What is Information?

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What is Information?

Post Number:#1  Postby Gertie » March 12th, 2017, 5:09 am

I'm not sure, and I might be wrong, but I'm going to take the starting position that information is not 'a thing in itself, but a way of describing actual things (material things, abstract concepts, etc).

Hence information always tells you (informs you) about something else, that thing's properties, processes, quantities, measurements, what ever it's describing.

If you say an object or process 'contains a lot of information', that is really a metaphor for saying that object or process has a lot of ways of being described, measured, having different states.

It can describe things in encoded representations/symbols, such as words, '0/1 bits', or the patterns of neuronal systems which describe the outside world or internal body states.

As information has no independent existence, is only a way of describing or representing the actual thing in itself which the information is about, then it can have no independent causal powers of its own, no causal role at all.

Thoughts?
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Re: What is Information?

Post Number:#2  Postby Greta » March 27th, 2017, 1:08 am

Hi Gertie. It seems this post was approved some time ago and buried under other new posts :)

I never found the record of its approval though. It is the story of my life that I almost always end up in administrative roles and yet I am one of the most unorganised people I know. At some deep level it may be that many people enjoy the novelty of chaos and make unconscious decisions to bring it about.

Re: the thread. This harks back to the debate about the nature of on the "can a machine become conscious" thread. I think of information density as I think about mass and density, equivalent in different domains. Energy and information are obviously intimately related, with the later pertaining to the configuration of the former, and also capable of expressing unreal concepts.

Information and systems theory may yet be fundamental science if this promising speculative hypothesis is correct: scientificamerican.com/article/a-new-ph ... -of-life/#

At the heart of England’s idea is the second law of thermodynamics, also known as the law of increasing entropy or the “arrow of time.” Hot things cool down, gas diffuses through air, eggs scramble but never spontaneously unscramble; in short, energy tends to disperse or spread out as time progresses. Entropy is a measure of this tendency, quantifying how dispersed the energy is among the particles in a system, and how diffuse those particles are throughout space. It increases as a simple matter of probability: There are more ways for energy to be spread out than for it to be concentrated. Thus, as particles in a system move around and interact, they will, through sheer chance, tend to adopt configurations in which the energy is spread out. Eventually, the system arrives at a state of maximum entropy called “thermodynamic equilibrium,” in which energy is uniformly distributed. A cup of coffee and the room it sits in become the same temperature, for example. As long as the cup and the room are left alone, this process is irreversible. The coffee never spontaneously heats up again because the odds are overwhelmingly stacked against so much of the room’s energy randomly concentrating in its atoms.

Although entropy must increase over time in an isolated or “closed” system, an “open” system can keep its entropy low — that is, divide energy unevenly among its atoms — by greatly increasing the entropy of its surroundings. In his influential 1944 monograph “What Is Life?” the eminent quantum physicist Erwin Schrödinger argued that this is what living things must do. A plant, for example, absorbs extremely energetic sunlight, uses it to build sugars, and ejects infrared light, a much less concentrated form of energy. The overall entropy of the universe increases during photosynthesis as the sunlight dissipates, even as the plant prevents itself from decaying by maintaining an orderly internal structure ....

Using Jarzynski and Crooks’ formulation, he derived a generalization of the second law of thermodynamics that holds for systems of particles with certain characteristics: The systems are strongly driven by an external energy source such as an electromagnetic wave, and they can dump heat into a surrounding bath. This class of systems includes all living things. England then determined how such systems tend to evolve over time as they increase their irreversibility. “We can show very simply from the formula that the more likely evolutionary outcomes are going to be the ones that absorbed and dissipated more energy from the environment’s external drives on the way to getting there,” he said. The finding makes intuitive sense: Particles tend to dissipate more energy when they resonate with a driving force, or move in the direction it is pushing them, and they are more likely to move in that direction than any other at any given moment.

“This means clumps of atoms surrounded by a bath at some temperature, like the atmosphere or the ocean, should tend over time to arrange themselves to resonate better and better with the sources of mechanical, electromagnetic or chemical work in their environments,” England explained.

Self-replication (or reproduction, in biological terms), the process that drives the evolution of life on Earth, is one such mechanism by which a system might dissipate an increasing amount of energy over time. As England put it, “A great way of dissipating more is to make more copies of yourself.”
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Re: What is Information?

Post Number:#3  Postby Philo_soph » March 27th, 2017, 5:54 am

Gertie wrote:
I'm not sure, and I might be wrong, but I'm going to take the starting position that information is not 'a thing in itself, but a way of describing actual things (material things, abstract concepts, etc).

