Semantic information

Authored by: Luciano Floridi

The Routledge Handbook of Philosophy of Information

Print publication date:  June  2016
Online publication date:  June  2016

Print ISBN: 9781138796935
eBook ISBN: 9781315757544
Adobe ISBN: 9781317633495


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This chapter introduces the concept of semantic information. 1 Suppose Alice and Bob exchange some messages about Bob’s car. The mathematical theory of communication (MTC, see Chapter 4) provides a detailed analysis of how their data exchange works. However, as far as MTC is concerned, Alice and Bob might have been talking about the weather, their holidays, or indeed anything else, the analysis would not change. This is so because MTC studies information as a probabilistic phenomenon. Its central question is whether and how many interpretable data can be encoded and transmitted efficiently by means of a given alphabet and through a given channel. MTC is not interested in the meaning, reference, relevance, reliability, usefulness, interpretation, significance, or truthfulness of the information exchanged, but only in the level of detail and frequency in the uninterpreted data that constitute it. Thus, the difference between information in Shannon’s sense and semantic information is comparable to the difference between a Newtonian description of the physical laws describing the dynamics of a car accident and the description of the same accident by the police. The two are certainly related, the question is how closely. In this chapter, we shall consider this issue, look at the definition of semantic information, and explore several approaches that have sought to provide a satisfactory account of what it means for something to be semantically informative. Then, by way of conclusion, we shall consider two significant problems affecting such approaches, the Bar-Hillel–Carnap Paradox and the Scandal of Deduction, and how they may be solved.

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