From: Jerry LR Chandler <>
Subject: Encoding and Decoding information
Date: February 1, 2014 11:30:44 PM CST


John writes:

Sometimes ignored in the mathematics of Shannon's approach are the coding and decoding steps, which he does not put in mathematical form, but appear in his diagrams.

John, I think your remark goes to the very heart of the problems of foundations of information sciences.

I heartily concur.

I would add a couple of brief comments on why this is such a profoundly difficult problem.  Over the years, I have attempted to induce a conversation here on FIS on the coding problems, to no avail. I am delighted to learn of your interest in it. Problems of this depth strain our individual and collective resources.

At the root of the problem, from my perspective, is the very notion of "codes". In the absence of direct sensory communication, all human communication is by artifacts, symbol systems invented and used by individuals.  A priori, all symbol systems, as human artifacts, must be learned anew by each passing generation. As human inventions, no necessity for consistency exists. They are intrinsically unstable. Ever human being tends to adapt their own perspectives on the meaning, if any, of a particular code.

The two exceptions are the codes for mathematics and chemistry. The rigid structure of number systems and arithmetic operations is sufficient to preserve the foundation codes of arithmetic for millennia, since the Sumerians, yet flexible enough to allow steady expansions of meanings of new symbols.  The code of chemistry is grounded in physical atomism. Natural elements are rigidly defined in terms of properties that appear to be stable for millions/billions of years

Thus, as social communities, the mathematicians and the chemists communicate very effectively within their own symbol systems. But no formal logic exists which match the meanings of these two coding systems.

Other communities, for example, philosophy and political and economic and music and religion and ... have deep problems in establishing consistent encoding and decoding pathways. The nature of encoding and decoding severely limit the discourse in bio-semiotics and make communication extremely difficult. The many conundrums in bio-semiotics are often merely mis-codings of natural processes.

In my own lifelong work on biological mutations as changes of the biological encoding of information, I have encountered conundrums of encoding and decoding in its many molecular biological forms. It appears to involve many forms of differential equations.

IMO, An understanding of the processes of encoding and decoding is essential to the understanding of the foundations of information sciences.

A trivial example of the perplexities of encoding and decoding are the relationships among computer languages, an area that Ted Gorenson has focused a lot of attention and who I have learned much from.

Ted was the source of my information about what was going on at Stanford. I haven't seen any concrete results, though. Ted hasn't been on the fis list for some time now.

My PhD thesis was basically about the problems of communication across different paradigms, hence my interest in informal approaches to pragmatics. The Barwise-Seligman program seems to me to be a formal structure in which I can put my ideas about informal pragmatics required to establish communication as outlined in my dissertation. This what I am developing at the Cape Town meeting in August on scientific realism. My approach has some similarities to some approaches to conflict resolution, but it, like them, requires both sides to be looking for a resolution.

An example from my thesis is that affine geometry permitted relativity and Newtonian theories to be put within a common framework. I would like to see the same happen with information in its various guises. I don't think that arguing the merits of various interpretations of the idea help much compared to getting clear what the positions and their relations are. But arguing the merits can serve the purpose of revealing the positions more clearly, perhaps ironically.


Professor John Collier                           
Philosophy and Ethics, University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban 4041 South Africa
T: +27 (31) 260 3248 / 260 2292       F: +27 (31) 260 3031
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