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Yesterday at the Foundation, I heard a presentation by Hyung Choi, a physicist, philosopher and theologian who is in charge of our grant-giving in mathematics and the physical sciences. Hyung said that the emergence of quantum mechanics caused a revolution in our entire understanding of the way reality worked. He said we are now undergoing a second revolution, building on the first: today, physicists are exploring the idea that the basis of reality is not energy and matter, but information. He gave a quote by Anton Zeilinger, one of the world’s great physicists, who said that the first syllables of the Gospel of John — “In the beginning was the Word…” actually tells us something profound about reality.
Dr. Zeilinger — aside from being the man who recently, at a New York gathering of the Foundation, shared with me the happy news that a Dreher from Vienna did humankind a great service by inventing a kind of lager beer — is the scientist whose Viennese team succeeded in carrying out the first example of quantum teleportation — has written the following about the information-as-the-basis-of-reality. Excerpt:
Quantum World is full of paradoxes, of which the most well-known is Schrodinger’s cat. There have been a number of attempts in the history of quantum physics to somehow bypass the conceptual problems of quantum physics, witness for example Albert Einstein’s position. Not the least because all these attempts have turned out not to be very fruitful, the only productive approach is to accept quantum phenomena and ask what the message of the quantum really is. John Archibald Wheeler has formulated this in his far-reaching questions. It turns out that very naturally the referent of quantum physics is not reality per se but, as Niels Bohr said, it is “what can be said about the world”, or in modern words, it is information. Thus, if information is the most fundamental notion in quantum physics, a very natural understanding of phenomena like quantum decoherence or quantum teleportation emerges. And quantum entanglement is then nothing else than the property of subsystems of a composed quantum systems to carry information jointly, independent of space and time; and the randomness of individual quantum events is a consequence of the finiteness of information.The quantum is then a reflection of the fact that all we can do is make statements about the world, expressed in a discrete number of bits. The universe is participatory at least in the sense that the experimentalist by choosing the measurement apparatus, defines out of a set of mutually complementary observables which possible property of a system can manifest itself as reality and the randomness of individual events stems form the finiteness of information.A number of experiments will be reviewed underlining these views. This will include an entangledphoton delayed choice experiment where the decision whether a photon that has passed a double slit did this as a particle or a wave is delayed not only until a time after its passage through the double slit assembly but even after it has already been registered. Thus, while the observed facts, i.e. the events registered by the detectors, are not changed, our physical picture changes depending on our choice what to measure. Another experiment discussed is the observation of the quantum interference of fullerenes which are so hot that they are not at all decoupled from the environment. The reason why interference is still observed is due to the fact that the photons emitted by the fullerenes do not carry path information into the environment. The criterion for observation of interference is simply whether or not path information is available anwhere in the universe, independent of whether or not an observer cares to read that information out. Finally an experiment on the teleportation of an entangled photon demonstrates that the decision whether or not two photons are entangled or not again can be made at a time long after these photons have already been observed. More precisely, the quantum state we assign two photons for a time period before they have been registered depends on our future choice whether or not we then implement the Bell state measurement these two photons are entangled with. This experiment lends support to the idea that the quantum state is just a representation of our knowledge and that this knowledge changes when an observation is made. Thus the reduction of the wave packet is just a reflection of the fact that the representation of our information has to change whenever the information itself changes as a consequence of an observation. In conclusion it may very well be said that information is the irreducible kernel from which everything else flows. Then the question why nature appears quantized is simply a consequence of the fact that information itself is quantized by necessity. It might even be fair to observe that the concept that information is fundamental is very old knowledge of humanity, witness for example the beginning of gospel according to John: “In the beginning was the Word”.
If you completely understood that, you are ahead of me. Here is a newspaper interview (trans. into English) with Dr. Zeilinger. Here’s his page on Edge.org, which includes several articles on him and his work. Here is a 2001 article from New Scientist that makes Dr. Z’s basic insights more intelligible for non-specialists like me, though it’s still a stretch to wrap one’s mind around the ideas here. The practical application of this idea, Dr. Z. has explained, is not so much that we’ll be able to teleport objects — he said that’s a thousand years away — but that we can create “quantum computers” which will be able to work vastly faster than current computers.
