What is information?

Abstract: In a 2007 conference abstract, David Bawden attempts an equivalence between information and self-organized complexity. Encouragement to make these notions the fundamental principles of reality, while matter, energy, space and time would be productions. I am inspired by this presentation and bounce back on its limits to show how to pave the way for a unification of information in the physical, biological and human sciences. Reality is not one of uncertainty but of an alternation between uncertainty and certainty. The driving force is the self-organized sequence of the two indissoluble aspects of information, information-essence and information-communication.

Information in science

Physics Information

Information is the fundamental element of thermodynamics, quantum mechanics and self-organizing systems. In thermodynamics, entropy is a measure of disorder in a system. Its mathematical formulation is identical to Shannon’s information. If entropy is a disorder, information is an order —a negentropy. Entropy and negentropy are concrete, substantial physical values. This would make information a potential substance of reality and not just a form. I will deal with the relationship between substance and form elsewhere.

In quantum physics, John A Wheeler ushered in the tendency to make information the basic constituent of reality. Matter energy space and time would be productions. The trend has deepened to make this origin meaningful information, that is, an observer intervenes to complete the physical constitution of the world (Barrow Davies Harper 2004). “Physics is the child of meaning as much as meaning is the child of physics.”

The cosmos is a self-organizing system. Uniform and homogeneous just after its creation, it became a complex structure of galaxies, clusters and voids, suggesting the existence of intrinsic “laws of complexity”. These laws would be informational in nature, acting on the organization of matter and energy. Information is at the heart of reality, both in its substance and in its organization.

Biology Information

Information theory has been used extensively in biology since the discovery of the genetic code. The delineation between living and non-living is now made by concepts of information rather than substances. The beginning of life is located in the storage of information and its transmission (Davies 1998) rather than in particular chemical arrangements. A broader and recent definition of life, the “lyfe” (Bartlett Wong 2020), is based on 4 informational characters: dissipative structure, autocatalytic, capable of homeostasis and learning. I will analyze this approach in another article.

Information in humans in society

This area seems more familiar to us and yet is controversial. Information can be considered as something in itself – a fact – (Buckland 1991), or a cognitive attribute – specific to the individual mind – (Belkin 1990), or a collaborative creation (Talja Tuominen Savolainen 2006).

The notion of knowledge is also discussed. It can be a true belief, justified (Floridi 2005) because it is based on truthful information, or more elastically a simple understanding, a coherence assembling a body of information (Kvanvig 2003).

A unified view?

Information in physics: patterns of organized complexity of matter and energy. Information in biology: meanings emerging from the self-organized complexity of organisms. Information in the humanities: an understanding emerging from the complex interactions between mental productions and recorded social knowledge. David Bawden notes that the common thread of information, across all these domains, is self-organizing complexity.

To this fundamental principle he associates cardinal events, starting points of different fields: the beginning of the universe for physics, the beginning of life for biology, the beginning of consciousness for understanding. Bawden logically ends up as an advocate of the search for the laws of self-organized complexity, convinced that their discovery would unify the domains and rid them of their last mysteries.

Information in Surimposium

Before this concept was torn between scientific disciplines, information had a well-defined place for linguists and philosophers, in the middle of a hierarchy of knowledge:
1st floor: Data —raw elements outside any context
2nd floor: Information —data put in context
3rd floor: Knowledge —information used to act

The different definitions of information evoked all come together on the 2nd floor, testifying all the same to a beautiful unity: it is a quantification of communication. Whether it’s spins, genes or memes, each discipline counts what is exchanged between two or more actors in communication. Let us immediately note that information is not the most fundamental concept to describe the world, since it is itself based on that of individuation.

Shannon’s information

Shannon developed a theory not of information but of the communication of information. Which places it well on the 2nd floor and does not make it a more universal theory than the others. Shannon’s originality is his way of quantifying. He based the information on uncertainty instead of certainty. Valuable lighting. He considers the two actors of communication as unknown to each other and not similar because they would be part of the same species. It thus respects the principle of individuation, which is to separate oneself from the rest of the world. We are no longer the same. From then on, the relationship is established between strangers. A relationship? It implies that there is still a channel of communication, a common language. It is this channel that forms the basis of information.

Shannon equals information and uncertainty measurement. It is a probabilistic definition. Here we guess a fundamentally probabilistic part in the nature of the world: even if the individuals who communicate can be declared “substantial”, their communication is inherently probabilistic. We have no relationship with the world but random.

