A report by: José María Díaz Nafría (University of León, Spain)

4th International Conference on the Foundations of Information Science

Beijin, August, 2010

At the beginning of 2010, Professor Zong-Rong Li (from the Social Information Science Institute, SISI, at the Huazhong University of Science and Technology, HUST, China) proposed to our colleague Wolfgang Hofkirchner the organization in China of an international scientific gathering aimed at laying the foundations of a science of information being integrative with respect to scientific domain- and geographical gaps. That is, in the line of the conferences on the Foundations of Information Science, but including now a scientific community which was previously absent. Hence, it was decided the convening of a 4th edition of this conference series (Madrid 1994, Vienna 1996, Paris 2005) under the motto: “towards a new science of information”, which was happily being held in Beijin on past August 21 to 24.

From left to right: Hucan He, Konstantin Kolin, Pedro Marijuán, Yi-Xin Zhong, Wolfgang Hofkirchner, Kang Ouyang

The conference, co-chaired by Kang Ouyang (Director of the SISI), Wolfgang Hofkirchner and Pedro Marijuán, was held under the sponsorship of the Chinese Association for Artificial Inteligence (CAAI) and the SISI. It was part of the Multi-Conference on Advanced Intelligence (MCAI-2010) which also included: the second international conference in advance intelligence (ICAI-2010) and the IEEE Natural Language Processing and Knowledge Engineering (NLP-KE’10). It was clearly proven the amount and relevancy of the eastern scientific activity in interdisciplinary informational studies with a notorious prevalence of Chinese contributions (59 %) as well as a significant Japanese participation (10 %). Nevertheless, the global character of the call was preserved with a participation of 4 continents, especially North America and Europe. Thus, the objective of founding a scientific international association responsible for promoting a global- and integrative science of information was supported by a sufficient representation of the required parties.

Access to: Programme and abstracts, including links to preliminary texts (PDF)

Report contents

  1. Gaps and Bridges
  2. In historical Perspective
  3. Informational Babel
  4. Science of Information Institute (SciI) participation
  5. Foundation of the International Society for Information Studies (ISIS)
  6. Conclusions

1. Gaps and Bridges

The objective of enabling “the discussion of different concepts, theories and approaches to the information field” was accomplished with a whole spectrum of contributions covering formal, physical, biologic, cognitive, communicative, social, technologic, ethical and philosophical aspects from very different points of view and traditions. However, spite of the expression of wills to bridge between the natural- and the humanistic scientific cultures, as well as over different traditions and scientific domains, a fundamental hindrance to bring them about by means of widely accepted solutions was stated, even though there was a number of relevant contributions to this respect, particularly from Chinese philosophic positions. To illustrate this lack of general agreement, John Collier (from KwaZulu-Natal University, South Africa) concluded –after a subtle articulation of different kinds of information in non-intentional contexts– that what “is required for intentionality to emerge will have to wait for further work.” However to my understanding, it is here where the cleft we aim to bridge between the objective- and the subjective cultures inheres (as stated either in Snow’s dilemma or Sellars’ manifest vs scientific image confrontation).

On the other hand, it is here worth mentioning that whereas in the West the confrontation objective-subjective constitutes a keystone for divergence, such issue appears significantly diminished in the Chinese philosophical approaches, though these could offer –from some western viewpoints- a clear problem within the frame of such confrontation (as it might be the case in the comparison of human and artificial intelligence, which thematic appeared frequently in the congress). Perhaps the fact that Western culture has gone through a modernity clouded by the subject has caused Western thinkers to be especially sensible to this controversy, at the same time that they are almost insensible to some social issues which are evident to Eastern thinkers. This could be observed in the relative weights of the contributions (more than a third of the themes discussed by Chinese speakers had a sociological ground).

Collective picture at the stairs of the Cultural International Building of Beijin University

2. In historical Perspective

From an historical point of view, the Eastern thought (in both the Chinese and Indian traditions) has shown a deeper sensibility to the dialectic relation between being and not-being instead of the mentioned controversy of subject and object. From this existential dialectics, the modalities of potential-being, not-being-yet, must-being, cease-of-being, etc. arise, which pervade the great Eastern philosophical figures (e.g., Kong Qiu, Mo Di, Meng Ke, Xun Luang, Yang Zhu, Zhuang Zhou, Buddha or Gaudapāta). Probably these distinctions and the traditional sensibility to emergency and articulation of existences may constitute a toehold for a better understanding of information phenomena and its relation to life, knowledge, communication, social organization, as well as for a reception of the epistemology and ontology of contemporary physics –as it has been often pointed out-. Perhaps these groundings might offer a strong toehold for the constitution of a new science of information.

