Friday, October 19, 2018

Life by Trial and Error

A new look at assumptions
in the Resource-Patterns Model of Life

Can a living thing survive simply by trial and error? In the 1970s this question started my thinking which has grown into the subject of this blog. If “yes”, if life does succeed by trial and error, I could see back then how to start modeling the process of life. I would start by writing computer simulations in which little agents could roam around in a computer-simulated environment. The little agents would represent Living Things in the real world. The brains of these little agents would be computer programs which I would write, programs which tested strategies for survival using trial and error.

I loved computer programming so I started writing those programs. I also started scanning scientific literature to see if anyone else was working in the same track. This project gripped me and, even though I could spend only part time on it, it shaped my quest for further education up until 2013. Then in retirement it became my full-time project.

Only last month did I realize what I had done 40 years ago. In my eagerness to start modeling I had jumped right over the question in the opening sentence above. I had assumed “yes”:

Life can find ways to succeed simply through trial and error.

So now I had better take stock. In this post I will expand upon the consequences of that assumption.

Reasoning to Further Assumptions

Before I jumped in I believed that I could probably succeed in modeling life by trial and error. There is an obvious strategy: A Living Thing (LT) must try a variety of acts, remember the success or failure of each act, and use this memory in choosing future acts. See the figure below.

Information Processing in a Living Thing

But notice that this strategy for information processing within a LT can work only if the environment surrounding a LT offers a possibility of survival. The rewards offered by the environment to a LT which can learn must outweigh the costs such a LT must incur from errors as it experiments with how to behave in this environment. That is, the environment must contain sufficient resources, and the resources must be distributed in a way which may be learned by at least some of the LTs trying to survive there. The resources must be distributed in patterns which may be exploited by the LTs.

So we must have:
  • Living Things with memory;
  • environmental Resource Patterns (RPs) which may be learned.

But, as we advance toward creating a working model it becomes clear that we can specify more attributes of our Living Things. In addition to memory, our model of LTs must have:
  • senses to pick up clues from the environment;
  • ways of acting to harvest from the environment;
  • an internal store of essential resources sufficient to carry a LT through a time of learning which must include some failures;
  • ongoing consumption of resources which have been imbibed, since a LT needs fuel to continue living;
  • a bias to favor choosing acts which will probably lead to success in discovering and exploiting new RPs;
  • a bias to do some act — even any random act — before too much time has passed, to avoid starvation which must result from prolonged idleness.
It was through reasoning like this that I arrived at the basic assumptions for this model of life. I have listed these assumptions in my presentations of the model (for example see Section 1.4).

One feature of this model stands out when it is compared with other models: In this model Resource Patterns are of paramount importance. This observation helped me decide the name which I have used for this model, being the Resource-Patterns Model of Life (RPM). But I may change the name after some more reflection. Perhaps the name should reflect the prior underlying assumption which I have just noticed, the assumption of life by trial and error.

Comparison with Darwinian Evolution

This Resource-Patterns Model of Life shares some important similarities with Darwinian evolution. In both theories there is trial and error. In each theory there is (1) a mechanism for generating unpredictable variants and (2) an environment which passes judgement on those variants.

But the two theories differ in the range of variants which may be tested within the theory. In Darwinian evolution these variants are limited, as I understand it, to biological traits or species. Whereas in RPM we may also test variants in:
  • single acts of behavior by a LT;
  • adoption of bias by a group of LTs;
  • transfer of life from one celestial body to another.
RPM, we see, is a more general theory than Darwinian evolution. Some of this generality comes from RPM’s application to any size of LT.

RPM also provides a platform to model a set of LTs which cooperate to form one higher-level LT. In many circumstances this higher-level LT will be capable of exploiting a RP which none of the smaller, constituent LTs would have been able to exploit alone. In this case the learning which goes on among the constituents will pertain to how they interact with one another. RPM then becomes a platform for modeling development of language, social instincts, and exploitation of one group by another.

In RPM the failure of a choice does not necessarily lead to death or failure-to-reproduce of the LT making that bad choice. A failure of choice leads, rather, to memory of the error, so such a choice may be avoided in similar future circumstances.

