Grand-schema Philosophies of Information are probably OK unless they're a-priorist or retro-fitting

[Part 1 of a 2 post special.] If you’re looking for authoritative philosophy of information, then, as my last post suggests, the current swathe of grand-schematic philosophies of information are not the best place to start (with a couple of qualified exceptions, and some good bits). One significant indicator that this is the case is the persistent ontological pluralism indicated by the wide variety of ontologically, logically, conceptually, and generally theoretically irreconcilable and contradictory theses about the nature of information that exist even within particular domains of application such as the philosophy of biology (Collier, 2003; Millikan, 2007; Barbieri, 2013, 2018; Bergstrom & Rosvall, 2011; Godfrey-Smith, 2000; Sarkar, 2018; Shea, 2007). Some philosophers have attempted syntheses and unifications of some of these, with limited success (Ferguson, 2015; Floridi, 2011; Hartwig, 2013). For the most part, the philosophy of information in the informational turn has become something of a metaphysical free for all, with a grand-schematic pluralism (a plethora of grand-schematic theories?) about, and many different and largely irreconcilable metaphysical theories of, the nature of information. Even given the fact of scientifically-inspired ontological pluralist-realism about information (it's real, but in different ways in different scientific domains), this is probably not a happy outcome.

The degree to which metaphysical theories of information vary depends upon several factors, including the variety of different ontological perspectives in the hard and special sciences, and the degree to which those perspectives are mechanistic, functionalist, probabilistic/statistical, subjectivist, and so on (there’s not a lot of subjectivism in the sciences nowadays, but there’s always psychology to account for, and that bumps up against cognitive science). However, it is still also significantly due to the impression of the applicability of armchair a-priori reasoning to the nature of information: the degree to which philosophers can second guess scientists regarding the nature of information. This is in turn due in part to the pluralism about the nature of information that exists across scientific theories of machine communication, computing, data compression, and complexity by virtue of the multifarious different objectives that scientists have in devising and using concepts of information. However, I suggest it’s mostly based upon somewhat dogged commitments to a-priori conceptual analysis (you just don’t have to read as much yummy science to do that).

[There’s a rather internecine battle in philosophy over the value of a-priori conceptual analysis, and I have somewhat planted my flag in the hill that says a-priorist conceptual analysis is not a great idea for the philosophy of science and information (although – buyer beware – philosophers change their minds a lot). The general idea of course is that we should ask scientists and our best scientific theories what’s really going on with what’s going on in nature. There are dissenters, of course, but they will be shot at the city limits. Okay – well actually – some of the dissenters are lightning ontic-gunslingers who have enormous Canberra-planner (or else expressivist) type guns. They will chase one through town chewing toothpicks with their gold teeth and wearing many-gallon hats on their capacious anti-metaphysical and modally-programmed cortexes.]

Expressivist gun-slinger

In addition to feeding off persistent pluralism about information in the hard sciences, a-priorism about information often finds its feet in unificatory projects, and under the auspices of seeking clarity where scientists, in their pragmatic race to results, have apparently ignored very important (ahem, cough) philosophical metaphysical precepts and premises. However, it doesn’t follow from such pluralism in science, nor from the perceived need for theory-unification and synthesis, that the nature of information should be a kind of a-priori ontic free-for-all in the way that philosophers in the past have approached the open questions of the nature of such things as meaning, reference, evidence, truth, and knowledge. (The situation’s not quite that bad in the philosophy of information, but it’s pretty bad. Give it time, I guess.)

Incidentally, the interdependence of informational concepts with these aforementioned philosophical staples (reference, truth, etc.) also exacerbates the situation. There is a standing argument, for example, about whether information is alethic (truth apt or having the property of being true or false), and if so, if it is bivalent (true or false) or only monovalent (true) – the latter in accordance with what has been called the veridicality thesis. There’s another rather bloody (in a blog article, I don’t mind letting the discursive spirit of Jerry Fodor loose on the subject matter) set of exchanges over whether subjectivism about information is immutably and broadly true: whether information necessarily exists only in the presence of subjective receivers, interpreters, consumers, or readers, and whether these must necessarily have cognition (two positions that I have labelled subjectivism and cognitivism about information.) Those are just three hills (veridicality, subjectivism versus objectivism, and cognitivism about information) that philosophers of information have found to consider possibly dying upon. All of this is made worse by the unusual propensity that unification-seeking philosophers of information have to attempt to retro-fit very recent science and philosophy of information with very not-recent, and rather arcane and esoteric, metaphysical schemas. As I discussed in the last post, Terrence Deacon does this with Peircian metaphysics and semiotics. Wolfgang Hofkirchner does it with Hegel. Luciano Floridi is Kant’s fan. Honestly – it’s starting to look like this metaphysical grand-schema retro-fitting thing is just not a good idea for the philosophy of information. Probably – don’t do it. There's a lot of love for Peirce and his triadic semiotics among cognitive scientists and philosophers of information with a semiotic bent. Like I said in the last post - probably just don't do it.

