The Information Philosopher
The simple definition of information is the act of informing - the communication of knowledge from a sender to a receiver that informs (literally shapes) the receiver. A message that is certain to tell you something you already know contains no new information. If everything that happens was certain to happen, as determinist philosophers claim, no new information would ever enter the universe. Information would be a universal constant. There would be "nothing new under the sun." Every past and future event can in principle be known by a super-intelligence with access to such a fixed totality of information (Laplace's Demon).How created?
Information is not constant. We know that information is being created because the universe began some thirteen billion years ago in a state of minimal information. The "Big Bang" was formless radiation, pure energy, no material particles. How matter formed into objects like the galaxies, stars, and planets is the beginning of a story that will end with understanding how human minds emerged to understand our place in the astrophysical universe. The story of cosmic creation involves learning some relatively sophisticated physics, particularly quantum mechanics and thermodynamics. We provide animated visualizations of the most basic concepts you need to become an information philosopher.Why better?
The theory of communication of information is the foundation of our "information age." To understand how we know things is to understand how knowledge represents the physical world of embodied "information structures" in the mental world of immaterial ideas. The analysis of language, particularly the analysis of philosophical concepts, has failed to solve the most ancient philosophical problems. At best, it claims to "dis-solve" some of them as conceptual puzzles. The "problem of knowledge" itself, traditionally framed as "justifying true belief," can be recast as the degree of isomorphism between the information in the physical world and the information in our minds. Note that just as language philosophy is not the philosophy of language, so information philosophy is not the philosophy of information. It is rather the use of information as a tool to study philosophical problems, some of which are today yielding solutions.Problems solved?
Why does philosophy make so little progress? Is it because philosophers prefer problems, where scientists seek solutions? Must a philosophical problem solved become science and leave philosophy? The information philosopher thinks not. But in order to remain philosophy, philosophers must themselves examine the proposed solutions and make them part of the critical dialogue. Among the proposed solutions are:
The Fundamental Question of Information PhilosophyOur fundamental philosophical question is cosmological and ultimately metaphysical. What are the processes that create emergent information structures in the universe?
Given the second law of thermodynamics, which says that any system will over time approach a thermodynamic equilibrium of maximum disorder or entropy, in which all information is lost, and given the best current model for the origin of the universe, which says everything began in a state of thermodynamic equilibrium some 13.75 billion years ago, how can it be that living beings are creating and communicating vast amounts of new information every day?None of these processes can work unless they have a way to get rid of the positive entropy (disorder) and leave behind a pocket of negative entropy (order or information). The positive entropy is either conducted, convected, or radiated away as waste matter and energy, as heat, or as pure radiation. At the quantum level, it is always the result of interactions between matter and radiation (photons). Whenever photons interact with material particles, the outcomes are inherently unpredictable. As Albert Einstein discovered ten years before the founding of quantum mechanics, these interactions involve irreducible ontological chance. Negative entropy is an abstract thermodynamic concept that describes energy with the ability to do work, to make something happen. This kind of energy is often called free energy or available energy. In a maximally disordered state (called thermodynamic equilibrium) there can be matter in motion, the motion we call heat. But the average properties - density, pressure, temperature - are the same everywhere. Equilibrium is formless. Departures from equilibrium are when the physical situation shows differences from place to place. These differences are information. The second law of thermodynamics is then simply that isolated systems will eliminate differences from place to place until the various properties are uniform. Natural processes spontaneously destroy information. Consider the classic case of what happens when we open a perfume bottle.
Answering the Fundamental Question of Information PhilosophyHow exactly has the universe escaped from the total disorder of thermodynamic equilibrium and produced a world full of information? It begins with the expansion of the universe. If the universe had not expanded, it would have remained in the original state of thermodynamic equilibrium. We would not be here. To visualize the departure from equilibrium that made us possible, remember that equilibrium is when particles are distributed evenly in all possible locations in space, and with their velocities distributed by a normal law - the Maxwell-Boltzmann velocity distribution. (The combination of position space and velocity or momentum space is called phase space). When we open the perfume bottle, the molecules now have a much larger phase space to distribute into. There are a much larger number of phase space "cells" in which molecules could be located. It of course takes them time to spread out and come to a new equilibrium state (the Boltzmann "relaxation time.")
When the universe expands, say grows to ten times its volume, it is just like the perfume bottle opening. The matter particles must redistribute themselves to get back to equilibrium. But suppose the universe expansion rate is much faster than the relaxation time. The universe is out of equilibrium, and it will never get back!In the earliest moments of the universe, material particles were yet stable. Pure radiation energy was in equilibrium at extraordinarily high temperatures. When material particles appeared, they were blasted back into radiation by photon collisions. As the universe expanded, the temperature cooled, the space per photon was increased and the mean free time between photon collisions increased, giving particles a better chance to survive. The expansion red-shifted the photons. The average energy per photon decreased, eventually reducing the number of high energy photons that destroyed the matter. Quarks and electrons became more common. The mean free path of photons was very short. They were being scattered by collisions with electrons. When temperatures continued to decline, quarks combined into nuclear particles, protons and neutrons. When temperature declined further, to 5000 degrees, about 400,000 years after the "Big Bang," the electrons and protons combined to make hydrogen atoms.
How information creation and negative entropy flows appear to violate the second law of thermodynamicsIn our open and rapidly expanding universe, the maximum possible entropy (if the particles were "relaxed" into a uniform distribution among the new phase-space cells) is increasing faster than the actual entropy. The difference between maximum possible entropy and the current entropy is called negative entropy. There is an intimate connection between the physical quantity negative entropy and abstract immaterial information, first established by Leo Szilard in 1929. As pointed out by Harvard cosmologist David Layzer, the Arrow of Time points not only to increasing disorder but also to increasing information. Two of our "ergodic" phenomena - gravity and quantum cooperative phenomena - pull matter together that was previously separated. Galaxies, stars, and planets form out of inchoate clouds of dust and gas. Gravity binds the matter together. Subatomic particles combine to form atoms. Atoms combine to form molecules. They are held together by quantum mechanics. In all these cases, a new visible information structure appears. In order for these structures to stay together, the motion (kinetic) energy of their parts must be radiated away. This is why the stars shine. When atoms join to become molecules, they give off photons. The new structure is now in a (negative) bound energy state. It is the radiation that carries away the positive entropy (disorder) needed to balance the new order (information) in the visible structure. In the cases of chaotic dissipative structures and life, the ergodic phenomena are more complex, but the result is similar, the emergence of visible information. (More commonly it is simply the maintenance of high-information, low-entropy structures.) These cases appear in far-from-equilibrium situations where there is a flow of matter and energy with negative entropy through the information structure. The flow comes in with low entropy but leaves with high entropy. Matter and energy are conserved in the flow, but information in the structure can increase (information is not a conserved quantity). Information is neither matter nor energy, though it uses matter when it is embodied and energy when it is communicated. Information is immaterial. This vision of life as a visible form through which matter and energy flow was first seen by Ludwig van Bertlanffy in 1939, though it was made more famous by Erwin Schrödinger's landmark essay What Is Life? in 1945, where he claimed that "life feeds on negative entropy."
When information is embodied in a physical structure, two physical processes must occur. The first process is the collapse of a quantum-mechanical wave function into one of the possible states in a superposition of states, which happens in any measurement process. A measurement produces one or more bits of information. Such quantum events involve irreducible indeterminacy and chance, but less often noted is the fact that quantum physics is directly responsible for the extraordinary temporal stability and adequate determinism of most information structures. The second process is a local decrease in the entropy (which appears to violate the second law of thermodynamics) corresponding to the increase in information. Entropy greater than the information increase must be transferred away from the new information, ultimately to the night sky and the cosmic background, to satisfy the second law. Given this new stable information, to the extent that the resulting quantum system can be approximately isolated, the system will deterministically evolve according to von Neumann's Process 2, the unitary time evolution described by the Schrödinger equation. The first two physical processes (1 and 1b) are parts of the information solution to the "problem of measurement," to which must be added the role of the "observer." The discovery and elucidation of the first two as steps in the cosmic creation process casts light on some classical problems in philosophy and physics , since it is the same two-step process that creates new biological species and explains the freedom and creativity of the human mind. The cosmic creation process generates the conditions without which there could be nothing of value in the universe, nothing to be known, and no one to do the knowing. Information itself is the ultimate sine qua non.
The Three Kinds of Information EmergenceNote there are three distinct kinds of emergence:
S = k log Wwhere S is the entropy, k is Boltzmann's constant, and W is the probability of the given state of the system.
The Shannon PrincipleIn his development of the mathematical theory of the communication of information, Claude Shannon showed that there can be no new information in a message unless there are multiple possible messages. If only one message is possible, there is no information in that message. We can simplify this to define the Shannon Principle. No new information can be created in the universe unless there are multiple possibilities, only one of which can become actual. An alternative statement of the Shannon principle is that in a deterministic system, information is conserved, unchanging with time. Classical mechanics is a conservative system that conserves not only energy and momentum but also conserves the total information. Information is a "constant of the motion" in a determinist world. Quantum mechanics, by contrast, is indeterministic. It involves irreducible ontological chance. An isolated quantum system is described by a wave function ψ which evolves according to the unitary time evolution of the linear Schrödinger equation,
i ℏ d | ψ > / dt = H | ψ >.But isolation is an ideal that can only be approximately realized. Because the Schrödinger equation is linear, a wave function | ψ > can be a linear combination (a superposition) of another set of wave functions | φn >,
| ψ > = ∑ cn | φn >,where the cn coefficients squared are the probabilities of finding the system in the possible state | φn > as the result of an interaction with another quantum system.
cn2 = < ψ | φn >2.Quantum mechanics introduces real possibilities, each with a calculable probability of becoming an actuality, as a consequence of one quantum system interacting (for example colliding) with another quantum system. It is quantum interactions that lead to new information in the universe - both new information structures and information processing systems. But that new information cannot subsist unless a compensating amount of entropy is transferred away from the new information. And it is only in cases where information persists long enough for a human being to observe it that we can properly describe the observation as a "measurement" and the human being as an "observer." Following von Neumann's "process" terminology, we might complete his admittedly unsuccessful attempt at a theory of the measuring process with the anthropomorphic
Process 3 - a conscious observer recording new information (knowledge) in a human mind.
In less than two decades of the mid-twentieth century, the word information was transformed from a synonym for knowledge into a mathematical, physical, and biological quantity that can be measured and studied scientifically. In 1929, Leo Szilard connected an increase in thermodynamic (Boltzmann) entropy with any increase in information that results from a measurement, solving the problem of "Maxwell's Demon," a thought experiment suggested by James Clerk Maxwell, in which a local reduction in entropy is possible when an intelligent being interacts with a thermodynamic system. In the early 1940s, digital computers were invented, by Alan Turing, Claude Shannon, John von Neumann, and others, that could run a stored program to manipulate stored data. Then in the late 1940s, the problem of communicating digital data signals in the presence of noise was first explored by Shannon, who developed the modern mathematical theory of the communication of information. Norbert Wiener wrote in his 1948 book Cybernetics that "information is the negative of the quantity usually defined as entropy," and in 1949 Leon Brillouin coined the term "negentropy." Finally, in the early 1950s, inheritable characteristics were shown by Francis Crick, James Watson, and George Gamow to be transmitted from generation to generation in a digital code.
Information is ImmaterialInformation is neither matter nor energy, but it needs matter for its embodiment and energy for its communication. A living being is a form through which passes a flow of matter and energy (with low entropy). Genetic information is used to build the information-rich matter into an information-processing structure that contains a very large number of hierarchically organized information structures. All biological systems are cognitive, using their internal information structure to guide their actions. Even some of the simplest organisms can learn from experience. The most primitive minds are experience recorders and reproducers. In humans, the information-processing structures create new actionable information (knowledge) by consciously and unconsciously reworking the experiences stored in the mind. Emergent higher levels exert downward causation on the contents of the lower levels, ultimately supporting mental causation and free will.
The Experience Recorder and ReproducerThe brain should be regarded less as an algorithmic computer with one or more central processing units than as a multi-channel and multi-track experience recorder and reproducer with an extremely high data rate. Information about an experience - the sights, sounds, smells, touch, and taste - is recorded along with the emotions - feelings of pleasure, pain, hopes, and fears - that accompany the experience. When confronted with similar experiences later, the brain can reproduce information about the original experience (an instant replay) that helps to guide current actions. Information is constant in a deterministic universe. There is "nothing new under the sun." The creation of new information is not possible without the random chance and uncertainty of quantum mechanics, plus the extraordinary temporal stability of quantum mechanical structures. It is of the deepest philosophical significance that information is based on the mathematics of probability. If all outcomes were certain, there would be no "surprises" in the universe. Information would be conserved and a universal constant, as some mathematicians mistakenly believe. Information philosophy requires the ontological uncertainty and probabilistic outcomes of modern quantum physics to produce new information. But at the same time, without the extraordinary stability of quantized information structures over cosmological time scales, life and the universe we know would not be possible. Quantum mechanics reveals the architecture of the universe to be discrete rather than continuous, to be digital rather than analog. Moreover, the "correspondence principle" of quantum mechanics and the "law of large numbers" of statistics ensures that macroscopic objects can normally average out microscopic uncertainties and probabilities to provide the "adequate determinism" that shows up in all our "Laws of Nature." Information philosophy explores some classical problems in philosophy with deeper and more fundamental insights than is possible with the logic and language approach of modern analytic philosophy. By exploring the origins of structure in the universe, information philosophy transcends humanity and even life itself, though it is not a mystical metaphysical transcendence. Information philosophy uncovers the providential creative process working in the universe
to which we owe our existence, and therefore perhaps our reverence. It locates the fundamental source of all values not in humanity ("man the measure"), not in bioethics ("life the ultimate good"), but in the origin and evolution of the cosmos. Information philosophy is an idealistic philosophy, a process philosophy, and a systematic philosophy, the first in many decades. It provides important new insights into the Kantian transcendental problems of epistemology, ethics, freedom of the will, god, and immortality, as well as the mind-body problem, consciousness, and the problem of evil. In physics, information philosophy provides new insights into the problem of measurement, the paradox of Schrödinger's Cat, the two paradoxes of microscopic reversibility and macroscopic recurrence that Josef Loschmidt and Ernst Zermelo used to criticize Ludwig Boltzmann's explanation of the entropy increase required by the second law of thermodynamics, and finally information provides a better understanding of the entanglement and nonlocality phenomena that are the basis for modern quantum cryptography and quantum computing.
Information Philosophers, as do all who would make an advance in knowledge, stand on the shoulders of giant philosophers and scientists of the past and present as we try to make modest advances in the great philosophical problems of knowledge, value, and freedom. In the left-hand column of all pages are links to nearly three hundred philosophers and scientists who have made contributions to these great problems. Their web pages include the original contributions of each thinker, with examples of their thought, usually in their own words, and where possible in their original languages as well.
Traditional philosophy is a story about discovery of timeless truths, laws of nature, a block universe in which the future is a logical extension of the past, a primal moment of creation that starts a causal chain in which everything can be foreknown by an omniscient being. Traditional philosophy seeks knowledge in logical reasoning with clear and unchanging concepts. Its guiding lights are thinkers like Parmenides, Plato, and Kant, who sought unity and identity, being and universals. In traditional philosophy, the total amount of information in the conceptually closed universe is static, a physical constant of nature. The laws of nature allow no exceptions, they are perfectly causal. Everything that happens is said to have a physical cause. This is called "causal closure". Chance and change - in a deep philosophical sense - are said to be illusions. Information philosophy, by contrast, is a story about invention, about novelty, about biological emergence and new beginnings unseen and unseeable beforehand, a past that is fixed but an ambiguous future that can be shaped by teleonomic changes in the present. Its model thinkers are Heraclitus, Protagoras, Aristotle, and Hegel, for whom time, place, and particular situations mattered. Information philosophy is built on probabilistic laws of nature. The fundamental challenge for information philosophy is to explain the emergence of stable information structures from primordial and ever-present chaos, to account for the phenomenal success of deterministic laws when the material substrate of the universe is irreducibly chaotic, noisy, and random, and to understand the concepts of truth, necessity, and certainty in a universe of chance, contingency, and indeterminacy. Determinism and the exceptionless causal and deterministic laws of classical physics are the real illusions. Determinism is information-preserving. In an ideal deterministic Laplacian universe, the present state of the universe is implicitly contained in its earliest moments. This ideal determinism does not exist. The "adequate determinism" behind the laws of nature emerged from the early years of the universe when there was only indeterministic chaos. In a random noisy environment, how can anything be regular and appear determined? It is because the macroscopic consequences of the law of large numbers average out microscopic quantum fluctuations to provide us with a very adequate determinism. Information Philosophy is an account of continuous information creation, a story about the origin and evolution of the universe, of life, and of intelligence from an original quantal chaos that is still present in the microcosmos. More than anything else, it is the creation and maintenance of stable information structures that distinguishes biology from physics and chemistry. Living things maintain information in a memory of the past that they can use to shape the future. Some get it via heredity. Some learn it from experience. Others invent it! Information Philosophy is a story about knowledge and ignorance, about good and evil, about freedom and determinism. There is a great battle going on - between originary chaos and emergent cosmos. The struggle is between destructive chaotic processes that drive a microscopic underworld of random events versus constructive cosmic processes that create information structures with extraordinary emergent properties that include adequately determined scientific laws -
despite, and in many cases making use of, the microscopic chaos. Created information structures range from galaxies, stars, and planets, to molecules, atoms, and subatomic particles. They are the structures of terrestrial life from viruses and bacteria to sensible and intelligent beings. And they are the constructed ideal world of thought, of intellect, of spirit, including the laws of nature, in which we humans play a role as co-creator. Based on insights into these cosmic creation processes, the Information Philosopher proposes three primary ideas that are new approaches to perennial problems in philosophy. They are likely to change some well-established philosophical positions. Even more important, they may reconcile idealism and materialism and provide a new view of how humanity fits into the universe. The three ideas are
It needs young practitioners, presently tackling some problem, who might investigate that problem using this new methodology. Note that, just as the philosophy of language is not linguistic philosophy, I-Phi is not the philosophy of information, which is mostly about computers and cognitive science. The language philosophers of the twentieth century thought that they could solve (or at least dissolve) the classical problems of philosophy. They did not succeed. Information philosophy, by comparison, now has cast a great deal of light on some of those problems. It needs more information philosophers to make more progress.
To recap, when information is stored in any structure, two fundamental physical processes occur. First is a "collapse" of a quantum mechanical wave function, reducing multiple possibilities to a single actuality. Second is a local decrease in the entropy corresponding to the increase in information. Entropy greater than that must be transferred away from the new information structure to satisfy the second law of thermodynamics. These quantum level processes are susceptible to noise. Information stored may have errors. When information is retrieved, it is again susceptible to noise. This may garble the information content. In information science, noise is generally the enemy of information. But some noise is the friend of freedom, since it is the source of novelty, of creativity and invention, and of variation in the biological gene pool. Biological systems have maintained and increased their invariant information content over billions of generations, coming as close to immortality as living things can. Philosophers and scientists have increased our knowledge of the external world, despite logical, mathematical, and physical uncertainty. They have created and externalized information (knowledge) that can in principle become immortal. Both life and mind create information in the face of noise. Both do it with sophisticated error detection and correction schemes. The scheme we use to correct human knowledge is science, a two-stage combination of freely invented theories and adequately determined experiments. Information philosophy follows that example.
If you have read this far, you probably already know that the Information Philosopher website is an exercise in information sharing. It has seven parts, each with multiple chapters. Navigation at the bottom of each page will take you to the next or previous part or chapter. Teacher and Scholar links display additional material on some pages, and reveal hidden footnotes on some pages. The footnotes themselves are in the Scholar section. Our goal is for the website to contain all the great philosophical discussions of our three main ideas, plus preliminary solutions for several classic problems in philosophy and physics, with primary source materials (in the original languages) where possible. Philosophers who would like to develop their expertise in information philosophy should inquire into support possibilities by writing Bob Doyle, the founder of information philosophy. Support options include online training sessions by Skype or Google Hangouts, perhaps published to YouTube. Preferences will be given to current graduate students in philosophy or science - physics, biology, psychology, especially - and current post-docs. All original content on Information Philosopher is available for your use, without requesting
permission, under a Creative Commons Attribution License. Copyrights for all excerpted and quoted works remain with their authors and publishers.
A web page may contain two extra levels of material. The Normal page is material for newcomers and students of the Information Philosophy. Two hidden levels contain material for teachers (e.g., secondary sources) and for scholars (e.g., footnotes, and original language quotations).Teacher materials on a page will typically include references to secondary sources and more extended explanations of the concepts and arguments. Secondary sources will include books, articles, and online resources. Extended explanations should be more suitable for teaching others about the core philosophical ideas, as seen from an information perspective.
For ScholarsScholarly materials will generally include more primary sources, more in-depth technical and scientific discussions where appropriate, original language versions of quotations, and references to all sources. Footnotes for a page appear in the Scholar materials. The footnote indicators themselves are only visible in Scholar mode.