2. Information

2.1. What is information?

It has become modern to say: mental processes are information processes, and brains or living beings are information-processing systems [1]. But what is information? What is its nature? I refer to information as the property of things or phenomena to be anyway shaped, formed, or structured. Shapes and structures are caused by preceding states or processes. An intelligent system that has the sufficient knowledge can draw inferences from the shapes and structures to what they caused.

This concept of information is not new. In 1959, the physicist and philosopher Carl Friedrich von Weizsäcker said in a lecture:

“Today, we begin to become familiar with the fact that information must be regarded as a third thing different from matter and mind. What we have discovered here in a new context is an old truth: It is the platonic ‘eidos’, the aristotelian ‘form’ fashioned in a way that also a man of the 20th century can get an idea of it. […] I will […] conceive of information as a form or shape or structure.” [2]

In that lecture the subject of which was “Science, Language, and Method”, von Weizsäcker took the view that information always is a verbal message, but then he admitted:

“Modern biologists speak, for example, in genetics, quite legitimately of information […]. It is evident that terms of the information theory are nowhere more appropriate than here. However, here is nobody speaking, nobody who communicates something, or who understands a message. I don’t know a conclusive answer to this.” [3]

I think there is no reason to confine the concept of information to verbal messages. The issue is only that language and writing consists of forms and structures created by humans for the purpose of communication. In contrast, forms and structures we find in nature are not ‘free’ creations of the human mind, but are determined by their physical causes [4]. If we however suppose that mental processes as well are natural processes conforming to physical rules and determinism (even if we don’t fully understand this), then the difference between the two sorts of information is not basic.

If Information is the specific shape, form, or structure of a thing or phenomenon, that is, the entirety of the spatial, temporal, and functional relationships of its parts to each other and to the whole, then information is what makes each thing or phenomenon different and distinguishable from all other things or phenomena, such that we – given the necessary means of perception – can recognize the the thing or phenomenon as what it is. Thus, information is the basis of all recognition. The biologist Gregory Bateson hold that information is “a difference which makes a difference” [5] (namely not least in our perception). And the physicist Thomas Görnitz wrote:

“Not only the earthly evolution with the emergence of living beings that became more and more differentiated, but also the entire cosmic development before can be considered as a development of shapes. Since shapes are that which can be recognized, they at the same time represent information which is principally perceptible.” [6]

And in an essay from 2013 about pre-biological evolution and the origin of life, Isaac Salazar-Ciudad defines the term ‘information’ in the following way:

“...information is understood here as organization or structure [...]. Thus, those uncomfortable with this use of the word information could replace it by the words ‘organization’, ‘structure’, or ‘pattern’ (simply a spatiotemporal distribution of items, like cells or molecules...” [7]

When I use the term information synonymously for shape, form, or structure – is it not better then to dispense with using the tern information in such cases? There is a good reason to prefer the word information: When speaking of forms or structures, we often mean something which is firmly bound to a thing and the material it consists of. Information, however, is just not bound to a particular thing or material.

For example, a certain tree has a certain shape (including its colors in a certain light). I can see the tree because the light waves which are reflected and, by that, configured by the tree, and which incide into my eyes contain the tree’s shape (seen from a certain perspective, of course). The impinging light waves trigger processes in the retinal and in subsequent neuronal structures, which again contain the tree’s shape and colors. Thus, the tree’s shape as an information was transferred from the tree onto a configuration (a spacial-temporal structure) of light waves, and from there onto structures and processes in the eye and in the brain.

In a photo of the tree, its shape is depicted on the paper or on a screen, and if I store the image in the computer, then shape and colors are coded in a sequence of ones and zeros or of yes/no decisions. It is clear: the tree’s shape is not bound to a particular material or medium. That’s the reason why shape, form, structure are information: they are transferable. This is true not only for two-dimensional forms: In coining, the relief is tranferred from the embosser onto the metal. A sphere with a diameter of, say, 2 inches can be made of iron, wood, or other material.

That does not mean that information exists independently of a medium (matter or energy). Shapes, forms structures as such – the sphere with a diameter of 2 inches as such, the A as such, Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony as such, our tree’s shape as such would be universals, and universals do not exist (see the footnote in Section 1.3).

My above definition of the term information is consistent with the meaning in which it is used in everyday talking. Indeed, we mostly mean a verbal message when speaking of information, but not always: For example, we say that satellite images provide information about the weather, or that researchers obtain information about the climate change in the Arctic ice. Information in the common sense is what extends our knowledge by complementing, confirming, or challenging it


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  1. see, e.g., the Integrated Information Theory of consciousness, proposed by Giulio Tononi (to be honest, this theory appears to me like a large frame without content). Some researchers (e.g., Roger Penrose, Stuart Hameroff, and Thomas Görnitz) even assumed or do still assume that quantum information plays a crucial role in the mind, but I think that’s rather unlikely.  [⇑]
  2. C. F. v. Weizsäcker: Die Einheit der Natur. München 1971; pp. 51/52, originally in German.  [⇑]
  3. ibidem, p. 53.  [⇑]
  4. This shall not mean that the human mind exists outside the physical determinism. However, highly developed organisms, because of the unstable equilibrium (steady state) which is characteristic of living systems in general, may generate in themselves a high degree of freedom in behavior. This ‘relative’ freedom depends on the fact that a living system’s behavior is mainly determined by its internal state. But this will be topic of a further chapter.  [⇑]
  5. Bateson, G. (1972). Steps to an Ecology of Mind, New York; p. 453.  [⇑]
  6. Görnitz, Th. & Görnitz, B. (2002). Der kreative Kosmos. Heidelberg; p. 5, originally in German.  [⇑]
  7. Salazar-Ciudad, I. (2013). Evolution in Biological and Non-biological Systems: The Origins of Life. Biological Theory 7, 26–37, p. 30.  [⇑]

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