Defining information with Dretske

by Sebastian Benthall

I prepared these slides to present Fred Dretske’s paper “The Epistemology of Belief” to a class I’m taking this semester, ‘Concepts of Information’, taught by Paul Duguid and Geoff Nunberg.

Somewhere along the line I realised that if I was put on earth for one reason and one reason only, it was to make slide decks about epistemology.

I’ve had a serious interest in philosophy as a student and as a…hobbyist? can you say that?…for my entire thinking life. I considered going to graduate school for it before tossing the idea for more practical pursuits. So it comes as a delightful surprise that I’ve found an opportunity to read and work with philosophy at a graduate level through my program.

A difficult issue for a “School of Information” is defining what information is. I’ve gathered from conversations with faculty that there is an acknowledged intellectual tussle over the identity of iSchools which hinges in part on the meaning of the word. There seems to me to be roughly two ideologies at play: the cyberneticist ideology that sought to unify Shannon’s information theory, computer science, management science, economics, AI, and psychology under a coherent definition of information on the one hand, and the softer social science view that ‘information’ is a polysemous term which refers variously to newspapers and the stuff mediated by “information technology” in a loose sense but primarily as a social phenomenon.

As I’ve been steeped in the cyberneticist tradition but still consider myself literate in English and capable of recognizing social phenomena, it bothers me that people don’t see all this as just talking about the same thing in different ways.

I figured coming into the program that this was an obvious point that was widely accepted. It’s in a way nice to see that this is controversial and the arguments for this view are either unknown, unarticulated, or obscure, because that means I have some interesting work ahead of me.

This slide deck was a first stab at the problem: tying Dretske’s persuasive account of a qualitative definition of ‘information about’ to the relevant concept of Shannon’s information theory. I hope to see how far I can push this in later work. (At the point where is proves impossible, as opposed to merely difficult or non-obvious, then we’ll have discovered something new!)