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LATEST DIALOGUES Info-virus

In theory and practice most scientists have failed to distinguish between ‘information’ and ‘meaning.’ This has been a common confusion that can inhibit the advancement of scientific knowledge as well as our understanding of what it is to be human. This muddle means that ‘information’ is poorly understood while the subject of ‘meaning,’ if thought about at all, is seen as a mystery. With this confusion traditional mechanical predispositions are reinforced to the extent that meaning and consciousness has been largely excluded from scientific studies. The theoretical physicist, David Bohm (1917 – 1992) believed that meaning is the essential nature of consciousness (Hiley & Peat, 1991, 436). I agree. Hence, when meaning is assumed to be a mystery, so too is consciousness.

Let us begin by asking some pertinent questions about ‘information’ theory. The Claude E. Shannon Award is the highest honor in the field of information theory. It was named after the man regarded by some as the father of the information age. In 1948 his influential article ‘A Mathematical Theory of Communication’ (later made into a book) was first published and in it Shannon laid out the mechanical and mathematical bases of his theory of information communication. His model involved a transmitter, channel and receiver, each of which reflected the then standard system within a Bell telephone exchange.

In Shannon’s theory of communication, the transmitter produces a message that is sent through a channel or wire that alters the message in some way. The receiver then has to infer what would be the likely average information that was sent in the message. ‘Information’ is a highly abstract notion as it is based on a probabilistic model and defined as the negative of the logarithm of a probability distribution.

What is missing from Shannon’s mathematical theory of communication is the role that meaning plays in all communication. And while the transmitter and receiver of his theory can be a person or a machine, the role of a vital agent, and in particular of mind, has been largely eliminated. As a result, the calculated information content of the word ‘coming’ is mathematically considered to be the same as the non-word ‘gnmioc’. This is what Basil Hiley reminds us of in his 2005 paper ‘Process and the Implicate Order: Their relevance to quantum theory and mind.’ This serious inadequacy highlights the general problem of equating the negative and abstract equations of information content with what actually happens in communication exchanges.

Meaning is essential for us to understand information theory if that theory is to function as a theory. It is essential because it is impossible to exclude meaning from any word or discourse, and that includes the various words and discourses of Shannon’s information theory. Specifically, it is impossible to exclude meaning because random letters become words only when they carry the social meanings of a discourse that exchanges meaning. It is the meaning within a communication that represents the gold standard by which any discourse or communication is intelligible, can be judged and understood. It is these same conditions that apply to Shannon’s information theory, notwithstanding its reliance on mathematical ‘probabilities.’

To deliberately establish a meaningful theory that sets out to explicitly exclude meaning is to embark on a fantasy. This is a mathematical and technological fantasy that attempts to unconsciously substitute the term ‘information’ for ‘meaning.’ This fantasy has become widespread and is disseminated in almost every corner of science and popular culture, and its circulation represents what I would call a widespread cultural malaise. Its nature can be gleaned from the following statements:

  • Information is a real and effective feature of the universe.
  • The universe is an interconnected network of information and energy.
  • The primary currency of reality is information.

These statements have been used by various yet widely different investigators: Ervin Laszlo (2004); Peter Fraser, Harry Massey and Joan Wilcox (2008); and Robert Jahn and Brenda Dunne (2011). These statements and thousands more like them are false because when used to describe anything to do with communication or mind, the term ‘information’ is, as a lawyer might say, unsafe – unsafe because it creates shadows that are called on to stand in for reality.

These shadows conceal meaning by pretending to be something they are not. What is it then that information theory pretends to be? The answer lies in a double bind: qualities of meaning are ascribed to information by the theory that denies having any association with meaning. What we are dealing with here is a language virus that, like a biological virus, needs a culture in which to grow. The culture in which the virus of information theory has grown is a reductive and simple-minded materialism of mechanical science and the outcome has been a widespread and inappropriate application of Shannon’s theory and information vocabulary. This usage has had the effect of reinforcing the dualistic illusion of mechanical science that posits an objective material world that is separate from subjective minds.

