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Our future, our universe, and other weighty topics

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Consciousness Is More Than Just Information

Some thinkers have gone overboard about the concept of information. Some have suggested that the whole universe can be described as being fundamentally information. Such thinking seems to involve a too-broad definition of “information.”

An example of sloppy inconsistent claims about information can be found on page 234 of the book The Hidden Secrets of Water by Paolo Consigli. Consigli states the following:

Information operates at every level of existence....The ordered structures of crystals are information. The more elaborate structures of all living things are information...Information is not be confused with mere data. It is rather the transmission of messages endowed with meaning.

This account of information is inconsistent. If information is “the transmission of messages endowed with meaning” (not actually a good definition of information), then how could a crystal structure be information, when it involves no such transmission?

Let us consider a rock that has this crystal structure. Is there any information in the rock? No, there actually is not. Those who think there is information in a rock with a crystal structure are confusing information and information potential, or are confusing order with information.

When I do a Google search for a definition of information, I get two definitions:
  1. Facts provided or learned about something or someone.
  2. What is conveyed or represented by a particular arrangement or sequence of things.
It is certainly true that each cell has information, because each cell uses DNA, which does use a symbolic system of representations known as the genetic code, in which certain combinations of nucleotide base pairs stand for particular amino acids. If any thing uses any “x stands for y” arrangement, we should say it is information or that it uses information.  

But a rock does not have information in either of these senses. I can find out some facts about a rock by measuring it or weighing, but until I do that there are no facts provided or learned about the rock. Nothing at all is conveyed or represented by the arrangement of atoms in a rock. It is true that I can scratch some words on a rock, or smash the rock into 100 pebbles, and then out spell out words with those pebbles. But that is information potential (the potential to make information), not information itself. It seems a rock has no information, particularly if that rock is buried far underground or if that rock is found on some distant lifeless moon or planet revolving around some other star, where it is most unlikely that anyone will ever make any observation or measurements involving the rock.

The orderly lattice structure in a crystal is not an example of information. Consider this example. I go to a web site with a random number generator. When I press a button, I get a 9-digit sequence of numbers. Suppose that after many times pushing the button, I witness the rare occurrence that instead of a random-looking number such as “235257032,” I get the sequence “123456789.” That sequence is orderly, but it would not seem that information has somehow appeared merely because of the orderly sequence.

If a rock buried far underground doesn't have information, it seems to make no sense to describe a physical universe as “just information.”

Others support a less vaunting conclusion, and try to assert that consciousness is just information. There is a theory called integrated information theory, which maintains that consciousness is just information that has become integrated to a sufficient degree. Such a theory seems to be endorsed in the recent book Life 3.0 by the MIT physicist Max Tegmark. 

Tegmark goes all gaga over a neuroscientist named Giulio Tomoni who has advanced this integrated information theory. On page 301 of his book, Tegmark tells us that Tomoni is the “ultimate renaissance man” and a “fearless intellect” with “incredible knowledge.” Tegmark says, “I'd been arguing for decades that consciousness is the way information feels when being processed in certain complex ways,” and that the integrated information theory fits in with this claim.  But information doesn't feel.

Tegmark says, “In summary, I think that consciousness is a physical phenomenon that feels non-physical because it's like waves and computations: it has properties independent of its specific physical substrate.” But it does not make sense to be describing consciousness as something physical. A Google search for the definition of “physical” produces two definitions:

  1. Relating to the body as opposed to the mind.
  2. Relating to things perceived through the senses as opposed to the mind; tangible or concrete.

Consciousness does not fit either of these definitions of “physical.”

What about the idea that consciousness is just information? There are some thought experiments you can try that suggest this idea is not correct.

Experiment 1: Imagine yourself standing under a waterfall, not thinking about anything, but simply seeing the water drops fall around you. You are unable to see anything but the water falling around you. At such a time you are conscious, but you are not creating or using information. Some might argue that raw visual data is information, but it isn't according to the two definitions previously cited. Seeing disordered raw visual data whiz by in such a place does not involve using information created using some system of representations (unlike reading, in which you do process information created using the systems of representations known as the alphabet and the English language). And while you can create information by processing visual data and drawing conclusions or stating facts, when you are simply viewing a stream of visual data without processing it or thinking about it or speaking about it, there would seem to be no information involved in such an activity. It would seem that at such a time you have consciousness, but there is no information involved.

Experiment 2: Imagine yourself dreaming. During your dream you have consciousness, but there is no information involved. The random visuals you see in your dream cannot be called “information.”

Experiment 3: Imagine yourself lying awake on your bed, with your eyes closed as you day-dream some wild fantasy about living on an extraterrestrial planet. This activity is consciousness, but it does not involve information. The imaginary elements that you use to populate your fantasy cannot be called information. While you might be able to use information if you made such a fantasy have realistic elements drawn from your memory, if you let your mind run loose, you could easily think of some really wild and crazy fantasy not based on any facts or information you had learned. (Conversely, if you were to write your wild fantasy down on paper, that would be information, because there would be a symbolic system of representations involved – the English language and the English alphabet. The instant you have an “x stands for y” situation, there is semantic information. So if I write “I flew to Mars,” then when I write down “M-A-R-S” to stand for the planet Mars, there is an “x stands for y” situation.)

Experiment 4: Turn off the television and lie on your bed, with your eyes closed. Repeat to yourself over and over again a meaningless sound such as “oooooooooooooooo.” While you were doing that, you were quite conscious. But your mind was not using information. A meaningless Mantra-type phrase such as “oooooooooooooooo” cannot be called information. And don't bother claiming that you were still getting information from your ears or skin, because you can just as easily imagine this occurring while you are floating in one of those fancy sensory-deprivation tanks in which there would be no sensory inputs.

These examples all seem to show that you can have consciousness without information. It would seem, therefore, that mind is much more than information, and cannot be reduced to merely “integrated information.”

I can think of another thought experiment to try. Let us imagine a source of information such as an online encyclopedia. Imagine a server farm stores this information in multiple computers. Now imagine a computer program that processes this information, creating all kinds of information links and hyperlinks. Imagine after 1000 hours of such processing, the degree of integration in the information is increased a billion-fold. So, for example, whenever you come to some text using the word “cow,” there is a link you can use to navigate to any of a million other places where the encyclopedia text refers to “cow.” Now, would we expect that all this additional integration of information would cause this encyclopedia to become conscious, so that the encyclopedia would start living a kind of encyclopedia life? Certainly not. Given a body of information, we should not expect that any level of increased integration would cause consciousness to appear. So we cannot describe consciousness as being integrated information.

Tomoni and Tegmark are off the mark in their thoughts about consciousness, which cannot be reduced to information. But their thoughts are at least much more intelligent than the ludicrous thoughts on this topic recently published by psychologists David Oakley and Peter Halligan. They recently published a paper with the nonsensical title, “Chasing the Rainbow: The Non-conscious Nature of Being.” In their paper the psychologists repeatedly use the term “consciousness” in quotes, as if it was something that only allegedly exists. They state, “Personal awareness is analogous to the rainbow which accompanies physical processes in the atmosphere but exerts no influence over them.” Which is, of course, an absurd thing to say, seeing that there are obviously 1001 ways in which our personal awareness can influence physical processes (as scientists frequently remind us when they tell us to live a more green lifestyle to reduce global warming).  When academics in ivory towers try to throw doubt on whether consciousness exists, their prose ends up sounding sillier than the credo of a flat earth believer.