The Philosophy of Information and Function

One of the aims of the IFB project is to derive our understanding from the deepest, most fundamental roots as possible. That necessarily means making no assumptions that are not strictly necessary to the formation of the theory and to be sure we do not, we must make concrete, complete and precise statements about our starting point and methodically examine these for ‘hidden’ assumptions, for example in the words we use.  The best intellectual tool for this task is philosophy, which has a long established role in strictly defining language and concepts. Indeed, one of the practical difficulties we experience in developing our theory is the lack of specific terms available to describe the concepts we refer to. Lucciano Floridi is a pioneer in developing the precise language and concepts needed to work with information.

An important branch of philosophy, called ontology, tries to understand the nature of reality: what causes things to be at all and why are they this way and not otherwise? A growing movement in this subject is the view that information itself is the essence of existence. It is vital to realise that this use of the word ‘information’ does not refer to information about things, but to the physical information embodied in the form of things. According to this philosophical proposition, matter and energy are arranged in space and time by information, to create the variety of identifiable physical objects and phenomena of the universe. In other words, matter and energy (the stuff we normally think of as the essence of existence) are merely the inert clay, the raw material, for composing the universe. It is a specific arrangement of fundamental  particles in space and time that makes any single thing what it is and that determines its properties. This arrangement is a pattern and the pattern is information.

The illustration for this theme is a map of the 'cosmic background radiation', showing the earliest observable (to-date) large-scale pattern created by information in the universe. Life can also be interpreted as a concentration of pattern, instantiating and processing information. In this theme, we explore the fundamental concepts used to elaborate and build theories with these ideas. This includes an examination of the difference (and connections) between the statistical theory of information and a more general understanding of information as 'meaningful' pattern. ‘Meaning’ is a vague and confusing term, which we attempt to pin down and generalise, rendering it suitable for objective analysis here. The result is that an essential characteristic of information in the creation and maintenance of life is functionality, but function itself is a difficult term to make strictly precise. The philosopher Karen Neander is a leading academic authority on the meaning of function and she has contributed to this task with us.  More recently, the Oxford University philosopher Chris Timpson has joined in with some very valuable insights which are to appear in the Cambridge University Press book as a chapter written with Keith Farnsworth. Function and information are integral to the concept of causation too and Keith has written another chapter for that book with the cosmologist George Ellis and biochemist Luc Jaeger on this theme.

This Theme seeks to: