The interaction of information brings forth a world

When I read the subheading in a recent Scientific American article, it brought me back to some 18th century thoughts which I recently reviewed.  The subheading of a piece by Clara Moskowitz’s that describes a new effort in theoretical physics reads:

Hundreds of researchers in a collaborative project called “It from Qubit” say space and time may spring up from the quantum entanglement of tiny bits of information

This sounds like our physical world emerged from interactions among things that are not physical – namely tiny bits of information.  And it reminded me of the logical and physical constraints that led Wilhelm Gottfried Leibniz to his view that the fundamental substance of the universe is more like a mathematical point than a tiny particle.  Leibniz’s analysis of the physical world rested, not on measurement, but on mathematical thought.  He rejected the widely accepted belief that all matter was an arrangement of indivisible, fundamental materials, like atoms.   Atoms would be hard, Leibniz argued, and so collisions between atoms would be abrupt, resulting in discontinuous changes in nature.  The absence of abrupt changes in nature indicated to him that all matter, regardless of how small, possessed some elasticity.   Since elasticity required parts, Leibniz concluded that all material objects must be compounds, amalgams of some sort.  Then the ultimate constituents of the world, in order to be simple and indivisible, must be without extension or without dimension, like a mathematical point.  For Leibniz, the universe of extended matter is actually a consequence of these simple non-material substances.

This is not exactly the direction being taken by the physicists in Moskowitz’s article, but there is something that these views, separated by centuries, share.  And while Moskowitz doesn’t do a lot to clarify the nature of quantum information, I believe the article addresses important shifts in the strategies of theoretical physicists.

The notion that spacetime has bits or is “made up” of anything is a departure from the traditional picture according to general relativity. According to the new view, spacetime, rather than being fundamental, might “emerge” via the interactions of such bits. What, exactly, are these bits made of and what kind of information do they contain? Scientists do not know. Yet intriguingly, “what matters are the relationships” between the bits more than the bits themselves, says IfQ collaborator Brian Swingle, a postdoc at Stanford University. “These collective relationships are the source of the richness. Here the crucial thing is not the constituents but the way they organize together.”

In discussions of his own work on Constructor Theory, David Deutsch often corrects the somewhat self-centered view, born of our experience with words and ideas, that information is not physical.  In a piece I wrote about Deutsch’s work, the nature of information is underscored.

Information is “instantiated in radically different physical objects that obey different laws of physics.” In other words, information becomes represented by an instance, or an occurrence, like the attribute of a creature determined by the information in its DNA…Constructor theory is meant to get at what Deutsch calls this “substrate independence of information,” which necessarily involves a more fundamental level of physics than particles, waves and space-time. And he suspects that this ‘more fundamental level’ may be shared by all physical systems.

This move toward information-based physical theories will likely break some of our habits of thought, unveil the prejudice in our perspectives, that have developed over the course of our scientific successes.  New understanding requires some struggle with the very way that we think and organize our world. And wrestling with the nature of information, what it is and what it does, has the potential to be very useful in clearing new paths.

Because the project involves both the science of quantum computers and the study of spacetime and general relativity, it brings together two groups of researchers who do not usually tend to collaborate: quantum information scientists on one hand and high-energy physicists and string theorists on the other. “It marries together two traditionally different fields: how information is stored in quantum things and how information is stored in space and time,” says Vijay Balasubramanian, a physicist at the University of Pennsylvania who is an IfQ principal investigator.

In his 2008 Provisional Manifesto Giulio Tononi finds experience to be the mathematical shape taken on by integrated information. He proposes a way to characterize experience using a geometry that describes informational relationships.  One could say he proposes, essentially, a model for describing conscious experience. But Tononi himself blurs this distinction between the model and the reality when he writes that these shapes are:

…often morphing smoothly into another shape as new informational relationships are specified through its mechanisms entering new states. Of course, we cannot dream of visualizing such shapes as qualia diagrams (we have a hard time with shapes generated by three elements). And yet, from a different perspective, we see and hear such shapes all the time, from the inside, as it were, since such shapes are actually the stuff our dreams are made of— indeed the stuff all experience is made of.

These things don’t make some common sense, and there is some resistance to all of them.  But it is that ‘common sense’ that contains all of our thinking and perceiving habits, all of our prejudices.  Neuroscientist Christof Koch is a proponent of Tononi’s theory of consciousness which implies that there is some level of consciousness in everything.  And here’s an example of the resistance from John Horgan’s blog Cross Check

That brings me to arguably the most significant development of the last two decades of research on the mind-body problem: Koch, who in 1994 resisted the old Chalmers information conjecture, has embraced integrated information theory and its corollary, panpsychism. Koch has suggested that even a proton might possess a smidgeon of proto-consciousness. I equate the promotion of panpsychism by Koch, Tononi, Chalmers and other prominent mind-theorists to the promotion of multiverse theories by leading physicists. These are signs of desperation, not progress.

I couldn’t disagree more.

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