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The deflationary, scientific non-a-priori conception of the nature of information...

I recently had a colleague enquire about whether I though his work in information theory and the philosophy of information for the security services of his country was misguided or 'crazy'.

His work certainly is neither, but the question highlighted for me once again how the quintessential philosophy of the information age (the pioneers of which are almost certainly, Hartley, Nyquist, Kolmogorov, Shannon and Carnap in the science field and probably Carnap, Floridi, Dretske, Chalmers, and Chaitin in the sphere of mathematics and philosophy) embodies what is perhaps the most complex set of metaphysical and conceptual questions that philosophers have ever posed.

It embodies all of the complexity and offers all of the prospective perplexity of the philosophy of mathematics and probability theory, combined with all of the quirks and puzzles of the philosophy of physics and quantum theory. It has its own paradoxes, which are significant (the information loss and information paradox in particle physics and cosmology, and the Bar-Hillel-Carnap paradox in theories of semantic information, as well as various computability type problems).

Due to his understandable need to explain and understand information and information flow in the context of networks of agents and intelligent consumers etc., my colleague was understandably interested in what I term subjectivist conceptions of information. Such conceptions require that an agent or receiver exist to receive and process signals or messages in order for information to exist.

I am instead interested in a very deflationary and physicalist understanding of information: one that regards it simply as the intrinsically semantic causally induced configuration of structure (which is how a signal is informational, for example). According to this deflationary and physicalist approach, even in the context of Shannon's mathematical theory of communication (which deploys frequentist statistics and Markov measures as you well know) information arguably does not require receivers or agents of any kind as a necessary condition for its existence (this is the deflationary part).

Carlo Rovelli has gone a similar way recently with respect to deflationary physicalist conceptions of information, but he reintroduces the concept of subjective utility coupled with evolutionary conceptions of function. According to Rovelli there is no information without life, or more to the point without molecular biological function that begets life on evolutionary terms. This is a much stronger condition than required by molecular bioscientists and philosophers of biology like Millikan, Griffiths and Stotz, Godfrey-Smith, and Shea, who set as necessary conditions for biological information either function (Griffiths) or consumers (Shea). The philosophy of information and information theory promises to continue to be every bit as interesting and thought provoking as logic and the philosophy of mathematics was for Russell, Wittgenstein, and Quine. It taps into concepts, problems, and puzzles from genetics, protein synthesis, quantum field theory, quantum computing, formal logics, probability theory, the philosophy of mathematics, and information theory. The philosophy of information, perhaps appropriately, has emerged at a time when physicists and string theorists speculate that a unifying theory of everything might be only decades away. The philosophy of information is truly interdisciplinary - encompassing quantum field theory and quantum information theory, the philosophy of physics, the philosophy of time, probability theory, second order logics, the philosophy of biology and molecular bioscience, and evolutionary theory.

To provide some context: perhaps the most interesting endeavor in the philosophy of information recently might be Sahotra Sarkar's attempt to recharacterise biological information in both conformational (bio-molecular lock and key fit and shape-chirality) terms as well as symbol sequence terms expressed as a biosemiotic theory. Add to the mix questions of how different kinds of semantic content come about in the context of information, and this is one of the most interesting fields of thought available for any scientifically inspired philosopher, metaphysician, or philosopher of science, to investigate.


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