Information Ontology of Mind and Body

[Work in Progress – Draft will be edited without notification.]

[Feedback appreciated on the “See / Refs” – where more are needed? Meantime all those indicated will be elaborated and worked into the text. And obviously on the intelligibility of the text so far. Drafting arose out of the “Three Essays” post, particularly “Algorithms for Humans” and the comment thread on “Balancing the Future”. It represents one (of many) draft of my “thesis”.]

[UPDATE(S) : As requested, I will soon be moving this content to a “page” and will continue the updating there, and simply notify “significant” updates in “posts”. This post will become a stub, linking to the page.]

[At this stage I don’t intend any revision-control within the page / document, but if anyone is up for it we could turn it into a collaborative document? As in fact is being done with “coda” in the Active Inference Lab.]

Information & Systems Thinking

I’m going to talk and think in terms of systems, information and processes and some of that will use language often associated with machines and computers. The fact that until recently computers were actual humans doesn’t seem to lighten the mechanistic baggage that we tend to see computers and computing systems as electro-mechanical machines – and indeed much of their research and development uses (eg Turing) machine language.

Using the terms above, almost anyone with a humanist / humanities bent will baulk if I start using them to talk about how humans actually work biologically, psychologically or socially. Any use of them being at best metaphorical in underlying biological processes. Crude talk of living things as machines and brains or minds as computers generates a pretty negative knee jerk response. Part of mechanistic scientism over-reaching into the humanities, and missing – devaluing – its true richness.

Believe me, I share that reaction. My main quest here has for 22 years been precisely to point out the shortcomings of logical, objective, scientific thinking when it comes to human enterprises of all kinds. So, I’m not going to use the language of physical machines or computers if I don’t mean to. What I am going to use is systems thinking, and I will be talking about how it, they, we process information.

So, firstly I need to reassure you that when I say the words – systems, information and processing – and the shorthand of computation – (and god forbid, algorithms) – for what systems that process information do, I’m not, and you mustn’t therefore, be thinking of these as machines or computers, mechanical or electronic.

System is simply the word for any collection of stuff, thought of in terms of the arrangement / architecture of its component systems. Systems made of systems in any arrangement, any level of nesting within each other. Notice I could have said “parts” for the sub-systems, provided you didn’t assume I meant material-physical things. We really are talking any stuff as the subject of any thought or dialogue.

      • Two (or more) dots on this screen. Two (or more) points separated in any frame of reference in fact.
      • A pair of quarks, an electron-proton pair, a DNA molecule …
      • Two hemispheres in a brain, a fore-brain and a mid-brain, a whole brain, a whole brains-trust of many brains.
      • Me writing and you reading this.
      • Two sides of a debate, the set of concepts in a dialogue.
      • The idea of logical positivism, the entire works of Dostoevsky.
      • A trolley problem, a termite mound, the Sagrada Familia.
      • The thought experiments of philosophers everywhere.

The reason to think of them as systems – to use systems thinking – is to focus on their architecture: how they’re arranged, how they relate and communicate with each other and with their parts as more sub-systems.

A system is literally anything conceivable, but thought of in terms of its architecture. Systems Thinking. Literally.

[Communication is a fundamental information exchange process. In fact information, communication and computation are as fundamental as – if not more than – physics itself. See xxx / later.]

[Cybernetics – the root topic in this Psybertron blog – has itself suffered the same skewing of perceptions as the systems and computation talk above. Very much from Plato to the 1946 Macy conference it was about kybernetes, the self-governance of human affairs, but it was taken over in implementation by computer geeks for the past 80 years, to the point that the original human cybernetics became known ironically after 1963 as “the second cybernetics”. In further irony, the term governor had already been  borrowed metaphorically from human affairs to name the mechanical devices regulating the speed of early machines like 19th C steam-engines, long before we reinvented Roman thermostats. See yyy / later.]

[For more on Systems Thinking itself and positively practical application to everyday use by real humans in business and in government, see Anatoly Levenchuk (Ref). Unfortunately, in this piece I’m going to climb & dive into layers further removed from the everyday – using the abstractions of systems thinking to address some fundamental issues with science and humanity.]

Systems & Sub-Systems

When we talk of wholes and parts in everyday life – or of systems and sub-systems in systems thinking – there are common throwaway opinions:

“Some things – significant real-world things – are more than the sum of their parts and anyway, context is everything.”

To which orthodox scientific “rational” responses would be:

“Well no, once you’ve taken proper causal account of “all” component contributions, there can be no more. And, no, context is just more stuff to be taken into account.”

As ever the initial problem is at least partly linguistic – “taking into account” is more than a “sum”. We have apples and pears involved. 2 apples “plus” 2 pears/nuts/shells/seals gives us neither 4 apples nor 4 pears/nuts/shells/seals – but 4 fruit at best, 2 pairs of different kinds. And the process itself introduces or creates kinds we might not have started with. Pairs are not the only fruit. The best solution depends on what was the question.

[Classification / Naming / Definitions / Taxonomies / Good Fences / Tabletop / Rules & Exceptions / Identity Politics / Levels of Abstraction / “Small & Large” Facts]

The combination of component “parts” is more like systems architecture (above) and more like integration than addition. What’s more, an integration / assembly over multiple axes and levels of “kinds” of stuff and “types” of things, not to mention integration of processes over multiple timescales and histories in most real world contexts.

At human, individual and social scales, and at both micro and macro physical levels, and indeed at any number of biological, geological and cosmological scales, the outcomes of so many real world processes are statistical, dependant on probability distributions. Different kinds of distribution over different axes and timescales on top of the distributions on the kinds of stuff and things. Accounting as simple addition doesn’t get us very far. Being charitable, every discipline knows which particular set of mathematical / computational operations helps with their day job.

[History matters – Ergodicity / Uncertainty / Bayes / Taleb]

Complicated, or complex, or both. I don’t intend to make a big thing of the difference here, but different they are. Which is another complication.

It’s complicated.

Leaving aside whether in any real world case it could ever be practical, tractable in a computational sense, to take literally everything into account in a useful finite time, is moot.

In reality we draw control volumes – boundaries – around our problems. Boundaries within which and across which we are either in control or have workable levels of predictability and uncertainty. In a scientific, logical or mathematical context those control boundaries may simply be credible working assumptions, which can themselves be varied and validated in due course. That validation may often be the point of the scientific exercise. In most human endeavours it’s about holding the alligators at bay whilst we drain the swamp, or whatever it was we were trying to achieve.

This process / strategy looks like good practice learned from shared human experience, but it turns out to be much more fundamentally natural than that.

Faced with complexity, systems thinking helps. Remember, that means thinking in terms of stuff being systems as described above, not simply systematic / systemic / disciplined / formalised ways of thinking / planning / acting. Systems Thinking says treat the thing in front of you as a system whether or not it’s called a system in an everyday usage. A computer application or a collection of work processes or protocols or any electro-mechanical network assembly – we readily see as a system. Systems Thinking says treat every collection of stuff whose existence or behaviour depends on interactions with other stuff as a system. Systems Thinking addresses complexity.

[Park the argument for now between the strict orthodox scientist that says everything is ultimately physical, including our thoughts – the kind of thing material / energy / physicalists say – and the humanist who would reject that. Remember we already hinted earlier that information and computation are more fundamental than either physics or thought. More later.]

Thinking of the complex stuff / complicated thing in front of us as a system we will identify component sub-systems – the parts – and we will also identify the context – the super-system outside our control boundary – the world. We can further subdivide our thinking as necessary. Our system its internal sub-systems and that external world super-system can be further divided into as many more sub-sub-systems as suits our task.

Thing, with boundary, with internal view and with external view.


Now the clever – and surprisingly fundamental bit – that describes and makes an ontological commitment to the reality of both physics and thought evolving from this basic view of systems and information processes within and between them.

At this point you need to believe the whole of the world and everything in it, can at least be thought in these “systems thinking” terms above, without any losses? No point elaborating if there’s already any objection up to this point.


So given seemingly universal applicability of Systems Thinking, without any other presumptions about what exists in the world, the entire world, micro and macro, past and future, how it all works and fits together – no other presumptions – the world is my oyster. No? Just a way of thinking about stuff, including thinking itself.

I’ve already noted asides in the text so far, and below we have dozens more angles and corollaries to come. And this is the history of the entire world, so far and forever – a very long story – so clearly I’m going to need to be choosy about which bits I try to articulate and why, what for? I need to apply systems thinking to my systems thinking – which details matter where?

Remember I may not mention every detail, or give examples of everything, that has happened or may happen in the entire (previous and future) history of the world, but this story really is about all of that. Seen through systems thinking.

In many ways, apart from my aim to synthesise the story around systems thinking, there is nothing here I’m creating that’s actually new. All my sources and ideas are already published – some of them long ago, some of the syntheses more recently. ‘Twas ever thus. Nothing new under the sun.

And obviously lots has been written scientifically and philosophically, and mythologically or creatively metaphorically in the humanities – in literature generally. And a lot of that reflects prehistorical oral traditions before there was even literature. In some ways, from the humanities side, all I’m doing is clearing a path through ancient wisdom and intuitions that have become overgrown with scientific progress. From the ever-contingent science side, I’m mostly pointing out missed opportunities in choices made to best fit the data at the time, according to the methods of science. Stuff taken to be right – best current model – because it worked for some recognisable STEM purposes. And which touch-points / differences / controversies are invisible in the undergrowth may be obscure archaeology unless they’re part of your specialism.

This story is necessarily polymathic and necessarily of unequal depth and rigour in any given specialism – an occupational hazard of multi-discipline working. Indeed as we shall see – having the courage (*) to know which details do and don’t matter in any given context are a fundamental part of systems thinking. So this is mostly a story of rhetoric and persuasion, bringing together science and humanities where each may have missed a trick in reconciling with the other. Creativity and metaphor are not confined to either. No truth without reconciliation.

[Sun Tzu “Art of War” – Even if he could know them, the general does not need the position of every blade of grass on the battlefield, not even every individual warrior. (*) And “courage” – see risk aversion in “science” generally.]

And, I need to start somewhere. One thing I skipped so far, was that in claiming universality for “systems thinking” – I also mentioned information, processes and computation, and I subsumed them into that systems thinking umbrella without saying much more about them.

[Placeholder – I could come back and branch differently from this point? Why don’t you start with … ]

I can’t quite believe myself, but in order to start talking about information and processes in a systems thinking way, I’m going to start with one of the most abstruse technical areas of philosophy, metaphysics itself as a basis for all existence (ontology) and meaning (epistemology) in the world.

[No prizes for spotting I will be relying on Whitehead when it comes to process metaphysics.]

Information however …

[Counterfactuals and conceivability. Deutsch & Marletto.]

Systems thinking about thinking? Let’s do a thought experiment. Not one of those that asks you to suspend disbelief about whether it could possibly ever be arranged to happen – and please god, not a trolley or a zombie – just literally a thought experiment.

Imagine nothing and imagine the least thing that could conceivably exist in or in addition to that nothing, to make it something other than nothing.

Firstly, whatever you managed to conceive of as nothing (you’ll have done better than Larry Krauss anyway) – whatever you conceived of as that smallest addition would, in some pretty absolute sense, be indivisible – atomic in Democritus original conception, a thing with no parts, a Euclidian point. If it were in any way divisible, you could have conceived of one of those parts (sub-systems) existing, no?

[Avoid the confusion of the pretty complex systems that science first labelled “atoms” in order to make distinctions between chemical elements. Elemental elements in a chemical sense only. These are a long way from the Democritan / Euclidian conception. That’s just naming and language – already noted above.]

It’s not possible to conceive of anything less than the least conceivable thing. No cheating now. (And this is true whatever you had to settle on for that absolute void of no-thingness before you added that thing to it – not surprising that many may have to posit some ill-defined cosmic unity thing for that nothingness, just to be able to have the thought, but no matter.)

We have in mind that no-thing and a thing. If you can think of any things more primitive than that thing and that thing<>no-thing relation, I’d like to hear it. (We’ve not said anything about things like space or time, where or when yet, nor anything else we might call physical or material? This least thing is conceivably the dimensionless thing without any properties a Democritan / Euclidian point.)

If we chose binary notation, this no-thing and point-thing looks very like most primitive 0 & 1 but we don’t have to jump to “bits” quite yet, and anyway as I said above we don’t need this line of thought to be dependent on what we thought of as that 0 (no-thing) in the first place. So patience.

Now imagine a second thing. Hard to imagine it being much different to the first thing – after all we have placed some severe constraints on our thinking so far – no time or space, no materials or physics. Whatever kinds of things these things are they are simply both the same kind of indivisible atomic point-things.

So what makes them different things? What is their difference? What could conceivably be the difference between two point-things? Their difference is their separation, what separates them?

[We might think all that separates them so far is that they arose from two thoughts – but have no fear, we’re not jumping to pan-psychism – we can keep distinct the thought we’re having (here and now in the real world) and the conceivable thing thought about – the map and the terrain, the finger and the moon.]




[Insert magic – aka – Sense and Experience, Free Energy Principle / Markov Blankets / Active Inference / McGilchrist, Solms & Friston / Emperors’s New Clothes / Finger / Moon – Map / Terrain – Model / Reality. Information & Quality / The Subjective Perspective.]

[All models are wrong, or are they? Active Inference makes the ontological commitment as well as providing the model.]

[Corollaries / Negative-Corollaries / un-Adages: It’s the thought that counts. Things that can be counted are not the things that count.
Nothing new under the sun / ‘Twas ever thus / This s all already “out there”. Free Won’t, Vive la Differance, Devil in the Details / Examples / Pennies & Pounds / Butterflies & Cow-farts / One subject & one audience at a time?

Meantime, any Psybertron content searches on Markov, Solms, Active Inference, and the Information Metaphysics (2019 version) will all be recast in this Work-in-Progress essay. It’s all there 🙂

Pass me the machete?


35 thoughts on “Information Ontology of Mind and Body”

  1. Very interesting. I’m sensing how especially the term “systems” is being massaged into having a bigger meaning – as opposed to its sometimes reductive connotation. But loving the counter-moves in the beginning of the post, to get the reader “on board”.

    A few stray thoughts;

    Maybe we’ve talked about this before – but the word “cosmos” is actually literally “arrangement” in Greek. “Cosmology” literally means “knowledge/study of the arrangement” – and the Universe as the overall arrangement.

    There also seems to be a very interesting teamwork and balancing between the hemispheres in the text. It feels a bit like the optimal functioning of the brain over time – to re-integrate the left brain analysis into a bigger right brain understanding. So I think you might actually be moving things forward here, both linguistically and philosophically.

    I think most of us sometimes “take stock” and look at our own lives as “systems” in the sense you’re describing. Family-life, work life, friends, hobbies, traveling life, romantic relationships, studies, and so on. Or from a different perspective; seeing parts of the year or bulks of years as “units” to ponder, reflect on, draw experience and lessons from etc..

    And partly on the side – a basic dynamic might be the systems of “one self” vs. “the world”, and the interactions between them. Maybe also something like “the world” split into “my world” and the “big world” as well. As two super-systems to relate to.

    The language about the whole being “integrated parts” and not “added parts” is also hugely helpful. The caveat is right there in the ancient proverbs too, it is not the “sum”. But the whole is still obviously a thing we can relate to.

    There are more thoughts, but I’ll stop here. Just re-iterating that maybe this essay could be part of a much bigger process of re-integrating “modernity” and some of its many scientific advances over the last centuries into a new, and much bigger context (or super-system).

  2. Brilliant. Yes all of those are useful thoughts, but it shows the scale of “entire world systems” we could be talking about.
    To add every corollary, every valuable consequence, into the “story” makes this “essay” into an enormous “book” I fear.
    Even sticking to the main narrative – fundamental information > both physics AND subjective consciousness – is proving quite a challenge.

    (You – and Tim and AJ – are a fantastic help in asking the right questions along the way. The trouble for me is large parts of the story are already “old hat” and I easily forget what I’m taking for granted – but it really is all here. And I should add, that apart from the synthesis almost none of this feels original – it’s not just “here” – it’s already “out there”, just “denied” by so many. It really is a rhetorical argument about persuasion.)

  3. Systems thinking has a lot of potential as a fresh approach to problem-solving. My first thought on reading this is that the components of a system form an ontology, which we adopt or recognize for the purposes of solving a problem. For example, in understanding the weather, we might recognizes as system components the energy of the sun, the hydrological cycle of rain and rivers and evaporation, and so on; but it might take some time before we recognize the role of trees or plankton or cow farts. So one question is, when is the ontology of a system complete for the purposes of analysis?

    Another question is what aspects of a multi-faceted system we consider important. For example, in analyzing the system that is a car, do we focus purely on its mechanical aspects, such as gears and tires and driveshafts, or instead on its functional aspects such as steering, braking, internal and external illumination, dashboard efficiency, and so on? Which ontology is important? That seems to depend on the purpose of our anaylsis.

    For these reasons, it seems to me that a system does not produce or result in an ontology; rather, the ontology we select guides what we consider to be a system.

  4. I had a similar thought ealier, that part of what we’re doing is something like clearing up an ancient, but overgrown path in the wilderness. But it could be made sparkling and shining again.

    “A rhetorical argument about persuasion” – this might actually be one of the keys to rebalancing the brains again. And choice of words determines to some extent which brain hemisphere is stimulated.

    “fundamental information > both physics AND subjective consciousness”, for clarity; does “physics” mean the material world, or laws of physics, or both?

