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Why information can’t be the basis of reality

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Is everything information? This seductive idea animates the brand-new book The Information by James Gleick (Pantheon 2011), which I just rave-reviewed in The Wall Street Journal. Gleick’s book is, among other things, an in-depth biography of information theory, which the Bell Labs mathematician Claude Shannon invented in 1948 to provide a framework for improving the efficiency of communications.

A growing number of scientists, Gleick writes, are beginning to wonder whether information "may be primary: more fundamental than matter itself." This notion has inspired other recent books, including Programming the Universe by Seth Lloyd (Vintage 2007), Decoding the Universe by Charles Seife (Penguin 2007), Decoding Reality by Vlatko Vedral (Oxford 2010) and Information and the Nature of Reality, a collection of essays edited by Paul Davies (Cambridge 2010). But the everything-is-information meme violates common sense.

Reaching this conclusion wasn’t easy for me, because the meme was conceived by one of my all-time favorite scientists, the physicist-poet John Wheeler, who died three years ago. In the 1980s, Wheeler started pointing out deep resonances between quantum mechanics and information theory. An electron, Wheeler pointed out, behaves like a particle or a wave depending on how we interrogate it. Information theory, similarly, posits that all messages can be reduced to a sequence of "binary units," or bits, which are answers to yes or no questions.

Wheeler proposed that physics be recast in terms of information theory, an idea that he summarized in a koan-like phrase: "the it from bit." In a paper that he delivered at the Santa Fe Institute in 1989, he postulated that "every it–every particle, every field of force, even the spacetime continuum itself–derives its function, its meaning, its very existence entirely–even if in some contexts indirectly–from the apparatus-elicited answers to yes-or-no questions, binary choices, bits."

Wheeler once explained this concept to me by comparing a scientist to someone playing the "surprise version" of the old game 20 Questions. In this variant, the Guesser leaves the room while the rest of the group–or so the excluded person thinks–agrees on some person, place or thing. The Guesser then re-enters the room and tries to guess the group’s secret with a series of questions that can only be answered with a yes or a no.

 But the group has decided to play a trick on the Guesser. The first person to be queried will only think of something after the Guesser asks his question. Each subsequent person will do the same, making sure that his or her response is consistent with all previous questions. "The word wasn’t in the room when I came in even though I thought it was," Wheeler noted. In the same way, physical reality exists in an indeterminate limbo before we pose our questions. "Not until you start asking a question, do you get something." We live in a "participatory universe," Wheeler suggested, which emerges from the interplay of consciousness and physical reality, the subjective and objective realms.

So what’s the problem with saying that everything comes down to information, bits, answers to our queries? First of all, as the physicist Rolf Landauer liked to say, all information is physical—that is, all information is embodied in physical things or processes—but that doesn’t mean that all things physical are reducible to information. The concept of information makes no sense in the absence of something to be informed—that is, a conscious observer capable of choice, or free will (sorry, I can’t help it, free will is an obsession). If all the humans in the world vanished tomorrow, all the information would vanish, too. Lacking minds to surprise and change, books and televisions and computers would be as dumb as stumps and stones. This fact may seem crushingly obvious, but it seems to be overlooked by many information enthusiasts.

The idea that mind is as fundamental as matter—which Wheeler’s "participatory universe" notion implies–also flies in the face of everyday experience. Matter can clearly exist without mind, but where do we see mind existing without matter? Shoot a man through the heart, and his mind vanishes while his matter persists. As far as we know, information—embodied in things like poetry, hiphop music and cell-phone images from Libya–only exists here on Earth and nowhere else in the universe. Did the big bang bang if there was no one there to hear it? Well, here we are, so I guess it did (and saying that God was listening is cheating).

Part of me would love to believe that consciousness is not an accidental by-product of the physical realm but is in some sense the primary purpose of reality. Without us to ponder it, the universe makes no sense; worse, it’s boring. But the hard-headed part of me sees ideas like the "it from bit" as the kind of fuzzy-headed, narcissistic mysticism that science is supposed to help us overcome.

Image courtesy of Wiki Commons.

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  1. 1. relikx 2:20 pm 03/7/2011

    The premise of information or not as the basis of reality hinged on the ability to physically retrieve the information seems flawed on the surface.

    There should be an empirical number of grains of sand on all the beaches, of stars in the universe. Humans not having the capacity to answer those questions (and hence "know" the information) says little to nothing about whether the number/answer is technically "out there."

    Sure, things get trickier once something is measured/observed but if anything the quantum implications give more credence to the argument that information, especially in non-retrievable forms, is a foundation to the universe as long as we remove our egos from the equation.

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  2. 2. Patrician 2:27 pm 03/7/2011

    when I said I agreed with everything, that was to comment 4, scribblerlarry; the other comments weren’t visible to me up to the time I posted, & haven’t had time to read them yet.

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  3. 3. gesimsek 4:16 pm 03/7/2011

    As Anthony Hopkins hears in "Meet Joe Black", the answer to right question in the universe is always "YES". Until we are ready to ask the right question, the answers we get will be called "information", namely bits.

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  4. 4. dremoor 7:46 pm 03/7/2011

    You have a self fulfilling prophecy here. Information is whatever we want it to be because we define it. For instance GOD in binary from ASCII is 010001110110111101100100.

