Defining informational content

Jonathan asked:

A piece of information (a message, a story, a recipe, a formula) can be encoded in a great number of different media and symbolic systems. It can for example be written in different languages, or in morse or binary code, or numerical symbols; written on paper, stored on a disk drive, or carved in stone. In each representation, the same meaning is conveyed. So my question is, what is it that stays the same, and what changes?

Answer by Helier Robinson

A concept is a combination of word and the meaning of that word. In you question the word is changing and the meaning is remaining the same. Note that the meaning of ‘meaning’ is debatable: some philosophers claim that some meanings are abstract ideas, while others deny the possibility of abstract ideas. I suspect that some people can discover abstract ideas introspectively (mathematicians, for example) and others cannot; hence the debate. Note also that a statement (which is a grammatically correct sentence which is either true or false) is a similar combination: this time of sentence and proposition; and a proposition is a compound meaning.


Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

There are cases where there is a clear 1-1 correlation, defined by a rule, between a piece of information ‘encoded in different media’, as you put it. Wittgenstein in Tractatus 4.04 gives the example of a piece of music, where the sound waves, grooves in the gramophone record, and notes on the page have a common musical content. But even looking at this simple case raises problems. In what way does a CD capture the ‘same’ information as vinyl? Collectors of old 33 LP records will tell you that something is ‘lost’ in the translation to digital.

In this context one might also consider W.V.O. Quine’s famous scepticism about the analytic-synthetic distinction in his essay ‘Two Dogmas of Empiricism’. Whether two propositions ‘mean’ the same thing isn’t something isn’t something we just ‘know’ a priori by some mystical intuition. It is always an empirical question whether two words or sentences ‘mean’ the same thing. The only exception being where we explicitly stipulate the meaning of a term – but even here there is a defeasible claim to the effect that the term in question really has a meaning (think of ‘phlogiston’ or ‘witch’).


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