Reflections on Life and Mind, Part Five
§41 One noble if perhaps often confused strategy for closing the qualitative chasm between structural and strong emergence is to follow the lead of John Wheeler and argue that physics must ultimately be written in terms not of mechanism, but instead of information. In principle, of course, he was right that something like information—though I would, of course, prefer to speak of form that is obedient to finality—lies at the very origin of all material and immaterial order. But what his claims have suggested to some seems to be that the laws of physics might be supplemented with equally primordial laws of information while still somehow remaining physics as we currently understand it. Thus these newly discovered laws would still be seen as governing an order of material necessity from which purpose, life, and mind arise secondarily, according to natural efficient and material processes, as guided by principles that will ultimately eventuate in organism and mental interiority. But, of course, antecedent finality cannot emerge according to laws if those laws are not already dictated by antecedent finality—which is to say, it does not really “emerge” at all. So too with formality. And mind cannot be merely the posterior result of such laws, since finality and form are always already intentional and therefore mental. Still, one must commend those who continue to explore the borderlands between a “naturalist” metaphysics in the modern sense and a metaphysics that frankly begins from the priority of mind; they clearly understand what a defective model like the one proposed by Eric Chaisson fails to deal with: that the physics of the flow of energy cannot of itself explain the emergence of living organisms, in large part because it cannot account for the semeiotic level of organic order and replication. That is why they wish to supplement our understanding of that flow of energy with talk about the “flow” of information. Yes, entropic conditions allow for instances of structural and interactive complexity to arise and persist far from equilibrium, but what actively arrests entropy in those systems and inaugurates persistent, homeostatic, evolving systems is information. The physicist Paul Davies, for instance, starting from the simple observation that information as a scientific principle consists in the reduction of randomness through specification—as, for instance, a radio transmission becomes clearer and so more informed by the elimination of random “noise”—proposes that information be viewed not simply as a description of such phenomena as complex and coordinated organic systems of self-maintenance, but also as a kind of primordial causality in its own right, producing stable structures that resist entropy
Keep reading with a 7-day free trial
Subscribe to Leaves in the Wind to keep reading this post and get 7 days of free access to the full post archives.