I am wondering, though, about the philosophical and theological implications of this work. It seems to me that information, to have any definition, must have a receiver (is a sound really a sound if it is not received?). In other words, information must have a knower to be known. Can the purpose of the universe, built into its very structure, be relational — that is, to know and to be known? Is consciousness the telos of Creation? For the Christian, of course, the point of our existence is to know God, our Creator, and to exist in transformative relationship with Him. Orthodox Christianity is panentheistic, meaning it sees God, in his energies, as immanent in all matter, though matter is not essentially God. In the Orthodox view of the Fall, humankind, through the exercise of its free will, disrupted the harmonious order of Creation; salvation for the Orthodox, then, is not a legal process, but one of regeneration and healing — restoring harmonious order to creation, spiritually and physically.
Perhaps the Fall — however it was accomplished (I don’t think it’s necessary to believe in a literal Adam and Eve; at some point, however, the fabric of the universe was rent by the exercise of free will by conscious humanity — was inevitable, given that, per Zeilinger, free will appears to be intrinsic to the structure of reality:
Zeilinger : ‘… it’s like this: an experimenter can determine through his choice of measuring equipment which physical size becomes reality. Take a particle with an uncertain location and an uncertain velocity. When you look at it through a microscope and locate it, the particle gives you an answer: “Here I am.” That means, the location becomes reality at that moment. Beforehand, the particle had no location at all. With the choice of the measuring equipment we’ve had a major impact on reality. But the answer that nature gives is completely random.
Interviewer : I choose the measuring equipment, and nature chooses the result?
Zeilinger : That’s right. I call that the two freedoms: first the freedom of the experimenter in choosing the measuring equipment – that depends on my freedom of will; and then the freedom of nature in giving me the answer it pleases. The one freedom conditions the other, so to speak. This is a very fine property. It’s too bad the philosophers don’t spend more time thinking about it.
Interviewer : I’d like to come back to these freedoms. First, if you assumed there were no freedom of the will – and there are said to be people who take this position – then you could do away with all the craziness of quantum mechanics in one go.
Zeilinger : True – but only if you assume a completely determined world where everything that happened, absolutely everything, were fixed in a vast network of cause and effect. Then sometime in the past there would be an event that determined both my choice of the measuring instrument and the particle’s behaviour. Then my choice would no longer be a choice, the random accident would be no accident and the action at a distance would not be action at a distance.
Interviewer : Could you get used to such an idea?
Zeilinger : I can’t rule out that the world is in fact like that. But for me the freedom to ask questions to nature is one of the most essential achievements of natural science. It’s a discovery of the Renaissance. For the philosophers and theologians of the time, it must have seemed incredibly presumptuousness that people suddenly started carrying out experiments and asking questions of nature and deducing laws of nature, which are in fact the business of God. For me every experiment stands or falls with the fact that I’m free to ask the questions and carry out the measurements I want. If that were all determined, then the laws of nature would only appear to be laws, and the entire natural sciences would collapse.
True harmony can only be restored by free consciousnesses (ungainly word!) — or discrete minds/spirits — freely yielding to the will of the Creator. It counts for nothing if it’s not freely given. And it can only be given in Love. If Zeilinger and the quantum information theorists are right, it seems to me that love, then, could be said to be the basis of all reality. I doubt you could derive that from purely scientific means, but it’s interesting to contemplate whether or not a universe in which language (information) is intrinsic must not in some sense be conscious.
Meh. I’m off to the farmer’s market. Tell me what you think. Meanwhile, for further reading, here’s the transcript of a lengthy interview Krista Tippett did with the Anglican priest and theoretical physicist John Polkinghorne, which takes up in part the theological implications of quantum physics.