Hence information always tells you (informs you) about something else, that thing's properties, processes, quantities, measurements, what ever it's describing.

I certainly agree. What you mention is called representation in post-structuralist and narrative theories. Genrally speaking, information could be seen in the light of Aristotle's notion of Logos. It involves the data that appeals to human rational faculty.

What is important about Logos is its strong degree of "persuasion". In critical discourse analysis theories, as suggested by those like van Dijk or Fairclough, information is seen as a source of power. They follow Foucault who was deeply inspired by Nietzsche. The purpose of such theories is to find out how information can be used to impose control over a group of people or how information can be ideologically manipulated. For example, by using techniques such as passivization (which hides the agent of an action).

There's also another way of looking at informational representation. In Ricoeur's translation theory, the unit of information dissemination is "narrative". A narrative includes three stages of mimesis. This work can show how information works at an international level.
If you say an object or process 'contains a lot of information', that is really a metaphor for saying that object or process has a lot of ways of being described, measured, having different states.

That's, of course, not a metaphorical expression, but I agree with your idea.

It can describe things in encoded representations/symbols, such as words, '0/1 bits', or the patterns of neuronal systems which describe the outside world or internal body states.

Totally true.
As information has no independent existence, is only a way of describing or representing the actual thing in itself which the information is about, then it can have no independent causal powers of its own, no causal role at all.

I would somehow disagree here. Ricoeur believes that narratives can have practical causal fucntions. For instance, by showing to us where we are in a sequence of actions, narratives can guide us what to do next. They control our behavior. Also, discourse analysts investigate information because they believe false information can lead to dangerous consequences.
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Re: What is Information?

Post Number:#4  Postby JamesOfSeattle » March 27th, 2017, 1:24 pm

Gertie, I would like to point out that there will not be a single correct answer to the question of "what is information". Whenever you ask a question, and you actually want an answer, you need to specify the context in which you are asking. The term "information" has been co-opted in many different contexts, and while the meaning in the different contexts may be related, they will not be the same.

So for example, Greta's first thought seems to have been to go down to the context of thermodynamics. At this level you will find mathematical formulas which purport to quantify information. In contrast, Philo_soph's first thought went to the other extreme, namely to linguistics and culture. Neither of these contexts have the "wrong" idea of information. They're just using different definitions of the term.

My interest is in consciousness, and more specifically, the origin of consciousness, so I have a very specific definition derived from Luciano Floridi's definition of semantic information, which is
1. Data, which is
2. well-formed (I.e., appropriate to a given context)
3. meaningful, and
4. true.

Floridi's definition is intended for a higher level, namely the level of communication between intelligent agents in a social context. My definition is for a lower level, thus:

At the bottom level, information is
1. Data (a discrete set of measurable physical variables)

At the next higher level we have indexical information, which is
1. Data (a discrete set of measurable physical variables) which can be
2. Associated with a specific causal history.

This is where information begins to be "about" something. A grain of sand can be said to contain information in that there are multiple sets of data that could potentially be measured to determine something about the causal history of that grain. I should note that the causal history could include any of Aristotle's paradigmatic Four Causes. So for example, the grain's color could be said to contain information about the iron content of the grain, red indicating iron (Aristotle's material cause). The grain's shape, rough as opposed to smooth, plus a molecular content which suggests the material is not from a local source, may contain information that this grain was formed recently and for the purpose of creating a sandy beach where there was none until recently (Aristotle's efficient and final causes).

Another level higher might be symbolic information, where the causal history contains at least one intermediate step with an arbitrary communication mechanism. The paradigm here is the neuron. For example, red light is reflected from the grain of sand and triggers a red photoreceptor. That photoreceptor then triggers neuron B. Neuron B, having been triggered, dumps a bunch of neurotransmitter into a synaptic space. That neurotransmitter in the synaptic space can be said to carry the information that the grain of sand was red, but there is no inherent relation to "redness" in the neurotransmitter, other than the specific causal history. Neuron B could easily have been hooked to a blue photoreceptor.

Theoretically this expansion on causal history can continue up until we get to the higher levels of culture, but I'll leave that for others.

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Re: What is Information?

Post Number:#5  Postby Atreyu » March 29th, 2017, 6:10 pm

Since "information" is a thought/idea, perhaps a better question would be: What is a thought? Or, What is an idea?

I think this is perhaps a more "macro" (broad and encompassing) way of looking at it, although there will be people here who will assert that thoughts and ideas are "information", i.e. that "information" is ultimately the more broad and encompassing term...
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Re: What is Information?

