Ideas of the century: The philosophy of information (13/50)

Por • 18 ago, 2010 • Sección: Ciencia y tecnología, Filosofía

Written by: Luciano Floridi

August 2, 2010

Luciano Floridi on the new thinking demanded by the information age

tpm cover art by Felix Bennett

Among our mundane and technical concepts, information is currently one of the most important, widely used yet least understood. Philosophy badly needs to turn its attention to it. This is a quick and dirty way of introducing the philosophy of information (PI), a new and fast growing area of research. Let me now sketch the longer story.

The development of new philosophical ideas seems to be akin to economic innovation. For when Schumpeter adapted the idea of “creative destruction” in order to interpret economic innovation, he might as well have been talking about intellectual development. Philosophy flourishes by constantly re-engineering itself. Nowadays, its pulling force of innovation is represented by the complex world of information and communication phenomena, their corresponding sciences and technologies, and the new environments, social life, and existential and cultural issues that they are bringing about.

This is why PI can present itself as an innovative paradigm, that opens up a very rich area of conceptual investigations. It is the philosophical field concerned with (a) the critical investigation of the conceptual nature and basic principles of information, including its dynamics, utilisation and sciences, and (b) the elaboration and application of information-theoretic and computational methodologies to philosophical problems. In other words, PI appropriates an explicit, clear and precise interpretation of the classic “ti esti” question, namely “what is information?”, the clearest hallmark of a new field. As with any other field-question, this too serves only to demarcate an area of research, not to map its specific problems in detail.

At the same time, PI possesses one of the most powerful conceptual vocabularies ever devised in philosophy. This is because one can rely on informational concepts whenever a complete understanding of some series of events is unavailable or unnecessary for providing an explanation. Virtually any issue can be rephrased informationally. Such semantic power is a great advantage of PI, understood as a methodology (see the second half of the definition above). It shows that we are dealing with an influential paradigm. But it may also be a disadvantage, because a metaphorically pan-informational approach can lead to a dangerous equivocation, namely, thinking that since any x can be described in (more or less metaphorically) informational terms, then the nature of any x is genuinely informational. Such equivocation may result in PI losing its specific identity as a philosophical field with its own subject. PI runs the risk of becoming synonymous with philosophy.

The best way of avoiding this loss of identity is to concentrate on the first half of the definition. PI as a philosophical discipline is defined by what a problem is (or can be reduced to be) about, rather than by how the latter is formulated. Although many philosophical issues seem to benefit greatly from an informational analysis, in PI the latter provides a literal foundation, not just a metaphorical superstructure.

PI attempts to expand the frontier of philosophical research, not by putting together pre-existing topics, and thus reordering the philosophical scenario, but by encompassing new areas of philosophical inquiry – which have been struggling to be recognised and have not yet found room in the traditional philosophical syllabus – and by providing innovative methodologies to address traditional problems from new perspectives. The scientific revolution made seventeenth century philosophers redirect their attention from the nature of the knowable object to the epistemic relation between it and the knowing subject, and hence from metaphysics to epistemology. The subsequent growth of the information society and the appearance of the infosphere, as the environment in which millions of people spend their time nowadays, have led contemporary philosophy to privilege critical reflection first on the domain represented by the memory and languages of organised knowledge, the instruments whereby the infosphere is managed – thus moving from theory of knowledge to philosophy of language and logic – and then on the nature of its very fabric and essence, information itself. Information has thus arisen as a concept as fundamental and important as being, knowledge, life, intelligence, meaning or good and evil – all pivotal concepts with which it is interdependent – and so equally worthy of autonomous investigation. It is also a more impoverished concept, in terms of which the others can be expressed and interrelated, when not defined. This is why PI may explain and guide the purposeful construction of our intellectual environment, and provide the systematic treatment of the conceptual foundations of contemporary society.

The future of PI depends on how well it will engage with classic philosophical issues. I am optimistic. The Baconian-Galilean project of grasping and manipulating the alphabet of the universe has begun to find its fulfilment in the computational revolution, and the resulting informational turn, that have affected so profoundly our knowledge of reality and the way we conceptualise it and ourselves within it. Informational narratives possess an ontic power, not as magical confabulations, expressions of theological logos or mystical formulae, but immanently, as building tools that can describe, modify, and implement our environment and ourselves. From this perspective, PI can be presented as the study of the informational activities that make possible the construction, conceptualisation, semanticisation (meaning-giving) and finally the moral stewardship of reality, both natural and artificial, both physical and anthropological. PI enables humanity to make sense of the world and construct it responsibly. It promises to be one of the most exciting and fruitful areas of philosophical research of our time.

Further reading
The Philosophy of Information, Luciano Floridi (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010, forthcoming)

Luciano Floridi holds the Research Chair in Philosophy of Information at the University of Hertfordshire and has written tpm’s Word of Mouse column since 2006.


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