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Idealism: 'Rejuvinated', Re-emergent, and Re-re-emergent, and re-occuring, and recurring, an

Old metaphysical questions and arguments, and old metaphysical theses, tend to die very hard. There are many philosophers (and certainly many theologians) who would like to see the end of the physicalism/materialism of the Greek atomists and Epicureans (among others). Its being broadly maligned as some kind of village-atheist idiocy has not stopped it from becoming a long term unavoidable mainstay of modern and contemporary science, scientific methodology, and the philosophy of science, upon which much of the scientific revolution was built. Even scientists and philosophers of science that are realists about emergence - the idea that properties and features of natural systems emerge in complex systems and cannot be reduced to their constituent subsystems and elemtns and their interactions - are still non-reductive physicalists that would not countenance completely eliminating physicalism from hard science, not even in a pink fit of possible worlds (30, Sandra Mitchell, for one).

Likewise, Platonism (as the best known expression of the common intuition that there must be more to the universe than just stuff, and that unicorns and batman are real in some mind independent way) provides a platform for both endless oddities and for some challenging philosophical arguments. One banging example is the Quine-Putnam argument for realism about mathematical abstracta on the basis their indispensability in scientific theories and the scientific anti-realisms of constructive empiricism and instrumentalism both depend upon reifying abstract entities as referents of representations and structures.

Platonism and physicalism are both at different ends of one metaphysical spectrum (involving the argument about what is to be included in the furniture of the universe - what really exists) but as always in philosophy, they are both more alike than one suspects in other ways: they are both external realisms. That is to say - both Platonists and physicalists believe that stuff exists in the universe apart from any kind of mind or consciousness. What alternative is there to that? - the philosophical newcomer might rightly enquire.

Well, included in the pantheon of great philosophical and metaphysical weirdnesses there are not only such things as modal realism (according to which all logically possible counterfactual worlds are in fact materially real somehow somewhere) and eternal return (everything that is happening has happened before - a thesis Nietzsche proposed that has been redeployed largely unchanged on no less than the hallowed ground of theoretical physics by Hugh Everett's multiverse quantum theory). There are also such things as Bishop Berkeley's idealism. A nifty and very stubborn little idea from theology that everything that exists is somehow sustained by and within the mind of the Judeo-Christian god. Yes - it is that specific. It was Bishop Berkeley. Then there is such a thing as Hegelian absolute idealism - more about this strange beast below.

Now, before one goes off all half cocked and pre-patrol and cries 'idealism is just stupid' at the top of one's lungs, one must be made cognizant of another little offering put forward by theist philosopher John Locke and deployed by Bish Berkeley to deny Locke's external realism about physical objects (which Locke needed not only on metaphysical grounds for consistency, but because he was the progenitor of the King's basis for property ownership law): a little gem called the veil of perception (According to the SEP, "the “veil of perception” phrasing has its origin in Bennett 1971." and the concept arises out of Descartes' dualist metaphysics of mind and ideas, but I digress).

Berkeley's version of what philosophers have come to call the veil of perception was directly linked with his subjective idealism and attack on representationalist materialism (of the kind favoured by contemporary and fellow empiricist Locke). The veil of perception involves denial that the perceiving agent can ever be sure of the nature of that which is perceived, since the perceiving agent is limited to the view of representations within their mind. Thus no connection with any external world object as a referent of the representation can be certain, nor even claimed.

This challenge has troubled theories of mind and scientific realism alike ever since, and it took the likes of Bertrand Russell and G.E. Moore to take it on convincingly. Here is Berkeley's accompanying statement of subjective idealism in all of its glory:

It is indeed an opinion strangely prevailing amongst men, that houses, mountains, rivers, and in a word all sensible objects have an existence natural or real, distinct from their being perceived by the understanding. But with how great an assurance and acquiescence soever this principle may be entertained in the world; yet whoever shall find in his heart to call it in question, may, if I mistake not, perceive it to involve a manifest contradiction. For what are the forementioned objects but the things we perceive by sense, and what do we perceive besides our own ideas or sensations; and is it not plainly repugnant that any one of these or any combination of them should exist unperceived? (Berkeley, Of the Principles of Human Knowledge)

