regularities on its surface. We need an evolutionary theory for non-living structures in order to be able to explain the appearance of more complex regularities as the evolution of organic live structures (dynamic systems). If for no other reason, than because non-living (bio)chemical an thermodynamic processes are still in the very base of all processes of "production" and preservation of life.

There is a plenitude of real examples and explained processes (rules) for matter-energy "memorizing" phenomena, that are not, as far as I know, still incorporated in a consistent "non-life evolution" theory. The Energy of the flowing water, for example, is "winning" upon the weak points of the steady material earth surface forming such regularities like river beds, but the rigid Matter on another places "captures" the energy of water in steady structures like are lakes, oceans, etc. Signs of these processes on the earth surface are steady structures like signs made by a pencil on a paper. Replicas of this "memorized" signs can be found everywhere arround us. There must be a good explanation why a raindrop have always the same form. Where is this form memorized, if not in the intrinsic characteristics of its substance?

Matter seems to be a privileged player in this game. It brings the rules (stability). But without Energy and its chaotic dissipative resources the game stops. Matter is "better" in the conservation (memorizing) of the resources collected in the game. Energy is "spendthrift", it is wasting (dissipating) its resources everywhere. But it is at the same time also "generous", it does not select who is worth of getting this dissipated resources. It seems that the "niggardly" Matter will gain the final success in this game. Look at our "dying" Sun or at the "black holes" that "swallow" and "forever" keep everything passing close enough to them. But it also seems that absolute stability is not possible. Any attempt of "absolute control" as a final result has the disintegration (dying) of such rigid structure (system), it brings to another "Big Bang".

Maybe we can give a better look at what is happening on a small (observable) scale. Dead (non-live) rigid material structures are absolutely controllable. They react to forces and impacts (energy) exactly as predicted. Dissipative energetical structures can not be controlled if not canalized by rigid material structures. Even than there is no way how can, for example, the state of any single molecule of gas or fluid captured in a recipient be effectively controled.

If there is no absolute control because of the dissipative nature of energetical structures, neither any absolute prediction about the future course of events could be made.

Actually, the mathematical theory of information collapses in the moment unpredictability enters the scene - as it necessarily does in real life. Improbability, and thus according to the theory information, presupposes the ability to foresee the possible occurrences. To state that an event is improbable, one first has to know that it might occur at all. Therefore the totally unforeseen - and thus the real new - cannot be accounted for through the statistical theory of probability. (We are grateful to Peer Hull Kristensen for drawing our attention to this line of argument (Kristensen 1984)).

The probability that the Sun will rise tomorrow is very close to 1. Accordingly, the probability that it will not rise is very close to 0. But the probability that tomorrow it will be cloudy and that we did not see it at all is somewhere in between. If today it rains and it is the mid of September and we are in London ... the calculated probability that tomorrow will be a sunny day could be, let's say, about 0.01.

To be new, something have not to be totally unforeseen (like a catastrophe). Anything is new if it did not happen yet, like a new day. Even non-knowledge is a kind of knowledge. If you know that you don't know something, it is a big step forward in your knowledge, you have eliminated a whole (known) area and do not search for solutions in that already known field. If catastrophes happen regularly then they are no more catastrophes because you are prepared to them to happen, you "foresee" them, there is a great probability that something bad will happen tomorrow.

The content of scientific (as any other) research is mostly foreseeing. You suppose that "there have to be something" that is not discovered yet. As Columbus who had no means to foresee what he would find on the "New way for the Indies", but he knew that "there have to be something", any scientist involved in some research "knows" (foresee) that "there" have to be something. So, he makes an experiment. The experiment, as the foreseeing before it, could be made only by the aid of the already acquired knowledge (resources). When making an experiment (research) there are some expectations (foreseeing) about its possible final outcome. Information, as Shannon defines it, is exactly this. The elimination of the previous uncertainty (entropy) by knowing the outcome of the done experiment. This mean that the experiment have to be done in order to gain any information. It is true that in the calculation of entropy one must predict all the possible events of the experiment. Only those (foreseen) probabilities accounts (make a difference) in the calculation of the experiment's (previous) entropy or in the gained (final) information quantity. Totally unforeseen events can not be thus taken in account because they are not part of the resources already acquired when making the prediction. But what can be done from these resources is to predict the other side of the same coin, as Wiener calls it "the reduction of variety", the elimination of impossible events, that is, defining the space of all possible events by the definition (elimination) of those impossible.

The blacksmith from the beginning is making an experiment every time he hits the steel with the hammer. The result of that experiment is not unpredictable, that is, it is predictable (it is not the first time that the blacksmith is doing this "experiment") and the shape of the steel after the hit "informs" the blacksmith if, and how much (the quantity of information), have he succeed to bring the steel in the wanted form. Such improbable events like the disappearance of the hammer or the steel during the experiment are not taken in account, they have never happened yet.

Finally, the quantity of information is created by comparing (in the difference between) the wanted (foresought) form (idea) of the steel and the observed (real) one after the experiment. This differentiation (information creation) process happens only in the blacksmith's mind substance. Using the resources already in his mind he creates and stores the "wanted" model of the steel and than he makes the experiment. Than, after the experiment, upon the signals gained from the observed new substantial form of the steel he produces the "real" model and compares it with the "wanted" one. The difference between these two models is the information (new resource) for another experiment.

When we speak (think) about stabile forms as a "river" or a "beach" we are not addressing at a particular substantial structure, but to a structure of selected regularities observed in various similar (stabile) natural structures and phenomena. Wiener pointed out that the mentioned "reduction of variety" is of key importance in control. By foreseeing (predicting) the course of future events we are not picking up a single event as the most probable but rather we eliminate a whole space of future process states that are unprobable. It is highly unprobable, for example, that the water in a river will change its course and will start to flow "upwards". Also it is very probable that a car moving at a constant speed of 15 Mph will be one hour later about 15 miles ahead (but not behind) from the place it is right now.

Differences, which make a difference

'There are in the mind no objects or events - no pigs, no coconut palms, and no mothers. The mind contains only transforms, percepts, images, etc....It is nonsense to say that a man was frightened by a lion, because a lion is not an idea. The man makes an idea of the lion' (Bateson 1972: 271).

But without the substantial lion neither the idea of the lion exists. A stone can't be frightened neither by the substance nor by the idea of the lion. Neither an elephant. It can be said that the stone as a structure and the elephant as a system are not susceptible to the substantial structure of the lion. The physical structure of the lion did not produce their response, even if the lion could have change the state of the stone (bump in it), and even if we could be pretty sure that the idea of the lion's substance exists in the elephant's mind substrate even if categorized under "self-moving hairy stones". But even the lion and the elephant are frightened by fire. Humans in most cases are not. They have means to control fire.

What is fright? It is only a particular state of some (living) system. Any of the multitude of mind states of every living system, even though it is practically impossible, could be mapped as a physical (chemical) state of that mind's substrate causing some kind of response (behaviour) or (whole) body state. There are no ideas out of and without this environment (the mind's nervous substrate of the body as a system). Outer structures (systems) as a lion or fire are causing the generation of their "mental models" by changing the state of their dynamic system (brain). The difference in the structure of the substance outside of the system generates a difference in the system's mental substrate (brain substance). Only dynamic (self-organized) systems have the (limited) capability of changing their inner states (foresee) while isolated (without irritations) from their environment (closed systems). This capability is limited for the sole reason of a substantial nature of those systems. They are able to preserve their stability for a limited time period using their resources previously accumulated (memorized), but this is not an everlasting stabile state. They are (only because of their substantial nature) susceptible to thermodynamic entropy.

According to Gregory Bateson information is based on difference. A sensory end organ is a comparator, a device which responds to difference. While reading this, for instance, your eyes do not respond to the ink, but to the multiple differences between the ink and the paper.

Processes are "driven" by difference (information). But it is not a difference in information, it is a difference of substance. The difference of pressure (potential) of the fluid between the two ends of a pipe, or the difference in the potential energy of the water on the top and bottom of a mountain is the cause of flow as a process. Processes are transitions towards structural stability (indifference). Rigid material structures are stabile. It needs labile energetic structures (like heat) to bring a rigid material structure, as the steel from the beginning, in a less rigid (flexible, controllable) state. It also needs rigid material structures like cans or canals to control dissipative energetic structures like gas or water. Physics, chemistry, genetics, technology and all other of our sciences are at some point as simple as that. All processes can be reduced to this level. Matter and energy structures constantly interacts "guided" exclusively by a rigid (unchangeable) informational structure without our intention and mostly out of our control. Even "synthetic" (man made) structures and processes are mostly "spontaneous" using physical and chemical laws. An engine have only to be triggered intentionally. The intentionally started processes than continues without an overall intentional control. The control is eventually applied to keep the ongoing process stabile.

The number of potential differences in our surroundings, however, is infinite. Therefore, for differences to become information they must first be selected by some kind of 'mind', the recipient system. Information, then, is difference which makes a difference (to that mind):

'Try to describe a leaf or, still better, try to describe the difference between to leaves of the same plant, or between the second and the third walking appendages (the "leg") of a single, particular crab. You will discover that that which you must specify is everywhere in the leaf or in the crab's leg. It will be, in fact, impossible to decide upon any general statement that will be a premise to all the details, and utterly impossible to deal with the details one by one' (Bateson and Bateson 1987:164).

What enters the mind as information always depend on a selection, and this selection is mostly unconscious. In this sense one should not speak about 'getting' information, rather information is something we 'create'.

We have a (limited) capability to select the forms for the creation of only the needed information. If a process is stabile in a selected structural states on the given path than there is no difference to select. For example, when driving a car we are not concerned with the constant change (difference) in the progress of the path, but only with the change of speed. If the speed is constant (no acceleration) the process is stabile even if the car is moving at 100 Mph. Similarly, a scientist does not doubt in some facts previously discovered by others (i.e. that the Earth is a spheroid) and uses this acquired knowledge as a resource for eliminating the difference between his idea of some other selected structural states and the observed (modeled) states of a real structure. If in the acquired (previously accumulated) knowledge or in the resources from which he is building the model, there is no information (or better, data resources) that the Earth is a spheroid, than he must use some other structures on his disposal like four elephants carrying the Earth's "dish". Religion and science could thus be understood as processes of an ongoing "engineering" of new basic structures for the use in the explanation (stabilization) of other more complex phenomena in the surrounding substance.

Furthermore, only a tiny fraction of the actual differences exhibited by the phenomena under study will be mapped on to our description. Thus, every time we make a description most of the differences which might be potential information, are not selected. In other words, every time we create knowledge, we also - and by necessity - create non-knowledge. (Norretranders 1982, Hoffmeyer 1984). To make things visible, we make other things - or in a certain sense the same things - invisible. This creation of non-knowledge, which by necessity accompanies any process of investigation, is in itself a legitimate reason for the very widespread uneasiness towards the scientific project. Might it not be, that the ecological and economic crisis now facing earth has its roots in the mud of our collective non-knowledge? Certainly, myth (Prometheus) and religion (the tree of knowledge) have known all the time the dangers inherent to the project of seeking knowledge.

The dangers inherent to the project of seeking knowledge are the same as for any other process towards stability. If "difference" is unstable, "sameness" must be stabile. Uncertainty before knowing the result of the experiment is unstable. Stability (for that moment) is gained by knowing (explaining) the result. Gaining stability by whatever mean of explanation (religion, science) of the differences (uncertainty) imminent to the surrounding world of substance is the seeking of knowledge. It is impossible for us to stabilize (explain, control) all of the differences in the world of substance. Thus the non-knowledge as a "reflection" or the "dark side" of knowledge makes the difference that drives all scientific projects. Without the difference between knowledge and non-knowledge the scientific process would stop, there will be nothing more to explain. As any other chaotic, labile, unpredictable energetic structure, non-knowledge is captured and kept in the rigid can made of the accumulated sediment of scientific knowledge. So the crises we are faced now can be also understood as the result of the old scientific can "leakage".

It remains a subject for metaphysical speculation, whether the world is such, that some objective number might be given for the sum total of differences it contains. At the quantum level even a raindrop would exhaust the computer capacity of the whole world if a complete enumeration of the potential differences it contains should be calculated and memorized. For differences to be information we humans have got no choice but to select. And therefore information does not belong to the sphere of matter and energy, but to the subjective and non-dimensional sphere of structure, pattern and form.