In an attempt to unify in the face of pluralism, or else to work around it, other theorists have shifted the whole pluralist conceptual shooting match into a further methodologically and meta-philosopically pluralist framework: taking less disagreed-upon concepts and premises about such things as information flow and applying them across – say – cognitivist-subjectivist and physicalist-objectivist settings. Otherwise, a favourite move involves shifting focus to either external or internal information processing. Sebastian Sequoiah-Grayson, for example, deploys a logical notion of Fred Dretske’s xerox principle (if B carries information about A, and C carries information about B, then C carries information about A) for a theory of doxastic information and information flow according to which the flow of information is based upon the updating of an agent’s beliefs (and inter-subjective updating of beliefs). Of course the xerox principle – a begrudging favourite of informational logicians since the early 1990s – has problems of its own (Allo, 2007; Barwise & Seligman, 1993; Restall, 1994). One is that Dretske’s supporting veridicality principle has what is often regarded as an Achilles heel due to problems with probabilities for message transmission and fidelity. Dretske’s imposes a premise that information transfer in a channel must have a probability p=1 to sustain truth of a message. This does not sit well with (scientific) facts about the innate and natural necessary probabilistic proportionality of signal transmission (hardly anything ever gets through with p=1. It's another punch up in the philosophy of infomratoin information that's going well past 13 rounds). At least our man Sebastion doesn't Peircian semiotic.

I am of the view that a scientific metaphysical approach is the only reasonable and useful approach to the metaphysics of information. This view is shared to varying degrees by many naturalistic philosophers of information, but may not be expressed using the label ‘scientific metaphysics’, nor engaged with an overtly expressed subscription to what are generally regarded as its central commitments (eschewing of a-priori conceptual analysis, for example). Among other things, the scientific metaphysical disposition about the philosophy of information requires (or at least strongly recommends) that theories of information, and of semantic information (where they are regarded as separate) should reflect the defeasibility of scientific theories and their ontologies, and the revisability of scientific hypotheses, posits, and inductive conclusions due to new evidence. Grand schema philosophical theories, traditionally, do not truck such changes and are usually constructed with a view to establishing immutable metaphysical facts related to the identification of truths about the natural world (please don't ask about the nature of facts).

Saving the phenomena is difficult if one cannot update one’s theory due to new, and often surprising, material evidence. It’s nonsensical to expect anything less than defeasibility and revisability from anything in philosophy claiming to be epistemically rational and coherent in the light of science. Few physicists before the quantum revolution expected that the quantum realm would require them to deal with decoherence and the non-existence of Einstein’s hidden variables for quantum entanglement. Any grand schema philosophical metaphysics that does not permit the such change probably should be relegated to the flames. Since entanglement is very important to general ontic principles about information flow - philosophers of information had better get their defeasibility on, as great-uncle Hippie might say.

Uncle Hippie's very semiotic flow-ride

Realism about information, although pluralistically conceived, is common in the sciences, and since the early 1990s has become the most common ontological view of philosophers of information. (However this is by no means a broad consensus, and dissent is constantly afoot.) Pluralism about the nature of information in science originally led to some philosophers of science and biology proposing eliminativism about information: to reject that the term ‘information’ corresponded to anything but a metaphor, or to a set of scientific metaphors across different disciplines. If there were so many scientists talking at (realist) cross purposes about information in molecular bioscience and genetics, they reasoned, then perhaps they were making a mistake: there’s nothing that is actual information, but instead ‘information’ is just a labelled metaphor for numerous different dynamical structures and processes and their various structural, mathematical, and statistical properties. Realism is usually assumed by grand schematic approaches to the philosophy of information, but this hasn’t necessarily helped the cause of realism about information. One wonders if, largely due to the smuggled-in a-priorist concept-cooking commitments of such theories, grand-schemers are doing more harm than good.

In my previous article/post I (very) briefly outlined some of the grand schematic philosophies of information that Western philosophers have proffered. Of course, we should not forget The East in our philosophical explorations. Particularly not the philosophical, economic, and rising scientific power that is China, where, despite little attention from Western philosophers, a few philosophers of information have been plying their trade since almost the beginning of the informational turn. In my next article, which is part 2 to this part 1, I turn my attention to Chinese philosophers of information and their grand schematic foibles. A warning - in my attempt to clear the ontic smoke from the grand-schematic mirrors - Western informationist grand-schemers get more shtick too.


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