# Can we create or destroy information

We know that the energy cannot be created or destroyed but can only be converted in to another form. Does the same also applies to information. Is it possible to create the information out of nothing or destroy it completly without leaving a trace of it. This question is with regard to the consciousness of individuals that suddenly comes into existance at the time of birth and disappears with death.

StatusX
Homework Helper
That's a good question, but I think we need a better defintion of what information is before we could make such a law. For example, if we intsead defined kinetic energy as 1/2 m v3, you'll find it isn't conserved, so we need to be precise in our terms. Does anyone have any ideas on how to do this?

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I have a big problem with the concept of informationd, and it is the fact that it does not seem to correpond to a physical entity. Rather, it seems that a given state of a particular system is considered to be information as long as it can be interpreted. Exemple, a if a take a computer disk full of information and I break it. It can not be read any more so the information is "not there" any more. Lets say I keep my broke disk for a few years, and then technology is devised to recover broken disks. So the information is back. Information we define by our capacity to assign a particular meaning to a particular organization of physiscal entities (anything from sound waves to magnetic fields, to dots on paper...). What a monkey says to another is certainly full of information, but only if you speak monkey. In that sense, and if you push the analogy a little bit, I have to conclude that information is whatever can differentiate two states of a system and thus can be created whenever you create an alteration of the current state of a system. It cannot be destroyed as the present state of a system is the consequence of all preceeding states, and those states could be "reconstituted" from the present state if we had enough calculating capacity (yeah, yeah, i know.. but in theory). All "information" in the universe should thus be connected as "system" denotes an artificial delimitation imposed by our intellect, the only real "system" is the universe itself. And it would seems that information is the condition of existence, as two states identical state exist as one. If conciousness is information, then it is to be viewed as the (continous?) subset of configurations of the universe that allows sefl-awareness (of the universe?). OK i'm getting a headache at this point so tell me what you thnik of this.

loseyourname
Staff Emeritus
Gold Member
Type in random letters on a word processor program without ever looking at the screen. Print without saving, then burn the sheet of paper, again without ever looking. You've just destroyed information.

Information remains: the heat differential on the keys would tell you in what order did you touch them, that differential will have an effect on the air pressure of the room, which in turn will effect the climate of your city, and in term condition the evolution of the universe itself. Same for the particles of burnt-out paper, which will spread out on a particular pattern (in part) because of the way ink was distributed on the paper. The moment you introduce a perturbation in the system, its consequences are infinite, and the pertubation itself could be, in theory, reconstructed or deduced from any of the subsequent states in the same way you identify the ingredients on a cake by the taste, even if they don't look as they were when they cake was made. We just do not have yet the technology to reconstruct the text on the burned paper, but we may some day. The deterministic nature of the universe interdicts destruction of information, if you consider it as a particular state of the universe (and its consequent evolution)

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loseyourname
Staff Emeritus
Gold Member
I see your point, but I'm not convinced that anything recoverable must exist. I'm not really considering information the same way you are, in that I consider it important that the content be comprehended by the recoverer in the same way intended by the creator. Take, for instance, an ancient dolphin civilization that used dolphin song to simulate aural states of echolocation to communicate images to one another. They might have figured out a way to record information in a way analagous to the human use of pen and paper. Were all dolphins to disappear from the planet, the message would be lost forever, even if the recording device was maintained in perfect condition.

A better example might be cave paintings. Many are well-preserved and we can see perfectly well their visual content. But there is more to the information encoded in the paintings than we can know. There was an intention behind them that was understood by the painters as well as by early cavemen that viewed the paintings. There was something being spoken by those paintings that no longer is simply because there is no longer anyone around to understand the message.

Well my point was to try to go from your point to something more "fundamental". what I mean is to know if information correspond to a physical reality and hence exists, or if its a reducctionist concept created by men to help them comprehend reality. This is for exemple, the case of life. Life does not exist, it does not correspond to any physical reality or property , since it can be entirely explained by fundamental properties. Anything that arises from the interaction of fundamental elements and properties of the universe cannot be different from them. In short, i do not admit the existence of emergent properties. People keep confusing concepts with the real thing.

