The Quest for a Unified Theory of Information


ISSN: 0368-492X

Article publication date: 1 March 2000




Andrew, A.M. (2000), "The Quest for a Unified Theory of Information", Kybernetes, Vol. 29 No. 2, pp. 239-248.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

This is the Proceedings of the 2nd International Conference on Foundations of Information Science, held in Vienna in 1996. The first conference under the heading was in Madrid in 1994, and does not appear to have given rise to a book although its proceedings appear in the journal BioSystems, Vol. 38 Nos. 2‐3, 1996. For both conferences, the treatments ranged well beyond what is immediately suggested by reference to information science or information theory, and were very much concerned with evolution, in a very wide sense not restricted to biology. The subtitle of the earlier conference was: “From computers and quantum physics to cells, nervous systems and societies”.

The attention to evolution is consistent with the title of the series to which the present book belongs, with series editor Ervin Laszlo of the General Evolution Research Group associated with the Club of Bucharest (which surprisingly has its address in Pisa, Italy). The focus of the book series and the associated journal is what is described as the “emerging field of general evolutionary theory”. According to this, irreversible processes that can be seen as evolution or unfolding are literally universal, from atoms (or lower) to galaxies (or higher). The view is supported by theories due to Prigogine, who in his address to the last WOSC Congress stressed the universality of irreversibility or “becoming” and hence of alignment with the “arrow of time” that is absent from Newtonian mechanics.

In a Foreword to the present volume, by Klaus Haefner of the University of Bremen, reference is made to the nature of information in the Shannon sense, according to which any message constitutes information, irrespective of its relevance to a recipient. The wide‐ranging set of contexts in which information is significant is indicated by reference to its place in sociology and in atomic physics and quantum theory, where some theories require that an electron “knows” that it belongs to a particular atom. Attention does not appear to be focused on the old problem of reconciling the Shannon measure with semantic aspects, but rather on looking for a unified theory that includes information processors as well as information itself, and the role of new information in determining self‐organisation of the processors, which may be atoms, galaxies, brains or societies.

In the Introduction it is conceded that the conference was unable to decide whether a unified theory is possible. The second paper in the book is a verbatim record of a discussion conducted by e‐mail among three participants, including the editor of the book, after the formal conference was over, discussing the feasibility of such a theory (denoted as UTI). The nature of such a theory is compared with that of theories in physical science, and various cautionary comments are made consistent with the view that the essential argument of second‐order cybernetics, namely that the observer cannot be excluded from observations, applies here with particular force. The consensus is that a UTI is possible but should never be seen as final (not that any scientific theory ever should, but the tentative character here is particularly stressed).

The 40 papers are placed under five headings, at eight to a heading except for the first which has seven and the last which has nine. The respective headings are: “Approaches to unification”, “Concepts of information”, Self‐organizing systems”, “Life and consciousness”, and “Society and technology”. The Introduction includes a short note on the contents of each paper, giving a welcome introductory orientation.

Under the first heading is a paper by Ervin Laszlo which introduces the evolutionary viewpoint and is followed by the trialogue already mentioned. The next paper is by the Japanese scientist Koichiro Matsuno, with a reference to an approach to physics due to Descartes, in which two colliding bodies, for example, are described as passing information, a viewpoint that was deprecated by Newton. This is just one example of the readiness of many of the authors to invoke fundamental issues and to refer to their early treatment by Descartes, Leibniz, Aristotle and many others. It is perhaps worth noting in passing (though not mentioned in the book) that there is a link to Web pages describing work of this Japanese author in the Web site of the UK Cybernetics Society, at <> The contributions featured in the Web pages are interestingly different from the philosophical matters treated here, and refer to the possible origin of life in volcanic vents in the ocean floor.

In another paper in this section other fundamental questions are asked about the nature of an information theory, including the very basic one as to whether it should be concerned only with information at the mental level, or with all of the information implicit in structured reality. Within this there is the matter of truth of the information content, which Shannon dismissed as an accidental feature. Reference is made to various pioneers of the subject area, including Donald MacKay and Dennis Gabor.

The probing of fundamental issues continues under the second heading of “Concepts of information”. In one paper reference is again made to Descartes, whose theories are contrasted with those of Heisenberg and related to the concept of complexity. A subdivision of the implications of the term “information” into three types is made by Bela Banathy, who ends by observing that, although most of his conceptual framework is derived from work on evolutionary biology, he believes that the most important implications are in the area of social systems. Modern technology allows the large‐scale selective muting or amplification of information processes and, where this is done without regard to systemic consequences, pathologies are likely to arise.

Most of the treatment in the book is non‐mathematical, or nearly so, but a few pages are sprinkled with equations in a paper in this section entitled: “Dimensional symmetry breaking, information and the arrow of time in Cantorian space”. This is impossible to comprehend fully without adequate background, but it reaches startling conclusions about unique properties of four‐dimensional and eight‐dimensional space, and has implications for the nature of gravity and, particularly relevant in the current context, for the reconciliation of Prigogine’s theories with quantum mechanics.

Many of the papers under “Self‐organizing systems” refer to the relation between information and entropy, which has sometimes been dismissed as purely formal, but was shown in another light by Brillouin’s account of why Maxwell’s Demon could not operate, and by Schrödinger’s argument that life can been seen as a struggle to maintain negentropy. There appears to be general agreement that the feature that is important for Schrödinger’s theory is not strictly thermodynamic entropy but something related to it, and in a contribution by Katalin Martinás a measure termed “extropy” is introduced.

All of the papers under the heading of “Life and consciousness” have special relevance to biology, but only one specifically mentions consciousness in its title. This is on the evolution of consciousness as a consequence of interactions among a society of self‐organising systems. Another paper here was of particular interest as it refers to “The topological inventions of life” and is relevant to ideas on self‐organisation discussed at the WOSC Congress. In another paper in this section, Efim Liberman and Svetlana Minima, from the Institute for Information Transmission Problems, Moscow, defend the view that processing in the brain not only is also at the level of neuron interactions but involves complex computation, attributed to quantum phenomena, within neurons. Similar theories have been advanced by a number of workers, and one piece of evidence lending strong support is the observation that the nervous system performs complex processing with remarkably small “computational depth” (as indicated by the number of synaptic connections traversed) when interpreted according to conventional neural theory.

Papers under the final heading of “Society and technology” are very much concerned with the effect of global communications and the World Wide Web, epitomised by the title of the final paper by Tom Stonier on “The emerging global brain”. In an earlier paper the developments are related to the Noosphere vision of Teilhard de Chardin and similar speculations by Vladimir I. Vernadsky.

A set of “snapshots” such as has been given here can only cover a very small part of the content of a multi‐author work such as this, but they may convey something of its flavour. There is much food for thought here, and a valuable introduction to various important trends in current thinking.

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