Sunday, 27 May 2007

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.

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