What is information? (Part 1): Is information Subjective – Physical – Fundamental? Perception & Meaning
We are living in the Information Age. From the birth of the digital computer to 24-hour television, from our love affair with personal electronic devices to our second life in Cyberspace. There is no doubt that information plays a fundamental role in our lives. We are currently accessing, storing and processing information in a way that creates a degree of global inerconnectedness which humanity had never experienced before.
But could it be that information is actually something much more subtle and fundamental than our common conception associated with communication or technology?
For instance, we can think of the amount of information contained in a DNA molecule or we can think of the information contained in an electromagnetic field. We can attempt to relate the concept of information to the concept of time. We can even talk about consciousness as a purely informational field. And what about the concept of meaning? How does meaning arise?
Could it be that information can be described in such a way that it is indistinguisable from reality? Could it be that the most fundamental concept of all is that of information? Something from which everything else can arise: consciousness, space, time, matter, energy…
There is a growing sense amongst scientists that information plays a fundamental role in the description and our understanding of the universe. From computer science and quantum physics, to biology and neuroscience. Each day there are more and more scientists who use the informational approach to describe the universe. Not only that, but the concept of information is also increasingly being used by scientists and philosophers alike to explore the metaphysical and philosophical aspects of reality.
"So what is this video really about?", you may wonder. Right now you are watching the first part of a series of videos where I will use information as the main tool to explore the nature of reality. If so far all of this sounds Greek to you, don't worry; it probably should! In fact, there aren't that many videos around yet, at least in YouTube, that dig into physics and metaphysics from the digital physics perspective, so hopefully not only can I contribute to fill that gap, but also create a half-decent series of videos along the way, which are not only informative but also a great source of food for thought.
Just as with the "What is Time?" video, I asked myself a question which I attempted to answer as best as I could. This time I am dealing with information, a concept which I consider even more fundamental than time itself. Well, answering this question to the best of my ability has taken me about two months so far! The more I dig into the subject, the more amazing facts I uncover! The more questions I think I can answer, the more puzzling questions that keep arising. And so the script just keeps getting longer & longer!
Right now, while I am recording the audio for this first video, I haven't yet finished the scripts for the next few videos, although I would say they are about 75% finished, so I think we are talking about a series of between 4 to 6 videos total (maybe more). Hopefully, the next video should be finished & uploaded within the next 3 to 4 weeks.
Ok, so what is this series about? Well, I will discuss quite a broad spectrum of ideas. While some parts may feel rather dense or technical to you, other parts will be much more enjoyable, entertaining and controversial. The technical bits are necessary not only for completeness but they will also help you understand the more exciting sections, so I encourage you to watch all the videos, even if you feel a bit lost at some points. I always try to keep the maths down to a bare minimum, so that everybody is able to follow the arguments without necessarily understanding the details of a particular equation.
Here is a brief summary of what will be discussed in this video, which corresponds to Part 1 of the series titled "What is Information?":
– Information as creation of form or communication of data
– Discussion of Gregory Bateson's definition
– Information as perception + potential for knowledge acquisition
– Difference between information and code symbols
– Information as a relational concept
– Information, classical realism & quantum mechanics
– Does information have intrinsic meaning?
– Is information subjective?
– Is information made of matter or energy?
– Is information physical?
– Association of the bit with Bateson's definition
– Information & maximisation of its potential for knowledge acquisition. The domain of sentient entities
– What are the key ingredients which allow meaning to arise and life to evolve?
– Reality as informational relationships between its constituent entities, sentient or non-sentient
– Reality as information
This is only a tiny part of what is to come. Here is a brief summary of what will be discussed in the rest of the video series:
-Quantifying information: Information Theory
-Claude Shannon's Entropy: relating information to probability
– Information as reduction in uncertainty
– Norbert Wiener: information as measure of organisation
– Erwin Schrödinger: life and negative entropy
– Wiener's vs Shannon's information
– Information quality vs information quantity
– Definition of physical entropy
– Relationship between physical entropy and Shannon's entropy
– Second Law, Maxwell Demon, Information Erasure and Black Hole Physics
– Quantum Information and Flow of Information into Space-Time
– Quantum information theory
– Classical information vs quantum information
– The Qubit
– Christopher Timpson's accessible information vs specification information
– What is non-locality?
– Distinction between two different realms where information can operate (local vs non-local).
