Home » Philosophy of Science » The Virtual Identity of Life

The Virtual Identity of Life

Budimir Zdravkovic
City College of New York


Information can be defined as any sequence or arrangement of things that can convey a message. Here I would like to focus on information coded by biological organisms and how that information is related to their identity. The essence of living things has been difficult to define conceptually. Living things or biological things have certain properties which are unique to them and which are absent in inanimate matter. Defining life has been an ongoing problem for scientists and philosophers, but what is more puzzling is that living organisms do not appear to be defined by the conventional rules of identity. To illustrate what is meant by conventional rules let us look at the Ship of Theseus paradox, which begins with an old boat made of old parts. As this boat is renovated and the old parts are replaced with new ones, it gradually begins to lose its identity. When all the parts of the ship are eventually replaced, can we still say this new renovated ship is the Ship of Theseus? If so, what if we reassembled the old ship from the old parts? Would Theseus now possess two ships? In this paradox it is clear that the problem of identifying the ship stems from defining it in terms of its old and/or new components. The conflict of identity exists because old components are replaced with new ones, confusing our common-sense notions of continuity.

But now let us turn to biological organisms, who constantly experience this turnover in components and materials.  The atoms and molecules in a living cell are constantly replaced; and at one point in a particular cell’s life it would have completely replaced those molecules and atoms it originally possessed with completely new ones. Despite this fact the living organism persists in terms of being the same living organism; it persists in being ‘that particular cell.’ The same is true for complex living organisms such as human beings: human tissue is constantly replaced and replenished, but a human persists in being the same person throughout his or her entire life. Biological organisms are constantly in flux but, unlike the Ship of Theseus, they do not lose their identity over time. Could it be that the identities of living organisms do not really depend on their components, but on something else? In this paper propose that the identity of living organisms depends on the nature of information they store and use.

Living Things as Beings of Information

When I talk of life being virtual I am saying that the identities and functions of living organisms depend on how information is coded in those organisms. We have already begun to accept the idea  that we could exist as beings of pure information: with the rise of computers and IT we have begun to question whether we can ‘upload’ our minds onto computers or whether we might be living in computer simulations like that in the movie The Matrix . It seems that we are beginning to accept that our minds might have a virtual property in the way information does. The virtual property of information is apparent when we browse the internet or open a program: we can access the information on the website on any computer and at any location. The information is virtual in the sense that it is independent of any particular computer but can be accessed through any given device. This is why we create terminology for the ‘space’ where this information exists. We call it cyberspace. The computer is simply a structure that allows the arrangement of symbols on the screen to be conveyed as a message. Analogously, living organisms have a similar property: life is a virtual phenomenon because it does not depend on the identity of the substance that constitutes a living organism but on the information the organism carries.

As previously mentioned, in the span of a lifetime a cell can replace its molecules and still persist as the very same cell. Let us take a piece of DNA inside a bacterium as an example: imagine we replaced every molecule in the DNA sequence with a new one but we did not change the sequence of the DNA itself; that is, we did not change the information in the actual DNA molecule. The bacterium would still continue to exist as the same bacterium despite the fact we have replaced the original molecules in its DNA with new ones. If we scrambled the sequence in the DNA, however, the bacterium would most likely mutate or die because the information that codes for all its cellular functions is now scrambled. The continuous function and persistence of an organism as a lifeform appears to depend on the information coded in the DNA, not the identity of the component molecules of the DNA itself. As long as we preserve the information in the DNA sequence a living thing may continue to exist with a unique identity despite any alterations in its genetic composition.

It has also been observed that upon manipulating some parts of the DNA of simple organisms, a new organism can be created with a totally different set of behaviors and properties (Marc J. Lajoe et al. 2013) . When we do these kinds of experiments with living organisms, all we are doing is changing the information of the genetic material; changing that information, on the other hand, seems to make a significant difference in what the organism does and how it is biologically defined. Unlike the Ship of Theseus, biological organisms do not change their identities just because their parts are replaced: their parts get replaced all the time, it is simply that the information stored in these organisms does not change—this information defines the organism and what it does.

Usually when we think about information stored in an organism we think about its DNA or genome. But there is a wealth of information in a living organism: many other structures (besides DNA and RNA) found in living cells are a source of information, and they have a functional purpose. In Gatenby et al. (2005) the definition of information is applied to a wide variety of molecular structures and distributions in the living cells which are unrelated to the genome. The information in these structures plays a critical role in maintaining the cell’s thermodynamic stability, for example. In other words the information found in these structures serves the purpose of maintaining the cell’s continued function.

Furthermore, we know that in living organisms everything is interconnected: the multiple forms of information are not isolated from each other; they are integrated in a network, which makes them part of a distinct system. A DNA molecule by itself, for instance, does not have a functional purpose but one triggered once we insert it into the correct cell. That is the information in a DNA molecule which can only be translated and used when it is integrated with all the other information in the cell.

Systems biology attempts to approach questions in this area by integrating as much information as possible. Instead of studying a particular biological phenomenon, as an isolated phenomenon, systems biology attempts to account for the given datum as just one part of an integrated network of data. The study of biology is moving in this direction because we are now aware of how complicated and interrelated all biological information is.

Thinking of living beings as systems of integrated information can also help us solve other problems in biology, such as the problem of whether we ought to define viruses as living things or inanimate matter: they have always fallen somewhere between the former and the latter. As a consequence biologists have struggled with defining viruses for a long time. While they seem to have some properties of living organisms—such as the ability to evolve to express genetic material, and to replicate—they seem to lack other important properties of living organisms, such as the ability to consume and metabolize energy.

Thinking of living things as beings of integrated information could help us understand viruses a lot better. The virus acquires the function to replicate and evolve once it infects a host. The virus does this by exploiting the host’s metabolic activity. The information in the viral genome cannot be used if the genome does not enter a host cell, but when it does manage to get inside, it possesses all the necessary information that allows the virus to exploit the host’s metabolism. The information coded in the viral genome is, in other words, only functional when it is integrated with all the other information in the host cell.

Within this cell the virus can express and replicate its genetic material. Based on how the information in the viral genome is integrated with the rest of the cell, it can gain the full function and properties of a living organism. We could say that the virus becomes alive once all this is complete. The virus can be considered an inanimate thing when it is not infecting a host, and a living organism when it is. This example illustrates how life can emerge from inanimate matter once information is properly integrated.

Human Cloning

We are familiar with the currently available methods of human cloning. The form of cloning with which we are acquainted is called genetic cloning, i.e. we take a person’s DNA and use the information therein to clone an identical-looking human being. There is another level of cloning that is much more complicated, however, and this has been proposed theoretically but never applied in practice due to the difficulty and complexity of actualizing such a procedure. For lack of a better word I will call it ‘complete human cloning.’ This process occurs when an entire individual is cloned; not just their DNA but their memories and experiences, too. If we assume that a person’s memory and experience is just information stored in the human brain (and the rest of the human nervous system) then in theory it should be possible to completely clone an individual with all his or her experiences, habits and memories included, providing we can reconstruct their body and nervous system.

Complete human cloning is not a new concept. It appears in various pop-culture books and movies: in the movie AI, for instance, an artificially intelligent robot child goes in search of his mother. He ends up trapped underwater and emerges thousands of years later, when an alien race finds him and manages to ‘completely’ clone his mother. She carries all her memories and experiences with her, and is thus considered to be the child’s mother. The same person that took care of him thousands of years ago.

The concept of complete human cloning is very much in line with the idea that biological identity consists in virtual information as opposed to material constitution. Since information is virtual, a person can be reconstructed eons after his death and still continue to live his life. The person’s identity becomes a function of all the information stored in his DNA, brain, and the rest of the body. After we have sufficient knowledge of the entire human brain and nervous system, in principle we ought to be able to achieve immortality via this complete human cloning.

If we can entirely decode the information within the human body we may be able to resurrect individuals at any point in time and allow them to live forever through repetition of this process. According to this idea, though the physical body is a medium through which information is expressed, the existence of our biological information does not rely on physicality since our information is not destroyed when our bodies are. This position poses a few philosophical and paradoxical challenges, however, and as we will see in the coming sections it challenges the idea of the mind and body as one and the same thing.

Uploading Consciousness to a Computer

Up until now we have talked about achieving immortality by complete human cloning. This is in theory possible because we may be able to build biological matter in such a way that we are able to make a living body of a deceased person that preserves all the information of that individual’s past. Let us go one step further and ask if all biological information requires biological matter in order to be expressed. For instance, there are two ways we can store the information of a DNA molecule: we can either store it in the molecule itself, which is where all biological organisms store it, or we can stash that same information in a computer file, which is where we tend to store genetic information for analysis. Storing it in a DNA molecule allows that information to be properly expressed and put to functional use; storing it on the computer does not.  Although biological information can be stored in various mediums, it seems to be expressed only in biological mediums.

But lately the idea that consciousness could be uploaded onto a computer has been discussed. The notion here is that biological matter might not be necessary to express consciousness or conscious information. Max Tegmark, a cosmologist from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, talks about consciousness in terms of mathematical patterns which produce consciousness . This idea is also beginning to gain popularity among neuroscientists such as Kenneth Hayworth.  These mathematical patterns that produce consciousness are independent of the material that produces conscious experience. What matters instead of using the right materials is using the right configurations of matter that produce consciousness. According to Tegmark consciousness emerges out of pure information.  If we hold to this theory of consciousness then we could easily upload our consciousness onto computers as long as the materials that make up that computer are in the right configuration. If indeed we can upload our minds onto a computer then our identity does not just consist in biological information but in information that can be transferred between different kinds of matter. In this case we cease to be biological entities that belong to a certain category of organisms; rather we are virtual entities of information, and become defined by such things as the information stored in the connectivity of our neural networks and the mathematical patterns that (might) produce consciousness.

Interestingly the internet functions a lot like our brain does. It consists of many modular and computational units (personal computers, satellites etc.) that are connected in a complex network where data is rapidly communicated. We describe cyberspace as a virtual domain comprising pure information within which the contents of the internet is stored. Analogously the brain also communicates its information across large, modular networks and its informational content is also stockpiled in what we may call conscious space. Like cyberspace, conscious space is a realm of pure information. To reference movies like The Matrix  as an example, it does not matter whether we are hooked up to a Matrix or not, for our brain naturally produces one—consciousness.

Indeed, consciousness cannot be defined in any other way. Its properties have eluded any form of materialistic definition for centuries, but consciousness is surely a form of information. According to David Chalmers consciousness informs us of what it is like to be. It is information provided by the experience of being.  And we can instantly note why there seems to be a gap in our understanding between the information that tells us what it is like to be and the information that tells us what something is. Materialism attempts to describe what things are and how they function in terms of observable properties: we can observe a thing and note what that thing is and what it does. But when we talk about consciousness we can talk only of personal experiences, about what it is like to be ourselves. One kind of information obviously translates into the other. It seems clear that information about being seems to emerge from our brain, a thing described in terms of observations and materialistic paradigms. Our knowledge falls short in that instance when the information provided by objective observation of our brain translates into information about our subjective experience.

This is akin to the problem Watson and Crick encountered when they tried to explain the information within the DNA molecule could be translated into functional information regarding metabolism and cell physiology.  Their case, both men were fortunate in that genetic information and other biological information can be reduced to a materialist thesis. Besides consciousness, all other biological information consists in data that can be accounted for in materialist terms. The brain, on the other hand, seems to translate between two types of information that are irreducible. Why are the two types of information irreducible? Why is it impossible to acquire information of what it is like to be something from what a thing is?

To answer these questions we must think about the emergence of awareness: we only become aware when all the proper material structures are in place so to allow it to emerge. We are not aware during the process of those material structures’ assembly, and because of that we cannot observe how one type of information translates into the other. We cannot observe how a materialistic thing translates information into personal experience because awareness and observation only emerge when that information has already been translated. As a consequence we cannot integrate this translation of information into our knowledge and understanding, making body and mind seem thoroughly irreducible.

Mind and Body

An information-based theory of consciousness can (hopefully) address a few of these puzzling questions, though it also creates a few problems, too. Previously I discussed why mind and body seem irreducible. I mentioned that we cannot observe how the brain translates information stored in neural networks into conscious experience, and as a consequence we do not know how consciousness emerges. Now we can ask whether this irreducibility between mind and body exists because we lack knowledge or whether there is an intrinsic irreducibility that exists despite our lack of knowledge.

To answer this question let us go back to our example of complete human cloning. When we ‘completely’ clone a human being we are not just reproducing the materials of which that person is made but their conscious experience also. However, the problem here is that there is no theoretical limit to reproduction as long as we have the right quantity of materials and resources. Let us say we have two computers and we can open the same webpage on both. The identity of the website is not compromised, despite the fact it is occupying two locations simultaneously, because it is defined in terms of information instead of components. As long as the same information is communicated on the website then we consider that to be the same website even if we opened it on an infinite number of computers. Does this hold for conscious beings though?

In theory if we had all the materials and resources we could replicate two identical human beings at once. However, when they both become conscious at the same time whose consciousness are we talking about? Do they both share the same consciousness? If their brains are both in the same configuration, then they ought to share the same consciousness. However, we cannot even conceive of what it is like to share the same consciousness between two material bodies. If we cannot conceive of such a thing (when in theory it should be possible), then we run into a big problem. Mind and body become incompatible with each other and their mutual existence becomes paradoxical.

Perspectives on the Human Condition

In the past the human animal has been defined in several different ways. Descartes defined the human being as the thinking animal. Nietzsche defined the human as the laughing animal, the weeping animal and the mad animal. If one day we are able to transfer our conscious experience onto a computer then we enter a new era where humans are defined as virtual animals or more accurately as virtual beings. At this point defining humans as animals ceases to be a meaningful definition, as information replaces our identities with something as intangible as the soul.

Works Cited

Marc J. Lajoie et al. (2013) Genomically Recorded Organisms Expand Biological Functions, Science, 342(6156): 357-360.

Gatsenby R.A. et al. (2005) The role of non-genomic information in maintaining thermodynamic stability in living systems, Math Biosci. Eng. 2(1): 43-51.

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