Information: what does “information” refer to?
Information is a term that has various meanings depending on who is using the term and the context in which the term is being used (non-academic, engineering, neurological, psychological, philosophical, etc.) [1-9]. This is because many different things can be justly called information – they are similar in many essential ways but merely different in some detailed characteristics. Some usages of the term “information”, although frequently referred to in the literature, are technical and are not in an ordinary, daily-life sense, such as “information” in Shannon’s theory, which (although not specifically defined anywhere in the theory) is understood to be something that, when it comes in a set, has more amount if it is uncommon or unlikely to occur in the set than if it is common or likely to occur in that set, and vice versa [7,10]; “information” is what is produced by its source that is required to be reproducible at the destination if the transmission is to be counted a success ; and “information” is a difference that makes a difference . For general people, these descriptions can cause bewilderment or misunderstanding. Unfortunately, at present, there is no consensus on its definition, even within a single discipline. Yet, although no one and no profession owns the exclusive rights to define the term, a definitely defined “information” is essential in an academic work about it, and one should attempt to establish it from the beginning as a working definition in that research to avoid inconsistency in the work and confusion and misunderstanding for those who read it. Therefore, this theory will set up a working definition for this term for use in this theory. This theory selects to use the term “information” that has meaning in an ordinary, daily-life sense. To seek an appropriate definition for it, let’s examine the uses of “information” in some common, daily-life usages as follows:
1. The couple gets information from the salesperson that the house was built with high-grade materials and by a reputable construction company, so they decide to buy it.
2. A lot of factual and false information from various sources circulates in the social media every day and can have effects on opinions and behaviors of those who consume it.
3. This science textbook, written by a renowned author, is full of scientific information and can greatly enhance readers’ knowledge.
4. The electromagnetic waves broadcasted from a TV station comprise both visual and audio information, which will be converted to images and sounds on the TVs.
5. The animal gathers information from the surroundings to determine how to move along the terrain and find food safely.
From these common usages, we can see that the shared, essential characteristics of the words information above are that information refers to a non-material thing that consists of transferrable content and can have physical effects on the receivers. The above examples can be re-written to demonstrate these essential characteristics explicitly as follows:
1. Information from the salesperson is non-material; it consists of content – an account of what the house was built with and by whom the house was built; this content was transferrable from the salesperson to the couple; and the content has effects on the couple’s decision.
2. Information in the social media is non-material; it consists of content – reports, stories, predictions, opinions, comments, teaching, etc.; the content is transferrable from the publishers to the social media to the social media consumers; and the content can have effects on the consumers’ opinions and behaviors.
3. Information in the textbook is non-material; it consists of content – descriptions and discussions of scientific discoveries, experiments, researches, theories, formulas, and other scientific matters; the content is transferrable from the author to the textbook to the readers; and the content can have effects on the readers’ knowledge.
4. Information in the electromagnetic waves is non-material; it consists of content – virtual images and sounds; the content is transferrable from the TV station to the electromagnetic waves to the TVs; and the content has effects on the TVs’ video and audio output.
5. Information in the surroundings is non-material; it consists of content – the surrounding’s characteristics (visual, audio, smelling, tasting, tactile, etc.); the content is transferrable from the surroundings to the intervening media to the animal; and the content has effects on the animal’s behavior.
Before we set up the definition, let’s examine three more examples to see whether this plausible definition is also valid at the nervous system level, the neuronal level, and the intracellular level, which are the principal realms that this theory studies.
6. The information in the optic nerve tells the brain what the outside world looks like.
Information in the optic nerve is non-material; it consists of content – visual characteristics of the outside world; the content is transferrable from the outside world’s objects to the object’s reflected lights to the retina to the optic nerve and then to the brain; and the content has effects of enabling the brain to know what the outside world looks like.
7. The information in the past is embedded in the neuronal synaptic structures and can be retrieved to be used in the present processing system to make appropriate decisions and responses.
Information in the past is non-material; it consists of content – memory of past experiences; the content is transferrable from physical past experiences to the synaptic structures to the current neuronal processing system; and the content has effects on the current processing system in making decisions and responses.
