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An Itsy-Bitsy Universe? | Issue 158


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Tallis in Wonderland

Raymond Tallis breaks down the ultimate breakdown.

Over thirty years ago, the great physicist John Wheeler made a claim that seemed astonishing then and should still seem astonishing, indeed absurd, now. He said “every it derives its ultimate significance from bits, binary yes-or-no indications, a conclusion which we epitomize in the phrase, it from bit” (‘Information, Physics, Quantum: The Search for Links’, Proceedings of the 3rd International Symposium on the Foundation of Quantum Mechanics, 1989). By this he meant the fundamental stuff of the physical world is information. Every physical object (every It) is a pattern of BITS. ‘What is’, is information, all the way down. Wheeler saw this as an inevitable conclusion to be drawn from quantum mechanics, which, he said, “in an everyday context is unshakeable, unchallengeable, undefeatable – it’s battle-tested” (The Ghost in the Atom, eds P.C.W. Davies and J.R. Brown, 1993, p.60).

Wheeler is not alone in thinking of physical processes as being information processes. That legendarily tough-minded thinker and Nobel Prize winner Richard Feynman said he thought of a point in spacetime as “being like a computer with an output and an input. The point would have a memory for all the fields and particles that are possible and would act like a computer” (Ibid, pp.138-9).

Some of the arguments taking us from quantum mechanics to this ‘paninformationalism’ begin with the disturbing fact that, prior to measurement, elementary particles do not have a definite location, momentum, or spin. This is Heisenberg’s famous Uncertainty Principle. To Einstein’s dismay, Niels Bohr concluded from this that a sub-atomic object such as an electron does not exist anywhere specific until an observation or measurement is made. Broadly put, there is no such thing as ‘an unobserved electron’, at a particular point, but only a probability of finding an electron at that point.

This may not be too disturbing if such ‘quantum idealism’ is confined to sub-atomic constructs such as electrons. After a century of argument and experimentation, however, the implications of quantum mechanics for ordinary macroscopic entities above the microphysical level remain unresolved. This has encouraged many physicists not only to embrace Wheeler’s view that “no phenomenon is a real phenomenon until it is an observed phenomenon”, but to conclude that the stuff of the universe is something like the contents of observation: information. It is through this route that Wheeler’s ITSY-BITSY universe has entered mainstream thought.

And not only among physicists. It has also been taken seriously by many philosophers, among them David Chalmers, whose recent must-read Reality+: Virtual Worlds and the Problems of Philosophy (2022) devotes many pages to unpacking the implications of Wheeler’s It-From-Bit hypothesis. Chalmers’ treatment of ITSY-BITSY ontology is subtle and far from uncritical. However, while he raises many legitimate concerns about Wheeler’s hypothesis, he does not grapple with its most fundamental flaws.

It is time to get the BIT between our teeth.

What’s The Information?

An obvious objection to the claim that the ‘ITS’ of the universe are made up of BITS of information, is that BITS must be realised in stuff that is more than BITS. BITS need ITS. For instance, the processing in the circuitry of a computer may involve the intake and output of information, but the computer itself is other than that information. There would be no space in a BITSy universe to house the other-than-BITS processor of BITS.

Moreover, there is a third party involved in the generation, processing, and consumption of information. Nothing that happens in a computer, or any other source of BITS, counts as information without a subject who is conscious of the information.

This intuitively obvious assertion is overlooked or positively rejected by those for whom information is everywhere and BITS are the material of ITS. Yet in the absence of conscious subjects, BITS have neither the quantities nor the qualities evident in ITS. The scientific world picture that has licensed the BITSY world picture rests on quantification – a gathering-up of answers to questions of ‘How much?’, and of the patterns of ‘How much?’ into laws that enable us to see the way the physical world unfolds and, on this basis, to predict its future behaviour and manipulate it. There is, however, no intrinsic quantification in the universe in the absence of conscious subjects with a direction of attention shaped by their interests. The unobserved universe is not divided into countable entities the way our minds divide it up, even less into a definite number of BITS.

Take a simple example of an information-bearing event: the outcome of the tossing of a coin. How many BITS of information are delivered when the coin comes to a halt? If the choice is simply ‘heads versus tails’, the answer is straightforward: one. But that’s true only where all physical outcomes are classified into those two possibilities. There, are however, innumerable ways in which a coin can fly, roll, wobble, and land after having been tossed. Variables beyond ‘heads v tails’ include: the shape of the flight path, the distance from the thumb to the landing place, how far the coin will roll after landing, how many blades of grass it bends, the number of grains of soil it collects… All of these are equally valid physical outcomes of the coin toss. A precise description of the values of all these parameters would deliver not two but many millions of possibilities; and each one, when realised, would deliver incalculable number of BITS of information. So if we were to drill down to the atomic level, the number of possibilities would be trillions; and if we were to identify a point in a continuous parameter, such as distance from the thumb, the number would be potentially infinite. If the outcome of a single coin-tossing were described in purely physical rather than conventional heads-v-tails terms, it would realize much, much more than one Bit of information. In other words, the number of BITS associated with any event treated as a ‘result’, is proportional to the range of possibilities which can be given as a result; and that range is determined specifically by what is entertained as relevant by conscious subjects.