In my previous article, I covered the subjectivist-objectivist debate in the philosophy of information. The nature of information is a hotly contested area of contemporary metaphysics, and one of the most complex. There are myriad positions available to adopt - from the early eliminativism about information of naturalistic philosopher of biology Paul E. Griffiths (the idea that since scientists use the term information for a whole lot of different things, then there is no specific thing in the world we she call information and it is thus not real in that sense, 23), to that philosopher's later functional-cum-infotel conception of information in the gene (semantic information in a gene is that which causes caually downstream structures to perform evolved functions), to physicalism about information (like that of quantum computing pioneer Rolf Landauer - who famously claimed that there can be no data representation without physical structure, 25-27), to the transcendental realism of information philosophy titan Luciano Floridi (information reduces to relations that can be abstract, 18,19).

Then there are situation theoretic offerings from philosophers and mathematicians like Keith Devlin and Jon Barwise and John Perry, naturalising efforts involving adaptations of classical information measures by the likes of Fred Dretske and Christopher Timpson, biosemantic and teleosemantic offerings from Ruth Millikan and Nicholas Shea, transmission centric variants thereof from Carl Bergstrom and Martin Rosvall (8, 32), bio-semiotic offerings from Sahotra Sarkar, evolutionary functional options due to Carl Rovelli, pragmatist offerings from the likes of Ariel Caticha, the Aristotelian realist approach of Donald Gillies, and a host of mathematicalist (including mathematist), logicist, and probabilist/statisticalist and algorithmicist-Kolmogorovian offerings from scholars such as Pieter Adriaans, Gregory Chaitin, Peter Grünwald and Paul Vitányi that overlap and sometimes co-incide with many of the above, some of which are naturalising and a few of which are either overtly Platonist or transcendentalist, or else could be ascribed such properties.

Deep breath.

Theorists like Peter Godfrey-Smith, Christoph Adami, Olympia Lombardi, Christopher Timpson, and Luciano Floridi regularly survey swathes of conceptions of the nature of information, from those based upon precepts derived from the work of Kolmogorov, Shannon, Wiener, and Turing. And don't think for a moment that such diverse foundations as Peircian signification and Norbert Weiner's control theory are ommitted.

This is not even half of what is on offer to fill the methodological, epistemic, meta-philosophical, meta-metaphysical, and theoretical role of a metaphysics of information. Yet, it is in fact not clear that pluralism - as often recommended by Floridi - is our best option, or an option at all: one of the above might actually be right, or at least more correct or more right than the others (after all - the non-reductionist Floridi's ISR and strong semantic theories of information do in fact reduce information to data that are reducible to ontically-neutral objectively real relational entities).

One thing that should be noted at this point, however, is that, except for Floridi's somewhat grand philosophical system (which includes a transcendentally-based fully-fledged informational structural realism and a correctness theory of truth to boot) Platonist realist views are not common (although sometimes arguably they are adjunct to logical and mathematist construals or conceptions).

Idealism hardly gets a look in at all on first blush, except where the philosophy of information and the scientific realist versus anti-realist debate overlap.

How, the reader may fairly enquire, does idealism really have anything to do with the philosophy of information? The answer lies in the propensity, mentioned in my previous article, for theorists to back the subjectivist horse in the metaphysics of information. Those familiar with the long running debates in the philosophy of probability theory should have a familiar feeling with respect to this observation, and of course probabilistic and statistical conceptions (including physico-probabilistic and entropy orientated conceptions) of the nature of information abound.

This may all seem like the drawing of a long bow in some respects, but given my observations about the objective nature of information in quasars and DNA (and carrots, and pulsars, and protein synthesis, and quasi periodic fluctuations in emission from celestial X-Ray sources, and so on), one has to ask why subjectivism about information is much considered at all.

Let's approach the question in this somewhat whimsical and thought experimental way: What would Bishop Berkeley say about mind-independent information? That's right - the same thing as he would say about mind independent anything: it doesn't exist apart from the mind of a god, and existentially depends upon such a cosmic consciousness. Are there still subjectivist-cum-idealist philosophers that agree with Berkeley? Yes, there are. Philosophers of information? To be sure. Mental dualists? Yup (albeit naturalistic ones like David Chalmers).

So the pet theory I am entertaining is that some folk just cannot cope without an observer, interpreter, perceiver, watcher, conscious receiver, or whatever, and that this pushes their metaphysics of information into funny shapes. This bit of flippancy, however, moves beyond our Berkeleyan friends (although it certainly includes them) to the great cloud of Hegelian absolute idealist witnesses (a subtly different ilk altogether - more on this below) and to subjectivists about probablities.

The psychologistic subjectivist take on the nature of probabilities (which has an eminent heritage including Sir Reverend Thomas Bayes His-self sir! - no less) all but ignores the brute and stubborn efficacy of objectivist-frequentist tradition deployed in quantum mechanics and information theory alike, and insists upon its subjective likelihoods nonetheless (the degree to which specifically mind depdendent pscyhologistic concerns enter into it is an entire additional debate, granted: a reduction in uncertainty about the state of a source in information theory, for example, can be regarded objectively).

I am not asserting that in interpretations of the nature of information and information transmission in biosemantics and theories of information in molecular bioscence demand a conscious observer or progenitor: neither Shea, Millikan, Bergstrom and Rosvall, nor any of the other participants in the debate have invoked such a thing (although I HAVE seen this explicitly touted - not least of all in a recent journal paper that I reviewed). A non-cognitive bio-molecular receiver or message/signal consuming-agent is simply neither practically, nor in principle, necessarily existentially dependent upon any such thing as a mind or observer, nor a theory maker or construtive conscious agent of any kind.

To take a 'god's eye' view of the larger 'impending' issue: if information can exist in the absence of any kind of observer or observing subject - as it most certainly can sayeth I - then numerous scientific anti-realisms (and not a few theologies) are presented with a prospective serious ontological (and probably theological) problem. If you do not need any kind of mind or conscious perceiving subject - let alone a cosmic one - for information to obtain, then you have a ready metaphysical support for such things as evolutionary metaphysics sans prime-mover, and sans consciousness or spirit or whatever. Probably.

Now, again, I could be accused of burning a strawman here (or a whole barnyard of straw animals), or at least of misconstruing the heart of a debate that is about adjunct issues, but that accusation would be a non-sequitur. Perhaps I shouldn't make anything of it, but eminent and systematically rigorous (and theist) philosopher Peter Godfrey-Smith frequently introduces the sign theory of deist absolute idealist Charles Sanders Peirce within the scope of arguments about the nature of biological information and signalling/transmission in biosynthesis and inheritance (although Godfrey-Smith does not engage theological premises proper at all that I am aware of), and Peirce is the foremost progenitor of objective idealism according to which the perceiver is one with that which is perceived. His idealist heritage is firmly rooted in the ontology of transcendentalist theists and absolute idealists Kant and Hegel:

Perhaps surprisingly, Peirce ultimately came to regard his views as even closer to those of the absolute idealists Schelling and Hegel than to those of Kant. For example: “I am a Schellingian of some stripe,” he wrote (CP, 6.605; see also CP, 6. 102). By 1892 Peirce wrote: “My philosophy resuscitates Hegel, though in a strange costume” (CP, 1.42). Again, about 1905, he wrote: “The truth is that pragmaticism is closely allied to the Hegelian absolute idealism, from which, however, it is sundered by its vigorous denial that the third category … suffices to make the world … .” (CP, 5.436). Peirce's assimilating his late philosophy to that of the absolute idealists, however, is not quite as straightforwardly understandable as his finding his views similar to Kant's: his explicitly given reasons for the assimilation are not always easy to understand. Here they will be touched upon only very briefly; they obviously require a great deal of interpretation and elaboration.In the first place, a main reason that Peirce saw his own views as akin to those of Schelling and Hegel concerns Peirce's embracing, after the death of his father Benjamin, a special form of psycho-physical metaphysical monism that is akin to the metaphysical views of his father; Peirce also seems to think that this monism is akin to the views of the absolute idealists. In a paper entitled “Man's Glassy Essence,” published in 1892 (CP, 6.238–6.271), Peirce put forward the monistic conjecture that cytoplasm is some sort of substance that is halfway between the two extremes of mind and matter. This single substance of Peirce's metaphysical monism, Peirce seems to associate with with objective idealists, especially with the Geist of Hegel. (https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/peirce/self-contextualization.html)

