Re: Information
Tue, 30 Jun 1998 11:03:01 EDT

In a message dated 6/30/98 12:30:28 AM Eastern Daylight Time,

<< ... They had perfectly
respectable evidence, copies of the newspapers, and their belief was even
true (the war ended on Nov. 11) but was it knowledge? I'm not sure it
matters what it was because the war was definitely over and their belief was

Did it matter much to them after they found out that the war really WAS over?
Probably not. Did they know the war was over on Nov. 11 before they received
other confirmation of it? Absolutely not. The war could've ended several
days later and on November 11th they still would have thought it to be ended
then. Therefore, they did not know. I'm not sure what the point of the story
is though. Like I said, we really don't require knowledge to function, just a
series of luckily true beliefs (like the men in the boat were lucky) or a
series of handy false beliefs. But perhaps the possession of knowledge is a
good in itself.

<< Making predictions and manipulating the world is the most we can hope for,
nobody has seen deep reality. Our brain just reacts to the electro-chemical
signals from nerves connected to a transducer called an eye. Our computers
react to the electronic signals from wires connected to a transducer called
an TV camera. >>

Your first statement goes well beyond making predictions and manipulating the
world. It says something deeper about the reality of the world. So, I think
simply to make the argument that we can only hope for predictions and theories
of manipulation you must actually refute that argument (rather like the
subjectivist who claims that it's true that there is no objective form of
truth). And I'm a bit suspicious of comparisons of the brain to the computer,
by the way. They're well and good up to a point of course. But every era has
seen its own favorite form of comparison, from a mechanical comparison (in the
18th and 19th centuries) to a "switchboard" comparison (early 20th century)
and now a computer comparison, and all have in one way or another taken the
analogy too far. Our brains are different from computers not merely in terms
of the quantity of connections but in organization and quality. They don't
react to stimuli in the same way a computer does, because stimuli to a
computer does not produce any mental content whereas in the brain it sometimes

<< Our brain uses theories to explain these signals, so would intelligent
computers. Theories explain how some sense sensations relate to other sense
sensations. For example we receive information from our eyes, we interpret
that information as a rock moving at high speed and heading toward a large
plate glass window, we invent a theory that predicts that very soon we will
receive another sensation, this time from our ears, that we will describe as
the sound of breaking glass. Soon our prediction is confirmed so the theory
is successful, but we should remember that the sound of broken glass is not
broken glass, the look of broken glass is not broken glass, the feel of
broken glass is not broken glass. What "IS" broken glass? It must have stable
properties of some sort or I wouldn't be able to identify it as a "thing",
I don't know what those ultimate stable properties are, but I know what they
are not, they are not sense sensations. I have no idea what glass "IS".
The sad truth is, I can point to "things" but I don't know what a thing "IS"
and I 'm not even sure that I know what "IS" is, and an intelligent computer
would be in exactly the same boat I am.>>

I think though that physics has taken us a long ways towards understanding
what a thing is, and that we understand the meaning of "is" in its existential
sense rather well; and if we don't then I think that we can understand what it
means, especially given our frequent use of it.

<< Definitions should be consistent and are useful when communicating ideas
other people but when it comes down to it, they're just words about words
that are defined by still more words and round and round we go. Examples are
far more important.>>

Definitions are derived ultimately I think from examples, but I also think
that to truly understand why the examples are relevant and important we must
extract definitions and meaning from them on a conscious, not merely
unconscious level. To not play close attention to the concepts we take for
granted is to fall into a pit of ignorance and stagnation. Given the many
concepts taken for granted that fell apart when finally subjected to close
scrutiny, I think this only makes sense.

<< Give me an example, I don't care how wild or exotic, of a way to prove that
there is something more fundamental than information.>>

Well... we'd proceed from an explanation showing information to really be a
set of facts about something to an explanation showing that facts refer to
aspects of the world to a conclusion that aspects of the world "cause" the
existence of facts and information, and that therefore information is caused
by that which information is about, and that therefore there is something more
fundamental than information.

<< But nothing can provide anything but information.>>

What about food, or light, or oxygen?

<< You are not a brain in a skull as you'd assumed you are a brain in a vat.
The day after you were born your brain was removed and placed in a artificial
nutriment bath. You have no sense organs but the parts of your brain that
would have received information from them now receive input from a vast
digital computer providing you with a virtual reality. >>

Hilary Putnam's old brain in a vat story eh? Well here's the thing. I don't
see how such a story can be disproven. Not yet anyway. This doesn't mean
that it's impossible to disprove, only that there doesn't seem to be any way
to do so at the moment. Perhaps as we become more aware of the assumptions
and structures involved in our thought, we'll stumble upon a contradiction in
it. In any event, all we really have to show to defeat skepticism is show how
knowledge is possible =despite= stories like the above. This is along the
lines of Nozick's explanations vs. arguments distinction.

<< Prove I'm wrong and you've proven there is something more fundamental than
information. But you can't. >>

Proving the story right or wrong doesn't necessarily have anything to do with
proving anything more fundamental than information.

<< Metaphor? I seems just about as exact and concrete as things get. The cell
certainly acts like it understands what the nucleotide triplet CAU means,
it does things differently when it receives the message and that's what
information is supposed to do, we do the same thing. Don't take my word for
it, go to the laboratory and ask the cell what CAU means and it will always
tell you exactly the same thing, histidine>>

The cell doesn't really understand anything though. It's merely responding to
stimuli WITHOUT understanding either the stimuli or anything else. It's not
conscious. You may as well talk of a paper "understanding" water when it
blots it up.

<< >One computer no more communicates with another than the lightning
>communicates with a tree when it cuts it in half.

The effects of lightning are not repeatable, sometimes it blasts the tree in
3 parts, sometimes 4, sometimes it sets the tree on fire, sometimes it does
nothing at all, on the other hand CAU always causes the cell to do the same
thing, add histidine to a protein sequence. There is no evidence lightning
has ever built something complex, there is plenty of evidence that life and
computers have. Also lightning has only one letter and a language needs at
least two, the genetic code has 4.>>

The effects are repeatable if the strength and angle of the bolt of lightning
are the same, and the receiver of the "message" is the same, just as the
results of a program (ignoring randomization functions) would be the same if
the input were the same. Lightning has many letters, formed by the different
angles and strengths. But obviously lightning does not "communicate" with any
tree. And, therefore, clearly, neither does any other non-conscious thing.

<<Certainly. If I hand you a message that has meaning to you it will do
something to you, the message CAU means something to the ribosomes in a cell
making a protein and it does something to it.>>

CAU doesn't mean anything to the ribosomes. It causes ribosomes to react in a
certain way, but so what? If you hand me a message, AND I understand it, then
it has meaning to me. If I do not understand it, it has no meaning to me
despite the fact that it causes certain reactions in my brain. If meaning
were simply anything that causes a reaction in something else, then I wouldn't
have to understand the message for the message to have meaning. But I do.
Therefore understanding is necessary for meaning and is necessary for