The Essence of Information

Published on by Catherine Toulsaly

Complex, Nelleke Beltjens

Complex, Nelleke Beltjens

Do processes like fractals mirror each other from one end of the Universe to the other? Stars springing out of darkness is a metaphor for ourselves. Complexity tells the continued story of a behavioral trait that spreads from the Big Bang to the fabric of our societies. It appears, though, impossible to predict based on its main build blocks alone the observable clustering properties of the Universe. How small variations on the set of cosmological parameters could produce a more complex evolution of large-scale structures remains one of the main issues for astrophysicists like Franco Vazza.


…any physical phenomenon can be regarded as an information processing device, whose evolution produces a sequence of outputs (e.g. energy states), which can be analysed through symbolic analysis.

Franco Vazza


For scientists like Julian Barbour, stars are fossil-like objects. For me, they are living things. I cannot look at the night sky and think it is an archeological field. Barbour asserts that entropy is better defined as a measure of complexity rather than of disorder. One does not exclude the other, I suppose. “This is perfectly true at the microscopic level,” explains Barbour, but not at macroscopic scale. Complexity appears messy, chaotic at first as an evolving system enters a new threshold. Its complexity grows inwards and outwards. 


Guided by a thread of hope on the outside and a sense of harmony within, I wrestle with the words ‘darkness’ and ‘complexity’ as if they ought to say something more. Darkness is sadness that’s slowly sinking in once anger and uproar have settled. “Violence, ” writes Martin Luther King, “is the antithesis of creativity and wholeness.” We are blind moles weighted down by the burden of ignorance, hoping to see in the mirror that stands at the Janus point the reflection of our wings. Within darkness and complexity lies the essence of information, a path to differentiate all aspects of reality.


I had a dream, which was not all a dream.

The bright sun was extinguish'd, and the stars

Did wander darkling in the eternal space,

Rayless, and pathless, and the icy earth

Swung blind and blackening in the moonless air;

Morn came and went—and came, and brought no day,

And men forgot their passions in the dread

Of this their desolation; and all hearts

Were chill'd into a selfish prayer for light:

And they did live by watchfires—and the thrones,

The palaces of crowned kings—the huts,

The habitations of all things which dwell,

Were burnt for beacons; cities were consum'd,

And men were gather'd round their blazing homes

To look once more into each other's face;

Happy were those who dwelt within the eye

Of the volcanos, and their mountain-torch:

A fearful hope was all the world contain'd;

Forests were set on fire—but hour by hour

They fell and faded—and the crackling trunks

Extinguish'd with a crash—and all was black.

The brows of men by the despairing light

Wore an unearthly aspect, as by fits

The flashes fell upon them; some lay down

And hid their eyes and wept; and some did rest

Their chins upon their clenched hands, and smil'd;

And others hurried to and fro, and fed

Their funeral piles with fuel, and look'd up

With mad disquietude on the dull sky,

The pall of a past world; and then again

With curses cast them down upon the dust,

And gnash'd their teeth and howl'd: the wild birds shriek'd

And, terrified, did flutter on the ground,

And flap their useless wings; the wildest brutes

Came tame and tremulous; and vipers crawl'd

And twin'd themselves among the multitude,

Hissing, but stingless—they were slain for food.

And War, which for a moment was no more,

Did glut himself again: a meal was bought

With blood, and each sate sullenly apart

Gorging himself in gloom: no love was left;

All earth was but one thought—and that was death

Immediate and inglorious; and the pang

Of famine fed upon all entrails—men

Died, and their bones were tombless as their flesh;

The meagre by the meagre were devour'd,

Even dogs assail'd their masters, all save one,

And he was faithful to a corse, and kept

The birds and beasts and famish'd men at bay,

Till hunger clung them, or the dropping dead

Lur'd their lank jaws; himself sought out no food,

But with a piteous and perpetual moan,

And a quick desolate cry, licking the hand

Which answer'd not with a caress—he died.

The crowd was famish'd by degrees; but two

Of an enormous city did survive,

And they were enemies: they met beside

The dying embers of an altar-place

Where had been heap'd a mass of holy things

For an unholy usage; they rak'd up,

And shivering scrap'd with their cold skeleton hands

The feeble ashes, and their feeble breath

Blew for a little life, and made a flame

Which was a mockery; then they lifted up

Their eyes as it grew lighter, and beheld

Each other's aspects—saw, and shriek'd, and died—

Even of their mutual hideousness they died,

Unknowing who he was upon whose brow

Famine had written Fiend. The world was void,

The populous and the powerful was a lump,

Seasonless, herbless, treeless, manless, lifeless—

A lump of death—a chaos of hard clay.

