“What we call the past is built on bits.” —John A. Wheeler
hen molecular biologists talk about genetic code or sociologists talk about cultural memes as epigenetic information, it’s by far more intuitive than when physicists say that what we perceive as solid matter, energy, and even space-time continuum itself is information as well. Morse code, a streaming movie on-demand, or pixels on your smartphone’s screen could be easily understood as information, on the other hand, if you catch a cold or fall in love with someone, it doesn’t seem to have anything to do with information. But contrary to popular belief, that’s the worldview many physicists are now embracing.
The uncanny nature of matter in the quantum realm is not a recent revelation. Once scientists delved into the depths below the atomic level, they recognized the ethereal quality of the world—a realm that seemed more like an intangible, mathematical abstraction rather than a concrete and tangible substance. What could be deemed less substantial than a domain composed of waves of quantum probabilities? And what could be more peculiar than the instantaneous communication between entangled particles spanning vast distances?
The emerging field of Computational Physics now suggests that these peculiar and insubstantial wavicles of the quantum realm, along with every other entity in the vast expanse of the Universe, are composed solely of the binary digits 0 and 1. The physical world itself, or rather our perception of it, is akin to a digital construct.
TO BE OR NOT TO BE...
“All the world’s the stage, and all the men and women merely players.” —William Shakespeare
The father of Information Theory, Claude Shannon, introduced the notion that information could be quantifiable. In “A Mathematical Theory of Communication,” his legendary paper from 1948, Shannon proposed that data should be measured in bits—discrete values of 0 or 1. Shannon was one of those pioneers who change the world in such a way that transformation becomes nothing less than a seismic paradigm shift. Almost overnight, information was to be found everywhere, the bit became a sensation: Scientists tried to measure birdsong with bits, and human speech, and nerve impulses.
As we have wrestled with the question over the years, we have slowly begun to realize that information is more than a symbolic abstraction, the intangible concept embodying anything that can be expressed in strings of 1s and 0s. Information is a real, physical thing that seems to play a part in everything from how machines work to how living creatures function and evolve.
We can see now that information is what our world really runs on, it’s the vital principle from which everything springs into existence. Genes encode and decode ‘bio’-logical information, instructions for building and functioning of a living entity.
Organisms are adaptive algorithms. Life spreads by networking. The human body itself is an algorithmic information processor. Our memories reside not just in brains but in every cell. And our “non-local” memories extend far beyond our body into the Universe at large. Our DNA is the quintessential information molecule, the most advanced signal processor at the cellular level—an alphabet and a code—6 billion bits to form a human genome.
Also, each of us is a community of about 100 trillion hyperconnected sentient “individuals,” bacteria and other microorganisms, collectively called a ‘microbiome’, and about 37 trillion human cells, of which 86 billion are brain cells (neurons). Our brains’ highly sophisticated neural network that scientists try to map and decipher is called a ‘connectome’. All these multi-layered networks make up an informationally coherent, living and breathing, self-aware human [super-] organism, a human-level ‘syn’-tellect.
No wonder genetics advance so fast along with information technology. “What lies at the heart of every living thing is not a fire, not warm breath, not a ‘spark of life’,” claims the evolutionary theorist Richard Dawkins, “It is information, words, instructions... If you want to understand life, don’t think about vibrant, throbbing gels and oozes, think about information technology.” The cells of an organism are nodes in a richly interwoven communications network, transmitting and receiving, coding and decoding.
Evolution itself embodies an ongoing exchange of information between an organism and its environment. The purpose of life, it seems, is to evolve and to pass on the acquired complexity, knowledge, i.e., information, to descendants. From the very first prokaryote cell on this planet, its splitting in two, and onwards to the more complex lifeforms, the purpose of life has always been to pass on information. That’s why we say: “She inherited good genes,” and in cultural terms, in reference to transmittable information, we occasionally say, “He will live forever in his literary work.”
“The information circle becomes the unit of life,” argues Werner Loewenstein after thirty years spent studying intercellular communication. “It connotes a cosmic principle of organization and order, and it provides an exact measure of that.” The gene has its cultural counterpart, too: the meme. In “social genetics,” a meme is a replicator and propagator —an idea, a fad, a neologism, a viral video.
Today, economics recognizes itself as an information science, too, now that money itself is completing a developmental transition from matter to bits, stored on computers and magnetic strips, circulating through the veins of the global financial system. A new kid on the block, cryptocurrency, such as Bitcoin, is a new digital breed.
