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My Two Cents Worth Concerning "information".

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Posted by Paul R. Martin on March 23, 2002 21:32:29 UTC

I hesitate to jump in and muddy the waters, but I think it has already been stirred up to the point where there is little clarity left. Let me toss some opinions into the mix.

Harv offered two conflicting definitions of 'information':

***1) that which reduces uncertainty. (Claude Shannon); 2) that which changes us. (Gregory Bateson)***

I think it would help clarify things if we acknowledge two different kinds of information, just as Dick suggested. That way both Shannon and Bateson can be correct, and Dick's tiggles can be seen to be fundamentally different from Harv's idea of meaningful information.

The distinction would be between data which has meaning and data which has no meaning. But of course, that leaves us with the sticky problem of what we mean by 'meaning'. And, that is where I think we should start. Here's the way I see it:

First of all, I claim that 'meaning' can have no meaning without having meaning TO someone or something. To paraphrase a line in the definition from the web site Harv gave us, "pure unqualified meaning is an unwarranted abstraction".

So that raises the question of exactly to whom or what does a particular set of data have any meaning? Well, Bateson gives us one candidate: "us". I think he means us people. The ones here on earth. So in Bateson's view, information which has meaning (to us) is that which changes us.

That leaves information which has no meaning -- which Dick has named 'tiggles' -- and this seems to match Shannon's definition of that which reduces uncertainty. Of course, his definition raises the question of whether 'certainty' and 'uncertainty' have any meaning outside the context of some sentience which can be certain or uncertain. I don't think so.

Amateur dualist that I am, it seems to me that the reasonable way to view this whole subject is first of all to acknowledge the existence of "minds" which are capable of knowing about data, understanding meaning, and having opinions about certainty and uncertainty. I know positively that one such mind exists (mine), I am reasonably sure that there are others (yours), and to be logically complete, we should admit the possibility that there may be others besides living human beings.

Secondly, continuing with my dualism, it seems to me that we should acknowledge the existence of something other than the mind(s). At a minimum, we could consider the thoughts of the mind(s) to be something different from the mind(s). But beyond that, there is the possibility that something commonly called "objective reality" also exists outside the mind(s).

Now whether this analysis really constitutes "dualism" or not is of no importance to me. The important thing is the acknowledgment of some kind of entity, which I have called "mind", to which information may have meaning. To avoid getting off on a tangent arguing whether or not there are minds other than human, let me restrict the set of minds we are talking about to human minds. Once we clear up this information thing, we can move on to discuss the Great Original Dilemma, my postulated "primordial mind", Bateson's Universe-as-mind, or other views of nonhuman minds.

Next, let me give some examples of information with and without meaning to human minds.

If we consider some set of particles in space, say those that comprise our Sun, then the very fact that those particles exist with particular (or approximate) positions and momenta carries information that has no meaning to any mind. That information, however, does influence the behavior of other particles in their vicinity, e.g. planets and comets. This intrinsic information is what Dick calls tiggles.

If we consider some other set of particles in space, say those making up the molecules of pigments over the surface of a stop sign, then the configuration of those particles spelling out the word 'STOP' contains meaningful information. The information has meaning to humans.

The difference between 'tiggles' and 'meaningful information' is in whether or not the information is encoded according to a preconceived scheme by some "mind(s)" or whether the information is carried intrinsically by the medium (particles, waves, or whatever).

Now there are some cross-overs at the boundary between these two kinds of information. I'll describe one in each direction.

First, the light from stars contains simply tiggles. The information in that light was not encoded at the source by human minds. But, -- human minds have devised theories that predict the spectra produced by various elements, and by using those theories, the information contained in the starlight tiggles can be "decoded" according to the theory to "mean" the presence of certain elements in the star.

The second example goes the other direction. Consider a bi-metal thermostat. The thermostat is an artifact designed by human minds. On the face are painted numerals which encode values of temperature as defined by human minds. When the dial is set to point at, say 70 degrees, that "means" to the humans that the circuit in the thermostat will open if the temperature is above 70 and close if the temperature is below 70. That setting obviously constitutes meaningful information. But the setting also causes the bi-metal strip to be bent in such a way that the laws of physics will cause the switch to open and close as expected by the human. This physical action does not depend at all on the definition of temperature or whether or not any mind is aware of its action. There are simply a number of tiggles of information intrinsic to the configuration of the thermostat which determine, strictly by the laws of physics, whether or not the switch closes or opens. The action is all caused by tiggles.

I think another way of looking at this distinction between the two types of information is that tiggles are analog, and meaningful information is digital. (I made this observation with you, Dick, more than a year ago in private communication. You didn't agree with me then and we never did discuss it enough to get it straightened out. Maybe we can pick up and finish that discussion here.)

Sorry for not writing more lately, but I have been short of time.

Warm regards,


P.S. Harv, I have a big reply that I owe you partly finished in my word processor. I hope to find the time soon to finish it and post it. Be patient.

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