Dear FIS colleagues,

I agree with John Collier that we should not assume to restrict the concept
of information to only one subset of its potential applications. But to
work with this breadth of usage we need to recognize that 'information' can
refer to intrinsic statistical properties of a physical medium, extrinsic
referential properties of that medium (i.e. content), and the significance
or use value of that content, depending on the context.  A problem arises
when we demand that only one of these uses should be given legitimacy. As I
have repeatedly suggested on this listserve, it will be a source of
constant useless argument to make the assertion that someone is wrong in
their understanding of information if they use it in one of these
non-formal ways. But to fail to mark which conception of information is
being considered, or worse, to use equivocal conceptions of the term in the
same argument, will ultimately undermine our efforts to understand one
another and develop a complete general theory of information.

This nominalization of 'inform' has been in use for hundreds of years in
legal and literary contexts, in all of these variant forms. But there has
been a slowly increasing tendency to use it to refer to the
information-beqaring medium itself, in substantial terms. This reached its
greatest extreme with the restricted technical usage formalized by Claude
Shannon. Remember, however, that this was only introduced a little over a
half century ago. When one of his mentors (Hartley) initially introduced a
logarithmic measure of signal capacity he called it 'intelligence' — as in
the gathering of intelligence by a spy organization. So had Shannon chose
to stay with that usage the confusions could have been worse (think about
how confusing it would have been to talk about the entropy of
intelligence). Even so, Shannon himself was to later caution against
assuming that his use of the term 'information' applied beyond its
technical domain.

So despite the precision and breadth of appliction that was achieved by
setting aside the extrinsic relational features that characterize the more
colloquial uses of the term, this does not mean that these other uses are
in some sense non-scientific. And I am not alone in the belief that these
non-intrinsic properties can also (eventually) be strictly formalized and
thereby contribute insights to such technical fields as molecular biology
and cognitive neuroscience.

As a result I think that it is legitimate to argue that information (in the
referential sense) is only in use among living forms, that an alert signal
sent by the computer in an automobile engine is information (in both
senses, depending on whether we include a human interpreter in the loop),
or that information (in the intrinsic sense of a medium property) is lost
within a black hole or that it can be used  to provide a more precise
conceptiont of physical cause (as in Collier's sense). These different uses
aren't unrelated to each other. They are just asymmetrically dependent on
one another, such that medium-intrinsic properties can be investigated
without considering referential properties, but not vice versa.

It's time we move beyond terminological chauvenism so that we can further
our dialogue about the entire domain in which the concept of information is
important. To succeed at this, we only need to be clear about which
conception of information we are using in any given context.

— Terry

On Tue, Mar 28, 2017 at 8:32 PM, John Collier <> wrote:

> I wrote a paper some time ago arguing that causal processes are the
> transfer of information. Therefore I think that physical processes can and
> do convey information. Cause can be dispensed with.
>    - There is a copy at Causation is the Transfer of Information
>    <> In Howard Sankey (ed) 
> *Causation,
>    Natural Laws and Explanation* (Dordrecht: Kluwer, 1999)
> Information is a very powerful concept. It is a shame to restrict oneself
> to only a part of its possible applications.
> John Collier
> Emeritus Professor and Senior Research Associate
> Philosophy, University of KwaZulu-Natal
> _______________________________________________
> Fis mailing list

Professor Terrence W. Deacon
University of California, Berkeley
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