Wednesday, 11 October 2017

Levels, layers, levelism

(This is one of these posts where I just put up miscellaneous odds and ends as a way of making some of my reading more interactive. I drafted it back in March and didn't post it then.) 

Exploring Floridi's references in his chapter on "The Method of Levels of Abstraction" (Chapter 3 in The Philosophy of Information*). Text in blue is from Floridi

*Floridi, L. The philosophy of information Oxford University Press, 2011

1     p47 line 2.  "Reality can be studied at different levels, so forms of ‘levelism’ have often been advocated in the past [Brown 1916]"

Brown, Harold Chapman Structural Levels in the Scientist's World The Journal of Philosophy, Psychology and Scientific Methods, Journal of Philosophy, Inc., 1916, Vol. 13(13), pp. 337-345

I enjoyed this paper. It is basically putting forward arguments for the importance of emergence.
"Each level of the physical world, above the electronic, is then to be looked upon as containing entities constituted by an integration of entities on a lower level in accordance with the lawful forms of their behavior. But it is to be noted that the consequent behavior of these aggregates is not the behavior of the elements of which they are composed: electrons do not have valency, atoms have not molecular properties, and, for the molecule, surface tension or the solid, liquid, and gaseous states are meaningless. Even when a property seems to be present on several levels, as a mutual attraction between entities, its description is markedly different in the different cases, as was the case in the now outlived "distance coefficient" physics." [p 339]
"[N]o genuine whole is merely the sum of its parts, but is a consequence of the integration of its parts, and such integration is not, in general, expressible entirely in terms of the parts and their relations. Because picking a pocket involves movements of physical masses at varying velocities and therefore could be studied from the point of view of mechanics, and chemical and organic processes that might make it of interest to the chemist or the physiologist, it does not follow that it is not also a real fact for the student of human conduct from a social point of view and that for him it may not constitute an event the significance of which can not be expressed in terms of the sciences previously mentioned. Also the reaction of any integrated group or whole to any other such group is something quite different from the reactions of any of their constituents to each other or from any fact that can be ex- pressed in terms of such reactions." [p 341]
It all seems reasonable to me.  One oddity, from the perspective of 2017 anyway, is the comments on ether: "... while there can be little doubt that the ether concept represents something physically real...". I better not get side-tracked, but the Michelson–Morley experiment was in 1887 and this paper was published in 1916, so had people not abandoned ether by 1916?

2  p47 ll 10-24

Consider the following varieties of levelism currently available in the philosophical literature:

  1. epistemological, e.g. levels of observation or interpretation of a system;
  2. ontological, e.g. levels (or rather layers) of organization, complexity, or causal interaction etc. of a system;[Poli (2001) provides a reconstruction of ontological levelism]
  3. methodological, e.g. levels of interdependence or reducibility among theories about a system; and
  4. an amalgamation of (1)–(3), e.g. as in Oppenheim and Putnam (1958).
The current debate on multirealizability in the philosophy of AI and cognitive science has made (3) controversial, as Block (1997) has shown; while Heil (2003) and Schaffer (2003) have seriously and convincingly questioned the plausibility of (2). Since criticisms of (2) and (3) end up undermining (4), rumours are that levelism should probably be decommissioned.

I agree with Heil and Schaffer that ontological levelism is probably untenable. However, I shall argue that a version of epistemological levelism should be retained, as a fundamental and indispensable method of conceptual engineering (philosophical analysis and construction) in PI, albeit in a suitably refined version.

Poli, R. The Basic Problem of the Theory of Levels of Reality Axiomathes, 2001, Vol. 12(3), pp. 261-283

I struggled with this paper. Probably because I don't have philosophical background so don't have a firm enough foundation in ideas of things like ontology and epistemology, but maybe also it not such a well-written paper? The idea I take from it (which may be a completely misunderstanding) is that we should consider alternative (ontological) hierarchies to that of a hierarchy based on aggregation. If that is what Polis is saying, then, fine, I'm sort-of OK with it.
[T]he predominant opinion is that there is only one multi-dynamic (multi-layered) system: the one described by the natural sciences. Other forms of knowledge are scientific to the extent that they can be located in the progressive series of supraformations (groups of groups of groups of items, each with its specific kinds of interaction). Hence the alternative: a discipline is scientific to the extent that it can be located in the series of aggregation levels – if so it can be more or less easily reduced to the base level – or it cannot be thus located and is consequently not a science: it has no citizenship in the realm of knowledge and is scientifically stateless.

We shall see that this is not so, and that the opinion just described is simply wrong. The progressive array of levels, in fact, has breaks in it where the frame of reference is categorially modified. The only way to handle this is to acknowledge that the hierarchy of levels of granularity is only one of the hierarchies of reality. A satisfactory theory must obviously recognize the former, but it must recognize the other forms of organization into levels as well. For this reason too, a categorial approach is more promising than an ’objectual’ one base on items of some kind in interaction. [p266]

Schaffer, J. Is There a Fundamental Level?. Nous, 2003, Vol. 37(3), pp. 498 - 517

Another really good read!
Talk about "the fundamental level of reality" pervades contemporary metaphysics. The fundamentalist starts with (a) a hierarchical picture of nature as stratified into levels, adds (b) an assumption that there is a bottom level which is fundamental, and winds up, often enough, with (c) an ontological attitude according to which the entities of the fundamental level are primarily real, while any remaining contingent entities are at best derivative, if real at all. Thus the physicalist claims that microphysical theory (or some future extension thereof) describes the fundamental level of reality on which all else supervenes; the Humean claims that all supervenes on the distribution of local, fundamental qualities in spacetime; the epiphenomenalist claims that all causal powers inhere at the fundamental level; and the atomist claims that there are no macroentities at all but only fundamental entities in various arrangements. 
I find the hierarchical picture of nature in (a) plausible as reflected in the structure and discoveries of the sciences, and consider the ontological primacy of the fundamental entities in (c) a natural (though not inevitable) conclusion. In any case I will not discuss these issues here. Rather I will discuss the assumption (b) that there exists a fundamental level; first because it is almost entirely second because, as I will argue, there is no evidence in its favor; and third because the hierarchical picture minus (b) yields a far more palatable metaphysic in which, contra (c), all entities are equally real. [p498, emphasis in the original]
Schaffer proceeds to present an argument that (i) suggests there is no reason to cling to atomism and (ii) rejects the idea that there is any reason to suppose that physics is approaching a complete microphysical theory.

I am tempted to quote lots from it because it is so nicely written. (And, in terms of (ii), accords with my own thinking. I’d simply not thought about (i)). However, instead I just encourage any reader to read the paper for themselves. But, some key conclusions:
So I conclude that we do not, right now, have any evidence for atomism. We now have no evidence that there will be a final theory, no evidence that such a theory will postulate anything that could serve as a mereological atom, and no evidence that such a theoretical postulate will correspond to an ontological atom as opposed to a boringly decomposable composite. Evidence for fundamentality is lacking thrice over. 
In short, there are at least two perfectly good conceptions of the hierarchy of nature: fundamentality and infinite descent. The empirical evidence to date is neutral as to which structure science is reflecting. And so, concerning the proposition that there exists a fundamental level of nature, one should withhold belief. [p505-506]
And then
[First line of retreat] [C]an certain fundamentalist doctrines be (re)formulated without presupposing the existence of a fundamental level? I will consider physicalism, Humeanism, epiphenomenalism, and atomism in turn, and show that all presuppose fundamentality in some sense.
BTW, a handy links: supervenience 
As a second line of retreat, the fundamentalist might maintain that, while there is no evidence for mereological atoms, there may yet be evidence for a fundamental something else. I think that there is one particularly interesting form of this retreat, on which this "something else" is a fundamental supervenience base. In any case I will limit my discussion of this retreat to this particular maneuver. [p509]
So it is in fact worth distinguishing (at least) three metaphysical pictures: full-blown fundamentality, supervenience-only fundamentality, and full- blown infinite descent. Should we not discover a complete microphysics (or should we at least continue to discover ever-deeper novel structure) this would provide evidence for infinite descent. Should we discover a complete microphysics, this would then provide evidence for supervenience- only fundamentality, and allow for physicalism and Humeanism. Should the complete microphysics also turn out to postulate particles, and should these particles turn out indivisible, this would then provide evidence for full-blown fundamentality, and allow for epiphenomenalism and atomism in addition. For now, all of these outcomes must be regarded as live possibilities. [p512]
And, finally
What would a metaphysic of infinite descent look like? The most striking feature of an infinite descent is that no level is special.25 Infinite descent yields an egalitarian ontological attitude which is at home in the macro- world precisely because everything is macro. Mesons, molecules, minds, and mountains are in every sense ontologically equal. Because there can be no privileged locus for the causal powers, and because they must be somewhere, they are everywhere. So infinite descent yields an egalitarian metaphysic which dignifies and empowers the whole of nature.

Treat infinite descent as a working hypothesis, and since all entities turn out to be composite, supervenient, realized, and governed, it emerges that these attributes cannot be barriers to full citizenship in the republic of being.

The macroworld, once regained, is not easily lost, even should real evidence for fundamentality arrive. Here I am, a human organism, a macro- entity, but in no sense unreal for that. I believe that I am both composed of and dependent on certain cells, which are in turn both composed of and dependent on certain molecules, which are in turn both composed of and dependent on certain atoms, which are in turn both composed of and dependent on certain subatomic particles, which are in turn both composed of and dependent on certain quarks and leptons. We just don't know whether this chain stops. But from this perspective it seems obvious that my realness does not in any sense turn on whether there are preons and so on below, or not.

To see that there is no evidence for fundamentality is already to regain the macroworld.

Tuesday, 15 August 2017

Meaning in information theory

Here's something I've been meaning to write about for a long time, addressing a common criticism of Shannon information.
According to many measures of information, as used in Shannon’s information theory and in algorithmic information theories (Kolmogorov, Solomonoff and Chaitin), the more random and unpredictable data is, the higher the information content. This is often presented as a reason for rejecting them as meaningful measures of semantic information.
Arguments go something like this.
            Compares these two sets of data:
Data set #1
The rambler who, for old association or other reasons, should trace the forsaken coach-road running almost in a meridional line from Bristol to the south shore of England, would find himself during the latter half of his journey in the vicinity of some extensive woodlands, interspersed with apple-orchards.
Data set #2
ƒw€¾ë †eܯ⠡nÊ.,+´Àˆrœ                D[1]R¥­Æú9yŠB/öû˜ups>YS ­ Ù#Ô¤w/ÎÚÊø ªÄfª Æýð‘ëe© Y›C&$¾"˾Bµ"·
                       F8 ©t"60 <Ikˆ¢†I&Év*Úí‡a,àE l xùçkvV¯hó
                       ZÑi½ŠD°4‹¨D#n ¬T*g    
                       ZœÎr‡œ`™ó%î ù†ðË %P€óKIx­s©ÊÁz¯
8V79{¾à²ÈÇ'R|“‡üE­ û—€Ñ‚ŠB×ÉD         \{F$þݦýCÕŽ´Û2ø

They both contain the same number of characters (307, including spaces) and information theory would have us believe that the second contains more information than the first because it is more random. This is clearly rubbish.
QED: information theory sucks!

The thing is that you, the reader, perceive data set #1 as containing information because of the levels above. It contains information, for you, because it is a legitimate sentence according to English grammar (the syntax) and because of the meaning in the context of the story (“The Woodlanders” by Thomas Hardy [1]).  At the level of the Shannon (or Kolmogorov of whatever) this is not known. The Shannon level doesn’t know that data set #2 is ‘just’ random whereas data set #1 contains meaning. The data set #2 *might* contain information from the layers above, and if it did, it would be able to contain more than data set #1.

And actually, I generated data set #2 by using a zipping tool (7-Zip) to compress the whole of “The Woodlanders”, opening the compressed zip file in a text editing programme (Editpad lite) and copying 307 characters [2]. The uncompressed text file is 778 Kbytes compared to 287 kbytes for the compressed file, giving a compression ratio of 37%. So in fact data set #2 contains a bigger fraction of the whole story than data set #1. It contains 1/0.37 = 2.7 times the amount of information in data set #1. 

The point is that compressing files reduces their size by removing redundancy and the more a file is compressed, the more random it appears. This, indeed, is the principle behind algorithmic information theory: the information content of a file is given by the size of the smallest file that can represent the content. It is theoretical limit to compression.

However, data set #2 might not have been created in the way I said it it was. Consider now data set #3

      ±­Ìšê줳ÓÙÙ“ãÝá´¬Âᄅ¥¬È¤ØÃߤ—Ž»Ü“”š™Ø—ÕК Î祐ßÔ£¶ºª‘ì½’¤â¾¦”Êœ›   
      ÉêÈ šÆ§Ì¯èÉß«Ž²Œ«Ç¡ÉÍ̬—¦ê½Á•²¾ÁÅªÃ²¸¡¢Í¡¬¿à±·ž•Ü©ÑÚçÑύ敔ÈÙÂÚ×›
      ŽÓåÁ䟟ÃÍ ÙÙÍáßâÉÙäÕë⻵Ã̎ߪÒç´±¼Ø׬驓Ϭ߬—

This one I created with the help of the RAND function in Excel. So it doesn’t contain information, does it? Well, generating random numbers in computers is notoriously difficult, because any deterministic algorithm is by definition not random. I think I read somewhere that the RAND function in Excel tries to do something clever with time intervals in the machine, thereby picking up some of the thermal randomness that will affect the precise timing of the computer clock. But the point is: a) it doesn’t contain information for me and you at the moment [3] but b) it might nevertheless contain information that could, in principle, be extracted. If it does contain information, then information theory tells us how much it can contain – an upper limit on how much it can contain.

