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Is Information the Basis for the Universe?

Michael Egnor

Big Think has an interesting article, “The Basis of the Universe May Not Be Energy or Matter but Information.” The author, Philip Perry, writes:

There are lots of theories on what are the basis of the universe is. Some physicists say its subatomic particles. Others believe its energy or even space-time. One of the more radical theories suggests that information is the most basic element of the cosmos. Although this line of thinking emanates from the mid-20th century, it seems to be enjoying a bit of a Renaissance among a sliver of prominent scientists today.

Consider that if we knew the exact composition of the universe and all of its properties and had enough energy and know-how to draw upon, theoretically, we could break the universe down into ones and zeroes and using that information, reconstruct it from the bottom up. It’s the information, purveyors1 of this view say, locked inside any singular component that allows us to manipulate matter any way we choose…

Perry discusses various approaches to information theory (e.g. Shannon information), and he brings up eminent theoretical physicist John Archibald Wheeler:

[Wheeler] in his later years was a strong proponent of information theory. Another unsung paragon of science, Wheeler was a veteran of the Manhattan Project, coined the terms “black hole” and “wormhole,” helped work out the “S-matrix” with Neils Bohr, and collaborated with Einstein on a unified theory of physics.

Wheeler said the universe had three parts: First, “Everything is Particles,” second, “Everything is Fields,” and third, “Everything is information.”1In the 1980s, he began exploring possible connections between information theory and quantum mechanics. It was during this period he coined the phrase “It from bit.” The idea is that the universe emanates from the information inherent within it. Each it or particle is a bit. It from bit.

In 1989, Wheeler produced a paper to the Santa Fe institute, where he announced “every it — every particle, every field of force, even the space-time 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.”

In the materialist-dominated world of modern science, it is natural to infer that matter (or fields that move matter) is the fundamental reality. But careful consideration of nature, and particularly biology, suggests that information is the basic reality, of which matter is a medium in which information is manifest.

The centrality of information to the natural world, and particularly to the biological world, has been the guiding thesis of the intelligent design movement. My colleagues Bill Dembski and Stephen Meyer in particular have written extensively on the importance of information theory in understanding nature. We in the ID movement are merely continuing a line of research that goes back quite a way into the past.

What we call information is best defined as “limitation of outcomes” in nature. Information is the limitation of particular configurations and functions of matter. Low information systems are chaotic, displaying a multitude of states and relationships (think of the uncountable configurations of water molecules in the ocean). High information systems, such as living things, have a restricted ensemble of states and functions.  Living things are kept alive by homeostasis, which is the remarkable tendency for life to maintain a constant internal physiological environment. Understanding and maintaining homeostasis is, for example, essential to the practice of medicine, in which disease and injury may be understood as derangements of homeostasis.

The traditional hylemorphic understanding of nature — as developed by scholastic philosophers who were the precursors to the Scientific Revolution — stressed the centrality of information (as limitation) in a rather dramatic (and I think quite accurate) way. In the hylemorphic understanding, matter and form are manifestations of a more fundamental reality, which is potency and act. Potency is the range of possibilities inherent to a thing. Act is the actuality of the thing, as it really is. That is, act (form) is what makes something actual, and not just possible. Using modern terminology, information (form) is what makes nature real.

In nature, form is reflected in the intelligibility of a thing. Final cause, which is teleology, is the goal toward which natural change is directed, and in nature (unlike artifacts) formal and final causes are usually the same. The growth of an acorn into an oak tree has a formal cause which is all that can be known about the oak tree — its structure, function, etc. — and has a final cause which is identical to its formal cause. The form of the oak tree is also what makes the oak tree actual, and not just potential.

Formal and final causes are thus limitations in particular states and functions a thing can have. In that sense, formal and final causes reflect the information inherent in a thing. This is reflected in the word itself — in-form-ation.

Information then, understood classically as formal and final cause, is not merely the basis for nature, it is what makes nature actual, rather than just potential, and this actuality is just what is intelligible about nature. The actuality and intelligibility of nature is what is most basic to it, and it is information that confers actuality and intelligibility to the natural world.

Perry closes with a reflection on the source of nature’s information:

If the nature of reality is in fact reducible to information itself, that implies a conscious mind on the receiving end, to interpret and comprehend it. Wheeler himself believed in a participatory universe, where consciousness holds a central role. Some scientists argue that the cosmos seems to have specific properties which allow it to create and sustain life. Perhaps what it desires most is an audience captivated in awe as it whirls in prodigious splendor.

Perry came close to acknowledging a designer of nature, but one suspects that the materialist/atheist ideological correctness that plagues science dissuaded him from drawing the obvious conclusion. The centrality of information to nature implies a mind on the receiving end — form is after all just that which is intelligible about a thing — but even more importantly, information presupposes a mind on the creating end.

Forms can exist in minds and in things, but the existence of formal and final causes in nature presupposes a mind that directs natural processes to actual intelligible ends. As Thomas Aquinas wrote in his Fifth Way, just as we infer an archer when we see an aimed arrow fly through the air, it is reasonable to infer a mind that aims nature’s processes according to regularities and physical laws.

Information, understood as formal and final cause, is what makes nature real. And information presupposes a designer.

Michael Egnor

Senior Fellow, Center for Natural & Artificial Intelligence
Michael R. Egnor, MD, is a Professor of Neurosurgery and Pediatrics at State University of New York, Stony Brook, has served as the Director of Pediatric Neurosurgery, and award-winning brain surgeon. He was named one of New York’s best doctors by the New York Magazine in 2005. He received his medical education at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons and completed his residency at Jackson Memorial Hospital. His research on hydrocephalus has been published in journals including Journal of Neurosurgery, Pediatrics, and Cerebrospinal Fluid Research. He is on the Scientific Advisory Board of the Hydrocephalus Association in the United States and has lectured extensively throughout the United States and Europe.



Albert EinsteinBig ThinkFifth Wayintelligent designJohn Archibald WheelerNeils BohrPhilip PerrySanta Fe Institutescientific revolutionShannon informationStephen MeyerThomas AquinasWilliam Dembski