LifeOS: exploring the system that executes DNA

March 8, 2010

What is Consciousness?

What is consciousness? That which observes fields of information, matter and energy, and calls them reality. Need it be more complex than that? Fields of information, matter and energy comprise our environment. Our consciousness interprets the environment and acts within it. We watch.

If that isn’t enough of a definition for you, there are more involved version to be found almost everywhere you look. Everyone wants to take a shot at it; we all have one. There is Consciousness Online, Center for Consciousness Studies(U of A), as well as dozens of universities, new age retreats and thousands of blogs that tag themselves as relating to the subject. The variety of descriptions reflects the difficulty of the enterprise. Every individual is describing a unique view of “reality”, that has been learned within a unique context. Every field of study has its own unique viewpoint, (piece of the elephant) that influences their observations. On top of that, each discipline develops a unique jargon to describe what they “see”. I call it the Tower of Babel approach. The more you read, the worse it gets; agreement on this subject is rare.

What this discussion really needs is a common denominator. The inquiry needs to be scaled to a level of functionality, where language and terminology can be used in common.

Rather than looking at consciousness from our human perspective, we need to look at how reality and consciousness relate to biological systems in general. Rather than concentrating on the complex internal details, let’s look at how the process functions at this higher level. At this level, the functionality of mobile species is simple: they move, eat, grow, expel waste and reproduce. We don’t care what goes on in their heads, just that they function within the environmental system they inhabit. However, we can note that the ability of an agent to be aware of its surroundings, is essential to three out the five functions. In its simplest form, awareness involves the processing of information. Here we can find some common ground.

The studies of complex systems, quantum mechanics, cybernetics, cellular biology, single celled organisms, chaos theory, fractals, holography, bioelectrics and information technologies share some common conceptual underpinnings. They are all explorations into information processing. There are many rules and laws that are consistent across these fields of study. They share common formulae for the construction of networks, for example.

The language developed by information technologies is known and understood across all languages, national and cultural boundaries. It was developed with functionality as it’s goal, and information processing and distribution it’s primary functions. Biological systems exhibit nearly identical patterns of functionality.

We find the same patterns of process in action in cells where DNA finds, copies and transfers genetic information. The universal rules and laws governing robust digital networks, outlined by Information Technologies offers the foundation for a common language to discuss consciousness, biological life and the material universe, as well.

The second common denominator is that consciousness, cellular activity, quantum mechanics, atomic structure are characterized by fields. Just as our consciousness is the result of waves of firing neurons(fields), matter is the result of waves of atomic particles interacting through fields of force(energy).

From plasma experiments, to growing tips of plants, to firing neurons, it is fields, processing information, that guide interactions. Consciousness is just such a field, processing input and directing actions. Looking at it in this light, all biological processes cycle through a phase of pure information, on the way to a phase of pure matter. Once it is seen as a fundamental function of biological systems, rather than an exclusive attribute of human evolution, consciousness reveals itself.


May 16, 2008

What’s the Difference?

Filed under: Ch 05 Cyber Systems — Tags: , , , — insomniac @ 5:03 pm

Along with Systems Theory and Cybernetics, there was another basic concept necessary for the design of computer networks. Pioneered by folks like Gregory Bateson, this conceptual territory deals with mathematical theories of information management. One important aspect identified by this line of thinking was the task of identifying discreet information in raw data. Bateson called it, “The difference that makes a difference.” In a dynamic system, everything is in a constant state of change, so it is the deviation from the dynamic pattern that registers as the difference that matters.

In order for accurate predictions to be made for a dynamic system, past performance must be known and plotted through time. It is deviation from the past dynamic action that differentiates between normal cyclical variation and meaningful change. To identify the deviation, one must be able to identify the difference that makes a difference. To spot this deviation is a very sophisticated undertaking, and yet routine for biological systems.

Imagine you are running to catch a ball. The information coming in to the brain from the eyes is constantly changing. Everything in your line of sight is moving as you run. Your brain identifies the ball as moving against the background movement, the difference that makes a difference. From that information, your brain calculates a trajectory. It tells your body how to get to a point where you can intercept the ball. All of this is done by analyzing information brought in by the senses. Our human biological systems would not function without processing information. Not only is information processing essential for internal brain functioning, it is fundamental to the physical universe as well.

In an information processing system, everything within the system is seen as information. Diehard materialists will insist that this is not the case, but we can soften their argument by saying that all matter has an information component. The information component is whatever it takes to organize light energy into matter. It is the rules or laws that trap light energy into atomic structure.

We are going to let others argue about the details of those laws. At this point, it doesn’t matter to us whether the Earth sucks or the heavens blow, we care that there exists a set of invisible laws that govern the operation and interaction of matter, energy, time and space. These laws are invisible to the naked eye, but are defined in the universal structure we seek.

Tree Rings

Everything we see around us is information. Tree rings are a good example of matter as information. The structure of the tree is a result of the interaction between its DNA and the environment, over time. The rhythm of the environment is captured along with samples of available minerals from the ground and gases from the atmosphere. The moisture cycles are recorded as surely as if it was being done by a weather station graphing pen. We have multiple levels of information stored in the same location. A tree is a living logbook of the activities of billions of cells doing their thing. Even when the tree dies, much of the information stays intact. Even when the tree is petrified, the tree rings still hold on to their information.

If we take a look at the tree rings of a lot of different trees in the forest, we can see that the patterns recorded in the rings can be synchronized with trees of different ages. In this way scientists can produce a continuous record of environmental cycles.

Since we know a lot about the chemistry of trees and how they process light, we can look back in time and learn a great deal about how weather conditions fluctuate over time. We can learn these things by deciphering the information stored in matter.

Information is All

Some folks want to make a distinction between information and noise, or biological or non-biological sources, or transmitters and receivers, but all transmissions of energy and all bits of matter carry information.

When we look at all matter and energy as information we get another bonus. It easily explains how so many diverse viewpoints can all be true: as information, both matter and energy can be viewed in an infinite number of accurate, though incomplete, representations. Like a database can be viewed in different ways to gain perspective on the relationships involved, so reality can be looked at from different perspectives. Any view that doesn’t include the “Whole” is incomplete, and therefore not really accurate, yet viewing the Whole at once provides no useful information.

Cause and Effect

Linear concepts are handy tools for focusing on details, but can’t be used to accurately describe reality. It can be convenient to think of cause and effect relationships as isolated sequences that follow set patterns. We can modify steps and change the outcome, but as a process within a system, the causative factors are really found in the system protocols which apply equally to all elements. The true causation exists on a higher level than the events themselves. For example, the cause of the tree falling in the forest was far more than just the ax and lumberjack. It was caused by a web of influence that expands to include the financial forces that put the lumberjack in the forest, as well as the history of the relationship between trees and human beings.

The key to being able to deal with relationships between phenomena is to be able to isolate them from other relationships. We just need to remember that the isolation is an illusion, it’s sort of a “what if” used for convenience of mind, but not the reality of the situation. The truth is that every event is connected to every other event. Like our tree falling in the forest, nothing falls alone.

It is all in how you look at it. That’s the idea here; take a look from this perspective, as if all Matter and Energy are the expression of Information. You don’t have to believe it to look at it from this angle. All you need is an open mind and a fearless heart.

May 15, 2008


Filed under: Ch 05 Cyber Systems — Tags: , , , — insomniac @ 4:27 pm

This field grew out of the landmark book, Cybernetics:Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine (Wiener 1948).

Dr. Norbert Wiener studied the subsystems that control behavior in animals, social groups, and machines, looking for common functionality. He identified and analyzed some of the information channels used. From there, he formulated some rules that seemed to apply universally. He was essentially reverse engineering the behavior of task oriented systems. He identified “goal directed behavior” and the feedback loops necessary for success. To perform tasks, a system has to have a way to monitor progress to know when the goal has been attained. Feedback mechanisms provide that information.

Feedback mechanisms return some of the output as input. Your heating system probably has a thermostat. It monitors the temperature, which is the result of the system’s output, and feeds that information back into the system. When the selected temperature is reached, the system shuts down the furnace.

This concept is core to information processing and indispensable in the design of computers and their networks. Concepts like feedback loops and self organizing systems developed from the observation of a wide range of functioning processes.

In many of those processes, like machines or social groups, the organizing principles are easy to see, but in biological systems the controlling factors are more obscure. It is obvious that functionality involves feedback and self organization, but where are the physical channels that carry and organize that information? In machines and social interaction we are fully aware of those channels because we created them. We know that intelligence is applied to gain functionality. Without intelligent human participation, machines and social groups do not function. The fact that biological systems function at all indicates to me that there is an intelligent element at the root of all biological action. The fact that biological systems function so well indicates a high level of intelligence is involved.

Second Order Cybernetics

Call it self organization, but the system that controls biological information processing has physical components that make its functionality possible. It obeys natural laws and produces real output. It should be no big trick for us to identify those physical components and the rules they follow, but that forces us into an area known as, “second order cybernetics”.

Second order cybernetics, initiated by Heinz von Foerster (1911-2002) and Roger Ashby (1903-1972), presents a similar hurdle to the one encountered by quantum physics; if the observer is part of the system, part of a feedback mechanism, how is the observation affected? We can’t just study other cybernetic systems without considering that the study is an interaction between two cybernetic systems.

We are individual cybernetic systems, and as such have our own observational components. Our keen awareness, and the senses that make our observations possible, follow a set of internal rules that have been learned. That learning is heavily influenced by our culture and the beliefs we inherit from it. The resulting personal view of reality is the baseline we must use to measure our observations. If that view is skewed by erroneous assumptions, it is surely affecting everything else.

Special Beings?

For example, we have been under the assumption that the systems we observe are fundamentally different from ourselves. We have always assumed that human beings, whether created by god or evolution, are special beings with skills, rights and privileges not available to other species. The most important of course, is our superior intelligence.

We have always thought of ourselves as intelligent beings living in a largely unintelligent alien environment. We share that environment with vicious creatures ruled by animal instinct. Survival has been seen as a battle against a hostile environment, vicious predators and other humans seeking the same resources. That point of view still dominates our consciousness, today.

Objective observation reveals that we humans are indeed cybernetic subsystems, functioning within other cybernetic systems, and fundamentally the same as the rest. As such, we operate under the same set of rules and are subject to the same limitations as all living things. When we study other living things, we are studying but another model of the same subsystem as ourselves. Our view of human beings and how they fit into the larger systems has definitely been, “skewed by erroneous assumptions”.

Conflict of Interest

More importantly, we are not at war with the System, we belong to it. I think most of us realize that defeating Mother Nature is not a realistic goal, yet that is the very behavior our species continues to exhibit daily. We have caught ourselves in a major conflict of interest. Our civilization is organized to reap maximum benefit from exploitation of the environment. We are very efficient at this from a economic point of view. The more we know about the environment and how we fit into the system, the more obvious it becomes that our current rate of exploitation is not sustainable. Global warming is only the tip of the iceberg, it is only a symptom of a deeper malaise. Our efficiency at sucking the energy out of the environment is wreaking havoc on multiple levels.

At any rate, the introduction of second order cybernetics pretty much put an end to the philosophical branch of cybernetics. The practical application of these concepts proved to be much more economically rewarding. Cybernetics was applied to the design of computers and their networks, and in some ways, defined the concept of information processing. Our concept of cyberspace, traversed by a virtual information highway, grew out of this new understanding of the role of information in any active process.

September 11, 2007

Biological Operating System

Filed under: An Introduction — Tags: , , , , , — insomniac @ 8:47 am

All creatures alive today, plus the remains of all living things that have gone before, all the organic compounds, all fossils, all fossil fuels, all the biomass accumulated by this planet over billions of years, exists because, information coded into DNA was accessed, read and acted upon by a cell. Before any one of those cells could grow, before any living tissue could be manufactured, before any polypeptide chains could be assembled, before anything could happen in ANY cell, DNA information had to be processed. Information processing is the very first act of Life.

Why is this an important distinction? Because information processing involves a set of concepts that are independent of the processing method being used. For one, there must exist a consistent set of rules or protocols that govern information processing within the system. This is called an operating system, or OS.

All living organisms follow the same rules for accessing and reading DNA code. These universal rules infer the existence of a biological operating system. I call it LifeOS.

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