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January 23, 2018

CATEGORY: Wandering Towards a Goal Essay Contest (2016-2017) [back]
TOPIC: Bio from Bit by Sara Imari Walker [refresh]
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Author Sara Imari Walker wrote on Mar. 14, 2017 @ 16:10 GMT
Essay Abstract

Understanding the origin(s) and nature of life poses a perplexing problem for physics. On the one hand our approaches to physics are incredibly adept at describing the material world. On the other hand abstractions such as what we commonly describe as information are important in biology, but their role in the physical world is not yet fully understood. In this essay I discuss how information (as we understand it in biology) is a window into causal structures that bridge counterfactual histories (and futures) and allow the possible for transitions between histories. It is this multiple realizability that is one of the most distinctive properties of living systems. It also leads to some of their most interesting – and difficult to explain – features, such as their apparent goal directedness.

Author Bio

Sara Walker is an Assistant Professor in the School of Earth and Space Exploration at Arizona State University. Her research focuses on the origins and nature of life.

Download Essay PDF File

Donald G Palmer wrote on Mar. 14, 2017 @ 20:45 GMT
Hello Sara,

A very well written and supported essay!

You pull from a number of different (several non-physics) areas and tie them together in a powerful way. I think you have done a great job in defining how goal-directedness (including aims and intentions) can occur without identifying specific particles or low-level entities that cause them. This is up there with the best essays I...

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Author Sara Imari Walker replied on Mar. 24, 2017 @ 03:06 GMT
Hi Don,

I agree with your points 1 and 2. I tried to stick with explicit examples that illustrate important concepts but recognize they are limited and that none of them captures everything about what is really going on (I like your point that we may not have the right mathematical tools, I very much agree and feel dissatisfied with statical approaches but find them useful in lieu of something better in the interim).

I am not sure on your last example, could you explain a bit more what you mean? Since 'levels' are different descriptions of the same thing I am not sure it requires embedding them in a higher dimensional space to understand their structure. I may agree with you but I've not thought about it this way so it would be good to see if we are indeed thinking along similar lines.

Thanks for the thoughtful comments on my essay!

All the best,


James Arnold wrote on Mar. 15, 2017 @ 11:48 GMT

A masterful essay!

From my anti-deterministic bias, it seems to me that a biological attractor can best be understood as the goal that organizes the micro-dynamics, not as the product of "mindless mathematical laws." Can deterministic physical systems be plausibly expected to produce anything but "strange" attractors?

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Author Sara Imari Walker replied on Mar. 24, 2017 @ 03:10 GMT
This is an interesting thought. I go back and forth about whether I think everything is deterministic or if randomness is essential. Since the descriptions in the biological model I discussed are all at the macro level, the micro-dynamics do not need to be deterministic, so I am not sure these things are antagonistic. But why do you think deterministic systems would only produce "strange" attractors?

All the best,


Conrad Dale Johnson wrote on Mar. 15, 2017 @ 13:00 GMT
Hi Sara –

I was hoping to find an essay from you here, and at the last minute one appears. I like very much the point you make at the beginning, that knowledge has power because it lets us do things… and that this applies not only to us human theorizers, but also to biological systems. What I take from this is that gaining information about the world is not only a matter of modeling,...

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Author Sara Imari Walker replied on Mar. 24, 2017 @ 03:38 GMT
Hi Conrad,

Thanks for the comments - and for pointing me to a few additional essays to read here! I obviously agree it is obvious that higher-level entities can have causal power. The point is that we still need to understand how this works, why it happens, and why some physical systems (i.e. living entities including us) seem to have more "causal power" than others. As an example, it was...

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Simon DeDeo wrote on Mar. 15, 2017 @ 13:24 GMT
Dear Sara,

Reading this was an excellent way to wake up this morning.

We often use the non-determinism that arises from coarse-graining to argue for the *destruction* of patterns—e.g., the second law of thermodynamics. In those cases, we think of coarse-graining in a state-space like position/momentum (using a grid as in your Figure One). In those cases, when we lose the...

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Author Sara Imari Walker replied on Mar. 24, 2017 @ 03:52 GMT
Hi Simon,

Thanks! This is great fun - i really like your Grand Central Station example. I think there are some things I can do with your suggestions ... will be interesting to play around with.

