Sunday, 2 September 2007

What makes us happy - lessons for personal and public life

What makes you happy?
Do you know what makes you happy? I don’t really mean in the short term - obviously there are things that you enjoy and they put a smile on your face, but think long term - would you be happier if you changed anything about your life circumstances? What about your job, the people in your life, the kinds of relationships you have, how much money you’ve got...

The reason this matters to you is that it goes a really long way to defining how well you value your life, but more generally it should concern governments and all others in charge of the ordering of society because the only justifiable reason for government is to enable all citizens to flourish to their best ability, which means - be happy.

The amazing thing is that if we stop and think about this for a moment it is obvious that happiness is really important, but you can look and listen in vain to catch sight of it in public statements by politicians, economists, employers, or even religious leaders. In another post, I will consider why this is and what might be done about it, but for now I will concentrate on the basic issue of what makes us happy and the converse.
A lot is now known about the psychology of happiness and you can review the evidence yourself if you are interested: I strongly recommend the book by Daniel Nettle (see bibliography). In a nutshell, it is not what many people would first think, that is it has little (directly) to do with money. Indeed the evidence shows very little connection between income and wealth on the one hand and how happy people say they are, on the other. (As an aside, this has been used by many commentators to call for a redirection of public policy away from maximising wealth creation and towards goals that are more likely to generate happiness).

Evidence based on surveys of real people tells us about the factors which best explain differences in happiness level in the world as we find it. Hold on to that, since it implies a rather strong constraint on happiness - in a different world, we might all score very differently. Anyway, in the here and now, it is clear that being married (or having a long-term stable relationship) is worth a few points. Also being of high social status helps, though that is less influential. Having lots of nice things seems to have close to no effect whatsoever - so don’t waste your money on that - and the only really important difference that money has been seen to make is in cases where people have enough to ensure they never have to work again (for example lottery winners getting over £2M are consistently happier, less that that brings only short term improvements in happiness, more that £2M adds no additional happiness). Money appears to have a small indirect effect through social status, but on closer inspection of the statistics, it turns out that the main effect of status is through (at least the perception of) greater control over life and work choices. Higher status people tend to be their own boss more than lower. The converse of this is more striking - the principle factor in depression (pathological unhappiness) is a sense of powerlessness.

By far the strongest indicators of happiness are in fact nothing to do with life circumstances, but are internal psychological factors of a kind that we are born with and cannot shake off, any more than our height or the colour of our eyes. This has been taken by some to be a dismal conclusion, since it implies there is little we can do about happiness, either for ourselves, or as policy makers, for society as a whole.

Recall that the stable relationship was important. This can be generalised, for comparisons between different kinds of society also show an improvement in happiness as social relations become more stable and mutually supportive. This is of course the opposite of competitive - if we are constantly surrounded by competitors, then we are constantly stressed and are driven to find happiness by out-competing our rivals, but it is known that this does not work. By this means we are all caught on a treadmill with a carrot dangled in front of our noses - one that we can never get at. For this reason, in present-day modern society, so called ‘positional goods’ are sought after as a means of increasing personal happiness. You know, the sports car, big house, even the trophy wife and kids. Psychological research is clear about this - the happiness promised is elusive, we just become hooked on a life long search for something like the pot of gold at the end of a rainbow.

Long term and meaningful happiness is to be found in good reliable and supportive relationships, a sense of worth in the work (or other activities) that you pursue and a sense of power over the life you have. This might mean freedom, but not the freedom to choose from 25 different kinds of breakfast cereal, nor the hypothetical freedom to do anything you want if only you want it enough, but the real freedom to be your self, rather than what your partner, boss or society demands).

People who find very little scope to be happier now may find that they are looking in the wrong places. On the other hand, it seems that present-day society is not exactly helping, with its emphasis on competition and the promise of happiness through doing better than the Jones’s. Indeed, there is a strong negative relationship between happiness and the level of inequality that is found in a society. In our society, personality best explains individual happiness, whatever our circumstances. But our society puts strong limits on the level of happiness we can attain. Indeed, it is likely that this limitation applies most strongly to those with the more neurotic personalities (the ones who come out least happy in the surveys). These are the people (and there are a lot of us) that are most vulnerable to the negative effects of competition and who would most benefit from a supportive social environment.

My conclusion, then is that for the individual, it is most important to seek good stable relationships with friends and family and to try to culture a sense of self-determination in all spheres of life. The extent to which any of us can do this is constrained by society - the culture of firms, communities and its overall assumptions. Policy makers should take good note of this - if they want to improve the lives of citizens, and especially those getting a raw deal, then they should re-orientate society to encourage stronger and more supportive relationships, even at the expense of competition and wealth.


Daniel Nettle - Happiness: the science behind your smile. Oxford University Press. 2005
Richard Layard - Happiness: lessons from a New Science. Penguin Books. 2005

Tuesday, 29 May 2007

Science supports ancient wisdom

Amazingly, the real answer to our endless political and social failures may be found among the religious leaders of millennia ago. The problem is, perhaps, that the way they communicated their insights does not obviously translate into practical solutions that modern rational people can accept. That is a pity because as I shall attempt to show, these ancient insights coincide with the conclusions of some very up to date and even scientific understanding of the way people behave, what they need and how they are motivated and interact with one another.

I have elsewhere asserted that the purpose of politics (the business of collective decision making) is to maximise the prospect of all people achieving their maximum potential - as full human beings, to flourish and blossom as humans. This is far from easy and we are very far from achieving it now.

My starting point to finding a better solution has been to take the purpose stated above as the definition of the problem, rather than any surrogate, examples of which include maximising freedom or wealth or whatever. These are always over-restrictive, but by starting with the flourishing of all human beings, we begin with our focus firmly on, well, us - what it is to be human, our strengths, weaknesses, needs and our potential.

Focussing on human beings rather than econometrics or contracts is the first disarmingly simple insight that the ancients pointed us towards. In modern terms, this means starting with human psychology, behaviour and even biology, but not excluding more subjective understandings of what it is to be human: literature, poetry, stories, personal experiences, music, drama and all other arts should play their part because it is only with the full arsenal of our collective mental abilities that we can build the full picture of a human being that we need. I cannot say much about those things, but I can comment on the contribution of science.

The science of behaviour understands that all species can be described by their own unique species-character. As the eminent behavioural scientist Edward Wilson points out, human behaviour would be regarded as so aberrant among ants that any ant displaying it would surely be criminally insane (anthropomorphising for dramatic effect). Conversely, of course, any human displaying ant-character would be regarded as at least odd and most likely end up receiving psychiatric treatment (if they were lucky enough to live in a society where that was available). An extreme example to illustrate a point, but it is worth emphasising - at the most basic level, we all share human species-character and it is unique to us - homo sapiens.

What then is this unique and unifying character? Well, the most striking feature to me is that humans are psychologically and therefore socially very adaptable indeed. Unlike ants (or the abstractions of people used in economic and political models), we are most characterised by our ability to adapt to the social, psychological and therefore cultural environment in which we live, so we adopt and display very different characters depending on our circumstances.

Because a constant feature of human character is interaction (sociality), people everywhere and throughout history take part in networks of interactions in which they both influence and are influenced by each other. This kind of network is by now much studied and comes under the scrutiny of complex systems science. Though it is more usually applied to interacting machines (e.g. computers), species in an ecosystem, neurons in a brain or abstract agents (in theoretical studies), it is also used in the study of human society. Those who study these complex networks of interacting agents have found that they always give rise to 'emergent properties'. These are features of the system as a whole (agents plus their interactions) and constitute new phenomena at the system level - making the system more than the sum of its parts.

In the case of human interactions, this extra system property which emerges from all the interactions is identified as culture. Thus we can interpret culture as the result of very large numbers of interactions among people, which act to reinforce their behavioural responses. A classic illustration of this phenomenon comes from the 'games' used in the study of economic behaviour - usually called game theory. In most of these examples, a particularly successful behaviour, which may be displayed only rarely at first by a few agents, will spread through the natural effects of 'rewards' and 'punishments' (points representing success or failure in individual interactions). The usual outcome is one in which all agents eventually share in common the successful behaviour. This might be achieved by eliminating those which fell below a certain credit of points, or more naturally for human beings, by their learning from their mistakes and from each other in their interactions.

Of course that is just an abstract over-simplification of human culture, but it does serve to illustrate several important principles. Firstly, culture is a natural emergent property of human social networks, it is not naturally or usually a deliberate invention imposed by the most powerful people. Where the latter has occurred, it was generally reversed whenever the power or influence enforcing it was defeated (more on this later). Secondly, it generally pays to behave in line with the culture, to go with the flow, as this reinforces an individual's success. Once a culture is established, any new individuals born into it will take on its characteristic behaviours, else they lead difficult lives. Thirdly, this reinforcement of individual behaviour by the culture, in turn reinforces the culture itself, since it is made up of nothing more than the sum of behaviours of its members. This gives cultures a tendency for vicious or virtuous circles, what system scientists call positive feedback and psychologists call reinforcement and what makes economies grow.

In a nutshell, before you get bored with all the technical language, what I am saying is that we can organise society to promote selfishness, or to promote selflessness and through the workings of emergence, that is how people will be. We presently live in a global experiment along these lines. Unfortunately, the behaviours being promoted in our global society are those of selfishness, since it is the trait of competition which is most valued in modern life. The reason for that is that many years ago, economic theorists realised that competition led to optimal efficiency and business leaders, longing for such efficiency, did everything they could to promote this trait.

We desperately need to find a way to re-orientate our system because powerful feedback forces are already at work making life a misery for all. Given the complex-system nature of society, the best place to start is with yourself and those whom you influence ... just like the ancient religious leaders said.


Post removed by author since it no longer fits in the theme that is developing.

Monday, 28 May 2007

The Making of Hell on Earth

What is Hell? As far as I know the cartoon image of demons skewering the damned in fiery vaults is a mediaeval invention with little connection to the deeper understanding of thinkers like Jesus, the Buddha and Old Testament Prophets. I have another picture of hell that better corresponds to their thinking by showing us where the path leads if we go in the opposite direction to their teaching. To help picture this, I will first take you to the sea.

In many places, the ocean’s surface is full of life, dolphins play, fish consume the bountiful resources provided by phytoplankton harvesting the light of the sun. Nothing there is aware of what lies below. A few hundred meters down, light is extinguished and the temperature has fallen to little more than feezing. Further down still we reach the largest ecosystem on earth, where sunlight is totally unknown. Here strange and ugly fish cruise endlessly and utterly alone in the vast, pitch black and bitterly cold emptiness of the deep ocean. Almost nothing happens in their perpetual night. If you are one of these fish, every few weeks or so, you will encounter another, whereupon one must eat the other - neither of you ever knowing who will be fed and who will be victim. That is your life, joyless, senseless and totally alone, without warmth or light, unending except by death.

I sincerely hope those creatures do not see their lives that way, but if we with our human minds, our psychological needs, if we put ourselves in their place, it is one of desperate loneliness and emptiness. This is because human beings are designed to depend on one-another, care for each other, to love and be loved. If we don’t get enough of this, then pathology will emerge just as surely as if we did not get enough vitamin C (we would then get scurvy).
Jesus told us that Hell was a world without God, but he also showed that God was love, the source and personification of all love. Without love, we have hell. Buddhist understand life as suffering and are taught that relief from suffering can only be found by the abandonment of selfish desires and devotion to others and communion with the wider world. It is highly significant that all the world’s major religions teach this paradox - that the way to happiness is through devotion to others, abandoning selfish desires. That was certainly the call of Christ - abandon yourself and find life. He and other great thinkers understood that we can create our own hell by devoting ourselves to our own private gain. What science has added is the realisation that this happens precisely because we are designed to be socially interdependent - selfish pursuit of happiness is outwith our modus operandi. Science has provided a down-to-earth explanation for what wise prophets and religious leaders have told us for centuries. We have another good reason to take them seriously.
That deep sea hell is the condition into which people with clinical depression are plunged - their minds are trapped in the abyssal emptiness, where they are cut off from human-kind. This is a sad and distressing illness and that would be all, except for the fact that major depression has reached serious pandemic proportions in the last twenty years.
It is a fact that we all have basic emotional needs that must be met for us to thrive and enjoy life. After the primary human needs for food, water and shelter come commonly shared emotional and physical needs. Without exception we find depressed people are not getting these needs met.
Many anthropologists say that traditional communities naturally meet these 'basic needs' for emotional support. In the traditional Amish society in the US major depression is almost unknown, as it is in the even more traditional Kaluli tribe of New Guinea. In these societies individual concerns are group concerns and vise-versa. You know that if you have a problem other people will help you and you are expected to help out when others need support. Interestingly it is not so much the support a person gets that helps them stay mentally healthy, it is the support they give to others. The way we are designed, we can only be deeply healthy if we are caring for other people.
Modern western society strongly emphasises individualism and competitiveness. We are not very likely to care for one another when we are in competition. We are tought to keep ourselves to ourselves, to mistrust strangers and the homogenising of communities has ensured that we are surrounded by strangers. The idea of considering the wider community to be more important than the self is almost impossible to understand for many people. It is thought to be wicked Socialism by others. Professionals who work with the refugees from a selfish society might say it is the only way back to health.

Major depression is the 4th most disabling condition in the world, and 2nd most in the ‘West’. The cost to society is very substantial, but let me tell you, the cost to any individual sufferer is unbearable. Let’s not maintain and promote a social system that plunges millions of its members into hell on earth. Let us instead, find ways of promoting mutual concern and collective action, to heal the sick and reintroduce some love into the world.

Sunday, 27 May 2007

Cought in a loop - some thoughts on the illusion of economic freedom

The hidden truth about capitalism: it is for capital, not for people.

Whilst we grow in our ability to produce material wealth and develop ever better means of enjoying ourselves, surrounded by the trappings of democracy and the freedom to choose products and exercise consumer power, we become more uneasy and frustrated. We are increasingly aware of a feeling of impotence and the ultimate futility of all our efforts. We can choose between fifty channels of entertainment but feel powerless in our individual lives and in society. We know that we have to go to work in order to keep the choices we have. We know that at work we have to obey the boss and the boss has to obey the rules and the rules are the rules of the marketplace. But the marketplace is what gives us our power as consumers. We are not given anything that is not taken away from us. We are not the holders of power, but merely the conduits, cycling power around the system - receiving it as consumers and giving it up as producers.

No one is really in control - power flows around in cycles, but it is pumped by special interest groups, in particular the interests of capital. This pumping is a reinforcement cycle which magnifies the influence of the interest group behind it, even though comparatively light pressure may be used.

We all live in a system. We live by the system, we live under the system, we live for the system. We define ourselves according to how the system uses us. We are told that we are free, but real freedom is not the experience felt by many in 'Western' society, and where it is felt, it is probably illusionary. This is a fact of life we have all grown used to. In the sense that we live in society, our being part of a system is inevitable. An essential prerequisite for the existence of human society is that people give up a degree of self-determination for the common good in return for the benefits of inclusion in that common good. As long as the system is human in its nature, that is as long as it is human society, this is healthy and normal. But this 'system' has changed from being fundamentally human in nature to being fundamentally non-human. This non-human system is governing us and controlling the behaviour of society, and that is bad for us all. It is a mega-machine and we have all been given roles as cogs within it. The new purpose of life is to be the machine, to make it work and work harder and faster. Why?

It is time for humanity to re-assert itself and master the economy rather than allowing the economy to master us. Will you join in that effort?

A response to Creationists and other New-Right "Christians"

The theory of evolution by natural selection is precisely that. Theory is the way scientists understand their subject and natural selection is the theory that most generally explains biology. Science as a whole is in fact an effort to understand the natural world using formal thinking about observations. This is a quintessentially human activity, as valid and noble as any expression of art.

Theory not only gives understanding, it is understanding. Without understanding we do not truly have science; biology would be far less a science without natural selection because that theory explains and gives order to all the jumble of facts we obtain from observing the natural world.

Natural selection stands alongside other great theories of science such as Einstein's relativity and the electronic theory of chemistry.

But what are its practical consequences?

We can imagine consequences that arise from the application of science which depends on the understanding a theory gives - for example nuclear power would be impossible without theoretical physics. As well as this we can also imagine the social and moral consequences of people knowing the theory (or their misunderstanding from knowing it falsely).

This can best be explained by looking at another great theory developed, like natural selection, from the enlightenment thinking of the Scottish philosophers. What I am referring to is the classical model of economics, most associated with Adam Smith. In order to understand the consequences of trade, early economists realised that they needed to simplify and formalise their observations. They constructed a highly abstract mathematical model in which people were perfectly selfish and greedy - this was a purely technical procedure intended only for economic theory.

Now these abstractions have been taken up as proscriptions - telling people how to behave in order to maximise economic efficiency - the theory has been transformed from a scientific tool into a dogma, with terrible social and ethical consequences.

This dogmatisation has two steps: first the application of the theory beyond its bounds (and in so doing violating it) and second the transformation of its axioms and conclusions into normative proscriptions - changing from 'assume x' to x ought to be so.

What then, can we say about the theory of evolution?

Direct practical applications are not so common but remember that theory is primarily there for the scientists, not for engineering solutions and it is certainly not justified by practical use. The justification is the understanding it gives to scientists. Having said that, there are examples of technology, in the new medicine for example and in my own work on fisheries ecology, that lean heavily on understanding evolution by natural selection.

Perhaps then, the main effects of the theory for non specialists lies in the social and moral consequences of knowing it or misusing it.

A proper understanding of evolution tells us that there is not a linear progression of organisms from the lowly to ourselves at the top, a line of ever improving design. Indeed evolution shows the diversity of life being the result of gradually filling in the space of all possible design solutions and shows each species to be well suited to its circumstances, rather than a step on some evolutionary ladder. This shows the popular idea of a hierarchy of organisms to be a fallacy. The theory also tells us that however creation occurred, it was a process beyond the present capabilities of humankind. We now know it is a lot easier to destroy a species than to create one. This fact certainly has ethical implications - for believers and non-believers alike. Indeed, here we find agreement between evolutionists and the ethics of most faiths that is in sharp contrast with the false ethics of neo-classical economics.

A notable example of the misuse of the natural selection theory is called 'social Darwinism', though examination of it quickly reveals that it is in fact a restatement of classical economics and conflicts sharply with natural selection. Its outcome is a society in which only the most aggressively selfish people prosper (or even survive), leading to a dramatic fall in diversity - precisely the opposite result to that predicted by natural selection. Much of the abuse of the theory arises from sloppy thinking, for example "survival of the fittest" does not imply only the fittest should survive, but has been taken as justification for the destruction of all but the 'fittest' - an ideology at the core of Naziism and a consequence of the right wing neo-liberalism beloved of so many American self-styled Christians.

I believe it is no accident that these are the same people responsible for attacks on evolutionary theory. I am compelled to comment, as a Christian, that it is very sad that active and creative fellow Christians are spending their time on such academic, futile and ultimately counter-productive campaigns. I have yet to find a single example of someone put off God because they have been told that evolution by natural selection is the best scientific theory we have to explain the origin of species. I know several who are put off by right-wing 'evangelists'. Any scientific theory about the origin of species is irrelevant to Christ's core principle: love God and love one-another.

Contrast this with neo-classical economics which is about how we live, and how we relate to one another. The application of economic theory regulates what most of us do as work, it orders priorities in public life, determines the levels of poverty and wealth and is a major factor in power relationships among people. Christ had plenty to say about such matters. The theory of evolution simply provides a scientific explanation of natural phenomena which may be useful to some sorts of biological research. In scale it is a speck to the economic plank.

If the assumptions of neo-classical economics were correct, then it would all be a very serious violation of Christ's teaching, happily they are not. If classical economic theory remained as it was intended, a mere mathematical model of market place behaviour, then the only sin would be one of poor modelling. The really serious assault on Christian values comes from the modern practice of using these abstract assumptions as normative injunctions: that we should be selfish, that we should consume without restraint and that we should not concern ourselves with the consequences of our economic behaviour. To follow these precepts is indeed a sin.

Where then is the Christian outcry against the modern economic ideal? Where are the pamphlets and public meetings railing against the delusion of the market? Where are the preachers seeking to open people's minds to alternative, Christ-centred economic theories? They have yet to be found.

In summary, the theory of evolution by natural selection is useful and successful in enabling scientists to understand biological observations, but has had little practical effect other than as a victim of misrepresentation. The worst offenders are those right-wing religious fundamentalists who attack evolution. They do this to distract us from Christian criticism of their real faith. It is a faith in the dog-eat-dog economic competition that leads to violations against people, society, nature and Christ. I hope that biologists will make common cause with true believers to lead humanity in respecting nature, leaving room for its diversity to flourish as God intended.

Is information the basis of all value?

I am using this essay to outline and make a first attempt at developing what I think is a new insight into the basis of value and the relationship between information, meaning and the organisation of the universe that gives it reality. In so doing, I am surprised to find that this thread of thought appears to join economics, physics, biology and the beliefs of many religions. It is, of course, a kind of applied philosophy. If there is truth in what I have been thinking, then it must be important, if not, then at least I hope it inspires more accurate thinking.

I shall proceed as my thoughts developed, to illustrate my mental journey. It starts with some questioning about economics. The initial inspiration for this was my search for a concrete meaning for value to be used in valuing environmental and biological goods, because at present, the only way professional economists do this is by collating opinion surveys (they call it things like contingent valuation). Such arbitrary and insubstantial grounds for valuing our living world seem to me hopelessly inadequate.

We are told we live in an "information age", that knowledge is power and that it powers our economy, yet economists have yet to incorporate information into economic models of production (which still refers to land, capital and labour). We depend on it, we intuitively recognise its value, but economics seems slow to catch up with the ‘knowledge revolution'.

One reason for this may be an over-emphasis of consumer theory in describing value - the notion that value is defined and entirely contained in the personal choices of individual market consumers. This wholly anthropocentric and utilitarian view is a well entrenched part of post-enlightenment philosophy that has been elaborated and rarified by mathematical economists to create a self-consistent, but rather limited model of value that is now so ubiquitous and orthodox that it is difficult to see beyond it.

Conventionally, then, value is revealed by the buying and selling of goods and services. Of course, knowledge has had a commercial value ever since commerce began, but pure knowledge makes up a very small part of total trade. In the main, the value of information is obscure and we generally miss the contribution it makes to the value of all other things. In fact, information, and knowledge are traded in almost every transaction, but almost all of this is cryptic - hidden by the more visible reality of the objects and the effort, time and materials making up goods. I have asked myself if it is the information content of the things we exchange that often makes them valuable, of course acknowledging that energy and material make their contributions too. If so, then maybe information content is the key to intrinsic value - that intuitively crucial component of the value of nature which is overlooked by economists. I shall now explore these ideas.

My first step is to hypothesise that value can exist separately from human minds. This means that it can describe some property of universal meaning, analogous to the 'mathematical beauty' recognised by physicists and mathematicians (a structure to which our minds respond with pleasure, but which exists even without us) and which gives real meaning to the Universe in the sense that it allows matter and energy to exist and interact in ways that create a stable and creative universe. Note that this is a contended philosophical position, since one may take the view that nothing we see or understand about the universe, even the most fundamental mathematics, is necessarily real in the sense of having an existence that does not depend on our thought (meaning that it is subjective). I am deliberately excusing myself from that view and taking the Universe with the laws that make it work as a reality that transcends human minds (i.e. that it is objective). Thus I am proposing that value is an inherent property of a real universe, not of our imagination (but I have not yet defined value). More precisely, I am assuming that value, what ever it turns out to be, is on the same philosophical plane as the mathematical properties of objects. I use this now as an axiom - that value is a para-mathematical property.

Armed with this notion, we can next deduce that information may be intrinsically valuable. After all, it is what gives reality to all things, without it, the Universe would be a 'grey soup' of cold thinly spread energy. Indeed the mathematical rules and their structure are but special examples of a more fundamental commodity in the Universe, which I will call meaningful information. If this lies behind all creation, then it could be thought of as valuable to creation itself, for without it there would be nothing. Hidden (perhaps) in this statement is the idea that value lies in the usefulness of anything, or more strongly in its necessity for creating what is. We are certainly not used to thinking of one thing (the Universe) valuing another thing. As previously noted, valuing is a human activity, but I say that the human act valuing is in fact the estimation of value, not to be confused with the concrete value which is being estimated. We are not able to directly measure objective value, but we can use tools to estimate it.

The human-centric value of information derives from its capacity to give meaning and in this respect, not all information is equal. Before progressing we need a definition of meaning in order to find a relation between meaning and value. Information without meaning is useless to us and also to the Universe. Information can be randomness and indeed in information theory, random ‘signals’ are the most information rich possible. But a random signal has, by definition, no meaning and can therefore not contribute to the structure of the Universe. Here we see that meaning is what gives information its power to do creative work by organising matter and energy in ways that ‘make sense’. In this context, making sense means complementing the already established structures and patterns that organise the Universe.

There is a hierarchy well known to Greek philosophers, which can be put this way - data < knowledge < wisdom. Each level in this hierarchy constitutes the raw materials for building the next level above. Meaning is the result of organising information into a pattern which can do creative work. In the mind this pattern making is what elevates information from one to the next level in the hierarchy. In the Universe, it is less easy to describe, but is something like a resonance - meaningful patterns resonate with the existing patterns of the Universe to create something richer. This is a concept I will return to. At this point, though, we have that information may in special circumstances be capable of organising matter and energy in creative ways and that the property of information that describes this phenomenon has been called ‘meaning’. Also, we have that value describes the degree to which a property or commodity is useful or necessary for things to be. Hence, meaning is measured by value. Value then, is the metric of creative potential in information.

In passing I note that St John's Gospel begins with the statement that before anything there was the word and the word was God - we can trace this back in the original Greek to mean that wisdom existed before all other things and, by implication, creatively potent information was the foundation of creation and is the fabric of God.

Meaning is observed when information has non-transitory consequences. With a random signal, each bit of information has a consequence that is immediately over-ruled by the next bit in a perfectly disorganised fashion which results in no net effect - the consequence of each bit of information is transitory. It seems that for non-transitory effects, the information must form a pattern, but will any pattern do? With the possible exception of the most basic components of the Universe, nothing in nature exists independently of any other thing. Thus any effective pattern must also make sense (as defined above) in relation to all that exists presently. New pattern must 'slot' into the larger pattern caused by meaning already in existence. If not, then the clash will result in the same cancelling-out that was recognised within the random signal, but at a higher level of organisation now - a transitory (non-consequential) effect would result. Thus only patterns that complement the already established structures and patterns of the Universe can give meaning. Reaching for a mental model from physics, meaning seems to have the quality of resonance - only certain configurations of information (from an information spectrum), will resonate and therefore generate non-tranitory consequences. Resonance is what happens when a wave has just the right frequency to be reinforced by interactions with the structures around it. When this occurs, a transient signal has sustained effects. In quantum mechanics, a resonance condenses energy to form stable concentrations, sometimes of matter. In the absence of meaning, we now know that the Universe truly (and for us counter-intuitively) is random. Meaning, then, can be thought of as the phenomenon of resonance for information within the context of the organised structure of the Universe.

In the case of information and its empowering meaning, we do not know what commodity resonates, or what sets the boundary conditions for resonance to take place, though it seems to be a property of all existing meaningful information. We can imagine it as like a physical object with acoustic resonances that gradually change as resonant parts are added to it. If the quantum mechanical analogy is taken further, meaning itself may occur in quanta and be governed by a wave-generating rule, analogous to Shrodinger's equation. Information may be the ‘carrier’ of meaning, or it may be the detectible medium within which it exists. Meaning may exist ‘underneath physical space’ explaining how information can in some cases appear to travel at infinite speed (the paradox of 'action at a distance' in the Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen experiment). Whilst information can be and is concentrated in space and subject to the space-dependent laws of special relativity, meaning is a property of the Universe as a whole, therefore transcending space. When meaning is increased, it is so everywhere at the same time. This idea should be further developed.

Physics already shows that there are three components to reality - space-time (connected by general relativity), energy-matter (united in special relativity) and information-meaning (awaiting a theory, but see the work of David Bohm). Perhaps each is quantised, characterised by resonance mechanics and necessary to create reality. Each may exist in some pure form as well - empty space, photons and laws. Information without meaning is a cacophony of noise, unable to create or maintain creation, instead contributing to the dissipating power of the Second Law of Thermodynamics. According to this law, which holds universally, all things tend towards maximum entropy (maximum disorganisation) and the ultimate destiny of the Universe, without intervention, is indeed the grey soup of thinly spread energy, which is its natural death.

Meaningful information requires the expenditure of effort to create and to maintain it. Creation and maintenance of information works against the Second Law of thermodynamics, which leads to total dispersion of information. The Universe works hard to resist this fate, but it remains the ultimate destination. So far we know of one and only one process that consistently struggles to create, accumulate and replicate meaningful information - that process is life. Thus information can be considered to be 'valuable' to life, which depends upon accumulating large concentrations of it and which nurtures it.

In its most fundamental sense, life is a set of co-ordinated chemical reactions that self-replicate. The co-ordination needed for this is meaningful information. Life uses energy to move matter into new and chemically unstable configurations that capture information, just as computer memory does and like the computer, life needs constant expenditure of energy to maintain its information. The rules for conducting this ballet of chemistry are of course stored in the archetype of natural data packaging - the DNA molecule, which life must nurture and reproduce to continue its existence. DNA is therefore valuable to life because the data it captures is meaningful and therefore creative. We value life because we are life and because without most (if not all) other instances of life around us, we too would come to an end. Life represents by far the greatest concentration of meaningful information in the known Universe and is the only known pump driving up the information content of the Universe in direct violation of the Second Law. Perhaps it is fanciful to see life as God's instrument, preserving wisdom in a Universe constantly threatened by the powers of darkness in the form of that entropy maximising spirit of thermodynamics. It creates an appealing unity between science and theology. Stepping back from such speculation, it seems reasonable to at least assert that life has a very special rĂ´le in the Universe by virtue of its anomalous relationship with meaningful information and that self-aware (wise) life is the most special of all.

Meaningful information is not only contained in individual organisms, but also in the organised assembly of these into interacting populations - communities and ecosystems. If we recognise intrinsic value in the information trapped by DNA, then we will value an assembly of differing genetic 'knowledge-bases' more highly (on the grounds used in Classical Economics that more of a good thing is always better). For this reason, biodiversity has intrinsic value.

Manufactured goods reveal our hidden preference for information density. Everything is a combination of the materials it is composed of, the energy that went into it and the information it captures. A motor car for example is expensive because it contains a large amount of material (some of it rare) and took a lot of energy to produce, but the information needed to make it could be completely contained on a silicon memory stick. A masterwork of fine art contains little material and energy, but a very considerable amount of meaningful (creative) information and can be much more valuable than a car. Information takes time to accrue and this is the reason time seems to enter into value. In Marx's theory, labour (both the time to make the item and the time to learn how to make it) is the principle source of value. The information contained in a human-made object is both that invested in it by the making and that used to enable its creator to achieve the results. Thus hand-crafted objects are more valuable than mass produced ones - there is an economy of scale in mass production because many individual items share the information value among them. A one-off is always more valuable than a duplicate because it contains exclusive, unique information and meaning. The more training a creator needs to make an object, the more valuable it is, the more individual expression they invest in the object, the more value it has.

The act of creation is a release of meaning from information that has the capacity to work. The more complicated an article is, the more information it contains, but some manufactured goods seem very information dense and are cheep (for example computers). On closer inspection, we see that the silicon chip is in fact a multitude of repetitions of the same configuration (millions of transistors) and this itself is a perfect copy of a template of which there are also millions, so the unique information content shared by each chip is really quite small. A hand made chair seems far simpler, but every surface is crafted with individual strokes of the blade and is therefore potentially more information dense than the computer. Here we see another principle at work - the more meaningful information invested in an object, the harder it is to create and the more valuable it becomes. Human efforts have not yet reached the stage of creating anything as complicated as a bacterial cell. We should respect the powers of natural meaning to do so with shocking ease.

We now find ourselves in the position of being the greatest concentration (by a long way) of meaningful information in the Universe. We are created by the forces of life which in a most basic description are accumulating meaning into highly concentrated packages, and nurturing them, resisting the Second Law of thermodynamics. This is a natural process of which we are but a small part - we are contributing to the total resonance of the Universe in our own unique way. We are therefore highly valuable to the whole Universe (by the reasoning developed above) and, I contend, we have a duty to recognise that. Since I have also argued that value is the metric of meaning, it follows that we should take our estimates of our own value and that of all life very seriously. I can also conclude that an estimation of the total meaningful information in any system (including ourselves) provides the basis for estimating that value.

Finally, this understanding provides a new (almost objective) basis for morality. It might be argued that our actions are good in so far as they contribute positively towards the accumulation and nurturing of meaning in the Universe. Creative acts, healing and maintenance of concentrations of meaning, building reinforcing relationships, propagating and organising knowledge - these all become objectively good. Destroying, dissipating and rejecting meaning or atomising components of the Universe (including human society) become objectively bad. This might sound like a restatement of quasi-socialist do-gooder philosophy, spuriously justified by the preceding theory, but I believe that it follows independently from the analysis presented here. No doubt a professionally educated philosopher would pick it to pieces, but I would ask that philosopher to identify the gaps and faulty components, replacing them with strong elements, in the spirit of what I have said and believe.

The purpose of this Blog

This website is the place where I publish some of my thoughts to encourage their further development by interested people. You are invited to read and comment (constructively) and so to join in building a new and practical philosophy for the 21st centry. The context is very much 'western world' becasue that is all I really know, but other perspectives are really more than welcome. The aim is to build a collection of ideas in politics, morality, science and spirituality in order to better understand the path that we find ourselves on and the best way to organise society so that it serves the best interests of human kind - our relationships with one another and the world around us.

The topics will be very varied, but maybe one day they will form a complete system of thought. Who knows?

I hope that some of these ideas will enter into debates in other places, but this blog is specifically for publishing them first, so if you read it here, it is original and you are reading the first publication of the idea.

I hope you enjoy it of course!