What Words Are Not

Speaking of words, some of our most useful scientific theories—such as those dealing with entropy, quantum mechanics, and DNA replication—all have to do with the flow of information, yet no knows what information actually is. We can translate information from one medium to another and from one language to another, but what exactly is that “it” that we are translating and comprehending? As Einstein put it, “The eternal mystery of the universe is that it is comprehensible.” Again, the mystery is that even if we know what information means, we still have no idea what it is—regardless of whether we’re talking about semantic information, biological information, Shannon information, or anything else than can be digitized.

But if what we don’t know isn’t mysterious enough, what we do know is a thousand times more captivating. For what we do know is what information is not: it is not material. It has no physical qualities that can be directly or indirectly seen, heard, felt, tasted, or smelled. That is to say that non-physical meaning is absolutely distinct from its physical medium. Indeed, that distinction is the very reason that we can translate the same information through a variety of media.

Now this is not a philosophical conclusion but rather a testable, falsifiable scientific fact. So are we not acutely familiar with an objective nonphysical/immaterial world?

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Could you maybe unpack this thought for me a bit? In other words what is information and how is it related to the Schrodinger Equation or Quantum Field Theory?

I like the suggestion that quantum mechanics may be hinting that the fundamental reality of the universe is information. The Mind of God fits the bill nicely.

This discussion can be tricky because the question “What is information?” is itself pure information. As will be the answer. But anyway, regarding quantum field theory I’m just referring to the mystery that Wheeler phrased as “It from bit.” Just as most any building or a machine is preceded by a blueprint, and any organism is preceded by a DNA “blueprint”, so also every quantum in the cosmos is preceded by a bit of information–a collapse of the extremely complex and enigmatic wave function.

Regardless of whether this is in response to a conscious observer, I’m just saying that the information itself (the bit of information; the wave function before and after collapse) is objective and immaterial. (The question of measurability and conscious observation is of course an incredible discussion, and I agree with Cutler that, as he said, “the Mind of God fits the bill nicely”, but probably belongs to another thread.)

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So you would say there’s something about your understanding of the wavefunction that points to God? That could be either through the wavefunction itself or through the mechanism of collapse? Or am I missing what you are getting at?

If we go the physics route, then we would focus on the mathematical and measurable aspects of information. In which case we could define information as something which can be transported from one location to another with measurable quantity and accuracy.

I am not sure what this statement is supposed to mean. I don’t know why you would expect more from a word like “information” than its meaning. The meaning is its referent.

This suggests to me a spectrum which we can lay out in regards to this…

  1. There is no such thing as meaning. Some philosophers have been pushing this idea and I personally consider it to be an example of philosophy which has become meaningless.
  2. There is such a thing as meaning, but nothing more than that – no universals apart from particulars.
  3. There is such a thing as meaning, but there is more than that – such as Plato’s realm of universal ideas.

As a nominalist and an opponent of Plato, I would fall into category number 2. Though perhaps there is more to this spectrum… can anybody add to this?

I would deny this. There is a lot of physical quantities which are not material in themselves but completely dependent upon a material substrate, like heat for example, and I see no reason why information would not be in the same category.

Now I know that some physicists talk about the conservation of information. But I think that is absurd. There may be a conservation of information in some physical processes but I think it is obvious that this is not true for all physical processes. Here is a discussion of this issue.

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Is “meaning” an emergent property, or a more fundamental property, of the physical medium?

No, I really wasn’t aiming to talk about wave function collapse pointing to God. Y’all are jumping way ahead and making this way too complicated. I am making a very simple point. Yes, I liked what Cutler said but that’s a whole different discussion. I had just made reference to quantum mechanics being very acutely involved in the study of information. So also with DNA replication and entropy etc. For example, the information in the human genome has been translated from nucleic acid bumps on DNA molecules into black symbols (CGAT, etc.) that can be read in textbooks. It has also been translated into binary digits and recorded as plastic bumps on a DVD. What exactly is that objective data that is being translated from one media to another. Even if scientists can know what the data means, they have no idea what the data is. But the very act of translation from one media to another means that its not physical.

That may sound like a goofy statement–as goofy, perhaps, as heliocentrism might have sounded to a 10th-century farmer. But it is an excellent question. And it is not philosophical: we can prove what information is not–any information, anything that can be digitized, anything that can be translated. The very fact that we can translate it shows that the medium of information (whether its medium is a DVD or electromagnetic waves or black symbols, etc.) is distinct from the meaning of information.

Again, what is it that can be translated from one medium to another? Whatever it is, it is objective yet it is not physical/material.

McKain, I’m sure the facts prompt some profound philosophical discussion, but I want to side-step all that and focus on a very simple point: we can prove what information is not. It is not physical. Yes, people might have all sorts of philosophical names for it (“Platonic Forms”, “items in a superseded ontology”, “qualia”, “memes”, “a fifth phase of matter”, or whatever. Please don’t try to correct me on any of those because I don’t really know). As far as I’m concerned, that’s all a distraction from the objective, testable, falsifiable fact: the meaning behind the media is not physical.

Take, for example, The Lord of the Rings . You can buy the DVDs from Amazon or you can download them wirelessly through iTunes. Either way, you could them transfer them to a flash drive. Now you have three distinct media that all have exactly the same data:

  • DVDs (a pattern of bumps on plastic discs)

  • A pattern of electromagnetic waves

  • A flash drive (a pattern in magnetized alloy)

All three of these physical media have exactly the same information in common. Yet they do not need to have any physical qualities in common. Therefore, whatever it is that they do have in common ( The Lord of the Rings movie trilogy) is, literally, nonphysical.

That sounds absolutely absurd doesn’t it? As absurd, perhaps, as heliocentrism might have sounded to a 10th-century farmer? Yet it is a testable fact. And if we consider that consciousness itself might likewise be immaterial, then it may not sound so absurd. After all, when we watch the movies, why can we see things that a movie camera cannot see? (You may or may not be familiar with studies of consciousness, but there are vast amounts of research in neuroscience and psychology and AI just on the topic of what it means to perceive the color red, or any other color.)

At the physical level, is that not just increasing the order of various physical substrates at the cost of increasing the overall disorder of the universe? As for the order, it can be argued that is an emergent property.

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But like I said, there are other things in physics just like this, and there is no doubt that they are completely physical. Heat is an example but perhaps an easier and more dramatic example is energy.

  • Motion of a particle in an accelerator.
  • Massive particles produced in a collision
  • Electromagnetic radiation from particle decay and annihilation
  • Heat in the materials struck by this radiation

All four of these are exactly the same energy moving from one form to another. And yet they are completely different in nature, even to the point that some are things and others are actions. But this does not mean that the energy is not physical. So why should your example mean that the information is not physical.

In the case of the example of information you have given I would claim it is a stretch to say that they are even the same information especially since you are going from digital to analog and back to digital again. What you really have are copies of this information since playing the DVD does not mean the information is gone from the DVD and any number of copies in flash drives does not take away the information in the electromagnetic waves either. So doesn’t your argument come down to a claim that ANYTHING which can be copied is somehow not physical?

As I have defined information above: “something which can be transported from one location to another with measurable quantity and accuracy” Information includes everything physical which moves, for an object moving from one location to another could be measured in terms of both quantity and accuracy. I cannot imagine what you think is non-physical about any of that.

It seems that your argument/thinking hinges on this identity you are making between information in different mediums, but to me it looks like this is a rather universal characteristic of all things physical where you have an identity in the energy that goes from one form to another all the time. And in neither case is the energy or information actually independent of the form or medium at any particular time. Just because they can go from one form or medium to another doesn’t change this.

What is a testable fact? You can give me a written procedure to test the hypothesis that information is not physical? I don’t think so. All you have done is given an example where information is copied to different mediums. A test is written procedure which gives 1 result if information is physical and a 2nd result if information is not physical.

I don’t know of any evidence to support such a supposition. All the tests I know of in this case support the opposite hypothesis.

I am certainly aware of the studies in neuroscience and psychology which demonstrate that perception is a process which is not independent of beliefs. I am not aware of Artificial Intelligence having anything to do with any studies of human perception.

I am also somewhat aware of some of the complexities in the perception of color due to contrast and afterimage. But ultimately it comes down to the functionality of the cones in the retina which for some people like myself are not as well functioning as they are in other people.

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Well whatever you call it–“increasing order” or “emergent property”–you can’t identify any physical properties of it. The meaning behind the media cannot be directly or indirectly seen, heard, felt, tasted, or smelled. I know this is an exceedingly simple point to make.

If three different physical things–such as a DVD, a flash drive, and a set of electromagnetic waves–have no physical properties in common, then whatever it is that they do have in common has no physical properties. If they have the exact same bundle of information in common (such as The Lord of the Rings) then that information does not have any properties than can be directly seen, heard, felt, tasted, or smelled. They can simply be translated from one medium to another.

So the test of the immaterial nature of information is to translate it from one media to another without the media needing to have any physical qualities in common. We can be quite certain that the information on a DVD is objective. You could bury it in a time capsule and future generations could dig it up and eventually figure out how to decipher it. (That is similar, in principle to how we are slowly learning how to decipher the objective information in a DNA molecule or in starlight.)

It is falsifiable if you can identify any information that cannot be translated. That would be the same as identifying a physical property in a piece of information.

This is an extremely simple point that I’m making. In principle, it is no different from pointing out that mathematics has no tangible qualities. Yet because this fact contradicts the presuppositions of materialism, most naturalists will try to bury it under a dense fog of philosophical “debate”.

I refute this and the means and the examples are so numerous they are overwhelming.

