At the beginning of 2010, Professor Zong-Rong Li (from the Social Information Science Institute, SISI, at the Huazhong University of Science and Technology, HUST, China) proposed to our colleague Wolfgang Hofkirchner the organization in China of an international scientific gathering aimed at laying the foundations of a science of information being integrative with respect to scientific domain- and geographical gaps. That is, in the line of the conferences on the Foundations of Information Science, but including now a scientific community which was previously absent. Hence, it was decided the convening of a 4th edition of this conference series (Madrid 1994, Vienna 1996, Paris 2005) under the motto: “towards a new science of information”, which was happily being held in Beijin on past August 21 to 24.
Report by: José María Díaz Nafría (Universidad de León, Spain)
The objective of enabling “the discussion of different concepts, theories and approaches to the information field” was accomplished with a whole spectrum of contributions covering formal, physical, biologic, cognitive, communicative, social, technologic, ethical and philosophical aspects from very different points of view and traditions. However, spite of the expression of wills to bridge between the natural- and the humanistic scientific cultures, as well as over different traditions and scientific domains, a fundamental hindrance to bring them about by means of widely accepted solutions was stated, even though there was a number of relevant contributions to this respect, particularly from Chinese philosophic positions. To illustrate this lack of general agreement, John Collier (from KwaZulu-Natal University, South Africa) concluded –after a subtle articulation of different kinds of information in non-intentional contexts– that what “is required for intentionality to emerge will have to wait for further work.” However to my understanding, it is here where the cleft we aim to bridge between the objective- and the subjective cultures inheres (as stated either in Snow’s dilemma or Sellars’ manifest vs scientific image confrontation).
On the other hand, it is here worth mentioning that whereas in the West the confrontation objective-subjective constitutes a keystone for divergence, such issue appears significantly diminished in the Chinese philosophical approaches, though these could offer –from some western viewpoints- a clear problem within the frame of such confrontation (as it might be the case in the comparison of human and artificial intelligence, which thematic appeared frequently in the congress). Perhaps the fact that Western culture has gone through a modernity clouded by the subject has caused Western thinkers to be especially sensible to this controversy, at the same time that they are almost insensible to some social issues which are evident to Eastern thinkers. This could be observed in the relative weights of the contributions (more than a third of the themes discussed by Chinese speakers had a sociological ground).
Collective picture at the stairs of the Cultural International Building of Beijin University
From an historical point of view, the Eastern thought (in both the Chinese and Indian traditions) has shown a deeper sensibility to the dialectic relation between being and not-being instead of the mentioned controversy of subject and object. From this existential dialectics, the modalities of potential-being, not-being-yet, must-being, cease-of-being, etc. arise, which pervade the great Eastern philosophical figures (e.g., Kong Qiu, Mo Di, Meng Ke, Xun Luang, Yang Zhu, Zhuang Zhou, Buddha or Gaudapāta). Probably these distinctions and the traditional sensibility to emergency and articulation of existences may constitute a toehold for a better understanding of information phenomena and its relation to life, knowledge, communication, social organization, as well as for a reception of the epistemology and ontology of contemporary physics –as it has been often pointed out-. Perhaps these groundings might offer a strong toehold for the constitution of a new science of information.
To illustrate this potential impact of the Eastern philosophical tradition in our current comprehension of information, let us consider some great Chinese philosophical figures. For instance in Zhuang Zhou (369 b.C. – 286 b.C.), we find themes which could easily fit into the contemporary viewpoints on the naturalization of information:
“In the peaceful time before anything was created, there was nothing and namelessness. Out of that arose a One, but this One had no form. Then things sprouted up and each of them was given what is called a virtue.” (Zhuāngzĭ, §12)
But another recurrent topic in the Chinese thought –exhibiting to some extent an opposite orientation to the Daoism to which the former quote belongs- is the nature of hierarchy and social relations, or the role of semantics in social systems; themes historically appearing much later in the West. In the case of Chinese classical thinkers (e.g., Kong Qiu, Mo Di, Meng Ke, Xun Luang), these topics are developed offering a whole spectrum of theoretical stances and a significant richness of nuances. For instance, we find in Kong Qiu (Confucius using the Latinized name, 551 b.C. – 479 b.C.) reflections in which current semantic and pragmatic information issues appear:
As it has been observed in other occasions, the homonymies pointing to different realities represent a difficult pitfall for a genuine inter- or trans-disciplinary approach unless the respective references are clarified. To this respect, it is for instance interesting to recall how the terms “intelligence” or “intentionality” were used throughout the conference without any circumspection, despite the obvious differences among different accounts which address to distinct realities (machines, unicellular organism, animals, humans, societies, etc).