The rivers, lakes and ocean all stood still,

And nothing stirr'd within their silent depths;

Ships sailorless lay rotting on the sea,

And their masts fell down piecemeal: as they dropp'd

They slept on the abyss without a surge—

The waves were dead; the tides were in their grave,

The moon, their mistress, had expir'd before;

The winds were wither'd in the stagnant air,

And the clouds perish'd; Darkness had no need

Of aid from them—She was the Universe.


Lord Byron, Darkness


Words are chained to each other. Concepts circle in my head. I wonder whether they intersect. The infinite game of space, time, and gravity has formed the first circle. The past discussion on freedom, existence, and essence has created another. A post on agency, sentience, and consciousness has added a third. Since Rudolf Claudius invented the word entropy so as to be as similar as possible to the word energy, I imagine a fourth circle that naturally brings together entropy, energy, and information. We see the Universe as “a succession of snapshots that you might take on a walk through the countryside,” while the quantum Universe forces you to consider “somehow all at once,” writes Barbour. In a way, the table below is the first step I take to rearrange snapshots in my head.















Information is a bottomless ocean where it is easy to get lost. On the one hand, we are swept away by currents; on the other, we can’t discriminate between all the many sources. We know too well that it is above all important to learn to think, reflect, and reason. This is what Benjamin Franklin worked on at an early age with the reading of two fundamental works: The essay on human understanding by John Locke and The logic, or, art of thinking by Antoine Arnaud and Pierre Nicole. 


More than 300 years later, it is even harder to find our way through the labyrinth of ideas and concepts. The information philosopher Kun Wu (邬焜) divides information into three different forms: information-in-itself, information-for-itself, and regenerated information. Concepts belong to the third category. Not only do circles intersect with each other, but they collapse into three new interconnected groups that help reconfigure in my head bridges between concepts.


Simplicity is not a winding road,
nor else a bridge across a river's span;
the days do tell of mysteries to decode,
which you and I must tackle, as we can.

The winter snow's no longer pure and white,
and season's, too, are strikers to the core:
sometimes it seems our world is one of spite,
we're afterthoughts in life and little more.

Complexity's an awkward kind of coil,
and narrow minds will often miss the gap;
the fool will fail, himself become the foil,
his flexuous foot that often springs the trap.

Richard Doiron, Simplicity is not a winding road


I have reflected in the past on the Universe’s expanding waist fed by microscopic degrees of freedom. They are spatiotemporal parameters that emerge into existence. If all other arrows could be derived from one arrow of expansion, writes Dieter Zeh, a physical observer would experience the direction of expansion as her future — which cannot be consistently remembered in contrast to part of her past. Degrees of freedom imply an element of free will. Could they be explained by process of give-and-take with the other side of the Janus Point?


Entropy describes the overall degree of energy spreading for the benefit of the Universe's own maintenance and its capacity to grow in an unexpectedly similar and/or differentiated manner. It measures its own agency. Could it be determined to be at “the same magnitude” consistently? While the uniformity of the Universe “at this scale in its current epoch is undoubtedly a significant fact,” writes Barbour, if one looks on smaller scales, the matter distribution in the Universe is “very far from uniform.”


Whether it be matter, consciousness, or information, there is, I feel, existence only in time. Time, writes John Peter Arendzen, is but the measure of phenomena, and by abstracting from phenomena, time ceases to be. Only then space and darkness remain. Because darkness is conceived as the “fluid filling the vessel” of space, it too could be abstracted. Only Void therefore remains. 


The difficulty with information comes from our inability to conceive that it exists on its own. In-itself information stresses that there is matter there is structure and there is information. If the existence of information implies the presence under a veil of form and content of indirect existence, only Void, indeed, remains in the absence of information. In this tightly woven web of concepts, freedom describes the distinctive nature of the existential field. In it, existence precedes the essence of information. 



Information is what Bateson calls “difference which makes a difference” born out of the process of info-autopoiesis. That which moves, including quantum fluctuations, leads conversely to that which exists from the mere existence of information to the rise of the sentient Universe. A cloud in the sky, a planet with a crystalline mantle, feel the push and pull of gravity. Could they, too, be sentient beings? From existence to sentience, it is a matter of information. 


