mind, matter, meaning and information

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the formal stance

To think in terms of matter, or substance, according to Daniel Dennett, is “the physical stance”. I suggest we should consider also the formal stance. When physicists adopt the formal stance, treating material structure as information, they are pushing it to its logical conclusion—an object becomes its own description, and a flow of energy becomes a stream of information. This is the paradigmatic case, making the principle entirely explicit, but the formal stance is used in a more relaxed way every day by every one of us. We take the formal stance whenever we attend to the formal aspect—which is simply the form—of anything.

Consider an old-fashioned telegraph: information flows from the operator's key at one location to a buzzer at another, but how, exactly, does that happen? It takes the form of a flow of electricity. The key, being pressed, allows the current to flow, which in turn causes the buzzer to sound, and when the key is released the sound stops. It is not the electricity that matters here, but its form. Signal lamps were once used to transmit Morse code between ships at sea. A shutter in front of the lamp would open and close, instead of a keyswitch closing and opening, but if the pattern of the blinking light was the same as that keyed by a telegraph operator, then the same information would be conveyed. The form is the information. Of course, we take it forgranted that the information is what matters, while the medium is relatively unimportant—focusing on the form, we take the formal stance. (Note also the part played by causation in that account.)

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Copyright © 1998—2005 by Robin Faichney. This material may be distributed only subject to the terms and conditions set forth in the Open Publication License, v1.0 or later (the latest version is presently available at http://www.opencontent.org/openpub/). Distribution of substantively modified versions of this document is prohibited without the explicit permission of the copyright holder. Distribution of the work or derivative of the work in any standard (paper) book form is prohibited unless prior permission is obtained from the copyright holder.
Last modified 23-Feb-2005 14:36:17 by Robin Faichney .