Am I a Complex Information-Processing Machine?

“…As far as scientists can tell we are pretty much information-processing machines. Incredibly complex information processing machines, ones capable of tasks that no other such machine is capable of, but information-processing machines nonetheless.” From Decoding the Universe, by Charles Seife.

The idea that organisms are machines, and that the human brain, despite its accomplishments, is but an “information-processing machine” is often expressed in naturalism-based writings. While even in the early twentieth century it might have been acceptable for a scientist to seek some special vital principle that separated the living from the non-living, it is quite clear now that no such principle is needed to account for life. Living things are made of the same matter as the nonliving and they are energized by forms of electro-magnetic energy, are structured by genetic information, and behave based on neural information. From the perspective of physics, the difference between an organism and a mechanism is indeed merely one of complexity.

Yet there are other perspectives than physics, and from another perspective there is at least one significant difference: If we ask the question “Where did it come from?” of anything that the average human would call a machine, the answer is it originated in a human idea and was constructed based on a human intention. For all practical purposes, this is the end of the story.

If we ask the same question of anything that we would call an organism, the answer to this question is not at all so clear.  The basic naturalistic answer to this question of the origin of organisms would run something like, it came from a parent organism that came from a very long line of other parent organisms that evolved from something that ultimately was not quite an organism, which in turn evolved from something that was not living at all, raw matter/energy. This matter/energy itself came from an event that we call the Big Bang, and why there was a Big Bang and why it produced the kind of stuff that could evolve into organisms, well that is beyond our current knowing, possibly beyond our ability to know, i.e. a mystery.

The Nature of Organization

We humans spend a good deal of time trying to organize our societies, our environment, our ideas and our lives, yet the concept of organization does not seem to be particularly well studied. There is no branch of science that deals exclusively with the nature of organization; Systems Theory seems to be the closest. This may because the notion of organization is intrinsically holistic and thus not a proper subject for a reductionist science.

Contemplating the difference between how a machine comes into existence and how an organism comes into existence, it would seem that these two may arise from fundamentally different types of organization. That fundamentally different types of organization exist in our world is not a commonplace idea, so what does this mean?

When we commonly think of organization, we might think of something like the way the books in a library are arranged.  If we have a collection of 10,000 books, we want to arrange them in a way that allows us to easily locate a book when we want it.  Putting the books on the shelf completely at random would certainly not allow for the efficient finding of a given book.  Over the years libraries have developed systems for arranging large collections, the two most common in the United States being the Dewey Decimal System and the Library of Congress System.  In this type of organization, we have a plan and then arrange a set of elements, in this case our books, based on that plan.

Similarly, when people construct a building or a machine, they have a blueprint and arrange materials based on the blueprint.  This is what we commonly mean by organization, there is a preexisting plan, and some set of entities get arranged based on that plan.  Typically, the word organization refers to this, but because I wish to distinguish this type of organization from another, I am going to call this type of organization “algorithmic organization,” to distinguish it from another type of organization, which has been called “self-organization.”

The Idea of Self Organization

The notion of self-organization is a rather recent idea in Western Culture.* To the best of my knowledge, the first time it appears in a distinctive form is in the eighteenth century with Adam Smith’s idea of the hidden hand of the markets.  Although Smith did not use the term “self-organization,” this is clearly what Smith’s markets are doing. Bring together people who have a surplus of certain products and a desire for certain other products, and a fairly smooth functioning market can spontaneously form. “Spontaneously” here means that nobody has to plan the market, it develops un-planned. Over time such unplanned markets can grow into highly complex, efficient, organized entities.

Darwinian evolution marks a second appearance of self-organization in Western Culture. Evolution requires no pre-existing plan for life – either for the whole of it, the biosphere, or for the diverse forms of organism that make up the biosphere.  If we go back in Western history before Smith and Darwin, there is an assumption that where we find organization, we must find an organizer.  In the Judeo-Christian view, this organizer was a transcendent God who creates based on his or her intentions – the world in a sense is God’s machine or organism.

An organism, like a machine, is also based on a pre-existing plan, i.e. its genetic code.  Whereas for a machine or other human artifact, the plan is external to the set of things organized, in an organism it is internal to it. So we might say there are two types of algorithmic organization, one where the plan is internal to that which is organized and one where it is external.  (Those with a knowledge of the world’s religions might contemplate the difference between the idea of an immanent and a transcendent diety as related to this distinction.)  Though an individual organism’s structure is based on pre-existing genetic information, this genetic information itself arises spontaneously through the process of evolution.

The Mechanics of Self-Organization

Thinking about Adam Smith’s idea of the self-organizing market, it would seem that the dynamic that generates the organization of the market are various preferences – the preference of some to buy and of others to sell.  That the elements that comprise a self-organizing entity have “preferences” is, I think, a basic principle of self-organization.  Neutral things do not self-organize.  (In General Systems Theory, which uses the term “self-organization” in a more restrictive and reductive sense than I am using it here, the idea of an attractor would roughly correspond to the intentionally poetized term “preference” used here.)

In the self-organization of Darwinian Evolution, the preferences that have driven the complex organization of the biosphere are surviving and reproducing.  This idea has been well documented, so I need say no more.

Galaxies are another example of a self-organizing system.  Galaxies form because matter has a “preference” for other matter, which is to say that all matter exhibits the universal attraction of gravity.  The full dynamic of how the four fundamental forces shape a galaxy is beyond the scope of this piece, so I will only state that the reason we exist at all is dependent upon a rather delicately balanced inter-relationship of these forces of attraction and repulsion (positive and negative charges), which together have brought about the self-organizing of this complexly organized world – this cosmos.  If all matter were neutrally charged neither us or the stars and galaxies would exist.

Who or What Cares?

Machines don’t have preferences.  They don’t care if they are turned on or off, if they work or are broken, if they are used properly or improperly.  Consequently, they don’t self-organize. Organism do care – they have preferences, the very same preferences that involve them in the self-organization generated by evolution.

So in light of this distinction, am I, or any other person, but a complex information processing machine?  As a non-theist, I do not believe I was created out of any being’s intention or serve any being’s purpose.  I am neither God’s nor Nature’s machine.  I come about from a self-organizing process that has its source in the ultimate mystery of existence.  I am free to follow “my” preferences (though more likely these organic preferences gave rise to that complex vector which I call my “self”).

Unlike any machine, I care about the information that I think about (process).  This caring ultimately shapes the way I think.  At times this makes me a rather inefficient processor of information, at times it makes me a more or less creative processor of information.  In either case it would make me a rather poor machine.  In the end, comparing the human brain to a “complex information-processing machine,” may, like any other metaphor, be an informative comparison. But taking it for a statement of fact would be like mistaking the Poet Robert Burn’s love for a red, red rose.

In summary, I would suggest that at the very least the kind of distinctions explored here should cause us to pause before leaping to the conclusion that organisms are just machines and the human brain just a complex, information processing machine.  But then one can make as little or as much of these differences in organism and machine as one prefers.  As beings with preferences, that is our privilege.


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  • The idea of self-organization is much older in China, where it is integral to the Taoist idea of wu-wei, non-action.

1 thought on “Am I a Complex Information-Processing Machine?”

  1. Well-put, Thomas. I think the mechanical metaphor just comes so naturally to us these days that scientists tend to use it, especially when attempting to convey something about the fundamentally impersonal operations of something so personal as the human mind. Nevertheless, the organic metaphor is probably healthier for our culture in the long run.

    Perhaps there are at least *some* machines that self-organize and have “preferences” though – the Internet, for example.


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