You introduce the problem of the observer as a condition to the existence of the universe; which is, if nobody can see, it does not exist (never did). Now i will try and turn the problem the other way around. I think for exemple of the earth geology, wich told a specific story, but not until people learned to decipher and comprehend it. In fact the most important breakthrough was the orientation of magnetic fields in rocks wich were totally obscure until one man proposed the ground shaking tectonic plate theory (i forgot the guy's name) So, did information exists during all the millenia from their formation to the man's understanding? was it created on the spot? Is information on the cave paintings lost forever? or does it remain (but hidden) as long as the painting endure (in the hope cavemen will re-apper some day?

The thing is that we may have to choose between two options. A) the universe exist wether we see or not, and then information cannot be destroyed, as it is a state of the universe, the observer being part of it. It is not lost since the consequences remain, and re-interpretation always possible. B) the universe existes because we see it, then information is of course created and destroyed by the meaning we assign to state the universe (and we assing a meaning to the universe just by perceiving it, which brings it into existence).

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StatusX
Homework Helper
The information in a system might be described as the information needed to recreate that system. So if you have red marbles in one box and blue in another, and then combine them to form a homogeneous mixture of red and blue marbles, what have you done? So, at least on a large scale, you have decreased the information of the system. Before, you would need to describe how one box containes one color and the other contains the other color. After, you only need to say that all the marbles are in one box. But you are also increasing the entropy. To decrease the entropy in this system, you would need a lot of information, ie, to identify each marble and put it in the appropriate box. So maybe instead of saying information is conserved, say the sum of information and entropy is conserved. This is only qualitative, as I don't even know what units entropy and information could be commonly measured in, but it's a start.

As for what this says for life, especially life after death, I don't know. For one thing, we produce waste, which has much more entropy thatn the food we eat. In doing this, we are increasing the information someone would need to build an exact copy of us (eg, the memories in our brain). So this agrees with what I said above. However, when we die, it seems that both enropy increases and information decreases. I don't know what this means, because I don't have a solid definition of information yet, but one thing it does not imply is life after death, because this is would be a physical law. And in any case, the nature of life after death is that it cannot be proven or disproven by any means.

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Now a physicist friend of mine actually told me it was the other way around: disorganized states are the most complex ones and the ones that need more descirbing. Indeed to described the ordered system, you just need to describe:

a) one box, as they are identical
b) one of each blue and red ball, as all ball of the same color are identical,
c) the way they are packed in the boxes

To describe the mixed blue/red box, you need to describe each an every ball because not two single balls will be surrounded in the same way.
Disordered states have much more information because not two of their componenets have anything in common. If If you want to describe a corn field, you describe 1 corn plant and you add "repeated N times". If you want to describe a jungle, you will have to mention every tree and vine.

So it turns out that by incresing entropy, you also increase complexity. But all of these analogies are reductions, no two single particles (systems, waves, etc.) in the universe are identical, if they are, they are one and the same and they exist as one physiscal entity. If there is no way of telling one entity from another, then there are not two entities. It is the difference that brings them to exist as two entities and that is what i propose to be the physical significance of information. As for conciousness, it is also defined by the evolution of its own states. If you dont' percieve the evolution of your mind states, you're unconcious (i.e., asleep). This still however does not explain how or why or what or who "percieves" these evolutions, and so we're back to Mr. Chalmer's "hard problem".

StatusX
Homework Helper
Al said:
Now a physicist friend of mine actually told me it was the other way around: disorganized states are the most complex ones and the ones that need more descirbing. Indeed to described the ordered system, you just need to describe:

a) one box, as they are identical
b) one of each blue and red ball, as all ball of the same color are identical,
c) the way they are packed in the boxes

To describe the mixed blue/red box, you need to describe each an every ball because not two single balls will be surrounded in the same way.