    I think most old traditions eventually land on the conclusion that the logos/immaterial/spiritual/potentiality is The primary element, and often infinite. The material is fleeting “smoke”, as Ecclesiastes calls it.

  5. Spot on AJ – it is a fundamental part of Systems Thinking that it allows you to differentiate between details that matter and those that really don’t in any situation. My corollaries “Devil in the Details” and “Look after the pennies and the pounds will look after themselves” and “butterfly / cow-fart in the rain forest” is another.

    It’s “analysis” but with a structure that guides the scalpel – “careful with that knife Aristotle”.

    And “ontologies” are always “deemed”.

  6. Hi Richard.
    Yes, clearing up an overgrown path – more like a machete in the jungle – is a good metaphor. It’s mostly about clearing out layers of misunderstanding that have accreted over layers of “ancient wisdom” as science has tried to “clarify” (debunk) stuff that doesn’t stand-up to their immediate orthodox scientific scrutiny. This small fact is wrong, therefore the whole story is wrong – idea. Er, no. Small facts are small facts, big facts are big facts in Systems Thinking – different kinds of thought in different architectural layers of the whole.

    Physics? I struggle with best language about physics and science. I tend to use “orthodox science” – one whose philosophical foundations are “materialism” – a physics made entirely of material and energy (e=mc2 etc.) – and everything constructed with objective logic & maths (inc. probabilistic logic) on top of that > chemistry, biology, STEM etc.

    Material or energy, information / quality (pure-potential) is more primary / fundamental than either.

  7. “different kinds of thought in different architectural layers of the whole.” – this sounds like an essential insight for understanding the world. And there might be seemingly contradictions between the layers too. And there’s a big step from “everything is connected” to “there are layers of reality with fundamentally different natures”. The latter seems like a more helpful vehicle for sorting and navigating the world.

    On the side; it’s interesting how “energy” is somewhat of an evasive term, and something immaterial. Bit like how “gravity” is immaterial too (Unless you think of it as physically “bent” space, but it’s still a “force” of sorts).

  8. OK Richard.

    Need not to get too carried away with different kinds of thought in different layers as the reason for the architecture. The layers (and system boundaries generally) are essentially organic – emergent – things that really do have “lives of their own”, so they’re not arbitrary at our convenience. Once we’ve got through information and processing (computation and algorithms) – we will see how “Markov blankets” create the “strongly emergent” organic boundaries.

    And yes – apart from even causation itself being a pretty ephemeral concept – the potential for causation (energy and force) are just as hard to get a hold on. Whether we think of curved spacetime, force itself was just a metaphor even to Newton. All these “tendencies” to do stuff arise from the “Free Energy Principle” (which itself hangs on information and entropy) in the story I’m trying to tell. The important thing will be consistency, some aspect what we call stuff will be a choice of metaphor – like “rolling downhill”. Whatever we call it when I say “physics” or orthodox science – aka “materialism” – these energy / force elements are part of it – materially relevant – things that matter to matter.

  9. Ian, you said: “My main quest here has for 22 years been precisely to point out the shortcomings of logical, objective, scientific thinking when it comes to human enterprises of all kinds.”

    Can you give me a clear example of the kind of thinking and shortcomings you’re talking about? I just feel like “logical, objective, scientific” might be the wrong modifiers for what you mean. I don’t think your preferred solution is going to be illogical and unscientific.

    Also, since your definition of system is pretty much everything, can you give an example of
    what kind of problem is not a systems problem? Just simple stuff that can be dealt with on one level alone?

    I picked out some things you appear to be saying are the hallmarks of systems thinking:

    Thinking in terms of architecture (components and sub-components)
    analysis over multiple axes and levels of components
    integration of processes over multiple timescales and histories
    use control volumes for focus, outside of which working assumptions are made (which can be adjusted as required)
    Any other key hallmarks?

    One more thing, which I have picked on before: In a comment above, you implied that energy and force, as the potential for causation (or a tendency to do stuff), arise from the free energy principle. But I think that principle only applies to internal states in a cognitive system modeling its environment. Can you clarify? Are you saying that cognitive states are more fundamental than energy and force? (I hope not.)

    How do we know when you’ve added material to this post? Do we need to scan the whole thing again to find the new stuff?


  10. Hi Tim.

    Examples? – (hundreds in thousands of posts over 22 years).
    A very basic one in recent threads – “that science excludes subjectivity means it can never explain consciousness”.
    “Gender wars” and “Identity Politics” generally, would be another.
    But many others – where chains of logic will appear broken to orthodox objective / determinist “science”. (Causation itself is problematic at root, see other recent comment).

    Pretty much everything? – literally everything.
    When Systems Thinking, when not?
    Simple / Complex is the key – There’s no cost to treating even the simplest thing as a system so far as I can see – in the sense that deciding it’s simple means you’ve intuitively discounted the existence of relevant complicating factors – which is (proven by your experience to be) good enough for your purposes. You really don’t need an example (which BTW is another feature if ST).

    Any other key hallmarks? The main benefit – you can ignore many details / examples in various levels of abstraction.

    Can I clarify?
    That’s what the essay is for. (At current level of detail, this is less than 10% of it.)
    I’m definitely NOT saying cognitive states are more fundamental than energy and force.
    But that information and computation are more fundamental than both.
    The point of FEP / Active Inference / Markov Blankets is that these apply to the organic ordering of systems within systems, at any level, not just “cognitive” systems. There is “sensing” at boundaries – but we’re talking pure experience before any affective or cognitive models evolve. At this point we’re getting into definitions of what we call cognitive and conscious and aware, etc. I prefer to call my position “pan-proto-conscious” or in your terms pan-proto-cognitive/affective maybe. I wouldn’t mind expanding the definition of cognitive to very primitive proto-cognition if it helps us? Just language and baggage as far as I’m concerned. But sentience and awareness and arousal are distinct – see Solms. (Because it has excluded its most important features science has ignored many subtle details of what consciousness actually comprises.)

    You never did comment on this post or the paper it refers to?

    Reader beware I guess.
    I expect I will “announce” any major milestones in the updates – but all the missing topics are in the italic square brackets – so there are no surprises not already signalled and written about elsewhere in the blog.

    My biggest disappointment so far is that nobody is laughing at my jokes? 🙂

  11. ” If you can think of any things more primitive than that thing and that thingno-thing relation, I’d like to hear it.”

    Since you ask, I’ll refer you to my posts on Self and Other, and On Information and Awareness, both of which deal with possible basic oppositions. (Always glad to plug my own blog!)

    Your argument about that than which nothing less can be conceived reminded me of St. Anselm’s proof of God’s existence, which states that “God is that, than which nothing greater can be conceived.” I don’t know what the similarity signifies, but it seemed interesting enough to mention.

    I could take issue with your suggestion in this post that epistemology is the study of meaning. Traditionally it is the study of “what, why, and how we know”– as I’m sure you’re aware! For the study of meaning, I would nominate semantics. This brings me to a third post of mine, Syntax and Semantics, which also relates to the concepts of information and monism.

    While I’m at it, and since the question came up in recent comments at Psybertron Asks, I might as well mention my short outline of the shortcomings of the scientific way of knowing: Some Complaints Against Materialsm.

  12. HI AJ, Thanks for that … your content pasted in so I can insert:

    ” If you can think of any things more primitive than that thing and that thingno-thing relation, I’d like to hear it.”

    Since you ask, I’ll refer you to my posts on Self and Other, and On Information and Awareness, both of which deal with possible basic oppositions. (Always glad to plug my own blog!)

    [IG] – Nice. Be nice if you could suggest anything specific that would benefit from change in my words here 🙂 But yes, my smallest conceivable thing in contrast to no-thing is pretty much this “fundamental opposition”.

    Your argument about that than which nothing less can be conceived reminded me of St. Anselm’s proof of God’s existence, which states that “God is that, than which nothing greater can be conceived.” I don’t know what the similarity signifies, but it seemed interesting enough to mention.

    [IG] I am of course already referring to that. How the background context (my “0”, my “no-thing”) for that smallest “something” to be added / contrasted, could be some sort of cosmic background rather than literally zero – a god – it’s maybe too hard to imagine – hence my joke about Larry Krauss. But I make it clear it doesn’t matter to my argument what you have in mind for this. My argument has no need of any causation from “it”.

    I could take issue with your suggestion in this post that epistemology is the study of meaning. Traditionally it is the study of “what, why, and how we know”– as I’m sure you’re aware! For the study of meaning, I would nominate semantics. This brings me to a third post of mine, Syntax and Semantics, which also relates to the concepts of information and monism.
    [IG] Sure semantics as meaning is a part of epistemology as knowledge … just loose introductory language at this point. Noted. Though to be fair, I wouldn’t call it knowledge without meaning – but I’m not interested in angels on the head of a pin when it comes to data / information / knowledge / wisdom 🙂

    While I’m at it, and since the question came up in recent comments at Psybertron Asks, I might as well mention my short outline of the shortcomings of the scientific way of knowing: Some Complaints Against Materialsm.

    [IG] Absolutely, maybe some of those will answer Tim’s request for example problems with (orthodox) science. Thanks.

  13. HI, Ian. I posted a comment with several links, and there’s a chance it went to a spam folder, so i thought I’d better mention it.

  14. Ah yes, that explains why it was held in moderation, but I already answered it.

    PS – that “no-thing” as I said I already posited “ill-defined cosmic unity thing” 🙂

  15. Rather than leave you to read what I’ve written elsewhere and let you put it together, I suppose I could start by suggesting the most primitive relationship is thing and not-thing. To suggest that “not-thing” is equivalent to “no-thing” is to skip a step. Not-thing might be no-thing, or it might be another thing, not the same as the original thing. This is where I was going with self-and-other, which preserves the subjective character that we are trying to incorporate into reality more successfully than thing and no-thing. It commits only to a responsive entity and its experience of whatever it is responding to, which is necessarily not-entity and therefore “other.” Its exact nature, whether something or nothing, has yet to be determined, although it’s hard to see how it could be a complete void. Talk of a thing and a no-thing suggests an object in a void, perhaps a mathematical point, but not an entity in a subjective relationship, or indeed any kind of relationship, there being nothing to relate to.

    People who talk about information and “it-from-bit” tend to posit at least two required things for reality, one being an observer. The other required thing is not a no-thing, but presumably a something with which the observer interacts. As the story goes, this interaction somehow brings the something into being, although as far as I can make out, it does not also bring the observer into being. For this reason among others, I have my concerns with the metaphysical story of the observer, or the interaction of information, which is brought in as a desperate move to account for quantum strangeness, and then cheerfully applied by extension the rest of the universe. ;But if we are must start there, then the opposition of “thing” and “no-thing,” with its hint of an isolated object in a void, seems like it could be misleading. I don’t think it quite captures the fundamental ontology needed to get beyond the materialist world-view; on the contrary, it seems quite compatible with such a world-view. By this I don’t mean that the thing, the infinitesimal point or whatever, is necessary material, as in a particle. I mean only that it remains an object, grounding the whole account in an older paradigm.

  16. 1. I was asking for examples of logical, objective, scientific statements which you think have shortcomings. For example, “Subjectivity cannot play any role in a scientific explanation.” (But personally I don’t think that statement is logical or scientific at all.) For “gender wars,” a scientist might say, “The two sexes have separate biological roles which caused them to evolve with differences in average ability or interest.” I don’t know if you think that statement has shortcomings or not. For identity politics I’d like to know what kind of scientific statement you have in mind, and I don’t really have any guesses. As a scientist, also I want to see your improved statements, and see if the chains of logic you recommend will appear broken to me.

