Philosophy 285
Seminar on Information

Spring 2005

Where: Philosophy seminar room (H&SS 7077)
When: Thursdays, 2-4:50

Instructor: Jonathan Cohen (omit text in caps, which reduces automated spam)
office: (858) 534 6812

Office hours: Wednesdays 2-3:30 in H&SS 8072 (and by appointment; please feel free to call)

This graduate seminar in philosophy will be devoted to the notion of information, and to the many philosophical applications into whose service information has been pressed. The sense of `information' that will be of interest to us derives from work of Claude Shannon in the late 1940s, and that gave birth to the field of information theory. While this work was important in lots of engineering and scientific circles from Shannon's time on, it didn't really catch philosophical imaginations until Fred Dretske's seminal book Knowledge and the Flow of Information. Here Dretske develops a variation of Shannnon's notion of information, and uses it to solve problems in epistemology (explaining knowledge, justification), philosophy of perception (distinguishing cognition from perception), and philosophy of mind (providing a naturalistic understanding of semantic content), among other things. These proposals turned into important research programs, carried on by Dretske and many other philosophers. In this seminar we'll begin with some classic work on the metaphysics of information, and then we'll turn to some of the philosophical application areas to see just how philosophically fruitful the notion of information can be.


The seminar requirements are of two main kinds: presentations, and a medium length (15 page) final paper.

Presentation: All attendees (including auditors) will be required to lead a seminar discussion (or maybe more than one, depending on our numbers). A presentation should be a critical discussion rather than a summary or book report (the presenter can assume that other participants have done the reading, and the other participants will make it the case that such an assumption is correct!), and should contain a thesis and arguments for that thesis. It can concern any topic connected with the week's reading that is of interest to the presenter. You must discuss your presentation with me sometime before the session in which you present, just to make sure we're on the same page. Seminar presentations may be given using notes or overheads, but they may not be read aloud from a pre-written paper.

Final Paper: Students taking the course for credit will pass in a single 15 page paper by the end of the quarter (extensions will be granted only in cases of extreme emergency), on a topic of their own choosing that relates to the subject matter of the course. All such papers must be pre-approved in conversation with me. I mean it. Really.


I will determine your grade based on the following breakdown:
25% seminar presentations and participation
75% final paper

Tentative Schedule

Readings marked with an asterisk are optional.
31 MarchIntroductionnone Jonathan Cohen
7 AprilShannon on InformationShannon, "A mathematical theory of communication" Alon Orlitsky, Departments of electrical and computer engineering and computer science and engineering, UCSD
14, 21 AprilKnowledge and the Flow of InformationDretske, Knowledge and the Flow of Information, ch 1-3; *Dretske, "Précis of Knowledge and the Flow of Information", comments and replies Jonathan Cohen (14 April); Agustin Rayo (21 April)
28 AprilInformation and Semantic Content, Part I Fodor, "A theory of content, I: The problem"; Millikan, "Biosemantics"; *Cohen, "Information and Content"; *Loewer, "From Information to Intentionality" Eric Jackiw
5 MayInformation and Semantic Content, Part II Fodor, "A theory of content, II: The theory"; McLaughlin, "What is wrong with correlational psychosemantics"; Gates, "The price of information" Charlie Kurth, Ioan Muntean
12, 19 MayInformation and Knowledge Dretske, Knowledge and the Flow of Information, ch 4-6; *Millikan, Nicod lecturesAndrew Beck (12 May), Margaret Gleason (12 May); Liberty Jaswal (19 May), John Jacobson (19 May)
26 MayInformation and Aesthetics Walton, "Transparent Pictures: On the Nature of Photographic Realism"; Currie, "Photography, Painting and Perception"; Cohen and Meskin, "On The Epistemic Value of Photographs"; Adami, Ofria, and Collier, "Evolution of Biological Complexity" Yenina Adler, Mark Adler
2 June Metaphysics of Information Revisited Scarantino, "Did Dretske Learn the Right Lesson from Shannon's Theory of Information?"; Cohen and Meskin, "An Objective Counterfactual Theory of Information"Ioan Muntean, Andrew Beck