A Blog by Jonathan Low


Dec 28, 2016

Why Information Won't Make Us Immortal

It's not even making us that much smarter, let alone more philosophical, intellectual or spiritual. JL

Riccardo Manzotti comments in Motherboard:

Given the fact that nobody knows for sure what our minds are, information seems a reasonable candidate. (And) the crucial role of information suggests a progressive shift from reality to the data we collect. (But) information is not the Soul 2.0. Pressing the ‘save’ button won’t save us.
In the blogosphere, a curious notion is spreading and gaining momentum: namely, the idea that information is the new soul—a kind of Soul 2.0. Something over and above the nitty gritty of the brute matter. Something better. Information is taken to be something different from matter and yet real. This view is becoming the metaphysical undertone of many state-of-the-art technological breakthroughs and commonly-accepted opinions. The view has been propelled by flamboyant declarations of savants and entrepreneurs–the ubiquitous Elon Musk, the futurist Ray Kurzweil, bold entrepreneurs like Martine Rothblatt–let alone the impact of movies–from the classic Wachowski’s Matrix trilogy to the upcoming Rupert Sanders’ adaptation of Ghost in the Shell (2017)–and countless sci-fi novels.
After all, isn’t information perfectly qualified to fulfill the job description of the soul? It seems so if you think of what information is commonly held to be and to do. In fact, we are taught that information is a sort of immaterial substance independent of its medium. Don’t we transfer data from one device to the next? While devices perish and eventually die, information seem to last forever.
In parallel, the crucial role of information in the internet economy suggests a progressive shift from reality to the data we collect. Corporations and governments are mining that data to “know us better than we know ourselves,” and we crave to record ourselves, via social media pressures and self-tracking as though. All of which, leads us to think that if all our preferences and ideas and connections and life events can be recorded, then we could somehow be resurrected.
The philosopher Luciano Floridi suggests that we live in an infosphere made of information that is getting more real than the world of objects. Several philosophers have wondered whether the universe might ultimately be non-material—a notion recapped by John Archibald Wheeler’s motto “It from bit."
By and large, the notion of information is getting closer and closer to the classical notion of spirit. Information is disembodied, colorless, practically immaterial. It can easily be transferred from one body to the next as it was believed souls did through metempsychosis. It can be multiplied effortlessly in as many devices as we have at our disposal. A digital representation, if continuously transferred to new media, is virtually eternal.
To complete the picture, the recent ubiquity of the cloud has also disposed with the need of having personal copies of our data, so that we do not have to take care personally of any physical storage device. Everything seems to be made just of thin air. Once the heavens were the realm of angels and souls; now the cloud is their technological substitute.
Consider a familiar case. In the old days of printed photographs, our family shots were doomed to fade and grow dusty, nowadays their digital versions are eternally shining and forever unstained by the passage of time. The first leap happened in the ’90s when users switched to digital information storage. Since then, like a snowball, we have kept all records as pristine and immaculate as the day we recorded them. Then, in the last decade, the second leap was the massive adoption of cloud-based storage services; the last remains of a physical basis were removed from sight. As a result, we have come to think that data lives in a parallel realm, untouched by the miseries of the material world.

Nobody has ever seen any information, only its alleged outcomes.

Yet, such technological prowess is not the only factor in fleshing out the current notion of information. The other main influencer is the galaxy of sciences of the mind. In fact, the link between information and souls underwent a major upgrade when neuroscience and computer science became intertwined with each other. Around the 50s, because of the notoriously elusive nature of the mind, many scholars endorsed a computational view of the mind recapped in a popular catchphrase: the brain is like a computer, and the mind is the program run by it.
Although so far no proof of this view--that thinking is a kind of computing--has ever found any empirical confirmation, new versions have constantly been proposed (see Tononi’s theory on integrated information for the most updated example). The conclusion of such a still-completely-hypothetical line of reasoning is temptingly obvious. If the mind is information and if information exists over and above brute matter, the mind is immaterial and eternal too. Bingo!
Aren’t we then trying to get back to the soul through computer science? If one reads the scientific and technical literature, one might indeed get such a feeling. Consider how many articles are now hinting at the possibility that one day the information in our brain, if properly recorded and stored, might be reactivated and brought back to a new life. Computer scientists and neuroscientists have been speculating as to the possibility to download the total information contained in a human brain.
If that were possible, in turn, the same information could be uploaded in another brain (presumably an empty one) and then, lo and behold, the same person would be brought back to life. In this way, the transmogrification of information into spirit would be like the transmigration of souls. For all practical purposes, information would be achieve something like the soul. Information would be the soul 2.0–eternal, immaterial, nonperishable support for our existence.
Of course, these attempts do not address the transcendental soul, whose existence cannot be scientifically assessed, but the tendency to flesh out an information-theory substitute. In fact, the salvific use of science is not an absolute novelty. Popular science has frequently tried to achieve practical ways to attain immortality; in literature, this dream was immortalized in 1816 when Shelley’s Dr. Frankenstein triggered a jigsaw of dead limbs with a powerful jolt of electricity to achieve resurrection. It will not be by chance that, a hundred years later, electricity will be the physical medium for information in both the brain and artificial devices.
Conveniently, electricity is akin to spirit—it is invisible, very fast, almost immaterial and, possibly, immortal! After the Victorian crush for electricity, in the last century, computer scientists advanced an even better candidate: information. Being an abstract concept, information qualifies even as a candidate for our elusive minds. Moreover, information has been glorified into something that we capture, record, store, and expel, and that is abstract to the extent that, like Plato’s ideas, cannot be seen. We can see a physical object that we use to store information--like a pen drive or a piece of paper--or see something when a device concocts with that information--like an image on a screen or a printed page. But we never see information as such. This is something to begin reflecting upon: nobody has ever seen any information, only its alleged outcomes.