To illustrate this potential impact of the Eastern philosophical tradition in our current comprehension of information, let us consider some great Chinese philosophical figures. For instance in Zhuang Zhou (369 b.C. – 286 b.C.), we find themes which could easily fit into the contemporary viewpoints on the naturalization of information:

“In the peaceful time before anything was created, there was nothing and namelessness. Out of that arose a One, but this One had no form. Then things sprouted up and each of them was given what is called a virtue.” (Zhuāngzĭ, §12)

That is, emerging new things from its natural background is understood as –we might say nowadays- a continuous process of information.

Well, this treatment of emergency and evolutionary themes, which is –as well known– in the very core of many western contemporary visions on information, e.g., in Hofkirchner, Collier, Kirby, can also be clearly identified in a significant amount of original works of Chinese authors. For instance, if constitutes one of the core topics developed in the philosophy of Kun Wu since the 1980 (which was presented in several contributions, though it would be worth providing a better translation in order to achieve a proper receipt in the West), as well as in the “theoretical informatics” of Zong-Rong Li (compiled in a dense volume which English edition –just out of the presses– was kindly given as a present); in the work of Xin-Zheng Jin, and many other participants.

But another recurrent topic in the Chinese thought –exhibiting to some extent an opposite orientation to the Daoism to which the former quote belongs- is the nature of hierarchy and social relations, or the role of semantics in social systems; themes historically appearing much later in the West. In the case of Chinese classical thinkers (e.g., Kong Qiu, Mo Di, Meng Ke, Xun Luang), these topics are developed offering a whole spectrum of theoretical stances and a significant richness of nuances. For instance, we find in Kong Qiu (Confucius using the Latinized name, 551 b.C. – 479 b.C.) reflections in which current semantic and pragmatic information issues appear:

“If names be not correct, language is not in accordance with the truth of things. If language be not in accordance with the truth of things, affairs cannot be carried on to success… and the people do not know how to move hand or foot. Therefore a superior man considers it necessary that the names he uses may be spoken appropriately, and also that what he speaks may be carried out appropriately…”  (Lúnyŭ, §13, 3)

We can thus observe an endeavour for bringing together the vertexes of Peirce’s sign triangle; i.e., for integrating syntax, semantics and pragmatics in a coherent whole from which Shannon dissociated his information theory since the very beginning (1948). Hence, the intents to complete the partiality of the scientific notion of information in the West –by means of numerous versions of semantics and pragmatics appeared since Shannon’s theory– find distant antecedents in Chinese thought, with a sociologic weight almost foreign to the classical Western thought. On the other hand, it is well known that another major topic of the “school of the scholars” (Rújiā) concerns hierarchy and social structure, which is alluded by Kog Qiu in the previous quote mentioning “people” and the “superior man”.

Concerning these topics, it is interesting to highlight the significant presence of semantic and pragmatic issues among the Chinese contributions to the congress, as well as the frequent dealing with hierarchy regarding both information nature and information philosophy, or methodology for a science of information. In this sense, in the aforementioned philosophy of information of Kun Wun –whose first work goes back to 1980–, he stresses hierarchical structures, being the level of “social information” at the apex of his theoretical construct. To mention other examples, this twofold character (hierarchical and social oriented) is also to be found in the works presented by Kang Ouyang and Zong-Rong Li, who develop as well methodological as theoretical proposals.

In sum, the diversity of traditions and weights in the themes considered to face the common problem of understanding information in all its aspects, far from being understood as a limitation, it might represent a potential of hybridization promoting really new research lines. On the other hand, as Professor Yi-Xin Zhong pointed out, the diversity of understandings regarding the involved phenomena is but an incentive for a deeper comprehension of such phenomena. Nonetheless, in order to achieve this subsequent benefit a clarification of the viewpoints gathered is required as Professor Zhong exemplarily did, otherwise we would do but falling into a bedlam.

3. Informational Babel

As it has been observed in other occasions, the homonymies pointing to different realities represent a difficult pitfall for a genuine inter- or trans-disciplinary approach unless the respective references are clarified. To this respect, it is for instance interesting to recall how the terms “intelligence” or “intentionality” were used throughout the conference without any circumspection, despite the obvious differences among different accounts which address to distinct realities (machines, unicellular organism, animals, humans, societies, etc).

