levels of physical information

Reality appears stratified: within it there can be identified a large number of levels, each of which has its own particular characteristics. So, we talk of the atomic level, the subatomic level, and the molecular level. In biology we have the levels of the cell, the organ, the organism, the population, and so on. In the philosophical literature, the expressions “levels of description” and “levels of explanation” are used. Descriptions are applicable when the object of interest is a relatively static state of affairs, and explanations when we are concerned with sequences of related events. A description will be of an individual entity or static arrangement of entities, while an explanation will be about the dynamic interactions between entities.

According to Richard Dawkins, “Darwin's `survival of the fittest' is really a special case of a more general law of survival of the stable. The universe is populated by stable things.” And almost nothing but stable things, as unstable ones by definition do not last long. Stability is usually taken forgranted, but it is one of nature's most fundamental features. Without stability, not even rocks would survive, never mind living things. An appreciation of the importance of stability is very useful in coming to terms with evolutionary theory.

In apparent contradiction to the second law of thermodynamics, by which we might expect things generally to degenerate, there seems to have been a tendency ever since the Big Bang towards ever greater complexity and sophistication. The first atoms of the various elements began to form when the initially almost undifferentiated cloud of subatomic particles had cooled to a certain extent; then those atoms got together to form molecules. Later, we got cells, and then multicellular organisms. Now, there is much that can be said about this apparent tendency, especially since the emergence of complexity theory. The development of the universe from particles to black holes, nebulae, galaxies, suns and planets, with life and sufficient intelligence to understand these things, is about the spontaneous emergence of order out of chaos. But for present purposes, it is enough to note that the properties of entities at one level—take atoms for instance—are such that when they come together in certain configurations, they form stable agglomerations, in this case molecules. This is why there are other, higher levels of description and explanation, than just the very lowest.

But how can this be understood in terms of information?

Any thing can be studied—whether by the naked eye, or using a microscope or a telescope or some other device—but an object's intrinsic, physical information includes not only what it looks like. Logically, every other aspect of it, from its behaviour in a vacuum or in the deepest ocean trench, to its electrical resistance—anything that could in principle be determined by any kind of experiment—can be considered part of the information that belongs to this thing.

This is objective methodology, and this sort of information, as carried by every thing, is absolutely objective information. The result of a study, however accurate and objective in relative terms, does not belong to the object in the same sense—is not necessarily, perfectly accurate and complete—and so is, in absolute terms, subjective. Absolutely objective information is indubitably “out there”—all physical information is absolutely objective.

Think of a molecule—it is basically just a number of atoms arranged in a particular configuration. What distinguishes that molecule from the same atoms arranged in some other way, is the configuration—the pattern in which they come together. If there is some truth in saying that an entity is nothing but its components (ignoring the organisational pattern), there is just as much in saying that it is nothing but the pattern (taking the components forgranted). Just as any item of information—take a painting, for instance—might contain overall patterns, like land and sky, then subpatterns within each of these (clouds and patches of blue, trees and rivers), and so on down, so we have exactly the same arrangement within physical reality, with its multiple levels. The stability of the molecule requires the atoms to bind with each other, though, and that can only happen when they are relatively close together, so, generalising, the essential elements of any given thing are the lower level entities (e.g. the atoms), the pattern in which they come together, and its scale. The molecule, like any other thing, exists due to the stability of these elements.

Patterns are real, and there is nothing in the other constituents of physical things—lower level entities and scale—to make the combination any less real than the patterns. So physical things, as we know them, are real.

Some view reality as being transmitted up, as it were, through the levels from the very lowest, and it is true that the stability of certain patterns at certain scales derives from the particular characteristics of the lower level entities—but what does that signify? If by “real” we mean what is objective, what is “out there,” then by that standard, as patterns are real, so are physical things at every level, no less than at the lowest (whatever that might be).

Physical information can be considered just the form of objective reality. But when we bring stratification into the picture, we find that above the subatomic level (at least), there is in fact no difference between physical information and matter. Given the way physical information is defined, these are the same thing.

Matter, when thought of in opposition to form, i.e. as actual substance, is now relegated to the very lowest level. Of course, given the nature of quantum mechanics, we might hesitate to call these phenomena “substantial,” but nevertheless, despite the objective nature of the higher levels, this is where they are based, and so it is not wrong, from this point of view, to see “matter” in the broadest sense of that word, as residing down there.

A thing's physical information is constituted by any and every one of its characteristics that can be determined by experimentation, or in other words, that might become evident under any circumstances whatsoever. These include the ways in which this atom, say, will interact with another atom, or atoms, of any kind, and so the physical information of a molecule is a function of the physical information of its atoms. Of relevance here are both the ways in which they bond with each other, and the ways in which they react while so bonded, to other “outside” elements. The molecule is a simplification: the individual but bonded atoms in effect cooperate to produce a single cohesive, higher level entity—and some of the atoms' physical information—the way they would bond with different kinds of atom, or how they'd react while unbonded—is irrelevant.

What selects the relevant physical information, of an atom, a molecule or anything else, is its context, its current situation. So how it would react in any other situation is information that, if we accept the concept of absolutely objective information, we must accept does exist. But it is only the currently relevant information that contributes towards the physical information of the entity (in this case the molecule) of which the one currently under consideration (the atom) is part—or, more broadly, that plays any part in the universe as it is right now.

Given the atomic bonding, the molecule may be dealt with as a whole, but all of its characteristics are directly derived from those of the individual atoms, in fact are those of the atoms, in combination. So a molecule is a pattern within the combined relevant physical information of its atoms, each of which retains all its own individual characteristics, though only some of these are currently being “tested.” The molecular context, like any other element of “actuality,” in effect constitutes an experiment to determine the relevant part of the atoms' physical information.

(There is no difference in principle between an actual experiment and any other situation in which an atom, a molecule, or anything else might find itself. Nor between examining the thing itself, and checking out its reactions with other things, because the method of examination will inevitably involve interactions with other things, if only light—there is no “pure” way to find out about any single thing.)

When we perceive an object, we are in a sense perceiving its components, but the information is simplified in such a way that it presents a cohesive whole—otherwise, it would not be an object! Now, that simplification will often be taking place entirely outside ourselves, and entirely due to objective factors, for instance the nature of the interactions between light and the top few layers of the subcomponents. When we get down to the level of atoms, these are too small to have any colour, as light can only be reflected by numbers of them in combination. But that's precisely why the information borne to our eyes on the light beam is a simplification of the physical information—which is just the particular characteristics—of all these atoms. Or at least it's one of the two main reasons, the other of which is that many of the atoms' characteristics are not currently being exercised. But the simplified physical information remains objective—the patterns are real.

Using methods other than the bouncing of light off things, we get a different picture—for instance, modern non-light microscopy can apparently get down to around one ten-millionth of a millimetre. At this level we are dealing with individual atoms, which are rather fuzzy, rather than the solar-type systems of billiard ball-like objects some people remember from school science classes. Apparently, at the time of writing, some scientists even claim to be able to discern the “cloud” of electrons that surrounds the nucleus. So the simplification here is a cloud, rather than individual electrons or the nucleus itself. The cloud is not an illusion, but is the nature of this little part of reality, at this level: however fuzzy around the edges, the cloud is a real pattern.

However, the appearance of the colour in one case, and the electron cloud in the other, are functions not just of the material under investigation, but also of the investigative method. Here again we see the relevance of context. What we perceive is a function of many complex interactions. But the physical information, with its patterns, is really “out there,” and what the context does is merely to select certain aspects of it. (Colour as such is not actually out there, but the wavelengths of light that correlate with perceived colour, are.) Just as a coloured surface selects for reflection a subset of all the different wavelengths present in the light that falls on it, so a subset of a thing's total physical information is selected by its current context, and a subset of that information might be carried by an energy flow to an observer.

It could be reasonable to say that higher level entities are “merely abstractions” of lower level ones, depending on what “merely” is taken to imply. But their patterns of organisation are quite real in themselves, and (together with the scale and the lower level entities) are precisely what provide the coherent whole, and thus allow the simplification, so this does not detract from the reality status of the higher level entities. Simple descriptions are as useful as more detailed ones, though they have different uses. Encoded information is as real as the explicit sort. Molecules are as real as atoms, though, depending on the context of the inquiry, we will probably prefer to consider one rather than the other.

Physical things, at every level higher than the very lowest (whatever that might be), are objective abstractions. These abstractions, or patterns, exist within the combined physical information of their components. They owe their (perfectly genuine) existence to the (quite real) stability of certain configurations of lower level entities. The physical universe, at the levels that directly concern us, demonstrates the stability of objective abstractions, i.e. of the configurations in which lower level entities cohere.

We can talk about physical things as abstractions, because in fact, above the very lowest level, there is no difference between physical information and matter. Just as, in the static mode, physical information is “solid” matter, so in the dynamic mode information flow is energy flow.

Most obviously in the static mode, but also for physical information in general, what matters for us is that it is consistent. While the patterns within that information, the objective abstractions, are sufficiently consistent, or stable, we can think of them as “matter.” When you knock your knee against the table leg, and feel pain, it might be hard to view that as an informational exchange, but this is an example of causation and information flow, and we can say that here again, for events just as for entities, we have objective abstractions, because the knock is a simplification of all the events that are occurring at the subatomic level, but is nevertheless quite real. But the main point here is that when we look at or think of that table leg, whether we call it matter, or “that instance of hard data”, is entirely semantic—what we require of it is stability, and that is generally (though not always) what we get.

Copyright © 1998--2005 by Robin Faichney. This material may be distributed only subject to the terms and conditions set forth in the Open Publication License, v1.0 or later (the latest version is presently available at http://www.opencontent.org/openpub/). Distribution of substantively modified versions of this document is prohibited without the explicit permission of the copyright holder. Distribution of the work or derivative of the work in any standard (paper) book form is prohibited unless prior permission is obtained from the copyright holder.
Last modified 23-Feb-2005 14:36:17 by Robin Faichney .