Being to life

When it comes to questions, they don't come any harder than "what is life?" But the Genesis accounts, scientific pursuits and philosophical traditions all share an intuition that information is somehow involved in the transition from being to living. I recall, for example, David Chalmers saying in an interview that "information is the difference that makes a difference." Bearing that in mind, this passage from a book I'm reading really leapt off the page.

If any local system of molecules can draw matter and energy from the environment into a cellular structure, can regenerate and reproduce itself, and can retain information and evolve, most scientists today would consider it alive. One paper [at a 2003 artificial life conference] pointed up another difference between life and its absence. Nonliving chemical reactions that are driven by thermodynamics (heat) explore the possibilities open to them in an ergodic fashion - that is, by process in which every exploratory sequence is the same. Life, on the other hand, explores its possibilities through evolution. It accumulates information - first in the genes, then in memory - to help guide its search own narrower and more productive paths....

As these perspectives merge, much of A-Life seems itself to be narrowing in on a common theme: How and when did information come to dominate the energetic processes of the physical worlds, and in doing so give rise to life?

These words are from a chapter on thought and artificial life in Pulse, a book on "machines and systems inspired by living things." Author Robert Frenay describes the search for thinking machines and an understanding of the moment when matter ceases simply to be and jolts to life. Complexity characterizes the former while convergence would describe the latter.

His comparison of digital colonies, which move about and have their being in computing devices and on screens, and cellular automata, which bumped about in the pre-Cambrian era, was unexpected and particularly interesting to someone like me, who has an information technology background.

That accumulated information, the experience of our bodies, somehow results in sentience. If we do not have bodies, but, rather, we are bodies, then consciousness does not make use of internal representations or the manipulation of a private internal language as maintained by some. That really would be too much like the computer metaphor. It seems to me that consciousness in that case is representation. And still inexplicable.

Wayne