    2. You are saying that information and computation are more fundamental than energy or force. You support that by saying that FEP applies to organic ordering of systems at any level.
    Here is how I think the order goes:
    First comes patterns. Material and energy or force all come from patterns, and these could be thought of as “information,” though I think that word choice may be confusing.
    Later comes systems with organic ordering and sensing at the boundaries, and these are necessary before the advent of “computation” or any kind of error minimization or FEP.
    The FEP is dependent on an entity which utilizes a stable energy gradient. For example a brain would not have any free charges to power neurons if its associated body didn’t harvest energy from nutrients.
    In summary, I don’t know how you justify saying that computation is more fundamental than energy or force, or that FEP can give rise to these things.

    3. You asked about my reaction to the ENMB paper, so I took a look at it. I did find a couple of things there that may be related to your stance on (2) above. So I will comment on those as (4) and (5) below.

    4. Friston’s primordial soup simulation might be what you have in mind for self-organization at a very fundamental level. But that simulation, at least as presented in the ENMB paper, doesn’t contain any reasons (that I can discern) for agent or blanket formation. Their “electrochemical interactions” would normally be non-directional, so the edges are not directed, and there is nothing to distinguish parent from child, or sensory from active. I guess I would need to see the Friston 2013 paper to understand if they are claiming the minimization of anything in the region of the most densely coupled nodes (the “internal states”).

    5. They quote a Kirchoff 2018 paper: “…any system that possesses a Markov blanket
    [can be thought of as] some rudimentary (or possibly sophisticated) ‘agent’ that is optimizing
    something; namely, the evidence for its own existence.”
    This quote seems to imply a kind of bootstrapping which I think is unjustified. A natural agent has no reason to optimize evidence for its own existence. It has reason to build an accurate model of its environment, centered on itself.
    You mentioned Whitehead. I will try to summarize my view in a way he might not complain too much about:
    Physical patterns (or processes, or occasions, or events) are the source of everything. To the extent that those patterns persist monotonously, we call them objects or materials. When those objects have a tendency to change or transform, we might call them reactive molecules. When those molecules begin to temporarily store energy from natural gradients, and evolve and specialize to improve that storage behavior, we call them biological forms. When those biological forms begin to sense aspects of the outside world and to actively choose options to enhance their perseverance in being, we call them agents. When that agency grows to become a continuous real-time cognitive model of the world centered on the agent, we call it consciousness.

  17. Semantics is a prerequisite for knowledge, and therefore prior to it. Te significance of this is considerable, as I’ve tried to explain in another post called “Wittgenstein, Spinoza, and Rovelli: Language and intelligibility.” The reason I keep mentioning these blog posts is that they contain many observations highly relevant to the matters you are talking about, and I was hoping I could save myself the trouble of reproducing them all here.

  18. Absolutely.

    I said semantics is part of knowledge – a fundamental / essential part – pre-requisite if you like. I cannot imagine anyone thinking there could be knowledge without semantics – inconceivable.
    I also said I wasn’t looking for any more angels to balance on the head of this pin in debating information and knowledge – I think we agree already. I’m not ignoring what you’ve written, just trying to focus on the stuff that needs solving. Systems thinking 🙂


  19. Hi AJ,

    You missed my point that my thesis doesn’t care what this no-thing / not-thing / ill-defined-cosmic-unity-thing is.
    No dependency. Explicitly stated.
    My story is about adjacency of things – patterns, systems-thinking.

    It from bit, bring into being … that’s the story, we’re not there yet.
    (But you’re still trying to balance that not-thing angel on the head of my pin for some reason?)


  20. Hi Tim.
    1. Like I said, you will be disappointed then. You don’t need me to give you examples 🙂
    (The alternate chains of logic come out of the strong-emergence from Markov blankets.)
    2. Patterns = identical to = information. We agree already.
    Disembodied information not dependent on what exists before it, material or otherwise (so far in my story just Democritan / Euclidian “points”)
    3. OK
    4. Not sure I get what you’re trying to say here – in relation to anything I’m saying? Some edges are directed some are not … but we haven’t got there yet. Maybe read the Friston book?
    5. Ah yes. You think “the bootstrapping” is unjustified. You’re saying you’re an orthodox scientist. Doyle said “scientists will hate this”. Solms says you need to cross a Rubicon. I’m saying this whole story is about rhetorical persuasion.
    6. Whitehead. Looks like we agree already (Patterns = Information). You should see IIT too.

    We’re getting ahead of where I’m up to in the story.
    And still no-one’s laughing at my jokes 🙁

  21. Hi, Ian.

    Your concerns about wading into metaphysics were perhaps well-founded. The Scholastics, among who we count Anselm, became preoccupied with so-called “metaphysical” questions such as how many angels could dance on the head of a pin. But not all metaphysics may be dismissed as trite. The metaphysics of Kant influenced the course of 20th-century science.

    If the finer points of the thing / no-thing distinction have no serious consequences for the rest of what you’re about to say, then there’s not much need to bring it up, and you should probably start with something else. On the other hand, if your intent is to lay foundational concepts, it deserves careful consideration for what it implies. My reading is that it’s a foundational concept. You’ve begun your metaphysical story by talking about an object rather than a subject, or even a relationship. This is a programme quite different from Whitehead’s, and if you’re hoping to rely on his process philosophy, I think you’re starting off on the wrong foot. But if you experience my comments as “angels dancing on the head of a pin,” I can’t be much help.

  22. Hi AJ, it’s just about relevance to the metaphysics I’m laying out, not the entire history of everyone else’s metaphysics.

    And quite explicitly – in what I’ve already written – the conceiving of the thing vs “nothing” thought-experiment is simply to show that the no-thing part is irrelevant – not foundational – but to get to the thing-thing part from which information / patterns are built. (I could maybe make that clearer – which is the value of your feedback.)

    We’ll see about Whitehead later – especially your subject-object point which is intriguing, I’m still at thing-thing before we decide when it makes sense to think of one or more as “subject” – but I’m not “dependent” on Whitehead. (I’ve written quite a bit before on which aspects of Whitehead I find useful).

    In many ways this is the “systems thinking” aspect – get with the programme, as it were – lots of really “important” details are NOT important to the particular problem at hand. (In the Levenchuk book – “definitions as both important and not-important”.) It’s interesting how dialogue like this can proceed, but the selection of which details matter, which patterns to focus on, is essentially creative. Courage to ignore, I think I said.

  23. An afterthought: When you clarify “-no-thing” into “ill-defined cosmic unity thing,” I think you’re actually coming closer to my point that if you’re going to start with thing” at all, you should start with “thing and not-thing” rather than “thing and no-thing.”

  24. Yes, that did occur to me too.

    I just don’t want to spend too many sentences on nothing / no-thing / not-thing / ill-defined-cosmic-unity-thing (the latter was a parenthetical aside, anyway) – it will look to a casual scientific reader – most modern science-led audiences – that we are indeed old-beardy philosophers debating “angels on the head of a pin” and it will turn them off. I want to be persuasive rather than right in any absolute sense 🙂 “A credible story”.

    And still no-one’s laughing at the jokes – ho hum – I guess it’s the way I tell ’em.
    Thanks and regards,

  25. Hi AJ, an interesting mental exercise in that exchange, if you’re up for it – the “systems thinking” aspect:

    The only reason knowledge and semantics are in this thread is because you picked-up on my original (erroneous) statement of “epistemology(meaning/semantics)”
    You made me split one thing into two distinct things – when I had already (in effect) wrapped a Markov-blanket around knowledge AND semantics – and having had me split them, you then insisted one was fundamental / pre-requisite to the other, one couldn’t exist without the other.

    A lot more words to say less?
    It’s this “compression” of thought that systems thinking gives us – if we can bear (have the courage) to let details go (for now).
    “Devil in the details / Pedantry” – is a theme I’ve already dropped in [italics]. (hat tip to Richard)

    (Note to self – IDEF0 – unpicking levels of abstraction vs detail as and when needed!)

  26. You piqued my interest in systems thinking in “The Elon Musk Effect?”, when you said that “complex systems need moderation in the speed of communications in key layers.” I thought this was a very useful observation that deserves more recognition and consideration in our troubles with the modern age. Why ban speech, when what we really need to do is slow down so we can think? It’s something I’m still digesting, and if you have any suggestions for reading more about that idea, I’d love to hear them.

    Beyond that, I haven’t given much thought to systems thinking, and I’m not entirely sure where you’re going with it in terms of life, the universe, and everything. You seem to be inspired by Solm’s work on deriving consciousness from a system involving Markov blankets. I’m skeptical of his account on several fronts, as Ive explained at my own blog. But I think the bottom line for you is the value of systems thinking as a key to understanding emergence — quite different than the practical matter of slowing down the CNN news cycle, or the Facebook propagation of misinformation.

  27. Moderation as pouring treacle into our comms systems. (A very regular comment of mine, in many contexts).
    That is not in itself a “feature” of systems thinking more a corollary or one possible outcome / application … simply to realise (by applying systems thinking) that our problems are not one-dimensional – not just a matter of “what” to “permit” or “ban”. Many different processes in different layers in multiple dimensions.
    Ultimately systems thinking applies (can be applied) to literally anything. Social media or the emergence of subjective consciousness.

    Looking at the consequences of different speeds in different layers of comms systems is John C Doyle – almost any of his you tube links I’ve shared.
    (His downhill mountain biking example – and different brain/body systems that stop you killing yourself.)

    Solms was inspiring, because it’s an argument I’ve used before from info-theory perspective – in my own metaphysics – justifying “strong emergence” of independent things, which I have believed since I started – probably mainly Dennett previously. What Solms did was present it in a popular science book, “Nothing New” but the first person to join it up so explicitly. More a release, than inspiration maybe.

    Not giving much thought to systems thinking 😉
    Yes, I’m trying to encourage that, in the piece I’ve written about 10% of.

    I know you’re skeptical – it’s about persuasion – systems thinking will help.

    Did you pick-up on the mental exercise in my previous comment? Progress I thought.

  28. I wasn’t sure what the mental exercise was. Are you talking about the power (or necessity) of disregarding certain levels (or types) of detail in systems thinking?

    To some extent this seems to be the purpose of Markov blankets, which (as I understand it) allow some variables in a Bayesian network to be omitted when calculating the probability of a particular variable. But not just any variables can be omitted, and all the variables are at the same level of peer nodes in the network, so it might not be quite the same idea.

    When I’m fixing a bicycle, I can ignore behaviours at the atomic level. If I’m repairing a flat, I can ignore the angle of the seat. As we’ve said, the ontology of the system must be matched to the problem. For me, this implies something quite important. To address the problems of modernity arising from a lack of “betweenness,” or from a hollowness brought on by “disenchantment,” or however one frames it, we need to work with a different world-system and a different ontology than the one that brought us here. We might call that world-system “scientific materialism.” Perhaps there are other, better characterizations. Following your “good fences” analogy, and my “complaints against materialism,” that system has no business crashing about in human affairs.

    I think the new system, the new ontology, the new paradigm, must be fundamentally existential; it concerns how we relate to other beings — and here I include everything from people, to plants, to viruses, to oceans and mountains. It’s a radical re-conception of “other,” a “re-enchantment of the world,” borrowing from Indigenous ways of knowing, or for that matter right-hemisphere ways of knowing. To this end, panpsychism is a systems-thinking choice we need to make. We simply need to choose a system, an ontology, a paradigm, that works better for the problems we want to solve, and this strikes me as the best candidate.

    This is why I resist the struggle to “explain away” self and other in the old terms of billiard balls, or their modern equivalents: “it-from-bit,” theories about brain function, and so on. From a systems-thinking perspective, I not only don’t see the point; I’m painfully aware that such approaches perpetuate the lack of betweenness that has characterized the history of physical monism. It may be the right system for manipulating an inanimate world devoid of ethics and even the concept of ethics, but it’s the wrong system for the purposes that press on us now. The clutter of its ontology is still slowing us down, and not in a good way.