It's true, this does depend on the scale we're looking at. At the level of "balls in boxes," there is obviously less information in the mixed box, because we don't care specifically how they are arranged. At your level of looking at each ball individually, and any smaller scale, I would say there is about the same information, because you have to specify the position of each object. This is similar to how reactions are time symmetric at atomic scales, but there is obviously an arrow of time at macroscopic levels. We assume all fundamental laws operate at subatomic levels, but maybe there are macroscopic laws, such as the second law of thermodynamics, which is similar to what I'm describing, that are fundamental and yet macroscopically observable.

Disordered states have much more information because not two of their componenets have anything in common. If If you want to describe a corn field, you describe 1 corn plant and you add "repeated N times". If you want to describe a jungle, you will have to mention every tree and vine.

But is a corn field really more ordered than a jungle, with thousands of trees and animals with amazingly complex ordered arrangements of cells?

Let me take the discussion to a more fundamental lavel.
We know that every effect needs a cause to create it. And every effect is a cause in itself for the subsequent effects. Those who know the Huygens principle (wave theory of light) can easily understand it. The principle says that every point on a wavefront of light acts as a point source itself and that gives rise to the secondary wavefront. This is something similar to the idea of cause and effect. It is this bond or rather the interplay between the cause and effect that links two events in the physical four dimensional world. We can as well call it information.

As long as the world is dynamic, always evolving, we will have this cause and effect or flow of information. The information itself can menifest as electromagnetic radiation or any other form that can be detected by us through our organs or indirectly by our man made equipments.

Now consider a case let us say the generation of a photon of certain wavelength. There are three different regions to study. One-generation of photon, this involves understanding the atomic structure and what is the dynamics of it. Second-propagation of photon, transmission of EM radiation through a medium. Third-conversion of photon into something else, this may be absorption or some other phenomenon.

In all the three regions the laws of physics are strictly obeyed. Consider a more general global picture. This picture is still incomplete as the state of an atom depends upon the previous causes affecting its dynamics that in turn generates a photon. Same is true with the last effect that is supposed to act as a cause for further effects.

Is it not the information we must look at. Or we need to look at EM waves only as the way of communication? Now, what are we supposed to do with the creation or destruction of information? At what position or time in space can we say that we have created the information or destroyed it.

StatusX said:
It's true, this does depend on the scale we're looking at. At the level of "balls in boxes," there is obviously less information in the mixed box, because we don't care specifically how they are arranged. At your level of looking at each ball individually, and any smaller scale, I would say there is about the same information, because you have to specify the position of each object. This is similar to how reactions are time symmetric at atomic scales, but there is obviously an arrow of time at macroscopic levels. We assume all fundamental laws operate at subatomic levels, but maybe there are macroscopic laws, such as the second law of thermodynamics, which is similar to what I'm describing, that are fundamental and yet macroscopically observable.

If we want to stay formal we need to consider the lowest possible level, since the system "properties" must arise from the properties of its components. In other words, a fundamental property must play at all levels of the universe, since those "levels" are man-introduced, arbitrary distinctions.

StatusX said:
But is a corn field really more ordered than a jungle, with thousands of trees and animals with amazingly complex ordered arrangements of cells?

Order = mathematical function describing the distribution of the elements in a system.
Complexity = we can define as increasing with the number of variables needed to describe the system.

Under this definitions, a corn field is ordered but the jungle is not. You won't find a function to describe it. The jungle is complex (you need to describe each an every tree). Versaille's gardens are ordered (can be reduced to a functions) AND complex (the function would have a lot of terms and variables)

russ_watters
Mentor
Al said:
Information remains: the heat differential on the keys would tell you in what order did you touch them, that differential will have an effect on the air pressure of the room, which in turn will effect the climate of your city, and in term condition the evolution of the universe itself. Same for the particles of burnt-out paper, which will spread out on a particular pattern (in part) because of the way ink was distributed on the paper.
Many of these things are inherrently chaoitic and cannot be said to contain the original information in any way, shape, or form.
The moment you introduce a perturbation in the system, its consequences are infinite, and the pertubation itself could be, in theory, reconstructed or deduced from any of the subsequent states...
Attempts to predict the weather have shown that this is not correct. Even without the uncertainty principle, it is often impossible to reconstruct the starting conditions from the result. What you describe is not the way the laws of our universe work.
in the same way you identify the ingredients on a cake by the taste, even if they don't look as they were when they cake was made. We just do not have yet the technology to reconstruct the text on the burned paper, but we may some day. The deterministic nature of the universe interdicts destruction of information, if you consider it as a particular state of the universe (and its consequent evolution)
There's the flaw in your reasoning: the universe is not completely deterministic. In fact, the level of uncertainty is quantifiable via the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle.

Let me give a few examples though:

Atoms. Atoms of the same type all "look" exactly the same and their "appearance" tells us nothing whatsoever about their history.

Photons. Photons of the same wavelength are exactly the same and contain no information about their history. Wavelength, location, and direction cannot, for example, tell you whether a specific photon came from a faraway star or a meteor that flashed by along the same line of sight.

Chaotic systems. My chaos theory is a little thin, but it is my understanding that some complex systems are utterly and inherrently unpredictable. You have to know literally everything about a system to make a prediction (including knowing exactly what external variables will change) - and if you already know everything, it isn't much of a prediction, is it?

Staff Emeritus
Gold Member
Dearly Missed
russ_waters said:
Chaotic systems. My chaos theory is a little thin, but it is my understanding that some complex systems are utterly and inherrently unpredictable. You have to know literally everything about a system to make a prediction (including knowing exactly what external variables will change) - and if you already know everything, it isn't much of a prediction, is it?

Chaos theory does not say systems are not deterministic, it just says simple finite predictions will not capture the exact detail. But many other things about such systems can be determined, and doing that, not throwing up their hands, is the content of chaos theory. You have to beware of some popular sources on chaos theory; just like quantum mechanics it is used by the mystagogical fans of unreason to fight off science and determinism. But that is not really what it is about.

russ_watters said:
Many of these things are inherrently chaoitic and cannot be said to contain the original information in any way, shape, or form. Attempts to predict the weather have shown that this is not correct. Even without the uncertainty principle, it is often impossible to reconstruct the starting conditions from the result. What you describe is not the way the laws of our universe work. There's the flaw in your reasoning: the universe is not completely deterministic. In fact, the level of uncertainty is quantifiable via the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle.

Let me give a few examples though:

Atoms. Atoms of the same type all "look" exactly the same and their "appearance" tells us nothing whatsoever about their history.

Photons. Photons of the same wavelength are exactly the same and contain no information about their history. Wavelength, location, and direction cannot, for example, tell you whether a specific photon came from a faraway star or a meteor that flashed by along the same line of sight.

?

What I meant is that the universe, as a sytem, contains its whole history. Even if the intrinsic properties of two or more entities within may be identical, their relative postions, speed, energy, etc., when considered as a whole, tell the story of the system.

russ_watters said:
Chaotic systems. My chaos theory is a little thin, but it is my understanding that some complex systems are utterly and inherrently unpredictable. You have to know literally everything about a system to make a prediction (including knowing exactly what external variables will change) - and if you already know everything, it isn't much of a prediction, is it?

Of course, I agree. For practical purposes those system are unpredictable, but only bacause there are no means for an observer of determining the values of all the variables at one given moment. Yet, for the purpose of finding a physical significance to the concept of information, I was trying to inferre beyond the observer limits. It seems possible, even logical, to me, that a deterministic universe exists beyond our limits of perception and that those limitations make it appear unpredictable.

This conversation is not going to the essence of information.
IMO the essence of information is that a certain amount of energy is fixed for a given time x on a location y.
As long as the fixing exists that information is available.
The fixing happens in structural way (i.e. an electron in a battery, knowledge in a brain synapse or microtubuline, blue marbles in a box, a bit in a computer memory, etc.).
Fixing means: (1) a boundary that isolates or (2) a mechanism that binds/couples.
Fixing means that at least two energy aspects are joined in a unique way, which is discrete (different from the surrounding).
When this local fixing disappears or is destroyed the original energy-combination falls apart and the components relocate or can restructure with other resonating.

If we think or discuss about consciousness we should take this in account.