Despite many books, articles, and various attempts to define them, the words “information” and “knowledge” remain confusing. Statements in peer-reviewed articles often contradict each other. For example, sensational statements like these “Your brain does not process information, retrieve knowledge or store memories” are made with certain assumptions about what information is. For this author, information is what is represented by symbols in a computer and is manipulated by algorithms. While digital computers provide information processing structures that allow us to model the physical world that we perceive and interact with it using digital machines. However, information is more than symbols and the information processing and its use very much depend on the receiver. For example, the same symbol can mean different things to different receivers. Some symbols may not mean anything to some observers. A Chinese Kanji symbol does not mean anything to the person who does not know what Kanji symbols are. Similarly, two different sequences of symbols can give the same information to the receiver. This brings us to the conclusion that how information is perceived and processed depends very much on what mechanisms the receiver uses to process information and how it is related to the knowledge the receiver already possesses. In essence, information has the potential to change the knowledge the receiver already possesses.
There are various forms of information processing apparatuses. For example, digital computers use the stored-program implementation of the Turing machine which was conceived by Alan Turing watching, how humans compute using numbers, which are symbols. However, as humans, we do more than just compute numbers. Living organisms have developed through the processes of evolution and natural selection, a different kind of information processing apparatuses specified in the genome in the form of structures made up of genes and neurons. The genes encode knowledge to use matter and energy transformation processes to build physical structures that process information and convert it into knowledge which enables them to create their own mental structures. To understand the true nature of “information”, we have to look at various entities that are involved such as physical structures which carry information, physical structures that enable information access, processing, and communication to create knowledge and use it to potentially change their own structures and the structures they interact with.
From the cookie monster’s definition (information is about something, new, and true) (see this interesting video on “what is information”) to the current articulation of the relationship between information and knowledge, there have been many attempts to define it. Finally, the general theory of information (GTI) developed by Prof. Mark Burgin provides a mathematical theory that relates it to the physical and mental structures, the information they carry and provides a framework for understanding its communication, and processing to derive knowledge. The gist of the general information theory is that information to knowledge is as energy is to matter. Matter and energy transformations occur and knowledge structures are created by the observer observing the material world. Before we proceed to understand the full ramifications of GTI, it is important to clarify various labels such as information, structure, and knowledge.
Information, Knowledge, Structures, The Role of the Observer and the Observed
Matter and energy are the essence of the material world which consists of physical structures that are formed through transformations of energy and matter. Matter consists of various entities that interact with each other and energy has the potential to change the system composed of matter. From an observer point of view, physical sciences describe how energy and matter interact and how the material world operates with various constraints dictated by the laws of transformation of matter and energy. The material world exists whether it is observed or not. This is true both in the quantum and non-quantum physical worlds. The role of the observer has an impact on the material world. First, the observer affects the quantum state through observation. Second, the observer identifies the various states of the physical world through various sensory perceptions and discerns the information received through these observations into knowledge. The general theory of information tells us that the information is processed into knowledge in the form of a fundamental triad. The fundamental triad (also known as named set) defines the state of the system under observation in the form of labels identifying various entities, their relationships, and behaviors as they interact with each other. The fundamental triad thus describes the state of the physical material world in the form of structures that contain various entities interacting with each other and changing their relationships and structures in the face of fluctuations in their interactions. The interactions and the evolution of systems which can be described in the form of structures are subject to the transformation laws of matter and energy and an observer perceives these structures and their evolution which results in the knowledge as the physical sciences. Material structures evolve in phase space defined by the properties of matter and energy, and fluctuations cause them to transform their composition also described by structures of various kinds which depend on the energy minima and maxima in their phase space.
This brings up the questions of who the observer is, how the observer perceives information, and how information is transformed into knowledge. GTI tells us that mental structures are formed by transforming information into knowledge. GTI does not tell us how to sense and convert information into knowledge. However, we know that biological organisms, while they are part of the material structures, have evolved into a special class of material structures with the ability to sense and convert information into knowledge. They have, through evolution and natural selection, developed symbolic and sub-symbolic computing structures that process information and convert it into knowledge. Symbolic computing is made possible through the use of DNA consisting of sequences of symbols that define “life processes.” Sub-symbolic computing is made possible through a special kind of cell called a neuron which receives signals from various senses and processes information and converts it into knowledge as neural networks. Neuroscience describes how neural networks process information and use the knowledge to support life processes. The life processes have developed mental structures not only to model what they observe but also to manage their own evolution using a model of themselves, their interactions with the material world leveraging the transformation of matter and energy in material structures. Various studies show that the evolution of biological systems from the underlying physical and chemical structures was a gradual transformation of independent component structures interacting with each other and behaving like a complex adaptive system. The system’s evolution based on individual component structure and function and their interactions with each other and the external environment is the result of emergent properties of a complex adaptive system. As fluctuations in their interactions and the scale of the components increased, the emergent property allowed the formation of complex multi-layer networks with behaviors that were different from any of the individual components. As mentioned earlier, the genes (symbolic computing structures that process information using DNA made up of 4 nucleotides (C, G, T, A)) and neurons (sub-symbolic computing structures that process information and represent knowledge in the form of neural networks) provide the physical structures that manage knowledge and use it through autopoietic and cognitive processes to execute “life” processes from the system’s birth to death.
