Thursday, July 31, 2008

The Big Misunderstanding

A friend once told me: Objects don't exist (maybe I'm paraphrasing incorrectly).
This seems counter-intuitive. But a bit less so when one instead says "Objects are over-rated: It's the process stupid!". (I must be paraphrasing incorrectly now for sure). The latter (think process, not object!)  I find more agreeable and understandable: A problem arises when we think of subjects and living things/beings (as objects) -- Where do "they" go when the "body dies"? That's when you have to invent the "soul": The body dies, but the soul lives on.

Sounds good. Many religions have this idea in common -- there is more to life than the body, and that other part (the non-body) goes on forever (into plus infinity); and in some religions probably that other part has been there forever (from -infinity; assuming birth is t=0). For example the old Egyptians had the Ka (a kind of eternal life force) and the human body was just the proxy here on Earth (I have these constant doubts whether I'm paraphrasing correctly -- go check wikipedia yourself ;-)

So what do we know today: The cells of any living thing (or better: living being; even better: living process) have usually a short lifespan. Your identity is not the identity of your cells. Cells are coming and going, but "you" are still the same (or so you think).
Similarly, you are not your atoms, since atoms in your body are coming and going as well. So you can calculate an "average turnover rate" at the cellular level (e.g. based on the average age of cells in your body) and at the atomic level (e.g. based on the average time an atom resides in your body before it moves on to other things). With atoms and cells coming and going, the importance of "object-orientation" (in the conventional, i.e., material sense) as the basis for your identity or what anybody is or who we are is clearly  overrated.
We are not the "stuff" we're (temporarily, at a given point) made of (In the "stuff sense" though, we still are what we eat -- the atoms that make up are body come from the food we eat; but then again those are replaceable).
So we are process, not object.
What about information? Are we information? Well, a lot of what we are or rather what we can be (as a process) is determined by our "initial program": An individual's genetic make up. The sum of all information stored in the DNA of an individual. The same such "programs" runs billions of times in parallel in the body of a living being. Just watch one of those amazing animations that show how RNA is made from DNA and proteins are made from RNA. This process and many, many more are constrained in what they can do by the DNA. But it's not just "nature" -- there is also "nurture". Environmental factors can't be neglected either. You can view this as a set of "parameter settings" that determine how "the program" is to be interpreted at a certain time. Those parameter settings can be different e.g. in "identical" twins -- and they can even change over time.

So we are not "just" information or just a program. The program (say encoded in DNA) has to become "alive" in a proper "runtime environment". A running program is a process. The process follows the logic given by the program but  quite different processes (and thus different process histories) can result via different "parameter settings". Past settings can influence future settings. We can think of the process as having "state" or memory. Using this terminology, things can be explained simply: A living being is a process, constrained by a program, and "initiated" at birth. Procreation is really spawning of new processes. If a process terminates, the program might still be around (e.g. in an identical twin), but the process and its history (determined also by parameter settings) are unique.
There are at least two kinds of memory / state in the system: at the individual process level, there is the "local memory" of the process. When looking over longer periods of time, spanning many generations, we recognize that some information is memorized in the program itself. The program "learns" and remembers a certain new "program logic" over time. We call this "genetic information" and genes the carriers of that information (Similar to genes, it can be hard in a program to localize which part of the program is causing which behavior. There are not just local switches and variable settings to consider, but the interplay of code fragments).
Process spawning (procreation) in nature is a bit more complex than in Unix: Often (but not always) there is not one parent process but two: The programs are "merged" in a particular way to create a new program. Then that new program is started. Check the process table (ps -elf) for details ;-)

A little while ago, one of my child processes awoke this parent process. At which point the above thoughts were output by the parent.
Now all three current children processes need some interaction with the parent, else they go "out of bounds" (and we don't want any segmentation faults here). I love them very much.

So why did I call this the big misunderstanding: I think much of the above view is correct. But it is often misunderstood. Or rather many people say body and soul when they mean process and program. In that sense, the soul leaves on (almost) forever -- but with modification...

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