Pixel art, amateur astronomy, emergence, and meaning…
Start with a single pixel. A uniform colored square. Simple. Uncomplex. The most basic unit of any digital picture. It is the fundamental particle of virtual imagery, not unlike real world electrons and quarks on the quantum scale. And a rainbow is a sort-of Periodic Table of Picture Elements. Individual pixels have just a few simple properties and rules: location and color (hue, saturation, and luminosity), that’s pretty much it. Very specific and defined qualities. No wiggle room for these elementary attributes. Basic.
Insert another pixel with slightly altered qualities; its relative location is above the first, and the saturation is slightly higher. Now we have two pixels, a darker one beneath a brighter one. Still very simple. To a human looking at these two squares, not much can be derived from them. What do they mean? What information do they hold? What stories do they tell? In order for meaningfulness to arise, we need more. We need more pixels! We need more information…
Throw two more in and we get a block of four. We’re still hard-pressed to conjure up something significant. Maybe if we have a block of nine pixels in a three-by-three grid, all white ones on the outside with one black pixel in the middle. This pattern begins to have some familiar attributes. It’s not perfect, but its qualities resemble something familiar – perhaps an eyeball? Too many straight edges and too many corners and not enough diversity in the colors. (But our minds start to round these edges off and fill in the blanks.)
Add twenty more and the brain doesn’t have to work as hard to see the virtual eye looking back. Add a thousand… add twenty thousand… add a few million!… and the eye on the screen becomes impossible to differentiate from the real thing! Our biological eyes can’t resolve anything higher and the virtual eye becomes real. (Visually, anyway.) With enough pixels – with enough information – anything can be created.
Given this progression, it seems that at its most fundamental level, information is a thing’s attributes as well as the relationship of that thing with other things – whether that ‘thing’ is a physical thing, an idea, or even a feeling. Compiling data of many things and their relationships is the essence of information.
The more information, the more meaningful the thing becomes. Patterns and complexity matter. The concept of ‘gestalt’ – an organized whole that is perceived as more than the sum of its parts – only forms once a critical mass of information is reached. But the important thing is that information can come from anywhere and doesn’t have to come from the thing itself.
The original, super-simple three-by-three grid could be seen as an eyeball as long as the observer’s imagination filled in the missing information. The image produced in the observer’s mind and the ideas and thoughts that arise might be identical regardless of the resolution of the eyeball; a square eye and a hyper-realistic eye is still an eye …in the eye of the beholder.
This is exactly how backyard astronomy can be so impactful even though the images in the eyepiece are usually no better than a blurry grey smudge on a black background. Someone with no prior knowledge of astronomy may peer through a telescope and say, “I see a tiny white dot. So, what?” But to someone who has prior knowledge of that tiny white dot, it becomes something so much more! An enormous amount of information was gathered by generations of scientists and astronomers creating a deep understanding of these seemingly simple points of light. This knowledge transforms these dots and smudges into swirling nebulae, stellar nurseries, and massive red giant stars.
This information isn’t transcribed into the tiny white dot itself. Rather, the mind’s knowledge projects this information onto it. Armed with that knowledge, the image in the eyepiece is transformed by combining what the eye sees and what the mind knows, and the imagination does the rest.
The same phenomenon happens when we read. We can think of letters as fundamental particles and the alphabet is the Periodic Table of Language. When these fundamental particles – or letters – are arranged in specific combinations, complexity arises that is more than the sum of its parts. A single letter doesn’t mean much or contain much information, but when combined with a specific pattern of many letters, an epic story on the scale of A Tale of Two Cities can emerge. The right combination and quantity of letters can shift someone’s mood or even their way of thinking, altering their life forever, like the Bible. The letter and symbol combinations in Newton’s Principia changed the course of human history and understanding because of the information they held.
But information and complexity aren’t the complete story. Whether there is a single pixel containing very little information, or ten thousand pixels representing a beautiful sunset landscape chock-full of information, there is still no meaning. Sure, there are varying levels of complexity and the data each pattern contains could be massively impactful, but an unconscious entity would find no point to it. Does a rock care about the quantity of pixels an image has? Does a camera attached to a computer care about the quality of the pixel arrangement? Does a lobster find inspiration while gazing at the esoteric letter combination of the book placed in front of it?
Meaningfulness, or the essence of a thing, isn’t an inherent aspect of any thing. It’s completely separate from the information held by each pixel …or letter, or subatomic particle. The thing doesn’t actually matter until someone observes, or hears, or understands it. Only when a subjective consciousness is aware and can contemplate it, pass judgement on it, have an opinion of it, or love or hate it, does the thing matter. If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound? The answer is “no.” Beauty isn’t just in the eye of the beholder, it is derived from the eye of the beholder.
What if our books outlive us? What if a day comes when the last person takes a breath for the last time and leaves behind a species’ worth of writings and pictures and knowledge and art, all entombed for billions of years on spaceship Earth? Our most important books containing our most treasured knowledge would be worth just as much as the dirt and rocks they’re buried under. So, I guess ultimately in the end it’ll all be a wash…
Lucky for us though, we get to live in the exciting part of history where there is such a thing as “meaning,” and we get to experience what matters. If it wasn’t for us and our subjective consciousness, the Universe need not exist! But it only matters because we perceive it that way. It matters because we perceive it because it matters because we perceive it… So, meaning and consciousness is a self-referential, recursive loop. They are fundamentally intertwined concepts that cannot exist independently.
Our lives have purpose because we exist. Our conscious lives are meaning.