    So what are the yes and no questions that make up god?

    This whole theory is nonsense. If we want to say matter is determined or made from information then ok we just define that informational construct that defines matter as best we perceive it given our current science. Then we say look matter is determined by information.

    The way we understand our world, calculus, quantum physics, biology. These do not exist! You can’t touch calculus. They are concepts. The are ideas. They are information. So yea they are all made up of information.

    Oh and the answer to the most important question of all:


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  5. 5. jswilkins 7:59 pm 03/7/2011

    Information is information, not matter or energy. No materialism which does not admit this can survive at the present day. (Wiener 1948: 132)

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  6. 6. robert schmidt 9:34 pm 03/7/2011

    Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. I’ll wait until someone can formulate this into a hypothesis before placing a bet either way. At the same time, it may not be true but if it appears like it has merit it may lead us to clues that give us a better understanding of how the quantum world gives rise to "middle world".

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  7. 7. brodix 10:54 pm 03/7/2011

    Energy manifests information. Information defines energy. Energy is a continuum. Information is discrete. When a wave strikes the beach, the information that was that wave ceases, while the energy is transferred.
    To the extent energy is constantly creating new information and destroying old information, energy goes from past to future, while information goes from being in the future to being in the past.
    In society, those who control the energy; the bankers, businessmen, oil companies, politicians etc. are basically in charge. Those who manage the information: the scientists, scholars, engineers, designers, reporters, teachers, etc. usually have the subservient roles.
    Wheeler was a scientist.

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  8. 8. artaxerxes 11:41 pm 03/7/2011

    We live in a quantum non-local universe where everything is infinitely interconnected. Our separateness is an illusion. Consciousness is not an epiphenomena of the brain but is in fact a part of the Universe. Our brains are more like recievers and transmitters of information.

    excerpt from Michelle M’s near death experience:
    "I remember understanding the others here.. as if the others here were a part of me too. As if all of it was just a vast expression of me. But it wasn’t just me, it was .. gosh this is so hard to explain.. it was as if we were all the same. As if consciousness were like a huge being. The easiest way to explain it would be like all things are all different parts of the same body."'s_nde.htm

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  9. 9. tharter 11:47 pm 03/7/2011

    "The information concept seems to make entropy a little easier to understand too :-) "

    OK, here’s a nice little illustration of how slippery all this stuff is. Entropy is a property of all systems, yet there is no way to unambiguously define the entropy of a system. Gibbs pointed this out when he developed the concept of free energy (Gibbs Free Energy).

    In fact the entropy of a system depends on the knowledge of the observer measuring that entropy, even though the observer is outside the system being measured. Even more interesting two independent observers with different information (knowledge of the system) will calculate different values for its entropy, yet the behavior of the system is consistent in all cases with either observer’s interpretation. That is the laws of thermodynamics always apply, even when a ‘global’ view of the system plus all observers apparently cannot be consistent.

    Riddle that one!

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  10. 10. mikeoregon 12:25 am 03/8/2011

    I remember thinking when I first saw "E = mc2" that Einstein was saying matter *is* energy, just more concentrated. The logical extension is that all energy and matter is a continuous whole. We humans like to see discrete separate things, like particles. Perhaps there are actually no boundaries between our things, other than in our perceptions. ‘Spooky action at a distance’ also suggests wholeness across the universe.

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  11. 11. radobozov 5:38 am 03/8/2011

    It is the space where particles/strings/waves interfere to emerge in reality. Yes or No is primitive physical solution that is OK to begin with. Soon enough you would realize that God in image of human (five appendages (two strong forces (two weak forces and the Higgs Boson-conscious of God) is merely what gave rise to matter so I say physics is on right direction although I have no idea about the space and means it is searched for. Consciousness is the collective interference of entire system processing space/time ever symmetry breaking curvature. Can we say a mind is totally independent because mind cannot be formed without Nature, Science, Universe, and I would say the domain that rises functionality in the origin of carbon signaling.

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  12. 12. jlg2676 8:25 am 03/8/2011

    I generally agree with you, John. I think the key is in this line: "The concept of information makes no sense in the absence of something to be informed."

    I’d add that the term "information" is ambiguous and has been used in different ways by theorists and researchers. For example, there is the approach you cite, which holds that information all boils down to bits (on/off, 0/1, etc), from which the sexy "everything is information" perspective seems to derive.

    But there’s also the view that "information" exists in a hierarchy between "data" and "knowledge." From this perspective, "data" is raw stuff (physical events), "information" is what we get when we impose "structure" on the data (such as when we proclaim "trends" or "relationships"), and "knowledge" is what we have when we use information in some way (to support a hypothesis, to complete a task, etc.).

    But even within the literature that situates information in this hierarchy (the data-information-knowledge-wisdom or "DIKW" hierarchy), there isn’t any consensus on what any of these terms really means.

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  13. 13. radobozov 9:22 am 03/8/2011

    "data-information-knowledge-wisdom" This may be turned into a "fussy" game of words information is a function of data, energy is a function of mass, knowledge is derived from information = space is derived from energy, and wisdom is to define time as a function of knowledge, but if time is broken into n-dimensionality, and resonates in space as space is curved, then wisdom has never been discovered.

