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As all that is solid melts to air and everything holy is profaned...

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Information is Physical: Actualise the Imagination!

In 1867, James Clerk Maxwell devised a thought-experiment which seemed to reverse the arrow of time aka the Second Law of Thermodynamics. He hypothesised a minute entity which could separate high energy from low energy molecules of air.

.. if we conceive of a being whose faculties are so sharpened that he can follow every molecule in its course, such a being, whose attributes are as essentially finite as our own, would be able to do what is impossible to us. For we have seen that molecules in a vessel full of air at uniform temperature are moving with velocities by no means uniform, though the mean velocity of any great number of them, arbitrarily selected, is almost exactly uniform. Now let us suppose that such a vessel is divided into two portions, A and B, by a division in which there is a small hole, and that a being, who can see the individual molecules, opens and closes this hole, so as to allow only the swifter molecules to pass from A to B, and only the slower molecules to pass from B to A. He will thus, without expenditure of work, raise the temperature of B and lower that of A, in contradiction to the second law of thermodynamics...

The resolution to Maxwell's paradox necessary to conserve the Second Law of Thermodynamics requires that information is physical. Without an infinite memory, the Maxwell entity must from time to time erase the information on the respective velocities of the molecules it has acquired. But the erasure of the information has a physical 'cost' since erasing information is a thermodynamically irreversible process that increases the entropy of a system. Thus the labour of Maxwell's entity is a Sisyphean task. Having rolled its boulder to the top of the thermodynamic hill, the entity must watch it roll back down again.

However, this resolution of Maxwell's paradox leads to the recognition that information can be converted into energy. See http://www.nature.com/nphys/journal/v6/n12/full/nphys1821.html and and 'suggests a new fundamental principle of an ‘information-to-heat engine’ that converts information into energy by feedback control.'

If... ; then... :

To continue a previous line of thought... if Vlatko Vedral's Decoding Reality is cut-up [Burroughs/Gysin] with/against Thomas Metzinger's The Ego-Tunnel then : there is an external reality which can be deconstructed back to the emergence of 'information' out of 'no information' which allows the universe of energy/matter //space/time to be re-constructed 'causeless click' by 'causeless click' -where each 'click' is an observation of a random quantum level event. Although each event in itself is random/ causeless/ timeless, once observed it becomes fixed in time/ history/ space and the accumulated evidence of the events provides the substantial/ physical knowledge from which a scientific description of reality can be rationally constructed. Vedral uses the analogy of a sculptor – each observation is a cut made in a shapeless block of stone. The accumulation of observations reveals 'reality' – as observed. But without the act of observation there is no 'reality' – only the emptiness of the uncarved block.

Turn to Metzinger and the emptiness returns. Here there is no 'observer', no fixed self,. Here there is only the seething turmoil of neural activity within the brain in which the world is a lucid, waking dream. Here there is no direct encounter with reality, rather there is a hyper-real representation of reality within which a representation of the body moves and functions. This representation within a representation is the 'self'. But if this is so, then where and what is Vedral's ' scientist as observer'? Does an ultimately non-existent self- observe an ultimately non-existent universe? Within themselves, each model is coherent and logically constructed – so they are rational models- but when brought together they seem to negate each other. Vedral's model requires an observer of reality to make it physical/ actual. Metzinger's model requires a physical reality (neural activity in a brain as the product of biological evolution) to actualise the imagined observer/ self.

This rather crude simplification of two complex theories, both of which are based on substantial science, is a temporary position. A better, more informed, understanding is likely to overturn it. For the present, however, it is sufficient to encourage further engagement and exploration of Georg Hegel's Science of Logic. It is possible that Hegel's presuppositionless approach to 'pure being' may be helpful. To this end, I am reading Stephen Houlgate's The Opening of Hegel's Logic. If the approach via Hegel is fruitful, then a way back into the world as social (cultural, political, economic) reality exists via Hegel's Philosophy of Right and Karl Marx's Critique of Hegel's Doctrine of the State and A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right.

Time's winged chariot hurries near
Against this lengthy process is the sense of an approaching crisis, driven by the Second Law of Thermodynamics- if information is physical. If information is physical, then the intensification of the accumulation of knowledge over the past 250 +/- years is also an accumulation of entropy as the inverse of knowledge where knowledge is the compression through reason of observations (scientific knowledge). Rational human culture / rational human individuals are in this analogy Maxwell entities/ intelligences. In physical reality they/we have exploited the low entropy energy of fossil fuels to construct a social reality which has become sufficiently rational/ knowledgeable that it can reflect upon itself and discover its own absence... just as the entropy returns via carbon dioxide as heat disrupting the global climate triggering a cascade of disruptive 'events' which eventually consume the global economy and its ability to construct knowledge. The sheer volume of information generated by droughts, floods, famines, freezes, hurricanes and diseases will overload the rationalising mechanisms of the market and the price of the future will approach infinity.

But not yet. It hasn't happened yet. If it had these words would be neither written nor read. There is time still to reflect. To reflect on the seeming contradiction between the 'we' of one branch of science and the 'brain activity' of a different branch. Is there a contradiction, a paradox? Does the 'we' of the physicists conflict with the 'ego-tunnel' of the neuroscientists? If I say 'I don't know', what is it that does not know? Is it 'indeterminate immediacy' – which is Hegel's 'pure being'?

Put another way, is science human knowledge? Or is it universal knowledge? From the 'ego-tunnel' perspective it is impossible to be aware of the brain activity which creates the representation of reality, nor is it possible to be aware of the process of brain activity which creates the representation of the self which exists within the representation of reality. Yet through science 'we' are able to become aware of the 'ego-tunnel', to become aware of the limits and constraints of human knowledge., of the human condition. As such then, scientific knowledge is not 'human knowledge' – it is universal knowledge. It is knowledge which would exist even if humans did not exist. It is knowledge which an intelligent alien species or an advanced artificial intelligence could acquire. However if the universe did not exist, then neither would scientific knowledge. Such knowledge could therefore be described as the universe's knowledge or awareness of its own existence.

Or rather, since awareness of existence is only the beginning of knowledge, scientific knowledge requires that the universe becomes rationally aware of its own existence. But without observations there can be no scientific knowledge, so the universe has to contain the ability to observe itself. Has to contain the potential for observation to exist. Has to contain the potential for human-like entities to exist. To rationally , rather than magically , emerge into existence out of the potentialities of the universe and create scientific knowledge.

The tension is that such knowledge is historically very recent and not necessary for human survival. A collapse of the current society could see the loss of scientific knowledge and a return to magico-religious superstition. A universe would still exist, but it would be that of the ego-tunnel, not that of science.

Does it matter? Perhaps it is just too much of a challenge, too radical a re-structuring of what it means to be human for us to culturally evolve from ego-tunnel awareness to universal awareness via scientific rationality. It is a survival issue, but one affecting consciousness rather than biological survival. A 'we', a human species would still (probably) exist but with diminished rational self-awareness.

And then?

Is a catastrophic future inevitable? That is a tricky one for me since I had absorbed so many catastrophic scenarios in the early seventies (from science fiction and mainstream plus counterculture media hype) that I was surprised it had not all collapsed by 1980... which was the date predicted in the School Kids edition of OZ - 'Rehearsing the Apocalyspe'. Now its -here we go again... On reflection what still annoys me is that failure of what I thought was a sensible railway project. The idea (late-eighties to 2003) was to build a new freight railway, one with the capacity to put lorries on trains. It was designed to run from Liverpool/ Manchester/ Sheffield to London and on to the Channel tunnel. With a bit of prodding from myself and others, an extension to Scotland using the Settle and Carlisle and Carlisle- Dumfries-Kilmarnock-Glasgow routes was added later.

See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Central_Railway_(United_Kingdom) – but even their web page seems to have gone now. A shift from road back to rail would have allowed a transition to a more sustainable economic system. But it didn't happen. Although it was a private company, it needed state support to be actualised. The 1997 Labour government produced a glossy plan for sustainable / integrated transport but it was just for show. The new Department for Environment, Transport and the Regions shrugged and the idea died – and with it a possible future.

Was it a rational idea? The physics says yes. Moving freight by rail is more energy (frictionally) efficient than moving freight by road. But so long as energy costs are low, economic rationality can discount physics. Since the same period was one when time rather than energy costs where what counted as economic (capitalist) rationality, the 'flexibility' of road freight prevailed. The focus on time is tied into the immediacy of capital circulation. For capital there is no future, only an endless now, 'the frozen moment of bourgeois triumphalism' as the Situationists described it. A now which is sliced up into micro-seconds of profit/loss, deal or no deal. In this hyperreality, there is no space for history, no time for thought and reflection. But can there be rationality without reflection? Can there be rationality without the mutual extension of space into time and time into space?

Rationality cannot exist under such conditions. Rationality is also the real, the actual. What is not rational is not real. Therefore the endless now of capital is not real. It has been maintained by low entropy energy. The low entropy energy has been used to freeze time, to create the information which generates micro-second by micro-second a representation of reality as a commodity (or spectacle). But as the sources of low entropy energy are consumed, so the moment of frozen time must pass over into history. As history becomes real again, so does the future – and so does the potential for rationality.

As yet this potential can only be imagined. To become rational we must actualise the imagination. We must re-member and re-call the past as our history in the present if there is to be a future.


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