RPM may be seen to encompass Darwinian evolution by saying that the inheritance of attributes in Darwinian evolution is a way that a species (seen as a single LT) remembers what it has learned. Darwinian evolution is one possible mechanism of learning bodily design. Whereas RPM opens study of a broader set of ways to learn.

Basis in Thermodynamics

Living Things must eat if they are to survive. This will seem obvious to most readers without further scientific justification. But, for readers who want deeper science, the necessity to eat can be explained by the second law of thermodynamics. The second law asserts that in every process of energy exchange some useful energy is lost as heat. This means that no machine or LT can carry on forever with its initial store of energy.

A car must occasionally be given gas. A LT must occasionally be given more food energy. But notice the difference between machines and LTs. While cars have us LTs to fill their gas tanks, we LTs have only ourselves to get more energy. How do we LTs manage to get new supplies of food and energy for ourselves? This puzzle, presented to me by one of my mentors during 1973–74, made me think that maybe trial and error could suffice in a system which could remember. As such the second law of thermodynamics underlies my whole RPM project, and the second law is one level deeper than my assumption described above that life can work by trial and error.

Assumptions Might Be Wrong

In quick review, the assumptions in RPM include:
  • Every LT must eat (from the second law of thermodynamics).
  • A LT might succeed if it has capacity to learn by trial and error.
  • The environment must contain appropriate RPs.
  • A LT must have physical abilities to sense and act (in addition to the information-processing capacity to learn).

I admit that one or more of these assumptions might prove wrong one day. Notably, advances in quantum physics might overturn my views of energy and order.

As an engineer I am willing to believe the second law of thermodynamics; it works after all in our human experience to date. But as a philosopher I remain skeptical about the final verdict on the second law. The second law seems vulnerable because it stands upon concepts like energy, matter, time, and information — concepts which may be scrambled by a new and deeper cosmology.

In RPM I build upon the assumptions outlined above to reach a number of socially important conclusions — as you may see elsewhere in this blog (I suggest you start with the Statement of Purpose page). While I allow that the entire structure of RPM is vulnerable, I believe nonetheless that RPM should prove valuable for many of our present purposes.

Monday, July 23, 2018

Life vs. the Second Law of Thermodynamics

Editorial note: I wrote the paragraph below in my ongoing effort to finish the draft of Chapter 6, about philosophical implications, in my book outline. The paragraph makes a point better than I've made it before. As such I offer the paragraph here as a standalone post.

As we have reviewed before, the 2nd law of thermodynamics challenges us who would explain the existence of Living Things (LTs). The Resource-Patterns Model of Life (RPM) meets this challenge with a theory which offers to explain the increase in material order in some locations (the bodies of LTs), with localized gating or control of the down-gradient flow of matter. Some order is dissipated overall in each interaction (as required by the 2nd law) but properly chosen interventions within the overall flow can create, for a time, locales of increased order. The set of choices required to make these properly chosen interventions becomes the challenge which life must meet. Since we LTs exist, we may infer that life does indeed overcome the challenge. It is a challenge of information processing, a challenge of “mind”. RPM provides a platform in which we observe and experiment with this information processing.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

The promise of inter-level learning

I am in the midst of rewriting a draft of Chapter 6, which is about the philosophical implications in the Resource-Patterns Model of Life (RPM). As such I come up against an assumption which I have been making — about of the benefits of inter-level learning. But what, you probably ask, is inter-level learning?

The meaning of life in levels

To begin, you need to understand “level”. You need to understand what I mean by the assumption that life grows in levels. We humans know that our bodies are composed of cells. Also, biologists tell us that long ago (perhaps one billion years) single cellular organisms were the fanciest forms of life on Earth. So single cells organized somehow to form larger organisms, larger Living Things (LTs). We say that life grew from the level of single cells to the level of multicellular organisms such as ourselves.

But there are more levels than those two we have just mentioned. If we look down the scale, we see that the larger single-cellular organisms (called eukaryotic cells) seem to have grown from many still-smaller and more primitive organisms (called prokaryotic cells) like bacteria and the organelles found in eukaryotic cells.

Since we humans start our exploration on the level where we live, we can think of ourselves as level N. Then we think of single-cellular organisms as level N-1. And we can think of tiny bacteria as level N-2.

