Monday, July 11, 2011

The ground of being

For almost the whole of human history - until, say, the 19th century - the intellectually curious could expect their culture's deepest and most universal explanatory systems to be not only intellectually but also emotionally satisfying. Mythic, religious or metaphysical systems provided explanations (albeit inadequate as we now see) of both the natural and the social/moral world.

Our best theories of physics, by contrast, omit - as they must - all the things our complex brains seem primarily designed to deal with. And the men (and very few women) at the forefront of research in physics and related sciences often come across as lacking in social awareness.

Writing style (in non-technical contexts) gives a lot away about a person, and so often, when reading autobiographical or semi-autobiographical books by leading scientists, I find myself making allowances for what seems to be a certain childish quality, a lack of critical or social or psychological awareness or sophistication - even sometimes a certain moral immaturity and recklessness. It seems almost as though - as with autistic savants - these people's brains are not 'wasting' any time or energy on the immensely complex processing involved in being socially (and morally?) aware.

There are exceptions, of course. Seth Lloyd's book Programming the universe (Alfred A. Knopf, 2006) is not only beautifully written in a spare and restrained style, but it is also saying something of profound importance. Lloyd takes the tradition of digital physics associated with such names as Edward Fredkin and John Wheeler and updates it to encompass the concept - and the reality - of quantum computing.

Wheeler suggested that the bit (i.e. information) was the fundamental building block of reality rather than the physical particle; Lloyd and his colleagues deal not in bits but in qubits (quantum bits). The cosmos is not a classical computer but rather a quantum computer - computing itself. A more recent work by Vlatko Vedral, Decoding reality (OUP, 2010), makes similar claims.

According to this way of thinking, in order to understand any complex system the most important thing is to understand how information is represented and processed within that system. But underlying all systems are just a handful of simple logical operations. There is something very beautiful about this, and I am sometimes tempted to devote myself in a serious way to learning more about these fundamental processes - and even writing about them. But I'm not sure the payoff would be worth it. Fascinating as these ideas are in general terms, I fear that the deeper one goes, the less interesting they become - except in a technical sense. The puzzles of quantum computing are fascinating - but no more so than any other complex joint problem-solving exercise. The fascination is not the emotionally satisfying fascination associated with a global understanding of one's place in nature.

My provisional conclusion is that ultimately our ordinary lives are more complex and interesting than these fundamental processes. To imagine otherwise is to exhibit traces of theological thinking, the old sense that there is something very wonderful at the heart of reality - God, the Ground of Being. But it's looking increasingly likely that there's just a whole lot of computing going on, willy-nilly, and without a master programmer.


  1. Mark, I don't understand how the world can be a bunch of computing and there not be a master programmer. There's no precedent for a non-mental computer, as far as I know. All the computing ever done in cosmic history has been done by flesh and blood human geeks. This is just like Paley's watch.

    Please explain.

  2. Physical processes can be seen in terms of information processing (= computing). Shannon's information theory mirrors some of the basic concepts of thermodynamics (in particular in respect of the notion of entropy) and many now see information (which is physical and measurable) as a more fundamental concept than matter or energy (Wheeler's 'it from bit').

    I'll stop here and hope someone more knowledgeable will come in and help me out! If not I'll dig out my notes and try to make the case myself, but any satisfactory explanation would have to be more extensive than is possible here.

  3. I don't really think I can add much to what I have said here and in the post 'Through a crystal darkly' (see popular posts list) as far as the basic ideas go. The main point of the current post - the suggestion that it is a mistake to expect some kind of enlightenment from fundamental research in physics - is not dependent on any particular fundamental theory or approach. In the back of my mind is Steven Weinberg's comment: "The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it seems pointless." The post is in effect a personal response to that perception.