Figure 1 in this post summarizes the physical and the mental worlds. In addition, figure 1 also includes another world called the world of ideal structures, which describes structures other than the mere descriptions of the material world through observation. These structures include those that are derived from mental models through higher levels of reasoning, interaction with other entities with mental capabilities, and experience such as good, evil, love, hate, etc. The examples are humans forming groups, communities, societies, countries, etc. Three worlds consisting of the material world, mental world, and the world of ideal structures form the existential triad.
GTI by bringing the transformational processes of information and energy on par with matter and energy and providing the tools to process knowledge in the form of fundamental triads, gives us a new vision of metaphysics and a better understanding of the world where we live. In essence, the Existential Triad of the world changes the concept of metaphysics. The conventional contemporary definition of metaphysics identifies it as an area in philosophy, or more generally, a study, aimed at defining understanding of reality and concerned with explaining the features of reality that exist beyond the physical world and our immediate senses. In the light of the Existential Triad of the world, metaphysics becomes the study of the world as a whole, which consists of three cognitive areas:
- The study of the Physical World, which includes physics and other physical sciences
- The study of the Mental World, which includes psychology and the mental counterpart of physics – mental sciences
- The theory of structures as the study of the World of Structures
Thus, the new metaphysics includes metaphysics in the old sense as it explores the reality that exists beyond the physical world and our immediate senses. At the same time, it is important to understand that metaphysics in the old sense is not a science while metaphysics in the new sense can include some fields that are not scientific.
GTI also provides various tools to represent “life processes” and implement autopoietic and cognitive behaviors using both physical and mental structures. True intelligence depends on the ability of a system to define its “self” as a complex adaptive system, and implement “life” processes to manage its sustenance, stability, safety, and survival. Without mental structures, there is no intelligence and with mental structures, the degree of intelligence is directly proportional to the knowledge. According to a quote attributed to Charles Darwin, the difference in mind between humans and the higher animals, great as it is, certainly is one of degree and not of kind.
In the material world, the famous formula E = mC2 connects the energy and mass of physical objects. This formula does not mean that substance is equal to energy. It means that there is a definite relationship between characteristics of physical objects allowing the possibility of the conversion of mass into the energy of physical objects described by these characteristics. An equally similar formula I = MKp where p > 0 connects the information and knowledge of mental objects. It is possible to introduce knowledge mass. Namely, the mass MK of a knowledge unit K is the measure of the knowledge object inertia concerning the structural movement in the mental world. Each knowledge mass contains the structural components, their relationships, and behaviors. One knowledge mass interacts with other knowledge masses by sharing information using various means of communication facilitated by the information processing physical structures (the genes and the neurons).
GTI brings an equivalence between the theory of physical structures and the theory of mental structures. Each structure with a certain mass interacts with other structures based on various relationships defined by interaction potentials. Each structure thus provides a functional behavior and a network of structures provide collective behavior based on their interactions. (Structural nodes wired together fire together to exhibit collective behavior).
What this means is that a knowledge network is a set of components with specific functions, that interact as a structure and produce a stable behavior (equilibrium) when conditions are right. However, fluctuations change the interactions and cause non-equilibrium. This leads to emergent behaviors such as chaos. However, biological systems have developed an overlay of information processing structures that monitor and manage the system stability, safety, sustenance, etc., while monitoring the impact of fluctuations. All living organisms are observers with a sense of “self” interacting with the external material world using mental structures. Whether other forms of observers exist is left for speculation and belongs to the realm of spirituality.
In conclusion, I like to emphasize that old metaphysics or the new metaphysics are just the observer’s description of what the observer perceives and imagines about the material world using the observer’s mental structures. As humans, we have extended our individual mental models into collective mental models which have allowed us to construct ideal structures. Great minds over centuries have contributed to our collective knowledge transcending individual knowledge. There are three schools of thought:
- The First one asserts that the material world exists whether an observer perceives it or not. The observer’s role is to receive information from the material structures and process it to create or modify knowledge structures that interpret the observations in terms of the fundamental triads (entities, relationships, and behaviors). This view implies that what a cat perceives, or a human perceives are different based on the observer’s information processing structures and mental capabilities. Our descriptions of reality are based on our mental knowledge structures. Empiricism dictates that the observations and the descriptions derived from them be experimentally verified to be deemed true.
- The second one asserts that all structures are observer-dependent. What we perceive as reality is only an illusion. In metaphysical idealism, the reality is nothing but Mind, Ideal Structures, Soul, Spirit, Consciousness, etc. Matter does not exist The Jazz metaphor is apt here, because, the new metaphysics provides a synthesis of the material world (the thesis) and the mental world (antithesis) using the theory of ideal structures.
- The third one asserts dualism where both metaphysical materialism and idealism co-exist as Mind and Body.
GTI only provides tools to discuss metaphysics in terms of the new metaphysics consisting of fundamental triads and the existential triad. The debate I am sure will continue until some evidence provides a conclusion. Only time will tell. However, GTI also provides a path to understand current behaviors of living organisms such as autopoiesis, cognition and also provides a path to infuse these behaviors into digital automata. Hopefully, we will be able to build a new class of autopoietic and cognitive machines that will further human intelligence with a symbiotic relationship.
Here is the essence of GTI as I understand.