[lit-ideas] Re: What is information?

  • From: "John McCreery" <john.mccreery@xxxxxxxxx>
  • To: lit-ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx
  • Date: Mon, 25 Sep 2006 11:01:26 +0900

On 9/25/06, Robert Paul <rpaul@xxxxxxxx> wrote:

As for what is here called
'non-essentialism,' one would like an example of a thing's being defined in
such a way that none of the properties attributed to it distinguish it in any
way from anything else.

While I mostly agree with Robert Paul, as Robert Paul mostly agrees with Donal, I see posing the question in this way as non-serious blowing smoke.

There are, I believe, two sides to the coin of essentialism. On the
one hand is a linguistic claim that respectable propositions must be
framed in terms of the necessary and sufficient conditions that define
the sets to which they refer. On the other is the ontological claim
that the sets in question exist immutably as facts in the world
independent of the minds that contemplate them.

Serious critiques of essentialism attack both sides of the coin.
Against the linguistic claim is a wealth of empirical evidence that
human beings mainly utter propositions in terms that require neither
necessary nor sufficient conditions to be meaningful to those who use
them. The evidence is particularly strong in the case of the subset of
human beings called philosophers, the history of whose debates
consistently reveals the ability to go on talking in the presence of
radical disagreement over what they are talking about.

There are also plenty of alternatives for conceptualizing the
management of differences in ways that do not require the apparatus of
classical logic or modern set theory. See George Lakoff, _Women, Fire
and Dangerous Things_, for a brief but convincing review of
prototyping, family resemblances, fuzzy logic, etc.

Against the ontological claim there is the Darwinian (also Buddhist)
observation that the perceptible configurations of experience to which
allude typically turn out on close examination to be only temporary,
existing for only brief or longer durations of time. The second law of
thermodynamics ("The entropy of an isolated system not at equilibrium
will tend to increase over time, approaching a maximum value")
reinforces this observation, particularly in a relativistic universe
where isolated systems are at best conceptual gimmicks to permit
discussion of complexities otherwise too  great for human

Pragmatically speaking, it may be useful at times to speak as if sets
defined in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions can be treated
as enduring entities. But the proper anti-essentialist attitude is
that of Confucius' gentleman, who performs the rites as if the gods
exist but does not trouble himself with the question whether they
really do.

John McCreery
The Word Works, Ltd., Yokohama, JAPAN

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