[#1] On Matter and Information: The Origin of Recipes

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[#1] On Matter and Information: The Origin of Recipes

The relationship between matter and information is one of the great mysteries in all of science. Information itself has no material properties, it has no weight, it has no power to do anything. But when combined with enabling material technology, there are no limits to its power.
By Piet Hut

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[#0] The "Y" in YHouse


[#0] The "Y" in YHouse

The "Y" in front of "House," read as "why," was literally spelling out the way we were willing to question anything and everything — as happens in scientific research, as well as in any inquiry into the underlying tacit assumptions that we use to ground our lives, often without being aware of doing so. 
By Piet Hut


Synopsis of May 4th YHouse Lunch Meeting at IAS


Synopsis of May 4th YHouse Lunch Meeting at IAS

On Thursdays at noon Yhouse holds a lunch meeting at the Institute of Advanced Study, in Princeton. The format is a 15 minute informal talk by a speaker followed by a longer open-ended discussion among the participants, triggered by, but not necessarily confined to, the topic of the talk. Michael Solomon posts a synopsis of the weekly meeting.


Synopsis of Andreas Losch’s April 27 YHouse Lunch IAS Talk


Synopsis of Andreas Losch’s April 27 YHouse Lunch IAS Talk

On Thursdays at noon Yhouse holds a lunch meeting at the Institute of Advanced Study, in Princeton. The format is a 15 minute informal talk by a speaker followed by a longer open-ended discussion among the participants, triggered by, but not necessarily confined to, the topic of the talk.  In order to share I am posting a synopsis of the weekly meetings.

April 27, 2017 Synopsis of Andreas Losch’sYHouse Lunch Talk

Speaker: Andreas Losch (University of Bern)

Title: Top-Down Causation
Abstract:  (By the speaker)  “Can the human mind actually control the body? This seems to be an experience we all have every second. Yet doesn’t it imply the existence of a free will to perform its decisions with bodily means? How could this scientifically be imagined, the causal nexus of the physical world provided? Amongst others, Karl Popper and John Eccles – drawing on the ideas of Michael Polanyi and Donald T. Campbell – propagate the idea of a “top-down causation“ as a potential answer. I will discuss the origins, extent and shortcomings of this idea.”

Present:  Andreas Losch, Bob McClennan, George Musser, Naoki Yajima, David Fergusson, Nicholaas Rupke, Ed Turner, Michael Solomon

 Andreas opened with the basic definition of top-down causation, “Can the whole/ the Macrostructure act back on its parts?”  The question of Top-Down causation has been considered by many thinkers.  George Ellis has argued that this exists everywhere.  Others question whether it exists at all.  Andreas noted the views of Karl Popper resonate with his own ideas.  He said Popper believed in the Kantian vision that Man is not just a machine but is an End-in-itself.  Andreas referred to the Is/Ought distinction often associated with David Hume – “Is” relates to a description of the world, “Ought” involves a goal or purpose.  Top-down causation in Popper’s interpretation of it is an attempt to relate Is and Ought, contrary to Hume’s approach.  The question of Top-Down causality is related to the question of “How Can the Mind can exist in a Physical World?”

Andreas described Popper’s ontology of Three Worlds existing, not only the dualistic Cartesian ontology.  The first is the physical world.  The second is the subjective mental world.  The third is the world of combined human understanding, based on both the other worlds. All individual human understanding, the subjective interpretation of reality, is derived from the physical and from the combined totality of human understanding up to this time.  In the physical world, it is thought you can reduce everything to causes at a lower level.  But that does not allow for Top-Down causation.  He described Crystal growth as an example.  A crystal forms because the molecules composing the crystal follow certain rules.  On the other hand, Machines are formed as tools and work only if they are designed properly. Andreas cited Michel Polanyi’s very influential 1968 paper in Science “Life’s Irreducible Structure”.  In this anti-reductionism paper Polanyi argues that the structure of DNA requires the physical laws of chemistry but is itself a higher ordering principle. He described the process of Emergence by which a higher level such as consciousness is dependent on but distinct from the lower levels of physics, chemistry, and bodily functions.  In the same way, the constituents of a machine are harnessed by the design.  Andreas related how he had once asked Michael Polanyi’s son John (himself a Nobel laureate) what he thought of his father’s ideas and was told that since John grew up with those ideas he accepted them as correct.  Andreas spoke of Donald T. Campbell, a reductionist, who attempted to reinterpret Polanyi’s views and incorporate Top-Down causation.  Campbell spoke of “Blind Variation and Selective Retention” to describe not only biologic, but all evolving systems. He described four principles: 1) Higher levels are restricted by lower levels.  2) Higher levels are required to make things work.  3) Emergence.  4) Top-Down Causation.  For example, we can look at the emergence of Jaws in termites.  The worker termite’s jaw works on the physical principle of the lever, which could already be regarded as a top-down concept.  Even more, soldier termite’s jaws are so large the soldiers cannot feed themselves and must be fed by other termites. So, the emergence of the soldier termite’s jaw depends on the larger colony’s organization (top-down).

