Codes vs. machines

David Berlinski points out how odd it is to look back at some of the 19th century demands for mechanical accounts of complex living structures, since we now expect the explanation to be coded or executed from instructions. At first this seems to change nothing at all, since it seems like reading a code can be just as mechanical as the action of a gear-box or the cotton gin. How is, say, an old IBM computer responding to a punch-card hole any different than a crankshaft responding to the force of the piston?

But an information system requires an explanation for why parts with no determinate relation to one another nevertheless have that relation in fact. You don’t need to specify that a eight-tooth gear will cause an 80-tooth gear to have 10% of its RPM’s, but you do need to specify that “hole in punch card here” will cause a device to “turn on electricity in this circuit for 15 milliseconds”. One could have had “hole in punch card here” mean absolutely anything that the machine could do, and could have made the thing turn on for 15 milliseconds by any signal whatsoever. The arbitrariness of the relation between the cause and effect in a code requires an explanation beyond the mere interaction of the parts involved.  Briefly, an information system adds to a mechanical system the idea of the causes of themselves being entirely indeterminate to their effects. In fact, shifting to a code-based account of nature is a way of abandoning and critiquing the search for mechanical causes.

In fact, we need to do more than just account for why one thing will mean/cause another, since one of the settled points in philosophy of language is that symbols take their meaning not just from arbitrary stipulation but from a community of symbol users. Information systems arise not just from mind and will, but from a community of speakers.

While it might seem natural to spin this into a cosmological argument, this is not the best interpretation. I think the codes we’re finding in nature are more dialectical entities, that is, realities that come from mixing mind with the cosmos in order to make it more intelligible. In fact, I think we were doing this even when we saw nature as mechanical, since the mechanical can only exist as an instrument of the living. There is a subjective and personal element behind the actions of nature, but in meditating on information and code the subject we find is ourselves. The basis of this possibility is what I was arguing a few posts ago: there is no ontological division between nature and art, which allows us to truly understand nature as such by understanding it as an artifact.

1 Comment

  1. theofloinn said,

    April 5, 2015 at 5:57 pm

    Coding may be an model for formal causes.

    The historian John Lukacs wrote often about “the intrusion of mind into matter.”.


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