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::: center home >> being here >> last donut? >> 28 February 2006

28 February 2006
Explanation and Information

Tag team matches usually arise only in professional wrestling. Today, our lunchtime colloquium was given by a tag team of two senior scholars, Jim Bogen and Peter Machamer, and they weren't wearing spandex. Their topic was information and how the notion is used in explanations in science. Scientists use that word "information" all the time when they explain what is really going on in one process or another. It is used when they explain how sensors on a leech's body fires due to an external stimulus and produces the appropriate life saving response; or when the biochemistry of a cell allows the DNA to be expressed; or when the "TH" mechanism lets an organism respond to a fearsome snake.

For over fifty years, information theory has meant the mathematical theory of communication devised by Shannon and Weaver and used to great success in the communication industry. Alas, that theory eschews discussion of exactly the aspects of information that matter most in Bogen and Machamer's examples: there are no meanings for the information--it's not about anything; and there a no goals. All the mechanisms Bogen and Machamer discuss have both and the information talk is intimately connected with them. So, standing before a packed 
room, the speakers set about explaining their efforts to devise a better theory that would have both meanings and purposes. Soon transparencies with details of one or other mechanism in bio-this or neuro-that were flashing over the screen; and their 50 minute speaking time flew by. The discussion period was energetic. Wasn't this really a theory of specificities? Wasn't this really just an 
exercise in anthropomorphism (I incautiously asked)? No, No, came the lightning reply and then a thunderstorm of reasons.

And there were no more donuts. They had all vanished early in the event.

John D. Norton

Peter Machamer & James Bogen, U. Pittsburgh, History & Philosophy of Science
Tuesday, 28 February 2006
12:05pm, Cathedral of Learning
::: Explanation and Information

::: Lunchtime Colloquium

Revised 10/15/07 - Copyright 2006