If there is a Janus Point, what binds us to the mirroring Universe on the other side? A negative-mass fluid or dark energy lies in the shadow of the open and public Universe. Barbour points out that the quest for quantum gravity is almost entirely bereft of experimental support. “In its absence, theoreticians can only fall back on whatever principles seem sound and come to hand.” Information entropy describes a degree of randomness. What has yet to know about its own existence reveals itself by expressing itself. A paper last year describes cosmic inflation in terms of a time-dependent quantum density matrix with time playing the role of a stochastic variable.


Conscious beings have found themselves amid fundamental processes that underpin the observed richness of the large-scale cosmic structures. Is humankind the only entity to display such a conscious awareness? I don’t know. But what I know is that we are bound to make tracks and leave footprints in time, taking part in the difference that makes a difference. And so doing, we participate in the complexification process.

When day comes, we ask ourselves, where can we find light in this never-ending shade?

The loss we carry. A sea we must wade.

We braved the belly of the beast.

We’ve learned that quiet isn’t always peace, and the norms and notions of what “just” is isn’t always justice.

And yet the dawn is ours before we knew it.

Somehow we do it.

Somehow we weathered and witnessed a nation that isn’t broken, but simply unfinished.

We, the successors of a country and a time where a skinny Black girl descended from slaves and raised by a single mother can dream of becoming president, only to find herself reciting for one.

And, yes, we are far from polished, far from pristine, but that doesn’t mean we are striving to form a union that is perfect.

We are striving to forge our union with purpose.

To compose a country committed to all cultures, colors, characters and conditions of man.

And so we lift our gaze, not to what stands between us, but what stands before us.

We close the divide because we know to put our future first, we must first put our differences aside.

We lay down our arms so we can reach out our arms to one another.

We seek harm to none and harmony for all.

Let the globe, if nothing else, say this is true.

That even as we grieved, we grew.

That even as we hurt, we hoped.

That even as we tired, we tried.

That we’ll forever be tied together, victorious.

Not because we will never again know defeat, but because we will never again sow division.

Scripture tells us to envision that everyone shall sit under their own vine and fig tree, and no one shall make them afraid.

If we’re to live up to our own time, then victory won’t lie in the blade, but in all the bridges we’ve made.

That is the promise to glade, the hill we climb, if only we dare.

It’s because being American is more than a pride we inherit.

It’s the past we step into and how we repair it.

We’ve seen a force that would shatter our nation, rather than share it.

Would destroy our country if it meant delaying democracy.

And this effort very nearly succeeded.

But while democracy can be periodically delayed, it can never be permanently defeated.

In this truth, in this faith we trust, for while we have our eyes on the future, history has its eyes on us.

This is the era of just redemption.

We feared at its inception.

We did not feel prepared to be the heirs of such a terrifying hour.

But within it we found the power to author a new chapter, to offer hope and laughter to ourselves.

So, while once we asked, how could we possibly prevail over catastrophe, now we assert, how could catastrophe possibly prevail over us?

We will not march back to what was, but move to what shall be: a country that is bruised but whole, benevolent but bold, fierce and free.

We will not be turned around or interrupted by intimidation because we know our inaction and inertia will be the inheritance of the next generation, become the future.

Our blunders become their burdens.

But one thing is certain.

If we merge mercy with might, and might with right, then love becomes our legacy and change our children’s birthright.

So let us leave behind a country better than the one we were left.

Every breath from my bronze-pounded chest, we will raise this wounded world into a wondrous one.

We will rise from the golden hills of the West.

We will rise from the windswept Northeast where our forefathers first realized revolution.

We will rise from the lake-rimmed cities of the Midwestern states.

We will rise from the sun-baked South.

We will rebuild, reconcile, and recover.

And every known nook of our nation and every corner called our country, our people diverse and beautiful, will emerge battered and beautiful.

When day comes, we step out of the shade of flame and unafraid.

The new dawn balloons as we free it.

For there is always light, if only we’re brave enough to see it.

If only we’re brave enough to be it.


Amanda Gorman, The Hill we climb

The Essence of Information

John Peter Arendzen, Summary of ancient cosmogonies

Julian Barbour, The Janus Point 

Gregory Bateson, Steps to an Ecology of Mind

Martin Luther King, Where do we go from here: Chaos or Community?

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