Terence W. Deacon: What is missing from theories of information?


Where there is no evolutionary dynamic there is no information in the full sense of the concept. – Terrence W. Deacon

In his essay What is missing from theories of information? Terence W. Deacon tells us:

The “intentional inexistence” of the content of a thought, the imagined significance of a coincidental event, the meaning of a reading from a scientific instrument, the portent of the pattern of tea leaves, and so on, really is something that is not there. In this sense the Cartesian-derived notion that the content of mind is without extension, whereas the brain processes that realize this content do have extension, is at least partly correct. But to say that this absent content is extensionless is not quite right. The non-produced signal (that is, reduced entropy) that is the basis for Shannonian informative capacity, the non-present work that was or was not the basis for the reference of this signal, and the interpretive options (organism trait variations) selected in an evolutionary process, all have a definite negative extension in the sense that something specific and explicit is missing. In other words, like the space within a container, these are absences that are useful because of the way what is present can exemplify them.

The nearly universal tendency to attribute intentional phenomena to a disembodied realm is a reflection of this negative defining feature, but the apparent paradoxes this creates with respect to the physical efficacy of informational content is the result of misinterpreting this negative feature as though it is in some way substantial in a separate disembodied realm. The modern shift to abandoning all consideration of intentionality in definitions of information, as the concept has come to be used in the sciences, in order to focus entirely on the material–logical attributes of signal differences, has correspondingly stripped the concept of its distinctive value and has led to a reduction of information relationships to relationships of physical difference. As a result this most common and undeniable feature of our existence is often treated as though it is epiphenomenal. Even the recent efforts to reframe intentionality with respect to its embodiment effectively recapitulate a cryptic form of dualism in terms of a variant of dual aspect theory. But avoiding addressing the “inexistence” problem in these ways guarantees that the real-world efficacy of information remains inexplicable.

Like so many other “hard problems” in philosophy, I believe that this one, too, appears to have been a function of asking the wrong sort of questions. Talking about cognition in terms of the mind–brain – implying a metaphysically primitive identity – or talking about mind as the software of the brain – implying that mental content can be reduced to syntactic relationships embodied in and mapped to neural mechanics – both miss the point. The content that constitutes mind is not in the brain, nor is it embodied in neuronal processes in bodies interacting with the outside world. It is, in a precisely definable sense, that which determines which variations of neural signaling processes are not occurring, and that which will in a round-about and indirect way help reinforce and perpetuate the patterns of neural activity that are occurring. Informational content distinguishes semiosis from mere physical difference. And it has its influence on worldly events by virtue of the quite precise way that it is not present. Attempts to attribute a quasi-substantial quality to information or to reduce it to some specific physical property are not only doomed to incompleteness: they ultimately ignore its most fundamental distinctive characteristic.1

I thought what was interesting in the above was the statement “The content that constitutes mind is not in the brain, nor is it embodied in neuronal processes in bodies interacting with the outside world. It is, in a precisely definable sense, that which determines which variations of neural signaling processes are not occurring, and that which will in a round-about and indirect way help reinforce and perpetuate the patterns of neural activity that are occurring.” One wishes that the second sentence would have been a little more simplified. Content seems to act as a dynamic field/ground that determines and regulates neural activity rather than being an actual object contained in the activity itself like a substance. So that when he says that “informational content distinguishes semiosis from mere physical difference” he seems to rely on this separation of salient data from the data consciousness – what my friend Scott Bakker terms metacognitive neglect would be appropriate here. The case of the missing information is that it was never missing, it was just never given to us in the first place. We have only what our brain offers us, and this may be just as true of the universe in quantum fluctuations that produce information: we only get what it decides to give us, nothing more. Like the Wizard of oz: there is nothing behind the screen but nothingness (vacuum) itself; only the very blind processes of quantum fluctuations producing information through its own interactions with the environment – even if that environment is the universe. Yet, Deacon surmises what many quantum theorists have been saying that there is a double-vacuum, a negative capacity the generates the fluctuations by way of disturbances that effectuate new forms of information.

