Historical and Conceptual Foundations of Information Physics

Dissertation, Universitat de Barcelona (2021)
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Abstract

The main objective of this dissertation is to philosophically assess how the use of informational concepts in the field of classical thermostatistical physics has historically evolved from the late 1940s to the present day. I will first analyze in depth the main notions that form the conceptual basis on which 'informational physics' historically unfolded, encompassing (i) different entropy, probability and information notions, (ii) their multiple interpretative variations, and (iii) the formal, numerical and semantic-interpretative relationships among them. In the following, I will assess the history of informational thermophysics during the second half of the twentieth century. Firstly, I analyse the intellectual factors that gave rise to this current in the late forties (i.e., popularization of Shannon's theory, interest in a naturalized epistemology of science, etc.), then study its consolidation in the Brillouinian and Jaynesian programs, and finally claim how Carnap (1977) and his disciples tried to criticize this tendency within the scientific community. Then, I evaluate how informational physics became a predominant intellectual current in the scientific community in the nineties, made possible by the convergence of Jaynesianism and Brillouinism in proposals such as that of Tribus and McIrvine (1971) or Bekenstein (1973) and the application of algorithmic information theory into the thermophysical domain. As a sign of its radicality at this historical stage, I explore the main proposals to include information as part of our physical reality, such as Wheeler’s (1990), Stonier’s (1990) or Landauer’s (1991), detailing the main philosophical arguments (e.g., Timpson, 2013; Lombardi et al. 2016a) against those inflationary attitudes towards information. Following this historical assessment, I systematically analyze whether the descriptive exploitation of informational concepts has historically contributed to providing us with knowledge of thermophysical reality via (i) explaining thermal processes such as equilibrium approximation, (ii) advantageously predicting thermal phenomena, or (iii) enabling understanding of thermal property such as thermodynamic entropy. I argue that these epistemic shortcomings would make it impossible to draw ontological conclusions in a justified way about the physical nature of information. In conclusion, I will argue that the historical exploitation of informational concepts has not contributed significantly to the epistemic progress of thermophysics. This would lead to characterize informational proposals as 'degenerate science' (à la Lakatos 1978a) regarding classical thermostatistical physics or as theoretically underdeveloped regarding the study of the cognitive dynamics of scientists in this physical domain.

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Javier Anta
Universidad de Sevilla

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