Andreas included consideration of the short comings of Top-Down Causation.  John Eccles, Nobel winning neurophysiologist and philosopher, in 1951 in Nature “Hypotheses relating to the brain-mind problem” held a strongly dualistic and Cartesian approach, but suggested that hidden dendrites or brain modules might operate in a top-down fashion.  Andreas noted that there are some who discount the process of emergence.  Is nature really structured on levels?  He cited that physical interactions depend on fundamental indeterminism in the physical universe that is only probabilistic.  Popper sees similarities between the way higher level selective pressures are imposed on lower level genetic mutations that are probabilistic.  There is the problem of thermodynamics.  Must thermodynamic laws hold within any framework that includes a nonmaterial mind? The brain processes produce and use up heat and energy.  John Polkinghorne’s concept of “Active Information” attempts to avoid that problem on the quantum level, involving the trajectories of chaotic attractors in chaotic systems.  These systems, however, are considered deterministic, but are very dependent on initial conditions.  So, if you consider the quantum level, non-locality would require the whole universe to determine any action of a chaotic system, and you could interpret this with Polkinghorne as actual indeterminism.  Andreas stopped here noting that he had not resolved the issue, but hoped to stimulate discussion.

Q:  David asked if Popper had revised his views in the 10 years prior to his death in 1994?

A:  Andreas was not aware of any changes.

Q:  Ed asked, Is there room for things outside the physical laws? There is the possibility that laws are broken at times.  This might lead to revising the laws, but might also occur with divine intervention.  The appeal to the quantum universe seems obvious, but Andreas dismissed that.  Why did he dismiss that?  Ed could imagine you could influence the physical world and still maintain a quantum universe. For example, when rolling dice, you must get certain probabilistic total outcomes, but maybe could control the sequence and outcomes of each individual role of the dice.

A: Andreas asked if that was like providence (last week’s talk)?

A: George said you could be a random number generator, but you would still walk out of the casino rich and that is an unlikely event.

Ed responded you could control individual events in ways that don’t violate the laws of probability.

Ed further said, My mind can make me raise my hand and arm but must do it by mechanisms of electro-chemical events.  It would be possible to manipulate quantum events in the world without violating quantum rules for statistical outcomes.

George referred to a Bohmian process. You cannot violate the law but the outcome is extremely improbable.  (I believe he was referring to the de Broglie – Bohm theory that says that in addition to the wave function of all possible configurations described by the Schrödinger equation, there exists an actual configuration even when unobserved.  That configuration is determined by the initial conditions and system boundaries and may depend on the entire rest of the universe.)

Ed replied If you shuffle a deck of cards all outcomes are equally probable.  Could you control the shuffle in a game of Bridge to prevent (or allow) anyone getting all of one suit?

(That would allow a mechanism for “divine” intervention within the framework of a universe bound by physical quantum laws.)

Andreas said he liked the idea that actions in the environment feed back on the world.

Q: Nicholaas returned to crystals.  The properties of the constituents predetermine the structure of the crystal. Why should that not apply to elements?  The Periodic Table predicts what the next element will be and what properties it will have based on the rules governing the addition of subatomic particles to the atoms.  This may be considered a Top-Down process as well.

A:  Andreas said Popper agrees and talks about the giraffe’s neck using the word “purpose”.

Nicholaas noted that the enormous other aspects of anatomy and physiology necessary for the giraffe’s neck are not explained by selection, and Darwin recognized that.

Q:  Andreas returned to the question of whether there are higher levels that affect lower levels?

Q:  Naoki, a scholar of David Hume, contributed that Hume says the meaning of causation requires clarification. Hume questions whether causation is real or is just inferred by us.  You must define causation to determine if you are justified in attributing causation.

A:  Andreas said he believes in causality but knows that belief is a leap of faith.  It works to believe this, though.  He assumes that Hume did not know about the concept of emergence.

Nicholaas mentioned that Blumenbach (Johann Friedrich Blumenbach, 1752 – 1840, an early exponent of comparative anatomy and of racial distinctions) recognized emergence in his writings.  In the history of science ideas such as phase transitions were included to explain what appeared to be supernatural.  If you put ion particles together you magically get a magnetic field.

Q:  Andreas believes there are two options:  1) Keep up the Is/Ought divide – When we assume our belief that our mental activity affects the world is an illusion. 2)  Relate Is and Ought, but then we need some concept like top-down causation.

David offered the critical issue is determinism.  To say the mind can affect the world requires an indeterminate world.  But you could still have Top-Down causation within the confines of a physical deterministic world.  One example is chaotic systems which appear random but are deterministic.

Q: Ed added that there might be an appeal in chaos theory to “strange attractors”, i.e. a state to which systems appear to be drawn.  In chaotic systems some outcomes are favored and others are not.

Q: David asked do we see human action as top-down and is that then a model for divine action?

Q: George asked David if a physical system is deterministic can it still be top-down?

Q: Michael suggested that it appears noncontroversial that I can will my arm to lift, and the mechanism involves physical muscles and nerves.  It also seems clear that my mental state can affect my physical state – if I think of something that makes me anxious my heart rate increases, my breathing changes.  There are innumerable examples of feed-back mechanisms in physiology to regulate bodily functions, and many of these involve mental activity.  All physicians acknowledge that our mental state affects our physical state and ability to recover from injury.  Isn’t this reciprocity both bottom-up and top-down?

Q: George noted that we have never defined top-down.

A: Ed said we usually think of bottom-up.  Everything has a cause.  The event we call World War II can be described starting with string theory, molecules, and working up to societal and nation state events. But we still end up at WW II.

Nicholaas:  The question is whether we must distinguish physical from nonphysical things.

Ed:  Current Natural Science may not recognize any nonphysical things, although maybe Information is nonphysical.

Bob asked what is the “something else” that is going on? Attitudes, beliefs, the weather?

Ed:  We don’t know but could imagine a world like that –  a Harry Potter world where my saying the correct spell results in an action.

Michael:  Isn’t Mathematics a nonphysical entity that is deterministic in the physical world?  And isn’t mathematics the foundation for all our explanations of the physical world?

At this time we stopped our discussion, thanked Andreas for his stimulating presentation, returned our trays, and some of us continued the discussion over coffee.

During that continuation Naoki related that Descartes and Leibnitz had different visions of Truth. Descartes denied one eternal truth saying that God can create eternal truths whenever God wants.  Leibnitz argued there is only One truth and that is God’s perfect truth.  These views represent two demonstrations of God’s existence: 1) The Oncological demonstration – God must be perfect to create an imperfect world and people. And 2) the Cosmological demonstration – Based on causal relationships, God is the first cause.  The concept of God then depends on our Empirical interpretation.

