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Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Thinking and Information

Social observers say we live in the age of information. Physicists suggest that information theory may be the unifying theory of everything.

Identifying historical ages is a way to get a handle on changing knowledge and behavior in human development. We use distinctive categories to understand what really cannot be confined to categories because history flows between and beyond the categories we use. With that caution on the limits of "age analysis," let us try to see what it might mean to be inhabiting the "information age" and how that might call for different understandings and actions.

But I remind you that I am not trying to make a case for a certain theory, narrative, belief, politics, or position. My objective, again, is to promote thinking. It is built on my conviction that evil in me and in you and others and in our world is thoughtlessness--a product of our capacity or choice to avoid thinking. I do not say evil is ignorance. I say it is accepted and willful ignorance--the kind that turns categories into stereotypes, doctrines into dogmas, gods into idols, forms into absolutes.

To achieve this objective I explore with you what it means to think and the various modes, styles, and conditions of thinking. And here in this information age, I explore the relation of thinking to information and to information theory.

With social observers, we might identify the ages before our present age to set forth the peculiarities of our own. We start with the Age of Reason stemming from the Enlightenment of the mid 17th and early 18th centuries that transcended the Age of Myth and the Age of Faith and on to the scientific revolution. The human is considered a "rational animal" with reason being the highest of properties. Doubting, questioning, and rebelling in this age led to the Age of (Classical) Science.

The roots of the scientific revolution can be seen much earlier, but the Age of Science is usually reserved for the 18th and 19th when observation and experimentation, used by Newton in discovering the laws of motion, led to the laws of thermodynamics and the laws of electromagnetism that were formulated in the 19th century and on to the Industrial Age of the 19th and 20th centuries.

The Industrial Age is that of coal, steel, and manufacturing in factories building machines to aid human work, productivity, and consumption. The universe and humankind are considered as machines with parts that move deterministically according to scientific laws. It is also the age of invention where humanity, personally and collectively, has consciousness or mind or soul in that machine. And so countering mindless factories were new religious revival, spiritualism, psychiatry, and rational inquiry into bodies constituted by atoms, molecules, and evolving organisms towards the Atomic Age.

The early 20th century saw the development of the theories of relativity and quantum mechanics culminating in the Space and Nuclear Age. The smallest particles of matter were measured and the characteristics of light were defined. But in the transcendence of classical physics, a paradox was discovered in the laws governing the micro and the macro elements of the universe. And there seems to be an irresolvable tension in nature, in culture, and our lives between determinism and randomness, order and chaos, justice and freedom.

The Information Age is characterized by a movement away from mass by adding information to all our machines, transportation vehicles, health care instruments, military equipment, and many other devices. The computer is the machine of machines and is reproducing itself and its product exponentially. Information becomes the new currency and even currency is becomes information as you realize when you pay your bills and receive your income online.

Information theory is attributed to an engineer, Claude Shannon, who was trying to solve the problem of how many messages could fit on a telephone cable. He worked out a formula that many saw was  linked to the laws of thermodynamics and especially the second law of entropy. Atoms and molecules  are explained in terms of information transfers that can be communicated in bits, positive or negative charges, 1s or 0s. And now they are explained in quantum mechanics as qubits, which are positive and negative charges, 1s and 0s.

Information is ubiquitous. It travels on light from distant stars to the Hubble telescope. It travels our DNA to give the instructions that make up our genotypes and direct the evolution of life. It travels our nervous systems in negative and positive electric charges in and out of our brains which are organic processors of information. And so the whole Universe and its singularities can be understood as quantum information processors where all the bits and qubits are connected and the processors are part of the information itself.

I repeat that my purpose is not to proffer an understanding of a theory that explains reality, but rather to understand thinking in order to promote it. Information, like any concept, is a category and analogy. In-form implies the transfer of forms from mind to matter and matter to mind. It is sometimes defined as the answer to a question or as a message from a sender to a receiver. We indeed can conceive of thinking as processing information through a set of symbols or forms. We can conceive of knowledge as the information we receive when we decode those symbols. Knowledge is modeling reality and is true when we verify the models thus decoding the universe.

But as we have noticed in appreciating scientific method, there is a positive and negative in knowledge, a conjecture and a refutation, a positing and a criticizing towards a tentative final affirmation. And this knowledge is communicated and received through the negatives and positives of bits and qubits.

Reality including us is a combination of no and yes. There is no being without nonbeing. No-thing is where being emerges. The Universe (or God, to use the metaphor) creates being from nothingness. And indeed, created in the image of God, so do we. Our ability to say "no," our ability to critique, our ability to question and doubt all entities, all categories, is what makes it possible to say "yes." To being, to life, and to truth.


For further reading:

Charles Seife, Decoding the Universe: How the New Science of Information is Explaining Everything in the Cosmos, from Our Brains to Black Holes. Viking Penguin, 2006.

Vlatko Vedral, Decoding Reality: The Universe as Quantum Information. Oxford University Press, 2010.

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