8. The biological information in every organism is stored in the genes, which determines the anatomical, physiological, biochemical, and other biological characteristics of that organism.
Biological information in the genes is non-material; it consists of content – anatomical, physiological, biochemical, and other biological characteristics of the organism; the content is transferrable from the genes to the mRNAs to the protein synthesis system; and the content has effects of determining all the biological characteristics of that organism.
Clearly, that information is a non-material thing that consists of transferrable content and can have physical effects on the receiver is also pertinent in these realms too. Therefore, the working definition of information in this theory will be as follows:
Information is a non-material thing that consists of transferrable content.
The reason why the phrase “can have physical effects” is not included in the definition will be discussed later. But first, it should be noted that the content of information can be anything that can be in a non-material form, so kinds of information content are indefinitely diverse and include the kinds that are easily recognizable such as those exemplified in the above examples and the kinds that are more subtle such as the non-material content of qualia and consciousness – the feeling of what the red color is like, the awareness of what the music sound is like, etc. – this is discussed in more detail in Chapters 3 to 8. Moreover, the content of information can be very simple, such as the content of affirmation “yes” or of negation “no” (which can require just 1 bit in the electronic binary system), or can be very detail-intensive, such as the content of visual and sound information of the outside world (which requires megabits or more in the electronic binary system).
Another important point to be noted is that, when it is being transferred, information is always embodied in a physical carrier , such as (in the above examples) speech sound, electronic medium, printed text, electromagnetic wave, physical appearance of things in the surroundings, electrical signaling in the nerve, synaptic structure, and gene and mRNA respectively. So, although some authors believed that information exists alone by itself  and this issue is still controversial, information cannot be transferred by itself without a physical carrier.
Also, as noted above, another important feature of information is that it can have physical effects on its receivers. But the effects can be significant, insignificant, or even negligible depending on the receivers and the context of information transfer. If information is sent to receivers in the context that they can decode the embedded information in the physical carrier correctly and thus can obtain the information’s content, the effects can be significant (such as, in the above examples, the effects on the couple’s decision, the behavior of the social media users, the knowledge of the textbook readers, the audio-visual outputs of the TV’s, the movement and other activities of the animal, the activities of the neural circuits, and the synthesis of proteins in the organism). However, if information is received by inappropriate receivers or in the context that the receivers cannot decode the embedded information correctly, the effects may be insignificant or even negligible (such as if the salesperson tells the potential buyers in a language that the buyers cannot understand or the broadcasted electromagnetic waves from the TV station are fed to a computer that does not have an appropriate graphics and sound cards) and will be just the non-specific effects resulting from the processing of the received information per se only. Therefore, this theory selects not to include the phrase “can have physical effects” in the definition.
The nature of information
What in an information-embodying physical carrier is information? Because information is a non-material thing that consists of transferrable content, because the content can be any of infinitely diverse kinds and can have a lot of details (as discussed above), and because information is always embodied in a physical carrier (at least when being sent), the entity that is information must be non-material, must consist of transferable content that can be of indefinitely diverse kinds and have a lot of details, and must always exist in a physical carrier, too. Also, the occurrences and changes of that entity must be necessary and sufficient for the information to occur and changes. Now, if we examine the physical carriers in the examples above, we will find that the only entity that has all these properties is the pattern of the physical carriers because a pattern is non-material, can consist of transferrable content that can be of indefinitely diverse kinds and have a lot of details, and always exists in a physical carrier. It should be note here that a pattern here refers to any arrangement of a physical carrier’s components in space and/or time, so a pattern can be a spatial and/or temporal or spatial-temporal pattern. An obvious example is the pattern of pixels or dots that appear as the texts you are reading – the pattern itself is non-material, consists of transferrable content (i.e., the discussion about the nature of information) but can vary to accommodate indefinitely diverse kinds of content and can have a lot of details, and always exists in the arrangement of physical pixels/dots. For the last requirement – the occurrences and changes of the pattern must be necessary and sufficient for the information to occur or change – this is also obviously satisfied. For example, the occurrences and changes of the pattern of pixels/dots on this page are necessary and sufficient for the information on this page to occur and change. This is also true in the above examples too, which can be verified as follows:
– If the salesperson says something else, or his sound pattern changes, the couple will get different information and may decide differently.
