With the advent of Shannon’s formalization of information something of a revolution took place in the mind and brain sciences. There was now a formal framework under which to couch our explanations of the mind, one which seemed perfectly apt in describing the properties of the mind and our mental lives. Kenneth Sayre (1976) in his book Cybernetics and the Philosophy of Mind offers an information-theoretic neutral monism, one which attempts to capture the usefulness of information theory and offer a robust neutral monism. Sayre was dissatisfied with the impotence with which Russell’s (1917) neutral monism offered as an ontology. His criticism amounts to the usefulness of Russell’s characterization of the neutral element, in that any application of the neutral “sensibilia” would have to be translated back into physical or mental concepts to be of any use in explaining particular phenomenon. As Sayre writes,
“The basic weakness of the Russellian program, which renders it useless for any practical purposes, is that the concept of sensibilia is devoid of explanatory power. Despite their alleged theoretical applicability to both the physical and mental, the concepts of sensibilia and of perspective space do nothing to increase our understanding of phenomena in either domain. No phenomena are explainable otherwise, and this is true in particular of modes of interaction between body and mind.” (Sayre, 1976, pg. 13)
58 Here someone may well object, but isn’t the fact there’s a mathematical framework play into the Russellian monist’s
hand? Wasn’t this the exact worry that Russell raised in the first place about the limitations of mathematico-causal explanations we get from say physics about the nature of matter? I think conflating the mathematical with the physical is a mistake, mathematics isn’t necessarily physical (thank you to Tim Crane for pointing this out), and so just because a theory has a mathematical framework doesn’t directly entail it’s physical. Just as we might ask in what sense is number theory physical?
And goes on to say…
“A consequence is that any explanation of either mental or physical phenomena that came to be couched in the neutral framework would have to be translated out of a nonneutral context in which it had been independently achieved. Despite the ontological and methodological priority that might be claimed for the neutral framework, it is sterile for the explanation of actual phenomenon and hence parasitical upon existing theoretical structures. It is no cause for wonder that physicists and psychologists, among others, have not taken neutral monism seriously, despite its express purpose of clarifying the foundations of the sciences in question.” (Sayre, 1976, pg. 13)
We might set out here Sayre’s dissatisfaction with the Russellian program as a set of principles that must be satisfied by any positive account of neutral monism – let’s call these the principle of practical use and the principle of epistemic use. Moving forward it will be useful to keep these two principles in mind as requirements of the neutral monism I am arguing for in this essay, they are as follows:
Principle of Practical Use: any information-theoretic neutral monism must be
practically useful, in so far as, such an ontological framework must provide clarifications, whether conceptual, explanatory, or experimental, for providing a foundation for the natural science that rest on it.
Principle of Epistemic Use: any information-theoretic neutral monism must be
epistemically useful, in so far as, such an ontological framework provides a unifying explanatory framework, by which those natural sciences that rest on its foundation might be recast under its conceptual framework.
I will be using these principles at the end of the current work to determine whether I’ve offered the foundations of an ontological framework that satisfy these features. Any neutral monist framework that fails to meet these requirements fails in the sense of Sayre’s criticisms of Russell’s neutral monism.
These principles will serve as our litmus test for the fruitfulness of pursuing such an ontological framework past the scope of the current essay.
The project remains then, if one cannot adopt Russell’s form of neutral monism, then a new one must be developed. Whatever entity plays the role of the neutral element in our ontology must strictly adhere to the previous principles we defined above. For Sayre, and consequently for myself in the coming sections, this fundamental element is information. This neutral element must be both applicable to the domain of the physical and to the domain of the mental.
I think on first reflection the applicability of information to the mental domain is perhaps the one that needs less motivation than explaining how the physical domain arises as a result of certain information-theoretic entities and processes. The analysis of mental states in terms of information has been widely used across the philosophy and sciences of the mind.59 There are those who take the
underlying nature of physical reality to be the result of information-theoretic processes, perhaps the most famous being Wheeler’s (1989) digital physics, often referred to as “it from bit.” The basic premise being that one can validly understand all fundamental physical interactions as the posing and answering of yes or no questions, entailing that our interactions with the physical world take the form of a communication channel. Ladyman et al. (2007) gives his Information-Theoretic Structural Realism which at its core is an information-theoretic ontology (More on this in §4). Work has already been done as well on understanding IIT from a quantum field theory perspective (Barrett, 2014). However, the scope of this essay is not to give a detailed explanation of how to translate the neutral entity – information – to physical or mental but rather to lay the groundwork for future work on this topic. I rather want to focus on giving a coherent account of the neutral entity using the problem of consciousness as our target for a successful neutral monism, once that is done it then needs to be shown how to understand the physical and mental in such a neutral ontology.
So, what is the relationship between the neutral entity and the physical and the mental? Most often people take this as asking how one can derive the physical or mental from whatever neutral entity one posits. The way one should caste the question is to switch the priority of inquiry, the question would usually be posed as, “can we derive the physical/mental from information?” I think this is the wrong way to ask this question, and one should rather pose the question as, “could we conceive of the physical/mental without information-theoretic properties or relationships?” I think
59 I say this as there are many relevant senses in which the connection between the mind and information has been
established as being relevant (in particular c.f. Chalmers, 1996b; Dennett, 2017; Dretske, 1981, 1997; Koch, 2012; Tononi and Koch, 2015a)
the answer to the first question could easily be yes, as it’s a matter of conceptual mapping and carving. The second question though is more telling in terms of the ontological question we are presently concerned with, that is, what is the underlying nature of reality.
I’m at a loss to understand what it would mean for my mental states to be about something, that is the intentional nature of my mental states, if they don’t give one information about either the mental state in question or the environment in which I find myself (chapter 3 of this dissertation focuses on this issue).60 My perception of the world is perhaps an even more salient example, as it
seems rather straight forward that the reason my perception is the way it is, is because it gives me information about the world around me, information which then is brought to the fore for my cognitive control and modifies my behavior and actions. Equally, we might understand all physical descriptions in such a way, as any physical process is one governed by the laws of thermodynamics, that is a series of transformations of energy. Sayre (1976, pp. 36–40) rightfully relies on the laws of thermodynamics to explain how the physical can be caste as fundamentally derivative of information. This is in-line with those views of physics which claim that the underlying nature of those properties and entities physics deals with are information-theoretic, specifically Wheeler’s (1989) digital physics.
Developing an ontological framework which doesn’t only prioritize physical entities/processes (physicalism) or mental entities/processes (idealism) or the combination of the two though distinct (dualism) means that whatever theoretical entity we posit as the common ancestor needs to be neutral and allow for the translation of those previous entities/processes into a new language. Information I think offers us the best option as such a theoretical entity since we already see it deployed so readily when discussing both physical properties and mental properties, the real matter that needs discussion is flipping the priority question, if that discussion can begin, not asking whether the physical or mental are more fundamental than information, but whether information is more fundamental than the physical or mental, interesting progress can be made on developing a more unified picture of reality.
60 Someone may well object that just because information is conveyed propositionally that there is no relevant sense which
that adheres to the mathematical framework of information theory. I find this quite strange as a response in this context, particularly, because I would have taken it that to answer how semantics track the syntactic features of a system (say how a proposition transmitted via some communication channel has the meaning it does and its relationship to the process by which that meaning is transmitted) was part of the project of investigating the conscious mind from an information- theoretic perspective. Perhaps my opponent may find this unsatisfying as a response but given the rather early days of such a project, I hope one might lend time in developing an answer to such a worry.