Tag Archives: Perception

Reality as emerging information

What is reality?

The idea that reality may be nothing more than a result of emerging information is not a novel idea at all. Plato, in what is known as the allegory of the cave, exposes how reality is perceived by a group of humans chained in a cave who from birth observe reality through the shadows projected on a wall.

Modern version of the allegory of the cave

It is interesting to note that when we refer to perception, anthropic vision plays an important role, which can create some confusion by associating perception with human consciousness. To clarify this point, let’s imagine an automaton of artificial vision. In the simplest case, it will be equipped with image sensors, processes for image processing and a database of patterns to be recognized. Therefore, the system is reduced to information encoded as a sequence of bits and to a set of processes, defined axiomatically, that convert information into knowledge.

Therefore, the acquisition of information always takes place by physical processes, which in the case of the automaton are materialized by means of an image sensor based on electronic technology and in the case of living beings by means of molecular photoreceptors. As algorithmic information theory shows us, this information has no meaning until it is processed, extracting patterns contained in it.

As a result, we can draw general conclusions about the process of perception. Thus, the information can be obtained and analyzed with different degrees of detail, giving rise to different layers of reality. This is what makes humans have a limited view of reality and sometimes a distorted one.

But in the case of physics, the scientific procedure aims to solve this problem by rigorously contrasting theory and experimentation. This leads to the definition of physical models such as the theory of electromagnetism or Newton’s theory of universal gravitation that condense the behavior of nature to a certain functional level, hiding a more complex underlying reality, which is why they are irreducible models of reality. Thus, Newton’s theory of gravitation models the gravitational behavior of massive bodies without giving a justification for it.

Today we know that the theory of general relativity gives an explanation to this behavior, through the deformation of space-time by the effect of mass, which in turn determines the movement of massive bodies. However, the model is again a description limited to a certain level of detail, proposing a space-time structure that may be static, expansive or recessive, but without giving justification for it. Neither does it establish a link with the quantum behavior of matter, which is one of the objectives of the unification theories. What we can say is that all these models are a description of reality at a certain functional level.

Universal Gravitation vs. Relativistic Mechanics

Reality as information processing

But the question is: What does this have to do with perception? As we have described, perception is the result of information processing, but this is a term generally reserved for human behavior, which entails a certain degree of subjectivity or virtuality. In short, perception is a mechanism to establish reality as the result of an interpretation process of information. For this reason, we handle concepts such as virtual reality, something that computers have boosted but that is nothing new and that we can experiment through daydreaming or simply by reading a book.

Leaving aside a controversial issue such as the concept of consciousness: What is the difference between the interaction of two atoms, two complex molecules or two individuals? Let’s look at the similarities first. In all these cases, the two entities exchange and process information, in each particular case making a decision to form a molecule, synthesize a new molecule or decide to go to the cinema. The difference is the information exchanged and the functionality of each entity. Can we make any other difference? Our anthropic vision tells us that we humans are superior beings, which makes a fundamental difference. But let’s think of biology: This is nothing more than a complex interaction between molecules, to which we owe our existence!

We could argue that in the case where human intelligence intervenes the situation is different. However, the structure of the three cases is the same, so the information transferred between the entities, which as far as we know have a quantum nature, is processed with a certain functionality. The difference that can be seen is that in the case of human intervention we say that functionality is intelligent. But we must consider that it is very easy to cheat with natural language, as it becomes clear when analyzing its nature.

In short, one could say that reality is the result of emerging information and its subsequent interpretation by means of processes, whose definition is always axiomatic, at least as far as knowledge reaches.

Perhaps, all this is very abstract so a simple example, which we find in advertising techniques, can give us a more intuitive idea. Let’s suppose an image whose pixels are actually images that appear when we zoom in, as shown in the figure.

Perception of a structure in functional layers

For an observer with a limited visual capacity, only a reality that shows a specific scene of a city will emerge. But for an observer with a much greater visual acuity, or who has an appropriate measuring instrument, he will observe a much more complex reality. This example shows that the process of observation of a mathematical object formed by a sequence of bits can be structured into irreducible functional layers, depending on the processes used to interpret the information. Since everything observable in our Universe seems to follow this pattern, we can ask ourselves the question: Is this functional structure the foundation of our Universe?

What do we mean by reality?

In the article “Reality and information: Is information a physical entity?” we analyze what we mean by reality, for which the models established by physics are taken as a reference since they have reached a level of formal definition not attained so far in other areas of knowledge.

One of the conclusions of this analysis is that physical models are axiomatic mathematical structures that describe an emerging reality layer without the need of connection with the underlying reality. This means that models describe reality at a given functional level. This makes reality closely linked to observation, which justifies our view of reality determined by our perception capabilities.

Consequently, reality can be structured into irreducible functional layers, and only when one looks at the edges or boundaries of the models describing the functionality of each emergent layer are there signs of another more complex underlying reality.

In this sense, physics aims to reveal the ultimate foundation of reality and has materialized in the development of quantum physics and in particular in the standard model of particles, although the questions raised by these suggest a more complex reality. However, the structure of layers could have no end and according to Gödel’s incompleteness theorem be an undecidable problem, that is, an unsolvable problem.

All this is very abstract, but with an example, we can understand it better. Thus, let us suppose the system of human color perception, based on three types of photoreceptors tuned in the bands of red, green or blue. Due to Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, the response of these photoreceptors also responds to stimuli of near frequencies (in the future we could discuss it in detail), as shown in the figure. As a consequence, the photoreceptors do not directly measure the frequency of color stimuli, but instead translate their frequency into three parameters (L, M, S) corresponding to the excitation level of each type of photoreceptors.

This makes possible the synthesis of color by three components, red, green and blue in the case of additive synthesis, and yellow, cyan and magenta for subtractive synthesis. In this way, if the synthesized image is analyzed by means of spectroscopy the perception of the image in relation to color would have very little to do with the original. In the case of birds, the rainbow must have, hypothetically, 9 colors, since they are equipped with a fourth type of photoreceptor sensitive to ultraviolet.

One of the consequences of this measurement system, designed by natural evolution, is that the rainbow is composed of seven colors, determined by the three summits and the four valleys produced by the superposition of the photoreceptor response. In addition, the system creates the perception of additional virtual colors, such as magenta and white. In the case of magenta, this is the result of the simultaneous stimulation of the bands above the blue and below the red. In the case of white is the result of simultaneous stimulation of the red, green and blue bands.

From the physical point of view, this color structure does not exist, since the physical parameter that characterizes a photon is its frequency (or its wavelength λ= 1 / f). Therefore, it can be concluded that color perception is an emergent structure of a more complex structure, determined by an axiomatic observational system. But for the moment, the analysis of the term “axiomatic” will be left for later!

This is an example of how reality emerges from more complex underlying structures, so we can say that reality and observation are inseparable terms. And make no mistake! Although the example refers to the perception of color by humans, this is materialized in a mathematical model of information processing.

Now the question is: How far can we look into this layered structure? In the above case, physics shows by means of electromagnetism that the spectrum is continuous and includes radio waves, microwaves, heat, infrared, visible light, ultraviolet, etc. But electromagnetism is nothing more than an emergent model of a more complex underlying reality, as quantum physics shows us. So that, electromagnetic waves are a manifestation of a flow of quantum particles: photons.

And here appears a much more complex reality in which a photon seems to follow simultaneously multiple paths or to have multiple frequencies simultaneously, even infinite, until it is observed, being determined its position, energy, trajectory, etc., with a precision established by the Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. And all this described by an abstract mathematical model contrasted by observation….

The search for the ultimate reasons behind things has led physics to deepen, with remarkable success, in the natural processes hidden to our systems of perception. For this purpose, there have been designed experiments and developed detectors that expand our capacity for perception and that have resulted in models such as the standard particle model.

The point is that, despite having increased our capacity for perception and as a result of our knowledge, it seems that we are again in the same situation. The result is that we have new, much more complex, underlying abstract reality models described in mathematical language. This is a clear sign that we can not find an elementary entity that can explain the foundation of reality since these models presuppose the existence of complex entities. Thus, everything seems to indicate that we enter an endless loop, in which from a greater perception of reality we define a new abstract model that in turn opens a new horizon of reality and therefore the need to go deeper into it.

As we can see, we are referring to abstract models to describe reality. For this reason, the second part of the article is dedicated to this. But we will discuss this later!