In the same line, “subject” clearly represents different realities depending on the role that intentionality or the social group might play in its constitution. This obviously reflects in the meanings of the aforementioned subjective-objective gaps.
But not less variability were to be expected in the use of “information”. However it would have been appreciated that the particular uses (and not only those openly dealing with the nature of information –about 15% of the whole) were made explicit. Obviously, the clarification of such nature cannot constitute but a central objective for the foundation of a transdisciplinary “science of information”.
Similarly, diverse uses of ambiguous and non-explicit fundamental terms can be pointed out in unifying schemes of information, as it is the case of “system” and “flock”, though for the latter Niizato, Gunji et al. offered an interesting approach, which could also be useful for clarifying the formation or emergence of systems and its dynamics.
The “measure”, the “value” and the “context”, especially with respect to information, were also among many other concepts used without clarification and potentially leading to misunderstandings. A joint treatment of these three elements –as it could be observed in the works of Kun Wu, Mark Burgin and Carlos Aguilar– might represent a promissory course to deal with its role in the study of information in systems of diverse complexity.
Concerning disciplinary terms, we observed, for example, a diverse use of “logic” including some accounts which –in the worst case- might hinder a fruitful contribution from professional logicians who would not feel identify with the purpose to be achieved whereas they might agree with the ontological background, e.g. the dynamic of “contrary” or “contradictory” realities (I mention “contrary” realities since the senses to which the dialectical vision more usually points to belong to this type rather than to contradictory realities). Giving an example, Joseph Brenner –on the one side–, and Kamiura or Gunji –on the other side– use “logic” in clearly different senses. Though all face problems of dynamic inference, the former considers logics in a metaphysical sense, whereas the others just as theory of deduction. As the work of Gunji shows, recurring to alternative logics –not in a metaphysical sense but as deductive theory or calculus– may render approaches of significant added value to the understanding of the dynamical reality underlying information processes. There are also good reasons to think that the “universal logics” proposed by Huacan He, the “logical dynamics” of van Benthem, or the “paraconsistent logics” of our colleagues José Méndez and Gemma Robles might achieve a relevant contribution to this respect.
With respect to consolidated or developing disciplines (e.g. “informatics” –Western vs Eastern-, or “unified theory of information” –Hofkirchner vs Hashimoto), they exhibited multifarious accounts, though in this case more or less explicit. But what is more embarrassing to the purpose of furthering an international and transversal framework for the understanding of information, there was a clearly miscellaneous way to understand what multi- inter- and trans-disciplinary is –including the case of not distinguishing them at all. Once again, clarifying what is really understood by each of the methodological proposal means to unveil fundamental assumptions; and it would also represent bringing into stage the tools allowing an effective cooperative framework to achieve a more unified account on information in its very different manifestations.
In sum, the mentioned misunderstandings (and many others which can be found in the set of contributions) justify that the clarification of the diverse points of view aimed at promoting a participatory and cooperative scientific framework requires making clear what each other understand by the used terms and the problems we are intending to tackle. These are reasons definitively encouraging for furthering the development of both the glossarium BITri and the domusBITae initiative.
There was a significant presence of BITrum colleagues: as individual participants and institutional contributor as co-organiser of the event. Besides the already mentioned chairing role of Wolfgang and Pedro, also Peter Fleissner, Carlos Aguilar, Mario Pérez-Montoro and José María Díaz took part in the Congress, and we could also add those who contributed as co-authors or proponents: Mark Burgin, Francisco Salto, Lydia Sánchez and Manuel Campos.
Moreover, the Congress offered the occasion to notably enrich BITrum project with two new participants: Luis Bruni and Anthony Hoffmann.
Luis Bruni, born in Venezuela and currently Professor at the University of Aalborg (Denmanrk), offers to BITrum the valuable perspective of biosemiotemics. His current research develops in the field of cognition, technology and culture with focus on sustainability. During the Congress –and after sharing our respective viewpoints-, an interesting polemic was developed on the objective/subjective nature of information and semantic contents. Concerning BITrum activities, he will be editor and author of the glossary and part of the consortium domusBITae.
Anthony Hoffman, carries out his work in information ethics at the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee with our colleague and member of BITrum Scientific Board Elisabeth Buchanan. He collaborate since the beginning of 2010 with the Science of Information Institute with the edition of BITagora –in cooperation with BITrum- contributing for instance with the interview to Elisabeth Buchanan which was announced from this site. The partaking of Tony in BITrum has been already substantiated with the grammatical review of all English texts of the glossary, which will help us to achieve a polished first book version of the glossary.
From left to right: José María, Mario, Wolfgang, Carlos, Gerhard Luhn; on the right, Luis Bruni
Jointly, the contributions to FIS2010 from BITrum members include methodological proposals and approaches in the fields of: philosophy, logic, mathematics, semantics, physics, biology, economy, ecology and sociology. The following list of contributions (including authors, titles and links to texts –in preliminary versions, which after review will be compiled in a special issue co-edited by Tony in TripleC) provides an idea of the richness of the viewpoints offered by BITrum colleagues to the understanding of the information phenomena:
One of the central objectives of the Congress was the foundation of a inter-disciplinary scientific union in information studies which unlike “information science” integrates not only social, humanistic and technical sciences but also natural, formal and philosophical. During several Months previous to the meeting in Beijin, its objectives, structure, functions, gatherings, etc. was discussed. Particularly, it is worth mentioning the active and admirable work of Professor Zong-Rong Li substantiated in several proposals for discussion, as well as the contributions from Wolfgang and Dail Doucette from the Science of Information Institute.
In these discussions, BITrum offered two toeholds for the future international association: on the one hand, the initiative domusBITae as electronic-infrastructure to facilitate the articulation of the involved community (for communicating, sharing resources and results, cooperation, etc.); on the other hand, the glossary –extended to the participation of other communities- as a space for disambiguation and clarification of each other viewpoint.
Although before the congress specific aims, methods and organisation were not agreed, it seemed to be a tacit accord with respect to some essential elements, for instance, the general purpose of bringing together endeavours for constituting a wide disciplinary domain at the international level in which the multifaceted aspects of information (formal, physical, chemical, biological, cognitive, ethical, social, technological and philosophical) were integrated. But besides this tacit agreement, the following points –among others- hung in the air: (i) methodological aspects, e.g., if the approach among scientific domains was intended to be inter- or trans-disciplinary; (ii) if the new domain would recognize itself as “science of information” to evade confusion with the traditional field of “information science”, which academic weight has hindered in several occasions a more positive evaluation of widely inter- or trans-disciplinary proposals, (iii) managing aspects related to the compositions of teams, functions, tenures, rotation or elective character of some roles; etc.
It is worth pointing out the amount of methodological proposals presented in the congress aimed at building a new science of information with the aforementioned features (about one-fourth of the contributions), which denotes the undoubtedly relevant interest for promoting a new scientific discipline for the study of information in its polyhedral reality.
Nevertheless, once the interested partakers were gathered after the last session of the first congress day, pitifully some particular objectives –not representing the general interest previously expressed in the preliminary discussions– were confronted instead of progressively adopting fundamental agreements –more easily reachable-.
Fortunately, the existence of a wide interest for consolidating a discipline for the study of information including the aforementioned aspects offered a sufficient basis to enable that a committee (including Kang Ouyang and Yi-Xin Zhong as well as Wolfgang Hofkirchner and Pedro Marijuán) would decide the specific constitution of the international society. It was for instance agreed to call the new founded society as: “International Society for Information Studies”. Its acronym ISIS –as our colleague Rainer Zimmerman pointed out- corresponds to the name of the ancient Egyptian goddess who reconstructs her husband Osiris after he was cut up and disseminated by his jealous brother Seth. Allegorically, this represents an obvious correlate with the role of information.
Concerning the potential role that BITrum might play: if the required support for developing the electronic infrastructure proposed by the initiative domusBITae is achieved, the new society would use it as a tool for communicating, disseminating, sharing resources, organizing and cooperating.
Regarding the objective of building a new scientific discipline, it can be concluded that some decisive steps were given in FIS2010: (i) two independently rich traditions were neared which joint baggage cannot but strengthen a embracing understanding of information; (ii) a first international scientific association was constituted convening naturalistic, social, humanistic, philosophical, formal and technical viewpoints on information; (iii) some methodological and theoretical alternative frameworks has been shown which would allow the constitution of several research programmes within the general objectives; (iv) unifying proposals has been offered which would allow a systematic articulation and mutual understanding between diverse theoretical frameworks; (v) once again, it has been observed that a conceptual, terminological and theoretical clarification constitutes a keystone for the erection of frameworks effectively being interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary.
With respect to these achievements we ought to be deeply thankful to all organizers, and particularly to our hosts: the Social Information Science Institute (chaired by Prof. Kang Ouyang) and the Chinese Association for Artificial Intelligence (chaired by Prof. Yi-Xin Zhong). Thank you, Wolfgang, for encouraging us all; to the Science of Information Institute for supporting BITrum's participation... Nonetheless, though these were decisive steps, we face now a long path to be walked with no less resolution so that the new science of information can in fact offer scientific and practical fruits.