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Paul Davies: Life’s defining characteristics “better understood as information”

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The Demon in the Machine: How Hidden Webs of Information Are Finally Solving the Mystery of Life by [Davies, Paul]

From a review of cosmologist Paul Davies’s The Demon in the Machine:How Hidden Webs of Information Are Finally Solving the Mystery of Life:

Davies claims that life’s defining characteristics are better understood in terms of information. This is not as absurd as it may seem. Energy is abstract, yet we have little trouble accepting it as a causal factor. Indeed, energy and information are closely related through entropy.

He thinks that instead of looking for chemical signatures of life elsewhere in the universe, we should be looking for informational signatures.

What practical difference does it make to see life as informational? We don’t yet know, but can speculate. For one thing, if the essential characteristics of life are entropic, extraterrestrial searches based on chemistry could be misguided. It might be more useful to look for phenomena such as ‘anti-accretion’ — in which matter is regularly transferred from a planet’s surface into space. Earth has experienced this since the 1950s, when the one-way traffic in asteroids and meteorites plunging into the globe was finally counteracted by the launch of the first artificial satellites. Arguably, such situations are not merely consistent with the presence of life, but almost impossible to explain in any other way. Timo Hanay, “Maxwell’s demon and the hunt for alien life” at Nature

The problem with taking information seriously in the evolution of life, as in Introduction to Evolutionary Informatics, is that it may rule out favorite “evolution” claims. Taking it seriously and discounting it whenever it matters is a fancy dance.

See also:

The Information Enigma

One Reply to “Paul Davies: Life’s defining characteristics “better understood as information”

  1. 1
    bornagain77 says:

    a few related notes:

    How we could create life – The key to existence will be found not in primordial sludge, but in the nanotechnology of the living cell – Paul Davies – 2002
    Excerpt: the living cell is best thought of as a supercomputer – an information processing and replicating system of astonishing complexity. DNA is not a special life-giving molecule, but a genetic databank that transmits its information using a mathematical code. Most of the workings of the cell are best described, not in terms of material stuff – hardware – but as information, or software. Trying to make life by mixing chemicals in a test tube is like soldering switches and wires in an attempt to produce Windows 98. It won’t work because it addresses the problem at the wrong conceptual level.
    https://www.theguardian.com/education/2002/dec/11/highereducation.uk

    Assessing the “Algorithmic Origin of Life” (Paul Davies’ Recent Paper) – December 18, 2012
    Excerpt: It is the functionality of the expressed RNAs and proteins that is biologically important. Functionality, however, is not a local property of a molecule. It is defined only relationally, in a global context, which includes networks of relations among many sub-elements,,
    One is therefore left to conclude that the most important features of biological information (i.e. functionality) are decisively nonlocal. Biologically functional information is therefore not an additional quality, like electric charge, painted onto matter and passed on like a token. It is of course instantiated in biochemical structures, but one cannot point to any specific structure in isolation and say “Aha! Biological information is here!”,,,
    ,,,For example, mechanical stresses on a cell may affect gene expression. Mechanotransduction, electrical transduction and chemical signal transduction — all well-studied biological processes — constitute examples of what philosophers term “top-down causation”, where the system as a whole exerts causal control over a subsystem (e.g. a gene) via a set of time-dependent constraints.
    http://www.evolutionnews.org/2.....67541.html

