Sunday, June 16, 2013

Life And The Attenuation Information Loss

I've been thinking about information for some time, the philosophy behind information storage and existence, why the idea that entropy always increases with time seems at odds with life's ability to get better at storing and processing information. Well I had a thought last night that its because life exists exactly because its good at preserving information so I thought I'd write it down for posterity, in case some distant philosopher of the future finds it useful and stumbles upon it, so here it is.

Over time information is lost. At best information can be retained as it is copied, but never improved. Over time errors or disruption are inevitable, and each error will degrade the information, eventually destroying it. A vinyl record will accumulate scratches, a whisper will be remembered slightly differently, a rock carved with letters will be subject to the rain, the dust, sun, degradation, but lost information cannot be restored; the letters on a rotted gravestone could be carved again, but never to a state beyond their original state, even if the words were restored the character of the lines and so some information about the original carving would be lost, malformed. Information loss is inevitable.

This applies to all things, even the universe itself. The true end of the universe will be at the point of information death, when all things have deteriorated to a point where none of the information present in the universe survives or can be recovered; a state of even "greyness", a random and inherently unpredictable babble that can neither store nor contain any information.

It appears though that life seems to defy this, that over time civilisation has grown to find more secure ways to store and retain information, from stone age speech, to written words, to the digital age we seem to be more adept than ever at preserving information in better ways. Why is this? And what is life, what is it's purpose and why did it evolve at all?

Although information will degrade over time, the universe can occasionally stumble across ways to preserve information, to attenuate its loss. A liquid river bed can preserve the shape of a dead animal, a fossil, like a plaster cast memory of the shape of the animal. In that way the river bed has acted to preserve some information about the animal. A crater on the moon has preserved some information about the asteroid that created it. There are other events in the universe that are not preserved; an asteroid might have fallen into a black hole and been lost and forgotten, and all of the information about the asteroid would be lost. However, just as loss of information is inevitable, it's also inevitable that systems able to preserve information will survive in a way that systems that aren't able to preserve information cannot. The moon crater might persist or might not, but once a system that destroys information, like the black hole, is unable to preserve information it can never again gain the ability to preserve information. That fact acts as a selector, and the selector acts as a driving force of evolution; the universe evolves systems that are able to preserve information, preferring systems that best attenuate information loss.

Life can store information, recording aspects of its environment in its behaviour and its structure, and later its memory, through genetic memory across generations. Advanced life uses sounds to communicate, and memory to preserve and transmit information, and humans have evolved to be able to study the external universe, note it and record information about it, and write, and store information digitally. I postulate that life exists principally to attenuate information loss, and that life came into existence because the universe naturally prefers systems that best slow down the loss of information.

Let's go further. As humans we are curious about the universe, and like to remember things, make notes and communicate. These all help prevent information loss. All life has those properties, and all life stores, records and communicates information better than non-living systems.

Even within societies and nature this can be said to be true. Communication is the transmission of information from one system to another, and this evolved between cells and animals, becoming more sophisticated over time. The ability to detect aspects of the world, sight; then in humans, intelligence, mathematics, writing and technology, all of these things give us a greater ability to detect and preserve information. The ability to obtain, communicate and preserve information is the principle marker of evolution from the earliest life to now, and now our civilisation is more able to obtain and store information than any system ever discovered in the universe.

Errors and omissions frankly probable. This is one of several musings on life the universe and everything listed in the Writing and Essays section of www.marksheeky.com

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