Information is not data

Some physicists, noting that the individualized elements are themselves made up of relationships, have hastily concluded that information is the fundamental constituent of reality. Not. Because, as we have seen, information does not explain the principle of individuation, it is based on it. Individuation is underlying. It is precisely the basis of the notion of ‘data’. The individual emancipates itself in something. It shows itself to the context, it dates itself with the whole.

Other physicists have forced themselves to reintegrate an observer to inert information, meaningless in itself. Information only completes its definition if something looks at it, uses it, reads it. Here is physics, after flattening the definition of information, which gives it back its previous hierarchy, data/information/knowledge. Impossible to do without it. Is it then hopeless of unifying these definitions by a more fundamental concept, which would generate this hierarchy?

Self-organizing stability

In Surimposium I define information as a stability defining its own time of existence. Or as an elementary self-organization, to join Bawden. This does not require it to be substance but does not prohibit it from being one. Basically, information is a ‘whole’, a fusion without reference to the outside, only to its own constitution. It is information in essence, informessence.

Informessence and informexchange, the two sides of information

Informessence cannot be measured, only experienced —measurement is already an interaction modifying it, it is no longer ‘everything’. However, informessence is never isolated; The ‘Everything’ is in a context. It thus has another, indissoluble facet of ‘element’ in a greater whole. These two sides of an individuation are the constitutional ‘whole’ on the one hand, the ‘part of’ element on the other. By changing face, informessence becomes information-relation, informexchange. This is a change of status, not of nature.

The informexchange is correlated with the similarity between instrument and measuring object. It diminishes when this similarity is strong —almost identical things have less information to pass on than dissimilar things. Here we find Shannon’s information. We connected it to the data. But an insurmountable barrier has risen between data and their communication: impossible for the informexchange to access the informessence. The two are indissoluble but between them is a whole, a fusion, which prohibits finding one from the other. An infinity of different informessences can give the same informexchange. Atoms are thus considered as similar elements while they are each made up of a universe of particular quantum interactions at each moment. Entering into relationship with the ‘atom’ level of reality makes nothing known about its constitution. You have to interact at the constituent level to know more.

Inaccessibility of the thing per se but accessibility of knowledge

Have we thus identified the informative essence of the atom, having measured its constitution? No, because it is not its ultimate constitution. It is impossible to know if the elements we identify are the origin. What we’re looking at is another level of informexchange, and we don’t know how far the pile goes. Here we find the inaccessibility of the thing per se, dear to philosophers.

On the other hand, by going up the pile we access ‘knowledge’, the top of our information hierarchy. When levels of informexchange are mimicry by neural networks, their self-organization produces synthetic concepts, new ‘everything(s)’ in the mental structure. It is thus possible to unify the elevation of information in complexity. Quantum, material, biological, neurological levels, all result from a progressive self-organization of information. They aggregate qualitative pieces of information with increasing meaning. ‘Quality’ is the characteristic of a level of information individualized in complexity. The ‘level’ is the crossing of one of these boundaries with two indissoluble faces, a constitutive/relational face and an elemental/fusional face.

A connection to consciousness

Shannon’s information-communication, or informexchange, is well founded on uncertainty; But the informessence, which constitutes individuation, is a fusion and therefore a certainty. Experiencing its fusion is a certainty. This is what we feel as conscious beings, despite the multiplicity of our mental constitution. This is what we should logically grant to all other individuations, because we are no less material than them. Whether they are declared ‘alive’ or not, we should grant them their own experience, obviously of a different quality from ours, and which is inaccessible to us.

Alternating between communication and substantiation

What I would like you to take away from this article is that reality is not one of uncertainty but of an alternation between uncertainty and certainty. Shannon’s information theory describes one of the phases of alternation, communication. While the other phase is substantiation. Merging the information transmitted in a certainty, a new individuation. It is also the alternation between shaping – through communication – and constitution of a matter – relations loop and define an elementary time of existence of this matter.

We find the two familiar aspects of our reality, the virtual and the material. These are two aspects of information, informexchange and informessence, indissoluble but different, insoluble also in each other. Reality is a dynamic, a conflict. It is intrinsically “life” —no need to look for a frontier for it. We can make this equivalence: let life and self-organization be one and the same.


Information as self-organized complexity, a unifying viewpoint, David Bawden 2007

Leave a Comment