Now suppose we try to look up the scale of levels, toward level N+1. Notice our human organizations: families, businesses, churches, and states. We make these organizations as we attempt to find advantageous cooperation among ourselves. Our strong social instincts show, I claim, that we strive continuously for better organizations. Most of our attempts at organization fail. But sometimes we succeed, and when we do succeed those successes are copied and multiplied (Darwinism at the level of memes).

I would not say we had reached level N+1 until one of the organizations which we create possesses all the properties of a single autonomous Living Thing. Those properties, as you may recall from Section 1.4.2, include: senses, memory, resource consumption, calculating capacity (ability to decide), and ability to act.

So I assume that life has grown in levels in the past, and continues to grow now toward the next higher level as we humans organize our affairs. This is what I mean by the assumption that life grows in levels.

The meaning of inter-level learning

Sometime after we have become accustomed to this life-in-levels view, our attention may naturally focus upon the growth from one level to the next. The levels are interesting and worth recognizing, but the really interesting part for us scientists must be the growth from one level to the next.

Now, to introduce inter-level learning, consider these two questions:
  1. Under what process, what set of steps, did single cells become organized to produce a multi-cellular organism such as a human with senses, memory, calculating capacity, abilities to act, etc.? That is, how did life grow from level N-1 to level N ?
  2. How might we humans better coordinate our activities to achieve successful families, businesses and states, organizations which help their constituent members to live better? That is, how might life grow from level N toward level N+1 ?
The idea of inter-level learning suggests that the answers to these two questions may have similarities. If we knew all the answers to question 1, above, some of those answers may help us to find answers to question 2. Similarly, if we have learned some of the answers to question 2 from our direct experience as humans in organizations, then that knowledge might help biologists who are trying to grasp how single cells took the first steps of coordination in groups.

My proposal, that inter-level learning may be possible, assumes that there is some structural similarity between the challenges faced by LTs on two different levels in the hierarchy of life. I may be overreaching in this assumption, since I have not started to seek empirical evidence in support of the assumption. But, in support of this assumption, we may notice that the general assumptions of RPM (See Section 1.4) apply at any and all levels, while making no distinctions between levels. So, within the model suggested by those general assumptions of RPM, nothing suggests that the challenges faced by LTs on one level must be different from the challenges faced by LTs at a different level.

But neither, of course, do those general assumptions imply that that the challenges must be the same at two different levels. The Resource Patterns (RPs) which beckon growth above any given level may demand development of organizational capabilities which differ from the organizational capabilities needed on a different level. Also differing from level to level will probably be the capabilities of the LTs available to start organizing upward from that level. For example, probably we humans bring to our efforts of organization a different set of inherent capabilities than eukaryotic cells brought to their challenges of organization; but this assertion needs support from knowledge we do not yet have about the abilities of eukaryotic cells.

One example of inter-level learning

In the draft of Chapter 5 we ran through a thought experiment in which tabletop critters developed a line of exchange between large deposits of the two essential resources, water and sugar. This thriving organization of critters could exist without any of the critters knowing about the RP. No critter knows where its trading partners get the excess of the resource which those trading partners are willing to trade away. Each critter, in order to find what it needs, has learned only how to behave and trade locally. Yet the sum of all this local knowledge adds up, in the perceptions of us human overseers, to a thriving trade route.

If you accept those conclusions of that thought experiment which starts from the level of critters, then you may join me in supposing that a similar condition can exist on the level of humans. We individual humans, it seems to me, are for the most part incapable of comprehending why we live so much better now than our ancestors lived 5,000 years ago. The perhaps surprising idea that we humans could stumble into great wealth without any of us comprehending how or why it happened gains support, I claim, from inter-level learning, from the thought experiment in Chapter 5.

Concluding reflections

Now I have completed my description of inter-level learning. In what follows you may find a few reflections on the subject.

On the concept of Life in Levels

Our ability to perceive that life has grown in levels depends, of course, upon our definition of a living thing. According to that definition we perceive a living thing when we see an organization which has all the properties of living things which we listed in our initial assumptions.

