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INFORMATION

Some people talk about information as if it is a real thing that the universe is made of. That’s wrong. The concept of information was developed by Claude Shannon in order to make sense of how you could convey a message from a sender to a receiver over wires. It only makes sense relative to a situation in which there is one person who wants to convey something to somebody else. Other than that there is no information and it doesn’t make any sense to ask how many bits are in it. It’s as if somebody wrote a paper on hints and people decided that the world was made of hints, but there was no hinter, or somebody wrote a paper on the mathematics of coding, and people decided that the universe was a giant code. It makes sense, I guess, if you believe in a creator deity, but most of the information-based ontologists are not appealing to a transcendental sender of information. You can also tell that information is derived from a communicative situation through the connection with the word “informative”. Messages contain information if and only if they are informative. To the right group of people a baton point coneys the message “start playing the Jupiter symphony”.

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6 thoughts on “INFORMATION

  1. I’m not up on the information literature, but in his book Knowledge and the Flow of Information, Fred Dretske argues that an event, condition, or state of affairs E carries the information that P just in case E would not happen unless P. This suggests that information can be present in the world without a sender or receiver. Arctic ice cores contain information about past climate conditions. And this is true regardless of whether we ever figured out how to extract it (the information, that is, not the ice core itself–though we’d have to figure out how to extract that too!). But maybe this is just the wrong way to think about information.

    I think your baton example appeals to something richer than information. I think something akin to language is happening. The baton point is a sign which has taken on the meaning “start playing the Jupiter symphony”. I don’t know exactly what story to tell here (i.e. how the baton point has acquired that meaning), or how exactly it differs from mere information. (Or what exactly the difference is between information and meaning.)

    • It’s conceivable I would not be writing this message to you if the entire course of human history had not been what it was, from babylon to five minutes ago. So on d’s account my message carries the info of all human history. But it doesn’t. So d is wrong.

  2. Your requirement that information involve person-to-person communication can be proven invalid by a bird singing. But doesn’t information exist in situations that don’t involve intelligent beings? Does an amoeba’s DNA not constitute a form of information storage? Does a flower releasing an odor that allows insects to find it constitute an informative message? If not, why not?

  3. Norman Felchle says:

    So when Stephen Hawking wonders if information can survive the evaporation of a black hole….I suppose he’s misusing the word since I’m pretty sure he’s not talking about an actual message , but just stuff that can be found out (like the ice cores Zac’s talking about)
    So….what’s the word for that? It seems like “information” is pretty close…but is there a more exact word I’m missing?

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