Fundamentally Nothing


“There are innumerable ways in which a coin can fly, roll, wobble, and land after having been tossed.”
Coin Toss © Icma Photos 2009 Creative Commons 2

So much for quantities of BITS. What about their qualities? Although BITS are sometimes represented as 0 v 1, or ‘Yes’ v ‘No’, or ‘On’ v ‘Off’, they do not really have even these qualities. There is nothing either 0-ish or Yes-ish, or 1-ish or No-ish, On-ish or Off-ish, about any Bit of information. ‘0’ v ‘1’, etc, are conventional markers of contrast – of difference – between possibilities that are realised in something else. 0, for example, might stand for a pixel in an array that is switched on, and 1 for a pixel that is switched off; but the reverse could equally well be true. As Chalmers puts it, the pure It-from-Bit universe “at the bottom level is a universe of pure differences” (Ibid, p.165). But all that means is that ‘heads’ evaporate into ‘not-tails’, which evaporate into ‘not-heads’; that ‘1’ is simply the opposite of whatever ‘0’ is. BITS, in other words, are ontological parasites borrowing their being from one another, and ultimately, from the conscious beings aware of their working. It follows, then, that not only do the BITS that supposedly constitute the universe lack quantity in the absence of a conscious subject, they also have no qualities to justify their counting as together constituting ITS of one kind rather than another.

I apologise to those many Philosophy Now readers who don’t need me to spell this out, but many digital physicists and their fellow travellers seem unaware that, at the fundamental level, BITS of information must, to count as information, be about things other than themselves – with the connection being made by conscious subjects. BITS are not ultimately about other BITS. So there cannot be any BITS without ITS for them to originate from, or to refer to, or subjects to pick up their reference. One could go further, and say that BITS exist only insofar as ITS connect with other ITS in a relationship established by a conscious subject. All those BITS that are supposedly inherent in that part of the physical world occupied by a coin-tossing ritual will exist only insofar as they are extracted by the participants in the ritual based on prior expectations, whose character and range are shaped by conventions. It is on account of these subjects that the state of the world at time t1 – before the coin is tossed – lacks the information that becomes available at time t2 – after the coin has come to rest.

It will be clear from this example how what counts as information, and how much information there is, is determined by the ignorance, expectation, and interests of conscious subjects. These are hardly properties of the physical world as opened up by physics.

Concluding Information

The popularity of the ITSY-BITSY universe hypothesis is surprising in view of the metaphysical price that it demands of believers. BITS, unlike ITS, do not occupy space, or occur in time. When I toss a coin, the coin and those of us who are watching its fate are in space and time; but the information that the result is tails rather than heads is not spatiotemporally located. Unsurprisingly, causal connections in the conventional sense seem also to vanish when everything is in BITS; but they anyway have a precarious existence in the quantum world picture that inspired ITSY-BITSY metaphysics.

Given everything that’s been said, the growing popularity of the It-from-Bit world picture calls for some explanation. The increasing power of computers and other devices to simulate parts of our world in virtual reality suggests to some that it would be possible to simulate an entire universe. The question arises whether what passes for our reality is such a simulation, made entirely of BITS. This notion that we can replicate the universe by replicating the information in it has seemed to license the conclusion that the universe is information. But from the foregoing discussion, we know this cannot be true: for a start, a universe composed purely of BITS would lack the conscious subjects to sustain it. And a simulated world will always require a non-simulated simulator to simulate it.

So, far from BITS creating ITS, ITS generate BITS with the help of conscious subjects localised through being embodied – being ‘It-ed’, perhaps.

We began with the path from quantum mechanics to an It-from-Bit universe. The interpretation of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle as evidence that elementary particles don’t exist at a particular point until they are observed was dubiously scaled up by Wheeler to the claim that ‘no phenomenon is a real phenomenon until it is an observed phenomenon’ – until, that is, it has become information observed by a subject. The claim that something is real only when observed may remind you of Berkeley’s idealism, but the very notion of an observer (an IT-ed subject) cannot be accommodated within Wheeler’s reductive digital theory.

There’s a bigger story behind this. Seeing ITS as BITS is an extreme expression of the tendency, licensed by the physical sciences, to overlook the consciousness of conscious subjects and hence what is required to transform what-is into information, into BITS. But that is for another column; indeed, a book. I am writing it now. Watch this space.

© Prof. Raymond Tallis 2023

Raymond Tallis’s latest book, Freedom: An Impossible Reality, is out now.

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