Updated: Oct 18, 2019
The name of our research group is sometimes a little surprising to philosophical novices, since in common cultural parlance metaphysics is usually a reference to Eastern philosophy, and often has connotations of mysticism. We get a lot of Twitter followers who are Eastern religious enthusiasts (They’re more than welcome to join us, but usually do not get quite what they expect! Although – we are indeed interested in the relevance of theories of information and information transmission to the philosophy and history of religion and cosmological theories).
Professional philosophers of science and ethicists have also wondered if our including in our name the term ‘metaphysics’ will confuse people, due to the use of the term in common cultural discourse. We kept the name, rather than use a more familiar, but ambiguous, general name. That alternative strategy ends up requiring explanation anyway: “So you’re the Foundations of Big Issues Institute, huh. Well – what do you actually do…?”
You get the idea.
Our focus is literally, and specifically, the philosophy of information, and especially the metaphysics of information: what information is, and how it is regarded and used in the sciences. We’re also interested in the ethics of information, and in all other facets of the informational turn in philosophy and logic (which terminology is used to refer to the effect that the computing and information age had on philosophy and the philosophy of science). However, the nature and metaphysics of information is most relevant to understanding the role of information in the interpretation of nature by science.
In philosophy and the philosophy of science, metaphysics is the subdiscipline of philosophy which focuses upon the nature of things existing in the world, along with with all of their properties, structure(s), substances, dynamics, laws, constants, and causes. The metaphysics of information is about the nature of information and its properties, dynamics, and its existential basis.
Scientists, and scientific theories, make extensive reference to, and use of, concepts of information and information dynamics such as generation, processing, encoding, decoding, transmission, flow, and compression. However, there are many ways in which these are characterised and defined.
Our research is aimed at identifying and clarifying the scientific and explanatory role of information theory (broad construed in probabilistic, algorithmic, logical, and structural terms) and related theories in the sciences. In particular, we’re interested in the nature of information and information dynamics (physical, computational, algorithmic, logical, and semantic), and in what scientists think of, and describe as, information in nature (which can vary significantly between different scientific fields and theories).
We are interested in technical details, but also in some of the most fascinating big questions and issues related to information science and the information of nature:
- Is the universe information ‘at bottom’ somehow? If so, how exactly?
- Can quantum information be transmitted instantaneously?
- If AI algorithms are epistemically opaque due to recursive self-modifying capabilities, then how do we develop an ethics for managing them, and can we manage them at all?
- Is logic fundamentally about information, or is this just one approach to logic?
- What is information flow, and does it reduce to or strongly supervene upon anything?
- Do we need a separate theory of semantic information, or do we need several, or none?
- Are we living in a simulation, and if so - what is running the simulation, and is it another simulation? Is it 'simulations all the way down'?
- What is the relationship between information, computation, and logic?
- What can an understanding of information dynamics (transmission, encoding, decoding, generation, processing) tell us about the explanatory gap in cognitive science? Is it real?
- How are scientific representations information bearing, or how do they carry information, and what does that even mean in that context?
- How are internal mental representations information bearing?
- Is there a monist reductive basis and 'ur-concept' of information that serves as the ground or basis of all others?
- Is information emergent: can novel information come from other information in such a way as it does not reduce to the original or base information?
If some of the above are interesting, then consider the following various interrelated conceptions of the nature of information:
Logicism about information
Some theorists go about describing the basis of information either using, or by reference to, logic or logics of some kind. Examples include Carnap’s attempt to describe information using his logical probabilities, the application of a logical system called situation theory (largely due to John Barwise), and attempts to use modal logic or the logic of possibilities.
Logicism about information is popular with logicians, but also has traction among philosophers of information who are seeking to identify theories of semantic information, or information that is not just quantitative in nature (which conception is common from mathematical communication theory), but has inherent qualitative semantic content. Luciano Floridi has further developed infonic logic based upon situation theory in order to characterise semantic information.
Subjectivism, objectivism, cognitivism, and probabilism about information
Some theorists think that information cannot exist without an agent to consume, receive, or interpret it. This position is called subjectivism about information, or subjectivism about the nature of information. There are weaker and stronger forms of subjectivism. Weaker forms usually do not require the interpreting or receiving agent to be cognitive, or to have a mind. The stronger form of subjectivism about information does require the agent to have cognition, or to have a mind, and is thus also cognitivism about the nature of information.
There are also cognitivist subjectivist conceptions of information that relate to group epistemic updating (the sharing of semantic information as the basis of knowledge sharing in groups), and to specific theories of the psychological transmission of concepts and representations like the meme theory of Richard Dawkins.
Subjectivism about information can be either direct or inherited. Direct subjectivists about information just think that information requires either a cognitive or non-cognitive agent as a receiver, consumer, or interpreter. Indirect or inherited subjectivism about information arises when the concept of information reduces to something else that is subjectivist. The most common example is probabilities. Just as there are subjectivist and objectivist conceptions of information, there are subjectivist and objectivist conceptions of probabilities.
Subjectivism about probabilities usually defines probabilities in terms of the willingness of a cognitive and epistemic agent to bet on an outcome, or else as being based upon how a cognitive agent should ideally estimate probabilities based upon some kind of background data. Objectivism about probabilities often considers them in terms of frequencies of event outcomes in long runs of trials of some experiment. Other alternatives involve physical propensities for certain outcomes to occur on the basis of some kind of laws or nomic natural constraints. There are conceptions of the nature of information that regard it as being based upon subjectivist probabilities, and others that take it to reduce to objectivist probabilities.
There are a number of other conceptions of the nature of information, including (but not limited to) mathematical, doxastic (belief based), algorithmic, and physical or physicalistic conceptions. There is now extensive literature available for all of these variants and their various combinations.
There are a number of more esoteric, but nevertheless interesting, questions related to information and information transmission in culture and society. What does information have to do with aesthetics?
- Dr Bruce Long.