mind, matter, meaning and information

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subjective and objective information

Any physical thing can be studied, with the naked eye, or using a microscope or a telescope or some other device—but an object's physical information is not just what it looks like. Every other aspect of it, from its behaviour in a vacuum or in the deepest ocean trench, to its electrical resistance—anything that could in principle be determined by any kind of experiment—is part of the information that belongs intrinsically to this thing.

This sort of information, carried by every thing, is absolutely objective information. The result of a study, however accurate and objective in relative terms, does not belong to the object in the same sense—is not necessarily, perfectly accurate and complete—and so is, in absolute terms, subjective. The absolutely objective sort of information is indubitably “out there”—it's physical.

Subjective information, unlike the objective variety, refers to or means something. Objective information cannot be considered to refer to what carries it—see [link to come]. When something's objective information is “read off” and recorded, whether in a brain, a book or a videotape, that stored information is subjective. There is room for error in the reading, during storage, and in the reference, the identification of the thing to which the information refers. In objective information, there is no room for error whatsoever.

Take Whistler's Mother. This painting, in addition to being a physical thing like any other, refers to Mrs. Whistler, the woman whose portrait it is. But how so? Obviously, there is a physical resemblance: a similarity between certain aspects of the painting and of the woman herself (as she was). But say, somehow, the model was actually another woman who just happened to look very like Whistler's mother—would it then refer to that woman instead of to her—or perhaps to them both?

We would probably say that, though the painting resembles both of these women, it refers only to the one that actually sat for it. But what is it about the painting that makes that true? As they look so similar, it could equally refer to either woman, were it not for the fact that one and not the other actually posed for Whistler as he painted it. And it is our knowledge—or rather our belief—as to which of them it was—Whistler's mother—that makes Whistler's Mother in effect her portrait. Perhaps it was actually the other woman who posed for it—but if it is Mrs. Whistler we think of when we see it, then it functions as a reference to her, and not the other. Reference is therefore subjective—a reference is necessarily what we take it to be. One person's Whistler's mother is another's “other woman.” Reference is not a quality of the thing in itself, but of the part it plays in our affairs.

Resemblance and reference are quite different. One thing might resemble another by sheer coincidence. Also, one thing can refer to another without in any way resembling it—a simple pointer, for instance. Names function in this way too, being often quite arbitrary, but serving as very effective references none the less. Resemblance and reference do often go together, though, Whistler's Mother and a recording of a particular performance of a piece of music being examples. Resemblance is an objective attribute, a property of objective information, but it could be coincidental. Reference, or meaning, however, is subjective, and information carried by a thing in this secondary sense is subjective information.

So how do these concepts of subjective and objective information relate to the common uses of these terms? “Subjective description” usually means one that in some way betrays the viewpoint from which it was made, while an “objective description” does not. Here, though, every ordinary description is subjective, while the only objective ones are those inherent to every thing. So the use of “subjective” and “objective” here is absolute, while the common use is relative. A subjective description in the usual sense is one that is too subjective for the purpose for which it is intended (though it's bound to be subjective in the absolute sense, however good), while an objective one is sufficiently complete and accurate for the task in hand (though still subjective in my terms). These concepts do not conflict with the common ones, but are complementary to them. Physical information, and only physical information, is absolutely objective. Intentional information is absolutely subjective, though it might be relatively objective. Intentional information is further discussed under meaning and reference.

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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 12-Mar-2005 16:41:30 by Robin Faichney .