Tuesday 10 February 2015

Information about, for and as religion

The upcoming Difference That Makes a Difference conference, DTMD 2015 at IS4IS in Vienna, has the theme of Information and values: ethics, spirituality and religion

I've been thinking about information and religion on and off for some time, and last year presented a paper on the theme at ISSEI 2014 in Porto. The abstract of that presentation is below, and I hope a full paper will be appearing in the proceedings in due course.

The Porto presentation was really just framing the problem, suggesting that 'information and religion' should be addressed in terms of information about, for and as religion.

I hope that other people will be presenting papers within this framework at Vienna. So, if you are reading this and have thoughts about information about, for and/or as religion, please submit an abstract to DTMD 2015 before the deadline of 27th February.

  • See the Call for Papers.
  • Submissions (extended abstracts) are now open and can be made through the International Society for Information Studies submissions page.
  • Submissions close on 27 February 2015

Information and Religion

Increasing numbers of workers in an ever-widening range of disciplines have been discovering that a theory of information provides new insights into their field. Hans Christian von Baeyer, for example, argued in his 2003 book that information is the new language of science. Wolfgang Hofkirchner argues that our understanding of information is undergoing a paradigm shift with far-reaching consequences, and the philosopher of Information Luciano Floridi has put forward the thesis that information underpins a fourth revolution (following the three due to Copernicus, Darwin and Freud) which repositions our sense of identity. After the fourth revolution (which actually started the moment our ancestors painted on the walls of their caves) we are informational agents – inforgs – dispersed in an infosphere.

Albert Borgmann identified three roles for information: information about reality; information for reality and information as reality. This presentation explores information about, for and as religion.

Information about religion concerns the use of information-thinking to describe and understand religion. Gregory Bateson’s widely-cited definition of information as ‘a difference which makes a difference’ might itself be a description of religion. To be a Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Jew… is to be different from people who are not that: and it makes a difference to your life. To an extent this is just saying that religion is about identity and identity is an informational concept, but understanding religious identity in terms of information brings with it new insights which potentially provide different ways of thinking about religion. I have argued elsewhere, for example, that information is inherently provisional: that it cannot ever be anything else but provisional. So religious identity, too, from an informational perspective, cannot be anything other than provisional.

Information for religion concerns information as a tool of religion. Borgmann discusses information for reality as specification: defining and shaping reality, and so, similarly, information defines and shapes religion. Religious texts might be interpreted as the specification manuals of religions, but the unwritten traditions are information as well, and by understanding the nature of information we can look for insights into how religions are maintained and passed on from generation to generation.

Information is core to many religious formulations. Creations stories, for example, recognise the role of the informational concepts of difference and identity, as in the Genesis description of God separating night from day and land from sea, and the first man, Adam, naming the animals.

More recently some writers have been exploring how ideas which subvert materialism/physicalism and emphasise the primacy of information might open doors to a world-view that aligns with religious formulations.

Information as religion, is information replacing religion or delivering a religion itself. For some writers information thinking provides the basis for something close to a grand narrative. Hofkirchner, for example, seeks from an information science paradigm a new Weltanschauung: a new world-view; a new philosophy; a new way of thinking, and sees in this a route to addressing the global problems that arise from technological development, enabling a global, sustainable, information society. Information has been proposed as an alternative to religion as the basis of ethics, too. Floridi has spoken of an information ethics which “holds that every entity, as an expression of being, has a dignity, constituted by its mode of existence and essence” and that “there is something even more elemental than life, namely being [...] and something even more fundamental than suffering, namely entropy”.

The potential scope of an exploration of the value of information ideas to religion is vast. This presentation suggests a framework for thinking about the field and points to a few specific examples.

Chapman, D. A. (2014) ‘Information and Religion’ Images of Europe: Past, Present, Future The 14th International Conference of The International Society for the Study of European Ideas (ISSEI 2014). Porto, Portugal, August 4 – 8

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