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Information

We live in an exciting Information Age and ‘information’ is the philosophical flavour of our times, a complex concept appropriate for our period in history, referred to on this web site as Informatia. Most of us are aware of the gathering influence of information on our lives through the rapid recent global uptake of the internet, smartphones, and social media. But the world’s academic knowledge is now available to all through Wikipedia. Anyone interested in any subject or discipline and who has access to the worldwide web can read and learn.

As a new phenomenon of our times we need to understand not only the social implications of this sudden democratization of knowledge but what exactly we mean by ‘information’. Not surprisingly it appears that along with complex technology have come complex ideas. information is well entrenched in biology, and especially genetics where coding, translation, editing

What is information?

When I say to you ‘Pass the salt please’ or ‘dog’ . . . the information that you receive and comprehend is not the sound vibrations in the air. And if I wrote the request on a piece of paper it would not be the words (the letters of words written in ink) – or even the molecules out of which the ink was made. Sent electronically it would not be the pixels on my computer screen, a painting is not just the pigments, DNA is not just molecules. Information is not the symbols and materials that are used to transmit it: it is more like ‘meaning’ or ‘content’. A closer description would be that it is’ symbols or sounds arranged in a particular way’.

So, what is information?

We cannot start our investigation of a topic without some guidance or definition as a starting point.

Be clear at the outset that the discussion about information is young and with a rich and fascinating diversity of views. Instead of looking at these gradually and systematically let’s just jump into the cauldron of ideas before doing some sifting and sorting.

Constructor Theory

The study of information has become strongly associated with what is known as constructor theory.[1] Information Is a form of explanation in fundamental physics that has been devised by Professor David Deutsch and developed by Chiara Marletto, physicists at Oxford University.

Conventional procedure in physics is to declare the initial conditions and states of a system and then describe what happens. Constructor theory begins by assuming what is, in principle, possible and impossible according to the laws of physics. What actually happens then becomes an emergent property of the possible.

Science is then formulated as a series of tasks performed by constructors as objects that have the retained capacity to perform tasks. The world is then described in terms of transformations (change) in which something is changed (the substrate) and there is something that changes it (the constructor). This is a new way of formulating physics that makes ‘tasks’ the focus of attention. Information (as a constructor) is, for example, the software directing a robot. Knowledge (as collective learning) is a powerful and preserved constructor, as is DNA.

Constructor theory has been found useful in the field of quantum computation. Natural selection acts as a constructor acted on by the environment.

Fundamentalism

‘If you are carrying a hammer then everything looks like a nail’

What place or role does information hold in the physical world? Is it just a tool or metaphor – simply a convenient explanatory device – or is the bit-flipping of a computational substrate part of the fundamental fabric of the universe? Though traditionally treated as an aspect of knowledge and meaning and therefore derivative, could it be primary stuff? We can, for instance, readily understand that organisms are information-processing systems.

The traditional view of physicists is that the world consists of matter, translated scientifically as energy. But are mass and energy simply forms of information as a simpler, more economic, and therefore more fundamental idea or entity? Could information tell us the form that energy is taking (what it does) as it comes directly from the system itself – is the use of information a step closer to a detached account of the ‘reality’ of the universe?

First, there is the desire for grounding which comes in many forms expressed, for example, as the desire for foundations, axioms, or laws. This  approach provides points of explanatory departure, as Aristotle stated. Parsimony and elegance then suggest that one overarching physical foundation or fundamental principle is to be preferred. This also leads the search for a unified theory of everything.

Secondly, the search for foundational principles and ingredients of the universe has followed the tendency within science to find solutions by analysis, by investigating the relations of parts within wholes. This has led to the location of foundations in small and simple things (smallism) – like fundamental or elementary particles, bits,  numbers and so on.

The position developed on this web site, called aspect theory, is that scientific fundamentalism is misguided, and for psychological reasons. It is part of our innate mental structuring of the world that we both classify and prioritize the objects of our cognition, giving greater or lesser weight to some objects over others (rank-value) to form hierarchies. This is necessary for our survival. This is, however, an explanatory (epistemological) device: the world itself  does not make such distinctions. Everything in the world (?reality) exists equally (a flat ontology). On this view, to say that the world consists ‘fundamentally’ of numbers or bits of information is as absurd as it sounds: it may be consistent with a particular explanatory frame (physics, mathematics and computation), but there are other frames. Does this lead to relativism – ‘my frame is as good as your frame?’ Yes, but not in a negative way. Any frame is only as good as its efficiency in achieving the purpose for which it was designed. Numbers and bits of information might be meaningful for mathematicians, physicists and those immersed in computation, but these are not a viable currency for explaining the structure and function of living organisms. But this summation is nevertheless just one explanatory ‘perspective’ or ‘aspect’ of ‘reality’: it is just one way of describing the world, albeit a very useful one.

If this view has merit then we need to look elsewhere to find additional values for the notion of information. Scientists might also benefit from a general education in the innate predispositions of the human mind.

Definition

The etymology relates to the formation of an idea which suggests that it is not only fundamental in some way but it also has form and meaning but it needs an agent because there can be no value to information unless it has meaning and there can be no meaning without an agent. There must be an encoder and a decoder (a sender and receiver, a transmitter and a target)and a meaning that depends on context. Information is thus a relational and subjective concept with the potential to be assigned meaning. It can distinguish two states. When meaning is the key factor then this may vary according to the agent. But a non-conscious cell can distinguish between acid and alkaline conditions. It tells us ‘about’ something. It is the resolution of uncertainty.

This leads to a definition of information as a process, pattern, or connection, ‘a perceived difference that can make a difference’. It is a collection of facts or data, and sometimes the communication and reception of data which is accompanied by an increase in knowledge.

It is extremely difficult to deny the existence of information but to concede is to recognise an abstract non-physical object of universal importance. Since ‘information is neither matter or energy’ it is a novel and curious scientific object with an existence as puzzling as number and time. And perhaps on a par with these basic constituents of the universe.

Information in biology is what something is used for – its function; for humans it is transmission or communication.

Geological strata carry information. Is this different from the information carried in biological organisms like the genes that are a record or memory of past environments?

Media Gallery

What is Information?

Closer to Truth – 2020 – 26:46

Constructor Theory – Chiara Marletto

Constructor theory – 2014 – 4:45

Does Information Create the Cosmos?

Closer to Truth – 2020 – 26:46

Daniel Dennett – Information & Artificial Intelligence

The artificial intelligence Channel – 2017 – 25:33

Information, Evolution, and intelligent Design – Daniel Dennett

The Royal Institution – 2015 – 1:01:44

First published on the internet – 1 March 2019

 

Periodic table indicating the origin of each element. Elements from carbon to sulfur emerge in small stars, elements beyond iron in large stars, elements heavier than iron arise in supernovae
Courtesy Wikimedia Commons
Cmglee Acc. 10 Sept. 2015

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