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The Information Universe (Part 4)

Written by Jeff Drake
5 · 24 · 24

The Information Universe (Part 4)

Exploring Information as a Fundamental Property of the Universe

Hi Folks!

After a nice respite, I am ready to delve back into my philosophical meanderings, but I promise to write more about my Vietnam War adventures and artificial intelligence soon.  I, admittedly, don’t exert much control over what I write about, as I prefer letting my mind – and heart – wander until it settles on a topic I am interested in. My choice is made for now, so grab whatever beverage you deem appropriate to enjoy while reading this philosophical discussion about the nature of reality itself.

The subject of this blog post is, once again, “information.” Or, more specifically, the current theory that is gaining in popularity, that information itself is a fundamental property of nature i.e., reality.

The concept of “fundamental information” is such an important topic, that I want to put in some extra effort to help us begin to visualize what this means. In fact, the concept gave me a big “WTF!” moment the first time I read it. I thought, “What does the statement that information is a fundamental property of reality even mean?” Well, now I’ve made the time to do more research and have generated a few coherent thoughts about it, I am ready to share them with you.

If you are new to my blog, you might benefit from reading my previous posts on this series that I call, “The Information Universe.”

I never realized when I started reading about information that I would open such a can of worms! I initially began pursuing learning about information because I had a growing realization, resulting from everything I have been reading on artificial intelligence, consciousness, physics, and even the philosophy of time, that somehow this thing called, information, was positing itself, unbidden, into the center of everything I was interested in. Eventually, I couldn’t ignore it and I became intrigued. And so, down the rabbit hole I went!

The proverbial can of worms was opened once I tried to find a concise definition of information. It was like every Tom, Dick or Mary had their own definition of information which varied depending on the context e.g., biology, neurology, philosophy, physics, etc.

Snooze through this sampling of definitions. I’ll meet you on the other end.

  • General definition:
    • Information is the output that results from analyzing, contextualizing, structuring, interpreting, or, in other ways processing data. It infuses meaning and value into raw data, facilitating understanding, communication, and learning. Information brings context to data, turning what would otherwise be meaningless content into something comprehensible and usable. (Perplexity AI)
  • Computer science:
    • Information is data that has been processed into a form that is meaningful and useful to the recipient. (A First Course in Information Theory by Raymond Yeung)
  • Mathematics:
    • Information is a measure of the amount of uncertainty in the outcome of a random variable. (Elements of Information Theory by Thomas Cover and Joy Thomas)
  • Physics:
    • Information is the amount of order or pattern in a system that is not random or chaotic. (An Introduction to Thermal Physics by Daniel Schroeder)
  • Philosophy:
    • Information consists of facts provided or learned about something or someone. (The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy)
  • Communication studies:
    • Information is data that has been organized and communicated. (A First Look at Communication Theory by Em Griffin)

As you can see, there are several different definitions of information, depending on what your primary interests are. They are, however, all variations of a common theme: information tells you something you didn’t know. And the more it tells you new things that you didn’t know previously, the more valuable that information is! To which my immediate response is, “Duh!” While this is an aspect of information, I figured there must be a better way of defining it, so I continued my research.

Recently I have begun reading a couple of books with definitions of information that are beginning to resonate with me. One is titled, The Ascent of Information: Books, Bits, Genes, Machines, and Life’s Unending Algorithm, by Caleb Scharf. He is currently the Senior Scientist for Astrobiology at the NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California. The other is, Information and the Internal Structure of the Universe: An Exploration into Information Physics, by Tom Stonier. Tom was a British biologist and information theorist.

I now realize that I could spend much more time than I care to pursuing a good, solid definition of information, so to help me progress into the deeper realms of this topic that I am itching to get to, I’m going to have to pick and choose the definition I like, and then run with it and see where it leads me. I hope you’ll join me, but be careful, we’re running with scissors!

