Cognition and information

by Neil Rickert

As cognitive agents, we inform ourselves about the world and we use that information to control our behavior.  We also report information to others, as I am doing in this blog post.  This post is part of a series on my own philosophy.  It will mainly be about the meaning of the word “information” as I use it when discussing cognition.

Shannon information

I shall be using “information” to refer to what is often called Shannon Information, after the work of Claude Shannon.  The term “Shannon Information” has come to mean information in the form of a structured sequence of symbols, such as a natural language sentence or a data transmission stream on the Internet.  Shannon’s own research was not limited to the use of transmission in discrete units (such as words or bits), but its main use is with discrete units.

Shannon information is often criticized as being an entirely syntactic view of information.  Shannon was concerned with communication, with getting the stream of discrete symbols from the source to the destination.  His theory is not concerned with issues of meaning or semantics.

At one time, I agreed with that criticism.  It seems obvious that we communicate in order to convey meaning.  But, over time, I have come to recognize that Shannon information is what we should mean by “information.”

A newspaper is a traditional way of spreading information.  But, if you examine how newspapers are produced and distributed, you will see that it is an almost entirely syntactic operation.  That is to say, the printing and distribution is concerned with getting the correct sequence of symbols (letters, words, etc) into the hands of the newpaper subscriber.

Meaning isn’t really being ignored.  Rather, meaning is not part of what is transmitted on the communication channel.  The author or originator of a message may have something meaningful to communicate.  So he constructs sentences to represent that meaning.  But those sentences consist in sequences of symbols (letters, words, etc).  The newspaper carries those symbols.  The symbols mean nothing to the newspaper.  For the meaning is not in the symbols.  The meaning is in the intentions of the author, and in what those symbols evoke in the final reader.

Natural signals

There is an alternative view, which holds that the world is rich with information that is already present.  The idea is that we just “pick up” that existing information.  What is being called “information” in this view, is the physical signals, such as those from reflected light.  Traditional empiricism normally uses this view of information.

I reject that view of information.  For sure, we use physical signals.  But physical signals, by themselves, look more like random noise than like information.  We inform ourselves about the world, but we do this with very selective use of natural symbols together with other signals that we create with our own activity.  So it confuses things to use “information” to refer to those natural signals.

In rejecting the view that natural signals are information, I also reject traditional empiricism.  I do consider myself an empiricist in the broad sense that we gain knowledge of the world by means of our experience.  But the way that this is argued in traditional empiricism seems to me to be unworkable and implausible.


4 Responses to “Cognition and information”

  1. Hi Neil, I am totally on board with the idea of “My Philosophy”, something that I too am pursuing in an ‘informal’ way. Everyone is probably engaged in similar efforts to better understand themselves and the world. Other people’s philosophies are very interesting and a great source of learning, but one always comes away with more questions. Despite all the progress, answers are still just aspirations.

    I do have a question about your outright rejection of natural signals as bearers of information. When I shout “Watch out!”, that information is transformed into natural ‘signals’ composed of pressure waves that are detected by mechanoreceptors on my friend’s tympanic membrane. Great arrays of electrical signals are then produced that travel widely in the brain, activating some centers of electrical activity and suppressing others. A vast amount of information is thus transmitted: the source, the linguistic meaning, the timbre of the voice, the context, etc. However, as the information traveled from me to her, its was reduced to signals without any information, according to your definition, only to be mysteriously resurrected.

    But where, when and how do signals become information? According to some it is just a cultural artifact. By your definition I would tend to agree with them. However, I do think this is an important fundamental question that needs to be explicitly addressed: the relationship between signals and information; can they be separated?.


    • I do have a question about your outright rejection of natural signals as bearers of information.

      I have rejected the idea that they are information. Whether they are bearers of information is a different matter entirely.

      I should add that when physicists talk of information, they often are talking about natural signals. It’s just that I don’t find that idea of information to be useful for attempting to account for human cognition.

      When I shout “Watch out!”, that information is transformed into natural ‘signals’ composed of pressure waves that are detected by mechanoreceptors on my friend’s tympanic membrane.

      However, that’s a man-made signal. It depends on what you mean by “natural” as to whether you count that as a natural signal.

      From my perspective, the information is a sequence of symbols. The symbols are represented as physical signals. But the physical signals are not themselves the symbols. They are physical representations of the symbols. This is a bit like the distinction between numbers and numerals. The numerals are the squiggly lines that you write with pencil and paper, while the number are the abstract objects that the numerals represent.

      Maybe this all sounds too fussy. My main disagreement is with the view commonly heard by AI proponents, and by many empiricist philosophers, that we just pick up symbols that impinge on us, and discover patterns in those signals. I see that as a far too simplistic idea to ever work. I prefer Shannon information to emphasize that humans have a constructive role in creating what we usually call “information.”

      Some of my future posts will perhaps relate to your other questions.


  2. I agree with you that “humans have a constructive role in creating what we usually call “information.”” The entire, extraordinary rich content of our minds is built on the relatively meager inputs of our senses, so, yes, much of the content is from us.

    Eg. Some sugar molecules hit the right chemoreceptors and we experience a pleasurable sweet taste – apparently even newborns do. The ‘information’ residing in the molecule (size, shape and distribution of charges) that allow it to be recognized by a certain receptor, ultimately, after many intermediary signals, produces information in our minds (the experience of sweetness). Natural signals (physical information) are transformed into cognitive information. Sweetness is not a feature of the molecule, rather it is entirely cognitive or subjective.

    The information in our adult minds are entirely produced there, some of the time in response to stimuli. (However, without the appropriate stimuli, the brains and minds of young children fail to develop properly.)



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