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Posted by Harvey on March 22, 2002 19:51:17 UTC

Hi Dick,

I wasn't sure you were happy to have me around. Good to see we share good thoughts about each other.

***Speaking of ignoring information, we appear to have a difference of opinion as to the meaning of the word "information". Your mental model of the abstract concept so tagged seems to be quite a bit more complex than mine. In addition, I do not think the meaning you assign to the term is sufficiently general to cover the usage I have seen. You seem to believe that it is necessary to attach the idea that information must have some meaning in order to qualify as information. It seems to me that this is an assumption which need not be made.***

Yes, I think inherent meaning is required for something to be information. I agree with this brief definition as it customarily (and approximately) defined within information theory (the theory that studies information):

If there is no intended meaning, then there is no message. Now, I agree that people will refer to data as information if it is helpful in either constructing hypotheses or confirming hypotheses (such as the star's EM waves are giving loads of information about stellar evolution), but data becomes information because humans are communicating the meaning of the data with each other (hence, the creation of information). Information requires an act of meaning to be imputed to something (e.g., EM transmission, smoke signals, drum beats, whatever) before it can be a message and thus information. Information that is not interpreted properly by the receiver is simply misunderstood or not comprehended. Claude Shannon did some of the revolutionary work on information theory and now it is a wide-spread field of interest.

***Consider my first example of "information": (00110101001100010101010000001111110101010100010101010) How do you know that any meaning is attached to that? If it has no meaning, does that mean that it is not information? If it is not "information", what is it?***

It is information if you intended it to be meaningful. If you didn't intend for it to be meaningful, but somehow I can grasp some informative bits about you (such as you seem to favor longer random patterns of zeros rather than ones) then it is perhaps (?) debateable as to whether it is information within the guidelines of information theory (I don't know the answer to that question or whether it is even a philosophical debate on that subject - I'm guessing that there is). However, even if is information, it is only information because somewhere deep inside you there was intent (meaning) on your part in typing a zero instead of a one (or a one instead of a zero). Come to think of it, I think an excellent case could be made that we do nothing in a random manner so the intent (meaning) is certainly a possibility.

On the other hand, if these 1's and 0's were data points of particular EM representations of deep space being recorded by a radio telescope, then it is certainly data - not information.

***H: As you suggested, you can't have information unless some more primitive issues are settled first - namely a theory of meaning and a theory of understanding. D: I don't remember making any such suggestion; perhaps you misunderstood something I said. I think, in my head, "information" is probably the most primitive concept of all. Every other concept is based on "information" of some sort or another but information itself is -- well, just information. I do not "know" what it means! At least this is the idea which arises in my head when I hear the word "information".***

Sorry if I misunderstood you, I was thinking we agreed when you said "[e]ssentially, everything that you can know is information; when you are aware, information is what you are aware of." If we are aware of something, then we must necessarily have imputed meaning to that something (i.e., if we were to communicate that something it would be as information).

In any case, I think what you call 'information' is what I might call 'sense data'. It is everything that we could possibly use to construct an idea, concept, thought, etc.

***H: But, the definition is the assignment of meaning. D: That can not be so as, if it were, dictionaries (collections of definitions) would assign meaning which you have just agreed they cannot!***

Dictionaries reference the commonly understood meaning as it is used in a particular language. The assigned meaning happens within the context of culture and individuals within that culture as they come to understand the meaning of various elements in that culture. For example, our culture has a general meaning attached to snow, but the Eskimow culture perhaps has a much more elaborate attached meaning to the same natural phenomena. They might gauge snow based on its packing ability, hardness, softness, etc. The definition of a particular snow to an Eskimow is the assigned meaning as to what it means when this particular kind of snow is present.

***I hold that definitions are mechanisms used to assign meaning, a subtly different concept ("definitions themselves do not ever provide any meaning" which is exactly what you said you agreed with).***

Okay, let's review that paragraph again:

"The definitions [of dictionaries] themselves do not ever provide any meaning in and of themselves;"

Correct. Dictionaries are merely reciting the meaning that is already present when those words are used. Dictionary councils have a large collection of linguistic professors who specialize in word usage, word history, etc. They try to encapsure the meaning of words as they are used in a culture (e.g., scientific culture) and then define the word using words usually more commonly understood. You must understand the meaning of those other words in order to grasp the meaning of the dictionary word you are looking up. In this manner you can understand the meaning as the culture is using that word in practice (i.e., if those linguistic professors are doing their job correctly).

***a dictionary definition can be seen as providing meaning only when meaning has already been assigned to all the other symbols and to the syntax used in that particular definition.***


***That such an assignment of meaning exists is exactly the contextual assumption made whenever one attempts to discover meaning of a symbol from a dictionary.***

Ditto again.

***In fact, it is exactly this constraint which generates the rule that a definition cannot contain the symbol being defined (as clearly, such a definition will fail its purpose which is, of course, to provide a mechanism for assigning meaning).***

Right on again. To understand the meaning of the look-up word you need to understand the meaning of the commonly used words.

Back to your statement: "I hold that definitions are mechanisms used to assign meaning, a subtly different concept ("definitions themselves do not ever provide any meaning" which is exactly what you said you agreed with)."

The definitions used in culture are the assignments used in culture. The definitions in the dictionary are references to the assignments (definitions) as they are used in the culture in question (e.g., American English world, scientific community, etc). Again, when I refer to definitions (or assignments) of a word's meaning, I am talking primarily about what is in the heads of people which is often communicated (but not always) in journals, classrooms, presentations, and even dictionaries.

Warm regards, Harv

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