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At the Information Desk

In response to:

What Your Computer Can’t Know from the October 9, 2014 issue

To the Editors:

John Searle’s review of my book The 4th Revolution: How the Infosphere Is Reshaping Human Reality is astonishingly shallow and misguided [NYR, October 9]. The silver lining is that, if its factual errors and conceptual confusions are removed, the opportunity for an informed and insightful reading can still be enjoyed.

The review erroneously ascribes to me a fourth revolution in our self-understanding, which I explicitly attribute to Alan Turing. We are not at the center of the universe (Copernicus), of the biological kingdom (Darwin), or of the realm of rationality (Freud). After Turing, we are no longer at the center of the world of information either. We share the infosphere with smart technologies. These are not some unrealistic artificial intelligence, as the review would have me suggest, but ordinary artifacts that outperform us in ever more tasks, despite being no cleverer than a toaster. Their abilities are humbling and make us reevaluate our unique intelligence. Their successes largely depend on the fact that the world has become an IT-friendly environment, where technologies can replace us without having any understanding or semantic skills. We increasingly live online (think of apps tracking your location).

The pressing problem is not whether our digital systems can think or know, for they cannot, but what our environments are gradually enabling them to achieve. Like Kant, I do not know whether the world in itself is informational, a view that the review erroneously claims I support. What I do know is that our conceptualization of the world is. The distinction is trivial and yet crucial: from DNA as code to force fields as the foundation of matter, from the mind–brain dualism as a software–hardware distinction to computational neuroscience, from network-based societies to digital economies and cyber conflicts, today we understand and deal with the world informationally. To be is to be interactable: this is our new “ontology.”

The review denounces dualisms yet uncritically endorses a dichotomy between relative (or subjective) vs. absolute (or objective) phenomena. This is no longer adequate because today we know that many phenomena are relational. For example, whether some stuff qualifies as food depends on the nature both of the substance and of the organism that is going to absorb it. Yet relativism is mistaken, because not any stuff can count as food: sand never does. Likewise, semantic information (e.g., a train timetable) is a relational phenomenon: it depends on the right kind of message and receiver. Insisting on mapping information as either relative or absolute is as naive as pretending that a border between two nations must be located in one of them.

The world is getting more complex. We have never been so much in need of good philosophy to understand it and take care for it. But we need to upgrade philosophy into a philosophy of information of our age for our age if we wish it to be relevant. This is what the book is really about.

Luciano Floridi
Professor of Philosophy and Ethics of Information
University of Oxford
Oxford, United Kingdom

John R. Searle replies:

In The 4th Revolution, Floridi makes a number of strong claims about information. He says that we are essentially informational entities (inforgs) and that we live in an environment that is essentially informational (the infosphere). He summarizes his view by saying, “Maximally, infosphere is a concept that can also be used as synonymous with reality, once we interpret the latter informationally. In this case, the suggestion is that what is real is informational and what is informational is real.” He even cites Hegel’s claim, “what is rational is real and what is real is rational,” as a predecessor to his form of metaphysics. I made a number of criticisms of this, two of which are worth repeating.

First, the notion of information is systematically ambiguous. There is the observer-independent sense of information that I have in my conscious mind-brain and the observer-relative derivative information that exists in books, computers, temperature gauges, etc. In either form, all information is dependent on conscious minds. It either exists in the form of conscious thought processes, or it exists in derivative forms of books, computers, etc. Information is not primary in the structure of reality; rather it is dependent on consciousness, just as consciousness itself is a biological phenomenon dependent on brain processes that are themselves dependent on more basic features of physics and chemistry.

If my views are correct, they are devastating to his general thesis. What is his response? He says, “Like Kant, I do not know whether the world in itself is informational, a view that the review erroneously claims I support. What I do know is that our conceptualization of the world is.” This is a very strange response. In my review, I made no reference to Kant’s notion of the in itself, I simply quoted Floridi’s passage, “what is real is informational and what is informational is real.” Does he now wish to deny this? It is no help to be told “our conceptualization of the world is [informational],” because, by definition, all conceptualizations of the world are informational. That is what a conceptualization of the world does: where accurate, it puts into concepts some facts about the world and thus gives us information. So his current claim is either false or trivial. It is false that the world is informational. It is trivial that conceptualizations of the world are informational.

A second major point concerns the Fourth Revolution. He treats the information revolution as the fourth in a sequence of revolutions that include the Copernican, the Darwinian, and the Freudian. But all three of these are about observer-independent phenomena—the solar system, natural selection, and the unconscious—whereas the information he is describing is all dependent on consciousness for its very existence as information. Floridi claims that he finds his conception of information in the work of Alan Turing and criticizes me for not recognizing Turing as the author of the Fourth Revolution. But the reason I attributed Floridi’s views to Floridi and not Turing is that I find nothing in Turing’s work that is identical with, or even remotely like, Floridi’s views. Does he really have quotations from Turing where Turing says that we are all “inforgs” inhabiting the “infosphere”? And that “what is real is informational and what is informational is real”? Floridi gives no quotations from Turing to show that his views are similar to Floridi’s.

Among other achievements, Turing made valuable contributions to the theory of computation. We are all in his debt. It is a discredit to his memory to attribute to him the exaggerated and implausible views advanced by Floridi.