It follows from this concept of information, that information is not an exclusively human phenomenon. Rather, our world is replete with systems sufficiently sophisticated so as to respond to selected differences: Not only animals and plants, but also organs, tissues and single cells are vehicles for information processing. They are communicating systems.

At the most fundamental level the distinction between life and not-life is dependent on this ability: the response to differences. In the world of nonliving matter which is described by the laws of physics and chemistry the ability to respond to differences play no part. A stone is affected by 'forces' and 'impacts', but not by differences.

Life and non-life are sharing the same environment (substance). Also, life, as far as we know, evolved somehow from non-life. Moreover, non-life chemical and physical processes are the inherent characteristic of any live form. The 'forces' and 'impacts' that affects a non-living stone are the same differences that affects any other living system, only that the "response" (even a non-response is a response) of a stone is different from the response of a living organism. A dead organism does not respond, or responds just like a stone.

Life and non-life, as knowledge and non-knowledge are only two sides of the same coin. Even a stone have the capability to accumulate solar energy only that the stone "uses" this energy in a way different from a plant.

The stone is reactive (more energy income, more energy accumulated), the plant is active (it has limited means to select how much and what energy will accumulate), and other organisms (like tourists) are proactive (they know and go to the places that are more probable to be sunny).

On the contrary, nothing in the world of living systems makes sense unless we include in our explanations this peculiar ability to respond to selected differences in the surroundings. Of course, living systems too are material, physical systems affected by forces and impacts. They must obey the laws of physics and chemistry. But these are not sufficient for explanation. Living systems always exhibit certain organizational characteristics, which enable them to react to differences in the surroundings, and thus to 'create' and exchange information.

The sphere of information inhabits the lifeless world of energy and matter - is dependent on it. And to the best of our knowledge it has grown out of this inanimate world. Yet, it is not itself material. Forces and impacts does not affect it, unless they somewhere occasion a difference which makes a difference to some kind of living system. We do not want to exclude the view, however, that even the lifeless sphere of nature might be engaged in informational activity. After all, our universe seems strangely inhomogenous and irreversible. And if this was not the case creative processes and life would not have been possible. But then, the spatiotemporal scale of such eventual cosmic communication would be outside the range of interest to the study of the semiotics of living systems.

While information and substance are separable concepts in our descriptions the two are inseparable in the 'real' world. They are different aspects of the same world. Information does not exist except as carried by (immanent in) matter and energy.

It is worth to understand this last (selected) sentence. The constraints imposed by matter and energy to information are real. Material constraints give information stability and energy gives the capability of change, of "making the difference". The capability of informational (form) structures to instatiate in various matter-energy (substantial) structures gives to them the flexibility needed so they could "spread" so efficiently in different substrates. It is important to understood that "ideas" are not something special, something unreal. There could no be "virtual reality" without a substantial reality made of electronic and (for now) organic real substance and energy. Ideas are only states of the human brain as a system made of complex organic substance. They are produced in the process of interaction between the already present concepts (forms, states) and the new ones created by the observation of the real world, or by the interaction of old (memorized) structures with those "foreseen".

What is consciousness? What is will? How they started? The evolution of all such processes must be possible to reduce and explain from states and processes of transition from non-living to living substance we humans and other organisms are made of. Moreover, all this processes are still happening. One could not say that the sperm or egg cell, from which a live (conscious) entity is "produced", are conscious, or that the food we take for the production an preservation of our live substance is alive. Life is (and always was) supported by the same (bio)chemical and physical processes characteristic for non-living substance. There is nothing special in live substance that can not be applied to non-living substance also. Moreover, it seems to me that the process of evolution is happening in a "fast forward" speed anytime an egg cell is fertilized. Maybe embryology can give some more answers about evolution.

It is obvious that the world of (either living and non-living) substance is too complex (unstable) to be understood (and absolutely controlled) in all its differences, but the constraints (stability) imposed by their same origins must be first understood in order to understand that the great scientific job done until now was not for nothing. Nature is a fair player. All of its forms (and some we made ourselves in the meantime) were and still are all here regardless of the fact if we are conscious of them or not. Maybe if we look at them from another angle they will make "the difference" to us.

Josip Pajk, May 1998.