“It From Bit”… What About God?

the-universeIn delving into information theory as a foundation for quantum mechanical theory, I encountered again John Wheeler’s revolutionary thesis that we create the past by observing it–“The Participatory Universe“. The thesis rests on John Wheeler’s “It from Bit” hypothesis.  
In what follows I’ll summarize that thesis by examining the “three questions”, four “no’s” and five “clues” that he uses to establish the proposition.  I’ll also try to see what theological implications, if any, are entailed by this scheme.

“It From Bit”–“Three Questions”

These are the three questions:

  • How come existence?
  • How come the quantum?
  • How come “one world” out of many observer-participants?”loc.cit. p.310

 Wheeler’s answer to the first question is

…every it — every particle, every field of force, even the spacetime 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.” ibid.

That statement seems to be implicitly based on a physicalist view of reality — that only those things measured or tied to a physical picture of the world are real. What about all those important things that can never be quantified as a binary choice?  

I’ll mention just three in which degree, rather than “yes” or “no” enter as qualifiers:  love, faith, happiness. You, dear reader, please supply some others.

Wheeler gives three examples to support the claim that information theory — “it from bit” — is a foundation for quantum theory:

  • The Wootters-Zurek demonstration that the photon can not be split, can not be cloned;
  • The Aharanov-Bohm experiment in which a magnetic field, negligible in the neighborhood of an electron, nevertheless affects its trajectory;
  • The Beckenstein entropy of dark holes, in which the entropy of a black hole is proportional to the area encircled by its horizon, and thus contains (lost?) information.
Information theory as the foundation for quantum theory is very much in vogue these days, as indicated by the number of popular science articles on the subject. (This assertion is disparaging, I’ll admit, and offer as an excuse only my own inadequate background in the subject.)  The most thorough and intelligible discussion of information theory/quantum mechanics that I’ve found is Christopher Timpson’s Ph.D. Thesis, “Quantum Information Theory and the Foundations of Quantum Mechanics .  
I’ll not attempt to summarize that work, but only remark that Timpson shoots holes in several attempts to establish information theory as the grounding for quantum mechanics, but does endorse one proposal, which lays a quantum mechanics foundation not only on information theory but on the mathematics of C-algebras.

As did Wheeler, I’ll leave the answer to the third question until the “four no’s” and “five clues” are discussed.

The “Four No’s”

And here are the four “no’s”:

  • No “tower of turtles”;
  • No laws;
  • No continuum;
  • No space, no time.

The “no tower of turtles” statement asserts that infinite regress in a causal chain is not possible*. In this Wheeler, St. Thomas Aquinas, and other philosophers are in agreement.

The “no laws” assertion denies that the universe is a machine built on law, a machine that would entail a multiverse, “universes in infinite variety and infinite number”. Rather, Wheeler envisions a “world self-synthesized”:

“…the notes struck out on a piano by the observer-participants of all places and all times, bits though they are, in and by themselves constitute the great wide world of space and time and things.” loc.cit, p. 314

The “world self-synthesized” by “observer-participants of all places and all times” is, presumably, the answer or part of the answer to the third question above. But more questions are raised than answered here.  

Would an annelid worm, an eagle, and a human synthesize the same world, or is it only “intelligent beings”? If the last, what about the world synthesized by a Cro-Magnon man, an Australian aborigine, and Helen Keller?  I don’t see a coherent scheme here.

But I do have a different answer–see below.

By stating there is “no continuum”, Wheeler denies the reality of transcendental and irrational numbers. He uses quotes from the mathematician Hermann Weyl and the philosopher Willard Quine. to support that claim. One should also note that the “no continuum” condition requires that space and time must be discrete (but see below).

Wheeler’s “no space, no time” condition is perhaps the most unappealing intuitively. He claims that space and time are man-made inventions, and that at the beginning of the universe, “The Big Bang”, quantum behavior would override General Relativity — there would be no connectivity in space and before and after would have no meaning.

The Five Clues

The five clues are listed below, but I’ll not go into a detailed discussion of them, because (frankly) I find them confusing.

  • The boundary of a boundary is zero;
  • No question, no answer;
  • The super-Copernican principle;
  • Consciousness;
  • More is different.

As near as I can understand the first clue, it rests on topology. For example, the boundary of a line are end-points — zero length; the boundary of a plane area is a circumference, zero area; etc. The second clue I don’t understand in full, other than it says that probabilistic analyses in physics are misleading and that physics should be built on bit-theoretic principles.  

