Updates to Philosophy of Information in Physics Projects

Updated: Oct 22, 2019

Thursday, October 10, 2019

These two projects are aimed at developing modelling techniques and modelling languages in the philosophy of physics. They come under the larger project of Developing an Informational Scientific Metaphysics.

The Scope and Limits of (Physicalist) Structural Realist Field Ontologies

Dr Long's PhD thesis presents a physicalist conception of informational ontology based upon a version of ontic structural realism and a physicalist field ontology. The approach has pragmatic elements in that the scientific metaphysics is designed to incorporate theory defeasibility and change, but it is otherwise more reductionist and realist (field ontic structural realism) than is usually proposed. The proposed research program associated with the book emphasise this pragmatic approach with respect to defeasibility, optimistic meta-induction, and inference to the best explanation, and retains physicalist structural realism. However, it incorporates more work relating to data flow modelling at higher levels of abstraction and a logic of information dynamics (focusing upon signalling and transmission) pursuant to making progress with a logic of information. This does not mean that we intend to pursue what we call logicism about information: a conception of the nature of information according to which information reduces to some form of logic. We consider such an approach to be flawed in important ways with respect to the nature of information, and one of Dr Long’s current papers in review deals with this flaw.

The overall objective is to cohere and develop informational ontology and an accompanying information source modelling language. Modelling languages are not something that is very familiar in philosophy, and are rather more often found in computer science and software engineering. However, the informational turn in both logic and philosophy commonly incorporates references to, and resources from, computer science, and this is exemplified in the work of leading philosophers in the field including Fred Dretske and Luciano Floridi. Dretske emphasises formal information theory, and Floridi deploys tools from computer science and software engineering including modelling using levels of abstraction and definitions of data from data science. Such approaches are likely to remain relevant and to increase in complexity with the advancement of quantum information theory and the development of quantum computing systems.

In more recent work by theorists like Andrea Scarantino, and James Ladyman and Don Ross, statistical interpretations (both frequentist and Bayesian) of the nature of information play important roles. Non statistical conceptions are also common, since pluralism about the nature of information is generally ratified. Pluralism has limits, and I will investigate these. For example, pluralism about information does not entail pluralism about the nature of transmission, which latter is a far more explicit and less pluralisable concept.

Project A: Intermediate and Abstractive Modelling of Ontology in Physics with Field Ontologies and Informational Ontic Structural Realism


Empirical question:

Q. If empirical evidence were found to confirm the truth of M-Theory and an accompanying string field theory, would the string field be the same field entity as that currently supposed to be picked out or referred to by our best quantum field theories? In other words, would both theories be describing the same fundamental entity, or would the two fields be completely irreconcilable ontologically?

(Some approaches to field ontologies suggest that older theories involving entities like a manifold are still partly, or even largely, compatible with quantum field theories, at least in mathematical terms.)

Related non-empirical question:

Q. Can a suitable approach to modelling field theories be determined by using structural realist premises and generalisation from empirical findings from quantum field theory.

The field ontology proposed in Dr Long’s PhD thesis is an identity theory that sees the content of structure as either strongly supervening upon, or else reducing to, the quantum field and vacuum. Pragmatic approaches to physics, like that of Richard Healey, deny that theories have any significant referential relation to anything in the world (without necessarily supporting anti-realism about the objects of study in physics.)

An intermediate physicalist ontic and informational structuralism might provide a middle ground for modelling that tolerates the usual defeasible variation in the contents and substance of the referents of the theory. The primary utility of the theory would arise from its inclusion of information theoretic principles, broadly construed. Such an approach would not require a commitment to full-blown specific entity realism, but would also avoid effectively entity-eliminative aspects of Healey style pragmatism.

This project would explore the prospective explanatory power and epistemic utility of informational ontic structural realist field ontologies.

Project B: Development of Modelling Language for Information Source Dynamics


One of Dr Long’s current papers is about the informational turn in and current problems with informational logics and logics of information (part of the job of the paper is to distinguish the two appropriately). His PhD thesis includes a pre-figurative algebra and some semantic machinery intended for use in describing the logic of information sources, their combination, and the transmission of information between and among them. The intention is to provide a logic and semantics that can be deployed in analyzing the encoding and movement of natural intrinsically semantic information, as well as artefactual lexical information and signaling complexes. Additionally, he is working on adapting existing well tested data flow and object modelling techniques for capturing some of the semantics, and this technique could be applied across other projects.

One interesting feature of an informational ontic structural realist field ontology, of the kind proposed in Dr Long’s PhD thesis, is that the entire quantum field and vacuum are a natural information source. As such, all structured entities contained within it (including emergent phenomena such as excitations in the quantum field) can be modelled as information sources. A further interesting feature of this approach is that it accommodates a process ontology. Information sources can be modelled as continuous and/or discretized, and the structural features of sources can be regarded as dynamic and diachronic. If an appropriately constructed modelling language is available, this might avail philosophers of science and physicists of a way of approaching theory building without rigorous empirical results, and without committing to one or another mathematical characterization. The latter outcome might (possibly) prevent the tendency to be realist about features of theories like wave functions, or at least may clarify the limits of ascribing content to such entities and their structure.

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