  29. You Say:
    “I wasn’t sure what the mental exercise was”.

    I had said:
    “Hi AJ, an interesting mental exercise in that exchange, if you’re up for it – the “systems thinking” aspect:

    The only reason knowledge and semantics are in this thread is because you picked-up on my original (erroneous) statement of “epistemology(meaning/semantics)”
    You made me split one thing into two distinct things – when I had already (in effect) wrapped a Markov-blanket around knowledge AND semantics – and having had me split them, you then insisted one was fundamental / pre-requisite to the other, one couldn’t exist without the other.”

    This is really important to understand systems thinking. And very simple.

    I had rolled epistemology(knowledge) and semantics(meaning) under one “thing”
    You picked me up by pointing out there were two “things”. I said sure.
    When I started to use the two “things” you picked me up for maybe not understanding that one thing (semantics) was a pre-requisite for the other thing (knowledge).
    I said sure, obviously I already knew that. Inconceivable otherwise, I said.
    That’s why my systems thinking view was OK to handle those two things as one sub-system.

    What did my systems thinking argument gain from being told that sub-system had more than one part? All systems do.
    (I didn’t need you to invent alternative examples, simply notice that our exchange already was an example?)

  30. When you said, “I’m going to start with one of the most abstruse technical areas of philosophy, metaphysics itself as a basis for all existence (ontology) and meaning (epistemology) in the world,” I assumed you wanted to focus on “meaning.” You were talking a lot about”information,” and as I’d noted in my own referenced post, “Information has two aspects: syntactic, and semantic,” so this is how it made sense to me at the time. By way of a minor correction, I suggested “semantics”as a better match.

    Since then I’ve come to realize that you wanted to focus on “knowledge,” and I was suggesting a minor correction to the wrong word. Neither “knowledge” nor “meaning” appears again in the post, at least until the comments, so I’m not sure where you were going with it.

    It’s true that you can’t have epistemology without meaning, and I take your point about collapsing them into a subsystem. If knowledge is what you want to talk about, meaning is assumed. On the other hand, when you talk about “information,” if you have in mind the syntactical rather than the semantic sense, the assumption of the semantic sense built into “knowledge” could lead to confusion. The repercussions of getting from syntax, or the raw configurations of a senseless reality, to semantics, or significance to a subject, are relevant to the hard problem.

  31. 5. I don’t think all bootstrapping is unjustified. I am saying it has to happen in the right order. I gave that order as part of my (5), but you seem to have seen my Whitehead comment as a new section (6) which is not the case.
    I also gave the a similar order in (2). We agree there on information but not on computation; do you have any comment on our disagreement?

    What is IIT?

    I’m looking for your jokes, which may be too subtle for me if I can’t find them!
    “Please god, not a trolley or a zombie”: I like this.
    For your Larry Krauss joke I guess I would need to read his book? Or is it related to Jeffrey Epstein?

  32. Hi AJ, that’s making sense 🙂

    Well yes, I’m talking about information (& data) at the start of the story – although we haven’t got past “thing-thing” yet – the first hint of our first piece of information, the simplest possible pattern. Meaning and knowledge are going to arise as we take it from there.

    Very much aware of both syntactical and semantic aspects of info (my day job).
    My examples included both (in the original thread, if not in the “thesis” yet).

    It’s almost like you want everything on the first page 🙂
    I did put a place-holder for alternative start points.


  33. Jokes:
    Yes, trolley zombies.
    Krauss, yes his hopeless “Something from Nothing” which you’ll find reviewed in these pages.
    (The Epstein connection and his flirting with the female sex, I have also written about more than once – may work some of that into the fiction, but probably not the thesis 😉 Epstein entertained many academics – worming his money into Harvard, craving credibility – mostly innocent from their side.)
    The other one (so far) was “Pairs are not the only fruit”.
    Thanks for noticing 🙂

    Still not sure I understand that we have any disagreement … early days … sure all has to happen in the right order …
    (We’re not off square one yet – I did offer alternate starting points.)

    IIT is Integrated Information Theory – started by G Tononi – but plenty of others now. (I have a page on that as well as many references)


  34. What I’m disagreeing with is the following:
    You implied that energy and force arise from the FEP. Similarly, you implied that computation is more fundamental than energy or force. I disagree.

    When I hear “energy” and “force”, I assume you mean the usual physics terms for some of the fundamental patterns (or information) at the root of reality. If that’s what you mean, then I disagree with your order. How could error minimization be more fundamental than physics?
    If by “energy” and “force” you are talking about the power of an agent to act, then of course you have the order right, but your words are going to confuse the hell out of any physicist.

    I am sensitive about this because the Gibbs Free Energy is very important for thermodynamics, and it is indeed at the root of some of the most basic drives of evolution. But the Free Energy Principle is completely different, and in fact to say that life arises as a minimization of Free Energy would be completely backwards.

    I missed the pair joke; I thought that was a typo. Reading too fast.

  35. Ah great Tim, that was a useful clarification:
    You implied that energy and force arise from the FEP.
    Similarly, you implied that computation is more fundamental than energy or force. I disagree.

    OK. Try this:
    “Information ” is more fundamental than those “physical” things (energy and force).
    “Computation” is the first appearance of energy or force … processing that information.

    And yes – I will need to be clearer about the Free Energy story, Gibbs free energy too.
    You maybe noticed in recent posts I introduced Allostatis as well as Homeostasis – from Doyle? – as you say simply “minimising” free energy is death, not life – but I think that’s understood by those talking about “kinda” homeostasis – “homeostasis plus”. (People are actually talking the “Friston Free Energy Principle”.)

    You’re a stickler “scientist” it seems – I’m trying to communicate something readable 😉 – choosing which details matter to any given part of the story.
    Good to have these things pointed out though.


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