Might a soul be defined by information?

Perhaps because I’m a Christian, the ‘hard problem’ of consciousness (that is, the fact that scientists don’t really know how to define it) seems to blur into the problem of ‘what is a soul’. If we have one at all, that is.

I think I have a soul. I am sure I am the same person now that I was when I was six. Even though all the matter in my brain (and throughout my body, come to that) has swapped over several times during that period, there is still something essentially ‘me’ about me. Listening to Travis, having spots and doing a degree all happened when I was a materially different person. But I’m still tainted by all those things, for better or worse.

So clearly, the matter we’re made from doesn’t define us. But at same time, our mind, soul, consciousness – call it what you will – must be intimately linked to physiology. When we die, and the flow of sodium ions in and out of our nerve cells ceases, the soul has gone. Of course, that’s not a scientific fact because it’s hard to define what a soul is. But it does seem to be a self-evident truth.

Last week I went to see a talk by physicist and Christian John Polkinghorne. He was a pleasure to listen to. He was lucid and simultaneously abrupt; at one point cutting off a questioner saying, “Yes, all right, I really think you’ve said enough, thank you.”

Polkinghorne offered a thought which I found characteristically simple and insightful of a brilliant thinker. He suggested that the soul is simply encoded information. Perhaps that is obvious – I don’t know – but I find concise and thoughtful definitions to be like gold dust.

So I started to think: what if we could somehow grasp and chart all the information that makes up a person – the memories, experiences, thoughts and ideas? If we could do that fully and properly, would we have captured their soul?

Before the end of this century, suggested Polkinghorne, we may know the answer. He was musing on the accession of disciplines like systems biology and complexity science. These are starting to help scientists get a grip on the enormously complicated information management systems that help our bodies do things like remain at a constant temperature, grow and divide, and generally behave in an intensely living sort of way. (See this article by Sir Paul Nurse, for some ideas on how systems biology might mature further).

Polkinghorne reckoned that if scientists successfully pursue systems biology, and manage to understand the feedback loops that control cells, information will eventually become a “central concept” in science. It must be information that ultimately drives the clockwork of biological systems, and perhaps it will end up sitting up alongside energy in the hierarchy of things scientists care about.

Complicated as a cell is, it is simple compared to a human mind. But if we could develop the “theoretical approaches” and “management of information flow” that Nurse sees as necessary to understand biological systems, we might find ourselves equipped with an instrument for measuring the information encoded in biology. Perhaps it will be an instrument for measuring a soul too.

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