Saturday, 27 October 2012

Information, Truth and Political Behaviour

The relationship between information and politics is one of the most intriguing questions in the discourse on the knowledge economy. For example, Floridi claims that False Information (FI) is not information, because according to his 'veridicality thesis', semantic information must be true, meaningful well-formed data. There are good arguments for upholding the veridicality thesis (see Part of the problem hangs on the role of the word 'false' in FI (well explained in the blog-post). But I think False Information is politically significant in a way where the assertion that it "isn't information" is difficult to apprehend.

There is a deeper issue here and it has to do with the nature of the truth attribute in the first place. I've discussed Bhaskar's 'truth tertrapolity' before (see and I think it is revealing with regard to the veridicality thesis. Bhaskar argues that truth is dialectical, and there are distinct 'moments' in the dialectical process.
1. Normative fiduciary
2. adequating
3. expressive-referential
4. alethic

The normative-fiduciary level is truth as represented in the "trustworthiness of the person making the statement about truth". 'Adequating' truth concern the logical assertability of a statement. Truth as 'expressive referential' ties together an ontological aspect of truth with the logical and epistemological aspects: expressive-referential truth relates truth propositions to things in the world (this I think is most close to correspondence theories of truth). 'Alethic' truth however, is a level deeper still: the causal ground for things at a deep ontological level.

I find these distinctions about truth useful. At the very least, it allows us to pretend that there is a Father Christmas to small children. That is false information. But really it can be seen as a complex interplay between normative-fiduciary level (your parents tell you that Father Christmas exists), the construction of adequating circumstances (mince pies for Rudolf, men in Santa outfits), expressive-referential (belief in Father Christmas is important in establishing the atmosphere of Christmas which feeds the belief) and the alethic level where the deep grounds for celebrations and human togetherness can be seen to be connected to the pretence in the existence of Father Christmas.

The bond between the normative-fiduciary level and the alethic level for the false information that Father Christmas exists illustrates the fundamentally social import of this particular aspect of false information. So what does it mean to say that False information isn't information? On the face of it, it appears to deny social import to information, rather seeing information as logical (adequating). To what extent is this useful? To what extent is it right?

I think the veridicality thesis is ontologically naive and because of this, its predictive and explanatory power will be compromised. Information is uttered (in one form or another). The way this is done matters. No two utterances are the same. Each utterance is the result of human agency which is ontologically grounded in a world whose dimensions extend beyond mere adequation or correspondence. This of course is what Wittgenstein unpicked in his later work. Understanding information necessitates understanding agency. With Wittgenstein, I think understanding agency means understanding the game that is played. Floridi tries to deal with this by acknowledging the role of agency in information, but doing it by developing a theory using 'autonomous agents'. In this way, the veridicality thesis becomes related to a positivised and individualised concept of agency. The idea of information as transpersonal, or political is entirely absent. Indeed, the concept of absence itself conveying information (as Deacon discusses) is also not considered.

Floridi has opened up an impressive area for philosophising the nature of information. But he rests on a narrow and idealistic conception of truth which is basically Kantian. Information cannot be understood in the absence of an understanding of truth (on this, Floridi is correct).  But the ontology of truth need inspecting in a Wittgensteinian manner to reveal the games that are played with truth and the games which are then played with information. At the same time, as Floridi notes, Wittgenstein himself had views about what was and wasn't information, when he writes:
'it either rains, or it doesn't rain. If it rains, we'll stay in my room; if it doesn't...' The first part of this sentence is no piece of information (just as 'take it or leave it' is no order) - Brown book p. 161 
I think this is interesting. The statement 'it either rains, or it doesn't rain. If it rains, we'll stay in my room; if it doesn't...' isn't FI, although it is certainly agency - a speech act. What does it do? I think it addresses an absence. In so doing, it has a political effect.

That's what I'm after - a political theory of information.

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