We can find many examples of organizations which are not living things because these organizations lack one or more of those properties which taken together define a living thing. I would say that all of the organizations which we humans have built to date fall into this lesser category. A state, for example, can sense, remember, decide, and act in many ways, but cannot reproduce itself with predictable success. A corporation which operates a chain of fast-food restaurants, for another example, can reproduce in part by starting up a new restaurant location. But such a corporation probably lacks the ability to reproduce itself entirely, as a whole new corporate structure.

If we assume that life will eventually continue its growth from our human level N to a higher level N+1, I guess that we humans have barely started that growth; we have progressed only a small fraction of the way from level N to level N+1. To support this guess, notice that the complexity which we can see in the organizations created by us humans remains triflingly small when compared with the complexity we can see in a human body composed of organized cells. On that scale of complexity, it would seem that we humans have only started our long journey toward level N+1.

It is worth noting, when we consider the vast complexity of a human body, that most of the cells in a human body carry the same DNA, the same set of instructions. I find it frightening to consider the analogous situation in an organization composed of humans. In that analog humans would lose much of the individuality which we now enjoy. The humans would all have the same set of rules coded into their minds, or something like that.

On intelligence

When we consider eukaryotic cells, in light of their accomplishment in having organized themselves to make us humans, we humans may suspect that eukaryotic cells possess a considerable measure of intelligence. Indeed since, as just noted above, eukaryotic cells seem to have accomplished a much greater feat of organization than we humans have yet accomplished, perhaps we should humbly conclude that eukaryotic cells are more intelligent than we humans. But how could we know? I believe we have no good definition of “intelligence”. Experts on intelligence, I have heard it said, inform us that intelligence is what is measured by an intelligence test. In other words, they don’t really know what intelligence is.

Our stupidity about what we mean by “intelligence” is confirmed, I believe, by the assertions made in recent centuries by some of our fellow “intelligent” humans, assertions that intelligence is a uniquely human trait. So other mammals lack intelligence in this view. But experiments with many animals and even, I have heard, with cells, have shown increasingly that those others possess some of what we now recognize as intelligence.

If we were to display some intelligence of our own, in a quest for evidence to prove that others lack intelligence, I think we would have to start that quest by learning the language of the others which we propose to test, so that we could quiz them in a language which is meaningful to them. I believe we humans are now making our first clumsy steps in that direction, but we have far to go.

As such I will claim that we have no way of knowing just how intelligent a single cell may be, and we are not qualified to assert that cells could not have been intelligent enough to build us multicellular organisms.

Continuing this line of thinking, we humans should admit that we are capable of seeing only a few of the levels of life assumed by RPM. In addition to our own level we can see perhaps two levels below and one level above. But we certainly are not capable of seeing way to the bottom of the levels which RPM suggests may exist.

When advances in our instrumentation bring us evidence of new levels of smallness, evidence of new entities smaller than any previously known to us, we are not yet in any position to start quizzing the intelligence of those entities. First we would have to learn their language, if they have one. So it seems possible to me that the levels of life reach down into quantum mechanical realms. Although I will make no such claim, note that particles at the subatomic level exhibit two of the properties we attribute to LTs, being abilities to act and to act non-deterministically.

Having admitted our poor ability to see more than a few steps down the scale of life-in-levels, we should also admit poor ability to see up the scale. To my perception it usually seems that we humans are at the top. But how much trust should we place in such a perception? One of the lessons which I hope will be taught by RPM is that perceptions grow to serve particular orders as encouraged by the existence of real, or at least plausibly proposed, RPs. Other perceptions, beyond those so needed, present no justification for their growth in RPM.  So my perceptions, as a human, serve my development and survival at the human level. Surely, as should be suggested by the history of the development of science, I am surrounded by orders which I am not capable of perceiving at my stage of development. Higher levels of life may exist beyond my ability to perceive.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Consciousness: an Explanation and Definition

What is consciousness? Many have weighed in on this question. Recently I discovered a possible explanation for the rudiments of consciousness. That explanation, presented here, differs from others I have seen (notes below).