– Classical information's local constraints
– Entropy, Information, Second Law of Thermodynamics & Determinism
– Quantum computation, entanglement & teleportation
– Ontology of Information and Reality
– Discussion of physical vs non-physical, abstract vs concrete, measurable vs non-measurable, real vs illusory, existent vs non-existent, natural vs supernatural… Where do we draw the line? How arbitrary is this line?
– Is information Physical? Rolf Landauer's statement and discussion
– Can information be created ex-nihilo (out of nothing)? But what is "nothing" anyway?
– Views from Vlatko Vedral, Paul Davies, Seth Lloyd, David Deutsch, Anton Zeilinger, Christopher Timpson…
– Views from the founders of quantum physics, plus views from Bernard d'Espagnat, David Bohm, John Wheeler, Edward Fredkin, Tom Campbell…
– Is information fundamental?
– Laws of physics and information
– John Wheeler's It from Bit, Meaningful Information, Participatory Universe and the role of the conscious observer
– Revisiting Maxwell demon; more ideas related to the Second Law, quantum computers and information
– D'Espagnat's Veiled Reality & Bohm's Implicate Order
– Consciousness: physical or non-physical? Emergent or primary?
– Information and Consciousness. Can consciousness be modelled as a self-aware, self-organising (add more) information field?
– Information, Consciousness and Non-locality: ESP and altered states of consciousness (remote viewing, meditative states, near-death & out of body experiences, psychedelics).
So…this is pretty much what this series of videos aims to cover. After I have finished with these, I would like to create a few videos that discuss quantum mechanics and measurement, the role of the conscious observer, determinism, materialism, realism, and idealism in depth, perhaps linking some of these concepts to the informational approach. And after that, I'd like to create a series of videos that explore the VR or simulation hypothesis; the idea that our universe (and other possible universes or realities) can be modelled as a virtual reality or simulation. Hopefully, that should keep me quite busy for at least a year!
As you may have noticed, I always try to cover the whole spectrum of science; from mainstream science to fringe science and everything in between, while also exploring the nature of reality from the metaphysical and philosophical point of view. This is what I love doing! In addition, I feel that combining physics, metaphysics and philosophy can provide a much bigger picture of reality, which helps make the videos more enjoyable and it also encourages discussion of a much wider variety of topics; topics which tend to matter to pretty much everybody.
However, I am aware that many people are not comfortable with any approach that goes beyond physics and maths, or with anything that is not mainstream. If this is the case, then this channel may not be for you. If you want to listen to just mainstream science, for instance, there are plenty of good channels around that do this job very well, such as Minute Physics or Veritasium, which I thoroughly recommend.
On the other hand, if you are happy exploring our universe, life, and what may lie beyond not only from the mainstream science point of view but also from other open-minded, non-dogmatic perspectives, well, you have definitely come to the right place! Another channel that explores both science and metaphysical concepts using quite an open-minded approach is Imagining the 10th Dimension, which I also recommend.
Now, I would like to take you on an incredible journey where we'll be able to explore reality in a way you may have never done before. As always, my aim is to make you think outside the box, to show you alternative ways to look at the world and yourself, so that you have the opportunity to consider new ideas and perspectives, even if you don't necessarily agree with them. So, without further ado, let's begin!
Finding a Good Definition of Information:
So what is information? The word information can be defined and used in many different ways. In this video series I will cover those definitions which I consider more relevant, so that we can create a solid basis upon which we can then build a series of concepts about the nature of reality that I find absolutely fascinating.
Information is commonly understood to be simply a collection of facts or data. It can also be interpreted as the communication, and subsequent reception of data, a process which can then lead to increased knowledge.
But let's take a look at its etymology first: information is derived from "informare", a Latin verb which literally means to "give form to the mind", or to "form an idea of something". Personally, I love this definition, because it suggests two very important things to me: first, that information is somehow fundamental. It can be viewed as something from which everything else can be derived – something from which "form" and meaning can arise.
Secondly, because it is implied that the act of giving form and meaning is intimately related to an agent who can pick up the data and interpret it. And this in turn suggests that there is not much value in information itself unless a meaning can be assigned to these forms that arise.
So we have this double notion of information as being both the facts (the raw data) plus their communication and the potential interpretation that can be given to these facts. Information can therefore be defined as data, as content, as a message, to which a meaning can be assigned and from which knowledge can be acquired.
Note something important here: don't confuse the term "information" with the code symbols used to transmit it (for example: the letters of the alphabet and the words written on a book or a screen are code symbols, not information).
