[lit-ideas] Re: What is information?

  • From: "Peter D. Junger" <junger@xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • To: lit-ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx
  • Date: Tue, 19 Sep 2006 19:45:31 -0400

Robert Paul writes:

: > That won't work for my purposes.  Computers don't have experiences
: > and the information that they input and output is not necessarily
: > for understanding by anone.  Consider the case of random number
: > generators.
: All right, I'm considering it. Are you saying that a sequence of 'random'
: numbers is 'information' or that it isn't, or that we can't tell? 

I am saying that it is information, pure and simply.  "Numbers" are
not the glyphs that we use to represent them>  (And why put quotation
marks around "random"?  The clicks of a geiger counter exposed to a
radioactive source are going to conform to a purely random 

: I 
: don't think
: Phil's suggestion (insofar as I understand it) commits him to saying that
: information has to be useful (what 'for understanding by anyone' means isn't
: clear); only that it can be expressed in what he calls 'symbols' but 
: what might
: just as well be called signs (sounds or marks of various kinds). 

I have no problem with that, as long as one represents that the 
symbols are not the information that they symbolize.

: A 
: computer can
: 'turn off' my furnace--or turn it on--but it doesn't express itself to the
: furnace in so many symbolic representations: yet, and perhaps this was Phil's
: point, there can be a mode of projection from the digital sequences back into
: some symbolic mode intelligible to language users (or at least logicians) and
: perhaps thence back into some natural language, so that one can get from the
: digital sequence something like STOP or GO. 

I am not sure that I follow you, but I have no trouble with the idea
that the information that is put out by a computer can be interpreted
as STOP or GO.  And to do that one doesn't even need a digital
sequence, one just needs a single bit.  If it's set we can 
interpret it as meaning GO, if it is unset we can interpret it as
meaning STOP.  _But that meaning is in our interpretation, not in
the bit of information_. 

: People who write programs are
: intentional agents; the computer is not, even though it follows their
: 'instructions' to a T. That it's rank anthropomorphism to say that a computer
: is 'carrying out instructions' (or thinking to itself) the implausibility of
: this doessn't entail that we can read back from what the computer is doing,
: something that can be symbolized. This may _not_ be possible; but that 
: it isn't
: can't be for that reason.
Sorry, I fear you've lost me.  The word "instructions" is admittedly
sloppy, and it would be nice if we could avoid it without having
to use some longwinded paraphrase like "implementing an
algorithm," which can best be performed as a totally "mindless" 
process---as I know from personal experience, having worked a
couple of nights as a computer, doing that work for the regular
computer whom we all called "Scotty," and from my old geometry
teacher who worked as a computer during the summer and who did
everything mindlessly.  (Admittedly my father, who hired him,
reported that he couldn't compute.)

On the other hand we can always read a computer's output as 
symbolizing something, _viz_., a number.  (But that, of course,
raises the question once asked by Warren McCulloch: "What is a 
Number, that a Man May Know It, and a Man that He May Know a 

: If I understand you at all, you're concerned with whether what 
: happens between the start of a program and its completion (if 
: it's designed to arrive at some end point) is information. 

I have no concern with that.  The computer is performing 
mechanical functions that are the equivalent of doing Boolean
logic and it is performing those functions in accordance with
a program---that is, in accordance with an algorithm.

What I am concerned with is how to explain that the input and 
output to the program (and the program itself) are nothing
but information and then come up with some sort of understandable
explanation of what information is in that context.  (Just saying
that it is a number probably won't do.)

; Why isn't the answer simply, 'Have it any way you
: like?' Information is not a natural kind, and its use in computer science (an
: d
: in physics) is still loosely tied--how loosely is perhaps the insoluble 
: problem
: you're investigation--to its use elsewhere, as in 'Wait! We have new
: information! General Pradovich has entered the capital!'

I submit that information is a much a natural kind as matter is or
energy is---or a number is or a pattern is.

: Questions of the form 'What is x?' often (the fault is Socrates') arise when
: people think that there must be a substance answering to every grammatical
: substantive. There isn't.

That expresses my problem neatly.  How to explain that information
is not a material substance, and yet that it is the very substance
on which thoughts are built.

: > I am pretty sure that what the computer deals with is information
: > _an sich_.  The fact that the information may or may not symbolize
: > something is not an inherent attribute of that, or any, information.
: I wonder why you are sure of this. Information _in itself_? Well. Anyway, I
: didn't take Phil to be saying that information 'symbolizes' or doesn't
: symbolize anything; I took him to be saying that it was capable of being
: symbolized. The truth of that claim still has to be argued for. And maybe it
: wasn't even Phil's claim.

I have no trouble with the idea that information can be symbolized
to the extent that it is ordered.  In fact, I think that is what
Shannon was writing about when he said that the amount of information
in a message is the smallest number of bits into which the message
can be encoded.

: I see I've strayed. 

Most helpfully.

: So, what's new?
: Robert Paul
: Reed College


Peter D. Junger--Case Western Reserve University Law School--Cleveland, OH
 EMAIL: junger@xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx    URL:  http://samsara.law.cwru.edu   
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