Given the fact that nobody knows for sure what our minds are, information seems a reasonable candidate.

Given the fact that nobody knows for sure what our minds are, information seems a reasonable candidate. Both minds and information are invisible! Both are related with the goings-on of biological and electronic brains. Thus scientists and philosophers alike are fascinated by the possibility that, if minds and information were the same thing, a pathway toward immortality may unexpectedly open up in the near future. Given the short lifespan of our bodies, if one is a materialist, information may seem to offer a salvific vessel. Yet, once more, like Frankenstein’s bolt, it might simply be too good to be true.
As you might expect, this is the point at which I deliver the bad news. Information is not going to give anyone eternal life. Unfortunately, information is not the kind of stuff that can host our feelings, thoughts, and desires, because, to put it concisely, information is not a stuff at all. Information is just a probabilistic model that mathematicians devised in the 50s to tackle questions about communication. To make my point, I’ll need to make a short but dense digression into information theory’s humble beginnings.
In the literature, two loosely-overlapping theories of information have been hanging around--Kolmogorov’s and Shannon’s. Since, they are--for most purposes--equivalent, let’s focus on the latter which is easier to understand. The notion was developed during World War II when radiocommunications became crucial and it was mandatory to develop a mathematical model. Given the shortcomings of the technology of the time, messages weren’t always received correctly. Thus, it was paramount to get a quantitative grip over a fundamental problem how likely is it that we have received the right message?
The engineer and mathematician Claude Shannon decided to focus only on a very operative and abstract probabilistic notion: information theory was born. Take the simplest message, he said: yes and no. If we do not know anything about the probability of each outcome, each reply has a ½ probability. In principle, any message, no matter how complex, can be coded as a sequence of yes/no questions and replies. With some mathematical makeup, the probability of each of these abstract yes/no replies was then expressed by a new unit of measure set to 1: the bit.
Crucially, and this is the key step, the bit is not literally a measure of something, as when one measures 1 meter of pizza or 1 Kg of pasta. The bit is a mathematical abstraction that tells me how many yes/no answers can be packed in a physical system given a certain user. But it is not a measure of something that is there. It is a measure of something that a whole network of devices and users can do using a certain device. The bit does not measure any physical stuff: it measures what we can do with the medium.
For instance, a 1 gigabyte pen-drive can be used to store 1 billion yes/no replies. Used efficiently, all such replies may be used to reconstruct all kind of complex messages--images, audio, and video included. This quantity does not measure anything physical--like the mass of a planet--but only offers a mathematical shorthand to recap a more complex state of affairs that include users, receivers, and devices. In fact, the same pen-drive might contain a different amount of information depending on its user’s intentions and means. To be blunt, information is not the measure of some stuff we have discovered, as happened with electricity, but a probability estimate of what users can do. But the notion of information as a substance flowing like electricity works so well that we tend to confuse the two.
Digression finally concluded. The point I wanted to make should be clear. If information is not stuff, it cannot be the stuff dreams (and minds) are made of. If information is not a thing, information cannot be something on which we can count to live forever. Information is more akin to a kiss than to a coin. When you give someone a coin, some stuff moves from your pocket to theirs. When you give someone a kiss, nothing changes place.
The endless stream of books and articles arguing that one day we will be resurrected thanks to the reactivation of the information contained in our brains is based on wishful thinking. In fact, information alone is clearly not enough. When we watch a recording of the Twin Towers collapse, no one is killed. The information has been preserved and reacted, the facts been digitally stored. But the things they recorded are lost. The events were made of flesh, blood, concrete and steel. The information is nothing like that. Information does not preserve reality. Yes, we could use that information to rehearse a new disaster, but it would be a different one.
It is only a sad irony that the number of serious injuries and deaths in which the victims gets either wounded or killed to take a selfie is increasing every year. The craving to upload ourselves into the collective and immaterial cloud is so strong that many individuals seem ready to risk their lives to do so. Yet, this is only the logical consequence of conceiving the digital version of themselves as important as the original, or maybe even more, since it will not decay and perish. The digital version of ourselves, a sort of digital version of Dorian Gray’s painting, will remain forever young and beautiful. In a sense, death-by-selfie could be seen as a form of proto-martyrdom to the dream of a fully digital self.
Information could provide a sort of recipe to build, in the best scenario, a faithful replica of a past event, thing, or organism. DNA exploits the same principle. Even when there isn’t any variation--as is the case with clones--the new individuals are not the same as the past ones: they are new individuals that have many similarities with their original. Moreover, they are not contained inside the DNA, not any more than my new bookshelf is contained inside the how-to manual. Manuals, DNA, and information are like recipes, not real food. As Searle argued a few years ago, information is a ghost in the eye of the beholder. And we are neither ghosts nor immaterial souls. We are here on the earth.
After all, we are flesh and blood. We are not abstractions. We dream of heavens but we are not in the cloud: we are earthly creatures made of matter. Information is not the Soul 2.0. Sorry guys: pressing the ‘save’ button won’t save us.


geometry dash scratch said...

We are, after all, made of flesh and blood. We are not just abstractions.

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