Ok, now let's try to pin it all down to what the essential meaning of information should be. For this, I will start with a definition that I quite like, and will then modify it until it truly represents what I think information should be at the core.
Information was famously defined as a "a difference that makes a difference" by cyberneticist Gregory Bateson. But what does this definition really mean? Well, here's my interpretation.
At the most basic level, information can be though of as the distinction or difference between two states. This distinction then leads to a an acquisition of knowledge in the agent who receives the information; so this acquisition of knowledge represents a difference as well. Hence we say information is a "difference that makes a difference".
Now, I'm going to modify Bateson's statement in two steps. First, let's change it to information is a "difference that can make a difference". This makes more sense to me, for the very simple reason that, at the lowest possible level of complexity, what we have is the differentiation between two states; but this difference only has the potential to create knowledge (that is, it doesn't necessarily create knowledge but it has the potential to do so…it is a difference that has the potential to create a difference).
Let me clarify. Say we have an entity which is capable of perceiving the distinction between two different states. For example, think of the state-pairs up/down, open/closed, disturbed/undisturbed, on/off, split/not-split, 0/1 and so on. The actual state can be thought as "the difference" and the potential interpretation of the meaning of this state can be associated to the bit "that can make a difference". Information is therefore a difference that can make a difference.
But I will now modify the definition even further. I say that information is actually "a perceived difference that can make a difference". This effectively gets rid of the idea that information is something which is a thing, or even a state or property which is somehow "out there". Information is not a thing, it's not a state or a property belonging to the external world, but the perception or experience of the world we think is out there.
Let's see how this works. A perceived difference involves, at the most basic level, the ability to differentiate between two states, "this" versus "that", 0 versus 1, up versus down and so on. This perceived difference can make a difference to the agent who perceives it – in other words, the agent can potentially interpret the data, assign a meaning, and therefore can learn, can acquire new knowledge. In this way, information is linked to perception, and it is a process, a relationship, a connection, a potential for knowledge. This is important: information is a relational concept.
Now, let's use an example. Imagine you have a cell which can perceive the distinction between different levels of acidity in the immediate environment. To make it simple (at the risk of oversimplifying here), but let's say the cell can perceive the difference between the states acidic and non-acidic. What is information in this context? Information is not the environment's property of acidity or non-acidity. Information is the perceived state of acidity or non-acidity by the cell. Information is therefore linked to the ability to perceive this difference between the two states, and whatever interpretation is potentially assigned to that perception by the cell (and given this interpretation, the cell can then act accordingly).
Here's a second example. Imagine you see a line of black dots against a white background. What is information in this context? Information is not the black dots nor the white background. Information is the perceived black dots against the white background, it is the perceived difference, it is the perceived pattern, it is the perceived contrast and so on…. All of this plus the connection of the dots (metaphorically speaking now), that is, the potential interpretation and meaning you assign to these perceived black dots against the white background.
And finally, a third example; this one is a bit more complex. Think of the word "love". You can read this word on paper or a on a screen. Or you can hear it as a sound. The information contained in the word "love" is not the characters that make up the word love, nor the ordering of these characters. It is not the ink on the paper nor the pixels on the screen. It is not the vibrational waves or the frequency of these waves… It is not the arrangement of atoms that make up the paper or the ink, it is not the electrons that hit the screen, nor the individual movement of the air molecules…
The information contained in the word "love" is the perceived shapes, patterns or vibrational sounds that make up that word, plus the potential meaning that can be assigned to these.
These patterns can be perceived by, say, an electron microscope, a sound-recording device, a bird or a person. The characteristics of these perceived patterns will be different, depending on whether the agent is an electron-microscope, a sound-recording device, a bird or a person.
In addition, the potential meaning assigned to these patterns will also be different depending on the agent perceiving them. Even though an electron microscope and a sound-recording device somehow process the perceived information, they will not be able to assign any meaning to this information they have interacted with. On the other hand, the bird and the person will each come up with their own subjective interpretations and so will be able to assign a meaning to it. The meaning a bird can assign to the sound of the word love is likely to be very different to the meaning you and I would assign to it. However, it is clear that a bird has the capacity to interpret and assign meaning, whereas currently, a machine doesn't.
So it is clear that the information contained in the word love is 100% observer-dependent. Information is in essence a subjective process because it has no value whatsoever unless a meaning can be assigned to it. Information is, therefore, a perceived difference that can (but doesn't necessarily) make a difference.
