Seth Lloyd’s book (see prior post) has a nice passage in a chapter subsection entitled “So What?” (p. 168). If the universe can indeed be viewed as a quantum computer, why should we care? He poses this further question: “Do we really need a whole new paradigm for thinking about how the universe operates?” Lloyd says (and it would seem difficult to disagree) that the dominant paradigm of the age of science has been that of universe as mechanism. He proposes a new paradigm: “I suggest thinking about the world not simply as a machine, but as a machine that processes information (p.169 – emphasis original).” In my opinion, however, Lloyd’s discussion, while often suggestive, doesn't really answer the "so what" question. Actually, he underplays how radical and interesting a notion this new paradigm really could be.
Unfortunately, in the section quoted from above, Lloyd doesn’t follow through in offering a philosophically compelling interpretation of this new paradigm. He goes on to discuss how the view might better (technically) account for complexity and how it could help on the quest for a theory of quantum gravity – both topics of subsequent sections. Other statements of this sort sprinkled throughout the book are neutral in tone and vague in terms of what they really mean. Here’s the typical quote: “All physical systems register information, and when they evolve dynamically in time, they transform and process that information. (Prologue, p. xi.)”.
I became frustrated at this: What does it really mean to say physical systems process information? In my own (perhaps uninformed) view of classical computing, the only true information processors are the human beings who provide input, program, and interpret the output. The semantics of information processing are provided by humans exclusively, the rest is syntax. This issue is discussed in one subsection of Lloyds’ book, entitled “Meaning” (p.24), where Lloyd relates being asked by a student: “’But doesn’t information have to mean something?’” The response: “’You’re right that when we think of information we normally associate it with meaning,’ I answered. ‘But the meaning of ‘meaning’ is not clear.’” In the rest of the section (written presumably after some reflection on this), he fails to improve on this answer. He discusses how bits can represent information, and then says “the interpreter must provide the meaning.” Note there is nothing innovative or even quantum mechanical about this discussion.
Here’s the unstated radical interpretation of Lloyd’s theory: If physical interactions ubiquitously can be described in terms of information processing, this implies that something we think belongs uniquely to human (and some animal) agents is also a feature of more elementary physical systems: that is, possession of semantic properties, or intentionality. If one is unwilling to take this step, that’s fine, but then there is no important difference between the new and the old paradigm when it comes to interpreting how human life and mind can fit into the picture of an otherwise lifeless mechanistic universe.
It’s not a coincidence that Lloyd’s approach to the measurement problem of QM is conservative. He believes the decoherent-histories approach is practical and useful enough to de-emphasize worries about foundational interpretation.