Kinds of Information in Scientific Use

  • John Collier of Philosophy and Ethics, University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban, South Africa
Keywords: Information, causation, “it from bit”, entropy, natural hierarchy, function, representation, intentionality, meaning, reference, communication


There are many different mathematical definitions of information that have their various uses, but I will be concerned with notions of information used in applications in various branches of science that are distinguished by their topic, i.e., what they apply to. I describe the major uses information, and show their relations to each other. I will argue that the various uses form a nested hierarchy, in which each is a restriction on the previous, inheriting the properties of its predecessor, but adding in new features that make it a special case. The lowest level is physical information determined by distinctions and the highest is explicit representation in linguistic social communication. Is there anything common to information at all these levels? I will argue that there is, and that information in each case is what Donald MacKay (1969) called a distinction that makes a difference. What distinguishes the use of information at each level is what distinctions make a causal difference at that level. At each successive level distinctions that make a difference at a previous level make no difference at that level. In order to create this sort of filter new levels have to be formed by cohesion peculiar to the identifying characteristics at that level. A consequence of this view is that information must have causal powers, and that there is a tight connection between information and causation

Author Biography

John Collier, of Philosophy and Ethics, University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban, South Africa
John Collier was educated at MIT, UCLA and Western Ontario in Planetary Science and Philosophy. For a number of years he went back and forth between the two until he settled into Philosophy. He has had lecturing and/or research positions in five countries and four continents, but now seems to have settled in Durban, South Africa, where he has now lived longer than he has lived anyplace else in his life. His current interests are metaphysics, complexity, information theory, evolution-ary ethics and the way they overlap. His doctoral dissertation was on meaning and reference in theory change.
Special Issue: Towards a New Science of Information