One of our readers, who goes by the call sign “late_model” asked for a thread on Wheeler’s thesis that information is more fundamental than matter and energy. Wheeler, was highlighted in Wired Magazine’s 2007 edition: Wired: What we don’t know.
The WIRED article says this:
Now the whole universe is seen as a computer – a cosmic processor of information. When photons and electrons and other particles interact, what are they really doing? Exchanging bits, transmitting quantum states. Every burning star, every silent nebula, every particle leaving its ghostly trace in a cloud chamber is an information processor.
The quantum pioneer John Archibald Wheeler, perhaps the last surviving collaborator of both Albert Einstein and Niels Bohr, poses this conundrum in oracular monosyllables: Ã¢â‚¬Å“It from bit.Ã¢â‚¬Â For Wheeler, it is both an unanswered question and a working hypothesis, the idea that information gives rise, as he writes, to Ã¢â‚¬Å“every it – every particle, every field of force, even the spacetime continuum itself.Ã¢â‚¬Â This is another way of fathoming the role of the observer, the quantum discovery that the outcome of an experiment is affected, or even determined, when it is observed. Ã¢â‚¬Å“What we call reality,Ã¢â‚¬Â Wheeler writes coyly, Ã¢â‚¬Å“arises in the last analysis from the posing of yes-no questions.Ã¢â‚¬Â He adds, Ã¢â‚¬Å“All things physical are information-theoretic in origin, and this is a participatory universe.Ã¢â‚¬Â
Is the universe as a computer? That suggests a computer maker of sorts doesn’t it?
To understand Wheeler claims, he wrote in one of his books:
It is preposterous to think of the laws of physics as installed by a Swiss watchmaker to endure from everlasting to everlasting when we know that the universe began with a big bang. The laws must have come into being.
And Paul Davies comments:
Perhaps there are no ultimate laws of physics….Wheeler was breaking a 400-year-old scientific tradition of regarding nature as subject to eternal laws.
Foundational to Wheeler’s theory is an experiment called the double-slit delayed-choice experiment which was verified empirically in the 1970’s. Here is a description I found of that experiment: Prophesying Particles
Not so long ago, scientists were asking themselves the question: Do atoms know when we’re looking at them? Even before this question has been satisfactorily answered, a new question has surfaced: Do atoms know that we’re going to look at them before the event actually occurs? A documented experiment conducted by two prestigious universities actually implies the affirmative.
It’s called the “delayed choice experiment,” and it was originally a thought experiment dreamt up by the great theoretical physicist John Wheeler. It’s a variation on the usual “double-slit” experiment, which proves that when a photon (or electron or photon or any sub-atomic particle) is fire through a sheet with two holes, it creates an interference pattern on a screen set on the other side as if it had gone through both holes at once and interfered with itself. However, this behavior only seems to occur when the particle is not being watched when it hits the sheet. When a detector is put up to monitor the holes and what comes through, the particle is observed to be going through only one hole–and the interference pattern does not materialize on the screen at the opposite end.
The double-slit experiment is hard enough to understand on its own, even if John Wheeler hadn’t come up with the idea of moving the detector. He had the interesting idea of monitoring the particle after it had already made its “chosen” move through the holes, but still before it hits the screen which records the move. According to “common sense” (if one can use common sense in a case like this), since the scientists don’t monitor the particle at the exact moment it is “choosing” whether or not to go through both holes at once, the particle is supposed to go through both the holes at once and cause the interference.
But it doesn’t–not according to the independent experiments carried out by the University of Maryland and the University of Munich. These experiments confirm that the particle actually goes through only a single hole–just as if it had known that it was going to be observed. It makes only a solitary dot on the screen. The little scoundrel anticipates that a detector will be watching him later, and refuses to perform his startling bi-location behavior!
And of course, when the detector is removed, the particle goes through both holes, interferes with itself, and the screen shows the pattern to prove it.
The question now is “do the particles actually know that the scientists will be watching them later?” Or–to look at it a different way–“Do the scientists actually change what the particles did in the past by watching them in the present?!”
Of course this is altogether maddening to scientists, who have had enough trouble coping with subatomic antics even without having to explain the mysterious prophesying particles. The experiments need to be investigated further before any satisfying conclusions can be drawn. Right there’s talk of using light from quasars bent by “gravitational lenses” to conduct a galactic scale version of the experiment, which would hypothetically provide the most dramatic proof that the experiment always works (or, less likely, that it’s just some sort of international scientific anomaly).
Until then, I’ll chalk it up as just another weird phenomenon of the mysterious quantum world around us.
What this experiment shows is that an observer can measure (as in gain information from) a physical system. The act of measurement defines some of the system’s properties (like whether it behaves like a wave or particle). In fact, this experiment suggests teleology. A future event affects the past evolution of the system. Quantum physics is thus seen to be teleological.
By way of extension, the physical universe including its laws of matter and energy could be itself seen as one gigantic quantum system that is measured or observed. As information is acquired by some Ultimate Observer in the future, its properties and laws (and history) are fixed by the act of observation or knowing. The Ultimate Observer thus brings about existence through his knowledge of the system. That is to say, the history of the universe is driven by its future destination, not really the other way around. It is the strongest form of teleology possible!
One famous Quantum Physicist Anton Zeilinger wrote:
It from bit.
In conclusion it may very well be said that information is the irreducible kernel from which everything else flows. Then the question why nature appears quantized is simply a consequence of the fact that information itself is quantized by necessity. It might even be fair to observe that the concept that information is fundamental is very old knowledge of humanity, witness for example the beginning of gospel according to John: “In the beginning was the Word”.
The identity of the Ultimate Observer and His properties are of course part of the endless debate. Wheeler suggest the Ultimate Observer is (cough) us! That our observation of the Big Bang helps create us. To explore that further, consider this explanation by John Horgan of Wheeler’s experiment: Quantum Philosophy
To underscore the weirdness of this effect, Wheeler points out that astronomers could perform a delayed-choice experiment on light from quasars, extremely bright, mysterious objects found near the edges of the universe. In place of a beam splitter and mirrors the experiment requires a gravitational lens, a galaxy or other massive object that splits the light from a quasar and refocuses it in the direction of a distant observer, creating two or more images of the quasar.
The astronomers choice of how to observe photons from the quasar here in the present apparently determines whether each photon took both paths or just one path around the gravitational lens-billions of years ago. As they approached the galactic beam splitter the photons must have had something like a premonition telling them how to behave in order to satisfy a choice to be made by unborn beings on a still nonexistent planet.
The fallacy giving rise to such speculations, Wheeler explains, is the assumption that a photon had some physical form before the astronomer observed it. Either it was a wave or a particle; either it went both ways around the quasar or only one way. Actually Wheeler says quantum phenomena are neither waves nor particles but are intrinsically undefined until the moment they are measured. In a sense the British philosopher Bishop Berkeley was right when he asserted two centuries ago that “to be is to be perceived”
Wheeler himself adds in Before the Big Bang, There Was . . . What?:
Dr. Wheeler has suggested that one answer to that question [of who is the Creator] may be simply us, acting through quantum- mechanical acts of observation, a process he calls “genesis by observership.”
“The past is theory,” he once wrote. “It has no existence except in the records of the present. We are participators, at the microscopic level, in making that past, as well as the present and the future.” In effect, Dr. Wheeler’s answer to Augustine is that we are collectively God and that we are always creating the universe.
Here is a picture of how we (as represented by the eye) created ourselves through the act of quantum measurement.
That ides is Wheeler’s Participatory Anthropic Principle (PAP).
Frank Tipler is a student of Wheeler. Tipler and co-author Barrow explicitly extend Wheeler’s hypothesis in Peer-Reviewed Stealth ID Classic : The Anthropic Cosmological Principle (1987). Instead Tipler and Barrow suggest some sort of Ultimate Observer in the distant future. They call their idea the Final Antrhopic Principle (FAP). The Ultimate Observer they call the Omega Point (I refer to it as Omega for short). They argue the properties of Omega must be that it is eternal, all-powerful, all knowing, non-material and intelligent. These properties are straight forward deductions of physical law….
Because Wheeler, Barrow, and Tipler’s ID-friendly theories are not exactly in sync with creationist theology or even Christian theology, some elements within ID’s big tent have been too quick to dismiss their ideas. In fact, if one looks here: Peer-Reviewed & Peer-Edited Scientific Publications Supporting the Theory of Intelligent Design (Annotated) one will see a peer-reviewed critique of Barrow and Tipler by a theologian whom I greatly admire (William Lane Craig). Ah, the irony of it all because Barrow and Tipler are also ID-friendly in their own way, but not in a traditional sense. Their pro-ID, pro-many-worlds ideas were a bit much even for the Big Tent.
And to finish the irony, Darwinist Ken Miller (of all people) unwittingly supports ID in his books:
Many people has rejected scientific values because they regard materialism as a sterile and bleak philosophy, which reduces human beings to automatons and leaves no room for free will and creativity. These people can take heart: materialism is dead.
Quantum physics undermines materialism because it reveals that matter has far less Ã¢â‚¬â„¢substanceÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ than we might believeÃ¢â‚¬Â¦.
This [quantum uncertainty] is something biologists, almost universally, have not yet come to grips with. And its consequences are enormous. It certainly means that we should wonder more than we currently do about the saying that life is made of Ã¢â‚¬Å“mereÃ¢â‚¬Â matterÃ¢â‚¬Â¦.
This means that absolute materialism, a view that control and predictability and ultimate explanation are possible, breaks down in a way that is biologically significant.
The core assumptions supporting the Ã¢â‚¬Å“scientificÃ¢â‚¬Â disbelief [atheism] of the absolute materialist are wrong, even by the terms of science itselfÃ¢â‚¬Â¦
What matters is the straightforward, factual, strictly scientific recognition that matter in the universe behaves in such a way that we can never achieve complete knowledge of any fragment of itÃ¢â‚¬Â¦breaks in causality at the atomic level make it fundamentally impossible to exclude the idea that what we have really caught a glimpse of might indeed reflect the mind of God.
In the final analysis, absolute materialism does not triumph because it cannot fully explain the nature of reality.
few theologians appreciate the degree to which physics has rescued religion from the dangers of Newtonian predictability. I suspect that they do not know (at least not yet) who their true friends are!
Ken Miller, Finding DarwinÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s God
For others like myself, we have personal ideas about the nature and identity of the Ultimate Observer, the Omega, the Intelligent Designer of the Universe and Life. But I leave details of that debate elsewhere.
A far more formal treatment by Physicist Hans Christian von Baeyer at William and Mary: Information: The New Language of Science (Hardcover)
Here is a link to a good description of Wheeler’s experiment: Predestination: An Analogy in Quantum Mechanics [WARNING: strong theological content not directly related to the details of the experiment. However the graphics are good.]