As an insect or animal, human or otherwise, moves through its environment (sometimes termed the umwelt), all the senses collect data that are made available to the brain. However, to prevent sensory overload, only salient data will receive the full attention of the cognitive elements of the mind. This indicates that a part of the process must be controlled by a model of the real world capable of ranking data elements in terms of their significance and filtering out the data irrelevant to survival. A sign cannot function until the brain or audience distinguishes it from the background noise. When this happens, the sign then triggers cognitive activity to interpret the data input and so convert it into meaningful information. This would suggest that, in the semiosphere, the process of semiosis goes through a specific neural processing cycle. (Semiosis)

Such sciences as biosemiotics see the evolution of life and the evolution of semiotic systems as two aspects of the same process. The scientific approach to the origin and evolution of life has, in part due to the success of molecular biology, given us highly valuable accounts of the outer aspects of the whole process, but has overlooked the inner qualitative aspects of sign action, leading to a reduced picture of causality. Complex self-organized living systems are also governed by formal and final causality – formal in the sense of the downward causation from a whole structure (such as the organism) to its individual molecules, constraining their action but also endowing them with functional meanings in relation to the whole metabolism; and final in the sense of the tendency to take habits and to generate future interpretants of the present sign actions. Here, biosemiotics draws also upon the insights of fields like systems theory, theoretical biology, Cybernetics, and the study of complex self-organized systems.

In some ways Deacon is trying to elaborate what many information theorists claim as an irreductionist model of neural activity based on an immaterial materialism of semiosis that as he suggests influences “worldly events by virtue of the quite precise way that it is not present. Attempts to attribute a quasi-substantial quality to information or to reduce it to some specific physical property are not only doomed to incompleteness: they ultimately ignore its most fundamental distinctive characteristic.” This sense that something can effectuate change or causation through absence rather than presence through immaterial signs rather than physical and substantive processes is not fully explained here. Of course that’s his explicit point early on in the essay:

The crucial property of content that must be taken into account is exactly the opposite: its absence. But how is it possible for a specific absence to have definite causal consequences? (p. 146)

He’ll find one clue in Claude Shannon’s analysis of information in terms of constraint on the entropy (possible variety) of signs/signals. (p. 146) In Shannon’s work the key was bound to the constraints governing transmission, that the conveyed information is dependent on a relationship to something that is specifically not produced. So that for Deacon “Such a process is capable of interpreting something as information about something else because such systems are necessarily open to and dependent on a precise correlation between intrinsic dynamics and extrinsic conditions.” (p. 147) His point is that neither the reductionist nor emergentist theories yield what we need to know about how the brain and mind, or even information and computational forms of computing, etc. actually interoperate.

As he tells us it is his contention that we are currently working with a set of assumptions about information that are just barely sufficient to handle the tracking of its most minimal physical and logical attributes, but which are insufficient to understand either its defining representational character or its pragmatic consequences. (p. 148) In fact he sees both neurosciences and information theory as little more than primitive theories:

In many ways, we are in a position analogous to the early-nineteenth-century physicists in the heyday of the industrial age (with its explosive development of self-powered machines for transportation, industry, timekeeping, etc.), whose conception of energy was still framed in terms of ethereal substances, such as “caloric,” “phlogiston,” and the “élan vital” that were presumably transferred from place to place to animate machines and organisms. (p. 149)

In fact as he suggests we will be required to give up thinking about it, even metaphorically, as some artifact or commodity. To make sense of the implicit representational function that distinguishes information from other merely physical relationships, we will need to find a precise way to characterize its defining non-intrinsic feature – its referential content – and show how it can be causally efficacious despite its physical absence. The enigmatic status of this relationship was eloquently, if enigmatically, framed by Brentano’s use of the term “inexistence” when describing mental phenomena. (p. 149)

Again he reiterates this need how in a brain or even a quantum computer information (semiosis) “can be causally efficacious despite its physical absence”. In most ways he sees philosophy at an impasse and that both physicalists and intentionalists (Phenomenologists) have no solution, and probably will never have a solution forthcoming. “…the concept of information has been a victim of a philosophical impasse that has a long and contentious history: the problem of specifying the ontological status of the representations or contents of our thoughts. The problem that lingers behind definitions of information boils down to a simple question: How can the content (aka meaning, reference, significant aboutness) of a sign or thought have any causal efficacy in the world if it is by definition not intrinsic to whatever physical object or process represents it?” (p. 151)

Maybe we’re asking the wrong questions. Maybe our conceptual framework is itself unable to answer the questions for the simple reason that it was never meant to answer such intrinsic questions of Mind / Brain to begin with, and that it was necessarily brought to bare upon problems that it was ill-fit to provide either questions or solutions since its main purpose was to pose and answer questions of survival. Could it be that our recursive dance of philosophy went down the wrong path when it began pointing its headlight toward the Mind rather than Nature? As Deacon will remind us:

Unfortunately, this obvious answer is ultimately circular. What we invoke with an interpreting mind is just what we hope to explain. The process we call interpretation is the generation of mental signs interpreting extrinsic signs. So we are left with the same problem inside as outside the mental world. The problem of specifying how a specific content is both not physically present and yet inheres in some way in the sign and interpretive process is no better grounded in neurological processes than it is outside of brains. (pp. 151-152)

Isn’t this the old figure/ground problem? We’re trying to explain processes that we do not have direct access to through indirect means of representational thought that is itself a product of those very processes, shaped and codified by inexplicable processes that the very representations we use to describe such processes are both blind too, and also neglect the very missing information by the nature of being representations rather than the very specific processes themselves. So we play an endless cat and mouse game of peek-a-boo with the dark world behind the screen, and receive back for all our efforts only the same information we started with except that with each iteration more and more entropic degradation ensues to the point that even the questions become absurd. It’s like a circus full of professional acrobatic clowns trying to stuff an elephant into a Chinese box, every time they add a new piece of information a new box opens up revealing another empty cavity where the missing information we seek is once again absent.

Deacon in sees for himself at least a problem with comparing the brain to a computer. As he will tell us if any physical event is considered to be a computation and the mind is merely a special-purpose computer, then the mind–body problem dissolves. But there is a troubling implication to this collapse of the concept of information to its syntactic meaning only. In such a uniformly informational universe there is no meaning, purpose, value, or agency. In this informational cosmology, networks of informational causality are still just as blindly mechanical as in any Laplacian universe. (p. 156)

Yet, is this really a problem? Isn’t this exactly what we’re seeing? Why does the universe need a meaning, purpose, or agency? What does adding a meaning, purpose, and agency give you but a reversion to our ancient theological universe controlled by gods or a God? He’ll try to squeeze past this by escaping this deflationary view of an information universe blindly mechanistically computing us, many have turned to quantum physics to loosen the bonds of mechanistic determinism, both in discussions of consciousness and in terms of information processes. Quantum events appear postponable until they are observed, and quantum objects can be both independent and correlated (entangled) at the same time. Thus notions of causality and of information about that causality appear to be inextricably linked at this level of scale. (p. 156)

How does this get us out of a deterministic circle? Sure quantum mechanics presents chance, contingency, and quantum fluctuation which as Seth Loyd in the same book will argue produce new information as quanta events, that universe itself is a massive processing system or quantum computer that is producing and endless supply of information. Deacon will show that brining both Shannon and Botlzman’s informational and physical notions of entropy to bare on the subject just complicates the issue rather than solving it. Ultimately he will opt for a Darwinian or evolutionary view of information and its incorporation into the neurosciences saying,

The capability of the Darwinian process to generate new information about organism–environment (and by extension the interpreter–context) interdependency is the ultimate demonstration of the post-hoc nature of information. This evolutionary transformation of noise into information is the ultimate demonstration that what makes something information is not intrinsic to any features of the information-conveying medium itself. It is irreducibly relational and systemic, and at every level of analysis dependent on a relationship to something not present. (p. 167)

  1. Davies, Paul; Gregersen, Niels Henrik (2011-03-01). Information and the Nature of Reality (pp. 167-169). Cambridge University Press. Kindle Edition.

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