March 06, 2006

Bad philosophy makes my head hurt

Salon reveals what happens when journalists (albeit those with respectable backgrounds in mathematics) try to wax philosophical:

'Information is physical. Information is not just an abstract concept, and it is not just facts or figures, dates or names. It is a concrete property of matter and energy which is quantifiable and measurable. It is every bit as real as the weight of a chunk of lead or the energy stored in an atomic warhead, and just like mass and energy, information is subject to a set of physical laws that dictate how it can behave.'

Ugh. Certainly energy is used in the processes which we experience as the transmission of information. But this does not mean information is a physical thing.

Consider the example the reviewer gives, reading a thermometer. Some of the energy from the pot of sugar-water was used to raise the mercury, but this is only an instance of information transmission because there was a mind on the receiving end that was prepared to interpret the incoming photon array as information about temperature. Take away the mind, and the 'information' goes from the sugar-water to the thermometer to nothingness.

Information is a useful way to talk about energy -- you don't have to keep track of the form it takes (kinetic energy, potential energy, electrical energy, mass, &c.). But thinking of this (or, on my view, any other theory attempting to describe the empirical world) as anything more than a useful way to talk is just dumb.

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