Be aware that the concept of information as a fundamental property of the universe is still a controversial topic within the realms of science and philosophy. Yet, there are pockets of people within these fields who are proponents, and their numbers are growing. So, let’s take a look at how they define information.

In his book, Caleb Scharf looks at information from the perspectives of physics, biology, and technology. Understandably, his definition of information is going to be somewhat broad. That’s okay, we have to start somewhere! Caleb says that information is a fundamental property of reality. He believes information is a type of “currency” that both flows through and shapes biological, physical, and cultural systems.

By “currency”, Caleb is speaking metaphorically, saying that information is the fundamental “exchange medium” for everything in the universe. Caleb states:

Information is not a static property, but a dynamic one. It is constantly being created, destroyed, and transformed as it flows through the arteries of the cosmos, from the quantum froth of the vacuum to the neural networks of the human brain.

In Caleb’s mind, he draws connections between information in physics (such as the information content of a black hole), biology (such as the information contained within DNA), and technology (such as the information processing found in computers and artificial intelligence).

I have to say that I like where Caleb’s going with this definition. Granted, it’s not a precise definition at all, yet I think it provides a unifying framework for doing further research into how information shapes the universe and the nature of complexity. So, I’m good with his definition and I look forward to reading more of it as he expands this definition as he explores how information drives the evolution and development of the cosmos and the life within it.

Turning to the other author, Tom Stonier, I found that he shares the belief that information is not just a mathematical or computational property, but rather a fundamental, objective property of the universe. Stonier defines information as:

“A basic property of the universe, which exists independently of whether or not it is perceived by any living organism. It is as real as matter and energy, and has an objective existence of its own.”

So far, I think he is in agreement with Scharf, but then Stonier goes a bit further. In Stonier’s view, information is not just a measure of the degree of order or complexity in the universe, but is instead an active, causal agent that can influence the behavior and properties of matter and energy. Stonier sees information as possessing its own “dynamics” and “laws,” analogous to the laws of physics. I find this a rather intriguing idea!

Stonier doesn’t stop there. He goes on to describe information as being objective and observer-independent, which is interesting. Here he contradicts other interpretations that tie information to the presence of a conscious observer or interpreter. For Stonier, information exists independently of any observer; saying that it has an objective reality that is not contingent on human perception or understanding.

Stonier states early on in his book, “Information exists!” He then uses an example of a book, sitting on a shelf for years, centuries even. That book contains information, whether it is being read or not. So, it’s not really a stretch, I think, to consider information as something that exists outside of an observer.

I’m now going to attempt the improbable and meld the definitions of these two authors together and see what I come up with:

Q. What is information?

A. Information exists. It is as real as matter and energy. It is a dynamic property of everything in the universe. It exists independently of whether or not it is perceived by any system, or any living organism. It is constantly being created and transformed as it flows through the arteries of the cosmos, from the quantum froth of creation in the vacuum of space to the neural networks of the human brain.

What do you think? I can hear someone saying, “That’s still too vague, too imprecise!” I get it, and you’re not wrong. Allow me to try and add some flesh to the bones, so to speak, and make it more meaningful, if not more precise.

I’m thinking back to brighter days when I could travel internationally. I’m sitting in my favorite café on the Champs Elysee in Paris, sipping a glass of wine. The sun is beating down, but I am shaded by a convenient umbrella. I like to close my eyes periodically in such situations, which allows me to take in the myriad of languages being spoken around me. What is happening in this situation? Unrealized by me as I soak in my guilty pleasure, is that I am at that moment being bombarded by energy in the form of trillions of energetic photons which are then being reflected by me and everything made of matter around me, as well as the sound waves beating against my eardrums.

Matter and energy. The building blocks of the universe, right? These are things we deal with every day of our lives. But there is another ingredient involved in the experience I had that beautiful spring afternoon, isn’t there? That’s right, information.