All the best,


Erik P Hoel wrote on Mar. 15, 2017 @ 15:48 GMT
Sara - great essay! I thoroughly enjoyed it, and it's an excellent overview of the latest in the field. Of course, I may be a little biased in that I'm always happy to see causal emergence make an appearance!

You can check out my own essay on causal emergence and how it relates to agents:

I did have a question though. At the end of your...

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Author Sara Imari Walker replied on Mar. 24, 2017 @ 04:53 GMT
Hi Erik,

Thanks for the enthusiasm! I've really enjoyed your work on causal emergence.

I am still playing around with these examples and finding the best way to describe and motivate them, so your questions are really great. My main motivation is that I am interested in how you can get different dynamics from the same initial state and fixed dynamical law by partitioning systems in...

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Erik P Hoel replied on Apr. 7, 2017 @ 15:11 GMT
Thanks so much for the detailed response Sara! Really appreciate it, and you did a good job clarifying it.

"To describe life, I'd like solutions where there are many paths that can be traversed defined by the interactions, coupling the systems in this way gives that kind of flexibility."

I completely agree - I think looking particularly at openness is a really good idea, as you say. This leads to the question of: what's the difference between open and closed systems in terms of the causal structure, and does an open causal structure make a system more "life like"? I have an example in my own essay where being open enriches the causal structure of a system and makes all sorts of intrinsic causal paths available that the same system, in a closed environment, doesn't have.

"But I am interested in cases where the boundary obeys the same laws at the micro level as the system you are studying."

I think you're right that this is key, especially because it seems to me the only way to make a fair comparison. Not everyone always makes fair comparisons, which is why it's so applaudable that you're well-defining the open systems within the context of dynamic deterministic laws.

Anyways, thanks again for the detailed response, and looking forward to talking to you more in the future, especially if we can get our hands on a whiteboard :)


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Dizhechko Boris Semyonovich wrote on Mar. 15, 2017 @ 16:58 GMT
Dear, Сара Имари Уокер.

I inform all the participants that use the electronic translator, therefore, my essay is written badly. I participate in the contest to familiarize English-speaking scientists with New Cartesian Physic, the basis of which the principle of identity of space and matter. Combining space and matter into a single essence, the New Cartesian Physic is able to integrate modern physics into a single theory. Let FQXi will be the starting point of this Association.

Don't let the New Cartesian Physic disappear! Do not ask for himself, but for Descartes.

New Cartesian Physic has great potential in understanding the world. To show potential in this essay I risked give "The way of The materialist explanation of the paranormal and the supernatural" - Is the name of my essay.

Visit my essay and you will find something in it about New Cartesian Physic. After you give a post in my topic, I shall do the same.


Dizhechko Boris

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William L Stubbs wrote on Mar. 15, 2017 @ 18:13 GMT
Professor Walker,

Congratulations on a very interesting and well-written essay that discusses aspects of the theme of the contest.

It seems you believe only living systems exhibit goal-directed behavior and I share that belief with you. From that, I had hoped you would develop an argument for how the capacity for living systems to exhibit the behavior is born out of the...

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Jack Hamilton James wrote on Mar. 16, 2017 @ 01:56 GMT
Dear Sara

What an excellent essay. One of the few to approach it from biology, or highlight the importance of what can be learnt from it to answer the question. I think Ellis and mine and a couple more the only others, though mine is epistemologically focused. Will happily rate this essay in top percentage, perhaps u can read and rate mine but understand your busy. I wonder this simultaneous electric in and through neurons, how is it consciousness? Still the illusive internal external hard problem remains - but your solving the wiring issue!


Jack Hamiltion James

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Alfredo Gouveia Oliveira wrote on Mar. 16, 2017 @ 12:49 GMT
Dear Sara Walker

I read your essay with great interest. One of the two essays that so far have interested me more. I think that there is a great similarity between your line of reasoning in the biological side and mine in the physical side. I would say that you wonder on bit-to-bio while I wonder on abio-to-bit.

In my essay I dare to enter also in the biological field, introducing something that may help to understand why life evolved as it did. Life seems to be prone to evolve in all possible directions; yet, it evolved towards human society as if this was a goal. You show that life has the power to evolve – you present the basic process of intelligence of life, and we can say that life has “intelligence” (according to my non-anthropomorphic definition of intelligence)- but “intelligence” either needs a goal or an external pressure to determine the way to follow. Intelligence is always the result of two processes, to which I call Hypothesis generation and Selection. And this happens at all levels within life, as you show, which is very important. I present a new Selection factor at the upper level that may have conditioned Selection processes all the way down to the bit, therefore may be important for your analysis. Once we understand the “generation of hypotheses”, it is in the understanding of the Selection processes that we may find whether there is a goal or not. I think that our essays gave complementary contributions to this issue, are tow pieces of this magnum puzzle.

All the best,

Alfredo Gouveia Oliveira

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Satyavarapu Naga Parameswara Gupta wrote on Mar. 17, 2017 @ 23:14 GMT
Nice essay Sara Walker,

Wonderful opening sentences!….. “the extreme such as what happens under gravitational collapse or how the nucleus is bound together. However, so far our best theories of physics have not yet been able to explain why physical systems exist that can and do create theories to describe the world (Krakauer, 2014). Arguably this is the most interesting feature of...

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Jesse Liu wrote on Mar. 18, 2017 @ 09:28 GMT
Dear Sara,

Thank you for such a finely crafted and interesting essay, with thought-provoking ideas exploring the role of information in scientific theories. As a particle physicist, one thing I definitely agree with you is the underappreciation that emergence and reductionism are not at odds with each other.

While researching for our essay, my coauthor and I were influenced by your earlier work from the wider literature, in particular 'The algorithmic origins of life' regarding the transitional roles of information giving rise to biology and other goal-directed structures. I'd just like to personally extend our compliments to you here as it is always a pleasure reading your insightful arguments.



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Lawrence B. Crowell wrote on Mar. 18, 2017 @ 13:19 GMT
Dear Sara Walker.

I found your essay to be quite superb, and I boosted your rating here. It is one of the dozen or so that I have downloaded as a keeper. The branching pattern for emergence is an aspect of something called MERA. This in the biological setting is seen with the branching pattern, such as with figure 2. These set up competing "tracks" of causal development, and a large domain of complexity as seen with the Bell number.

If you look at my essay I discuss causal domains and the open world. I have a review of the MERA tensor network quantum field method in anti de Sitter spacetime. This leads to causal domains as a fundamental aspect of the universe. I think there is a sort of duality between bottom up and top down perspective on the emergence of complexity in the universe.

Cheers LC

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Joe Fisher wrote on Mar. 18, 2017 @ 15:37 GMT
Dear Professor Sara Imari Walker [,

Please excuse me for I have no intention of disparaging in any way any part of your essay.

I merely wish to point out that “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.” Albert Einstein (1879 - 1955) Physicist & Nobel Laureate.

Only nature could produce a reality so simple, a single cell amoeba could deal with it.

The real Universe must consist only of one unified visible infinite physical surface occurring in one infinite dimension, that am always illuminated by infinite non-surface light.

A more detailed explanation of natural reality can be found in my essay, SCORE ONE FOR SIMPLICITY. I do hope that you will read my essay and perhaps comment on its merit.

Joe Fisher, Realist

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Stefan Keppeler wrote on Mar. 18, 2017 @ 22:17 GMT
Dear Sara,

this is a nice contribution. I particularly like how you describe goal-directedness in terms of a primary attractor. I strongly support that "there is no a priori reason to assume that we should not treat all levels equally" and that "emergence and reductionism are not at odds" -- points I also make in my essay. Reductionism and emergence are two sides of the same coin.

Cheers, Stefan

PS (one minor remark): The formula you give for the Bell numbers,
yields just
The Bell numbers satisfy the recursion relation
Of course, this doesn't affect any of your arguments.

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james r. akerlund wrote on Mar. 28, 2017 @ 03:58 GMT
Hi Sara,

I read your beautiful submission and I am impressed, except for it's one fatal flaw. We don't have a good definition of life yet. Until that definition exists the things that fall under the definition of life but aren't get to have "aims and intentions" as you say only life has. A burning match falls under some definitions of life. Are you saying a burning match has "aims and intentions"? Your whole paragraph on the Yeast cell cycle could replace the word Yeast with burning match and still have the same outcome although a different figure 1.

You have done something that I have never seen before in an FQXi contest. You cited as a reference another contestant in this contest. The contestant is Erik P. Hoel that you cite in your references. You didn't cite his submission to this contest.

Anyway, good luck in the contest.

Jim Akerlund

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Branko L Zivlak wrote on Apr. 2, 2017 @ 14:04 GMT

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George Gantz wrote on Apr. 3, 2017 @ 16:06 GMT
Sara -

Well done. Your score should be much higher.

If I had read your essay before writing mine, I would certainly have cited it! :)

Best of luck - George Gantz (The How and The Why of Intention)

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Janko Kokosar wrote on Apr. 4, 2017 @ 19:05 GMT
Dear Sara Walker

You write:

»If deterministic physical laws describe all of reality, there is no “room at the bottom” for macro systems (such as living entities) to do causal work.«

This is one of the best sentences in this contest.

You write also

»an explicit measure of how a whole can be “more than the sum of its parts”. Briefly, a system is integrated if when cut in parts it looses cause-effect power«

I claim that consciousness is everywhere, although in the most elementary form, this is panpsychism. I claim also that the smallest units of consciousness arise at every wavefunction collapse.

We can also add that entangelment is the simplest example where connection between two particles gives information, which do not exist in particles alone.

Therefore I suspect that top-down causation and quantum consciousness are two aspects of the same phenomenon.

As a question, how much information is hidden in one monocrystall? How this information is larger than in atoms alone?

More in my essay and in other my links.

Best regards, Janko Kokošar

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James Gordon Stanfield wrote on Apr. 7, 2017 @ 00:20 GMT
Sara Walker,

This is a fantastic essay on the emergence of purpose. It is one of the best I have read; right up there with John Ellis.

Here comes the amateur lumbering into the conversation, way over his head. All of the following statements are guesses. They should be prefaced with: “Could it be that…" I haven't even begun to parse it all, if I ever will. I see a lot of...

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Dizhechko Boris Semyonovich wrote on Apr. 7, 2017 @ 02:55 GMT
Dear Sirs!

Physics of Descartes, which existed prior to the physics of Newton returned as the New Cartesian Physic and promises to be a theory of everything. To tell you this good news I use spam.

New Cartesian Physic based on the identity of space and matter. It showed that the formula of mass-energy equivalence comes from the pressure of the Universe, the flow of force which on the corpuscle is equal to the product of Planck's constant to the speed of light.

New Cartesian Physic has great potential for understanding the world. To show it, I ventured to give "materialistic explanations of the paranormal and supernatural" is the title of my essay.

Visit my essay, you will find there the New Cartesian Physic and make a short entry: "I believe that space is a matter" I will answer you in return. Can put me 1.


Dizhechko Boris

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Anonymous wrote on Apr. 7, 2017 @ 03:35 GMT

This was an enjoyable read. Thank you.

I am curious regarding anti-accretion ... I believe that one of Saturn's moons has a very active volcano that spews material at a velocity that exceeds the escape velocity of that moon. It is thought to be the source of the ring material ... I think this might be an exception to the tech civilization idea you present early.

I did not realize that yeast cells were so useful to experimenters ... I've got some working for me right now brewing beer:-) The robustness of the states that you describe is interesting and a little surprising.

The use of an attractor in state-space is an idea presented in another essay that I have read ... it makes good sense I think and should lend itself to a mathematical formalism.

You are absolutely correct in that innovation leads to exponential innovation provided that there are enough innovators present ... it's almost to the point of being crazy fast.

The ability to specify the (integrated) system boundaries is a feature in another essay also. This also makes sense. The system becomes inoperative if any critical piece is removed.

I was not able to infer the meaning of Rule 150. What is that?

I did not fully understand what you presented but it was an informative essay.

Best Regards and Good Luck,

Gary Simpson

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Janko Kokosar wrote on Apr. 7, 2017 @ 23:13 GMT
Dear Larissa

Sara Walker writes:

»If deterministic physical laws describe all of reality, there is no “room at the bottom” for macro systems (such as living entities) to do causal work.«

I think that you are the only who can answer if this is true in this contest. Does simulation, you described answer anything about this? Can you prove this?

my essay

Best regards, Janko Kokošar

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Jeffrey Michael Schmitz wrote on Apr. 8, 2017 @ 03:13 GMT
Dear Sara Walker,

What reader were you thinking of when you wrote this essay? Most of your figures and examples seem to require reference to other works to understand. Why would we not just read those other work? You make no attempt at a stand alone essay. You reference "rule 150" and do not state the rule. Make reference to a function producing a large number and do not give an example of a number produced under given conditions. Most of what you show would work for water flowing into a stream. Is there anything here that is a new idea or explains an old idea in a new, better way?


Jeff Schmitz

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