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Information. The Philosophy Portal.











Information


Philosophy of Information deals with the philosophical analysis of the notion of information both from a historical and a systematic perspective. With the emergence of empiricist theory of knowledge in early modern philosophy, the development of various mathematical theories of information in the 20th century and the rise of information technology, the concept of ‘information’ has conquered a central place in the sciences and in society. This interest also led to the emergence of a separate branch of philosophy that analyzes information in all its guises (Adriaans and van Benthem 2008a,b; Lenski 2010; Floridi 2002, 2011). Information has become a central category in both the sciences and the humanities and the reflection on information influences a broad range of philosophical disciplines varying from logic (Dretske 1981; van Benthem en van Rooij 2003; van Benthem 2006) to ethics (Floridi 1999) and esthetics (Schmidhuber 1997a; Adriaans 2008) to ontology (Zuse 1969; Wheeler 1990; Schmidhuber 1997b; Wolfram 2002; Hutter 2010).

At the core of the philosophy of information is the ‘ti esti’ question that inaugurated several branches of philosophy from Plato onwards. Just what is information? The term is undoubtedlyvague and still an important part of the modern linguistic landscape. We live in the “informationage,” we read “information” in the papers, we can gather “information” on, say, the salt gradientsof the currents in the Pacific Ocean, and we can talk about the amount of “information” that can be delivered over a wireless connection. Yet, as several philosophers have pointed out, we canscarcely say precisely what the term means. Given that it is also used differently across differentfields of study (biology, communications, computer science, economics, mathematics, etc.), it isa hallmark of the philosophy of information to undertake this clarifying task, if the term “infor-mation” is to be informative at all. So, first and foremost, this research area examines the term inits multiplicity of meanings and clarifies its many uses.

A quick overview of this list reveals the well-known methodology of the Level of Abstraction (LoA, see Chapter 7) at work, including all aspects from the very concrete to the formal, from the isolated act of computation to its complex environment: the formal structures underlying data and their algorithmic treatment (1); their implementation in language (2) and use for program design (5); the design and construction of (networks of) hardware to manipulate (3 and 4), visualize (8) and process data (6); data analytics and its use to lead automatic processes (10); the relation between machine and the user (9); the study of autonomous agents (7); the mechanical engineering of living systems (11)

Since the 1950s, the concept of information has acquired a strikingly prominent role in many parts of biology. This enthusiasm extends far beyond domains where the concept might seem to have an obvious application, such as the biological study of perception, cognition, and language, and now reaches into the most basic parts of biological theory. Hormones and other cellular products through which physiological systems are regulated are typically described as signals. Descriptions of how genes play their causal role in metabolic processes and development are routinely given in terms of “transcription”, “translation”, and “editing”. The most general term used for the processes by which genes exert their effects is “gene expression”. The fates of cells in a developing organism are explained in terms of their processing of “positional information” given to them from surrounding cells and other factors. Many biologists think of the developmental processes by which organisms progress from egg to adult in terms of the execution of a “developmental program”. Other biologists have argued for a pivotal role for information in evolution rather than development: John Maynard Smith and Eors Szathm?ry (for example) suggest that major transitions in evolution depend on expansions in the amount and accuracy with which information is transmitted across generations. And some have argued that we can only understand the evolutionary role of genes by recognizing an informational “domain” that exists alongside the domain of matter and energy.

“I love information upon all subjects that come in my way, and especially upon those that are most important.” Thus boldly declares Euphranor, one of the defenders of Christian faith in Berkeley's Alciphron (Dialogue 1, Section 5, Paragraph 6/10, see Berkeley [1732]). Evidently, information has been an object of philosophical desire for some time, well before the computer revolution, Internet or the dot.com pandemonium (see for example Dunn [2001] and Adams [2003]). Yet what does Euphranor love, exactly? What is information? The question has received many answers in different fields. Unsurprisingly, several surveys do not even converge on a single, unified definition of information (see for example Braman [1989], Losee [1997], Machlup and Mansfield [1983], Debons and Cameron [1975], Larson and Debons [1983]).

The philosopher Socrates remains, as he was in his lifetime (469–399 B.C.E.),[1] an enigma, an inscrutable individual who, despite having written nothing, is considered one of the handful of philosophers who forever changed how philosophy itself was to be conceived. All our information about him is second-hand and most of it vigorously disputed, but his trial and death at the hands of the Athenian democracy is nevertheless the founding myth of the academic discipline of philosophy, and his influence has been felt far beyond philosophy itself, and in every age. Because his life is widely considered paradigmatic for the philosophic life and, more generally, for how anyone ought to live, Socrates has been encumbered with the admiration and emulation normally reserved for founders of religious sects—Jesus or Buddha—strange for someone who tried so hard to make others do their own thinking, and for someone convicted and executed on the charge of irreverence toward the gods. Certainly he was impressive, so impressive that many others were moved to write about him, all of whom found him strange by the conventions of fifth-century Athens: in his appearance, personality, and behavior, as well as in his views and methods.