What is the physical meaning of information apart from considerations of messages or minds?

"A difference that makes a difference" was how anthropologist Gregory Bateson famously defined information. Claude Shannon, a mathematician, defined it as a measure of how much a signal reduces uncertainty about which signal has been received out of all possible messages that might have been sent.

Most views of information involve messages and the human minds that assemble and consume messages.

The substantiality of matter or energy depends on interaction, and interaction can be thought of in terms of information. This has led some to see the world as a cosmic computer, with the laws of physics as the software through which events play themselves out. On this view, Planck's constant, which defines the ultimate granularity in measuring exchanges of matter or energy, is like the system clock cycle of the cosmic CPU.

Whether or not comparing the universe to a computer enriches our view of the physical world is difficult to judge.

What is at least as interesting as information itself, however, is that things have form, and that there is such an axiomatically fundamental component of reality as quantity, and that there exists space for a quantity of possibilities of form. That leads us to another, perhaps more fruitful, way of looking at information.

Information is the emergence of new form as existing forms interact. The surprise lies in the fact that formal interaction is almost never additive. The child is not a subset of the set union of mother's and father's characteristics, but rather a remarkably new entity. Information is originality, the genesis of new possibility.

In this sense, information is much broader than "what is contained in messages", and stands quite independently of mental beings or instruments built by mental beings.

At the same time, the human brain is a magnificent specimen of informatic richness. In a famous example of linguistic cognition, we understand what is meant by a red apple, in contrast to a green one, despite the fact that the apple is not red in the sense that a fire hydrant is red or a sunset is red, nor is the green apple green in the sense that a traffic signal is green. Nevertheless, we construct the metaphor effortlessly and understand perfectly.

Cognition clearly involves much more than melding together atomic properties of experience to assemble thought.

Not only can meaning created in the mind differ from the sum of the parts of a context, the meaning often differs substantially from any of the individually recognizable elements of that context. The information resides not in transmitting the individual pieces, but rather in generating the new form or forms in response to those pieces.

A close look at the physical world shows that such creativity is not special to human minds. The modern view holds that the result of every interaction is ultimately unique, resisting classical idealization.

The challenge in understanding the mind, then, is not to strengthen the description of human mentality as a separate category, but rather to gain deeper insight into how original form emerges generally.

Erik Winfree - Home Page

Michael Webb, 2000

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