(“Virtuous Circles” are natural systems that have attained some autonomy and generative power. New things happen — emerge — within the various circles, because the components of a circle are defined and function in relation to each other. In this 8th post in this series on Human Freedom our goal is in sight! Humans can have a limited version of Free Will. In the last post, we saw that the Circles refer beyond themselves. But within the circle, the interaction of their reflectively defined parts is automatic and deep in presuppositions. In this post we will explore the concepts of Information and Causation, and find out that they are importantly different. “Information” is a deep reservoir of presuppositions from which a designed object functions. “Information is design worth getting”: Dennett. “Causation” is much more apparent.)
Information and Causes in the Circles
How do the Virtuous Circles of organism – environment, organ – organism, and person – society work? What are their consequences? We will find that through them organisms and their environments build complexity and ability through time. This occurs through the increasing accumulation of information and its use. We, persons, are the most sophisticated information users, “informivores” so to speak. And being informed is different than being caused.
We can all agree, information is important to persons, animals, and
plants. Dennett goes so far as to say, even a virus is a microscopic agent — an actor and not simply something acted upon. He quotes biochemist and theorist, Manfred Eigen’s use of action terms: “the virus needs…it must arrange…The virus gets the cell to...it is a programme that is rehearsed down to the smallest detail.” To which Dennett comments:
These “molecular machines perform their amazing stunts, obviously exquisitely designed” but, “all that purposive hustle and bustle, and yet there’s nobody home.” They are “an impersonal, unreflective, robotic, mindless little scrap of molecular machinery (that are) the ultimate basis of all the agency and hence meaning, and hence consciousness, in the universe.”
Why are viruses both purposive yet mindless, reflective (of their environment) yet unreflective (thoughtless) at the same time? Because they are near a crossroad;
“informed” and not simply caused, not alive but almost.
So, let us approach this thorny topic with this opening suggestion: the difference between being informed to act, and being caused, is a lack of transparency. Too much is occurring for the virus to be understood as a simple billiard ball ricocheting from a simple collision. There is “exquisite design” in the virus and this design has its other side; the exquisite information in the environment that is its necessary accompaniment. There is a lot built into these acts; there is a deep reservoir of presuppositions. Informed acts lack the transparency of caused events. There seems more to be discovered, at least to the scientist.
To that point, if organisms are information using systems, which they are, then by definition they are necessarily connected to their environment. Their design necessitates the corresponding information in the environment. Their design, and the component parts that form it, point outward: They Refer to ‘things’ beyond them. Remember, “information is design worth getting” (Dennett). It’s a package deal: the structure of the object and the information in the environs to which it responds. It’s a dynamic relationship: “horizontally”, “vertically”, and in time.
To the previous post, Nature Reflects, my brother the biologist, confessed his enjoyment and affirmation to all but to one point. “The environment causes organisms”, he said, “and it doesn’t go the other way around”. But Dennett’s theory of information necessitates a revision of this tenet of biological science, that I believe is sanctioned by Richard Dawkins, one of today’s preeminent evolution theorists.
So, the occurrence of the first organism was (in an important way) the occurrence of the first environment, and to understand the increasing complexity of organisms their environment has to become equally complex. In this sense, environments are not static and they cannot be understood as a simple, constant input. They are not in a causal relationship with their organisms, but in a feedback relation!*
Environments, like their organisms, are not a solid and persisting ‘billiard ball’, lacking in complexity other than some simple factors like mass and velocity. The relationship between virus and environment is deep and circular; it is filled with presuppositions; more parts must be below the surface, smaller, simpler, slowly approaching THE DESIRED SIMPLICITY WE SEEK IN CAUSAL IMAGES: THAT GAME OF POOL with its permanent components of balls (objects), and its smooth velvet surface, resilient bumpers and six consistently placed pockets (environment)! It is akin to the simplicity we know existed early in the universe, a simplicity that still exists in most places and exists even here on Earth, from a particular point of view. That the earth is composed of atoms and the forces of physics, is as true from its point of view as is the reality of organisms from a different point of view. It’s conceivable that with the additional coordination and evolution of persons, art and morality can become increasingly objective!
In the following post, the primal Circle of Organism and Environment will continue to be explored. Mother Nature’s constructive powers, as existing on this small planet, continue to work to close the gap between the lived-in environment of an organism and the broader, more ‘objective’ environment that is its foundation. This Tale of Two Environments also reveals the origin of our — the Human Person’s — ability ‘to know’ as well as ‘to do’.
*I will admit this is a difficult point concerning causation by contrast to feedback. I will be giving it further thought and exposition in the future.