You will need to understand the context, the kind of being in which this “consciousness” occurs. Living Things (LTs) are assumed to exist in a general model of life which I am describing. You do not need to know much about that general model (which I call the Resource Patterns Model of Life) except to understand the requirements imposed upon Living Things, and the capabilities given to them. Living Things:
  • must consume some resources in order to survive.
  • have a chance to survive by finding and exploiting resources in their environment.
  • have one or more senses, bringing in information about their surroundings.
  • can act by choosing, in each moment of time, one of the acts possible for them as given by their makeup.
As such, I believe you will agree, a Living Thing must have some sort of internal information processing system. This information processing system uses inputs (senses), along with any wisdom or intelligence it can muster, to produce outputs (its choices of how to act in each moment).

Now we step beyond this brief outline of inputs and outputs to propose a somewhat more detailed model of the process inside one of these information processing systems. See Figure 1. Notice this summarizes activity in only one moment of time. The process repeats itself. After finishing the final box on the right it returns to the first box on the left, again and again throughout the life of the Living Thing.

Figure 1. Information processing in a moment of life of a LT. Does Box 5 suggest our experience of consciousness?
Except for the following points, I will hope Figure 1 explains itself to you.
  • Boxes 2 and 4 are each drawn in the shape of a drum. This shape is borrowed from computer notation where it signifies a database in which data can be stored and searched. Each of these databases may be empty, at the start of life anyhow, but may contain a large amount of data, an amount which could grow throughout a lifetime.
  • After Box 1, when the immediate situation is sensed, but before box 5, when the LT decides what to do, the LT may remember (Box 2) previous experience which resembles this current situation and it may categorize (Box 4) this situation as governed by rules which either suggest or require particular responses. But the line directly from Box 1 to Box 5 allows for quick reflexive decision when there is no time to be careful.
  • About Box 3, the process shown in the middle, this works on a slower schedule. It is not moment-by-moment, in step with the other boxes in the chart, but occurs over longer times. Gradually, with “intelligence” which I will not pretend to describe here, a LT may reflect upon its experience and decide to behave differently in the future.
  • In Box 5, I say the LT decides what act to “attempt” rather than to “perform” because such a decision may fail. Between Box 5 and Box 6 the real world acts. For example a decision in Box 5 to step forward may be blocked by sudden insertion of some physical barrier, an unexpected event to the Living Thing, .
  • In Box 5 a LT may decide to wait, to make no outward move in the current moment.

The activity in Box 5 includes the building blocks of primitive consciousness, I propose. What is consciousness, in its simple form, if not these four concurrent processes?
  1. a current sensing of inputs (input from Box 1)
  2. recognition of familiar objects and processes (input from Box 2)
  3. awareness of rules, of “shoulds” (input from Box 3),
  4. decision about how to act. That is choice of an act from among a known set of possible acts (output from Box 5).
This proposal has developed, effectively, a definition of basic consciousness, being the concurrence of the four processes listed. In my exposure to date most scholars who address the subject of consciousness seem to proceed without seriously attempting a definition. It is perhaps very hard to define unless we approach the question from this other direction, as I here propose.

Once again, notice the context of a Living Thing. The context makes this description of consciousness stand apart from other descriptions I have seen. A Living Thing must consume resources in order to survive. A Living Thing may be able to accomplish this consumption by responding to its circumstances with appropriate choices of actions. A basis of consciousness, as defined above, almost falls out from this context, from the information processing necessary between senses and choices.

Notes: Other sources on consciousness

  1. Daniel Dennett, Consciousness Explained, (1991). I read this book over 20 years ago and remember only a few of its contributions. But I do not think I owe credit to Dennett for the insight expressed above.
  2. Interviews with several scholars conducted by Robert Lawrence Kuhn on the YouTube channel Closer To Truth. Search that channel on consciousness. So far I have watched a handful of these (as of January 2018). My view shares much with the view expressed by Rupert Sheldrake.
  3. Other YouTubes by scholars on consciousness. My watch history shows about 15 such views during the past two years. Feel free to ask if you need more specifics. Again, I recall none to which I believe I owe credit for the insight above.
  4. [added July 17, 2019]  John Searle speaking at CRASSH, Cambridge, UK, 22 May 2014, “Consciousness as a Problem in Philosophy and Neurobiology”, YouTube.