  1. All physical things have physical properties in common and the examples you gave certainly do. They all, at least, have a quantity of energy in common. They also all have electromagnetic forces in play. And perhaps more to the point they all have a pattern which encodes the same information.
  2. According to your criterion I can take any three physical things with no physical properties in common except energy and say that since they all have energy in common then energy has no physical properties – which is absurd.
  3. But I can do much better with four physical things in the list above and not only do they all have energy in common but they have exactly the same energy (not just copies) each provided by the thing previous in the list. This just does not mean that the energy has no physical properties any more than it means information has no physical properties but simply that the properties can change.
  4. Information is now a part of the calculations in physics and therefore it is generally considered by physicists to be a property of physical materials.

That does not meet the criterion of a test. You need a written procedure which you can show has different outcomes depending on whether the information is physical or not. What you have given is just a dubious argument of rhetoric not a test. You certainly haven’t established that if information is physical then it could not be encoded in different mediums.

But I am not a naturalist. I am a physicist but not a naturalist. I reject the naturalist premise that the scientific worldview is the limits of reality. But as I have explained to theists many many times, just because a conclusion is correct (or something I agree with) doesn’t mean that an argument made for that conclusion is sound (or something I will agree has any objective validity). I believe in a spiritual aspect to reality. But I think that spiritual aspect to reality is inherently subjective and thus no objective means can exist which will establish its existence.

I don’t see how measurability with an arbitrary scale makes information an intrinsic property of physicality. Sure, by practicality and consensus it is useful and indispensable, but intrinsic?

I think the three type of media do have something in common, though, and that is the fact that the same serial stream of digital data can be produced from them physically without interpretation. I’m not sure the sequence of, say, zeroes and ones, is intrinsically information. Doesn’t it have to be interpreted before it is information? (Nothing is ‘informed’ otherwise.)

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Well there are different definitions of the word physical. From Merriam-Webster…

1a : of or relating to natural science
b(1) : of or relating to physics
(2) : characterized or produced by the forces and operations of physics
2a : having material existence : perceptible especially through the senses and subject to the laws of nature // “everything physical is measurable by weight, motion, and resistance”— Thomas De Quincey
b : of or relating to material things
3a : of or relating to the body

As a physicist, clearly the most important definition for me is the first two of these (different dictionaries have lists which are somewhat different in order and number). Measurability makes something capable of study by the physical sciences (and all measuring scales are ultimately arbitrary). It is the last definition which is the least significant to either science or philosophy since this would make the mind non-physical by definition. It is also the last definition in addition to equating it with the word “tangible” which contributes the most confusion. But by the first two definitions the capability of measurement is the essence of physicality. It is the one distinction of real substance for tangibility can be considered nothing more than a subjective experience resulting from the interaction of electromagnetic fields.

Come on, y’all are making this way more complicated than it needs to be. It’s very, very simple. Consider another medium: take the DVDs for the entire Lord of the Rings movie trilogy and translate the binary to a series of 1’s and 0’s on paper. Then you have the entire movie recorded as black symbols on paper. In a thousand years that info could be translated from the pattern of 1’s and 0’s back into a pattern of sound waves and light waves. It is objective. It is intrinsically there, whether anyone translates it or not. It is available, like a book sitting on a shelf. Scientists take it for granted that information is available like that everywhere in the universe—available to be translated such as the equations for photosynthesis or for gravity were discovered (not authored) and translated. Whether we discover and translate such information, it is there.

Now yes, of course, since both the paper and the DVD’s are both physical, they both have physical things in common. For example, they both have electrons. Obviously. But when I say they don’t need to have any physical qualities in common, I mean that as mediums of information, the DVD’s carry it as a series of bumps and dents in plastic, whereas the paper carries it as a series of black symbols—two completely different physical media with exactly the same information in common. Whatever you want to call that information—a “stream”, an “emergent property”—it has zero physical properties. There is zero ambiguity in that statement.

Now The Lord of the Rings movies are a pretty complex bundle of information. So consider a much simpler piece of information: the number 11. (I said earlier that my point is exactly the same as observing that mathematics is immaterial.) Consider, for example, eleven apples sitting on a table—large, red, juicy, sweet, crisp apples. Now one of the apples has eleven small bites taken out of it, and so eleven fruit flies are doing the Macarena on it—a dance with eleven steps. That’s four different ways of conveying the meaning of the word eleven. Yet we can look right at each one of them and observe the absence of any physical qualities in that number. Yet the objective information is available to be discerned/counted—again, like a book on a shelf.

Thus an immaterial reality is objective and just as “real” as the material reality (or as “real” as the meaning of the word real is real, <=).

The meaning of the word eleven is a count that is 1 greater than 10. You provided 4 examples of using that meaning of the word. They are not different ways of conveying the meaning.

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My point is that the numbers are immaterial. They have zero physical qualities even though they are objective. In your answer, you represented them as black symbols. You can also represent them as a pattern of beads on an abacus, a pattern of knots in a rope, etc. Regardless, what is the meaning behind the medium? It is pure, nonphysical/immaterial meaning.