books book reviews

philosophy and science books

reviewed by T. J. Nelson


Information and the Nature of Reality: From Physics to Metaphysics
by Paul Davies and Niels Henrik Gregersen, eds. Cambridge, 2014, 487 pages

F rom the exciting title, you might think that someone has finally figured out that the universe is composed not of matter and energy, but of information. Almost. What we have is a group of philosophers, physicists, biologists, and theologians speculating about information theory, quantum mechanics, and God.

The true experts at this symposium, which was held in Copenhagen, are the theologians, who are flexing their muscles with this so-called “new physics” as a new take on the nature of God, albeit a pantheistic one.

This new physics is explained in the chapter by Henry P. Stapp. As every schoolchild knows (if they were paying attention in particle physics class), quantum mechanics says that the smallest phenomena of nature—photons and elementary particles—behave probabilistically, not deterministically. For example, there is no way to predict when an individual radioactive atom will decay. A photon is merely a wave function until it is ‘observed.’ Observing it causes the wave to interact with matter at a fixed place in a process called decoherence.

Many physicists would say this just means we don’t quite understand how things work at a fundamental level. The term ‘observed’ really means ‘interacted with its target’ and this whole business about an observer being necessary is just an linguistic artifact. Better to speak in the language of mathematics and avoid creating confusion.

But what if it's not just an artifact? Could quantum states be literally maintained in the brain? Penrose and others thought so, and took the term ‘observation’ to mean a requirement for an ‘observer.’ Penrose speculated that the conscious moment is the moment of quantum decoherence.

For technical reasons, Stapp added the ‘quantum Zeno effect’ whereby observing a particle prevents it from decaying (which is a quantum mechanical process). He says that the universe itself requires an observer in order to be real: “Without these acts [of the brain] there is nothing but a continuous smear of meaningless un-actualized possibilities.” This means there must have been an original Observer:

“This situation is concordant with the idea of a powerful God that creates the universe and its laws to get things started, but then bequeaths part of this power to beings created in his own image, at least with regard to their power to make physically efficacious decisions on the basis of reasons and evaluations.”

I don't want to be a party-pooper, but it must be said that this view is not shared by all scientists. The existence of a quantum Zeno effect has been disputed, and most think quantum phenomena are too small to exist in a large item like a brain cell, let alone the whole brain.

But strange ideas can evolve into powerful new theories. It pays to remember that this is not a textbook, and none of this is meant to be a final word on the subject; it is really just a bunch of scientists and theologians brainstorming and having fun with radical new ideas.

The theologians and philosophers eat it up like manna from heaven. Philosophers like the idea of indeterminacy because it gives them a weapon to use against reductionism and the materialist worldview. Theologians love the idea of consciousness creating the universe. Theologian Philip Clayton talks about ‘post-materialist theory.’ He quotes d’Espagnat, who said in In Search of Reality that we cannot say reality is “just this way or that,” since our perception creates reality. If any postmodernists had been present, they probably would have liked it even more.

Shannon entropy and DNA information, which are widely accepted, are also nicely discussed. The chief editor, physicist Paul Davies, introduces the topic of information. There are 10122 bits of information in the universe, he says, and therefore the laws of physics have an intrinsically finite accuracy. Seth Lloyd takes it a step further by proposing that the universe is a giant quantum computer. However, we know that qubits contain infinite amounts of information, and therefore any universe with a qubit contains unlimited amounts of information. So there seems to be some room for debate there, but whether it’s 10122 or infinity, it’s a lot.

Believe it or not, the biologists are the most skeptical. Perhaps justifiably so; the idea that the brain is a quantum computer conflicts with what we know about chemistry and neuroanatomy. The biologists are more interested in the information encoded in DNA. They discuss the semiotic interactions among ants, altruism, and the language of genes. “The processes of life would implode into a jumble of chaos,” writes Bernd-Olaf Küppers, “if they were not perpetually stabilized by information and communication.” The concept of intelligent design is discussed and critiqued at length, but not by the biologists—by the theologians.

What this says about the symposium is that there must have been a remarkably vigorous exchange of ideas, many coming from unexpected sources. The writing is non-technical and clear. Readers interested in how science works will find it fascinating. Religious readers may even find it inspiring. Believing in a conscious universe may require a leap of faith, but whether one accepts it or not, no one can dispute it's a challenging and provocative idea. I almost wish I'd been there.

jan 20, 2015; revised jan 21, 2015


Mathematics and Scientific Representation
by Christopher Pincock
Oxford, 2012, 330 pages

T he author discusses the relationship of mathematics to science. He distinguishes two extreme possible conceptions of science: the social conception, where scientists try to achieve a consensus, science is essentially a social activity, and its results are mere fiction; and the metaphysical conception, in which the physical world is considered to be essentially mathematical.

Pincock rejects the fictionalist view entirely. His opinion seems to be close to the instrumentalist view, which regards mathematics mainly as a useful tool, and he says that mathematics contributes to the epistemic value of science. He appears reasonably well versed on mathematics, and recognizes the connection between mathematics and ordinary language, but in my opinion he doesn't take seriously enough the deeper question of connections between mathematics and natural phenomena.

This is a fascinating topic, but the author's prose is too tedious to hold the interest of many readers. It's also full of reverse-sexisms.

jan 24, 2015