Where does the mind begin?

The slow and steady march toward a more and more precise definition of what we mean by information inevitably begins with Claude Shannon. In 1948 Shannon published The Mathematical Theory of Communication in Bell Labs’ technical journal. Shannon found that transmitted messages could be encoded with just two bursts of voltage – an on burst and an off burst, or 0 and 1 – immediately improving the integrity of transmissions.  But, of even greater significance, this binary code made it possible to measure the information in a message. The mathematical expression of information has led, I suppose inevitably, to the sense that information is some thing, part (if not all) of our reality, rather than just the human experience of learning. Information is now perceived as acting in its various forms in physics as well as cognitive science. Like mathematics, it seems to be the thing that exists inside of us and outside of us. And, I would argue that every refinement of what we mean by information opens the door to significantly altered views of reality, mind, and consciousness.

Constructor Theory, the current work of author and theoretical physicist David Deutsch, drives the point home in its very premise. Deutsch explains that when speaking, for example, information starts as electrochemical signals in the brain that get converted into signals in the nerves, that then become sound waves, that perhaps become the vibrations of a microphone and electricity, and so on…..The only thing unchanged through this series of transformations is the information itself. Constructor Theory is designed to get at what Deutsch calls the “substrate independence of information.”  Biological information like DNA and what he calls the explanatory information produced by human brains, are aligned in Deutsch’s paradigm. Biological information is distinguished from explanatory information by its limits, not by what it is.

Cosmologist Max Tegmark once remarked:

I think that consciousness is the way information feels when being processed in certain complex ways.

In the same lecture, Tegmark redefines ‘observation,’ to be more akin to interaction, which leads to the idea that an observer can be a particle of light as well as a human being. And Tegmark rightly argues that only if we escape the duality that separates the mind from everything else can we find a deeper understanding of quantum mechanics, the emergence of the classical world, or even what measurement actually is.

Neuroscientist Giulio Tononi proposed the Integrated Information Theory of Consciousness (IIT) in 2004.  IIT holds that consciousness is a fundamental, observer-independent property that can be understood as the consequence of the states of a physical system. It is described by a mathematics that relies on the interactions of a complex of neurons, in a particular state, and is defined by a measure of integrated information. Tononi proposes a way to characterize experience using a geometry that describes informational relationships. In an article co-authored with neuroscientist Christof Koch, an argument is made for opening the door to the reconsideration of a modified panpsychism, where there is only one substance from the smallest entities to human consciousness.

IIT was not developed with panpsychism in mind. However, in line with the central intuitions of panpsychism, IIT treats consciousness as an intrinsic, fundamental property of reality.  IIT also implies that consciousness is graded, that it is likely widespread among animals, and that it can be found in small amounts even in certain simple systems.

In his book Probably Approximately Correct computer scientist Leslie Valiant brought computational learning to bear on evolution and life in general. And Richard Watson of the University of Southampton, UK added a new observation last year. He argued that genes do not work independently. They work in concert creating networks of connections that are forged through past evolution (since natural selection will reward gene associations that increase fitness). What Watson observed was that the making of connections among genes in evolution parallels the making of neural networks, or networks of associations, built in the human brain for problem solving. In this way, large-scale evolutionary processes look like cognitive processes.  Watson and his colleagues have been able to go as far as create a learning model demonstrating that a gene network makes use of a kind of generalization when grappling with a problem under the pressure of natural selection. Watson’s work was reported on in a New Scientist article by Kate Douglas with the provocative title Nature’s brain: A radical new view of evolution.

I’ve collected these topics here because these developing and novel theories are grounded in the ways one might perceive the behavior of information.  An unexpected question about where a spider might be gathering and storing information is subject of discussion in a recent paper published in Animal Cognition. The paper, from biologists Hilton F. Japyassu and Kevin Laland, was reported on in a Quanta Magazine article this month from Joshua Sokol.

When the spider was confronted with a problem to solve that it might not have seen before, how did it figure out what to do? “Where is this information?”…Is it in her head, or does this information emerge during the interaction with the altered web?

In February, Japyassú and Kevin Laland, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Saint Andrews, proposed a bold answer to the question. They argued in a review paper, published in the journal Animal Cognition, that a spider’s web is at least an adjustable part of its sensory apparatus, and at most an extension of the spider’s cognitive system.

This kind of thinking suggests the notion of  extended cognition (the view that the mind extends beyond the body to include parts of the environment in which the organism is embedded), and embodied cognition (the view that many features of cognition function as parts of the entire body). It seems that infant spiders (who are a thousand times smaller than adult spiders) are able to build webs that are as geometrically precise as the ones built by adult spiders. Japyassu’s work addressed this surprise by suggesting the possibility that spiders can somehow outsource information processing to their webs. But if the web is part of the spider’s cognitive system, then there should be some interplay between the web and the spider’s cognitive state. Experimenters do find evidence of such interplay. For example, if one section of a web is more effective, a spider may enlarge that section in the future. The idea that the spider is making an informed and objective judgment would be the alternative to the idea that there is an intimate connection between the web and the insects’ cognitive state.

But how these things are interpreted does rely on how one defines cognition. Is cognition acquiring, manipulating and storing information, or must it involve interpreting information in some abstract and more familiarly meaningful way?  My own sense is that many discussions addressing information suggest a continuum of actions involving information, and what we mean by information will continue to be the key to unlocking some new conceptual consistency in our sciences.

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