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Model for the Informational Person

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Ken Herold, Hamilton College
AP-CAP 2005 Bangkok


A Buddhist theory of information comports with the recent notion of information ethics wherein information may be included within skillful means (upaaya).

Buddhists reject epistemological-ontological dualism: the conceptual and the non-conceptual are not distinct sources of knowledge.

The act of cognition and the cognized object are momentary-together.

Any category including information as a substance or as a relation is constructed and as such cannot capture a transcending reality Information Ethics recognizes a minimalist mental and non-physical ontological commitment without substance or relations and a beneficent moral role for humanity.

On this conventional level, the informational “entity” includes persons as well as non-persons.

Practitioners explore this entity as a contingent construction, in particular under analysis, so as to better understand the products of conceptualization and to thus transform the mind in a virtuous direction. But how does the hub of personhood and the rim of non-person form the wheel of momentary-together?

In the first section, I propose the information object as level of abstraction and as trope, giving five spokes of possibilities comprising control, physicality, interactivity, realism and emergence and turning the wheel of a computational Buddhism.

Key to this discussion is an understanding of momentariness as an information structure and the metaphor of hardware-software as applied to dharmas-samskaras.

This exposition speculatively borrows from Whitehead’s actual occasions, Wiener’s early relativity, Collier’s account of causality as information transfer, Floridi’s method of abstraction, and the system models of Sloman and Lynch.

The result is a description of simulation as problem-solving sessions in which inner speech conducts a critical rational analysis of reality through the manipulation of information about information.

In the second section, I examine the Buddhist metaphysics of Abhidharma (specifically as a system of wisdom literature) for applicability of the model of informational person. The Abhidharma system contains didactic and erotetic structures residing in that conceptual domain, fostered by a continuous, collaborative construction of its learning objects.

I identify and associate the concept rupa-citta vipra-yukta samskara with information artifacts as embodiments of that teaching in order to illustrate the information object as a skillful object for the informational person.

Information about information, or metadata, comprises the method for ensuring a kind of transcendental feedback or conservation of ethical purposes throughout information services, especially those composing new digital objects.

Keywords: Computational Buddhism, momentariness, personhood, infosphere.


Early proponents of the information age characterized the new world of intelligent machinery as a territory ripe for exploration and exploitation, as an electronic frontier in cyberspace.

The ecological aspect of this metaphor was especially unfortunate given humankind’s iniquitous record of despoiling geographic frontiers. Nevertheless, the general sentiment of this period of automation accentuated a revolutionary phase of knowledge discovery preceding and outstripping the more mundane, routine, and hoped-for successful settlement of the virtual spaces of the new privileged communities.

Reflecting both the prodigious rapidity of these developments and their unusually hidden and arguably deceptive powers, antagonists of the view variously attacked the computer, its technology, its science, and sometimes all of science.

Clear efficiencies in the processing of vast data stores and transaction and communications streams, plus the general progress achieved in formulating systems with which to order and model complex events has muted the intensity of some fatalistic assessments of information at the societal level.

Most recently, however, the perceived nature of information itself has been criticized at a personal level.

Borgmann (1999), for example, has posited information as directly usurping reality as opposed to providing us a basis for or about reality. Similarly, and from a Buddhist perspective, Hershock (1999) characterizes the negative effects of the contemporary information society on its members as a “colonization of consciousness.”

Introna (2001) argues that this electronic mediation, if considered to be fundamentally arbitrary per Baudrillard, leads to an impossibility of ethics in the information age.

Cyberspace becomes a network of “hyperreal effects and representations that come before us, but do not involve us.” [[[Wikipedia:emphasis|emphasis]] in original] Introna sees electronic mediation as the destroyer of obligations built through face-to-face experience of each other. The reified information entity dictates the contents of our mental life.

Thus, another Buddhist author, Laycock (1994), poses the existence of a kind of digital samsara:

“When the world is attended primarily through electronic and print intermediaries, it is quite naturally taken to be given, not something underdetermined and limitlessly responsive, but a thing that is. Moreover, it is a world that mediates or stands between each one of us and all others even as it connects us.”

To the defense of the informational person, Floridi (1999) raises a uniquely responsible and ethically-challenging position, posed more succinctly in reference to the history of Western thought, asserting the emergence of a transpersonal information capability filled with potential devotion and service to humankind:

 “an artificial universe which becomes, to an ever-increasing degree, the very environment we inhabit, and whose challenges we must answer. It is a domain as completely autonomous from each of us, as individual minds, as the physical world is, and which, unlike the latter, is capable of infinite growth in extension and complexity….

this new environment has been created by the human mind, and since we are totally responsible for its existence, we may also be confident of its potential full intelligibility….at least since the Renaissance the mind has constantly moved away from reality, intentionally constructing and refining its own cultural environment as an alternative to the world of nature.”