In physics, often regarded as the most formidable among all scientific disciplines, the notion of information encompasses that which resides within a physical system. Within the domain of quantum mechanics, where quantum information becomes quintessential, we encounter a crucial aspect such as quantum entanglement. This concept enables us to effectively elucidate direct or causal associations between seemingly separate or spatially distant particles. Loosely defined, information can be understood as “that which can distinguish one thing from another, distinction between things.” Therefore information embodied by an entity can be said to be the identity of the particular entity itself, that is, all of its properties, all that makes it distinct from other real or potential entities.
In 1989, one of the most brilliant physicists of the 20th century John A. Wheeler coined the phrase “it from bit” to encapsulate a radical new view of the Universe: At the most fundamental level, all of physics has a description that can be articulated in terms of information. Wheeler elaborated in his manifesto: “Every it—every particle, every field of force, even the space-time continuum itself —derives its function, its meaning, its very existence entirely from binary choices, bits. What we call reality arises in the last analysis from the posing of yes/no questions.”
Back then, this new worldview received little support, but now in retrospect, we can see that it was truly visionary. As mentioned, Wheeler emphasized bits at his time, but it appears that intrinsically quantum-mechanical bits of information – termed ‘qubits’ – are even more fundamental. In recent years, a growing number of theorists have been exploring ways of combining quantum mechanics and general relativity into quantum gravity theory based on the physics of information.
LET THERE BE LIGHT...
When photons, electrons and other particles interact, what are they really doing? Exchanging bits, transmitting signals, processing information. The laws of physics are a “ruleset” of our Universe, a set of “fine-tuned” master algorithms, if you will. If all of this seems like a simulation of physics to you, then you got it down pat, because in a world made up of bits and qubits, physics is exactly the same as a simulation of physics. There’s no difference in kind, just in degree of resolution. Remember the movie The Matrix? Those simulations are so high resolution and self-consistent, you can’t tell if you’re in one, but then again, if you were born in simulated reality, what other frame of reference would you have to distinguish it from the “real”? According to Computational Physics, any universe run on bits-qubits is virtual, and everything is a simulation. It’s as real as it gets.
An ultimate whole-world simulation needs an ultimate computer, and Cyberneticism says that the Universe itself is the ultimate hypercomputer—in fact, the only computer. Furthermore, all the computations of the human world, including our brains, our laptops, our first quantum computers are mere simulacra of the greater computer. Each of us is a computational microcosm, and our minds are active participants in the cosmic evolution. As Wheeler once said: “We are participators in bringing into being not only the near and here but the far away and long ago. We are in this sense, participators in bringing about something of the Universe in the distant past and if we have one explanation for what’s happening in the distant past why should we need more?”
You are the You-niverse, literally, as you are computing your own subjective [virtual] reality every second of your waking conscious state. But what about our dreams? Our astral travels are data streaming, too. As Robert Lanza, the author of The Biocentric Universe, eloquently puts it “For each life there is a universe, its own universe. We generate spheres of reality, individual bubbles of existence.”
Combining the esoteric postulates of quantum mechanics with the latest theories in computer science and quantum cognition, computational thinkers are now outlining a way of understanding all of physics in the lingo of information. Today, physicists slowly but surely come to the realization that quantum theory, the most successful theory of all times, is actually not the theory of subatomic particles but that of [quantum] computation at large.
“Mathematics is the language of Nature,” proclaimed Galileo Galilei. But could math be the Code of God? The computational nature of Universe almost reveals the creator’s hand, the divine technologist, and evolution itself looks more like an ongoing theological process. Strip away all externalities, all physicalities, what it all boils down to is the selection between Yes or No, fundamental binary code of 0 and 1, the core state of existence: To be/Not to be, Here/Not here, Universe/No universe. All creation, from this perspective, is made from this irreducible foundation. Echoing Galileo’s words, astrophysicist Max Tegmark of MIT writes in his book Our Mathematical Universe: “In a very well-defined sense, our entire physical reality is a purely mathematical object.”
What approach would I take to create a universe, were I God? The mathematician and computer scientist Gregory Chaitin, well known for algorithmic information theory, questions the common assumption that “real” numbers underlie physical reality, strongly suggesting that physical reality may, in fact, be discrete, digital and computational. His argument is fairly straightforward: Real numbers cannot reflect reality, even in principle, because they require infinite precision. Infinite precision is an impossibility in Nature since it takes an infinite amount of information to specify a single real number. Therefore, we must assume that reality employs numbers with finite precision which is the premise of digital physics.
