Life, information, cybernetics

Gregory Bateson taught us that the life of any living being, from protozoa to man, is based on information and its processing, and defines information as “any difference that makes a difference”.

As “difference”, information is therefore immaterial. In fact, the difference between an object A and an object B is not in either of the two, but in the comparison “between” the two. In metaphysical terms, if by spirit we mean something that can act on matter without being material, then we could say that information is spirit.

Even if it is immaterial, any information needs a material support (mass and/or energy) in order to be transmitted, memorized, and processed, so there cannot exist information without matter (organic or inorganic) or energy that supports it. In metaphysical terms, it could be said that there can be no spirit outside of some matter or energy that hosts or transports it.

As the word itself suggests, information “informs” (i.e. forms inside) life, gives it form, instructs it, as it acts on its organic matter according to certain logics. This is what makes the difference between a non-living object and a living one. In the following, we will call “organism” a living object composed of organs (and these, in turn, composed of lower-level organs) governed by biological laws and algorithmic logics.

The essential, vital function of information for life, unknown to our ancestors, is now evident (and indisputable) in the genetic code of every living species, which is in fact composed of information written on molecular structures (such as DNA and RNA). Nor can we exclude that in the future it will be discovered that there is vital “information” at the subatomic level.

An organism is an organized “whole” composed of parts, which we call “organs”. These behave according to certain logic written in the genetic code. Some of these organs (such as certain parts of the brain) are also capable of learning, i.e. developing codes of behavior as a result of experience. By behavior of an organ I mean the logic by which, in the face of certain inputs (information, energies, and substances) from certain other organs, objects, or environmental states, it generates certain outputs to certain other organs or objects.

The overall behavior of an organism and that of its organs can be random if they do not follow any logic, or “logical” if they follow some logic. In nature, the behavior of living beings and their organs are normally almost entirely governed by logic, but with a certain degree of randomness. This serves to ensure biodiversity, which favors the survival of genes.

For example, in sexual reproduction, the embryo inherits the genes of the parents half from the father and half from the mother, but the selection of each gene from one or the other parent is completely random, as is the sex of the embryo itself. The randomness of the mixture of genes produces embryos always different from the parents so that some combinations are more suitable for the environment, others less suitable. The most suitable ones are favored in natural selection, as they increase the chances of conservation of the species and allows the species to evolve positively in the sense of better biological equipment.

Following Gregory Bateson’s teaching, any organism (i.e. any living thing) can be considered as a cybernetic system (or simply a system), i.e. an organized whole made up of material parts (hardware) and other intangible parts (software, i.e. information). Every “living” system interacts with external objects (living and non-living) governing itself according to certain algorithms.

The information that constitutes the software of a system (living or non-living) is divided into “data” and “instructions”. The data is analyzed and processed by the system according to the instructions in its software.

The software of a living system is partly inherited from its predecessors (as genetic code) and partly learned through the interactive experiences of the system itself.

The idea that every living being (and man in particular) functions as a cybernetic system (similarly to a common computer), is still unacceptable to most people today. The most common objection to this idea is that we are “much more” than a computer and very different from it, especially for the fact that we are endowed with consciousness, feelings and free will, while the computer is a machine without consciousness or feelings, which merely executes the orders of its programmer.

Another objection is that the behavior of a human being is not as rigid as that of a computer, but more or less random, and not predefined as a consequence of free will.

To these objections, I reply that although there are obvious differences between a computer and a human being, these do not concern the general principles of a cybernetic system, but only collateral aspects, such as the following.

  • The hardware of a computer is generally made of inorganic material, “hard” and fixed, while that of a living being is made of organic material, “flexible”, able to grow, and destined to decompose after death (and partly even before).
  • The software of a living being is far more complex than that of a computer, and only slightly decipherable by man.
  • The software of a computer can generally be modified only by an external programmer, while an organism has the ability to program itself; however, already today we can build computers capable of modifying their programs autonomously.
  • It does not seem that a computer can be endowed with consciousness and feelings, but this is probably true for many other living species. We can in fact reasonably assume that consciousness and feelings have “emerged” in the course of evolution as a result of genetic mutations, nor can we exclude that in the near future a computer will acquire consciousness and feelings since these phenomena are still mysterious even for neuroscientists.

If it is reasonable to admit that a human being has something more than a common computer, I also think it is reasonable to say that a human being works and behaves like a computer, i. e.  as a cybernetic system (both overall and at the level of its organs, up to the cells).

I cannot demonstrate with scientific arguments what I said, however, I will try to do it conceptually based on the idea of the “behavior logic.

The behavior of a living or non-living system can be, in theory, completely random, completely algorithmic, or hybrid (i.e. partially algorithmic and partially random). My opinion is that human behavior is hybrid, i. e. is almost completely algorithmic but with random choices provided by the algorithm itself. In fact, the program of a computer can provide random choices, as it happens for example in the software that governs slot machines.

The non-random part of human behavior is by definition subject to certain criteria, i.e. certain logics such as: “if X occurs, do Y, otherwise do Z”. The logic with which we choose (consciously or unconsciously) is predefined, i.e. programmed. Someone might object that a human being can “improvise” a new behavior logic at the very moment he needs to make a choice. To this objection, I answer that the new logic will be “drawn” at random (and in that case, it would be part of the random component of the behavior) or it will be drawn according to another logic of higher level. In fact, man continuously creates and tries new logics, or strategies, to reach his objectives, on the basis of predefined logics, or guiding principles, of a higher level. In other words, a logic can generate logics of subordinate level.

The overall behavior of a human being is therefore determined by a quantity of logics present in his various organs (not only inside the brain), each of which contributes to direct the person in a certain direction, sometimes in conflict with what is dictated by other logics. Just as in physics the force applied to an object is the resultant (i.e. the combination) of all the forces applied to it in all possible directions, so the choices of a person are the effect of the combination of all the logics (conscious and unconscious) that are active at all times.

Next chapter: Mind, ecology, society.