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  14. 14. Mark Pine 9:23 am 03/8/2011

    I would say that information exists as the immaterial state of a material entity that can exist in more than one possible state and can therefore be indeterminate. Examples include an electron that can be spin up or spin down, a photon that can be polarized left or right, a transistor that can be 0 or 1, a neuron that can be quiescent or firing.

    Information – the immaterial state of a material object when the state is indeterminate – connects matter and mind (consciousness). The spin of an electron, when it exists in the superimposed both-up-and-down configuration, is immaterial and exists in the same form as consciousness does. When the electron interacts with another material object, e.g., an instrument to determine spin, its immaterial spin-state takes the material form of the electron with spin up or spin down. The same is true, in terms of their indeterminate and determinate states of large agglomerations of matter, like transistors (either 0 or 1) and neurons (either firing or quiescent).

    The thoughts and ideas of a biological brain, such as a human brain, are the indeterminate states of the brain. The actions of the brain, such as making a decision or initiating a bodily motion, are the result of the immaterial, indeterminate brain-state taking material form in the firing, or not, of its neurons.

    Information theory provides one way of understanding how matter and mind are connected. All material objects–from simple electrons to complex brains–can exist in more than one state, and so they can exist in indeterminate, immaterial forms. This means that all material things possess to some degree (a very elementary degree, in the case of electrons) the property of consciousness. But because they also exist in determinate forms, they have the property of matter, as well.

    Quantum mechanics provides another way to understand this, since in the language of QM, all things exist in an indeterminate form (wave function or state vector) and a determinate form (particle, material object).

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  15. 15. jlg2676 11:00 am 03/8/2011

    Could you unpack that a little bit? I was just referring to a couple of the different ways in which the term "information" has been used in the social sciences. I wasn’t making a theoretical argument, as you seem to be.

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  16. 16. aes4744 11:20 am 03/8/2011

    Information should really be thought of as any external stimulus that can be detected and processed by something that exists explicity to detect and process that stimulus (e.g. brains-neural impulses, computers-off/on, cells-chemical signals). Until actually detected and processed, everything is only potential information. Big difference.

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  17. 17. aes4744 11:37 am 03/8/2011

    Let me correct myself: I think everything in existence that CAN be detected and processed by X is information to X. Everything else in existence not able to be detected and processed by X is only potential information to X.

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  18. 18. Tom Hickey 11:45 am 03/8/2011

    "Matter can clearly exist without mind, but where do we see mind existing without matter? Shoot a man through the heart, and his mind vanishes while his matter persists."

    Does ignorance of something prove non-existence of it?

    BTW, mystics the world over and across time contradict the notion that mind does not exist independently of matter. These included most of the people that humanity regards as its principal teachers.

    Mr. Horgan’s objection is based on material reductionism.

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  19. 19. ThosEM 12:02 pm 03/8/2011

    "If all the humans in the world vanished tomorrow, all the information would vanish, too. Lacking minds to surprise and change, books and televisions and computers would be as dumb as stumps and stones. This fact may seem crushingly obvious, but it seems to be overlooked by many information enthusiasts."

    Uh, seriously!? Do you really contend that information is a human invention? How do you suppose that DNA gets translated into new organisms lower on the evolutionary tree than humans?

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  20. 20. anajardimbr 8:01 am 03/9/2011

    One thing I would like to consider: there is NO free will.We all act within a very narrow range of real possible options and generally we opt due to impulse and/or due to the inffluence of others or the media. Behaviour economists have been discussing this recently and I do think this is quite close to our daily actions. On the other hand, I suppose the UNIVERSE will still be there, full of infos to be analised by whatever alien conscious being, even if humans disappear.I think this supposed alien may have a very different view of the UNIVERSE from us humans, for it is the subject who gives consistency/meaning to the observed object. I am not a scientists, just a curious person.

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  21. 21. Joscha 12:28 pm 03/9/2011

    "Free will" is perhaps one of the most misunderstood concepts. Often, the "free" is defined in such a way that it is either not a property that could be empirically evaluated (and is thus meaningless), or even contradictory.
    It makes more sense to treat "free" as belonging to the social/diskursive domain.
    Our decision-making may take place on many levels of the psychological system. "Will" is the consciously available representation of the fact that the psychological system has raised a desire to an intention. However, only some of these decisions can be influenced on the conscious level, for instance, by actively thinking about them, or by talking about them with others. The degree of that possible influence is equivalent to the freedom of the decision: if no amount of thinking or talking can keep you away from scratching an itch, then the decision to scratch would not be free. But if a little consideration could have made you desist from drinking the night before the exam, then the decision to go on a binge would have been free.

    I don’t think that it makes sense to use the notion of free will in any other way. Note that it also consistent with the way our legal system tends to see it.

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  22. 22. ormondotvos 6:04 pm 03/9/2011

    I’m sorry to note that John Horgan is starting to talk like Charlie Sheen.

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  23. 23. jack.123 7:20 pm 03/9/2011

    If a tree falls in the forest and no man is there to hear it does it make a sound?Yes if it falls on a bear.

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  24. 24. globaldrifter 9:20 pm 03/9/2011

    Lots of interesting comments, but oh so many answers and nary a good question. I think Picasso may have shed some light on this fog when he said, "Computers are useless. They can only give you answers". Also not a question, but hey, he was ‘only’ a painter.

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  25. 25. Laird Wilcox 10:35 pm 03/9/2011

    If all humans disappeared tomorrow much of the information would remain in the form of printed material, electonic files, databases, objects, etc., for a period of time. In durable forms some information would probably remain for many thousands or even millions of years and be available for other evolved civilizations to decipher. It would not necessarily be dependent on humans but rather on the ability of other forms of life (or life-like forms) to find and understand.

    It might be more to the point to say that absent intelligent life or its surrogates information would "disappear," in a manner of speaking, but could "reappear" whenever these were reconstituted or arrived from somewhere else.

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  26. 26. Dr. Strangelove 12:23 am 03/10/2011

    "The concept of information makes no sense in the absence of something to be informed–that is, a conscious observer capable of choice… If all the humans in the world vanished tomorrow, all the information would vanish, too. Lacking minds to surprise and change, books and televisions and computers would be as dumb as stumps and stones."

    Mr. Horgan, for a science writer, you are grossly ignorant of science. Information is not intelligence. The human brain’s processing of information is what we normally call intelligence. Without humans, there would still be information contained in DNAs, cells, microorganisms and brains of animals. The DNA contains information coded in its molecular structure. It is not intelligent but it can process information and self-replicate.

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  27. 27. Marcus T. Anthony 2:36 am 03/10/2011

    "The idea that mind is as fundamental as matter… also flies in the face of everyday experience. Matter can clearly exist without mind, but where do we see mind existing without matter? Shoot a man through the heart, and his mind vanishes while his matter persists."

    I would have agreed with this before I spent time exploring perception first hand – through meditation and non-ordinary states of consciousness. The problem is that consciousness is not restricted to the brain, and this is not difficult to experience first hand if you commit yourself to some self-disciplined introspection. I am certainly not alone in this opinion, as it is actually far more common than the version of reality that is sold in science text books and ivy league universities. I also have no problem with consciousness surviving the death of the physical body, nor that consciousness can come and go from the body, despite the effective taboo against mentioning this is most mainstream academic and scientific circles. I base this purely upon direct perception, not on religious teachings or what I have been taught in school. I hold a PhD, but I value what I have learned through direct experience of the human psyche, more so than what public education has taught me. I appreciate the massive accomplishments of modern science, and am excited by them. But I also now understand the limits of dominant western epistemology in the current age. And by the way, it’s pretty much the same in all developed economies. I live in Hong Kong, and if anything materialism is now even more entrenched in East Asia than the West, in terms of science and education.

    As for information being primary, I have problems with this theory also. Information which exists in computers is probably quite different from that which exists in organisms like human beings. Consciousness and information are not synonyms. In deep meditative states there is stillness, and information is perceived as arising from something beyond the "I", but the "I" exists nonetheless. Information is witnessed. The question then becomes what is witnessing the information? (although that question is irrelevant in the stillness of that moment). Information theory is still essentially reductionist and mechanistic, and is founded upon an erroneous metaphor: the mind is a computer. This metaphor is explicit at times, but more often implicit and invisible. People don’t even realise they are using it. Or perhaps I’m just `hard wired’ to think that… ;-)

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  28. 28. Marcus T. Anthony 2:37 am 03/10/2011

    Perhaps I should add that there are many people working in science and education today who have not spent even a second in any kind of deeply reflective process – and I don’t mean analysis or debate. It is probably the majority, and I suspect includes the writer of this article.

    That’s not an attack, by the way. I believe that eventually science will embrace a more inclusive view of reality where the information from a greater range of cognitive processes can be acknowledged. It probably won’t happen right away, but science is still in its infancy and the universe is young enough and big enough to accommodate a slight digression in understanding by our little species. :-)

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  29. 29. MarkHarrigan 3:35 am 03/10/2011

    Hmm, interesting take on things – but not, I think, quite right.

    First of all I’m not sure it’s valid to say that any "one thing" is the basis of reality. Reality just is, and stubbornly resists our desire to reduce it to something else.

    What physics, and the sciences, do (sometimes aided by philosophy and sometimes not) or attempts to do is to give us models or explanations for reality that help us understand/manipulate it better. But I think it was Ernst Rutherford who said "All models are wrong, some models are useful" – or to go all eastern mystical "the Tao which can be spoken is not the true Tao"

    I don’t have a problem with recognising that consciousness can’t exist without matter (although when you examine our definition of just exactly what matter is you run into a little trouble too). Consciousness is an emergent phenomena that depends on the matter of which it is composed as well as the arrangement of the matter. And yes, it’s difficult to conceive of information as we normally define it without a consciousness to inform (those that disagee are I think more arguing about the semantics of information rather than anything fundamental). But the structure and arrangement of the matter that gives rise to the information that informs the consciousness must surely exist independently of that (or any) consciousness.

    Where I think Wheeler’s approach is really useful is simply as another, alternative and really useful, model that can aid our understanding of reality. But to argue that it is somehow "wrong" because reality isn’t just information misses the point. Of course reality isn’t just information – but it’s a damn useful way of looking at things.

    So, don’t confuse the map with the terrain. And when the map doesn’t match the terrain, follow the terrain. But maps are still very useful!

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  30. 30. Dr. Strangelove 4:01 am 03/10/2011

    With due respect, how do you know that consciousness is not restricted to the brain? Have you ever been conscious without a brain? How do you know consciousness surviving the death of physical body? There are many reported cases of near-death experience. But as the term implies, these people aren’t quite dead. They are only near death. Their brain is still functioning until they are fully dead. A compelling evidence would be a long-dead person (over 24 hours) coming back to life and reporting being conscious while dead.

    These are good metaphysical reflections but they are not science.

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  31. 31. kenkoskinen 5:42 am 03/10/2011

    The scientist within says, "the it is it" and this is the Horgan/Landauer position. The mystic within says "it’s it from bit," and this is the Wheeler position. In other words the scientist sees matter and the mystic sees mind. I ask what if there is a third position that says,"it’s the bit & it?" The matter is real but so is mind. In other words the scientist within harmonizes with the mystic. I wrote an essay "The Scientist & Mystic Within" which you can freely download as a pdf on my website . Just click on the Downloads button on the top of any page and you will see the link to the essay.

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  32. 32. Wilhelmus de Wilde 7:56 am 03/10/2011

    If we are talking about "links", the subject "Is Reality Digital or Analog" was the subject of an essay contest on FQXi, there are 162 essays each with an extraordinairy richness, I advise everybody interested in this subject to go to :
    you will then aarive on my essay (with (of course free)
    download of it)
    , on the site you will also find very interesting debates, this contest is sponsored by Scientific American.

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  33. 33. pfhenshaw 8:10 am 03/10/2011

    The observation that information is insufficient to represent reality has been my most productive one for a very long time. Discussing it was always “taboo” among physicists, though, even ones I knew quite well, and drew embarrassed glances and people scurrying away. I don’t think Glick seems aware of the large piece of it I figured out, but certainly makes it hopeful that people will now have more of a puzzle to fit the pieces into. There’s also Elsasser and Rosen’s quite succinct observations on the subject to account for.

    All I noticed in the 70′s was that information isn’t eventful, and virtually everything observable is. Anything you observe in nature is a process in time, that shows clear signs of starting with net-energy processes that begin at unobservable scales.

    There are also a range of natural blind spots for tracing information in systems that combine animate and inanimate parts, like how economies and ecologies work. Some kinds of energy uses are traceable and others naturally not. For businesses traceable energy uses represent (nominally) only ~20% of the total when considering business environmental impacts. That’s the subject of a paper of mine that might be getting published finally next week, on "Systems Energy Assessment"

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  34. 34. pfhenshaw 8:32 am 03/10/2011

    Well, OK. But then there’s "All the aspects of possibility that" persistently DON’T seem to resist the seductive arguments of all. I think of reality as the processes of nature of which we are naturally unaware, partly explorable when some superficial question comes up, but otherwise like a wilderness and "unknown".

    That, however, leaves open some difficulty in referring to any individual part. It leaves open the chance for people to hold multiple "incontrovertible" belief systems at once, that may persist even when completely contradicted… as one of the oddities.

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  35. 35. pfhenshaw 8:43 am 03/10/2011

    The big hurdle is holding the two paradigms in one’s mind at the same time, and comparing. There is a very real information world. There’s a very real physical process world. Each has a variety of fairly recognizable properties that are very different from each other, such as information change needing no energy and energy change needing a process of organizational development. That’s another way to state Robert Rosen’s general view of the relationship.

    I have another comment in the #50′s here you might find interesting, and my collected work on it on my site,

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  36. 36. pfhenshaw 9:12 am 03/10/2011

    The relationship between consciousness and nature is what is mainly discussed in the comments above, but there’s another side to the question that I think is more central to the physics. That’s whether observable reality behaves as if it was a product of a substrata of information rules embedded in or emerging from natural processes, independent of what is observable. I’ve even heard that argued as a "devil’s advocate’s view" by people who are curious about how one would go about discovering the difference, if there is one.

    Elsasser’s poses one nicely constructed opinion that a world operating only on information and uncertainty would not have "persistent heterogenaiety". I think among those, a world constructed of information and uncertainty would have processes exhibiting growth and development.

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  37. 37. pfhenshaw 11:16 am 03/10/2011

    Aaarg.. typo that changes the meaning. In #47 I meant to say that growth and development are types of "persistent heterogenaiety" that would NOT occur in a world that operated by information. …How it was said might be read the opposite.

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  38. 38. Greygolla 11:34 am 03/10/2011

    Sir, I said to the universe, I want to understand you. Oh great, came the reply, Another meddler or thief. Not me, I’m just curious. Oh, a philosopher, what other language do you speak? I have a good imagination and I have Math. Digital or String? I don’t understand. Not surprising, you have trouble with a juggler with three balls in the air, but keep at it; here is a hint, if you wanted to describe one of my particles and assigned a digital bit to each of its associated variables you would need a word as large as I am. Where I equals information, I = CM squared.

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  39. 39. MTpackrat 12:47 pm 03/10/2011

    The last two paragraphs of John’s article seem to sum up his stand.