Every blooming tree, every burning star, a tiny bacterium, each fleeting thought in our mind, each gurgling waterfall is but information processed in certain complex ways within a tangled web of primal yes/nos woven together. If the quantum theory of computation holds up, energy, gravity, motion, dark energy, dark matter, and antimatter can all be explained by complex programs of 0/1 decisions. Bits can be seen as a digital version of the “atoms” of classical Greece: the ontological primitive. But these new digital atoms are the basis not only of matter, as the Greeks thought, but of energy, motion, life, and mind.
Charles Babbage, esteemed for his creation of the first computational machine in 1832, perceived the world as a colossal embodiment of a universal computer, operating on the divine logic where marvels were achieved through the alteration (in today's parlance, "hacking") of computational rules.
Norbert Wiener was a renowned mathematician and scientist who is widely recognized as the founder of cybernetics, a groundbreaking interdisciplinary field that explores the relationship between systems, information, and control. Born in 1894, Wiener made significant contributions to various areas of mathematics, including probability theory, harmonic analysis, and Fourier transforms, before delving into the emerging field of cybernetics.
Wiener's cybernetic theory, developed in the mid-20th century, aimed to uncover fundamental principles underlying complex systems, be they mechanical, biological, or social. He sought to understand how information flows within these systems and how they can be controlled and regulated effectively. Wiener drew inspiration from diverse disciplines such as engineering, biology, psychology, and philosophy, synthesizing their ideas to form a cohesive framework for studying feedback mechanisms and control systems.
Central to Wiener's cybernetic theory was the concept of feedback loops. He recognized that feedback—the process of receiving information about a system's output and using it to modify its behavior—plays a crucial role in maintaining stability and achieving desired outcomes. This insight laid the foundation for the development of control systems that are now integral to fields such as engineering, robotics, and artificial intelligence.
Wiener's work on cybernetics had far-reaching implications. His ideas influenced the development of automation, control theory, and information theory, shaping the way we understand and interact with complex systems. His research paved the way for advancements in fields like robotics, telecommunications, and computer science. Moreover, Wiener's emphasis on interdisciplinary collaboration fostered a holistic approach to problem-solving and laid the groundwork for subsequent research in systems theory and complexity science.
Within my personal cybernetic philosophy, I lean towards the concept of hybrid computation underpinning my computationalist worldview. If I were to construct a comprehensive simulation of our world, or any other whole-world simulation, I envision a computational universe/multiverse based on fractal (layered) quantum neural networks, incorporating a fusion of computing modalities at its core. This hybridized engine would seamlessly integrate both digital computing and quantum computing principles, resulting in a sophisticated and powerful computational framework.
Pancomputationalism, the notion that the Universe is a computational machine, or rather a network of computational processes which, following fundamental physical laws, computes its own destiny from the current state, rests on three basic premises.
The first is that computation can describe everything. Computer scientists and quantum theorists have been able to compress every logical argument, scientific equation, and printed book that we know about into the basic notation of computation. Nowadays, with the advent of digitalization, we can capture video, music, art and knowledge in the digital format. Even emotion is not insulated. AI researchers are working on AI emotional intelligence with indications it might be achieved in just a few more years.
The second supposition is that all things can compute. Oddly enough, any kind of material can serve as a computer. Human brains, which are mostly water, compute fairly well, at estimated 1016 ops per second (The first “calculators” were clerks using mathematical tables). Recently, scientists have used both quantum particles and fragments of DNA to perform computations.
Finally, the third postulate ties the first two together into a holistic new view: All computation is one. Computation, which manipulates elemental bits, is substrate-independent, algorithmic information processing that uses a small amount of energy to rearrange symbols and results in a signal that makes a difference. The one that can be felt, say as a love sentiment. The input of computation is information; the output is order, pattern, mind.
Keywords: simulation metaphysics, cybernetics, epigenetic information, computational physics, Claude Shannon, social genetics, quantum mechanics, quantum information, John Wheeler, it from bit, physics of information, whole world simulation, Cyberneticism, quantum cognition, quantum theory, Max Tegmark, Gregory Chaitin, digital physics, Charles Babbage, Norbert Wiener, pancomputationalism
*Image Credits: Ecstadelic Media, Shutterstock