Deep Theory: The Philosophy of Information and Function

The IFB project aims to build an understanding of life from the deepest, most fundamental roots as possible. The foundation of all systematic thinking is a set of concepts and words that are very precisely defined. You might have noticed that words like ‘information’ and ‘function’ are multi-purpose and not well defined, so we need to specify what we mean much more precisely than we could with these words (see  definitions page). The best intellectual tool for this task is philosophy, which has a long established role in strictly defining language and concepts. Indeed, one of the practical difficulties we experience in developing our theory is the lack of specific terms available to describe the concepts we refer to. Lucciano Floridi is a pioneer in developing the precise language and concepts needed to work with information.

The philosophy we use is not just about words and meanings, though. An important branch, ontology, tries to understand the nature of reality: what causes things to be at all and why are they this way and not otherwise?

Aristotle's information

A growing movement in this subject takes the view that information itself is the essence of existence. In this case, the word ‘information’ does not refer to information about things, but to the physical information embodied in the form of things (information). The thinking behind this website subscribes to the philosophical proposition that matter and energy are arranged in space and time by information, to create the variety of identifiable physical objects and phenomena of the universe. In other words, matter and energy (the stuff we normally think of as the essence of existence) are merely the inert clay - the raw material - for composing the universe. Many attribute the origin of this ontological view to Aristotle (so sometimes philosophers refer to an Aristotelean meaning of ‘information’. In this view, it is a specific arrangement of fundamental particles within space and time, that makes any single thing what it is and also determines its properties and behaviour. The particular arrangement is a pattern and the pattern is information - specifying the particular from an assembly of possible patterns. Life can then be seen as an informational system that maintains, replicates and refines itself, all in the medium of biochemistry. The  answer to how it does all that is to be found in the laws and behaviours of information, not fundamentally in the mechanisms of biochemistry, though they they are important for its realisation of course.

This notion of 'information' does not replace the 'reduction in uncertainty' quantified in Shannon's information theory. It is important to realise that the two are separate (but related) meanings. Shannon's idea of informaiton is useful for quantification of may be 'read' from the form of an object or system. Shannon's information is strictly relational though, since he developed it with transmission between a source and receiver: this is a fundamental difference from Aristotelean information, which is intrinsic to the system.

Function, Causation and Autonomy

One of the unique features of living systems (from chemical pathways, through cells and bodies to ecological communities) is that they seem to do things of their own accord. This strange feature has long fascinated Stuart Kauffman, who points out that for the non-living world, physics obviously gives us a sufficient explanation, since it describes what happens to objects, but organisms are not merely reacting to forces, they actually do things, i.e. they are sources of happening. The phenomena of agency and autonomy are peculiar to life and probably only explicable in terms of information theory. This is taken up in arguments about 'free will', for which providing a scientific explanation is part of the IFB project (see Autonomy and Downward Causation).

With the ability to initiate actions, the question of why this and not that action, obviously arises. Answering this question entails understanding of biological function. Our use of Stuart Kauffman's concept of a Kantian Whole , defined by causal closure, and the idea of life organised as a nested hierarchy of systems of components belonging to functional equivalent classes (promoted in biology by Denis Noble) led to a more precise rendering of the Cummins (1975) definition: ‘function’ is an objective account of the contribution made by a system’s component to the ‘capacity’ of the whole system. Our definition of biological function is this:

A biological function is a process enacted by a biological system A at emergent level n which influences one or more processes of a system B at level n+1, of which A is a component part.

This statement is presented in the paper:
Farnsworth, K.D.; Albantakis, L.; Caruso, T. (2017). Unifying concepts of biological function from molecules to ecosystems. Oikos, doi: 10.1111/oik.04171.

You can read more detail about biological function here.

The Autonomy of Organisms

Whether or not we (humans) have free-will, or even what that means is one of the oldest and most studied of philosophical questions. It is surprising that so little effort has yet been devoted to addressing these questions in a) broader terms of organisms or systems in general and b) scientific and especially cybernetic terms. Here, we find that the cybernetic (informational) approach to questions of autonomy, agency and free-will (closely aligned with an enquiry into causation and closure) reveal something very special (even unique and definitive) about living systems. This is taken up on the autonomy page and those to which it links. The conclusion is that organisms are able to express autonomy (as freedom from exogenous control) by virtue of being organisationally closed and that through evolution, systems of ever increasing power and sophistication have developed to allow this to expand, first to selecting appropriate actions from a behavioural repertoire, then being able to evaluate potential actions in terms of the best interests of the self and eventually to higher levels of free-will. This more scientific approach shows that free-will is not an all-or-nothing attribute, but rather a property of organisationally closed systems that exists in degrees (i.e. on an ordinal scale) and presumably humans show it's highest degree (as far as we know), but even humans do not have unlimited free will. This is not a mere re-definition and deviation from the standard philosophical concept of free will, it is entirely compatible with that, but it produces conclusions that many conventional philosophers currently find unpalatable. These ideas are presented in these two papers:

Farnsworth, K.D. (2017). Can a Robot Have Free Will? Entropy. 19, 237; doi:10.3390/e19050237

Farnsworth, K.D. (2018). How organisms gained causal independence and how to quantify it. Biology.

It is very interesting to find that the quintessential feature of life is the autonomy that arises from it's being autopoietic and algorithmic (cybernetic), so that it has the organisational closure properties at multiple scales of a nested hierarchy, each of which creates function and the whole thing is a sort of computer, computing itself - and all of this is information processing.

The illustration for this theme is a map of the 'cosmic background radiation', showing the earliest observable (to-date) large-scale pattern created by information in the universe. Life can also be interpreted as a concentration of pattern, instantiating and processing information. In this theme, we explore the fundamental concepts used to elaborate and build theories with these ideas. This includes an examination of the difference (and connections) between the statistical theory of information and a more general understanding of information as 'meaningful' pattern. (‘Meaning’ is a vague and confusing term, which we attempt to pin down and generalise, rendering it suitable for objective analysis here).

The result is that an essential characteristic of information, in the creation and maintenance of life, is functionality.  Function and information are integral to the concept of causation and causation is the raw material for autonomy. The big bang created a cascade of cause-effect chains that led to the creation of life (at least on this planet), but from then on, apparently new chains began to appear - these ones generated from within the newly created organisms. What a marvel! Many people will look at the night sky, seeing billions of stars on a clear night and think "how small and insignificant am I". But now look at it in the light, not of specks of stellar radiation, but of concentrations of information and its processing. Now realise that we, complex living organisms, are by far the brightest stars in the known universe.

This Theme seeks to: