Objections to Verificationism and ‘It-From-Bit’

Schlick’s verificationism is vulnerable to a number of objections.  In light of the similarities between informationism and verificationism, we might wonder whether informationism falls prey to the same sort of objections.  We will now discuss some objections to the given and see if the sort of informationism held by Wheeler can overcome them.

The most immediate objection to Schlick’s verification principle is that the verification principle itself is not logically verifiable.  Fortunately for Wheeler, this will not be a problem for informationism.  Wheeler is not committed to the meaning of his statements relating to some atomic properties of perception.  Meaning is the joint product of all the evidence that is available to those who communicate.  Evidence can be either direct or indirect.  There is no recourse to unanalyzable, non-theoretical features of perception because instead, Wheeler relies on the notions of the kind of question asked and the digital response.  A digital response need not be an atomic response.

Another concern for both verificationism and informationism might be, how can we have third person scientific knowledge if all scientific knowledge is based on 1st person statements?  Fortunately, there is agreement in third person scientific knowledge between scientists.  Supposing that each has a different experience, the fact that they all agree in the way that they communicate suggests that there is a structural similarity between each’s first-person experience.  Scientific knowledge and theory are intimately connected.  And theory is about the structure of relations between those things that feature in our experience.  The description of the structure may (and should) be identical, regardless of the organization of the features of experience for each individual.  And, indeed, this makes a great deal of sense on Wheeler’s picture.  This is because all ‘reality’ for each subject is information-theoretic.  And the information is constituted by the relations between its components, without ever being committed to saying what those components actually are.  Objective, third-person, scientific knowledge is information-theoretic — it strives to capture the formal relations between phenomena, regardless of what the character of the phenomena is to any particular individual.

A larger problem, raised by Plato’s ‘Theaetetus,’ regards the fact that if atomic statements are verifiable by an individual, then those statements will always be true.  And if those statements are always true (and so trivially true) then they can have no descriptive content.  It is as if someone were to say, ‘I’m sensing the thing that I sense over there in the manner that I typically sense it.’  This is completely and totally uninformative.  We will now elaborate on this.  

Prima facie, on Wheeler’s view, knowledge and perception and intimately connected.  Knowledge comes from recording the binary responses of our measurement devices (and interpreting the responses in such-and-such way).  So it seems that ‘man is the measure of all things.’  We grant existential status only to those things which we can measure to be so.  This may be problematic.

Take six dice.  They number more than four by a half.  But compared to twelve dice, the six are fewer by a half.  It is both more and less.  But nothing can become greater or less while remaining equal to itself.  The number of dice is either ‘is greater’ or ‘is less’ depending on the frame of reference that it is considered in.  The veridicality of the ascription of the predicate depends not on the properties of the object under question, but more upon its mode of consideration.  This seems an impoverished notion of knowledge, for it does not seem to give us insight into the actual properties of the object.

Moreover, intuitively, it seems that perception is the union of capacity for sensation and an object of sense.  Perception depends on some connection between an agent with a capacity for certain kinds of sensations and an object with a capacity for producing those kinds of sensations.  But on Wheeler’s picture, it seems like the (‘physical’) object of perception has no (independent) existence until it is united with the subject (for instance, the scientist).  There can be no one, self-existent thing.  Rather, everything is related within the information space.  Each component in the space depends on its existence on the structure of the rest of the components of the information space.  There is a potential infinity of ‘physical’ objects and subjects (which can come together in perception) — each combination of object and subject produces a result which is not the same, but different.  This is because each perception is defined by the unique identities of both the object and the subject.  My capacity for perception, \phi, meets with an object with a capacity to produce certain perceptions in virtue of its identity, \alpha, to produce the unique perception, (\phi + \alpha).  Another agent with capacities for perception, has his own identity \psi.  When he meets \phi, the perception is uniquely defined as the resultant of (\psi + \alpha).  And there can be no justification for the claim that (\phi + \alpha) is identical with (\psi + \alpha).  Consequently, there is no other object I could encounter which should give me the same perception, for another object will correspond to a different agent-patient relation and so the perception must be different.  Nor can any object which affects me in a certain way, if it should meet with some other subject, produce the same perception.  For that perception will be uniquely defined by that other subject and the object.

