The Concept "Information"

 Posted by on 8 December 2007 at 7:20 am  Uncategorized
Dec 082007

In light of some of the recent discussion in this comment thread about quantum mechanics, I asked Adam Reed the following question:

I’m exceedingly puzzled — as I have been for quite some time — by the attempt to make the concept “information” independent of consciousness. I cannot understand the concept except as a plethora of facts, as grasped and processed by human reason. Can you please define and explain what you mean by “information”? How is it distinct from and/or related to facts, qualities, causal powers, etc.?

For example, I know that people speak of genes as “carrying information,” but I cannot see that as much more than an imprecise and potentially misleading locution. Genes aren’t really the same as blueprints, for example. Rather, they simply have some very distinctive and fine-tuned causal powers.

(It’s not the best-worded question ever, but in my defense, it was only a comment at the time!)

Adam replied as follows:

Your question might go a long way toward clearing up what I see as a persistent misunderstanding of the concept of information (as it is used in the information, cognitive, biological, and increasingly in the physical sciences) among philosophers, and even among scientists who were educated before this concept was identified and applied in their fields. Since in English linguistics we do without a mechanism for coining new words with clear semantics, scientists have no alternative but to label new concepts with words that in common, non-scientific usage already have other meanings, related distantly or closely to the new concept.

The new concept of “information,” as defined by Shannon 1948, refers to what makes that which you call “some very distinctive and fine-tuned causal powers” distinctive in a specific way: their potential for being encoded in the attributes of more than one physical medium. For example, I might build a machine to decode an organism’s DNA, send its sequence to another place by encoding it in photons carried by fiber-optic cables, and re-constitute it there as DNA, and even grow an organism, genetically identical to the original one, from this tele-replicated DNA in that far-away place. Similarly, what I am typing now on my keyboard will be sent through several media – electric currents and potentials, photons in fiber-optic cables, and so on – from my computer to yours. Then it can be printed with ink on paper – and from that medium scanned back into the form of electric potentials and currents, stored as polarities of magnetic domains on a disk, etc. etc. etc. The concept of information, in its scientific and technical sense, omits the measurements of specific media carrying a given sequence of attribute values – while retaining that which remains the same about the given sequence regardless of which specific physical medium that sequence is imposed on.

The attributes that remain the same include the quantity of information in the given sequence – so that, for example, I can calculate how long it will take to transmit one typical human genome at 400,000 bits per second, or how many bytes of disk space it will take to store it. There are other related measurements – Kolmogorov complexity, discriminability and so on – that are used in various scientific and engineering contexts.

The important thing here is that many information processes do not involve knowledge, or consciousness, in any way at all. The alignment of a mis-aligned part on a computer-controlled assembly line, for example, may involve the collection, transmission, processing and use of many, many bits of information without ever involving consciousness or knowledge.

I’m not yet sure what I think of that explanation. I perfectly well understand the concept of “information” as data independent of medium, as in my voice transmitted over telephone wires, my blog posts stored on the hard drive of the server. That concept is dependent on the human mind, in that the stuff stored must be somehow meaningful to humans. It must have some intentional content, even if not accessible without some “translating” devices, e.g. the telephone, the server. I can see a good analogy between such phenomena and genetic codes, for example. That genetic code is “translated” into its familiar form of a living organism by complex causal processes. Yet that partial similarity doesn’t seem to warrant the integration of the two phenomena into a new concept.

I’m not decided against such a concept, however; I’m just skeptical. Heck, I’m not even sure that I fully understand Adam’s explanation yet. That’s why I’ve made this topic into a new blog post, as I’d like to give it a more prominent airing.

So NoodleFood readers, what say you?

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