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.
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.
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.