Peirce himself stated categorically that "The one intelligible theory of the universe is that of objective idealism, that matter is effete mind, inveterate habits becoming physical laws." (31 6.25) So, anachronistic as the musing might be, Peirce would not have countenanced signs - nor information - as something that could exist apart from mind or as mind independent.

Maybe I is connectin stuff what I shouldn't, your honour, but we is bloggin here. More importantly, however, no one seems to too keen on letting our friend DNA have its information one way or the other without conscious or mental inputs - and that just does not seem like a necessary punishment, all things considered equal. Naturalistic Floridi allows it - as environmental information. I don't myself see why one cannot have a completely mindless encoder. Stranger things appear to have happened - if you ask physicists.

It is probably too much to ask that the philosophy of information not be subjected to idealist treatments (tongue firmly within cheek). However, one wonders if Luciano Floridi has not almost outdone the absolute idealists at their own game: can they really have their mind without his relational informational structural realism - or something like it - existing first? Personally, I doubt it. It looks like mind ineliminably existentially depends upon structure and relations, but perhaps we had better not even ask the panpsychists.

References and Bibliography

  1. Adriaans, P. (2009). Between order and chaos: The quest for meaningful information. Theory of Computing Systems, 45(4), 650–674.

  2. Adriaans, Pieter. (2010). A Critical Analysis of Floridi’s Theory of Semantic Information. Knowledge, Technology & Policy, 23(1–2), 1–16.

  3. Adriaans, Pieter, & Benthem, J. v. (2008). Philosophy of information (Vol. 8.). Amsterdam, Netherlands: North-Holland.

  4. Barwise, J., & Seligman, J. (1993). Imperfect information flow (pp. 252–260).

  5. Bedau, M., & Humphreys, P. (2008). Emergence: contemporary readings in philosophy and science. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.

  6. Bennett, C. H. (2003). Notes on Landauer’s principle, reversible computation, and Maxwell’s Demon. Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part B: Studies in History and Philosophy of Modern Physics, 34(3), 501 – 510. https://doi.org/http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/S1355-2198(03)00039-X

  7. Berman, David. George Berkeley: Idealism and the Man. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994.

  8. Bergstrom, C. T., & Rosvall, M. (2011). Response to commentaries on “The Transmission Sense of Information.” Biology & Philosophy, 26(2), 195–200.

  9. Boyle, Robert. Selected Philosophical Papers of Robert Boyle. Edited by M. S. Stewart. Philosophical Classics. Manchester: University of Manchester Press, 1979.

  10. Bracken, Harry M. Berkeley. Philosophers in Perspective. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1974.

  11. Dancy, Jonathan. Berkeley: An Introduction. Oxford: Blackwell, 1987.

  12. Descartes, René. The Philosophical Writings of Descartes. Translated and edited by John Cottingham, Robert Stoothoff, Dugald Steward, and (volume 3) Anthony Kenny. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985, 1984, 1991.

  13. Descartes, R., Descartes: Philosophical Letters, Trans. / ed. A. Kenny, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1970. Levine, J., "Materialism and Qualia: The Explanatory Gap" in Pacific Philosophical Quarterly, 64, pp. 354-361, 1983.

  14. Devlin, K. J. (1991). Logic and information. New York; Cambridge [England]: Cambridge University Press.

  15. Downing, Lisa, "George Berkeley", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2013 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2013/entries/berkeley/>

  16. Flage, Daniel E. Berkeley's Doctrine of Notions: A Reconstruction based on his Theory of Meaning. London and New York: Croom Helm and St. Martin's Press, 1987.

  17. Floridi, L. (2003). From data to semantic information. Entropy, 5(2), 125–145.

  18. Floridi, L. (2008). A Defence of Informational Structural Realism. Synthese, 161(2), 219–253.

  19. Floridi, L. (2009a). Against Digital Ontology. Synthese, 168(1), 151–178.

  20. Floridi, L. (2009b). Philosophical conceptions of information. In Formal theories of information: from shannon to semantic information theory and general concepts of information (Vol. 5363, pp. 13–53).

  21. Floridi, L. (2010). Information, possible worlds and the cooptation of scepticism. Synthese, 175(S1), 63–88.

  22. Grayling, A. C. Berkeley: The Central Arguments. La Salle, IL: Open Court, 1986.

  23. Griffiths, P. E. (2001). Genetic Information: A Metaphor in Search of a Theory. Philosophy of Science, 68(3), 394–412.

  24. Kim, J. (1999). Making Sense of Emergence. Philosophical Studies: An International Journal for Philosophy in the Analytic Tradition, 95(1/2), 3–36.

  25. Landauer, R. (1991). Information is physical. Physics Today, 44(5), 23–29.

  26. Landauer, R. (1996). The physical nature of information. Physics Letters A, 217(4), 188–193.

  27. Landauer, R. (1999). Information is a physical entity. Physica A: Statistical Mechanics and Its Applications, 263(1), 63–67.

  28. Locke, J., An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, ed. P. H. Nidditch, 1975, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1690.

  29. Lowe, E. J., Locke on Human Understanding, Routledge, London, 1995.

  30. Mitchell, S. D. (2009). Unsimple truths: science, complexity, and policy. Chicago;London; The University of Chicago Press Chicago and London.

  31. Peirce, C. S., & Institute, T. H. (1891). The Architecture of Theories. Monist, 1(2), 161–176.

  32. Rovelli, C. (2016). Meaning = Information + Evolution.

  33. Shea, N. (2011). What’s transmitted? Inherited information. Biology & Philosophy, 26(2), 183–189.

  34. Smith, Kurt, "Descartes' Theory of Ideas", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2016 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2016/entries/descartes-ideas/>

  35. Wallace, D. (2012). The emergent multiverse: quantum theory according to the Everett interpretation. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

'Direct' Attacks on the Problem of the Nature of Information

  1. Adami, C. (2016). What is information? PHILOSOPHICAL TRANSACTIONS OF THE ROYAL SOCIETY A-MATHEMATICAL PHYSICAL AND ENGINEERING SCIENCES, 374(2063).

  2. Barbieri, M. (2012). What is Information? Biosemiotics, 5(2), 147–152.

  3. Floridi, L. (2003). Two Approaches to the Philosophy of Information. Minds and Machines, 13(4), 459–469.

  4. Floridi, L. (2004a). Open Problems in the Philosophy of Information. Metaphilosophy, 35(4), 554–582.

  5. Floridi, L. (2004b). Outline of a Theory of Strongly Semantic Information. Minds and Machines, 14(2), 197–221.

  6. Floridi, L. (2005). Is Semantic Information Meaningful Data? Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 70(2), 351–370.

  7. Floridi, L. (2008). Trends in the Philosophy of Information (pp. 113–131).

  8. Floridi, L. (2009). Philosophical conceptions of information. In Formal theories of information: from shannon to semantic information theory and general concepts of information (Vol. 5363, pp. 13–53).

  9. Harms, W. F. (2006). What Is Information? Three Concepts. Biological Theory, 1(3), 230–242.

  10. Lombardi, O. (2004). What is Information? Foundations of Science, 9(2), 105–134.

  11. Rowley, J. (1998). What is information? Information Services & Use, 18(4), 243.

  12. Timpson, C. G. (2013). What is Information? Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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