Tuesday, December 11, 2007

O'Leary: Lennox Part 3

In part 3 of Denye O'Leary's appreciation of John Lennox and his book God's Undertaker: Has Science Buried God?, she tackles the idea of information. She quotes Lennox, who finds it "remarkable" that information is invisible, and comments:

Denyse O'Leary:
Not only that, but information, as Lennox goes on to demonstrate, is immaterial. Example: The knowledge that the concert you hoped to attend has been cancelled due to an ice storm is immaterial. The storm is quite material, but your knowledge that the concert has been cancelled is immaterial, even though it may have been conveyed by material things.

Shades of George Gilder, actually!

There's a Nobel Prize embedded in here, apparently. Forget the rest of this, that's what's remarkable, that Lennox has demonstrated that information is immaterial. I just recently finished reading Leff & Rex's Maxwell's Demon 2, which is a tour de force review of the subject of Maxwell's Demon. Which is, of course, all about information and entropy. While the subject is complex, and to be sure, even established 'experts' in information theory occasionally have disagreements about some of the basics of information as a scientific concept (see Tom Schneider's rejection of "self-information" in favor of "surprisal", for example), "information" is perfectly and completely physical.

And this little example Denyse throws out here is a point at which we can reasonably doubt that Denyse has even the bare beginnings of the conceptual framework needed to be a meaningful contributor in these discussions. I haven't read Lennox's book, and I'm quite prepared to allow that he as a more sophisticated view of the concept of information than Denyse relates here. But as it is, Denyse betrays complete incompetence with the subject matter here. Her example is the "information" that a concert has been canceled, due to a storm. The storm is material, but the information that the concert has been nixed is immaterial.

I'll try to resist the obvious opportunities at humor here, but what does Denyse think her brain is for, anyway? Does she suppose her brain is material? Is it real? The "information" Denyse claims is immaterial is most certainly material -- and is represented by the electrical configurations -- the "brain-states" of any and all who received and stored the message about the canceled show. Now granted, one can't "see" the electrical patterns that reify this knowledge because they are safely ensconced inside someone's skull. The ice storm that prompted the cancellation is a different matter, and quite observable, perfectly "visible", if maybe a little whited-out.

So the visible ice storm leads to a decision (a brain-state) in some individual that determins the show should be canceled. Additional bits of information (brain-states) are marshalled into the service of communicating that decision, and the recipients of this information reach new brain-states as a result of receiving the message. All the electrons are in the right places.

But Denyse can't see 'em, so apparently they don't exist. Kind of a grown-up version of the mistake my 1 year old twins make in thinking that if they can't see me, I can't see them.

Doesn't exist. Immaterial.

I won't even bother with the conflation these examples introduce, the confusion they spread in confusing the "retail" definition of information (knowledge or data that is contextualized for human processing, like the news of a canceled concert) and the scientific definition of information, (the reduction in uncertainty about physical configurations). Denyse isn't ready for "Remedial Information Theory 100" just yet.

Maybe a way to point at the major blunder Denyse is promoting here is to ask: OK, take away all physical objects and entities, for the sake of argument, here. Does this "immaterial" information about the canceled concert still exist? If there are no brains in the entire universe, would such news be "immaterial information"? If not, why not? If she should reply that of course, immaterial information needs a material "home" -- a place to exist -- then I'd say she's on the road to recover from this mistake. She's not there yet, but you can see the right answer from that point.

Information is physical. Where there is physical existence, there is information. Where there is no physical existence, there is no information.

Assuming, of course, that Denyse is confused, and that Lennox hasn't -- mirable dictu! -- actually inverted the whole of physics and demonstratede that information is immaterial.

No comments: