Another Requirement on Semantic Information?

According to the General Definition of Information (GDI), X is an instance of information, understood as semantic content, if and only if:

  1. X consists of one or more data
  2. the data in X are well-formed
  3. the well-formed data in X are meaningful.

A host of influential thinkers about information, most notably Luciano Floridi, add to this list the requirement of truth. For semantic content to count as information, it must be true. False semantic content (also known as false information, or misinformation), is not actually a type of information. For more on this, see the SEP entry on Semantic Conceptions of Information. I also endorse a truth requirement condition in defining semantic information, so that if something is semantic information, then it is well-formed, meaningful and truthful data.

I have recently been thinking about the prospect of adding another condition to the definition of semantic information. This condition stems from the conditions on information flow and its realisation was prompted by a recent point in the literature made by Floridi:

Epistemic luck does not affect informativeness negatively. To see why, one may use a classic Russellian example: if one checks a watch at time t and the watch is broken but stopped working exactly at t – 12 hours and therefore happens to indicate the right time t – 12 at t, one still holds the information that the time is t, although one can no longer be said to know the time.

The point expressed in this quote seems counter to a certain prevalent view concerning the requirement of regularity for the presence of information flow. For example, in Knowledge and the Flow of Information, Fred Dretske expresses a theoretical definition of a signal’s (structure’s) informational content in the following way:

A signal r carries the information that s is F = The conditional probability of s‘s being F, given r (and k), is 1 (but, given k alone, less than 1)

According to this definition, the watch is not giving information about the time. This would imply that one cannot here be informed of the time with this watch. In fact with Dretske’s type of information-theoretic epistemology, the requirement of regularity for information flow is supposed to explain why knowledge (defined as information-caused belief) is not present in the above example.

All this suggests that a revisionary addition be made to the list of conditions for semantic information, something like the following condition:

  • the data originates from an information carrying source, satisfying certain information carrying conditions

If I am looking at a broken clock that happens to be indicating the actual time of 6pm, then all I have obtained is meaningful, well-formed veridical data that it is 6pm. To suggest that information has also been obtained is too problematic. For, take the following scenario. Someone tells me that they are from America and, based on the knowledge that California is America’s most populated state, I guess and form the true belief that they are from California. Even if they happen to be from California, does the meaningful, well-formed veridical data that constitutes the content of my belief count as information? Or an even more tenuous scenario would be where I am to guess the number of jelly beans in a jar. If a take a random guess that there are 214 jelly beans in the jar and 214 happens to be the actual number of jelly beans in the jar, I have not been informed that there are 214 jelly beans in the jar, nor do I have the information that there are 214 jelly beans in the jar. Also unacceptable are instances of meaningful, well-formed veridical data that are derived fallaciously or derived from false, meaningful and well-formed data.

The only thing the broken clock scenario has going for it compared to these other examples is that the method of data delivery (i.e. visual signal of a clock being in a certain state) is a non-genuine ‘replication’ of the scenarios where there is actual information flow. But surely this is not the type of thing that should be the difference between information and no information.

So it is only if I am looking at a correctly functioning clock that indicates a time of 6pm that I have obtained the information that it is 6pm.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *