On information

by Neil Rickert

I am writing this partly to call your attention to a recent post by John Wilkins, “Descartes before the horse – does information exist? I largely agree with John’s view of information, but while I’m about it, I’ll add a few comments of my own.

I have come to my current view of information at least in part, because of my investigations of human cognition.  I struggled with the concept, and I have changed my view during that struggle.  My early inclination was to think of information as “that which informs.”  And that led me to a semantic view that was a bit closer to Dretske’s view than to those of Shannon.  However, as I continued my studies, I eventually came to a recognition of the value of the Shannon approach.

That I have changed my view of how to think of information, ought to hint that there is some ambiguity out there, and that people use the word “information” to mean different things.

I see a tree shaking in the wind.  I turn, and say to you “I see a tree shaking in the wind.”  What I said to you is information.  However, what I saw is not information.  The ideas in my mind that resulted from my seeing it were also information (mental information).  But the physical activity that I was looking at was not itself information.

I think that’s one of the places where people disagree.  For some people, what I was looking at would count as information.  Some AI researchers seem to take that view.  The trouble with that view, is that it leads to thinking of perception as passive.  The idea that perception is passive actually seems to be a common one, but it leads to the silliness of Berkeley’s idealism.  For myself, I see perception as an active process, and I see information the product of intentional agents acting to produce an abstraction that represents something they wish to use as an idea.

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