Post Number:#6  Postby Steve3007 » March 30th, 2017, 7:16 pm

OP:
I'm not sure, and I might be wrong, but I'm going to take the starting position that information is not 'a thing in itself, but a way of describing actual things (material things, abstract concepts, etc).


You could just as easily take the opposite view and decide that material things - objects - are merely models whose purpose is to allow us to make sense in the patterns we see in various sets of information. I think the position you take on this is arbitrary and depends only on what you want to achieve; what use the viewpoint has for you.
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Re: What is Information?

Post Number:#7  Postby Gertie » March 31st, 2017, 11:23 am

Greta

At some deep level it may be that many people enjoy the novelty of chaos and make unconscious decisions to bring it about.


GCT (Greta Chaos Theory) :lol:

Hi Gertie. It seems this post was approved some time ago and buried under other new posts :)

I never found the record of its approval though. It is the story of my life that I almost always end up in administrative roles and yet I am one of the most unorganised people I know.

Re: the thread. This harks back to the debate about the nature of on the "can a machine become conscious" thread. I think of information density as I think about mass and density, equivalent in different domains.


Thanks for digging it out Greta, very nice of you! Especially as I hadn't kept a copy.

Yes it was the 'can computers become conscious' thread which got me focussing on what information actually is, particularly can it have some independent causal role...

I think of information density as I think about mass and density, equivalent in different domains. Energy and information are obviously intimately related, with the later pertaining to the configuration of the former, and also capable of expressing unreal concepts.

Information and systems theory may yet be fundamental science if this promising speculative hypothesis is correct:


It's an interesting approach, I suppose in a way I'm asking what is more 'real' and therefore has qualities like causality - abstract descriptions like systems theory or information, vs quantifiable 'stuff' like energy and matter following the 'laws' of physics.

Are you suggesting they're all just different types of descriptions?

I'm suggesting an abstract conceptualised description alone has no causal power, it's actual stuff interacting (regardless of how you describe it) which gives rise to causality. And if a property of energy-stuff is to move towards entropy overall, with pockets of stuff interacting in contrary ways following the laws of physics, then that's where the explanation of local system causality lies.

-- Updated March 31st, 2017, 4:45 pm to add the following --

Philo-soph

Very interesting responses, thanks, I think we come at this from a similar perspective. The potential causal role of information is that it... informs. As you point out, we are creatures who tend to model the world and ourselves in terms of narrative -

As information has no independent existence, is only a way of describing or representing the actual thing in itself which the information is about, then it can have no independent causal powers of its own, no causal role at all.


I would somehow disagree here. Ricoeur believes that narratives can have practical causal fucntions. For instance, by showing to us where we are in a sequence of actions, narratives can guide us what to do next. They control our behavior. Also, discourse analysts investigate information because they believe false information can lead to dangerous consequences.


Information which has meaning to conscious agents has consequences, if you accept that mental states have a role in causality.

And we end up back in Searle's Chinese Room.

-- Updated March 31st, 2017, 5:25 pm to add the following --

James

Gertie, I would like to point out that there will not be a single correct answer to the question of "what is information". Whenever you ask a question, and you actually want an answer, you need to specify the context in which you are asking. The term "information" has been co-opted in many different contexts, and while the meaning in the different contexts may be related, they will not be the same.


To an extent perhaps, but I've given my understanding of information for you to shoot at. :)

At the bottom level, information is
1. Data (a discrete set of measurable physical variables)

At the next higher level we have indexical information, which is
1. Data (a discrete set of measurable physical variables) which can be
2. Associated with a specific causal history.

This is where information begins to be "about" something. A grain of sand can be said to contain information in that there are multiple sets of data that could potentially be measured to determine something about the causal history of that grain.


I'd agree we (conscious beings) can sometimes infer something about its causal history by looking at the current properties of stuff like a grain of sand. Would you say information itself can have a future causal role, or is it the properties of the thing itself interacting with other things where causality lies?

Another level higher might be symbolic information, where the causal history contains at least one intermediate step with an arbitrary communication mechanism. The paradigm here is the neuron. For example, red light is reflected from the grain of sand and triggers a red photoreceptor. That photoreceptor then triggers neuron B. Neuron B, having been triggered, dumps a bunch of neurotransmitter into a synaptic space. That neurotransmitter in the synaptic space can be said to carry the information that the grain of sand was red, but there is no inherent relation to "redness" in the neurotransmitter, other than the specific causal history. Neuron B could easily have been hooked to a blue photoreceptor.