The virus of information theory operates as a rhetorical device by innocently presenting a portion of the picture as if it were the whole while concealing critical elements through elision or occlusion. Shannon’s information theory treats the vital dynamics of communication as if they are a set of mechanical devices. As a consequence, his theory confuses the exchanges of meaning in communication with electrical exchanges. His theory has also laid the foundation for a more general concept of ‘communication’ to be regarded as ‘the imparting or exchange of information.’ As communication is only ever an exchange between alive organisms, communication is not and never will be an exchange between machines.

The structure and function of meaning as described in The Evolution of Consciousness: A New Science follows the framework of David Bohm’s model of the implicate and explicate orders. With this approach we find that meaning has a gestalt structure involving implicit and explicit meaning. This gestalt comprises a non-local background context of implicit meaning (Bohm’s implicate order) and a foreground of local, explicit, differential constituents (the explicate order). This gestalt of non-local and local components operates in all human meaning making and also in every communication. This structure indicates that every theory, statement and communication will always involve a combination of local (explicit) as well as non-local (implicit) meanings. In addition, every communication is an animate exchange and therefore, is not a mechanical exchange. Machines like computers cannot communicate; all they do is run on and exchange electrical charges.

If we take meaning’s gestalt structure into account, there is only one feature of meaning that is formally recognized by information theory. This is the movements of explicit meaning (the explicate order) or what I call, explicit-to-explicit exchanges. These represent our local conscious human exchanges involving distinctions and differences. While these explicit exchanges are prized by mechanical models of science they represent only a minority of all the possible exchanges of meaning. This reliance on the movement of explicit distinctions and differences has meant that within information theory the notion ‘noise’ has been interpreted as an ambiguity to be overcome. As information theory does not take account of that large context of non-local implicit meaning the natural uncertainty generated by the implicit meaning that is always embedded inevery message or signal is treated as just so much ‘noise.’ What has this confusion led to?

Shannon’s theory is concerned with increasing efficiency and reducing ambiguity in communication. A channel is held to produce ambiguity in a message sent from a transmitter, yet the theory has nothing to say about the natural ambiguity that is involved in the several layers of implicit meaning (cultural, linguistic, non-local) that are a large and inherent portion of all messages. To confuse these two, one mechanical and the other a natural feature of all expressions, is to begin to confuse a machine with an organism and in the process to confuse organic communication with mechanical exchanges. A typical outcome of this confusion leads us to believe that while computers can communicate, humans maybe just less efficient computers.

A further problem with information theory is that the theory assumes that the receiver recognizes the ‘information’ of the message as a choice between known possibilities. This choice relies upon probability statistics as a substitute for the cultural, linguistic and individual richness that is inherent in every message and discourse. In essence, this is an attempt to define implicit meaning as no more than a range of probable explicit meanings. To assume that implicit meaning is simply unknown explicit meaning is to produce a category mistake.

The structure of meaning mandates that the explicit always arises from the implicit and this means that while some aspects of implicit meaning can be made explicit, nevertheless wherever explicit distinctions and differences exist they will always arise from a background context of implicit meaning. This natural order where implicit meaning has primacy, is reversed by information theory with the assumption that the explicit distinctions of information have priority, and that they can exist without a background context.

To some degree almost every scientist has been infected with this language virus of information theory. Even scientists like John Wheeler have confused the role of information and meaning with the reductive formula ‘it from bit.’ How does the world (it) arise from the so-called substratum of a ‘bit’ of information? (Küng 2008: 72). Also, David Bohm is not beyond using the term ‘information’ in a manner that retards our understanding of consciousness and communication.

In their highly original book The Undivided Universe, Bohm and Hiley make the distinction between ‘active’ and ‘passive’ information. They state that ‘active information’ operates in thought in ways similar to how it operates in the actions of the quantum potential. While this is consistent with their theory it is a highly questionable statement, for ‘information,’ whether active or passive, should not be seen to involve meaning or be part of mind or consciousness because these have already been deliberately excluded from the classical understanding of information theory.

Yet the exclusion of mind and meaning from information theory has nevertheless led to those very factors being arbitrarily imported back into the vocabulary of information technology. Such reversals do damage to our understanding of information theory as well as to an intelligent comprehension of mind, consciousness and meaning. The outcome is confusion. Bohm himself was somewhat critical of the passive nature of classical information theory. He pointed out that within the quantum field, exchanges of information actively occur without our knowledge and so this kind of ‘active information’ is different from the ‘passive’ information associated with information theory (Bohm & Hiley 1995: 28–57).

