SCIBIT: Building a Scientifically Coherent Integrated Bottom-Up Information Theory

As you know, when I’m not juicing the details of everyday interaction to extract the basic dance moves people make in dealing with tough judgment calls, I’m working with academic colleagues on putting together what I’ll call a SCIBIT-a Scientifically Coherent Integrated Bottom-up Information Theory.

Information theory is a theory about what information is and how it happens. For creatures who rely on information as much as we do, we don’t really have a good explanation for what information is.

Is it a thing? If so where is this thing? What is it made of? How does it move? What is a sender and receiver of information? Are senders and receivers made of information too? If so, how? How come anything can become information in one context or another? How come even the absence of something can be information (like when your IRS tax forms don’t arrive by April 15th)? Lot’s of questions scientists have yet to answer.

By a good explanation I mean one that is scientifically sound and to the extent possible conforms to our clearest intuitions about what information is. Intuitions matter because whatever information turns out to really be, our concepts about it start as human constructs. It’s not like we got to earth and found this box of stuff labeled “information.” We can’t completely escape the “I’ll know it when I see it,” nature of information, even if to come up with a SCIBIT, we’ll need to abandon some of our intuitions to see it for what it really is.

A SCIBIT also has to be coherent or internally consistent. It can’t talk out both sides of its mouth or operate by double standards whereby it’s one thing in one situation and another in another and we don’t have a good reason why.

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And it has to be integrated from the bottom up. By bottom up I mean from the non-living realms of pure physics and chemistry in which we don’t see information, straight up through life, consciousness, interpersonal communication, and whole information rich societies.

There are some who disagree with our bottom-up approach arguing that actually the realms of pure physics and chemistry are full of information. They say there’s information all the way down, either because a God used information (His purpose; His commands) to get the whole thing going, or because all behavior including the physical and chemical can be thought of in informational terms. Quarks and chemicals talk to each other. One chemical finds another chemical’s information meaningful.

We doubt it and so are going another direction. We say between non-life and life there’s a major shift in how behavior happens. The evidence suggests that there isn’t information all the way down or if there is it’s so different from what we think of information that we must come up with an explanation for how the shift happens. It’s not like if you just get enough information-sharing atoms together they just become as information-rich as our three pound brains are, or else you’d have to explain why three pound rocks aren’t as smart as us and why boulders and mountains aren’t absolute geniuses.

So for the research team I work with we start with a universe without information and have to explain how information emerges.

And the SCIBIT has to be integrated-seamless from end to end. There’s no skipping the difficult bits. No hand-waiving, no “And then a miracle happens,” and none of these moves that get made often by philosophers and social scientists where they use empty boxes with fancy labels on them to hide the gaps in their thinking.

You get a lot of that. Someone says, “Well how does language happen? I’ll tell you. It’s easy. We’re each born with a Universal Grammar Module-a box in our brain that does the language stuff. Don’t ask me how it works. I hope that answers your question.” Or “How does evolution begin? I’ll tell you. It Emerges. Don’t ask me how. I hope that answers your question.”

There has never been a better time to search for the SCIBIT. Advances in all the sciences give us a lot new ways of looking at things and behavior. Over the coming months I’ll spend a few articles providing a short peek into this work and its interesting implications for our information-rich everyday lives.

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