    "Matter can clearly exist without mind"

    If this statement is ‘true’, how can one account for the great number of "idealist’ philosophers. In reality the quote is the mantra of the ‘realist’ philosophers, while the idealists claim that the mind exists but its perceptions give no clue as to what causes those perceptions. Matter is therefore just a concept of the mind. What we have is two different belief systems (quasi-religious at that).

    As to the big bang, just what evidence exists that demonstrates its actual existence. It was first postulated on astronomical sightings which indicated the universe is expanding and by extrapolating backward in time a point would be reached when the universe was just a point in space. Now the cosmologists are claiming that the universe’s rate of expansion is increasing. This alone throws doubt on the extrapolation process as being the only valid hypothesis.

    All is belief.

    My argument in much more general terms exists in my blog post on epistemology.


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  40. 40. Dr. Strangelove 8:03 pm 03/10/2011

    "Matter is therefore just a concept of the mind."

    This is false from physics point of point. But philosophically, is metaphysics just a product of epistemology?

    The microwave background radiation is evidence of the big bang.

    "All is belief."

    Not quite true. Belief is limited only by your imagination. You cannot see with your eyes everything that you can imagine. So there are things that are just belief and there are things more than just belief. Of course you can also believe what you see.

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  41. 41. Patrician 2:55 pm 03/11/2011

    This is very helpful: clear, interesting & informative.

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  42. 42. brublr 7:13 pm 03/11/2011

    Predestination only works for those who never make mistakes but allsy allsy’s out is always in again free.

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  43. 43. Dr. Strangelove 9:40 pm 03/11/2011

    Nope. Unlike subatomic particles like an electron, macro object like the cats, brains, or even the neutron cells of the brain do not exist in ‘immaterial’ state or state of superposition. Within a certain size when the particles of matter start bumping into each other, the state of superposition collapses and the object turns into its ‘material’ state. This has been proven in actual experiments of the famous Schrodinger’s cat.

    So while some physicists speculated that big objects might be like quantum particles, in fact an electron can be at two places at one time but a cat cannot be both dead and alive.

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  44. 44. Dr. Strangelove 9:44 pm 03/11/2011

    Correction: Neuron cells of the brain. Not neutron, that’s a subatomic particle

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  45. 45. Dr. Strangelove 1:10 am 03/12/2011

    Evolution programmed the brain for survival. Even without being conscious about it, the body tries to stay alive. Try to consciously stop breathing, after a few minutes you will pass out and your body resumes breathing while you’re unconscious. We don’t die when we sleep. We continue breathing. Even comatose people continue to breathe and live for years. Of course their health will eventually fail bec. the body was not designed to be sleeping all the time.

    Bottom line is consciousness is an effect of being alive not the cause of it. But the mind does affect the body. If you lose the will to live, your health will fail.

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  46. 46. Dr. Strangelove 10:41 pm 03/12/2011

    If you trust your imagination more than your senses, then you can believe anything you want. Reality will be indistinguishable from fantasy. You can be the God almighty. Delusion is the ultimate pleasure. Then you wake up and realize you need to tend the garden.

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  47. 47. tsebas 12:09 am 03/14/2011

    John Horgan asserts:

    "The concept of information makes no sense in the absence of something to be informed."

    If something “makes no sense”, it must make no sense to a sensing-entity (=John’s “something to be informed”).

    We can say that for a concept of information ‘to make sense’ to a sensing-entity, the sensing-entity has received the information sent by the ‘concept’ of information.

    We can say, also, that a sensing-agent generated the concept of information, as only sensing-entities could accumulate the information required to generate concepts of anything.

    In the absence of sensing-entities, then, no concept of information exists to make sense to a sensing-entity.

    That does not imply, however, that in the absence of sensing-entities, no ‘information’ exists.

    In other words, John’s assertion applies only to the concept of information, not to information itself.

    Information can wait for a sensing-entity to emerge as the information flows downhill, generating self-organizing entities.

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  48. 48. jtdwyer 9:30 pm 03/14/2011

    No matter how many data bits exist, no information exists without a sensory process to attribute meaning to those data bits. What process translates quantum ‘data’ into some information that can be used to produce a physical manifestation of the universe?

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  49. 49. tsebas 11:11 pm 03/14/2011

    Regarding jtdwyer’s "What process translates quantum ‘data’ into some information that can be used to produce a physical manifestation of the universe?"

    Diffusion, the start. A downhill flow. Equilibrium reached faster by generating self-organizing dissipative structures.

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  50. 50. kebil 6:10 pm 04/15/2011

    The more I read the comments that readers of SI post, the more I realize that there are a lot of people out there who have never really taken the time to look into how the brain gives rise to "consciousness", the fact that consciousness is created by a physical world, the fact that our level of consciousness is only different from that of animals by degree, not by type. I here a lot of mystical thinking in these comments, and a lot of people believing that somehow the manifestation of our minds somehow give rise to the physical universe, when in fact, every thought we have is caused by the physical interactions between neurons in our brains. This has been demonstrated time and time again in many experiments carried out over the last fifty years on the human brain. Changes to the human brain give rise to changes in the human mind. Stimulation of the physical matter of the brain cause stimulation of the mind. It seems clear and self evident to me that the "mind" is just our experience of brain activity. Other organisms have different experiences of the world, and different levels of self awareness and consciousness not because they are metaphysical less endowed than humans, but only because of physical differences in how their brains are organized. How can so many people believe that human consciousness is some magical, mystical machine that creates the universe, that only when phenomena are observed by our brains does light change from a wave to a particle, or that it takes a human looking into Schroedinger’s box to make the cat alive or dead? The cat will be dead long before the box is opened and observed by a human being if the decay event has occurred or not. Thinking that it takes a human observer to make a probability wave collapse is to thing that somehow the human brain does not exist on an evolutionary continuum from single celled organism, up through the mammalian kingdom, through the primate world, until we resulted. We are not separate from the rest of animalia, we are merely an branch on the tree of life.

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  51. 51. mkh 10:57 am 08/7/2011

    The explanation of Wheeler’s idea suggests to me that not matter, but our information about it, is information. That is hardly surprising. The 20-questions game describes the emergence of a word by binary search: the person asks a series of questions, gets a series of bits describing the answers, and then agrees, with the last answerer, on a word that fits the string of bits. For one thing, the overarching datum is that a word exists that fits the Q&A. If the solution is not unique, then the last person will deny the match.

    Moreover, if the mind (and free will) are the ones giving all the meaning, then what are they made of, technically? Similarly to a suggestion by another commenter here, do we need to have information about the mind in order for it to exist?

    If a book falls in the wood with no one to read it, will it still contain information?

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  52. 52. GaryDeines 11:24 am 01/31/2012

    What is the sound of one hand clapping?

    Reality exists on two levels: real and ideal.

    Stop arguing and merge these two, for the betterment of Our-kind. -g

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  53. 53. NonLinear 4:44 pm 01/30/2013

    Maybe information is not the basis of all reality..perhaps just life:

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  54. 54. dadster 8:13 am 01/31/2013

    The premise on which this objection to information being the more fundamental than matter seems to hinge on this : ” that all information can be reduced to matter but all matter cannot be reduvednto information “.

    That premise is not a well thought one .
    Actually it is the other way round . It is more like this : ” that all matter can bebreduced to information ,but all information cannot be reduced to matter ”

    Examples are plenty starting with dark matter and dark energy .
    Matter is just one form ( but , not the only form ) of manifestation of information .

    Information emanates from cosmic consciousness or cosmic awareness that urges some elements to combine with some particular other element in particular ways .or, how life is instilled in matter .

    Information is processed cosmic awareness manifesting to our senses through matter . As a rough analogy , it’s like light manifesting to us through matter .Without the physical solid structure of matter we cannot detect or sense radiating light . But that doesn’t mean that light and matter are one and the same , which it is not.

    Much like that life energy ( or, bio- energy ) and matter are not the same nor is bio- energy an emergent phenomena . Bio- energy is another form of manifestation of cosmic information as fundamental as matter or, more fundamental than matter because without mind you cannot detect matter . That makes matter a consequence of mind.

    But, mind can exist without matter . Example : mathematics . Or numbers . Concepts . Hence it was that wheeler took mind as more fundamental than matter. Matter cannot exist without a mind to see or to sense it . Not only that ” the illusion of reality is the creation of the mind.. Not the illusion but of what we think as ” reality ” which is the illusion. Example : in the darkness you can see a snake lying on your path which a flash light might reveal as just a wet rope . But till the flashlight is flashed on it the illusion of snake persists and you might even imagine it as moving and writhing . There are stories that people had died of shock and fright from such illusions.

    Another example from the field of quantum science ( I shun deliberately the epithet ” quantum mechanics ” given by material physicists to convey the imagery of the involvement of matter in quantum science . Quantum science is the science of subatomic matter mainly of scales lesser than Planck scales which is the where measurable discrete matter ceases to exist after which it’s all matter waves , a sort of continuous probability waves where no matter has ever gone . No physical experiments and observations are possible there . All your concepts can be expressed as mathematical models and your conclusions or physical applications are degrees of approximations of psych mathematical models . Mechanics play no role in quantum field , ie, mechanics as we know it in the material field. Quantum field is dematerialized matter … Dematted matter .like dematted shares and stocks …) , where speed that exceeds that of light is the common way of propagation of energy such as ” advance waves ” or ” pilot waves ” or , quantum entanglement and such dematerialized phenomena almost as noumena .

    Einstein’s cosmology is the unfolding of information from quantum scales . First , information is manifested through matter associated with mind or mind associated with matter . It is the play of the entity ,”information” that makes it possible for mind- matter association . How we see matter like the sun , moon and stars , for example is NOT the way microbes or bacteria see or sense these very matter forms . How we see and use the chemical elements is not the way bacteria see or use them. Hence the trouble we have in dealing with toxic bacteria or cell growth as in cancer .

    Information is the base . Matter see it or uses it as per it’s structure. Information can exist without matter as in quantum vacuum which we call vacuum energy . Matter operates within the limitations of space- time causative principles . Information operates with spontaneity and randomness which might appear at times to us, ” human observers ” , as chaos . We make sense of parts of it where chaos sometimes turns into deterministic chaos at certain positions of stability called ” strange attractors ” in mathematical models .

