Sunday, November 10, 2013

Dialog with Howard Pattee - Part 4 - "Property Dualism"

"Property Dualism" based on Wikipedia
Howard Pattee's 2008 paper "Physical and functional conditions for symbols, codes, and languages" is available for download here. I recently re-read it in detail and engaged in what was for me an interesting and rewarding email dialog with Howard.

This is the fourth in a planned multi-part posting that includes portions of our email dialog.

Click for Part 1 - His 2008 Paper

Click for Part 2 - Determinism vs Probability

Click for Part 3 - QM and Chess Analogy

Click for Part 5 - Flatland and Higher Dimensions


By the time I wrote my Oct 19th email (excerpted below), I had carefully re-read the remaining sections of Howard's paper.

For Blog readers who have not yet read the original paper (and to remind those who have), and to provide context regarding Howard's personal journey from the "material school" to what is now called "biosemiotics", here is the first part of Section 4 of his paper:
4. Early personal history of the problem
There are more requirements for a polymer sequence to function as a symbol besides energy degeneracy, coding rules, and the ability to fold into a specific catalyst. The entire system must be able to replicate and to persist by heritable variation and natural selection. It was only after studying the nature of hierarchical organization, von Neumann’s logic of self-replication, and the measurement problem that I began to understand the essential semiotic requirement that symbols and codes must be part of a language to allow open-ended evolution. To explain this I need to recount a brief personal history.
The symbol-matter problem first arose in my thinking about the origin of life. I have to agree with Laotsu that symbols emerged from the lawful material universe at the origin of life. From an evolutionary point of view I do not see how one can support the claim that semiotic principles are on the same footing as physical laws. Symbols and life are coextensive concepts and their occurrence in the universe is cosmically very recent and exceedingly sparse, at least for life as we know it.
Before the discoveries of the genetic code and protein synthesis, physicists often viewed life as a basic challenge to natural laws, and many expressed doubt that life is reducible to physical laws. Bohr (1933), Delbrück, and Schrödinger are prominent examples of those whose thoughts on the subject are in the literature (e.g., McKaughan, 2005). Like many other physicists at the time, I was challenged by the central question raised by in Schrödinger’s "What Is Life?” He asks how the gene, “that miniature code,” could reliably control the development of such highly complicated organisms. In the 1960s there were two schools of thought; one school focused on the molecular structure and biochemistry of life, the other school (that should now be recognized as “biosemiotics”) focused on the informational aspects of genetic control (e.g., Beadle, 1963; Kendrew 1968; Stent, 1968; Delbrück, 1970).
I first belonged to the material school because my physics research was on x-ray microscopic and micro diffraction techniques for studying cell structure. Because the origin of life certainly requires understanding the origin of higher levels of organization, I also began to study hierarchical structures, specifically how new levels of organization are distinguished and whether higher levels of structure were objective, a descriptive convenience, or an epistemic necessity. …

The following excerpts are from an email from Ira Glickstein to Howard Pattee (Oct 19, 12:30 AM) and his reply (Oct 19, 10:58 AM).

NOTE: In his email, Howard includes the following links to Wikipedia that, for some reason, I could not get to be clickable within the quoted excerpts below, so here they are in clickable form: mind-matter problem, information-entropy distinction, and property dualist.

[IRA GLICKSTEIN] Howard, I just completed reading the remaining sections of your paper in detail. Of course I am always impressed by your writing style and calm, non-threatening attitude of presentation. I found it quite satisfying to once again spend time reading and trying to understand your reasoning processes, and I totally respect your valuable contributions to our understanding of hierarchy theory, complexity, the semiotic cut, biosemiotics, semiotic closure, and so on. So, please take the following in a positive sense as I intend it.

[HOWARD PATTEE] Ira, Here are my comments stimulated by your thoughtful discussion of my paper.

[IG] You contrast two schools of thought in the 1960s, one (with you, initially, as a member) that focused on the "material" aspects of molecular structure and biochemistry of life, while the second focused on the "informational" aspects of genetic control, that you note would now be called "biosemiotics".

You also ask whether hierarchical descriptions of complex systems are simply accepted and employed by humans because they make it easier to describe and understand these complex systems, or whether these levels actually exist. You, I am fairly sure, would now say the correct focus is on the informational aspects and that the hierarchical levels and structures are real and actually exist.

[HP] No, I am not focusing only on informational aspects. All information must have a physical embodiment. Symbols vehicles are matter or energy. I'm focusing on the symbol-matter problem. I consider the symbol-matter problem the primitive and simpler case of the philosophers' mind-matter problem. In physics it is related to the information-entropy distinction. I am a property dualist, or what I call an epistemic dualist; I am not a Cartesian substance dualist which is what you are worried about.