The paper explores a metaphysics of information enriched by a computational view of Buddhism consistent with onto-ethics.

To the extent that Floridi has explained the new philosophy of information as borrowing methods from computer science to approach philosophical problems computationally, I believe an applied philosophy of information can return the fruits of these results back to grounding issues in the practices of information technology.

With this process we also foster a cross-fertilization between Eastern and Western philosophies, in the larger, intercultural arena.

Part I

In one traditional Buddhist analysis, the authority of teachings has its conceptual source in the teacher, or guru-equivalent.

Consider the four dependencies, cited by the 14th Dalai Lama (1982), from the Mahayana-sutra-alankara-karika:

of the teacher: depend not only on the teacher’s person, but on what he teaches.
of the teaching: depend not on merely the sweetness of the words and so forth, but on the meaning.
of the meaning: depend not on the interpretive meaning, which must be understood in a different way, being controvertible since it was taught with a specific intent [or] under a specific circumstance, but depend upon the definitive meaning.
of the definitive meaning: depend not on a consciousness with dualistic views, but on non-conceptual direct knowledge focused on (sunyata)

In the contemporary situation we are confronted with an ambiguity of information resources.

Communications technology makes us more aware than ever of our dependence and reliance on an ordered approach to authorities. Suppose we make use of the traditional analysis to restate the parameters by which authoritativeness of information resources should be investigated.

This suggests a cycle of considerations from the person as authority, an external contribution, to levels of meaning contingent upon a perfection of the mind, an internal attribution.

Suppose further there exists a new, informational metaphysics by which we may elaborate the person as information resource and the personal understanding of information.

One approach is to study data and algorithm (instruction) as foundational entities of investigation of semantics and learning. Such is also included within the provenance of information ethics (IE) as developed by Floridi and others.

In a foundational exposition of IE, Moor (1985) describes a crucial ingredient for the field of computer ethics: the ubiquitous applicability of general-purpose manipulations of logic itself he terms “logical malleability.”

Logical malleability has both a syntactic and a semantic dimension. Syntactically, the logic of computers is malleable in terms of the number and variety of possible states and operations. Semantically, the logic of computers is malleable in that the states of the computer can be taken to represent anything.”

This sense of ubiquity, where information is supposed to be capable of taking any form, discloses several issues of onto-ethics (Cheng 2004).

First, that information may also suit any purpose, suggesting a universality which may be either fully intelligible or else wholly threatening depending on its reception.

Second, information may acquire in its process of formation an enhanced status and objectivity. Third, despite this initial mutability, information may not change, that is, in the process of manufacturing, a fixity occurs. At the inception of the computer age,

Turing realized that the pulses emanating from his so-called intelligent machinery could not be differentiated a priori between instances of content (data) or instruction (meta-data).

If the mechanization of thought processes or techniques specifically led to such a conclusion, then, if generalized, this means that information cannot be reduced—it may only be transceived. That is, one metaphysical basis of the philosophy of information is this ever-potential equivalency, evident as well in terms of the complementarity of function and structure.

Thus it is not always clear, when one is dealing with cybernetic inputs and outputs at a certain level of abstraction, what is formally constructing or constructed to the mind.

One short generation of software development has evidenced value judgments implemented within a computer programming environment that is exceedingly complex and only partially knowable even to the programmers themselves. Moor refers to this second, complicating factor as “invisibility.”

A very young Norbert Wiener (1914) considered partial knowledge and systems from the individual’s standpoint, questioning the persistence of the self and one’s identity over time.

Wiener understood the infinite complexity of experience to depend upon the lack of self-sufficiency of information objects. He foresaw our right to a formalized doubt for every concept, without the duty to exhaustively examine any concept; in short, a liberating and not an enslaving relativism.

Furthermore, the nature of the moment of experience itself, though given as a system possessing coherence in cross-section of time, is also insufficient.

In Buddhist terms, this lack of self-sufficiency and system of dependent relations is the open-ness or sunyata of definitive meaning and the dependent-arising of all phenomena.

The type of complexity is a fundamental type of informational complexity of the forms of experience.

Following Collier (1999) in his adaptation of Bennett’s notion of logical depth, it is fundamental “in the sense that anything that is complex in any other way must also be informationally complex.”

In this onto-ethics of information, the class of informational entities includes both persons and non-persons as authoritative resources. Computational Buddhism considers the origination and source of control for information entities, the nature of their physicality, their interactivity as momentariness, and the possibility of an informational realism or informational emergentism. The remainder of this section is a sketch of each aspect in brief.

Key to this outline is extending Wiener’s notion of the system-moment as an informational structure. An interesting neurological correlate may be found in Brown (1999).

