The following opinion piece is one of a series of five being released this week and next to celebrate World Philosophy Day and to publicise the upcoming workshop entitled Editor’s Cut – A view of philosophical research from journal editors. the workshop will take place at the University of London on Friday 13th of January 2012.
On 23rd of April 2010, Bill Gates gave a talk at MIT in which he asked: “are the brightest minds working on the most important problems?” By “the most important problems” he meant “improving the lives of the poorest; improving education, health, nutrition”. Unfortunately, the list should probably include improving peaceful interactions, human rights, environmental conditions, living standards… and this is only the beginning. Clearly, the brightest philosophical minds should not be an exception, but turn their attention to such pressing challenges. The first question is how. Of course, one may stop philosophising and start doing something about this messy world instead. We may, in other words, close down our philosophy departments and never corrupt our brightest youths philosophically. Yet, such solution smacks of self-defeat. It would be like deciding to burn the wicker basket in which we are travelling, because our hot air balloon is descending too quickly. Philosophy is what you want to keep in a good world, not what you want to get rid of in a bad one. So there must be a different way forward. The fact is that philosophy can be extremely helpful, for it is philosophy, understood as conceptual design, that forges the new ideas, theories, perspectives and more generally the intellectual framework that can then be used to understand and deal with the ultimate questions that challenge us so pressingly. In the team effort made by the brightest minds, the philosophical ones can contribute insights and visions, analyses and syntheses, heuristics and solutions that can empower us to tackle the most important problems. Every little effort helps in the battle against idiocy, obscurantism, intolerance, fanaticisms and fundamentalisms of all kinds, bigotry, prejudice and mere ignorance. If this sounds self-serving recall that the longer the jump forward is, the longer the run-up to it should be. Or, with a different metaphor, philosophy takes care of the roots, so that the rest of the plant might grow more healthily.
The second question is which. Which ideas, theories, perspectives and, more generally, which intellectual framework should philosophers be designing now and for the foreseeable future, so that their contribution will be timely and helpful? The answer lies in the conceptual threads that run across so many of our “most important problems”. In a global information society, virtually any of crucial challenges that we are facing is linked to information and communication technologies, in terms of causes, effects, solutions, scientific investigations, actual improvements, or even just the wealth required to tackle them, as Bill Gates’ example clearly shows. Obviously, information resources, technologies and sciences are not a panacea, but they are a crucial and powerful weapon in our fight against so many evils.
This leads me to the last question, the what. What can enable humanity to make sense of our contemporary world, respect it and improve it responsibly, and hence help in solving “the most important problems”? The answer seems quite simple: a new philosophy of information. Among our mundane and technical concepts, information is currently one of the most important, widely used yet least understood. The brightest philosophical minds should turn their attention to it in order to design the philosophy of our time properly conceptualised for our time. This is a quick and dirty way of introducing the philosophy of information (PI) as a much needed development in this history of philosophy. Let me now sketch the longer story.
The development of new philosophical ideas seems to be akin to economic innovation. For when Schumpeter adapted the idea of “creative destruction” in order to interpret economic innovation, he might as well have been talking about intellectual development. Philosophy flourishes by constantly re-engineering itself. Nowadays, its pulling force of innovation is represented by the world of information and communication phenomena, their corresponding sciences and technologies and the new environments, social life, as well as the existential, cultural, economic and educational issues that they are bringing about. This is why PI can present itself as an innovative paradigm that opens up a very rich and helpful area of conceptual investigations. Academically speaking, PI is the philosophical field concerned with the critical investigation of the conceptual nature and basic principles of information, including its dynamics, utilisation and sciences, and with the elaboration and application of information-theoretic and computational methodologies to philosophical problems. More concretely, PI appropriates an explicit, clear and precise interpretation of the classic “ti esti” question, namely “what is information?”, the clearest hallmark of a new field. As with any other field-question, this too only serves to demarcate an area of research, not to map its specific problems in detail. PI seeks to expand the frontier of our philosophical understanding, by providing innovative methodologies to address our most important problems from a contemporary perspective.
The scientific revolution made seventeenth century philosophers redirect their attention from the nature of the knowable object to the epistemic relation between it and the knowing subject, and hence from metaphysics to epistemology. The subsequent growth of the information society and the appearance of the infosphere, as the environment in which millions of people spend their lives nowadays, have led contemporary philosophy to privilege critical reflection first on the domain represented by the memory and languages of organised knowledge, the instruments whereby the infosphere is managed – thus moving from epistemology to philosophy of language and logic – and then on the nature of its very fabric and essence, information itself. Information has thus arisen as a concept as fundamental and important as Being, knowledge, life, intelligence, meaning or good and evil – all pivotal concepts with which it is interdependent – and so equally worthy of autonomous investigation. It is also a more impoverished concept, in terms of which the others can be expressed and interrelated, when not defined. This is why PI may explain and guide the purposeful construction of our intellectual environment, and provide the systematic treatment of the conceptual foundations of contemporary society.
The future of PI depends on how well it will engage both with “the most important problems” of our time and with classic philosophical issues. I am optimistic. The Baconian-Galilean project of grasping and manipulating the alphabet of the universe has begun to find its fulfilment in the computational and informational revolution, which is affecting so profoundly our knowledge of reality and how we conceptualise it and ourselves within it. Informational narratives possess an ontic power, not as magical confabulations, expressions of theological logos or mystical formulae, but immanently, as building tools that can describe, modify, and implement our environment and ourselves. From this perspective, PI can be presented as the study of the informational activities that make possible the construction, conceptualization, semanticisation (giving meaning to) and finally the moral stewardship of reality, both natural and artificial, both physical and anthropological. PI enables humanity to make sense of the world and construct it responsibly. It promises to be one of the most exciting and beneficial areas of philosophical research of our time.
The Philosophy of Information (OUP, 2011)
Information – A Very Short Introduction (OUP, 2010)