These are physical causal processes, stuff interacting with other stuff following certain patterns/laws of physics. These particular processes 'encode' descriptions of the outside world in specific patterns of physical interactions.

You can call that 'information processing', but I'm claiming that doesn't add anything to what's going on.

When you introduce the notion of colour, red in this case, then you're introducing something new. The subjective mental experience of 'seeing red'. This experiencing could be said to be the decoding of the description of the outside world (information) represented by patterns of neural interactions - in the form of a mental experiential state. And the 'experiencer' could be said to understand the meaning of what those patterns of physical interactions represent - a 'red' grain of sand.

-- Updated March 31st, 2017, 5:30 pm to add the following --

Steve

I'm not sure, and I might be wrong, but I'm going to take the starting position that information is not 'a thing in itself, but a way of describing actual things (material things, abstract concepts, etc).



You could just as easily take the opposite view and decide that material things - objects - are merely models whose purpose is to allow us to make sense in the patterns we see in various sets of information.


What do you mean exactly by 'sets of information' here?

I'm suggesting information is description of things in themselves, you seem to be suggesting information is a thing in itself which I can see? Can you explain?
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Re: What is Information?

Post Number:#8  Postby JamesOfSeattle » April 1st, 2017, 12:06 am

Gertie wrote:To an extent perhaps, but I've given my understanding of information for you to shoot at. :)

pardon me if I shoot from the hip.

Would you say information itself can have a future causal role, or is it the properties of the thing itself interacting with other things where causality lies?

I would say both. People talk about causality in two different contexts. One context is stuff physically interacting with other stuff. The other context is as explanation. It is in this second context that information can be invoked and so have a "future causal role".

These are physical causal processes, stuff interacting with other stuff following certain patterns/laws of physics. These particular processes 'encode' descriptions of the outside world in specific patterns of physical interactions.

You can call that 'information processing', but I'm claiming that doesn't add anything to what's going on.

So I am saying these 'encoded' descriptions add to the explanation. I'm also going to say that the 'decoding' is qualia.

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Re: What is Information?

Post Number:#9  Postby Philo_soph » April 1st, 2017, 10:00 pm

Gertie wrote:
Very interesting responses, thanks, I think we come at this from a similar perspective. The potential causal role of information is that it... informs. As you point out, we are creatures who tend to model the world and ourselves in terms of narrative –

That’s true. I took a look at the paper about narrative. The way I understand it reveals that even scientific data and events are somehow shaped by narratives; this is an empirical observation: when paper is exposed to fire, it is burned out. Now let’s conceptualize it: BURNING, EXPOSURE, PAPER. Only when we put these things into a sequence of actions can we perceive them meaningfully. I agree that mental states “might” be all we call “causality.”
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Re: What is Information?

Post Number:#10  Postby Greta » April 2nd, 2017, 6:29 pm

Gertie wrote:GCT (Greta Chaos Theory) :lol:

Ha! An inadvertent agent of chaos and disorder. The road to hell ...

Gertie wrote:
Moi wrote:I think of information density as I think about mass and density, equivalent in different domains. Energy and information are obviously intimately related, with the later pertaining to the configuration of the former, and also capable of expressing unreal concepts.

Information and systems theory may yet be fundamental science if this promising speculative hypothesis is correct:


It's an interesting approach, I suppose in a way I'm asking what is more 'real' and therefore has qualities like causality - abstract descriptions like systems theory or information, vs quantifiable 'stuff' like energy and matter following the 'laws' of physics.

Are you suggesting they're all just different types of descriptions?

I'm suggesting an abstract conceptualised description alone has no causal power, it's actual stuff interacting (regardless of how you describe it) which gives rise to causality. And if a property of energy-stuff is to move towards entropy overall, with pockets of stuff interacting in contrary ways following the laws of physics, then that's where the explanation of local system causality lies.

Your suggestion that information alone has no causal power works with the assumption that nothing more ordered than a chaotic quantum foam or equivalent preceded the big bang (barring metaphysical emergences).

Even if that's the case, the degree to which stuff is needed in any given system or process varies so much that for all practical circumstances, the stuff aspect is relatively insignificant. For instance, consider the difference between a functioning program and one where a typo exist in a critical subroutine. There's an equal number of 0s and 1s - yet one program one may influence physical reality far more profoundly than another. As regards the nature of reality, yes, a physical medium is still required, but in this context has become more background than foreground. By contrast, the information of a neutron star is far less significant in terms of its impacts than its mass and EM emissions.

If we accept I agree that, at least from our perspective, stuff must be involved for anything to happen, insofar as we have identified the "stuff".
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