The sketches are admittedly terse and incomplete and mostly serve as a guide to work in progess.

Control is the defining notion of cybernetics and the instrument of information systems engineering.

Simon played a key role in equating the person as human organism with the computer program, together as examples of an information processing system for problem solving.

Floridi’s LoA’s and other models simulating knowledge processes, such as Lynch and Sloman, exhibit diagrammatic schemas in which feedback loops channel complex messages.

These messages may be described as information objects themselves.

These are not unique at all within computation but offer constructive models for testing against real situations, as simulations or isomorphisms.

These control models also share a characteristic time element: a non-linear, branching, and structured temporality of the computational present, one not limited to physical time.

In information metaphysics the most important meaning of control is that of the experimental method: an authentic, identifiable versioning of data, as communicated in meta-data, for testing and verification purposes in systems. In interactive and necessarily participatory systems, this requires a continual openness and making explicit and accessible all underlying assumptions and design decisions.

Collier’s account of algorithmic information theoretic causation suggests a link between a dynamical account of Bennett’s logical depth and this computational view of time. Thus, control is of persistence and the change of persistence is the creation of meaningful contexts.

The quantum theory of computation has advanced the idea that information is physical.

It seems deserving in turn to consider physicality as informational: as the abstract features of particular instances. Goodman (2004) links the Western concept of physical tropes with Vasubandhu’s notion of dharmas, citing earlier works by Ganeri and by Siderits.

In my reading of Goodman I would not choose between alternatives in his philological analysis of dharmas as either properties or events, but instead regard information, or something like an informational trope, to be both. Information certainly has qualities of both process and thing.

The vague boundary between the entities of hardware and software is an instructive case.

Another example might be the physical aspect of memory.

Meirav’s (2000) criterion for physicality (that a physical object corresponds in a strict mereological structure in relation to the spatial domain it occupies) could be modified towards informationality as a relation for all objects, per Collier.

Physicality as informational entails a reappraisal of artificiality in the context of controlled systems of feedback. Cordeschi (2002) propounds five theses for the artificial which may be applied to further discovery of the metaphysics of the system-moment artifact: functional, modeling, representational, mentalist, and explanatory.

Whitehead’s notion of actual occasion acquires fresh meaning when interpreted through computational means as a structured present moment, as if Wiener’s system-moments were a software model.

Its constitution, or concrescence, unites the person with emerging experiences in computational time and the person constructs value or education through the positive selection of data.

Such knowledge events are momentary, cumulative, and creative.

Whitehead refers to “drops of experience” both as constructed and constructing, transcending the subject-object distinction.

Education in this Whiteheadian model is in essence interactive and occurs under an undefined, particular mode of “wisdom.”

The Buddhist correlate is a non-dual wisdom consciousness. Unlike the Leibnizian monad, the actual occasion, per Sherburne (1966), is “all window.”

The cross-sectional coherence identified by Wiener as persistence of personal identity can be thought of as a network of information objects messaging each other in the infosphere.

Possible explanations for informational access and presence with respect to these computational drops (or windows) of experience are propounded by Morin (2004) in his theory integrating inner speech with problem-solving “where the self represents the problem and self-information the solution.”

In this sense, some Buddhist meditation, and in our analogy software simulation, may be seen as problem-solving sessions in which inner speech conducts a critical rational analysis of reality through the manipulation of information about information.

Floridi’s (cite) informational realism (IR) has its precedent in Bateson and Spencer-Brown, what can be termed a “distinction ontology.”

Information is all that there is but it is not a substance, it is a relation.

IR undermines the usual implications of a substance ontology towards change, in the Western view, and rejects ontological absolutism and commitment to first-order statements outright, like the Buddhists.

I suggest that his level of abstraction (LoA) can be viewed as a distinguishable trope. Tropes could be information objects themselves, as dharmas.

IR may comport with Vacaspatimisra that “attributes are not something apart from the substance of a thing, but productive imagination constructs them as something different.” (Puhakka 1975) From Floridi and Sanders (2004):

The LoA is determined by the way in which one chooses to describe, analyse and discuss a system and its context.

The ‘Method of Abstraction’ is explained in terms of an ‘interface’ or set of features or observables at a given ‘LoA’.

Agenthood, and in particular moral agenthood, depends on a LoA.

Our guidelines for agenthood are: interactivity (response to stimulus by change of state), autonomy (ability to change state without stimulus) and adaptability (ability to change the ‘transition rules’ by which state is changed) at a given LoA.

Morality may be thought of as a ‘threshold’ defined on the observables in the interface determining the LoA under consideration.

An agent is morally good if its actions all respect that threshold; and it is morally evil if some action violates it. That view is particularly informative when the agent constitutes a software or digital system, and the observables are numerical.

Tropes are not an uncontroversial philosophical device invented to address problems of compositionality and continuity of identity.

The potential affinity of tropes with dharmas has been advanced by Goodman with respect to the momentariness of existents.

Dharmas, the fundamental analytic unit of things both physical and mental, precede Abhidharma theory and have two major elaborations with respect to inherent existence.

Madhyamaka theory treats dharmas themselves as fully relational, lacking inherent existence or causal power.

Thus all phenomena are composite and momentary identities whose continuity or persistence is real, though illusory.

That is, causality is accomplished through networks of relations, through dependent origination.

The lack of intrinsic nature, known as emptiness or openness, does not deny causal regularity but itself depends upon it. Perrett (2004) borrows a logical argument structure from the 11th century Ratnakirti, the Master Argument for Momentariness: any simple possessed of intrinsic causal powers must be a momentary entity.

This represents the alternative view to Madhyamaka, that dharmas possess intrinsic causal power.

Other possible computational interpretations of trope theory parallel its disparate branches. One might study apparent immanent universals in Buddhist metaphysics and the notion of a single universal instantiated within multiple particulars, per Armstrong.

Or a trope-based unity of particulars could be explored as an alternative following Dharmakirti (Mortensen 2004).

Perhaps there are precursors to an informational emergentism in the bundle version of tropes of Campbell, in which basic individuals are mereological bundles of compresent (at least spatiotemporally co-located) tropes.

Multiple tropes are always compresent in a given location, or alternately, every trope type requires some requisite number of other compresent tropes.

In Simons’ nuclear-theory alternative for tropes, a requisite core of compresent tropes may be more essential as kinds instanced together per basic causal laws defining an enduring individual.

In Martin’s substance-attribute version, tropes, even bundles of tropes, are ontologically dependent entities, accounting for “thisness” or “thinginess” as they are, rather than in their own right.

An informational trope theory may associate these variations with differing schools of Buddhist logic, the subject of future work.

In conclusion, the above framework is tentative and meant to indicate a potential computational view of Buddhism.

Some features of Buddhist analytical meditation may share characteristics with the simulations and modeling presented in an applied philosophy of information.

What portion of upaaya is informational? The gist of the remainder of the paper observes Schroeder’s (2000) finding of pedagogy as metapraxis.


Part II

The world’s earliest dated printed book is a copy of the Diamond Sutra (Jin gang ban ruo bo luo mi jing) from 868 CE.

In itself this may not be remarkable, although the combination of Buddhist subject matter with pioneering information technology of the day is evident.

An extensive and comprehensive wisdom literature is bound to attract inventive forms of expression according to its importance within civilizations. Confucian written scholarship and Christian typographic scripture are further examples.

Varela (1999) says “the rediscovery of Asian philosophy, particularly of the Buddhist tradition, is a second renaissance in the cultural history of the West.”

More specifically, Wood (2004) identifies four key features of a general Buddhist influence on scholarship: an informed self-creation, an openness and inclusiveness based on compassion, a critical mindfulness, and an attentiveness to others.

A Buddhist model for the informational person entails these features within the framework of an intellectual order seeking systematic compassion and an end to the suffering of its disorder.

The cybernetic ethics of Wiener and information ethics of Floridi operate within this sphere of participatory computing, highlighted by the icon of the message becoming the interactive program. Whether or not personal erudition and cultural education are relatively well-understood in the age of printing; how does the informational model aid us in the practice of building a digital adaptation?

An historical examination of the emergence of this paradigm may be found in Herold’s (2004) information continuum conjecture: library information structures and objects share this characteristic intellectual ordering of abstract human works.

Library theory can guide information science and technology in the pursuit of new scholarly systems.

Consider the traditional path from author to reader, where the author’s message is produced by a publisher and later digested, indexed, classified and categorized by a library as a kind of social annotation to the process.

The library’s effort conserves the original intellectual entity, the conversation of author with reader, and enhances the openness, inclusiveness, awareness, and accessibility of the original work to others, for the work as process.

Similarly, Santaella-Braga (2004) proposes a transformation of dialogism into heterologism and the externalization of collective negotiations of meaning in the communitarian exchange of cyberspace objects. In the informational model, software comes to be seen as the external manifestation of inner speech and all of its ramifications.

The inner speech of scholarly communication is like a transaction that takes place between individuals, self and others; this interface is brought to a new dimension of intensity in the digital network of relationships.

Derivation of an informational association between the wisdom literature produced by liberated minds and the learning processes and objects for minds seeking liberation comes from Fenner (1995).

His systems-cybernetics model of Buddhist Middle Path analysis is based upon what he terms perspectivism and contextualization. Perspectivism acknowledges the contingency of conceptual frameworks attempting to structure these exemplars of natural systems of mental events.