    What is beyond matter or material representation our mathematical models assign to regions of imaginary ” quantities ” like “root of minus one” for example and carry on with it . We try to relate our findings to material world through the conjugates of imaginary quantities ( ie partially only ) , leaving out the imaginary component by rationalizing it as we ratiocinate our procedure to find a method in madness . We bend information to suit our material world , the uni- verse ,leaving the rest to many worlds, to multiple- verses and carry on to the best of our ability.

    That’s OK. So long as we don’t insist that matter is the be all and end all and, all that there is to the Cosmos . Yes, it might be all that there is to it to the uni- verse of matter that you have deliberately created for your comfort and pleasure

    But , realize that your material universe is just one type of manifestation of “information ” which is an entity more fundamental than matter .

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  55. 55. KellyC 6:57 pm 08/16/2013

    Sorry for the late response.

    It seems to me you are saying that information means nothing unless there is a mind to be informed, like time means nothing if there is not an instrument to measure it. (The analogy is not perfect, I know.) Without a mind to be informed, it makes no sense to speak of the information of physical things.

    If information only occurs when a mind is informed by it, then how do you view the information paradox of black holes?

    Suppose a lifeless-piece-of-rock asteroid falls into a black hole. Viewed from outside the black hole, the asteroid is completely thermalized as it approaches and crosses the event horizon. It is ripped into molecules, then atoms, and then particles and scrambled across the surface of the event horizon. Much later, as the black hole evaporates, some radiation leaves the event horizon carrying a bit of information from the asteroid that previously fell into the black hole. Even Stephen Hawking eventually admitted that the radiation from evaporating black holes contains information about the objects that fall into them.

    Rephrasing my question: Does information fall into the black hole if no mind observes the asteroid falling into the black hole? Does the radiation of the black hole contain bits of information from the asteroid if no mind observes the radiation?

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  56. 56. KellyC 7:25 pm 08/16/2013

    To Kebil in comment #50 above:

    “It seems clear and self evident to me that the ‘mind’ is just our experience of brain activity.”

    Really? Imagine walking along a path with tall green bushes on one side of you and a clear blue lake on the other side of you. Is the content of your conscious experience really that of ions moving back and forth across fatty membranes? The action potentials of neurons in the brain reduce to: (a) ions moving across a fatty membrane, and (b) chemicals moving across the gaps between neurons to open ion channels. Ions, fatty membranes, synapses, and chemicals–is this really the content of your conscious experience as you walk along the path?

    The “hard question” as it is sometimes called, is how neural activity gives rise to the conscious experience of green and blue, of bushes and water. How does the brain give rise to the qualitative contents of our conscious experience?

    Why don’t I see the colors green or blue when I look at the brain of someone experiencing green or blue? Why don’t I see bushes and a lake when looking at the brain of someone experiencing bushes and a lake? What I actually experience are images from the instruments measuring their brain activity, or, if their brain has been surgically exposed, pink, white, and gray tissue. But never experience a green bush or a blue lake when looking at the brain of someone experiencing a green bush or a blue lake.

    Why do some neurons give rise to conscious experience while other neurons do not? For example, in the case of blind sight, a person has lost visual cortex and has become completely blind. They don’t have any conscious visual experiences. Yet, when you throw a ball at them, they can reach out and catch the ball at levels better than chance. Neurons in other parts of the brain process visual information, allowing them to catch the ball, yet don’t give rise to any conscious visual experiences. So why do neurons in some areas of the brain give rise to conscious experience while neurons in other areas do not?

    How is it that neurons in the visual cortex give rise to visual experiences like color and shape, while neurons in the auditory cortex give rise to auditory experiences like pitch and timbre? The neurons in the eyes transform the energy of photons into action potentials. The neurons in the ear transform the energy of air pressure into action potentials. The visual cortex and the auditory cortex receive the same kind of information: action potentials. So why is my conscious experience of visual color and shape qualitatively different from my conscious experience of auditory pitch and timbre?

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  57. 57. Teralek 11:17 am 09/13/2013

    Sorry but I think Wheeler may be correct.
    “If all the humans in the world vanished tomorrow, all the information would vanish, too.” This is assuming that only humans have minds… this is a pretty big assumption. Information would not just vanish but become a probability wave.

    “Matter can clearly exist without mind, but where do we see mind existing without matter?” Are you sure that matter CAN exist without mind, or “observation”? The only way we have to analyse matter is through mind… This is kind of a tricky question. And you could only be sure of the answer if you could somehow examine reality without using a mind… which is non sensical! We are simply not sure.

    For me information being the fundamental of reality is the best theory to explain the measurement problem in QM. The less assuming theory and thus the more plausible even if the implications are outrageous and strike at the heart of hard fought materialism since Newton. But hey that’s science for you! We shouldn’t be afraid of the results even if we don’t like them!

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  58. 58. dralaboy 3:22 pm 07/25/2014

    Your article ‘Why information can’t be the basis for reality’ is telling as anyone as intelligent and educated as you should not fall for the conceit reality ‘has to’ conform to your idea of it. Everything, every thing, eeeverrryy thing is a proposal. Your Landauer quote–’all information is physical’–could just as well be stated the other way round–everything physical is information.

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