All these changes I made to Gregory Bateson's definition of information represent, first of all, the rejection of the idea that information is a thing made of physical matter or energy. As cyberneticist and mathematician Norbert Wiener said "information is information, not matter or energy". We'll come back to Wiener later.
Secondly, the modifications represent the rejection of classical realism, that is, the notion that there is an objective reality "out there" which is well defined prior to observation. As quantum physicist Anton Zeilinger puts it, "It is operationally impossible to separate reality and information", a conclusion he has reached thanks to the results of numerous quantum mechanical experiments, many of which clearly show that realism, as we used to know it, has pretty much been falsified and that the observer and the observed are intimately related.
Quantum mechanics has shown us that neither microscopic nor macroscopic objects can be thought to have well defined properties or states prior to observation. I will cover quantum mechanics and realism in detail in one of my next videos but if you want more information right now, just google "violation of Bell inequalities" and "violation of Leggett-Garg inequalities".
Finally, the modifications also represent the very important fact that information is ultimately subjective, a relational concept not only dependent on subjective perception but also dependent on subjective interpretation. Information doesn't really have any intrinsic meaning. Instead, information has the potential of being interpreted and hence the potential of being assigned a meaning – a meaning which depends on the interpreter.
This is a indeed a crucial point I think. Some people think that information has intrinsic meaning. Personally, I don't think it is wise to define information as having intrinsic meaning. Simply because meaning is totally subjective; meaning just can't be objectively engraved or embedded in the content of a message.
The act of informing and information itself, is a subjective, an observer-dependent process, given that perception and meaning do not exist independently of the receiver's own interpretation; meaning is unique to the receiver. Information is a process which requires the subjective interpretation of perceived raw data, which is ultimately relative to context, experience, previous knowledge and so on. I will repeat it again because this is important: information has no real value, it is in fact meaningless, without interpretation!
Another important thing I would like to point out is that, given that information is not the same as the physical code symbols or signals used to encode the data, that it is not physical matter nor energy, but it is the actual perceived content, the perceived pattern, and its potential subjective meaning, one can conclude that information is, in essence, non-physical. This is another important concept: information is non-physical!
This last statement is actually a very controversial one, as we'll see later on, because it appears to contradict the view held today by many physicists. I will come back to this fascinating topic later on when I talk about physicist Rolf Landauer, his famous statement, and what do we mean exactly by physical and non-physical.
Let's do a brief summary: information is at the very core a perceived difference that can make a difference, it is not a thing made of physical matter or energy but a perceived distinction or pattern, it is a process, a relationship, a connection, and a potentiality for meaningfulness and knowledge acquisition. Information is non-physical and it has no intrinsic objective meaning or value in the absence of interpretation.
Associating the Bit with Bateson's definition, Use of the word Perception, Sentient Life and Meaning
Now that we have defined information in a qualitative manner, how do we go about quantifying it? Is there a basic unit of information that we can associate with Gregory Bateson's definition?
Well, as you may know, information is typically measured in bits. Bit is a just short for binary digit. The bit is a basic unit of information, it is a variable which can have only two possible values, which we represent by the digits 0 and 1. This binary digit can represent the basis of differentiation we talked about earlier. And this is precisely what information is at the very core, as per our previous definition. The perceived distinction between two different states or properties which has the potential to create a difference.
As we discussed in the previous section, consider the distinction between these states or concepts: up vs down, on vs off, open vs closed, yes vs no, distorted vs undistorted, etc… This basic difference can be represented by a digit that can take the value 0 or 1. So we see that the bit is a very useful unit which can successfully represent what information is at the most basic level. The binary digit, in the context of Bateson's definition, can therefore represent the quantification of the most basic type of differentiation, although it can't really quantify the potentiality for meaningfulness.
At this point, I would like to clarify something which I think may have created some confusion. So far I have been using the verb "to perceive" or the noun "perception" in a very broad sense. These are just convenient terms so that the concept of information can be used to describe all of reality, to describe the interactions and relationships between all of its constituents. Here "perception" is used in a way that doesn't necessarily imply we are dealing with a conscious or a sentient being. In this way, an electron-microscope, a golf ball, a DNA molecule or a living cell can all be thought as being able to "perceive" a distinction between different states, that is, different properties in their external environment or within themselves, if applicable.
