Archive for October 29th, 2010

October 29, 2010

Information, consciousness and all that

by Neil Rickert

There’s another thoughtful response from gpuccio at the UD site though I believe it to be mistaken.  Since it raises issues that are a common source of confusion, I want to discuss it here.

Here is how gpuccio opens his comment:

The point is that we in ID believe (for reasons) that design is the product of a conscious intelligent being who imparts a specific form to an output for a specific purpose. And that complex functional information is a sure mark of design.

That almost sounds as if it could be the basis of a scientific hypothesis.  However, to make it a scientific hypothesis, you would need

  • A way of characterizing “conscious intelligent being” that could be applied objectively, reliably and repeatedly by multiple independent experimenters;
  • A way of characterizing “complex functional information” that could be applied objectively, reliably and repeatedly by multiple independent experimenters.

If you had such clear characteristics, and their reliability had been tested broadly – not just with conscious humans and human information systems – then you could begin to seek evidence to corroborate or falsify the hypothesis.

The difficultly is that both “consciousness” and “information” are very slippery concepts.  We are not close to being able to suitable characterize either.  And without some such characterization, then you are talking philosophy or theology, rather than science.

I mostly want to talk about information in this post, because it is not nearly as slippery as consciousness, though it is still rather slippery.  Dembski attempted to characterize information with his work on “complex specified information.”  In my estimation, that effort was a failure.

There is no reason to believe a priori that consciousness, intelligence and purpose are exclusive characteristics of humans.

Agreed.  However, there is a great deal of disagreement over what those terms mean.  People disagree over whether dogs are conscious.  For the record, I do consider dogs to be conscious, but I am not at all sure how to assess whether ants or bees or butterflies are conscious.  The AI people think that intelligence is achievable by logic coding in computers.  I disagree with them.  So obviously, I disagree with the AI folk on what “intelligence” means.  And the question of what we mean by “purpose” is another can of worms.  In short, none of those terms are suitable for use in science.  This does not mean that science cannot investigate them, but in order to investigate them, it will need to be able to better characterize them.  And if it can more precisely characterize them, then it can only study what it has characterized, which might be different from our ordinary meanings for those terms.

So let’s get back to information.

Our primary example of information, is human language.  And the idea that information requires consciousness, very likely comes from our experience with human language.  Computer programming languages are very different from human language, and the lack the richness of natural language.  Computers that are entirely mechanical and that have no purposes of there own, are easily able to use computer languages, but nobody has been able to have them fully cope with natural language.  The type of inference that you want to use would seem to lead to

  • computers can use computer languages;
  • therefore computers are conscious.

However, nobody believes that conclusion.  That’s why one has to be very cautious about reasoning from analogy.

The genetic code is far simpler than computer languages, so we should be even more cautious about analogies there.

When I am using a key to unlock my front door, then I don’t think of that key as being information.  Rather, I think of it as having a mechanical shape such as is needed for the mechanical operations of the lock.  If, however, I had a combination lock, then I would have thought of the combination as information.  I hope you can see the difference there.  With a combination lock, the combination can be remembered, transmitted, written in the form of numbers or other symbols that are detached from the causal operations.  And it is that detachment or abstraction that leads me to think of it as information, rather than as a mechanical shape.  DNA is far more like the mechanical key with mechanical shape.  However, when scientists write down a genetic code as a sequence of letters, that is more like the combination for a combination lock, in that it is detached from the causal operations.

Information and consciousness

The main reason that I have interest in questions about information, is that I have been studying issues related to human consciousness.  And you cannot study consciousness without considering the role of information.

Many AI proponents take a very broad view of information.  If there is a lightning flash nearby, and that causes surges (perhaps small surges) in the wiring in your home, they would consider those surges to be information.  Some of them even go so far as to say that the moon is a computer, and it is computing its orbit as it goes.  These are examples of the overuse of metaphors.  And my main reason for taking a restricted view of what is information, is to avoid that kind of nonsense.

My preferred view is to consider something to be information, only within the constraints of an information system.  That makes “information” a relative term, relative to the information system being considered.  If I am talking on the telephone, and the TV is on in the background, then I am going to be considering the telephone conversation to be the information, and what is coming from the TV I will consider as noise to be filtered out.  This sort of filtering, distinguishing between information and noise, is an important part of what a cognitive system does, and it is actually an important part of what any information system does.  Even the ethernet card on your computer is designed to filter out noise that is not part of the ethernet signaling.

If you want to consider DNA as part of an information system, I don’t have a problem with that.  But it does require identifying the information system and identifying what is the information.  As for a role for consciousness, it is in the human identification of DNA as an information system.  So we decide what we will consider to be consider to be the codes, what we will consider to be encoded.

When we look at what actually happens in a cell, we see only causal actions.  If what the cell is doing can be said to be purposeful, then we are only talking about the purposes we ascribe to the cell.  We have no basis for saying that the cell has intrinsic purposes of its own.

The ID position seems to take information as an absolute universal, rather than as something relative to an information system.  And that kind of thinking can be very misleading.

I don’t expect ID folk to suddenly change their ideas on my say so.  I would hope that they can at least understand that there are legitimate reasons for disagreeing with their view of information.