How can we predict the future from the experience of the past? That is a pretty important question, because it’s all we have going for us. Natural selection can do this in a way. But it does it in a rather inefficient way. It is like saying okay this and this and this could happen and predicting almost everything that could in some way happen and then nature kicks in and eradicates those predictions that weren’t helpful and keeps those that were. Okay now this seems like a bad idea but it actually isn’t. It’s actually the only way. It’s the same thing that our brains do. We have hypotheses about the world, predictions about what will happen. And then these predictions will turn out wrong or they will turn out correctly. We normally discard predictions that are wrong and keep those that are correct. So we are also just using the mechanisms of variation and subsequent selection to make our predictions about the future.
And when I say predictions about the future I do not only mean predicting the weather or what you will do tomorrow but also things like learning to walk. You need to predict the future because you need to know which sequence of muscle contractions will keep you on your feet and which will help you stay upright. So a baby will try and try again to stay upright as long as it can. It is constantly updating its knowledge. Things would be pretty easy if there were only one way to do it. That would be the right way then. But that’s not how life works. There are so many different paths to take. And the majority of them won’t lead to anything new. We don’t know which path is the right one, we only have suspicions and hunches of which ones to take. Only once we have taken a path can we know if it was the right one or not. You can only live life moving forward, looking back you may know it was a wrong decision but at the time you couldn’t have known that. That means you cannot avoid mistakes, they are inevitable. You would have to be so extremely lucky not having any mistake in your life. Sometimes you just have to take one path and stick to it and hope for the best.
But is there really no way to know something before having tried it out? If that were the case, then there would be no progress in the world, evolution wouldn’t work. The transmission of knowledge is the only way to know things before having tried them out. If your friend tells you: “Don’t go into that movie, it sucks”, you don’t have to go into that movie to know that you won’t like it. Or you don’t trust your friend and go anyway. That is the most intuitive example of knowledge transmission. But we can also take a look at the evolution of ever more complex species on this planet, it all relies on the transmission of DNA, which can be seen as transmission of knowledge or information. And precisely the transmission of that DNA which survived and reproduced the best. So in some sense that DNA which was closest to the truth. And then a new round of trial and error begins but this time with saved progress! These organisms don’t make the same mistakes as their predecessors. Some will be worse, some will be better off. Those that are better off will reproduce more. You know the rest of the story. Therefore, bit by bit, organisms are born that simply work. And they work because their knowledge of the world is close to the truth.
So that is a very clear example of how we don’t have to try everything out in order to know its outcome. We learn the most from others, we read books and articles and papers. We get life advice as we are growing up such as: money won’t make you happy, sharing is caring, follow your heart etc. These are all things that are supposed to stop us from making the same mistakes as our parents. These are things that help us make progress. If every generation made the same mistakes, we would be stuck on the spot. So progress is only made, evolution only occurs, when knowledge is transmitted. Imagine a cruel dictator who builds a grand stadium in order to amuse his people and keep their minds off revolt. In this stadium people are randomly chosen to play the game. The game consists of 10 doors and only one of them does not lead to death. All others lead to a tragic ending. Now the first guy picks a door, he goes in and vanishes. We don’t know if he is dead or not. That is not shown. So all the other people have gained nothing from observing this man walking through this door, no knowledge was transmitted and no progress can be made. The next person has the same chances as the first one: 1/10. This person picks another door and walks through. And we hear an ear-splitting scream. Now we have something to go on. We just have to remember which door that person went through and avoid that door. We also might conclude that the first guy that went through and did not scream picked the right door! But that only works if every death door makes everyone scream that goes through it. So knowledge transmission isn’t at all that straightforward.
We might suppose that the easiest way to transmit knowledge is if the person going through the door shouts back and says I’m safe or shouts back this is the death door. But what if our cruel dictator devised it so that everybody thinks they are safe upon going through any door? So then everyone would pick the door that the first person went through and everyone would think they would survive but instead everyone dies, pretty tragic. Information is only useful if it is the truth. Of course the first guy wasn’t lying about his beliefs, the beliefs were lying about the world. It doesn’t really matter what the person says when he goes through the door either. If every person that goes through a death door says “Yippiee” and everyone who picks the correct door says “Dayuuum” then we can use this as information. Yet we still can’t say which is which. We might infer that “Yippiee” is for the wrong door or the other way around. We definitely cannot know for sure. So how then can knowledge be transmitted? It can’t be directly transmitted. The only thing that can happen is that information is reproduced or not. And information doesn’t have to be the truth in order to be reproduced. With all the fake news going on these days that is pretty fucking evident. Only when the reproduction of information depends on its truth value does it become truthful over time. Only when people uphold truthfulness as a virtue in society does information persevere that gives you knowledge about the world.
Reproduction of Information
Now let’s say the dictator wants to really spice things up. He constructs multiple rounds so that those who survived the first one get to the second round. Every round has 10 doors and again only one of them is the correct one. So the chances of surviving 2 rounds are 1/10 * 1/10 = 1/100. On average, out of 100 people playing, only 1 will survive the second round. And if we do this 1000 times and there is still only 1 person surviving on average, we can say that no knowledge is being transmitted. There is no growth happening, no evolution, no learning. But what if over time more and more slaves survive? Then there must be some kind of mechanism that is transmitting knowledge. There must be some kind of saving of progress. And saving of progress means that only that information is being saved/maintained that helps the slaves survive. In the end it is all about reproduction. Information that is being reproduced is information that is maintained. And you can maintain false information or helpful information. When less slaves are dying, helpful information is being maintained. So in order for progress to be made we first need a mechanism of information transmission, which is just another name for the reproduction of information.
“The fundamental problem of communication is that of reproducing at one point, either exactly or approximately, a message selected at another point.”
That is Claude Shannon’s, the father of information theory, definition of communication, which is essentially the transmission of information. If there is no way for a slave that has survived to communicate to his fellow slaves then there is no way for information to be reproduced. Be that false information or correct information. A malevolent slave may go through the correct door and shout back to his slaves that he has arrived at the death chamber, condemning them all to death if they believe him. So reproduction of information is necessary but not sufficient for progress. For progress to be made, helpful information must be reproduced. A slave shouting back to his mates that this is the correct door when it is in fact the correct one will drastically improve their chances of survival. Keep in mind that the information that we want to reproduce is not what the slave says, what the slave wants to reproduce in the minds of his mates is the decision to take this or that door. It does not matter what the slave says as long as this makes his fellow slaves choose the correct door.
So the transmission of information only requires one thing: a mechanism of reproduction. But as I just explained this is not enough to make progress or to ensure that more and more slaves survive. There must be a second mechanism: selection of information. And with this I mean increased reproduction of one kind of information. Some information must be reproduced more than other information. If all the slaves choose each and every door the same amount then survival will not increase. Only when the information to pick one specific door is reproduced more than the information to pick other doors do we have a form of selection. And again I stress that selection does not ensure progress as measured by us! Increased reproduction of one kind of information relative to others can also lead to all the slaves dying and not even one of them making it out, as may be in the case of the malevolent slave who tricked all his companions.
Let’s return to the question we asked at the beginning:
“Is there a way to know something without having tried it out?”
And the answer is definitely yes as we have seen. This is how progress is made, by the differentiated reproduction of information. Some information is reproduced, and therefore transmitted, more frequently than other information. Each generation has to use less trial and error on things it already knows and instead concentrates on what it does not know. A plant that is newly born from a seed has never before tried to gain energy from the sun. But it can do so easily with the help of the information stored in its DNA. A scientist does not have to go prove that earth is not flat all over again, he believes in the evidence put forward by his fellow scientists. Children growing up do not have to make the same mistakes as their parents, they actively rebel against it. We do not need to try out drugs to know that they may be dangerous, yet of course we still do sometimes. Because in the end some things just have to be experienced and can’t be told or taught or passed on. Some information cannot be preserved but must be selected anew in every generation. Things change. But that’s a topic for another post.