– If the electronic bits that carry information that circulates in the social media change their patterns, they will carry different information and have different effects.
– If the dots that make up the text characters change their patterns, resulting in different characters and thus different words, the information in the book will change, and readers will gain different knowledge after reading them.
– If the electromagnetic waves broadcasted from a TV station change their frequency and amplitude patterns, their visual and audio information will be changed, and the resulting images and sounds on the TVs will change.
– If the visual, audio, olfactory, and other sensory stimuli in the surroundings change their patterns, the animal will get different information from the surroundings and behave differently.
– If the electrical signaling in the optic or acoustic nerve changes its pattern, it will represent different image or sound, and one will see or hear different image or sound.
Thus, information is the spatial-temporal pattern of something. This is in agreement with other authors that realized this fact before, such as “Pragmatic information is encoded in the brain dynamically in short-term patterns of neural impulses and statically in the long-term patterns of synaptic architecture.”, “The basic idea is of a pattern or structure: something which can be repeatedly realized in different instances”, “(Information is) what is conveyed or represented by a particular arrangement or sequence of things”, “The signature of biological structure uncovered by our analysis therefore lies not with the underlying causal structure (the network topology) but with the informational architecture via specific patterns in the distribution of correlations unique to the biological network.” , and “… they can be arbitrary patterns on a wide variety of possible physical carriers. They can be sent in a letter, or over a fiber optic cable with minimal cost in energy and time. For instance, information can be encoded by ink marks on paper, a lit candle in a window, flags on a ship, …”.
Information in any system can be dynamic (i.e., being circulated in the system) or static (i.e., being stored in the system) . Dynamic information can be carried by several kinds of dynamic carrier such as electromagnetic waves, sound waves, electric currents (e.g., used to signify electronic status such as 0 and 1), mechanical forces (e.g., those utilized in various pressure gauges and monitoring), and biological molecules (e.g. hormones, neurotransmitters, or mRNA); while static information can be stored in various kinds of static carrier or storage medium such as magnetic tape/hard-disk, optical disc, solid-state drive, written/drawn/printed materials (note books, manuals, public transport timetables, etc.), other sign-bearing objects (diagrams, maps, road signs, etc.), various biological molecules (e.g. receptors on memory T-cells, receptors on memory B-cells, or DNA), and synaptic structures [15,16-18]. Both dynamic and static information is embodied in the carrier by being the spatial-temporal patterns of the carrier such as the pattern of electromagnetic waves, sound waves, dots on book pages, lines and colors on maps, and DNA base sequences. In the nervous system, dynamic information is carried principally by electrical/electrochemical signals in neural circuits in the form of signaling patterns (which are information that is being sent to other neural processes) and signaling states (which are information that is circulating in the whole neural circuits) […]; while static information is stored in the pattern of neural synaptic architecture [6,16-18]. For example, when the visual perception neural circuit has finished the process of perceiving a vision of a house, it will have signals circulating in the circuit in a particular pattern – i.e., it will be in a signaling state – that is the information of the visual perception of the house; when it communicates this information with other neural circuits, it will send signaling patterns that are this information to the other neural circuits via its axons to the synapses; and when this visual perception is stored for later use, it will be embodied in synaptic structures somewhere in the brain.
Each pattern consists of content of its own, such as a description of something or some event, an instruction to do something, or an answer to a question of what, who, whom, whose, which, where, when, why, how, and whether to some receivers (or information content is an answer to a specific question [19,20]).However, as noted before, whether or not the receiver can interpret the pattern and how the receiver interprets it depends on many factors of the receiver and the context of the receiving situation. The factors of the receiver that may affect the interpretation include many things, such as biological, educational, and genetic factors. [5,10,21] For example, whether or not this pattern of pixels/dots “∞” can be interpreted and how it is interpreted depends on all of the receiver’s factors mentioned (e.g., a child, an illiterate adult, an educated adult, and an animal will interpret this pattern differently) and on the context of the receiving situation (e.g., can be interpreted to be infinity, eternity, or a company logo in a mathematical, religious, or a commercial context, respectively). Therefore, in a general case, a pattern has no absolute but variable meaning, that is, information content of a pattern is not absolute but variable.