Bob cited the writing of Plotinus, a first century Greek philosopher.  He described the One as transcendent and indivisible, beyond being and non-being.  The See-er is not separate from the Seen.  This One is not a deity and is not involved in creation. He then describes Mathematics not as an existing non-corporeal entity, but as a language.  The number one is a description of something in the world.  And adding one plus one is not the same as the number two.  Two is a new entity.  In response to my suggesting that mathematics is a nonphysical entity that serves as the foundation for all our science, Bob felt that math is merely a language that allows people who speak many other languages to communicate.  In this regard, the laws of Mathematics may not be constant.  The rules that apply to Euclidian geometry do not apply on the surface of a sphere, for example.  (My addition later from Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy under Karl Popper:  Philosophy of arithmetic: “Popper’s principle of falsifiability runs into prima facie difficulties when the epistemological status of mathematics is considered. It is difficult to conceive how simple statements of arithmetic, such as “2 + 2 = 4”, could ever be shown to be false. If they are not open to falsification they can not be scientific. If they are not scientific, it needs to be explained how they can be informative about real world objects and events.  Popper’s solution[36] was an original contribution in the philosophy of mathematics. His idea was that a number statement such as “2 apples + 2 apples = 4 apples” can be taken in two senses. In one sense it is irrefutable and logically true, in the second sense it is factually true and falsifiable. Concisely, the pure mathematics “2 + 2 = 4” is always true, but, when the formula is applied to real world apples, it is open to falsification.”)

Ed recommended that we read Piet’s 2005 paper entitled “Mathematics, Matter, and Mind” in which Piet along with Mark Alport and Max Tegmark debate interpretations of a triangle comprised of these elements. (I have subsequently read this and suggest the paper be the topic of a future lunch meeting.)

Ed asked David what is the mechanism of Providence?  That was not covered in last week’s presentation.  David answered the theology of providence bumps up against two problems, Evil and Divine Action.  We spoke of evil but not of divine action.  If you had an account of how God created the world, then you have constraints inherent in that act of creation.  But if you think of God continuing to interact then you do need Top-Down intervention.


Michael J. Solomon, MD


3/29/17 Synopsis David Fergusson’s YHouse Lunch Talk at IAS


3/29/17 Synopsis David Fergusson’s YHouse Lunch Talk at IAS

3/29/17 David Fergusson YHouse Lunch IAS Synopsis

On Thursdays at noon Yhouse holds a lunch meeting at the Institute of Advanced Study, in Princeton. The format is a 15 minute informal talk by a speaker followed by a longer open-ended discussion among the participants, triggered by, but not necessarily confined to, the topic of the talk.  In order to share I am posting a synopsis of the weekly meetings.

Speaker: David Fergusson (New College in the University of Edinburgh)

Title: Psychotherapy and the self in wartime Edinburgh
Abstract: (By the Speaker) “My project explores developments in psychotherapy with shell-shocked soldiers at Craiglockhart War Hospital (1916-19) in Edinburgh. Through Pat Barker’s 1991 novel (and the film) Regeneration, the story of Siegfried Sassoon and his encounters with Rivers, his psychiatrist, and Owen, a younger war poet, is well known. But the work of other key practitioners and the wider significance of their experimental therapeutic methods deserves further attention during the centenary commemorations.”

Present:  David Fergusson, Paul Mundey, Sean Sakamoto, Susan Schneider, Piet Hut, Ayako Fuqui, Andreas Losch, Nicolaas Rupke, Bob MacLennan, Naoki Yajima, Monica Manolescu, Michael Solomon

David has been involved in an interdisciplinary project in Edinburgh involving psychotherapists, historians, physicians, theologians, and others.  The project takes a holistic approach to looking at the whole person in the history of psychotherapy, at the influence of World War I in this development, and specifically at WW I Shell Shock treatment in Edinburgh. The project has been influenced by the work of John Macmurray, a prominent Scottish philosopher and theologian whose own thinking was influenced by his participation in WW I, and who has been compared with Martin Buber. The activity at Craiglockhart War Hospital in Edinburgh between 1916 and 1919 is the focus of this talk.  The term Shell Shock was introduced by military psychiatrist C.S. Myers in The Lancet in 1915 to describe combat stress disorders.  Later psychiatrists eschewed the term since the causes and symptoms of combat stress were so varied, but the term is still used in popular discourse.  Symptoms include both external manifestations such as blindness, deafness loss of speech, twitching, tremor, stuttering, etc., and internal manifestations such as memory loss, insomnia, nightmares, etc.  The senior officers serving at Craiglockhart War Hospital included three psychiatrists, Dr. Arthur Brock, Dr. William H.R. Rivers, and Dr Arthur Ruggles.  Two of the patients treated there for shell shock were

