‘If you are carrying a hammer then everything looks like a nail’
What place or role does information hold in the physical world? Is it just a tool or metaphor – simply a convenient explanatory device – or is the bit-flipping of a computational substrate part of the fundamental fabric of the universe? Though traditionally treated as an aspect of knowledge and meaning and therefore derivative, could it be primary stuff? We can, for instance, readily understand that organisms are information-processing systems.
The traditional view of physicists is that the world consists of matter, translated scientifically as energy. But are mass and energy simply forms of information as a simpler, more economic, and therefore more fundamental idea or entity? Could information tell us the form that energy is taking (what it does) as it comes directly from the system itself – is the use of information a step closer to a detached account of the ‘reality’ of the universe?
First, there is the desire for grounding which comes in many forms expressed, for example, as the desire for foundations, axioms, or laws. This approach provides points of explanatory departure, as Aristotle stated. Parsimony and elegance then suggest that one overarching physical foundation or fundamental principle is to be preferred. This also leads the search for a unified theory of everything.
Secondly, the search for foundational principles and ingredients of the universe has followed the tendency within science to find solutions by analysis, by investigating the relations of parts within wholes. This has led to the location of foundations in small and simple things (smallism) – like fundamental or elementary particles, bits, numbers and so on.
The position developed on this web site, called aspect theory, is that scientific fundamentalism is misguided, and for psychological reasons. It is part of our innate mental structuring of the world that we both classify and prioritize the objects of our cognition, giving greater or lesser weight to some objects over others (rank-value) to form hierarchies. This is necessary for our survival. This is, however, an explanatory (epistemological) device: the world itself does not make such distinctions. Everything in the world (?reality) exists equally (a flat ontology). On this view, to say that the world consists ‘fundamentally’ of numbers or bits of information is as absurd as it sounds: it may be consistent with a particular explanatory frame (physics, mathematics and computation), but there are other frames. Does this lead to relativism – ‘my frame is as good as your frame?’ Yes, but not in a negative way. Any frame is only as good as its efficiency in achieving the purpose for which it was designed. Numbers and bits of information might be meaningful for mathematicians, physicists and those immersed in computation, but these are not a viable currency for explaining the structure and function of living organisms. But this summation is nevertheless just one explanatory ‘perspective’ or ‘aspect’ of ‘reality’: it is just one way of describing the world, albeit a very useful one.
If this view has merit then we need to look elsewhere to find additional values for the notion of information. Scientists might also benefit from a general education in the innate predispositions of the human mind.