[IG] I would like to join your view, but I am worried that it veers too close to the Scilla and Charybdis of dualism - the idea that material and "spirit" are separate and distinct (and only interact thru the agency of God). You are careful to say you are not a dualist and that everything is material. The "mind" is not separate from the physical brain, and so on. But, is that a tenable position? Useful it definitely is, but is it in any sense to be literally interpreted?

[HP] Yes, I expect to be interpreted literally, which by definition means "following the words of the original very closely and exactly." I am a property dualist (which is not close to substance dualism) and I state that all symbols and symbolic activity require a material basis, which includes all forms of matter and energy, known and unknown.

[IG] At IBM and Lockheed Martin I conceptualized and designed complex avionics systems and software. On my diagrams, I had a hierarchy of software modules inside a number of physical computers. … Now, if you and I examined an actual aircraft, we would find the avionics as a number of metal boxes, connected by wires. … We would be hard-pressed to find that hierarchy of software modules and systems and subsystems I used to conceptualize and design that avionics system! What happened to my neat and easily conceptualized hierarchy of systems, subsystems, components and modules? It vanished into thin air like your fist when you unclench it to shake hands.

The above reasoning seems to me to support the idea that the actual avionics system is merely "material" and all the "informational" and "hierarchical" stuff is simply the way we humans have come up with to make it more convenient for us to conceptualize, design, and construct a complex system.

[HP] It is not "merely material." It is carefully selected matter precisely assembled only by virtue of the information in your brain (which is also a material structure). This design and construction information is certainly not just a "convenience." It is an absolute necessity. The genetic information performs the same design and construction information for the organism.

[IG] Even the computer program, when loaded into the computer as a string of electrical pulses, causes millions of semiconductor junctions to physically flip to different electrical states (that we call "1" and "0"). It is all physical!

[HP] Of course as a monist it must be all physical. To a physicalist, existence is all physical. But you have to understand what "physical" really entails. The laws of physics are moot without the information acquired from measurement of initial conditions and boundary conditions. Information structures are boundary conditions that control the lawful dynamics.

[IG] Yes, the specific order of those computer bits does control the displayed symbols and does make the radar antenna scan back and forth and so on, and (if it is the flight control subsystem) actually control the engine and airfoils and make the plane fly, but all the "information" is in the "minds" of us human engineers and programmers. Oh, and our "minds" (as you agree) are merely patterns of neuronal connections among the physical neuronal cell of our brains! So, where is the "information"? The "hierarchy"?

[HP] As I said, the computer code and the neural structure are not "merely" anything. They form the informational boundary conditions that control the dynamics.

[IG] Don't tell me the information and hierarchy is on my diagrams and computer program listings.

[HP] That is exactly what I'm telling you. The hierarchical levels are obvious in computer design, and not so obvious in brains. Without your information there would be no computers, and without genetic information there would be no brains.

[IG] Nope, all those are merely paper with ink marks, or computer chips with various voltages on millions of tiny structures, and displays with complex dots of light. None of this is "information" until a human looks at it, and, even then, all it is is patterns and weights of neural connections. OY!

[HP] Four billion years before humans looked at genes, their information was instructing matter how to replicate and evolve into humans.

[IG] As I write the above I feel a sense of loss. I never really believed in God as an intelligence external to the Universe, but I can imagine how a true believer might feel a big loss if we reasoned him or her out of the "God delusion". Is the "mind" a delusion if we really believe it exists? But you say you are a materialist, and I believe you are.

[HP] What do you think you have lost? Eddington: "There is nothing to prevent the assemblage of atoms constituting a brain from being of itself a thinking object [with 'free will'] in virtue of that nature which physics [the laws] leaves undetermined and undeterminable." Most of the structures in the universe are not determined by laws, but by chance (Gell-Mann's "frozen accidents").

[IG] … the "mind" is a word we use to conveniently describe something that is too complex to describe in full neuronal detail. Just as "God" is a word we use to describe the aspects of the Universe that we will never understand in full detail - the wonderful Laws of Nature, the Universal substance we can only perceive as interchangeable "energy" and "matter", of "waves" and "particles", of "random" and "deterministic", of "infinite" and "finite", of "continuous" and "discrete". … but I am optimistic:

“My candle burns at both ends / It will not last the night; / But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends - / It gives a lovely light.” Edna St. Vincent Millay, "A Few Figs from Thistles", 1920

Love from Ira (who did not expect this tome to keep me up past midnight)

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