    The “Hard Problem” of Life – Sara Imari Walker and Paul C.W. Davies = June 23, 2016
    Excerpt:. In the case of consciousness, it seems evident that certain aspects will ultimately defy reductionist explanation, the most important being the phenomenon of qualia – roughly speaking our subjective experience as observers. It is a priori far from obvious why we should have experiences such as the sensation of the smell of coffee or the blueness of the sky. Subjective experience isn’t necessary for the evolution of intelligence (we could for example be zombies in the philosophical sense and appear to function just as well from the outside with nothing going on inside). Even if we do succeed in eventually uncovering a complete mechanistic understanding of the wiring and firing of every neuron in the brain, it might tell us nothing about thoughts, feelings and what it is like to experience something. Our phenomenal experiences are the only aspect of consciousness that appears as though it cannot, even in principle, be reduced to known physical principles. This led Chalmers to identify pinpointing an explanation for our subjective experience as the “hard problem of consciousness” [5]. The corresponding “easy problems” (in practice not so easy) are associated with mapping the neural correlates of various experiences. By focusing attention on the problem of subjective experience, Chalmers highlighted the truly inexplicable aspect of consciousness, based on our current understanding.
    ,,,in the same way that Chalmers identified qualia as central to the hard problem of consciousness. To that end we propose that the hard problem of life is the problem of how ‘information’ can affect the world. In this essay we motivate both why the problem of information is central to explaining life and why it is hard, that is, why we suspect that a full resolution of the hard problem will not ultimately be reducible to known physical principles.,,,
    ,,, There are some indications for a potentially deep connection between information theory (which is not cast as a physical theory and instead quantifies the efficacy of communication through noisy channels), and thermodynamics, which is a branch of physics(5) due to the mathematical relationship between Shannon and Boltzmann entropies. Substantial work over the last decade has attempted to make this connection explicit, we point the reader to [22, 20] for recent reviews. Schrodinger was aware of this link in his deliberations on biology, and famously coined the term “negentropy” to describe life’s ability to seemingly violate the 2nd law of thermodynamics(6) . Yet he felt that something was missing, and that thermodynamic considerations alone are insufficient to explain life [26]:
    “. . .living matter, while not eluding the ”laws of physics” as established up to date, is likely to involve ”other laws of physics” hitherto unknown . . . ”
    – Erwin Schrodinger
    We suggest one approach to get at these “other laws” is to focus on the connection between the concept of “information” and the equally ill-defined concept of “causation” [34, 17, 9]. Both concepts are implicated in the failure of our current physical theories to account for complex states of the world without resorting to very special initial conditions. In particular, we posit that the manner in which biological systems implement state-dependent dynamics is by utilizing information encoded locally in the current state of the system, that is, by attributing causal efficacy to information. It is widely recognized that coarse-graining (which would define the relevant ‘informational’ degrees of freedom) plays a foundational role in how biological systems are structured [12], by defining the biologically relevant macrovariables (see e.g. Chapters by Flack, Dedeo and by Wolpert et al. in this volume). However, it is not clear how those macrostates arise, if they are objective or subjective [27], or whether they are in fact a fundamental aspect of biological organization – intrinsic to the dynamics (i.e. such that macrostates are causal) rather than merely a useful phenomenological descriptor. A framework in which coarse-grained information-encoding macrostates are causal holds promise for resolving many of the problems discussed herein. This is the key aspect of the hard problem of life.
    Conclusions:
    There are many difficult open problems in understanding the origin of life – such as the ‘tar paradox’ [2] and the fact that prebiotic chemistry is just plain hard to do. These problems differ qualitatively from the ‘hard problem of life’ as identified here. Most open problems associated with life’s origin such as these, while challenging right now, will likely ultimately reduce to known principles of physics and chemistry and therefore constitute by our definition “easy problems”. Here we have attempted to identify a core feature of life that won’t similarly be solved based on current paradigms – namely, that life seems distinct from other physical systems in how information affects the world (that is, that macrostates are causal).,,,
    To quote Einstein, ‘One can best feel in dealing with living things how primitive physics still is.’
    ( A. Einstein, letter to L. Szilard quoted in [25]).
    http://arxiv.org/pdf/1606.07184v1.pdf

    Information is physical (but not how Rolf Landauer meant) – video
    https://youtu.be/H35I83y5Uro

    (December 2018) (the physical reality of immaterial information) – short take
    https://uncommondescent.com/intelligent-design/a-new-unified-model-of-specified-complexity/#comment-669817

    Verse:

    John 1:1-4
    In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men.

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