The use of the word perception in the case of non-sentient entities such as a microscope or a golf ball is used as a metaphor, a way of speaking. A golf ball, for instance, can be described as an entity which perceives information related to the physical laws which tell it how to move; for example, it can perceive the information related to a particular gravitational field and move accordingly. A golf ball can't perceive changes in the environment in a conscious way; it simply follows physical laws. Let's be careful not to antropomorphise.
In our definition, we have been careful not to assign intrinsic meaning to information, only the potential for meaningfulness. Non-sentient entities can be thought of as being able to "perceive" changes, although they cannot assign a meaning to these changes; they simply follow physical laws.
I realise that using the word "perception" in such a way can sometimes be a bit confusing, but I repeat, I am not in any way implying that non-sentient physical matter is endowed with free will or consciousness. It's just language, a metaphor. I am using these terms so that we can generalise the definition of information in a way that can be used to describe the whole of reality as relationships, as interconnections between its different constituents (whatever these might be, sentient or not).
Now, have you noticed that here we have uncovered a very important aspect of information? It is precisely when information is used in such a way that its full potential can be maximised that we enter the domain of life, of self-awareness, sentient beings… and ultimately, the domain of free-willed consciousness.
Meaning is assigned in such a way that information can then be used as a learning tool, to grow, to self-modify, to provide feedback, to evolve… An increase in knowledge can take place.
The evolution of life is possible because the potential use of information has been maximised. Sentient beings have the ability to store and retrieve information as well as the ability to process information.
The meaning that sentient entities attribute to new information can therefore be based on their experience, that is, on memory. In this way, the potential acquisition of knowledge and learning are maximised; evolution can take place. What are the key ingredients that enable this potential use of information to be maximised? What are the elements which support this capacity to learn and evolve? How do complexity and meaningfulness arise? What gives an entity the ability to assign meaning to information? For now all I will say is that, in my opinion, consciousness and free will are the key ingredients. But how do consciousness and free will arise? Are they emergent or fundamental? This is another fascinating topic which hopefully I will be able to cover in future videos.
Finally, I would like to mention Steven Kaufman, who has written a book called "Unified Reality Theory", which attempts to explain the nature of reality from an idealistic point of view. While I don't necessarily agree with all the elements of his theory, I have found it very interesting. As a matter of fact, Kaufman doesn't really use the word information at all. However, in my opinion, what he describes as the basic framework upon which our reality arises is in fact, nothing other than information: a perceived difference which can make a difference. Up vs down, on vs off and so on. Reality is the experience, the perception of these states in relation to each other.
Kaufman describes our experience of this universe as being nothing more than an underling reality forming relationships with itself. Here is a little excerpt from his book:
"We experience up as up, and so we tend to think that up is independently up, unaware that up can exist as such only in relation to a coexistent down. (…) The same is true for everything else that we experience, in that whatever we experience something to be, it can be that only in relation to and in dependence on some other aspect of existence which is not that. (…) Everything that is happening in the universe represents some relationship that existence has formed with itself, some form of relative existence."
That is an interesting way to describe reality, I found, which encapsulates the essence of the informational approach, don't you think?
Summary for Part 1
So, to finish off Part 1 of this series of videos, I'd like to do a little summary related to what we have discussed so far.
We have defined information in a way that helps us describe reality as a web of relationships, a web of interconnections between its constituent entities. Reality can be thought of as being made up of information; the perception of properties in relation to other properties. In this way, information is essentially a relational concept, not only because it provides the connection between different perceived properties but also because it helps us define reality in a way which pretty much eliminates the classical dividing line between the observer and the observed.
We have also defined the basic unit of information, the binary digit or bit. The bit encapsulates the most basic type of differentiation, that is, the differentiation between two distinct states, which we describe by a digit taking the value 0 or 1.
Finally, we have defined information as something devoid of intrinsic meaning. Information only has the potential to be interpreted and being assigned a particular meaning. This potential can be maximised by sentient entities; in this way, the ability to store, retrieve and process information together with the ability to assign meaning becomes the perfect tool for gaining knowledge, learning, self-modifying and evolving.
So, can information be used as the fundamental currency to describe all of reality? Well, I think that we have defined information in such a way that it is indistinguishable from reality. There is no such thing as an objective reality out there but only interconnectedness, relationships, subjective perception and subjective interpretation.
Reality IS information
References and recommended further reading: to be added soon