We trace the creation of information structures in the universe from the appearance of elementary particles in the first few minutes through the creation and evolution of the galaxies, stars, and planets that began four hundred million years after the origin. All these cosmological information structures are passive, under the control of fundamental physical forces like gravitation, electromagnetism, and the nuclear strong and weak force. Information, per se, is not involved in their creation.
With the emergence of life on Earth, relatively soon after the formation of the Sun, active information structures appeared, which we define as structures using information processing and communication to manage the flow of matter and energy through themselves. Active information structures introduced agency and the appearance of purpose.
From the tiny molecular machines that are the active components of our cells (for example, ATP synthase, the ion pumps in our neurons, the flagella, ribosomes and their chaperones, and the central dogma of DNA > RNA > Protein) up to the thinking human mind, we trace an evolutionary development that depended at every stage 1) on quantum physics as the generator of new possibilities and 2) the radiation away from the new structure of the excess positive entropy, without which the new information (negative entropy) could not survive.
As Claude Shannon has shown, the creation of new information requires alternative possibilities. In a deterministic world, information would be a conserved constant, like the conservation of matter and energy. Information is immaterial. It is neither matter nor energy, and it is not conserved, although it needs matter for its (temporary) embodiment and energy for its communication, for example to other minds or for storage in the external environment.
Despite the physical basis for our work, from cosmology through biology to neuroscience, we strongly argue against current “physicalist” theories in the philosophy of mind, in which chemistry is reduced to physics, biology to chemistry, and the mind/brain reduced to biology.
We attack neurobiological reductionism and strictly determined “bottom-up causation.” At the same time, perhaps counter-intuitively, we defend a supervenient statistical “downward causation” that allows free thoughts (mental events that are not pre-determined) to cause willed actions. Actions are ultimately statistical but “adequately determined” by our motives, reasons, intentions, desires, and feelings, in short, by our character. We offer a two-stage model of free will, one initially seen in the nineteenth century by WiIliam James.
We defend an emergent dualism of mind and matter, subject and object, idealism and materialism. Monists might like the idea that information is a neutral quantity that can ground a triple-aspect monism of matter, life, and mind. Information itself is an emergent that did not exist in the early universe. We will show that information structures emerge in three ways and in a temporal sequence, corresponding respectively to matter, life, and mind.
First is the emergence of “order out of chaos” This has given rise to complexity and chaos theories that try to explain life as a “complex adaptive system.” Ilya Prigogine won a Nobel prize for far-from-equilibrium “dissipative” processes that produce information structures, like Bénard convection cells. He called it “order out of chaos.” These “complex” systems have no internal information processing. They are “dumb” structures. They do, however, exert a gross “downward causation” over their physical parts.
Second is the emergence of “order out of order.” Erwin Schrödinger showed that all life feeds on a stream of negative entropy from the sun. He called this “order out of order.” Biological processes rearrange the information in the negative entropy to create and maintain themselves. They are “information-processing systems.” Their downward causation is extremely fine, meaning they can exert causal control over component atoms and molecules individually.
Third is the emergence of “pure information out of order.” Abstract information is the “stuff of thought.” It is the lingua franca, the currency, the coin of the philosophical realm. Mental processes create and store abstract information in the brain hardware. At the neuron level, atoms and molecules are exquisitely controlled by neurobiology to enable nerve firings and to record (and play back) information.
The core of our informational theory of mind is an experience recorder and reproducer. The ERR stores information in our neural networks about all the perceptual elements (sight, sound, touch, taste, smell) of an experience, along with our emotions during the experience. They are stored in whatever neurons fire together. Later, any new perceptual element that fires the same (or nearby) neurons can activate the neural network to replay the original experience, complete with its emotional content. The unconscious mind is a “blooming, buzzing confusion” of these reproduced experiences, to some of which we focus our attention. We identify four evolutionary stages in the development of an experience recorder and reproducer that exhibits consciousness.