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Active Information in Physics




John Pickering,

Psychology Department,

Warwick University,

Coventry CV4 7AL



The mechanistic metaphor at the heart of the modernist worldview has disappeared. In the metaphysical vacuum this has created, a new image of nature has taken shape which, following Whitehead, is one of 'continuous creative advance'. Reality consists of evolving patterns rather than Plato's eternal forms. It is a process, and from it emerge self organising systems of organic relations. These persist through activity rather than the continuing existence of a self-identical essence. Within these systems there is an open circulation of structured patterns of causation. This produces truly novel forms and events. Seen in this perspective, nature is intrinsically rather than accidentally historical. Reality, including the arena of human action is, as Bergson suggested, creative.

With this shift in the metaphysical basis for science, Being is giving way to Becoming. Descartes' mechanistic separation is giving way to Whitehead's organic interconnection; reduction and positivism are giving way to emergence and the systems view. This is a major reorientation which, as Prigogine puts it, shows that: "The future is uncertain; this is true for the nature we describe and ... on the level of our own existence. This is not the end of science, but rather the end of alienation and a kind of limited rationality; it is also the beginning of a new science which recovers meaning and integrates creativity" (Prigogine, 1995). Bohm likewise sees the possibility of a more inclusive inquiry into nature: " ... postmodern science should not separate matter and consciousness and should not therefore separate facts, meaning and value." (Bohm, 1988).

Both Bohm and Prigogine offer a new perspective on how the mind is related to its material vehicle. This is a new direction for psychology with exciting potential. However, Prigogine avoids ontological interpretations of his work while this was fundamental to Bohm's work. Perhaps for this reason, Bohm's position appears more helpful.

Recent developments in psychology have seen radical challenges to cognitivism, the Cartesian project to describe the mind in formal computational terms. This paradigm has been the most formative force in the subject for four decades. These challenges come from a variety of directions. One of these is ecological psychology, an approach that rejects the Cartesian separation of mind and world as unproductive and unrealistic. There are some suggestive resemblances between ecological psychology and Bohm's approach centred on meaning and active information. Before examining these resemblances, some preliminary remarks about how science inquires into the physical and mental worlds may be useful.

Beyond Mechanism.

Ontology and epistemology are virtually impossible to disentangle. What we think the world is like has a strong effect on how we investigate it and on how we interpret the results of our investigations. Both rest on assumptions about what sort of thing is there to be observed and about what constitutes an observation. This is true in all areas of science but has become central to the interpretation of quantum physics. The resemblances between physics and psychology referred to in the previous section bear on just these issues.

Ontology is not neutral. The classical view leads to what Weber called the 'disenchantment' of the world. Reality is rendered timeless. In a universe of eternally recurring conditions, the human sense of dureé, the lived world of Husserl and of Bergson, becomes an illusion. Einstein steadfastly held to this view that the timeless classical world was reality. With perfect knowledge of this world would come wisdom and an end to moral and emotional entanglements. This, for Spinoza, was freedom from the bondage of the human predicament. Unified theories of knowledge would, it seemed, also be unified theories of psychology and ethics.

But, as has been clear in physics some decades now, classical mechanics is only productive in respect of relatively simple and isolated systems near to equilibrium. It is quite unproductive when dealing with complex organic systems, that are highly interconnected and far from equilibrium. Moreover, as Prigogine's work suggests, the distinction between past, present and future is intrinsic to physics. It is not a phenomenological illusion attached to the human condition. Persistent patterns of non-local interactions give rise to time-assymetry. The functional dynamics of wholes cannot be recovered by any level of analysis, however precise, of parts. Unified theories will not be theories of everything even at the physical level, let alone ethics.

This seems to open the way to a more naturalistic interpretation of how the mind belongs in nature. However, Prigogine, like many quantum physicists, avoids ontological interpretation. His mathematical treatment of, for instance, time-assymetry and emergence are presented as epistemological aids for investigating nature rather than as surmises about the reality lying behind these investigations.

Bohm by contrast, was inclined to realism. His work consistently focussed on the ontological interpretation of quantum theory. In his work and in the work of his collaborators we find a different approach. This work is not only grounded in the mathematics of quantum theory, but also in a realistic physical image. The image is post Cartesian, with the mind - matter division being replaced by a continuum.

There is a resemblance to ecological psychology in this linking of ontology and epistemology. The originator of the ecological approach, James Gibson, stressed theoretical and methodological realism and a non-dualistic view (Reed & Jones, 1982). With this in mind, we turn to the contrast between cognitivism and ecological psychology and to the resemblances between ecological psychology and Bohm's work.

Beyond Cognitivism.

Cognitivism, and especially its flagship discipline, artificial intelligence, has been described as the single most important development in the history of psychology and as psychology's unified theory (Newell, 1991; Anderson, 1983, ch. 1). However, as in physics, so in psychology, unified theories have been transformed into a more productive condition of pluralism. Cognitivism is now treated as one of many psychological perspectives. While productive within its own domain, it cannot be taken as a universal pronouncement on the nature of the mind (Penrose, 1994).

Many critiques of cognitivism share a similar theme: that decontextualisation and analytic reductionism is as inappropriate in psychology as in any other science, perhaps even more so. To study the mind out of context is misleading. A number of these critiques of cognitivism advocate a contextualised view of the mind as a critical alternative. Edelman points to the biological context, Bruner to the cultural context and James Gibson to the ecological context. (Edelman, 1992 ; Bruner, 1990 ; Gibson, 1986). Gibson's rejection of cognitivism turned on just this. His view was that cognitivism obscured the natural context for cognition. The mechanistic metaphor interposed an unobservable layer of mental life that obscured the direct causal links between the physical and mental orders.

This movement away from Cartesian separation promotes a mutualist approach within different areas of science. The various forms of Cartesian dualism are relinquished in favour of an approach that sees a continuity in nature. Organism and environment, mind and matter, genes and culture cannot be sharply separated from each other. They have evolved together and reciprocally give each other meaning. This is the mutualist worldview. Mutualism participates in the postmodern shift in science and in psychology. It marks the end of the Cartesian split that alienates the mind from nature and experience from modernist science. In postmodern science, qualities as well quantities, subjectivity as well as the objective treatment of nature co-exist in a productive pluralist discipline (Kvale, 1992 ; Griffin, 1988)

Bohm's concern with information and meaning as the vehicle for causality touches on something these critiques of cognitivism have in common. To propose that meaning is the modus operandi of causality implies that the physical, biological or cultural, systems that support the mind are fundamentally semiotic and historical. One part of a mutually evolved system acts on another semiotically rather than mechanically. Organic systems interact by the exchange of signs rather than mechanical impulses. This will be obscured if the natural organic action within such a system is stopped and its vehicle dissected. If action, physical or psychological (which are the same), is decontextualised and constrained, it reduces to mechanics. Physical and biological order, and the cultural order which has evolved from it, is intrinsically historical and creative. The systems that emerge from and which are supported by these orders are, in Maturana's term, autopoietic. They originate their own structure and actively maintain it. The internal structure of such systems is coupled to the wider system within which it appears (Maturana & Varela, 1987)

As Prigogine has indicated, such systems persist by obtaining energy from their surroundings and then dissipating it in degraded form. As such dissipative systems move further from equilibrium, the web of information exchange that supports them becomes more complex (Swenson & Turvey, 1991). It is because of this complexity and the nonlinear interactions it promotes that the past, present and future become more clearly distinguishable. It is this that marks the radical departure from the classical world view. Time is in nature, it is not a phenomenological illusion, and time is the medium of evolution. As Popper points out, evolution is a knowledge process (Popper, 1990). Evolution results in the build up of information in pre-biological, biological and cultural systems. This transforms elementary semiotic systems into complex ones. The signs that circulate within such systems have meaning with respect to an observer and a situation which has a history inbuilt within it.

This semiotic approach is at present most highly developed in treatments of cultural order (Noth, 1994). However, Bohm opens the way to extending this treatment into biological and psychological levels of order. Meaning is the central issue here, and it is this which holds the key to the resemblances between Bohm's work and ecological psychology. Bohm emphasized that 'meaning' points two ways. It points to action, that is, what we 'mean' to do, and to perception, that is, what something 'means' to us. Meaning points from mind to world in the first case and from the world to mind in the second. For Bohm, meaning is the storehouse of accumulated action: "... the physical environment both natural and the cultural is the result of meanings; these fundamentally affect our actions towards nature and the action of nature back on us ... simpler meanings are just reflexes built into the nervous system that reflect the accumulated experience of a species ... with higher animals and man meanings become cultural ... self-conscious ... " (Bohm, 1987).

Likewise, ecological psychology treats meaning and mental - physical continuity in just this bi-directional sense. This approach begins with the reciprocal evolution of physical, biological and psychological systems. This is the ground for an undivided view of mind and nature. It is not static or absolute, but evolving. Evolution is accompanied by as increase in the semiotic bandwidth of organic systems as they move further away from thermodynamic equilibrium (Swenson & Turvey, 1991).

This mutualist approach to meaning moves both psychology and physics beyond mechanism and towards organicism. Separated modernist sciences of Being are combining to create a postmodern science of Becoming. The resemblances between Bohm and ecological psychology in turn raise issues to do with meaning and value as well as the integration of quantity and quality in science. However, resemblances are notoriously deceptive. With this caution in mind, the resemblances between Bohm and ecological psychology are best treated as suggestive and as evidence that both areas of work participate in a common postmodern shift in science. The next section attempts to make them more specific.

Beyond Separation.

Ecological psychology and Bohm's work both take relations rather than absolutes as fundamental. Both aim to pass beyond restrictive Cartesian assumptions without giving up the power of analytic methodology. In doing so, similar ontological issues arise concerning location and continuity.

Like Bohm, ecological psychology treats geometry and dynamics within the same framework. The ecological approach to perception and action starts with the ambient array of structured energy that reaches the senses and resonates with the internal structure of an organism. Affordances are patterns in this ambient array that specify for a particular organism what actions are possible. They render the physical world continuous with the mental world by bearing meaning from one to the other. Gibson emphasized that affordances point two ways: from the environment to the organism by reflecting what actions may be possible and from the organism to the environment by reflecting what actions an organism can or will perform. Affordance is the central theoretical construct of ecological psychology. It is the sign vehicle that crosses the Cartesian divide between mind and matter.

The ontological issues arises with questions such as: where are affordances? what defines them? The vehicle for affordances is said to be the structure of the ambient array. However, organisms are not passive and information about this structure is actively obtained. Perception is for action but is also an action in itself. The relationship between an organism and its surroundings is thus dynamic. The information carried in the moment to moment transformations in the structure of the ambient array. This information conforms to the geometry of ordinary space, but cannot be specified geometrically. It is enfolded in the ambient array as a function of the physical layout of the environment and of the actions, both actual and potential, of the perceiving organism. Thus affordances are present in the ambient array but not in a form that can be specified without reference to a context and a history. They are a joint product of the environment in which an organism is acting, the actions themselves and, more problematically, the intentions for future actions.

The external world structures the ambient array of energy. The nervous system within the organism is structured by formative influences that operate over different timescales ranging from the evolutionary to the momentary. This internal structure resonates with the structure of the ambient array as an intrinsic part of the adaptive perception-action interchange between organisms and their environment. Affordances are not stimuli but guides for action. They are carried in relationships and are thus amplitude independent. An organism acts within a field of information that is in part produced by its own actions, both present and past. Affordance is thus organism scaled and cannot be defined apart from the situation within which it participates in natural action. The internal structure of the organism is coupled by the exchange of signs to the external structure of the environment. This coupling arises from the history of mutual evolution in which both have participated. This mutualist approach to meaning takes ecological psychology beyond Cartesian separation.

The resemblances to Bohm's views lie in the concepts of the quantum field and active information. These are said to influence the trajectory of a particle but are also inseperable from the particle itself. The particle responds to the structure, not the amplitude of the field, by virtue of the internal structure of the particle that governs the relationship it bears to the field. The field offers information but this is only activated when a particle appears. This is to extend mutualism into physics. What appear to be separate objects or situations, like particles and the fields to which they respond, are fundamentally linked and enfolded one within the other. Such mutualist notions of enfoldment are central to Bohm's view of reality. This is not limited to the domain of particle physics. The complementary relationship between an explict order that manifests itself from a deeper implicate order is also proposed as the basis for the dynamic stability of the phenomenological world (Bohm & Hiley, 1993, pg. 354).

Likewise, ecological psychology emphasises how the structure of the ambient array at any point of observation enfolds information about the physical layout of the environment, its dynamics and about what actions are possible. The ambient array is present everywhere, but the information enfolded in it does not exist independently from an active perceiver. Affordances are not absolutes but part of the mutually constituted dynamics of perception-action cycles. The structure of the ambient array influences the action of the organism, mediated by the internal structure of the organism. This suggests that a fundamental challenge to the Cartesian division of the natural order is presented in very much the same way by both approaches.

On Resemblance

Are these resemblances merely metaphorical or can they be taken as demonstrating a significant common ground between psychology and physics? It may be well to recall Whitehead's aphorism that "physics is the study of small organisms while biology is the study of larger ones." Electrons as well as human beings are sensitive to the meaning of their surroundings, not to meaningless mechanical impulses. However, this is not to attribute fully mind-like properties and potentials to elementary particles. This would be to promote the Cartesian error of taking mind to be an absolute, present in full human form or totally absent. Descartes' ideas were formed in a pre-evolutionary era. Had the notion of gradual emergence and of a phylogenetic continuum of intelligence been available to him, his views may have been fundamentally different.

The significance the resemblance rests upon the notion of mind - matter continuity. Bohm and ecological psychology appear to advance a non-dual view of nature in much the same way. For example, when Bohm discusses the interaction of the mind and the world, information and meaning are the medium for this interaction. Ecological psychology in its mutualist treatment of perception and action does a very similar thing. Affordances, both those of the natural and those of the cultural world are carried in mutually specified structures of information. They are signs that convey meaning and thus connect the mind and the environment in a continuous causal whole (Pickering, 1994).

In Bohm's ontological treatment of physics, the explicate order we call the physical world blends into the phenomenological domain we call the mental world without a break in causality and without crossing any Cartesian boundary (Bohm & Hiley, 1993, pg 386). Mental life, as a matter of meaning, experience and feeling, is not localised. It is present to a greater or lesser extent at all levels of the explicate order and in the meaning bearing fields and actions that pass both up and down these levels. Likewise, in ecological psychology, affordances and the actions that generate them are not localised but are a systems properties which convey meaning both to and from the mind. Once the Cartesian split is challenged in this way, a radically new ontology emerges (Kadar, & Effken, 1994)

The resemblances here are not superficial, but represent a similar underlying program. This is to take forward a distinctively new ontological position which, without abandoning scientific methodology, approaches nature as undivided, that is, as non-dual. It also takes more fundamental account of meaning and phenomenology, at all levels of order, physical, biological or psychological. This is to emphasise that interactions between a centre of awareness and its surroundings is based on meaning, not mechanism. This is to propose a fundamental continuity between physics and psychology and poses a major challenge to cognitivism, which, despite its concern with linguistic meaning at the human level, is still employs a fundamentally mechanistic metaphor for the mind (Pylkkanen, 1989, pg. 211).

Thus, Bohm's ontological approach to physics and ecological psychology resemble each other in a deep way. Both link meaning and causality and both challenge Cartesian ontology on similar grounds.

Quality in Postmodern Science.

The challenge to Cartesianism is part of the postmodern critique of scientism (Griffin, 1988). As another part of this critique, value and meaning are now recognised as necessarily rather than contingently attached to scientific inquiry (Jencks, 1992; Goodwin, 1989). The postmodern condition is one of irony and the blending of traditions. It is indeed ironic that although the positivist tradition has died, it has been embalmed as cognitive reductionism in psychology, the science that needs it least. This was Husserl's protest concerning positivism: that it decapitates science and leaves it silent on lived experience. Although Husserl's protest was in respect of behaviourism, cognitivism carries on the positivist tradition in much the same way.

But the lineage of Husserl, especially Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty, has done much to break this silence. Merleau-Ponty, who was a strong influence on Gibson, offers the phenomenological basis for mutualism and for the re introduction of phenomenological accounts of meaning into science. With this will come more attention to feeling, which although virtually absent from psychology for most of this century is now re appearing as a central issue (Donaldson, 1992; Langer, 1988). Recent explorations of the ontological basis for ecological psychology and of a new form of cognitivism that goes beyond the Cartesian limitations of the past four decades or so, both emphasise Heidegger's phenomenological analysis of action and experience (Kadar & Effken, 1994; Winograd & Flores, 1986). These developments, building on the resemblances between Bohm and ecological psychology, point to the emergence of a postmodern discipline in which subjectivity, meaning and quality may be brought into a more realistic relationship with the scientific method.

Semiotics will be fundamental in developing the treatment of meaning and of the quality of experience as legitimate scientific objects. This rapprochement between analytic science and phenomenology may be sharpened by focussing on the notion of active information and affordance. Affordance means that there exists qualitative information which is actually created by the presence of a centre of action. Active information, in Bohm's sense, might be treated merely as an analogy, but, as has been emphasised here, the resemblance is actually far deeper. The mechanistic metaphor of the classical worldview may now be extended in an important way. The image of organic interconnectedness and of meaning-based causation brings value and quality into science. It opens the way to a more sensitive as well as a more powerful method for inquiring into reality. Quantitative methods and images are not sufficient on their own.

The blending of analytic and phenomenological traditions is amplified by the recent sharp increase in the depth of interaction between Western and Eastern psychological traditions (Varela et al., 1991; Pickering, 1995). In particular, Buddhism treats causality and the experience of meaning in ways that deeply harmonise with Bohm's metaphysics (Rosch, 1995). Treating meaning, experience and quality directly within science in this way dissolves the modernist separation of fact and value.

Indeed, Bohm's view was that postmodern science should not separate facts, meaning or value. A postmodern science of mind and matter together will frame human experience in a larger ecological context. Within this context, evolutionary creativity is a drive towards new states further from equilibrium. These states, supported by richer exchanges of meaning within and between mutually evolved organic systems, are distinguishable from their predecessors one the basis of meaning and value. Thus postmodern science becomes a science of quality as well as quantity.


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