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Secular demonology

One of my favorite books that I read last year is Jimena Canales’ “Bedeviled: a shadow history of demons in science”. It deals with several allegories that have been useful in scientific thinking through its history. Starting from Descartes’ evil genius (is it science though?) going through Laplace’s intelligence, Maxwell’s demon and several other variations and ramifications. It is, nevertheless, a history book, and as such it does not try to go deep into any sort of theorizing about what are the demons she is talking about. There is nothing but a small philosophical digression at the end about it which is very modest in its aim. I loved the book because it states the fact that allegorical beings proper of mythology have been useful for science. This subject is in the limit of rationality and irrationality in science.

The book very cleverly avoids stating what counts as a demon in the scientific sense. I will call them ‘secular demons’. This lack of theoretical impulse stimulated my thinking and made me come up with what I consider is the most important omission in Canales’ book. Such an omission comes, in my view, from the fact of not defining its subject precisely. She leaves outside two of the most important demons of the XX century. What is a bit different from all the others is that these two demons come always in a pair, at least. That’s right, my information-theoretic friends, the couple I am talking about is present all over the place: Alice and Bob.

To support my claim that Alice and Bob belong to the long tradition described in Canales’ book I will first state what is a secular demon, from what I understand by it. First of all (and this comes in the book), a demon must be limited, it does not have infinite access to knowledge and power. Perhaps the Laplacian one has infinite knowledge, but it does not have infinite power to influence the world, just knowing it perfectly. Second, it is a conscious being, it can make a judgement on reality, and it posses an experience that we can relate to, humans. Third, it is subjective in the sense that it is limited to its own perceptions and its own previous knowledge. Fourth, it goes against the natural flow of the world. Fifth, they represent some vague concept that is better understood with their incorporation (subjectivity, determinism, entropy).

In general, I have the impression that the inclusion of secular demons in science has been to understand how conscious agents would disturb the natural flow of the world. Their inclusion calls into question this very notion of natural flow of the world. A demon in the christian tradition is a being that has certain powers to disturb things but that goes against the will of the creator of the world, God. However we can not claim to know what is the natural flow, or if it even makes sense.

Perhaps Alice and Bob have not been called demons because they come in a pair. All the others were a single agent that are aware of the physical reality. Alice and Bob does not necessarily need to know anything outside themselves. Nevertheless, they do need to know the world outside themselves in the sense that they are using an external medium to communicate. They need to know the limitations of physical reality in order to know how to communicate optimally. Another difference that I find is that information theory depends on these secular demons, whereas the other where kind of useful in a specific concept, which might, or might not be central to the theory.

Beneath this subject I find the necessity of allegories for thinking, how we need the existence of sentient beings to clarify certain concepts. What are the concepts that need the inclusion of sentient beings?

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