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“There is no information without representation”

February 15, 2014 Leave a comment Go to comments

My rebuttal to this from  New Empiricism

Information is one of the most poorly defined terms in philosophy but it is a well defined concept in physical theory. How can it be that a clear idea in one branch of knowledge can be murky in another?

The physical meaning of information is succinctly summarised in the Wikibook on “Consciousness Studies”:

“The number of distinguishable states that a system can possess is the amount of information that can be encoded by the system.”

In most cases a “state of a system” boils down to arrangements of objects, either material objects laid out in the world or sequences of objects such as the succession of signals in a telephone line. So information is represented by physical things laid out in space and time. There is no information without this representation as an arrangement of physical objects.

Information can be processed by machines. As an example, computers use the “distinguishable states” of charge in electrical components to perform a host of useful tasks. They use the state of electrical charge in electronic components because charge can be manipulated rapidly and can be impressed on tiny components, however, computers could use the states of steel balls in boxes or carrots flowing on conveyor belts to achieve the same effect, albeit more slowly. There is nothing special about electronic computers beyond their speed, complexity and compactness. They are just machines that contain three dimensional arrangements of matter.

Philosophers use information in a much less well-defined fashion. Philosophical information is far more fuzzy and involves the quality of things such as hardness or blueness. So how does philosophical blueness differ from a physical information state?

Physical information about the world is a generalised state change that is related to particular events in the world and could be impressed on any substrate such as steel balls etc.. This allows information to be transmitted from place to place. As an example, a heat sensor in England could trigger a switch that opens a trapdoor that drops a ball that is monitored on a camera that causes changes in charge patterns in a computer that are transmitted as sounds on a radio in the USA. If the sound on the radio makes a cat jump and knock over a vase then it is probably valid to look at the vase and say “its hot in England”. So physical information is related to its source by the causal chain of preceding steps. Notice that each of these steps is a physical event so there is no information without representation as a state in the real world.

In the philosophical idea of information “hot” or “cold” are particular states in the mind. Our mental states are not uniquely related to the state of the world outside our bodies. As an example, human heat sensors are fickle so a blindfolded person might contain the state called “cold” when their hand is placed in water at 60 degrees or ice water at zero degrees. Our “cold” is subjective and does not have a fixed reference point in the world. Our own information is a particular state that could be induced by a variety of events in the world whereas physical information can be a variety of states triggered by a particular event in the world.

To summarise, information in physics is a state change in any substrate. It can be related to the state change in another substrate if a causal chain exists between the two substrates. Information in the mind is the state of the particular substrate that forms your particular mind.

Your mind is a state of a particular substrate but a “state” is an arrangement of events. The crucial questions for the scientist are “what events?” and “how many independent directions can be used for arranging these events?”. We can tell from our experience that at least four independent axes (or “dimensions”) are involved.

Note

The fact that there is no information without representation of the information as a physical state means that peculiar non-physical claims such as Cartesian Dualism and Dennett’s “logical space” are not credible.

Daniel C Dennett. (1991). Consciousness Explained. Little, Brown & Co. USA. Available as a Penguin Book.

Dennett says: “So we do have a way of making sense of the idea of phenomenal space – as a logical space. This is a space into which or in which nothing is literally projected; its properties are simply constituted by the beliefs of the (heterophenomenological) subject.” Dennett is wrong because if the space contains information then it must be instantiated as a physical entity, if it is not instantiated then it does not exist and Dennett is simply denying the experience that we all share to avoid explaining it. Either we have simultaneous events or are just a single point, if we have simultaneous events the space of our experience exists.

“So information is represented by physical things laid out in space and time.”

Why would physical things ‘represent’ anything though? Without some sensory interpretation that groups such things together so that they appear “laid out in space and time”, who is to say that there could be any ‘informing’ going on?

“computers use the “distinguishable states” of charge in electrical components to perform a host of useful tasks.”

Useful to whom? The beads of an abacus can be manipulated into states which are distinguishable by the user, but there is no reason to assume that this informs the beads, or the physical material that the beads are made of. Computers do not compute to serve their own sense or motives, they are blind, low level reflectors of extrinsically introduced conditions.

“Your mind is a state of a particular substrate but a “state” is an arrangement of events. ”

States and arrangements are not physical because they require a mode of interpretation which is qualitative and aesthetic. Just as there can be no disembodied information, there can be no ‘states’ or ‘arrangements’ which are disentangled from the totality of sensible relations, and from specific participatory subsets therein. Information is a ghost – an impostor which reflects this totality in a narrow quantitative sense which is eternal but metaphysical, and a physical sense which is tangible and present but in which all aesthetic qualities are reduced to a one dimensional schema of coordinate permutation. Neither information nor physics can relate to each other or represent anything by themselves. It is my view that we should flip the entire assumption of forms and functions as primitively real around, so that they are instead derived from a more fundamental capacity to appreciate sensory affects and participate in motivated effects. The primordial character of the universe can only be, in my view metaphenomenal, with physics, information, and subjectivity as sensible partitions of the whole.

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  1. Dawn
    December 23, 2015 at 2:05 am

    “Why would physical things ‘represent’ anything though? Without some sensory interpretation that groups such things together so that they appear “laid out in space and time”, who is to say that there could be any ‘informing’ going on?”

    Wasn’t the answer in the piece you quoted? “Information in the mind is the state of the particular substrate that forms your particular mind.”

    All of the terms such as space, arrangement and even substrate are qualities of your current conscious experience. Just examine your current experience with a form of a screen and white etc. in it. The challenge for the scientist is to work out where in the world these are instantiated. It is not to deny that they are present in your experience because they evidently are present, simultaneously present (there would be no white area between these letters without simultaneity).

    • December 23, 2015 at 1:24 pm

      “Information in the mind is the state of the particular substrate that forms your particular mind.”
      But the substrate would be in the same ‘state’ with or without any mind. If we look at an abacus, for example, we might see that a certain configuration of beads represents a particular number. That representation does not inhere in the beads though. The ‘configuration’ or ‘state’ is entirely our interpretation of visual/tangible relations that we detect from our perspective. The beads themselves do not have any such perspective and at best their ‘state’ would be limited to the most immediate contact between the surface of adjacent beads.

      I’m not sure what you mean in the last paragraph. It sounds like you are saying that there should be an area in the brain that maps to our visual field, but I’m not sure.

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