Thursday, July 29, 2004


In the past I had come across the idea that the universe could perhaps be described by a theory which used information as the foundational concept.  However, at the time I didn’t think much of it.  The idea connoted to me a computer-inspired model of the world, and I have thought that information processing or computational concepts wouldn’t add anything special beyond the approach provided by physics.  After all, in order to describe a real-world system, a computational model needs to be implemented in a physical causal context, which means it reduces to physics.  Further, a model based on traditional or classical information theory would seemingly not bring anything to the table that classical physics couldn’t – and we already know classical physics isn’t the whole story for the universe given the 20th century advent of quantum mechanics.

However, recently I realized that information could be a richer concept.  Here’s the insight:  the existence of information leads one to ask – information for whom?   The traditional physical description of the world doesn’t ask this question.  Physical object “A” impacts physical object “B” and so on.  We do not include a subject of experience in the model.  This is the reason traditional scientific approaches find it so hard to grapple with our own first-person consciousness.

In information theory, “A” transmits information which is received by “B”.  We can interpret this in a way which captures the duality of the subjective and objective perspectives we encounter in our own experience.  The information provided by A is the objective side of this exchange; B’s receipt of the information is a subjective experience.  Now, if the objects in question are billiard balls, it seems superfluous to suggest that B has a subjective experience.  But to eventually explain consciousness, we need to account for how experience might fit in even at rudimentary levels of reality. 

Very speculatively, it may be that the extra richness inherent in such a model can help explain other mysteries faced by science.   For instance in the subatomic world described by quantum physics, experimenters have shown that pairs of particles can be “entangled” with each other.  This means that if we measure one of the particles in the pair to discover if it has a certain kind of spin or charge, the other particle will take on the matched characteristic, even though it is not in local contact with the first.  Perhaps we could say that it was in receipt of information from its partner, however.

Maybe there is an application in the area of “complexity theory”.  We observe complex systems that show emergent behavior at the macro-level that can’t be readily explained by the local physical behavior of the micro-level parts.  Perhaps in these cases there is an information exchange which binds the system together.

My crude sketch of information flow (which includes an aspect which goes beyond normal physical causality) may be off-base.  Hopefully experts will figure out whether it has merit.  I continue to believe strongly that we will need to expand or richen our traditional scientific methodology in some way to fully account for all of the phenomena in the world, including consciousness.

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