In the same line, “subject” clearly represents different realities depending on the role that intentionality or the social group might play in its constitution. This obviously reflects in the meanings of the aforementioned subjective-objective gaps.

But not less variability were to be expected in the use of “information”. However it would have been appreciated that the particular uses (and not only those openly dealing with the nature of information –about 15% of the whole) were made explicit. Obviously, the clarification of such nature cannot constitute but a central objective for the foundation of a transdisciplinary “science of information”.

Similarly, diverse uses of ambiguous and non-explicit fundamental terms can be pointed out in unifying schemes of information, as it is the case of “system” and “flock”, though for the latter Niizato, Gunji et al. offered an interesting approach, which could also be useful for clarifying the formation or emergence of systems and its dynamics.

The “measure”, the “value” and the “context”, especially with respect to information, were also among many other concepts used without clarification and potentially leading to misunderstandings. A joint treatment of these three elements –as it could be observed in the works of Kun Wu, Mark Burgin and Carlos Aguilar– might represent a promissory course to deal with its role in the study of information in systems of diverse complexity.

Concerning disciplinary terms, we observed, for example, a diverse use of “logic” including some accounts which –in the worst case- might hinder a fruitful contribution from professional logicians who would not feel identify with the purpose to be achieved whereas they might agree with the ontological background, e.g. the dynamic of “contrary” or “contradictory” realities (I mention “contrary” realities since the senses to which the dialectical vision more usually points to belong to this type rather than to contradictory realities). Giving an example, Joseph Brenner –on the one side–, and Kamiura or Gunji –on the other side– use “logic” in clearly different senses. Though all face problems of dynamic inference, the former considers logics in a metaphysical sense, whereas the others just as theory of deduction. As the work of Gunji shows, recurring to alternative logics –not in a metaphysical sense but as deductive theory or calculus– may render approaches of significant added value to the understanding of the dynamical reality underlying information processes. There are also good reasons to think that the “universal logics” proposed by Huacan He, the “logical dynamics” of van Benthem, or the “paraconsistent logics” of our colleagues José Méndez and Gemma Robles might achieve a relevant contribution to this respect.

With respect to consolidated or developing disciplines (e.g. “informatics” –Western vs Eastern-, or “unified theory of information” –Hofkirchner vs Hashimoto), they exhibited multifarious accounts, though in this case more or less explicit. But what is more embarrassing  to the purpose of furthering an international and transversal framework for the understanding of information, there was a clearly miscellaneous way to understand what multi- inter- and trans-disciplinary is –including the case of not distinguishing them at all. Once again, clarifying what is really understood by each of the methodological proposal means to unveil fundamental assumptions; and it would also represent bringing into stage the tools allowing an effective cooperative framework to achieve a more unified account on information in its very different manifestations.

In sum, the mentioned misunderstandings (and many others which can be found in the set of contributions) justify that the clarification of the diverse points of view aimed at promoting a participatory and cooperative scientific framework requires making clear what each other understand by the used terms and the problems we are intending to tackle. These are reasons definitively encouraging for furthering the development of domusBITae initiative.

4. Science of Information Institute (SciI) participation

There was a significant presence of the Science of Information Institute, as well as individual participation of members, and as institutional contribution -playing the roll of co-organiser and co-sponsor of the event. Besides the already mentioned chairing role of Wolfgang, Zong-Rong and Pedro, also Dail Doucette, Mary Jo Deering, John Collier, and José María Díaz took part in the Congress. To this participation is also to be added: those contributing as authors: Mark Burgin, Francisco Salto; and Elisabeth Buchanan (on behalf of the CIPR at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, co-sponsor of the event), represented by Tony Hoffmann. The latter, who also collaborates with the management of this site, will co-edit an special issue of TripleC devoted to the Congress, compiling the reviewed versions of the works presented in Beijin.