However, the term ‘active information’ does not overcome the inherent problem of covertly reintroducing mind back into information theory when the theory excluded it. The word ‘active’ does not really help here, although it does provide a hint as to the vital agency within communication processes. Agency, however, does not fit with the mechanical elements of ‘information.’ Added to the confusion surrounding the use of ‘active information’ is Bohm’s phrase of a ‘form that in-forms’. Yet only a mind can be ‘informed’ or ‘uninformed’ and such terms relate to the transformational processes of learning through education by a conscious being, all of which are mind conditions expressly excluded from the elements of classical ‘information.’

So, what then are Bohm and Hiley referring to when they write about active information, and what are researchers in neuroscience referring to when they write about ‘brain information?’ From the point of view of meaning it does not really matter – in relation to physics, biology or computer science – whether we use the term ‘information’ in a ‘passive,’ ‘active’ or ‘inactive’ sense. The basic problem when ‘information’ is used to refer to communication is that such a wording splits subject from object while creating a fiction that separates explicit from implicit meaning. This separating function does not align with the reality of Bohm’s interconnected universe or with the non-dualistic relationships of consciousness.

Since communication represents an exchange of meaning, in those instances where there is no meaning exchange we can say there is no communication. A key example of where there is no meaning exchanged and so no communication, is when computers interact with one another. In these interactions there is no vital mind-to-mind communication and so these machine interactions do not involve ‘understanding,’ ‘realization,’ ‘insight,’ or even ‘learning;’ rather, the exchanges that occur within and between machines are a set of non-meaningful exchanges related to electrical circuits and charges.

Technicians and scientists may decide to call these electrical exchanges between machines ‘information’ but this vocabulary too easily slips into a general confusion of mixing information with meaning and then this incoherent blend is called ‘communication.’ This confusion is augmented by the literal rendering in which most information discourses are expressed.

The difference between a discourse that is rendered literally and one that is metaphoric – ‘the ship of state’ – has to do with layers of meaning. A metaphor deploys more than one meaning, while a qualified statement suggests the possibility of other meanings. The discourses associated with ‘adaptive systems,’ ‘anticipatory systems,’ ‘artificial intelligence,’ ‘informatics’ and ‘machine learning,’ to take some random examples, are for the most part applied literally. A literal rendering also says something about truth. It says, ‘the single meaning of this expression is unqualified and true.’

We should resist the temptation to be led astray by this kind of thinking, where the shadows of information are seen to be contained in communication or constituting primary and universal givens. One example of the extraordinary confusion within science between meaning and information was demonstrated in the well-publicized comments made by the theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking (1942 – 2018), who was reported on BBC News to have said, ‘The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race.’i Such a view seriously fails to discriminate between the shadows and the real, that is, between the secondary computational languages of artificial intelligence and the infinitely complex, primary and vital intelligibility of meaning.

Meaning exchanges do occur between different people and also, in general, between organisms and their environment, that is, between the whole and the parts, as well as between the parts and the whole of Consciousness. Thus, what is necessary in any communication is an exchange of consciousness in the form of meaning. What is missing when we mistakenly refer to communication as ‘information’ exchange is an appreciation of the cardinal distinction between the skeleton computational language used by information technology and the rich, ordered sensibilities of discourses that make and carry meaning between organisms.

The question often asked about locating the much sought after mysterious universal ‘information-generating process’ can be answered simply by studying the meaning nature of consciousness. If in the future science should go down this track it will find that it will be looking for something like a meaning-generating process, something like Bohm’s quantum potential, or in terms of meaning, the potentials of one universal Consciousness. Thus, it is not the explicit, differential calculations of information that represent the primary currency of reality, but the meanings generated by mind and given by one Consciousness.

Andrew Lohrey gained his PhD in Communications from the University of Technology, Sydney, in 1993. He has written papers on consciousness and meaning for a range of journals, and in 1997 the University of Michigan Press published his book, The Meaning of Consciousness. His latest book, The Evolution of Consciousness: A New Science, is available online.

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