Bits and Bytes at the Bottom
Editor’s note: Ken Pedersen holds a PhD in electrical engineering and is a retired Vice President of Raytheon. Jonathan Witt is a senior fellow with Discovery Institute’s Center for Science & Culture and the author or co-author of numerous articles and books. A version of this article appears in Salvo 52. It is published here with permission of the authors.
Scientific materialism is an atheistic worldview that sees all reality as the result of accidental collisions and combinations of elementary particles governed by a mysteriously fortuitous set of laws that control how matter interacts. It’s a worldview devoid of higher meaning and purpose.
Today, scientific materialism has captured much of the academic world. Science itself has virtually come to be defined as the study of this mechanical, robotic, meaningless, accidental combination of particles of matter and energy. Any belief in design, purpose, ultimate meaning, inherent values, morality, or beauty is ridiculed as equivalent to belief in the Easter Bunny.
Although scientific materialists in the last century didn’t usually pretend to have all the answers, most did express confidence that it was only a matter of time before any shortcomings in their paradigm would be shored up by fresh discoveries.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the 21st century.
It from Bit
The computer revolution and information age, combined with advances in microscopy and theoretical physics, have transformed our understanding of the power of information processing and opened our eyes to the deep structures of physical reality. The central insight: the essence of the physical world is energy and information. There is no such thing as mere “solid” matter. Instead, the substructure of physical reality is an unbelievably complex network of interlocking information-processing systems all working in harmony to afford progressively more capable information-processing systems.
As the renowned theoretical physicist John Wheeler put it, “It from Bit.” That is, the subatomic realm, along with the laws and constants of physics, which guide and shape physical interactions large and small, are shot through with information. And the information isn’t just along for the ride. The material it is literally in-formed by immaterial in-formation. Or as Wheeler elaborated in a fall 1989 paper,1 “It from Bit symbolizes the idea that every item of the physical world has at bottom — at a very deep bottom, in most instances — an immaterial source and explanation.”
We now know that three quantum fields undergird physical reality — the electron, the up quark and the down quark. These “particles” are in fact tiny clouds of pure energy. And somehow, they encode digital information for establishing what is known as a particle’s quantum state.
We do not understand and cannot visualize what this ghostly energy is. But we do know that it cannot be created or destroyed by any natural power. We also know that we can use mathematics to model how these tiny clouds of digital information behave as they flow through time and combine to undergird larger and larger patterns of energy and information.
Information All the Way Down
Think about it. There is a form of digital computing constantly whirring along at the quantum-field level of reality. And that digital computing proceeds upward through the information-processing capacities that emerge to generate, guide, and allow for atoms, radiant energy, hydrogen clouds, galaxies, stars, stardust, planets, molecular chemistry, the DNA-RNA information-coding system, a living cell, multi-cellular life, ecosystems, and ultimately conscious human minds with a capacity for perception, memory, emotions, learning, curiosity, imagination, free will, creativity, and language.
Since these patterns overlap and interfuse one another, the boundary line between one information layer and another is not always neat and discrete, but we can still profitably delineate them. Below the quantum layer — or we might say, interpenetrating and informing the quantum layer — are the rule sets governing the fundamental forces of electromagnetism, gravity, and the strong and weak nuclear forces. Without those precisely tuned rule sets, there are no atoms more complicated than hydrogen — and really, good luck even getting hydrogen. Also, no stars and galaxies, no planets, no life.
Above the level of quantum “particles” is the atomic layer of information processing, where the various atoms combine into the myriad of chemical compounds that make stars and a planet such as Earth possible. Other layers include the information-processing found in DNA and RNA, the accompanying layer found in the amino acids that code for proteins, the higher-level information-processing systems at the cellular level, and on up the hierarchy to the extraordinary information-processing that occurs in conscious creatures such as ourselves, able to unravel and marvel over these layered networks.
Higher than High Tech
Anyone who understands our current scientific knowledge base has to live in awe of existence, of this multi-layered structure of physical reality, of the purposeful flow of energy and information underpinning both matter and man, of the absolute necessity of all of this for the functioning of our brains and the magnificent physical and mental gifts humans have been given.
One of us (Ken) brings to this a background in computer information processing, mathematics, and physics, along with a career as a system engineer working on advanced information-processing systems and sensors, and overseeing the development of sophisticated missile systems. That advanced technology is all about layer upon layer of information-processing. But the sophistication of those systems is dwarfed by the that of the information systems that undergird nature.
Where Science Takes Us
Science can observe what each of these information-processing layers does and, in many cases, accurately model its behavior. Each layer of the design is unique, stunningly complex, and precisely tuned to interface with its adjoining layers. However, a science wedded to materialism cannot explain how the layers came to be or why they exist.
Ken’s recent book, Modern Science Proves Intelligent Design (Archway, 2019), walks the reader through the systematic emergence of all of these progressively more complex information-processing layers. The origin of the total design is a baffling mystery to scientific materialists. However, for any scientist willing simply to follow the evidence, one purpose of it all strongly suggests itself. Physical reality is designed as a multilayered information-processing system to guide the flow of energy and information from the elemental level of quantum computing up to the miraculous information processing found amidst the neural networks of the human mind.
Some may object that this is anthropic narcissism. Surely the vast reaches of the cosmos, with its billions and billions of galaxies stretching across billions of light years, isn’t solely about human beings. We don’t claim otherwise. If the universe is the work of purposive design, it quite likely has many purposes. We are only arguing that the layer upon layer of information-processing systems fine-tuned to allow for that most impressive of natural information-processing systems, the human mind/brain, has for one of its purposes creatures like ourselves. As the great mathematician and theoretical physicist Freeman Dyson put it, “The more I examine the universe and study the details of its architecture, the more evidence I find that the universe in some sense must have known that we were coming.”2
Dyson isn’t alone. Many theoretical physicists now recognize the sobering challenge of random accidents creating the multi-layered information-processing system one accidental rule at a time and then accidentally self-assembling these accidental rules into the magnificently complex and bizarre system of tiny clouds of energy that constantly process digital information at the speed of light. This layered network that forms the structure of physical reality could not have sprung from a fortuitous string of a few billion random accidents (make that a few quadzillion accidents if you include the DNA program). It is mathematically impossible.
Instead, the fact that each layer is the precise foundational layer for all of the subsequent higher layers of more complex information processing strongly suggests that each layer was foreseen, and intelligently designed for a purpose.
All of this means that the victory lap for the scientific materialists has been put on hold, indefinitely. Instead, they are scrambling to save their accidental universe.
Also, there is an irony in the way many of them are going about it. After generations of labeling their opponents as irrational and anti-science, many of these materialists now appeal to a kind of supernatural genie to save their accidental universe — the claim that beyond the space and time of our universe is a myriad — perhaps an infinity — of other universes, with ours simply being one of the lucky ones fine-tuned to allow for advanced life. In essence, thanks to the genie known as the multiverse, everything happens somewhere, so why not humans here?
Yes, that is their solution. They dream of genie.
- “Information, Physics, Quantum: The Search for Links” (1989).
- Disturbing the Universe (Basic Books, 1981).
Photo credit: Michael Dziedzic via Unsplash.