Wednesday, July 11, 2012

The subtle interplay of Information and Immortality.

As humans we aim for the only thing that we truly cannot have, immortality. The only thing that remains after our existence is information. But information needs a support. The only place in which it is truly alive is in our heads. Computers have gone along way, they are good at storing and transmitting but true inference and creativity through intuition is still miles away.

As it stands the only shot at attaining immortality that humans have is information on two different supports genes and memes. Or ideas if you prefer the old fashioned term. Those are the only ways of leaving a imprint past our existence. In Milan Kundera's novel Immortality the main character seeks immortality in the media using it a as a tool to spread his ideas, yet being caught in the frenzy he is just a fad, and the true pain starts when he realises. It is always painful to realise its own mortality, forcing us to seek other ways of achieving the same goal through alternative routes.

The information represented as both genes and memes make for very different legacies. Each one of them fulfills very different roles. Genes shape our bodies, vehicles of our physical existence. What they perpetuate are our physical traits. Through much of the last century after the discovery of DNA by Watson and Crick. And later the genetic code we have some understanding of how our bodies are made and how the information that drives the process is stored interpreted and propagated through time. Also much understanding has gone into the role that genes play in certain illnesses. Besides giving us a shot at immortality it has also allowed us to improve our standards of living and to better diagnose certain illnesses.

On the other side Memes are stored in language which may itself be persisted in another form of representation. But it is only inside peoples minds that they are manipulated, and that new ideas can be created. Their spreading and storage is greatly helped by technology. A considerable amount of effort has gone into developing such technologies. Making more and more patent our drive for immortality. Memes are exchanged, traded and valued in our civilisation with great repercussions, the next evolution of mankind will be driven by how we deal with public or common knowledge. On how we share the ideas and on how we benefit from their implementations.

We have then that the two ways of passing on information that makes us, hence perpetuating ourselves, are in two completely different realms ruled by different rules. In Espinoza's ethics the restrictions between the two realms are made quite clear. An idea can only be bound by another idea, and a physical object can only be bound by another physical object. Once we start implementing an idea it creates artefacts that obey to the restrictions of the physical world. This does not apply to the representation of the idea, just to the artefact originating from its implementation. So if we apply this restriction to us, unless our minds can modify the genes, and the genes our minds the two ways of passing on our legacy are completely independent and can not interfere with each other. This is not so black and white, obviously, we know from science that there are interactions between the two. And more and more is know about those, but we will deal with those later. For know it will suffice to say that the body and soul duality still holds to scrutiny if we look at things as Spinoza did.

But why did we come to develop such an idea, why has that problem plagued philosophy for such a long time. Duality appears as a natural consequence of our perception.

At the end of the day we have no awareness of the internals of our bodies. There are few sensations that transcend that barrier. Most of them are hard to describe in the form of a discomfort or pain.

Further we do not have a blueprint or a mechanism to consciously alter our bodies. We can not do things like re-route nerves after an injury, slow our heart or breathing rates to a determined pace. We can, through controlling our ideas, relax our bodies, but that is a capacity which requires practice. If not our bodies are mostly in auto-pilot serving the desires of our minds. The mind driving at a very distant level. It is this lack of awareness and rational control which builds in our perception the fact that our ideas are separate from our physical bodies.

In reality our existence is traumatic, we displace the world around us but inside the physical shell we have a void of perception. This emptiness is due to how we perceive. We only perceive the out not the in. Leading us to believe that the world of ideas can not filtrate into the physical world. Since that is not possible in the thing that we are the most used to, our bodies. Hence setting up a frontier demarcating two worlds. But it is not impermeable as Espinoza would have it.

The same way that an artefact can be the implementation of an idea, in the human body a mood can affect the health and a chemical imbalance create a depression. These crossings of world boundaries are due to causal relationships in the functioning of the physical world. That is, ideas are an epiphenomenon of the functioning of the brain. This creates a one way causal relationship. However from the perspective of the ideas the transition implies a change of rules between the elements on each side of the boundary. Ideas are restricted by ideas and physical bodies are restricted by physical bodies or so was the idea of Espinoza. The boundary is broken in the other direction, or at least it appears so, when an artefact is created. For this the constraints of the physical world are internalised, to make sure that the artefact is possible. This is generally called thinking ahead. This is possible due to capability of abstracting away from the real world in order to manipulate ideas according to the physical reality. This of course requires practice, but it is where Espinoza stops or at least the simplistic understanding we had of his postulates for his ethics.

This capacity for abstraction that the mind is capable off, that is of abstracting and making symbols out of the perceived reality, is the core of the premise of I am a Strange Loop by Hofstadter. The world of ideas being more flexible can incorporate the physical world and can help manipulate it. We do not have control over which of our genes we pass on. At least not naturally though we have developed technologies to do so. Again following this drive of becoming if not immortals passing on the best of us. But we do have a big saying into what are the ideas that we pass on. For that it suffices to publish them or to act according to them. The former being less likely to leave an imprint but much easier to control.

Of course the only way to strive for immortality is to believe that we are immortal. To ignore our mortal condition in a truly decadent way and go through our existence as if nothing happened. But that is of course unreal, it is part of dealing with the trauma of existence that we forge such mechanism. Illness or death puts things into perspective and points towards the only true immortality, that of information.

Illness also bears a close relation to the information that we pass on. Illness is implicitly and explicitly genetic. In that illness is a reaction of the body to an internal or external stimulus being the expression of the genes, in an environment. It hence the genes or their mechanisms of expression, also described in the genes, that bring about the illness. Illness can also prevent the passing on of the genes, hence our impossibility to be immortal.

The role of memes in illness more subtle. There is mental illnesses which can be due to a physical problem. A chemical imbalance in the brain generates or fosters certain kinds of thoughts which are then recognised as symptoms. Certain medications have effects of cognitive nature, euphoria, mood swings etc. The one way boundary crossing from physical problem to mental symptom is clearly established. The other direction presents more and more evidence. It is now known that a good mood helps the recovery. However the ideas of mentally ill person, unless of ground breaking nature, think Nietzsche, will also be regarded with caution. Much like knowing that a partner has a genetic condition.

So where does this leave us, or to be more correct where does this leave our existence. We are nothing but the interplay of information. Information in the shape of ideas and genes which we only get to be aware off when they do not work. When we realise in our decadent approach that we are not immortal. Realising that our only shot at immortality is to ensure that our true nature, information, in one way or the other is what will remain. This is obviously painful if not traumatic to realise. This pain lying inside the world of ideas can only be addressed by coming to grasp what reality is. And this can only be done through the interaction with others. Through the realisation that indeed all we are is the emerging property of the interplay of information in different forms. One in the physical world, the other amongst other human beings based on language, and ideas.