To say that ‘everything is information’ has a nice ring to it and there is something very appealing about the idea, but at the same time there might be a tendency for it to sound rather woolly or ‘pseudo-scientific’. The thing is though that this statement isn’t woolly or vague at all – it is very, very precise and very, very sharp! When we say that ‘everything is information’ this is as precise and sharp as any scientific statement.
This is not just a pleasant or intriguing way of looking at things – it is the clearest and most succinct way of talking about reality that we ever could find. It is also something that is very hard to argue against. The reason we can say so unequivocally that ‘everything is information’ is because nothing has a precedent or ‘logical precursor’, and this happens to be the definition of information. If something happens because it is prefigured or predetermined by the logical matrix then it is not information. There is no information in it, in this case. If something happens that is not prefigured in the logical matrix (something that is ‘non-casual’, something that is ‘independent’ of the chain of cause-and-effect) then this is information, this event does contain information. So because – as we have said – nothing that happens has any precedent, everything must by definition be information!
The deduction that we have just made doesn’t sound right at all; in fact it sounds highly suspect. It sounds highly suspect because anyone can point to lots and lots of things and show very convincingly that they are ‘precedented’ rather than unprecedented’. Anything that obeys the law of cause-and-effect is ‘precedented’ and this seems to be the case for almost everything that happens – certainly it is the case for most of the regular stuff that happens around us on a day-to-day basis. The world after all is logical place – stuff happens for a reason, not out of the blue! We can make this argument (and do so in a very convincing way) but it simply doesn’t happen to be true, not when we look at the bigger picture. This isn’t ‘precedence’ – this is ‘precedence within a dream’. Logic itself is a ‘dream within a dream’ – it is a perfect example of what Greg Tucker calls ‘the Defection Parody’, which is us thinking we can escape from the dream by making things seem very real, very solid in the dream. Logic (or precedence) is how we try to make the dream seem real! In order to see the bigger picture therefore we have to pull ourselves out of the logical matrix which is the rational mind, and when we do this then it becomes abundantly clear that nothing has a precedent. We can make a robust argument here: we can say that nothing has precedence because in reality (in the bigger picture) there is no such thing as time, and without time there can of course be no such thing as precedence!
To say that there is ‘no such thing as time’ sounds rather outrageous because we are (quite understandably) all very unused to thinking outside of the framework of space and time. We are very used to thinking that space and time are essential, irreducible aspects of reality itself. We are very used to thinking that the space-time continuum is identical to reality itself, that it is practically synonymous with reality. But any physicist would very quickly point out that space and time are conditions placed on reality, rather than indications of the underlying nature of reality. To imagine otherwise is merely lazy thinking. The current view of how the physical universe (and all the particles in it) came into being is that a bubble of space-time is formed in much the same way that a ‘vacuum fluctuation’ is formed, via a ‘momentary adjusting of the accounting books’, so to speak. Something is borrowed from the bank, and then immediately paid back, and during this brief moment of time ‘something arises out of nothing’. This process is described by John Gribbin (1995, p 121) in his book Schrödinger’s Kittens and the Search for Reality:
Just as an electron is allowed to produce a photon which it promptly reabsorbs, so nothing at all (vacuum) is allowed to produce photons spontaneously, provided they quickly disappear back into the vacuum. This is an aspect of quantum uncertainty — to say that there was an absolutely zero probability of a photon being a particular volume of space would imply absolute certainty, which is not allowed by the quantum rules. So there must be a small probability of a photon popping up anywhere at all. Anything which is not forbidden by the quantum rules seems obligatory, and, indeed, these quantum fluctuations of the vacuum, as they are known, are a well-established feature of the quantum world.
The author goes on to elaborate (p 123):
It isn’t just photons that can appear out of nothing at all, as vacuum fluctuations. The quantum rules provide for a trade-off between uncertainty in energy and uncertainty in time. The energy to make a very light particle (such as a photon, which has zero rest mass, although it does carry energy) can pop up out of nothing at all for a relatively long time (only ‘relatively’ long; we are dealing in small fractions of a second here); but the energy needed to make more massive particles (such as an electron-positron pair) can only be “borrowed” from the vacuum for a correspondingly shorter period of time (so the electron-positron pair quickly annihilate one another and give their borrowed energy back to the vacuum). “Nothing at all” is best pictured as a seething maelstrom of activity in which all kinds of particles are flickering in and out of existence.
Gribbin says elsewhere that
if a tiny bubble of energy corresponding to the mass of the Universe popped into existence on the quantum scale, its mass energy and its gravitational energy could, the theory tells us, exactly balance one another, allowing the quantum universe to have essentially zero overall energy and therefore a very long lifetime…
If this were to be the case (as both John Gribbin and quantum theory suggests) then the universe (or the space-time continuum) which we take so much for granted can thus be seen to have a highly ‘provisional’ nature. It’s only there because of ‘a trick’, because of a bit of ‘creative accounting’. The apparently concrete and substantial universe is revealed as being an extraordinarily ephemeral kind of a thing, like the night-time reflection of a flash of lightening seen momentarily on the surface of a drop of falling rain perhaps (if one could be quick enough to see such a thing). The space-time continuum is every bit as ephemeral as a vacuum fluctuation, every bit as ephemeral as a fleck of quantum foam, no matter how substantial it might seem to be to us when we takes its conditions seriously. The well-known lines from the Diamond Sutra (which is said to be the first book ever printed) are apt here:
Thus shall you think of this fleeting world:
A star at dawn, a bubble in a stream,
A flash of lightning in a summer cloud,
A flickering lamp, a phantom, and a dream.
Within the ephemeral bubble of space and time these conditions seem very real, very concrete indeed. The whole thing seems as real and as concrete as anything ever could be. But that’s only from the inside of the bubble, when we’re looking at things from the POV of the bubble. From the outside, there is no solidity, no concreteness. When we’re on the inside of the bubble, and the bubble is all we know, then there seems to be such a thing as time, such a thing as duration, such and thing as ‘before and after’. We can for example say that the universe is so many billions of years old, and that it will continue to exist for so many billions (or trillions) of years, and this seems like an unthinkably vast stretch of time. What could be more substantial than all of these untold billions of years, when even ten years seems like a long time to be waiting around for something? Yet in reality – in what we could call the bigger picture of reality – the answer to the question as to “What is the duration of the universe?” can only be, “No duration at all.” The universe has no duration, no linear extension at all because time came into existence at the same time it did, which makes the question quite meaningless.
There is no such thing as ‘time’ in the bigger picture of reality, any more than there is such a thing as ‘space’. This being the case, there can be no such thing as precedence in reality, as we have already said. Precedence only exists in a tautological (or redundant) fashion if we first agree to look at things ‘as if’ there were such a thing. This gives us no ground to make any arguments about the existence of precedence, no matter how tempted we might be to do so. We can hardly say that there is such a thing as precedence because we have opted to look at things in such a way that there appears to be such a thing – this clearly is not a very sound argument at all! No argument which relies upon intentionality to back it up is going to give us any real satisfaction in the end because we’re just chasing our own tails. Our proofs are hollow. It’s only true because we say that it’s true…
So everything is information. There is nothing else it can be! But then as soon as we say this we realize that we don’t actually have a clue as to what this means. What is information? What does it mean to say that “Everything is information”? The problem is that the only way we know anything, the only way we understand anything, is to see it in terms of precedence, and so if there actually isn’t any such thing as precedence then the bottom falls out of our supposed explanation. We’re trying to put stuff in a pail so we can take it back home with us but the pail’s got no bottom in it!
When we look into this trusty bucket or pail of ours (which is an abstract receptacle more often called ‘the rational mind’) we find that we are looking right through it and what we see through it (through the hole at the bottom of it) is not what we expected to see at all. What we see is ‘nothing at all’. What we see is immaculate empty space, like a cloudless sky at noon on a magnificent summer’s day, and this immaculate ‘cloudless sky’ goes on and on forever…
The question is, therefore, is this really what we want to discover at the bottom of our pail? Are we happy about this or not? How is this going to change our attitude to everything else in our lives, to discover a great big ‘hole’ in what we conceive to be reality? Is that OK? How do we feel about this discovery? And most of all, “Do we really want to know”?
Author: Nick Williams
Nick Williams works and writes in the field of mental health and is particularly interested in non-equilibrium states of consciousness, which are states of mind that cannot be validated by standardized experiments or by reference to any formal theoretical perspective.