Home » Informatics » Freeman Dyson: ” … science is not a collection of truths. It is a continuing exploration of mysteries”

Freeman Dyson: ” … science is not a collection of truths. It is a continuing exploration of mysteries”

In a review of a very interesting-sounding book on information systems through the ages, beginning with African drumming (James Gleick:  The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood), Freeman Dyson discusses information theory.

The story of the drum language illustrates the central dogma of information theory. The central dogma says, “Meaning is irrelevant.” Information is independent of the meaning that it expresses, and of the language used to express it. Information is an abstract concept, which can be embodied equally well in human speech or in writing or in drumbeats. All that is needed to transfer information from one language to another is a coding system. A coding system may be simple or complicated. If the code is simple, as it is for the drum language with its two tones, a given amount of information requires a longer message. If the code is complicated, as it is for spoken language, the same amount of information can be conveyed in a shorter message.

and the story is not without lessons:

The information flood has also brought enormous benefits to science. The public has a distorted view of science, because children are taught in school that science is a collection of firmly established truths. In fact, science is not a collection of truths. It is a continuing exploration of mysteries. Wherever we go exploring in the world around us, we find mysteries. Our planet is covered by continents and oceans whose origin we cannot explain. Our atmosphere is constantly stirred by poorly understood disturbances that we call weather and climate. The visible matter in the universe is outweighed by a much larger quantity of dark invisible matter that we do not understand at all. The origin of life is a total mystery, and so is the existence of human consciousness. We have no clear idea how the electrical discharges occurring in nerve cells in our brains are connected with our feelings and desires and actions.

No, but we do have people who is just itchin’ to stamp out doubt.

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4 Responses to Freeman Dyson: ” … science is not a collection of truths. It is a continuing exploration of mysteries”

  1. Um, am I the only one to notice that Denyse O’Leary is currently single-handedly keeping this blog running? Could she have some back-up at all…?? (please don’t delete this post again, I mean well, seriously)

  2. Thanks 4 the links !

  3. Mr Dyson, in the quote, is both right and wrong. Mostly wrong … which will, of course, lead to misunderstandings of what ‘information’ is and is not.

    The central dogma says, “Meaning is irrelevant.” Information is independent of the meaning that it expresses, and of the language used to express it.

    Information is *not* “independent of the meaning that it expresses” … what an odd, and utterly silly, thing to assert. For: information *is* meaning. Rather, information (i.e. ‘meaning’) is independent of the inherently meaningless symbols used (conventionally) to represent-and-communicate that meaning.

    As most people do, My Dyson seems to be confusing an (inherently meaningless) message, or signal, for the meaning/information it is meant to represent and communicate to another mind.

    Information is an abstract concept, which can be embodied equally well in human speech or in writing or in drumbeats.

    Yes, ‘information’ is abstract concept(s) … and thus, it can exist only within a mind or minds … and it cannot be “embodied,” for it is wholly immaterial. Rather, it can be symbolically represented by physical entities and states, which are themselves utterly meaningless. And, in fact, communication would be impossible were it not the fact of the matter that meaning … information … can be represented by meaningless symbols.

  4. What Dyson describes in his first paragraph is actually the distinction between “data” and information. He is correct saying that invoking certain filters to ascertain “meaning.” Information has meaning, data is simply data, whether meaningful or not.

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