Rationally Speaking: Is information physical? And what does that mean?

I’ve been reading for a while now Jim Baggott’s Farewell to Reality: How Modern Physics Has Betrayed the Search for Scientific Truth, a fascinating tour through cutting edge theoretical physics, led by someone with a physics background and a healthy (I think) dose of skepticism about the latest declarations from string theorists and the like.

via Rationally Speaking: Is information physical? And what does that mean?.

Having already down my own review of Baggott’s book, I’ll just repeat here that I think it is important, and that I hope it has an impact.  As Baggott says repeatedly in it, there’s nothing wrong with theoretical speculation far beyond the bounds of empirical testing, but there is something wrong with treating its conclusions as having anywhere near the certainty of theories with experimental successes, such as the Standard Model.

Massimo also has a brief discussion on theories of truth:

There are several theories of truth in epistemology, but the two major contenders, especially as far as the sort of discussion we are having is concerned, are the correspondence and the coherence theories. Roughly speaking, the correspondence theory of truth is what scientists (usually without explicitly thinking about it this way) deploy: in science a statement, hypothesis or theory is considered (provisionally, of course) true if it appears to correspond with the way things actually are out there.

A coherentist account of truth seems to me to be more appropriate for fields like mathematics, logic, and perhaps (to a point) moral reasoning. Coherentism is concerned with the internal consistency of a given account, eschewing any reference to correspondence with a reality that, by definition, we can only access indirectly

I think this is an excellent philosophical version of Baggott’s decrying of scientific theories being judged by their aesthetics instead of their correspondence with observation.  Sean Carroll and other physicists have a different opinion.  I think it’s worth contemplating what kind of ammunition this might be giving paranomalists and various new age spiritualists who argue that their ideas should be included in modern science.

10 thoughts on “Rationally Speaking: Is information physical? And what does that mean?

  1. I think, the gates of falsifiability must be kept secure. Trying to expand the reach of science by eliminating the falsifiability criterion is similar to making a hole in a boat to let the water out.


  2. falsifiability is inherently a part of coherence theory, is it not? Since to falsify is to contradict a hypothesis. Moreover American Pragmatism, “what works,” seems closer in its intent to define truth to scientific method than does correspondence, since correspondence relies on perception (perhaps a process of correlation) and not falsifiability. If some hypothesis doesn’t work, it is falsified. This is not to say that correspondence does not underlie the implicit utility of science. We assume, a priori, the proposition that there are no contradictions in nature, yet that assumption is based on our perceptions. Truth, as usual, is hard to pin down, and science absolutely depends on it. The laughable part of science is the arrogance implied when certainty is asserted. Reality is a series of coin flips, and so is our attempt to replicate it or describe it.


    1. Thanks for commenting.

      Are you saying that falsifiability doesn’t depend on perception?

      Assuming I understand it correctly, I fear I can’t agree with your last sentence. If E=mc^2, F=ma, and other observed patterns are coin flips, the side of the coin where these formulae don’t apply seems to never land face up.


      1. The other way around. Perception does not rely on falsifiability. I’m trying to see how you responded with that, but I can’t in what I wrote. Corresponence theory relies on perception, not falsifiability.

        Descartes thought mathematics was true. But mathematics ultimately rests on empirical justification. You prove equations by reliably predicting outcomes. How good are your instruments? Newton’s laws are shown to be incomplete by General Relativity. Do you wish to assert that General Relativity is the final word?


        1. “I’m trying to see how you responded with that, but I can’t in what I wrote.”
          Sorry, I was responding to this part:
          “since correspondence relies on perception (perhaps a process of correlation) and not falsifiability.”

          “Do you wish to assert that General Relativity is the final word?”
          Not at all. Every scientific theory is provisional, subject to revision on new evidence. I can’t recall ever seeing a scientist say otherwise. That said, the empirical support for GR is enormous. (Apparently only quantum mechanics has more empirical support.) Any future modifications to GR will be incredibly subtle, possibly only observable inside a black hole.


          1. The truth content of scientific fact is always subject to doubt. It is can be reliable, if well done, but I was responding to the epistemic side of this discussion. The intuitive understanding of nature fails in the face of the ability of mathematical descriptions of deep questions to predict outcomes, and it makes it seem that science hands us truth, because it magically produces useful outcomes that make no sense. Where, for example, does space come from? Cosmology has a great model in the Big Bang. Seemingly it is produced as the universe expands, and there is no outside space to point to. It is an intuitive contradiction to claim that we exist in both an open and a closed system at the same time – open because there is no knowable end to space nor definable boundary, but closed because there is a finite universe. No epistemic theory tolerates contradiction, at least any I know of. And yet the basis of all this, mathematics, begins with counting. And counting depends on perception, an inherently unreliable process. I ask you to count beans in a jar, and 99 times you count 100, and once you count 99. Oh, you say, I made a mistake. It’s 100. Oh, I say, your knowledge is based on a statistic. A coin flip, more or less. Moreover, our sense organs are coin flips of evolution. If our eyes could see cosmic rays, we might have a different take on everything. But I don’t know. I think it is more important to understand epistemic theories than to assert one over another. They are all right in their own ways, as far as I can tell. Science is useful, you can know facts within the bounds of knowledge, but I reserve truth for something unattainable, at lest so far. If knowledge is justified true belief, I can never know that I know anything, because I can never know the truth.


          2. Unfortunately, inductive reasoning (which of course is at the heart of science) has inherent uncertainty built into it. That uncertainty can be reduced, but never eliminated entirely. But I tend to agree that epistemic theories should be assessed pragmatically rather than according to some pure idealized standard.

            (BTW, saw you commented on another post, but with what appears to be a different email address. I’d love to have your insights in further discussions, but, for SPAM reasons, I’m not quite comfortable approving multiple masked emails. Any chance you could stick to just one?)


          3. This one is real. Sorry about the spam mimic. Usually spam attempts to mimic reality. 8).

            Yes. What we know derives from inductive reasoning and therefore is subject to doubt. Maybe it would be unfortunate, if God were a deceiver. But I don’t even think “cogito” is right, since Descartes might be AI of his evil genius. I think, therefore he/she is. That is closer to truth it seems to me, because our thoughts do originate from outside ourselves. I like the confusing aspects of life – “This sentence is false.” But it is nice to know that one can deduce unreliable answers that land probes on comets. 8). Not too unreliable and therefore not too unfortunate.

            In the other thread, the contention that math is reality attempts to replace the inductive with the deductive, doesn’t it? Are people seeking God in physics, space flight, DNA. When what we think becomes what is, we land on “The Forbidden Planet.” I wonder if such a place exists. Is insanity the reward for finding the truth?

            Thanks for this site.

            Liked by 1 person

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