How does information exert its effects?
The answer is information exerts its effects by being a pattern of a physical carrier. This can be demonstrated in the following examples.
First, consider a case of a man waiting for information of how many times he will have to raise his hand. When the information is given by a woman standing some distance away such as by raising two fingers or by showing the figure 2 and the man sees it, he will get the needed information and will raise his hand the correct number of times. Superficially, it seems as if the visual information of the displayed number leaps from the woman to the man and makes the man raise his hand correctly. But what actually happens is streams of photons reflected from the information source (e.g., from the shown two fingers or from the displayed figure 2) hits the man’s retinae, causing electrical signals running from there through the optic nerves and optic tracts to many subsequent complex visual processing circuits in the man’s brain, and after many higher complex processing processes, finally makes the man raise his hand correctly. All of these events are predictable physical cascades of electromagnetic, electrochemical/electrical, and finally mechanical phenomena involving physical components of the woman, the outside carrier (the light wave), the intervening medium (the air), and the man’s nervous and motor systems. No where in the chain of these cascades does anything other than two fundamental physical forces (the electromagnetic and the gravitational forces) exert effects on these physical components normally. So, this event is just an ordinary physical phenomenon in a very, very complex way, with only known physical entities and physical rules involved – neither any new physical entity nor any new physical law is involved in the event.
Thus, it may seem that the whole process occurs without any effects from information, and information is just a redundant, contrived entity. But that is not the case. How the whole process proceeds and what the final result is depend on the initial characteristics of the interacting systems – both the source and the receiving systems. In each system, the initial characteristics are the spatial-temporal pattern of all its constituting particles and all its physical characteristics (such as mass, velocity, and energy). These initial characteristics of the two system are the very determiners of their interactions and the final results. Therefore, if information is the spatial-temporal pattern of the source system, then it will be one of the two factors of the source system that determine the interaction and the final result in the receiving system. In the example above, the pattern of the woman gesture (the two fingers or the displayed figure 2) is the initial characteristic of the source system. This characteristic will determine what will happen and the final result in the man. If the pattern changes, such as if the woman shows three fingers or displays figure 3, the initial characteristics will change, and the interaction with the man, the subsequent processing events, and the final result in the man will change.
Thus, although information does not control each of the innumerable interaction steps directly, it exerts its effect on the receiving system from the very beginning by being the pattern of the source system, which will establish the initial condition of the interactions, and then the processes in the receiving system proceed according to the physical laws without any redundant influence from the information (the pattern) again.
It should be noted that this concept is similar to previous notions by other authors: “what counts is how these purely physical components are put together in the interaction mechanism” [6,14], “information is transferred between states through interaction … physical influences can only be transferred through interactions.” , and “information should be defined as: a stimulus originating in one system that affects the interpretation by another system of either the second system’s relationship to the first or of the relationship the two systems share with a given environment” .
Finally, it should be noted that
- If different information were identical patterns of same-type carriers (e.g., identical patterns of electromagnetic waves or identical patterns of pixel/dot arrangements), the physical effects on the receivers would be the same, and the receivers would not be able to differentiate different information. But, in reality, receivers can differentiate different information, so different information must be different patterns of same-type carriers for the receivers to be able to do so.
- If identical information were different patterns of same-type carriers (e.g., different patterns of electromagnetic waves or different patterns of pixel/dot arrangements), the physical effects on the receivers would be different, and the receivers would not be able identify identical information. But, in reality, receivers can identify identical information, so identical information must be identical patterns of same-type carriers for the receivers to be able to do so.
- However, similar information can be different patterns of different-type carriers because, although the physical effects from the patterns on the receivers are different, the receivers will still be able to identify that they are similar information if they have learned that the two different patterns of different-type carriers are similar information. For example, receivers can learn that the visual patterns of “2” and the sound patterns of the voice saying “two” in English have similar information of 2.
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