Epiphenomena, Information and Emergence

What are epiphenomena?

The national economy goes through cycles of fluctuating income, debt, employment rates and so on, but this is all really the consequence of millions of individual trading transactions conceptually aggregated. The national economy is an epiphenomenon of those trading transactions. The former UK Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher is famous for having said (though she did not quite) that "there is no such thing as society, there are just individual people". She may have been expressing a view on epiphenomena, had she not been attacking socialism. In material terms, she was right - there really are only individual people and what we call 'society' is a concept, rather than a real thing. It describes the aggregated effect of interactions among the people taking part. It has properties that we can describe, measure and predict with models. In short it is an epiphenomenon of human relationships of all kinds. Because emergence is the appearance of phenomena at a scale of system organisation that is not present at the lower scales within it, emergence qualifies as a kind of epiphenomenon (that point is explained here). Epiphenomena are observed, but are not things in themselves; rather they are ways of thinking about the things from which they emerge.

Information as an epiphenomenon

Now we will introduce the idea that information itself is an epiphenomenon and go on to explore some of the implications of that.

Physical information (the most fundamental kind of information) is most fundamentally the physical location in space and time of physical things relative to one another. Again, it is useful to think of the pattern of different magnetisation on a computer hard disk, the string of amino acids in a DNA molecule or the pixels in an image. Clearly we can conceptualise physical information in ways that do not depend on any particular kind of (substrate for) its instantiation. Physical information is conceptually separate from the physical world, but its existence still depends on something physical to embody and instantiate it. When an image is printed, a surface is covered small dots of ink, but when we look at this from a suitable distance, we perceive a pattern formed among the dots: the pattern which is the image, is in our mind, not on the paper: it is an epiphenomenon in information, a perspective on a pattern of dots.

The Universal Turing Machine  was first conceived as a mental tool to help understand the basic principles of computation. The UTM’s properties were thought about in abstract terms: the UTM as a concept depended on brains, pencil and paper, it was not a physical thing. Only later was a UTM actually instantiated with a physical embodiment, but as we saw here, the UTM was not a thing in itself, but rather an interpretation of a particular arrangement (pattern in space and time) of physical things. The UTM is a perspective on those patterns, one that reveals to us  many interpretable properties of information. In this example and all others, the properties of information can be described without reference to the elements from which they were constructed. Indeed, physical information itself is independent of the kind of things that are arranged in space and time to embody it: this information arises as a phenomenon of the arrangement alone; it is a ‘perspective’ on this arrangement and is therefore an epiphenomenon.

Even meaning is epiphenominal

This does not stop with physical information. We establish elsewhere that ‘meaning’ is a functional relation between particular structures of physical information. That is to say: meaning is the phenomenon of function arising from one information structure providing the context for another. Information - as meaning - is therefore a property of physical information, one that emerges from interaction among items of physical information. As a consequence, it also is an epiphenomenon, this time of arrangements of physical information. Since an emergent pattern of an epiphenomenon is also an epiphenomenon, we can say that meaning is an epiphenomenon of the physical location in space and time of physical things relative to one another.

A consequence for what constitutes life

One consequence of this is that meaning therefore cannot have a non-physical existence, though it may be thought of in abstract, just as any epiphenomenon can, but then the thoughts themselves depend on physical objects such as neurons. The grand result seems to be, then, that all information is an epiphenomenon of energy-matter in space-time. Assuming our main thesis that “living is information processing” to be correct, then this statement is equivalent to a denial of vitalism: the belief that something non-physical exists to give ‘life’ to living things. The consequence of this statement is that the properties of an organism are all epiphenomena of the properties and relations of its parts, each of which in turn (perhaps through several levels of nested hierarchy) are properties of elemental physics. In other words, the emergence of life from the inanimate is an example of weak emergence: it is an epiphenomenon.

Further thoughts on information as epiphenomenon

What follows here is an elaboration on the idea, to help draw out its meaning (so if you are already happy with that, you can skip this bit)
To illustrate some consequences of information as epiphenomenon, imagine a painting: clearly it is an embodiment of information. If it is (hypothetically) copied exactly in every detail, this copy will be a new creation, but it will embody the same information. In one sense it will be the same painting: different atoms in the same configuration (macrostate), with the same properties as the original painting (noting that atoms of the same kind are identical). In a deeper sense it can never be the same because this copy will not occupy the same space-time as the original. For this reason it will never interact with the rest of the Universe in precisely an identical way. It must always be distinct, even if only because it must have been created in a different part of space-time (either a different place, or later or both). In practice that means that it always interacts with different photons, or if the same, at a different time, with potentially different consequences for the whole Universe. Thus as a conceptual abstraction the original painting and its perfect copy are the same painting, but as physical embodiments, they can never be.

Now suppose no copy were made and the painting is destroyed completely. None of its embodied information remains you might think. However, the physical information is not destroyed when the painting is. The painting is a pattern in physical information: one particular macrostate from among many. Destroying the painting amounts to the dispersion of this macrostate, it does not destroy physical information, for that may be found in the new macrostate created from the destruction of the painting, which we see is only the total re-arrangement of the pattern.
At a higher level of abstraction, we may consider only the particular pattern: a specific configuration (e.g. the arrangement of colours etc. in a painting), and this may be represented in another medium or format, for example a photograph of the painting (ignoring texture etc. for the sake of argument). Given this interpretation, a copy is the result of an isomorphic map that transforms the information from one substrate to another, preserving or replicating it. Indeed a process may instantiate information that forms a set of instructions describing how to re-create the painting (the PDF file format is something like this). Given this higher abstraction of interpretation, the painting is destroyed only when there are no remaining copies of information (including instructions) that could reproduce the painting. It should be clear now that the painting is an epiphenomenon of physical information, which in turn is an epiphenomenon of energy-matter in space-time. If we now replace ‘painting’ with ‘organism’, we can regard its DNA as an information pattern which is a set of instructions, that when followed, re-create the organism. Thus the organism would be an epiphenomenon of a pattern in atoms.

Finally, we should notice that epiphenomena are identified by human minds: they are convenient abstractions of the physical world and not real in and of themselves. It seems to us that epiphenomena are genuinely separate from their elemental substrates, but in fact they are not. The Turing machine may be conveniently thought of as independent of the components from which it is made (digital software or lego for example), but the fact that an epiphenomenon, by definition, has properties that are independent of its elemental components only means that more than one elemental substrate can give rise to these properties. It turns out that the existence of epiphenomena results from two phenomena. The first is that some properties of systems are generated by more than one kind of elemental substrate (e.g. the software and lego in the case of a Turing machine). The second is that these properties can be thought of by people in a way that is abstract from the generating substrate. In other words, epiphenomena are really a consequence of the way we think. When we identify an epiphenomenon, we are classifying a kind of pattern: a kind of information. The genetic code embodied by a DNA molecule is information and the organism created by following its instructions is quite another. Both, though, are patterns in the physical configuration of atoms and both can be considered in the abstract as epiphenomena.