As to the randomness question, we are again back to quantum mechanical randomness as the only true randomness of physics, always assuming that God does play dice, of course.

[1] Text file of The Woodlanders downloaded from the Gutenberg Project:

[2] It was a bit more messy than that, because the zip file is not coded as a text file so Editpad is trying to interpret arbitrary bytes as text, so I've fudged it a bit. If I had the time, I would have written a compression programme that gave an output in text. It would be possible but presumably wouldn't compress as much. The fudge doesn't change the argument, though.

[3] Note the theme of provisionality cropping up again!

Sunday, 16 July 2017

Randomness is nothing. Nothingness is random.

To say that something is random is to say that it conveys no information. That is the true nothing.

We know from physics that vacuums, as the complete absence of any matter or energy, don't exist, because the uncertainty principle allows particle-antiparticle pairs to appear spontaneously provided they vanish again quickly enough. This is what creates the 'vacuum energy' and is measurable.

So you might argue that there's no such thing as nothing, but the presence or absence of matter or energy is of no significance. What is important is information. In the data-information model, information cannot be extracted from completely random data. Or, to put it another way, completely random data is no data at all (is nothing).

However, randomness is relative. If I listen to someone speaking a Chinese language the words are random to me because I cannot extract meaning from them, but of course they are not random to a Chinese speaker. So, nothingness is relative. Unless, that is, there exists randomness that is absolutely random. Is this the randomness of quantum mechanics? Is this 'God playing dice' (in the famous phrase of Alfred Einstein)?

Monday, 22 May 2017

The line-up for DTMD 2017 at IS4SI. Narrative and Rhetoric: exploring meaning in a digitalised society

The line-up for DTMD 2017 at IS4SI in Gothenburg is now finalised. Here's a brief description.
DTMD 2017 is the sixth workshop on understanding the nature of information organised by the DTMD group from The Open University in Milton Keynes, UK. DTMD is abbreviated from ‘The Difference that Makes a Difference’, Gregory Bateson’s celebrated definition of information, and the workshops have all had an interdisciplinary approach to information and sought to encourage cross-discipline discussion.

DTMD 2017 takes as its theme ‘narrative’: exploring both the narratives of information and language of information in the narratives of the digitalised society in order to enhance understanding, both of society and of information. The workshop is divided into two halves, with significant time allocated for in-depth discussion in each. The first half has a philosophical flavour, starting with Chapman asking “What can we say about information?” followed by Jones’ exploration of “Narrative realities and optimal entropy” and Fiorini’s Predicative Competence in a Digitalised Society. After discussion of the first three presentations, the second half has a more applied/political focus. Both of Ali’s “Decolonizing Information Narratives” and Sordi’s “The Algorithmic Narrator” take a critical look at algorithms in society, then the final paper of the workshop, Ramage’s “Meaning, selection & narrative: the information we see and the information we don’t” explores the contested nature of information and narratives before the final period of discussion.

It takes place on Monday 12th June to the schedule as follows:

10:30-11:00 What can we say about information? Agreeing a narrative (David Chapman)
11:00-11:30 Predicative Competence in a Digitalised Society (Rodolfo A. Fiorini) ;
11:30-12:00 Narrative realities and optimal entropy (Derek Jones)
[12:00-14:00 Lunch, then Deacon panel]
14:00-14:30 General discussion 1
14:30-1:500 Decolonizing Information Narratives (Syed Mustafa Ali)
[15:00-15:30 Tea]
15:30-16:00 The Algorithmic Narrator (Paolo Sordi)
16:00-16:30 Meaning, selection & narrative: the information we see and the information we don’t (Magnus Ramage)
16:30-17:00 General discussion 2

Monday, 8 May 2017

Perspectives on Information - now only £28

I've just spotted that you can now buy Perspectives on Information (Routledge, 2011) for as little as £28. (It originally came out in hardback at about £90!)

The book arose out the very first of the DTMD workshops (not that we called it DTMD at the time). It was an internal workshop at the Open University held in 2007, so all of the authors of Perspectives were, at the time of the workshop, employed at the OU, though some have since moved on.

Wednesday, 26 April 2017

Data rising and information falling

I've been too busy to blog for a while, and I'm still too busy, but here's a quick one.

QI, quite interesting, don't you think?  I did the comparison because I suspected that 'information' was going out of favour. I think people might be starting to be more careful in their use of 'information' and 'data'.

Monday, 27 February 2017

Submission deadline for DTMD 2017 extended to 1 April

The deadline for submitting papers to DTMD 2017, Information, Narrative and Rhetoric: Exploring Meaning in a Digitalised Society (and to all the conferences at IS4SI) has been extended to the first of April. See my previous post for details of DTMD 2017.