Complexity and Chaos

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Complexity and Chaos by Roger White
Good read: short, snappy, and stuffed with fascinating insights about the direction of time, the significance of symbolic logic, cellular automatons and so on. Also amusing accent impersonation by actors when quoting Mandelbrot, Poincaré and so on.


Spirits in the material world

Living things — biological organisms, but also cellular automata etc. — necessarily have encoded into them a set of “instructions” for their own replication: this is an operating condition of replicating: the organism functions like a Turing machine.

The physical substrate in which the information is encoded is not materially important to the replication process, only symbolically so. The instructions themselves are “substrate neutral”: you could encode them in DNA, cells, ticker tape or code. You could build a Turing machine out of transistors, vacuum tubes, or ten-ton concrete blocks, each would take wildly different amounts of more energy to process the same simple string, and all vastly more than would a Pentium processor. But the symbolic meaning of the string inside the Turing machine would be the same.

Now, philosophy nuts: recall from your God, Mind and Free Will intro lectures the materialist “clincher” that proved consciousness must be wholly material: there is no evidence for non-material causal interventions in the physical world. If there were, there would be some kind of injection or leakage of energy into the physical system. But there is not: energy is conserved. A non-material consciousness to would invalidate the laws of thermodynamics: non-material consciousness breaks rules of thermodynamics, in other words. Game over.

But, hold on: this, as Daniel Dennett articulates it, is exactly Darwin’s Dangerous Idea. Evolution is an algorithmic process. It is, in its most abstract sense, a manipulation of symbolic logic. And isn’t this exactly what a symbolic language does? It operates on a figurative level: it injects meaning independent of the substrate in which it is articulated, without the need for any physical causal intervention? Thermodynamics are irrelevant to the conveyance of a meaning which itself undoubtedly changes the physical universe. A new organism is created.

This non-material intellectual structure has a direct causal effect on the physical world.

To analyse a Turing machine in purely thermodynamic terms (in terms of its total transfer of energy while physically operating) is to miss everything important about the Turing machine.

The heat energy of a sentence is not what is meaningful about a sentence, that is to say.

Take Hamlet’s phrase: “The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune”. It has less physical energy content — at the limit, less total information content — than the paragraphs that precede it in this article.

But it doesn’t, does it? Those seven words are far richer, more meaningful and more culturally significant than the entire content of this wiki: at last count, 4,483 articles containing tens of thousands of lines of pompous, deluded text.[1]

Any research program that stops there — as materialism does — has missed a pretty big part of the picture. In any case an eliminative materialist position, that says brain states are

See also


  1. Oh but paradox: This wiki contains — twice — the expression “The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” — three times now! — so does that mean it has falsified itself? We think not. Because — context.