The third clue extends the Copernican spatial principle to time (we are not the center of the universe, any location is equally suitable as a reference): “now” is a misleading characterization of reality. By “consciousness”, Wheeler does not refer to any of the issues that engage philosophers of mind, connecting quantum theory with an observer directly. Rather (as near as I can understand it) he refers to shared communication, as per his quote of Fellesdal:

“Meaning is the joint product of all the evidence that is
available to those who communicate.”
 D. Fel1esdal: “Meaning and experience,” in Mind and Language, p. 25-44.

“More is different” states what many philosophers and scientists propose: there are “emergent” properties of a group of elements that are not best analyzed by reduction to the properties of the individual elements. For example, superconductivity is not best treated as a problem involving individual electrons in a metal.

Wheeler outlines a program for physics research that would employ all the ideas above, but that program won’t be discussed here; it is available on the online version of his paper, linked above.

My Take

Missing from Wheeler’s thesis is any notion of the Divine as Creator and Sustainer of the universe, and to me, this lack renders the enterprise without value, however interesting it might be.  I believe that quantum mechanics does provide an insight into Divine intervention.
In an article posted two years ago I wrote about the theological and philosophical implications of the quantum delayed choice experiment. The experiment was originally proposed by Wheeler, and has been successfully implemented by several physicists. 
What are the philosophical/theological implications of the delayed choice experiment? I believe this has been best expressed by the American physicist Raymond Chiao, in his article “Quantum Non-Localities: Experimental Evidence” in Quantum Mechanics–Scientific Perspectives on Divine Action, V.5  (publ: Vatican Observatory and Center for Theology and Natural Science;  see below for link).
Although it’s a long quote, it expresses better than I can the link between quantum mechanics and neo-Berkeleyan vision of Divine intervention.

I shall assume as a basic principle that the universe we live in bears witness to the Creator who created it  [emphasis added]…let us generalize Berkeley’s philosophical principle to a ‘neo-Berkeleyan point of view’ in which God is the Observer of the universe, in the quantum sense of ‘observer’. This generalization starts from small systems…in which an observer created reality is seen to occur upon every elementary act of observation, and ends up with large systems–in particular with the entire universe.

In this viewpoint, every elementary, individual quantum event…is a result of a creative act of the universal Observer, in which all properties of all particles come into existence on their observation, in continual acts of creatio ex nihilo, which constitutes a kind of creatio continua  occurring everywhere at once. Thus the existence of the universe itself is contingent upon the continual observations of the Creator. The idea of contingency of existence, in the sense of the utter dependency of the universe for its properties and existence at each moment upon its Creator, is thereby introduced via quantum physics into philosophy and theology…

…Furthermore, this viewpoint suggests a new meaning of the immanence  of the Creator with respect to creation, since God is acting everywhere at once in the universe. Thus God is omnipresent, omniscient, and omnipotent…The neo-Berkeleyan viewpoint introduced here suggests not only a continual creatio ex nihilo qua creatio continua by an immanent Creator, but also a singular creatio ex nihilo by a transcendent Creator.

Moreover, the above Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen effects imply a quantum non-separability, which ties together the universe non-locally as a whole. This reminds one of the words of the Apostle John,’All things come into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being that has being’ (John I:3) and of the words of the Apostle Paul,’All things have been created through him and for him…and to him all things hold together.’ (Colossians I:16,17)…We infer that ‘all things’ refers to the universe.  Not only are all distant parts the universe woven together throughout space, but also its future and its past are entangled throughout time, as if the universe were one seamless garment.” (Raymond Chiao, “Quantum Non-Localities: Experimental Evidence” in Quantum Mechanics–Scientific Perspectives on Divine Action, V.5**)

So, to summarize: the Anglican theologian Bishop George Berkeley gave us the dictum, “esse est percipi”–to be is to be perceived, which we can invert: percipi est esse. In this Wheeler’s Participatory Universe stands, but it is God who is the participating observer. And to reinforce this point, what could be better than Monsignor Ronald Knox’s limerick about Berkeleyan idealism:

“There was a young man who said, ‘God
Must think it exceedingly odd
If he finds that this tree
Continues to be
When there’s no one about in the Quad.’
‘Dear Sir:
Your astonishment’s odd:
I am always about in the Quad.
And that’s why the tree
Will continue to be,
Since observed by
Yours faithfully,
GOD.’ “


*Wheeler is paraphrasing the expression “turtles all the way down”. There’s  a famous anecdote about the elderly lady asserting a flat earth theory to a famous philosopher (two versions: William James or Bertrand Russell):  the earth rested on the back of a large elephant, which in turn rested on a larger turtle. When asked what that turtle rested on, the lady replied, “don’t be silly–it’s turtles all the way down.”
**Click on the reddish-violet icon for the book and the chapter headings will appear on the right; click on the one for Raymond Chiao and a summary will appear.

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