Jointly, the contributions to FIS2010 from SciI members include methodological proposals and approaches in the fields of: philosophy, mathematics, physics, biology, ecology, informatics, helth-care, and sociology. The following list of contributions (including authors, titles and links to texts –in preliminary versions, which after review will be compiled in the aforementioned special issue of TripleC) provides an idea of the richness of the viewpoints offered by members of the Science of Information Institute to the understanding of information phenomena:

5. Foundation of the International Society for Information Studies (ISIS)

One of the central objectives of the Congress was the foundation of a inter-disciplinary scientific union in information studies which unlike “information science” integrates not only social, humanistic and technical sciences but also natural, formal and philosophical. During several Months previous to the meeting in Beijin, its objectives, structure, functions, gatherings, etc. was discussed. Particularly, it is worth mentioning the active and admirable work of Professor Zong-Rong Li substantiated in several proposals for discussion, as well as the contributions from Wolfgang and Dail Doucette from the Science of Information Institute.

Besides methodological and organizational suggestions, the SciI offered -with other partners- what we consider a toeholds for the future international: the initiative domusBITae as electronic-infrastructure to facilitate the articulation of the involved community (for communicating, sharing resources and results, cooperation, etc.) and as space for disambiguation and clarification of each other viewpoint.

Although before the congress specific aims, methods and organisation were not agreed, it seemed to be a tacit accord with respect to some essential elements, for instance, the general purpose of bringing together endeavours for constituting a wide disciplinary domain at the international level in which the multifaceted aspects of information (formal, physical, chemical, biological, cognitive, ethical, social, technological and philosophical) were integrated. But besides this tacit agreement, the following points –among others- hung in the air: (i) methodological aspects, e.g., if the approach among scientific domains was intended to be inter- or trans-disciplinary; (ii) if the new domain would recognize itself as “science of information” to evade confusion with the traditional field of “information science”, which academic weight has hindered in several occasions a more positive evaluation of  widely inter- or trans-disciplinary proposals, (iii) managing aspects related to the compositions of teams, functions, tenures, rotation or elective character of some roles; etc.

It is worth pointing out the amount of methodological proposals presented in the congress aimed at building a new science of information with the aforementioned features (about one-fourth of the contributions), which denotes the undoubtedly relevant interest for promoting a new scientific discipline for the study of information in its polyhedral reality.

Nevertheless, once the interested partakers were gathered after the last session of the first congress day, pitifully some particular objectives –not representing the general interest previously expressed in the preliminary discussions– were confronted instead of progressively adopting fundamental agreements –more easily reachable-.

Fortunately, the existence of a wide interest for consolidating a discipline for the study of information including the aforementioned aspects offered a sufficient basis to enable that a committee (including Kang Ouyang and Yi-Xin Zhong as well as Wolfgang Hofkirchner and Pedro Marijuán) would decide the specific constitution of the international society. It was for instance agreed to call the new founded society as: “International Society for Information Studies”. Its acronym ISIS –as our colleague Rainer Zimmerman pointed out- corresponds to the name of the ancient Egyptian goddess who reconstructs her husband Osiris after he was cut up and disseminated by his jealous brother Seth. Allegorically, this represents an obvious correlate with the role of information. On the other hand, if the required support for developing the electronic infrastructure proposed by the initiative domusBITae is achieved, the new society would use it as a tool for communicating, disseminating, sharing resources, organizing and cooperating.

6. Conclusions

Regarding the objective of building a new scientific discipline, it can be concluded that some decisive steps were given in FIS2010: (i) two independently rich traditions were neared which joint baggage cannot but strengthen a embracing understanding of information; (ii) a first international scientific association was constituted convening naturalistic, social, humanistic, philosophical, formal and technical viewpoints on information; (iii) some methodological and theoretical alternative frameworks has been shown which would allow the constitution of several research programmes within the general objectives; (iv) unifying proposals has been offered which would allow a systematic articulation and mutual understanding between diverse theoretical frameworks; (v) once again, it has been observed that a conceptual, terminological and theoretical clarification constitutes a keystone for the erection of frameworks effectively being interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary.

With respect to these achievements we ought to be deeply thankful to all organizers, and particularly to our hosts: the Social Information Science Institute (chaired by Prof. Kang Ouyang) and the Chinese Association for Artificial Intelligence (chaired by Prof. Yi-Xin Zhong). Your hospitality and your friendship are indelible treasures we brought back home. Thank you, Wolfgang, for encouraging us all; and thank you, Mary Jo, for generously supporting our participation…  Nonetheless, though these were decisive steps, we face now a long path to be walked with no less resolution so that the new science of information can in fact offer scientific and practical fruits.

A programme including abstracts of the works presented at the congress and links to the respective articles in versions previous to the presentation at FIS2010 (sciforum site) –see document. A compilation of reviewed versions of the articles will constitute a forthcoming special issue of TripleC.