Wilfred Owen and Sigfried Sassoon, both of whom became noted poets.  The 1991 novel “Regeneration” by Pat Barker, subsequently made into a movie, explores the relation between Sassoon and his psychiatrist Rivers.  Dr.Brock practiced Ergo Therapy, which involved keeping patients busy and occupied and reintegrating them into the community.  Rivers was influenced by Freud. Instead of drugs or hypnosis, he developed a form of the ‘talking cure’ which helped the patient to deal with painful and suppressed memories. Sassoon was older than Owen and the two came from different social backgrounds. Sassoon’s family was wealthy while Owen was from a lower financial and social class. Sassoon encouraged the younger man to write as part of his therapy. Owen became the editor of the Hydra, a hospital journal named both for the fact that the hospital building had formerly been a spa (hydro) hotel, and after the many-headed monster that Hercules defeated as one of his tasks.  Owen was returned to the fighting in France after leaving the hospital and died one week before the armistice. Sassoon had grown disillusioned by the war and became a conscientious objector. Having already been decorated for bravery, he was hospitalized rather than imprisoned. Sassoon also returned to the lines but survived the war. Sassoon’s poem “Dreamers” in the Hydra writes:


I see them in foul dug-outs, gnawed by rats,

And in the ruined trenches, lashed with rain,

Dreaming of things they did with balls and bats,

And mocked by hopeless longing to regain

Bank-holidays, and picture shows, and spats,

And going to the office in the train.


Owen’s poem Anthem For Doomed Youth was also composed at Craiglockhart.


What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells,
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs, –
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.

David described the outcomes at the hospital. 1736 patients were treated.  44% returned to the front lines.  The rest were declared unfit for service at the front though many were able to fill non-combatant positions. Tavestock Clinic and Butler Hospital (in Rhode Island) were founded and run by Dr. Hugh Crighton Miller and Dr. Arthur Ruggles respectively. Both had learned lessons from treating shell-shocked patients – Ruggles in EdinburghThe hospital today is now the main campus of Edinburgh Napier University.

This historical project raises several issues for further investigation by the project teamUnder intolerable conditions, strong, healthy and courageous young men experienced severe psychological stress resulting in this disorder. The stigma still exists. Many such patients are considered or consider themselves weak.  The treatment requires time and resources that are not always made available. Some in David’s group view this early psychotherapeutic work as offering alternative and more holistic approaches to counteract the over-medicalisation of sadness and grief.


Discussion began with:

Q: Monica pointed out the distinction between the terms Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, which we use today, and Shell Shock. Those with PTSD are recognized as the victim and these patients are not returned to combat.

A:  One manifestation of what was shell shock would be considered PTSD now.  But shell shock included other disorders also. We lack statistics on relapse of those sent back to combat. There are references to combat stress disorders in ancient literature.  The American Civil War was the first Industrial war with conscription and more massive destruction, and there was a much higher incidence of shell shock than was described previously for hardened professional soldiers in past wars.

Q: Susan had a grad student now teaching at West Point whose thesis was on PTSD.  She said Propranalol is effective if given before or even a few hours after the trauma and helps them to forget.  She mentioned the movie “The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”.  She reported the military is working on implantable chips to block the PTSD response.  Her student was concerned that these treatments with medications causing amnesia did not honor the memory of those who had died in combat.

Michael said that propranolol is not an amnesic medication but is a beta adrenergic blocker.  That is, it slows the heart rate and prevents the physiologic response.  His understanding of PTSD is that any memory of the traumatic event results in an overwhelming repetition of the physiologic fight or flight reaction appropriate and necessary to survive the stress at the time, but maladaptive when one cannot forget or ignore the horror of the event later.  The palpitations, diaphoresis, dry mouth and wide open pupils, inability to concentrate or to suppress the memories are body responses to the psychological stimuli, and these are what propranolol blocks.

Susan believed that there was also a loss of memory and this had become a concern for example in rape victims providing testimony in court.

Q:  Nicolaas asked how did the Germans or the French treat shell shock in view of the tremendous nationalism inherent in their societies at the time?

A: David answered similar treatments were offered. He noted Freud’s influence.  He reported the Americans were better prepared for this when they entered the war due to the experience of the Europeans.

Q: Piet asked what about the 1870 war between Germany and France?

A: The treatment was similar then as well as in the Boer War and in the 1903 Russo-Japanese war.  The problem was also seen after high speed Railroad accidents, when for the first time in history devastation and trauma on that scale was seen.  The disorder was called Weak Heart Condition or Spinal Condition based on then current thinking, but was not referred to as trauma.  The disorder was also linked to Hysteria and men thought they were behaving like women and had lost their manhood.

Q: Nicolaas returned to social acceptability and noted that there was so much nationalism that the social reaction to soldiers showing their “weakness” may have been problematic.

A:  There was fear that shell shock was contagious, and this contributed to the perceived need to return patients to combat.  The military saw patients without physical wounds as shirkers.  Dr. Rivers, who did not agree, left under a cloud before the end of the war because the administrators thought the doctors were pandering to weakness.

Q: Bob asked Why would we want to send these people back to combat?  He referred to a talk he had attended about the Vietnam War that questioned the use of conscription.

A:  David reported that all of society was invested in this course. During the war they enlisted soldiers from mental hospitals, so it is no wonder that many couldn’t cope.  The soldiers felt they were fighting for their families, their religion, and their way of life.

Q: Piet asked if the main issue was conscription or industrialization of the fighting?

A: Conscription was introduced in England in 1917.  It had been used previously in the American Civil War.  David referred to the Press Gangs:  sailors would get men drunk or would knock them out and then drag them to the boats and sail off in order to maintain the navy.

Bob noted that in ancient Rome families were encouraged to have babies to provide soldiers.

Q: Sean shared that he had served as a Medic.  His mission was to “preserve the fighting forces”, not to help people.  In the military context caring about the soldiers was not significant.  He noted that in the Napoleonic wars 70% of the casualties were from disease and not from combat.  Sanitation in the camps preserved more lives than any other intervention.  Sean also noted that talk treatments were not very effective.  When talk therapy was tried after the genocide in Rwanda, many did not want to talk but only to forget and go outside.

Piet wondered if the belief in spirits influenced these people and led them to avoid dark rooms.

Paul agreed that his father, a WW II veteran who had landed at Normandy, never talked about it.

Nicolaas stated that the cultural location of these things is important.  In the Netherlands after WW II people would talk about the German concentration camps, but never about the Japanese.

Piet agreed and recalled seeing men in the Netherlands who had been 15 to 18 years old during the German occupation and had been sent to occupy Indonesia where they had committed atrocities.  These men sat alone in bars and would never talk about their experiences.  Some Vietnam veterans had similar reactions.

Sean suggested that PTSD may occur when people cross their moral boundaries.

Paul referred to Drew Faust’s book “This Republic of Suffering:  Death and the American Civil War”.

Piet suggested that the development of Photography in the Civil War contributed to the change from romanticizing warfare to showing honestly the horrors.

David emphasized the importance of talk therapy and the importance of professional relationships in healing. “It’s the love of the physician that heals the patient.” (Sandor Ferenczi) Treatment probably became much less effective when the patients were returned to the line to fight.

Bob referred to Chekov’s short story “Ward Six” in which a young doctor is changed by a friendship with a patient. He wondered whether the psychiatrists had transforming experiences.

Paul referred to McNamara’s memoirs of his own role in the Vietnam war and his need to lament that role.

David reported that around 300 British soldiers were court martialed and shot for refusing orders. Many were likely suffering from shell shock.  Under the circumstances, it seems astonishing that mutiny was not more widespread.

Piet recalled the story of soldiers from opposing sides playing a soccer game during a break in the fighting on Christmas on the front lines in WW I.

David recounted that at the battle of Princeton when the fighting stopped the two sides helped each other to care for the dead and wounded remaining on the battle field.

Paul lives near Gettysburg and recalled stories of combatants needing to re-engage later in life.

Michael tried to relate our discussion to the perspective of Consciousness.  He believes that the interaction of the physical and the mental is what PTSD is about.  Re-experiencing the physiologic responses of panic to the intolerably traumatic mental circumstances that initially triggered that response is what he sees as PTSD.

At this time, we ended our discussion.  David’s talk was surprisingly not primarily theological, but was a valuable addition to our series of lunch meetings.


Michael Solomon, MD


Synopsis 3/23/17 YHouse Lunch Talk IAS


Synopsis 3/23/17 YHouse Lunch Talk IAS

On Thursdays at noon Yhouse holds a lunch meeting at the Institute of Advanced Study, in Princeton. The format is a 15 minute informal talk by a speaker followed by a longer open-ended discussion among the participants, triggered by, but not necessarily confined to, the topic of the talk.  In order to share I am posting a synopsis of the weekly meetings.

Speaker: Olaf Witkowski, Earth-Life Science Institute, Tokyo Institute of Technology

Title: Characterizing Cognition as Information Flows

Abstract: (By the Speaker) “Information’s substrate-independence and interoperability property makes possible symbolic representations such as the genetic code, base upon which life was able to develop, eventually leading to human societies’ complex cognitive capabilities, such as language, science and technology. In this talk, Dr. Witkowski will argue cognition to be the informational software to life’s physical hardware. If life can be formulated computationally to be the search for sources of free energy in an environment in order to maintain its own existence, then cognition is better understood as finding efficient encodings and algorithms to make this search probable to succeed. Cognition then becomes the “abstract computation of life”, with the purpose to make the unlikely likely for the sake of survival. We will show that it can be quantified by well known as well as new computational tools at the intersection of artificial life, information theory and machine learning.”

Present: Olaf Witkowski, Piet Hut, Ed Turner, Brian Cantwell Smith, Ayako Fukui, Monica Manolescu, Yuko Ishihara, Nicolaas Rupke, Sean Sakamoto, Susan Schneider, David Fergusson, Erik Persson, Naoki Yajima, Liza Solomonova, Roberto Tottoli, Andreas Losch, Giuliano Mori, Fabien Montcher and Michael Solomon (by speaker phone).




Olaf opened saying he would be talking about Cognition from the angle of Information Flows.  His interest began with his interest in Language: “How do you connect two minds?” and also with his background in computer science.  Information Theory began with the work of Claude Shannon in the 1940s (working at Bell Labs, at the Institute For Advanced Study, and at MIT).

Olaf defined Information as “When you look at something (box A) and at something else (box B), Information is how much box A allows you to predict something about box B.” Olaf said Entropy does not measure information.  (In his work on transmitting and compressing data Shannon described Shannon Entropy, a measure of communicating information based on the number of possible states the data could take.) Information has Grounding – mutually shared experience and assumptions.  “The Difference that makes a Difference”.

Information has meaning and can be used to do something.  For example, in biology if you are a gazelle on the savannah and I give you ten bits about the temperature on Mars, you don’t care.  But if I give you ten bits about the lion behind you, that is relevant and has meaning.  Information has value and can be quantified.  In his work on computer simulations of Life, and sometimes on chemistry simulations, Olaf can define boxes and track how information is transmitted over time.  He will argue that in biology it is important to relate this information to survival.

In Tokyo, Olaf looks at the origin of life and of cognition.  It is difficult to define Life, but even more difficult to define Cognition (see speaker’s abstract above).  One aspect of life is self-reproduction.  In computer-science a Quine is when execution of the code results in the code itself. There is both a code to function and a code to replicate in DNA.  Some Quines can also correct errors in their own replication.  Memes are analogous to genes in that memes carry cultural ideas that can be transmitted. In Biology elements of Culture are replicated with corrections.  Even when oral traditions are transmitted from generation to generation, the value of the information is preserved.  What is saved is not just information but relevant information.

So, when did Life become Cognitive? Life began about 4.6 billion years ago.  Some believe cognition appeared when Reflexivity appeared – when two systems mutually affect each other – allowing the capacity to respond to environmental factors.  Information coded in cells for mechanisms for energy production, for cellular functions, for reproduction, have persisted from the first cells to the present.

Olaf sees not a single emergence but many emergences of cognition.  Looking at biology in computational terms, one can identify transitions from chemistry, to single cells with the ability to move in response to signals, to multicellular organisms where intercellular communication provides value for the group.  Computational bio-modeling allows you to track how much one thing affects another in the system and identify behavioral clusters.  Information in Biology has been understood in this way.   We can identify algorithms some of which we internalize allowing some information to disappear and preserving other information.  Cybernetics shows us how to extract this data from systems to predict what will happen.  This can be seen from the viewpoint of Philosophy as well.  At present Olaf is focusing on Reflexivity to understand Cognition using computational bio-modeling.

Discussion began with:

Q:  A question of whether you can define Life as Information.

A: Olaf replied there is a danger in definitions. You might define life as chemistry that reproduces itself.  But he is offering Information Theory as a tool.  He emphasized the important point that Information is Substrate Independent.

Q: When asked if DNA replication is the key?

A: Olaf answered, No.  Robustness of the system is the key. (Robust systems “maintain their state and functions against external and internal perturbations”, which is essential for a biological system to survive.) Mutualism is also key – Can systems help one another by transmitting information?

Q:  A reference was made to Hume and information transmission.

A:  Olaf looks at emergence through random changes.  Shake the box and see what happens.

Q:  How do you determine what information is significant for prediction?

A: Information can be measured and valued.  For example, there are common threads in diverse religious traditions. Valuable information leads to self-preservation.

Q:  With regard to the lion behind the gazelle, if information is about something, how can you quantitate the information?

A:  Information itself is not relevant but must be relevant for something.  You can see how knowing about the lion leads to survival and preservation of the pattern.

Q:  Ed pointed out that Information is Observer dependent.  It is hard to find mathematical laws that are observer independent.  So the value of information changes.

A:  This is a good point.  Subjectivity is observer dependent and information theory accounts for this.

Q:  Are predictions good because they are True or because they are Probable?

A:  Good, because it predicted what has happened already.  Olaf can rewind and replay the tape and get different outcomes.  You have already seen the outcomes when you quantitate.  This is not the same as machine learning where you look at probability.

Q:  Shannon’s Information Theory is objective.  If the entropy of a data set is twelve bits, you can compute it with twelve bits.

A:  If you arrange the boxes in your system in some way, you can manipulate the system objectively.  The system is Finite and Deterministic.  The “entropy” is the number of states the system can be in, so every state is limited and can be measured as bearing an amount of information.

Q: Susan asked, “Are you working within Shannon’s framework or some other theory/”

A: Olaf uses Shannon’s but Shannon is not always clear, so he extends Shannon’s ideas such as entropy to add robustness.

Q: Ed asked, “There are simple life forms that have sensation but no representation that could be considered cognition.  So, is cognition purposeful?”

A:  Olaf looks at the role of cognition in life.  Specifically, he looks at the maximum rate at which molecular machines can process information to use the information for self-preservation.

Q:  Regarding “Difference that make a difference”, How do you define how information becomes useful?  Differences cannot be determined in advance.

A:  Olaf agreed.

Q: Michael suggested that it can be dangerous to assign Purpose to discussions of evolution.  The mechanisms of evolution use random changes in individuals within a specific environmental niche to select for preservation of the gene pools of populations.  Purpose is not necessarily inherent.

A:  Aboutness rather than purpose is better.  Aboutness refers to efficiency and there is a difference in the meaning of purpose.

Q: Are you measuring the amount of information or the content of the information?

A:  Olaf agrees.  You must consider the amount of information and the quality relevant for a specific meaning, i.e. viability.

Q:  But content may not be measurable objectively.

A: That is an interesting thought, but Olaf thinks you may be able to measure content on a Meta-level.  This is related to how you can compress information.

Q:  Susan referred to the Theory of Thought Content in philosophy which demarcates the content of the system from the amount of information.

A: Relevance depends on how the information is Grounded, i.e. how you share context, and that can be quantified.

Q: Ed suggested there is nothing compelling about survival as a basis for information value rather than say beauty, etc.

A:  Olaf cares about persistence of patterns and about identities.  I am not myself ten years ago. He monitors how patterns persist and change over time in response to perturbations of the system.

Q: Shannon used the Ratio of Dependence.  How the information is compressed depends on how much you know about the system.

A:  You can get information from observing systems.  Olaf’s PhD thesis was about observing birds to get useful information.

The presentation and discussion ended here.


Michael Solomon


Synopsis of YHouse Lunch 3/2/17 Nicolaas Rupke


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