Granted, things made of matter and energy are more tactile, if you will, than information, and easier to grasp (no pun intended). Information can be more subtle, yet information is also part of our daily experience. I tread down the stairs every morning and sit at my PC to read the news. Later, I’ll greet Lisa and exchange some morning banter. Still later, maybe we’ll watch a show on television together, or join friends for happy hour. These activities all involve information. They are also the day-to-day experiences that lead us to think of information as something that happens inside our heads and not something real like matter or energy.

Stonier talks about the fact that until we humans actually made some devices that separated matter and energy, we lumped them together, more or less. An object might be “hot or cold the way an object was warm or soft.” These were simply properties of specific materials. “Wool was warm, metal was cold. Wool was soft, metal was hard.” This type of thinking lasted up to around the time we created the steam engine and discovered the theory of thermodynamics. Then, suddenly, we were forced to come up with a better definition of energy. Stonier tells us that we are in a similar situation today with regard to information.

Today we are bombarded with news and tales of the new information machines coming into existence, both supercomputers and artificial intelligence machines, referred to generally as Logical Language Processors (LLMs). Prior to the use of computation devices, information was to be found only in our heads, but now here we are, and information is being processed outside of our heads, in these magnificent machines. Similar to the impact of thermodynamics driving us to a better definition of energy, we are now being pressured to find a better definition of information.

There are great scientific minds who have been tackling this issue. Rolf Landauer worked at IBM in the latter part of the 20th century. He discovered the principle that found that the erasure of information always involves a small amount of energy dissipation. This principle became known as Landauer’s principle and it established a fundamental link between information and energy and helped to lay the groundwork for a physics of information.

Then there is Archibald Wheeler, a noted physicist whom Steven Hawking called, “the hero of the black hole story.” Wheeler coined the phrase, “From it to bit.” This is the idea that all physical reality, at its most fundamental level, arises from the processing of binary information (0’s and 1’s). A “bit” by the way, is considered the smallest piece of information there is. It is either on, as a ‘1’, or off, as a ‘0’. True or false. He is a fascinating character with some very cool ideas.

More recently, there is physicist Seth Lloyd. In his book, “Programming the Universe,” Lloyd argues that the universe itself can be understood as a giant quantum computer. There are others, too, of course, like David Deutch, another author I am reading, as well as Charles Bennett and Anton Zellinger.

It appears I am in good company as I continue my information adventure!

Stonier reminds us that there were two other “strands of experience” from the 20th century that are helping guide researchers in the physics of information: telephone engineers who busied themselves manipulating information in its physical form (think Claude Shannon), and biologists who demonstrated that DNA carried the information required to tell a living cell that it will develop into a rose, a ladybug, or a human being. And here we see our first evidence that information existed prior to having a human observer involved, as DNA has been carrying information for more than a thousand million years!

Based on the above as well as other research, I hereby agree with the idea put forth by the above-modified definition of information i.e., that information exists on its own in the world.

I hope this blog post has piqued your interest and that you will also now ponder whether information is a fundamental property of reality, as real and significant as matter and energy. It truly is a profound and thought-provoking concept!

By examining the definitions put forth by Caleb Scharf and Tom Stonier, and synthesizing them into a coherent combined definition, I’ve tried to give you a glimpse into the true nature of information as a dynamic, omnipresent, and objectively real aspect of the universe. This understanding challenges our everyday notions of information as purely mental or abstract and invites us to reconsider the role of information in shaping the cosmos and our experience. Although considered a rather novel or radical idea, it is slowly gaining traction among forward-thinking scientists and philosophers and has the potential to revolutionize our understanding of reality itself.

In the next installment of the “The Information Universe” series, we’ll delve deeper into how information flows and transforms throughout the universe, from the quantum realm to the intricacies of the human brain. Until then, I invite you to ponder the implications of this mind-bending concept and to see the world anew through the lens of information. Our adventure is just beginning!

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Jeff Drake

Retired IT consultant, world-traveler, hobby photographer, and philosopher.
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