A Journey Toward A Theory Of Stupidity 10 | On Information and Stupidity Part 1

The point of no return is upon us for this blog, and that means things are going to get a bit more complicated from this point onward. It’s time to take the dive.


Unlike my start in defining stupidity, I had the mind to take into account a more reliable source for a definition of information to start with and make my way toward its relationship to stupidity in general. That definition is as follows:

“…an abstract mass-noun used to denote any amount of data, code or text that is stored, sent, received or manipulated in any medium.

There are a few notable aspects here that help to clarify the general nature of information:
1) When we equate information to a code or text we are detailing a connection between language and information. Codes and texts, as expressions of language in general, are composed of signs (things that indicate something else) such as words; by indicating something else the words that make up a code or text carry information. In large enough amount these signs come together to build full messages.
2) That information can be sent and received implies that it moves in some fashion through some undefined space between various objects or entities. There are some things that have the capacity to inform one another and this is done when either objects or entities exchange information they have at their disposal (communication). Since language is a mode in which information exists any exchange of language is an exchange of information and therefore communication.
3) As information can be stored and manipulated and anything that does so in any medium counts as information then it is a highly flexible and malleable “substance”. To be stored implies that it exists in some kind of form capable of being accessed at any moment’s notice but in what form it exists is unclear. Likewise, manipulations of language can be seen as transformation of information into other forms (such as translation).

From these three points we can summarize our understanding of information like so: it is a kind of “stuff” that is transferable and transformable. But while this definition helps to elaborate on things information can do it is still lacking when it comes to what it is; “stuff” is a vague term that could mean virtually anything. To remedy this we can address how the word is used in ordinary language to give us some clues about the kind of stuff it is. At a glance there are at least two ways in which information is used: the first is as an entity in its own right as it is used in the definition I provided. Here we refer to information just as we would a rock or a bus—it can be described like anything else and has its own constitution in linguistic form as a word. But the second way it is used has some more interesting implications: information is usually thought of as something in respect to some other object. There is a relation between an object to some information and this information is said to be about this object. I am talking about, of course, information as it is understood in terms of a description.

Immediately there is a question that is raised as to what we could mean by “about”. There appears to be a difference between saying something is information and saying that there is information about it. For example, when I have a set of information about a tree, this set of information is separable from what the tree actually is—the tree has its own essential being that is not the information about it. Rather the information about the tree is like a kind of list of things that can be detailed in signs that have something to do with the tree — it describes the tree. This is an interesting distinction that we’ll have to play with and I will call it the ontological/informational distinction (ontological as in pertaining to its being). All this distinction take into account is that there is a difference between an object/phenomena as it is and information about the object/phenomena that is. Understanding this difference and how it affects our concept of information as a whole will be important. But this begs another question in that if the information about an object is not part of the object’s being then how does any information about an object relate to that object at all?

To answer this question I came up with three sense which the term “about” could mean:

The first is that it implies a sort of “abstract location”. I say abstract here because the list of things I can say about an object does not necessarily exist as readable symbols like letters. Upon coming in contact with an object I cannot read the information about this object like I can the information in a text. Nevertheless there could still be information which can be listed located in the vicinity of the object. We can think of this way of understanding the word “about” as something closer to the word “around” in that there is always information about something around where that something is. If we were to take a random object like a tree we could say that this way of thinking about the term “about” would simply mean that wherever there are trees there is information about trees. Information about something would be located spatially: just as long as that something is somewhere, there is information about it in that same place.

The second sense the word “about” could be taken as is “the subject of which”; as information can exist in linguistic form as a message we can explain the way information relates to an object by the syntax of the message — the list of information I give where an object is the subject of that information makes that information about that object. Using a tree again we can say that as long as the sign “tree” is the subject of a sentence then this information expressed in language is about the object “tree”. This understanding would include that it does not matter where the information is as long as the information has a subject that is an object it designates. In that sense, this way of thinking about the term “about” would mean that there can be information about something even in places where that something isn’t.

Our last way of understanding the term “about” can be thought of as “in reference to” or that when we place information in linguistic form, that information is only about something when that something is the ground for that information. For example, I can sit someone somewhere and ask them to look at something and tell me about it. The words they would give me would be about the thing only if they use that thing as a reference to codify that information. We can think of this like something being a “primary source” of information (as in a primary source for a bibliography) — messages can be constructed that hold information about an object because the message is derived from the object itself. Information about a tree would take a tree as a reference and a message is only about the tree because the tree is the thing that gave us that information. This conception of the term “about” would roughly mean that information is only about something if it is communicated to us by that thing.

Each of these different ways of understanding the term “about” gives plenty of leads to follow into the nature of information and its relation to objects. But first it might be useful to compare them and see which of them are compatible and which are not. This will be our first formal step in building a theory of stupidity.

To Be Continued

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