I will start by setting out the philosophical foundation of my argument, specifically the ontology: that set of assumptions about the nature of existence upon which the argument depends. I assume that what appears to exist does so because it is an objective reality, though our experience of it provides us with a ‘model’ (mental representation) through which we understand and appreciate it. Thus our view of the environment is one of an internal model, built through experience, but we are contained within an objectively real environment that would exist, though differently in detail, even were we not to. A major movement in modern ontology asserts that objects never exist independently, but I refer to ‘entities’ in this paper with the simpler Aristotelian meaning of substances (see Smith, 2001), primarily for simplicity of argument. What this means in plain language is that I shall refer to entities with the meaning of discrete independent physical objects, like fish, electrons, trees and books and will not deal with more complicated arguments about, for example, inter-dependence or collective objects. Also for simplicity, I will avoid entanglement in arguments concerning quantum mechanics or chaos theory, though I recognise the growing importance these and similar ideas from theoretical physics are having on modern ontology.
I assume that entities are all made up of energy/matter organised into ‘forms’ in space/time by ‘information’. Here, information specifically means patterns of data that are capable of doing synergistic work. Matter and energy are joined by Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity and are thought of as the raw materials for real entities. Space and time are united in Einstein’s General Relativity, and for the present purpose it is sufficient to regard them as providing a physical context for existence. Data and ‘information’, though, require careful explanation at this point and it is primarily to Thomas Sebok’s work that I turn for definitions. Sebeok is known as one of the world leaders of semiotics - the study of communication of information through signs and signals. Of particular relevance here is his success in resolving confusion between ‘information’ meaning entropy (as it is usually understood in information theory) and ‘information’ as “sensible signage” - the concept at the heart of his semiotics (Sebeok 2003).
“ Entropy is the process by which energy is devitalised of its capacity to perform work through successive utilisation. In popular parlance however, entropy is usually identified with disorder, or probability, or both. According to a mathematical interpretation of thermodynamics, utilisation of energy in a closed system results in entropy (devitalisation), and simultaneously [my emphasis] disorder of the system, both of which processes were thought to be the most probable directions in which nature moved. Hence entropy, disorder, and probability, were usually understood as synonyms for each other. Only with Ilya Prigogine's Nobel Prize winning research into thermodynamics, do we now understand the limits of earlier approaches to energetics. In real-life open systems, disequillibrium conditions can actually create order, which explains evolution, and disproves the inevitability of chaos. Entropy still occurs, because the expenditure of energy fuels the building of order, but the postulated equivalence of entropy, disorder, and probability is now an obsolete conceptualisation [Prigogine & Stengers, 1984].”
Further rejecting the definition of ‘information’ as the antithesis of entropy, on the grounds that the latter is best suited to strictly dealing with thermodynamics, Sebeok appeals for more precise terminology expressing the ideas of dissolution and integration in each of the three fundamental elements of existence (he calls ‘realms’), producing the following table:
MATTER ENERGY INFORMATION
anaboly essergy synergy
cataboly entropy dysergy
“Within each realm, the upper term in the column denotes integration, whereas the lower term denotes dissolution” (Sebeok 2003).
I follow Sebeok’s interpretation and use ‘data’ to represent an assembly of symbols without meaning and ‘information’ to represent data ordered so as to convey meaning - what Sebeok defined as “sensible signage”. In this context, ‘meaning’ is the property of information which enables it to perform synergy. The most relevant example of synergy here is the ability of information to act on matter/energy within space/time to produce ‘form’.
Indeed, ‘form’ is defined by Turchin (1999) as the ordering of mater and energy in space-time:
“The forms of matter we see in nature are subsets of the total set of all possible configurations of any physical system.” (Turchin, 1999).
According to Turchin’s systems philosophy, ‘metasystem transition theory’ explains how forms in general evolve through selection for a generalisation of biological fitness which roughly equates with stability. (Turchin, V. 1977).
“Relatively stable "systems" are constructed by such [evolutionary] processes through the mechanism of variation and selection. This leads to the spontaneous emergence of more complex organizations during evolution: from space-time and elementary particles, to atoms, molecules, crystals, DNA, cells, plants, animals, humans, and human society and culture” (Turchin 1991).
Smith’s “Elvis Presley” illustration explains why it is information, much more than matter that makes entities what they are. Referring to Aristotle’s eighth property of substance, Smith comments that: “substance, such as Elvis Presley, may continue to exist even though there is no physical part which survives identically from the beginning to the end of his existence.” (Smith 2001). Clearly we do not recognise the atoms making up Elvis, nor the space and time which he occupied, but rather the information which determined how these were ordered. An important corollary is that information alone creates and defines the difference among entities, as two x and y differ if and only if the information creating each is not identical - it is nothing to do with matter, energy, space or time. (In this sense matter and energy are what Aristotle called accidents: fat Elvis is the same Elvis as thin Elvis).
To summarise, we have real and objective entities composed of matter and energy, ordered in space and time by information so as to give them form. This information has the property of synergistic potential, enabling it to ‘make’ a stable form, when it is said, by the cybernetic philosophers (following Turchin), to be selected by its ‘fitness’ (which relates to the length of time a form can exist). Another point of view is that the information giving form to a stable entity is a ‘resonant’ subset of data: resonance being a subset of selection in the sense of cybernetic philosophy. Either way, it is the selection of a certain set of symbols (data) which when applied to the formless raw materials of physical existence, give us entities which we may or may not value.
Prigogine, Ilya & Isabelle Stengers “ORDER OUT OF CHAOS”. Bantam Books, New York, 1984.
T. Sebeok (2003) “WHAT I S INFORMATION ANYWAY?” in W. Sheridan SENSIBLE SIGNAGE 3rd Edition. URL: http://www3.sympatico.ca/cypher2/ChapterFour.htm
Smith B. (2001) Objects and Their Environments:
‘From Aristotle to Ecological Ontology’ in Frank A., Raper J. and Cheylan JP. (eds.), The Life and Motion of Socio-Economic Units (GISDATA 8), London: Taylor and Francis, 2001, 79–97.
V. Turchin (1999): "The physics of evolution", in: F. Heylighen, C. Joslyn and V. Turchin (editors): Principia Cybernetica Web (Principia Cybernetica, Brussels), URL: http://cleamc11.vub.ac.be/PHYSEVOL.html.
Turchin, V. (1977) The Phenomenon of Science" New York: Columbia University Press.
* Turchin, Valentin: (1991) "Cybernetics and Philosophy", in: Proc. 8th Int. Conf. of Cybernetics of Complex Systems, ed. F. Geyer, pp.61-74, Intersystems, Salinas CA.