When I perceive something, I must be the percipient of something.  For there could be no such thing as perception without some thing being perceived.  In the words of Socrates, ‘nothing can become sweet which is sweet to no one.’  So on Wheeler’s view we can only be bound to one another.  The existence of all things depend on their relation to something else — no thing can be absolute.

Moreover, if this is so, then all my perceptions must be true to me.  And if this is so, then how could I ever fail to know that which I perceive?  For if truth is found only in perceptual experience (or sensation), and no man can know another’s feelings better than he, then each is to himself the sole judge — and everything that he judges must be true.  There is no need for us to consult each other, for each is the God of his own perception and consequently determines what is true of his own reality.

Three points are crucial here.  (1) That there be some intersubjective agreement on matters of fact, (2) Wheeler does not mean to deny that there is some object of our perception, and (3) if we take the primacy of information spaces seriously, then that ‘there can be no one, self-existent thing’ is not as counterintuitive as you may suppose.

With regard to 1, while each individual may be the final arbiter of the character of his own perceptual experience, this only entails that his (honest) reports about the character of his experience be true — not that his (honest) reports with respect to his inferences from his perceptual experience be true.  I say, ‘such-and-such looks green to me,’ and this may be true, regardless of whether or not the object I am referring to actually is green.  But if I say, ‘such-and-such is green,’ then I am not reporting my experience, but rather reporting a fact inferred from my perceptual experience.  It is often the case that such inferences are false.  It does not matter that no identity can be drawn between (\phi + \alpha) and (\psi + \alpha); what does matter is that \phi‘s report and \psi‘s report be in agreement, not that they be identical.

With regard to 2, Wheeler, unlike Schlick, does not straightforwardly dismiss the notions of an internal or external world.  Rather, to confirm an object of reality, we just need some empirical justification, direct or indirect.  That there are objects of our perception is not denied.  What is denied is that they really are ‘physical,’ for the word ‘physical’ is itself a theoretical term.  It does not matter that perception requires the union of a subject and an object, for Wheeler allows there to be independent objects.  (He is just reluctant to make a definitive claim to their ontological status.)

With regard to 3, we must first consider Wheeler’s views on space and time.  Wheeler claims that there is no space, nor no time.  He cites both Leibniz, ‘…time and space are not things, but orders of things…,’ and Einstein, ‘Time and space are modes by which we think, and not conditions in which we live.’  He goes on to describe Einstein’s notion of spacetime, saying that on this theory, predicted fluctuations grow so great at distances on the order of the Planck length, that ‘they put into question the connectivity of space and deprive the very concepts of ”before” and ”after” of all meaning.’  So for Wheeler, spatial and temporal concepts are modes of thought, not features of reality.  This sort of view is lent support by the establishment of nonlocality and absolute simultaneity in quantum mechanics.  Split a pion to produce an electron and a positron.  The outcome of the measurement of the electron collapses the associated positron (into the opposite value), regardless of the distance between the two particles — the effect is absolute simultaneity, and that causes need not operate locally.  Absolute simultaneity entails that local realism is false, and if local realism is false then realism about special relativity is false, too (space and time are not part of reality).  Now recall how an information space is constructed.  There are difference relations between information states embedded in an information space, and the relations can be transmitted down some causal pathway.  You might think that there has to be some self-existing thing, that there must be some loop like this: physics gives rise to observer-participancy, observer-participancy gives rise to information, and information gives rise to ‘physics.’  So first, there is something that exists, which causes there to be observers, and only then can the information relation be constituted, wherein we can then access ‘physical’ knowledge.  This line of reasoning presupposes that time is a feature of reality and not a mode of thought.  There is something thought to ‘exist before’ which at some time later gives rise to observer-participants.  But if time is not a feature of reality, and reality is just an information space, then we cannot make sense of a real temporal relation between physical processes giving rise to observers.  Here’s one way to think about it.  All ‘reality’ is at once instantiated — objects, subjects, and relations, all.  You, as a subject instantiated someplace is the information-space of reality, perceive time to give order to your perceptual interactions with objects in the information space.  Objects do not precede you in time, they are instantiated alongside you in the information space and are experienced in a certain order.  As such, there is no need to talk about some unobserved/unobservable feature of reality prior to observation which gives rise to observers.

So it seems like informationism does, in fact, overcome the objections to verificationism that we’ve been discussing.  This looks promising for Chalmers.  However, there is a larger, more powerful objection to this kind of view which is clearly articulated by Sellars, and we will discuss next.


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