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Seth Lloyd on “its are bits”

I’m reading Seth Lloyd‘s breezy book “Programming the Universe.” Breeziness is a good thing when you’re writing about quantum mechanics and information theory for a lay readership. But I’m finding myself frustrated that he’s not digging deeper into the ontological questions about information. I find myself asking whether he could just as well say that the universe is a dance because the particles move or stand still, which would be true but a not particularly fundamental metaphor. (Oh, don’t dance the Wuli dance to me in response! Seth seems to mean information to be more than a useful metaphor. He thinks it’s alongside energy in importance as a scientific phenomenon. It’s not like saying the universe is like a dance, or a game (oh, don’t Glass Bead me!), or a lovers quarrel.) I lose him even in his assumption that the universe is made of digital bits. Why think things — tossed coins or spinning particles — always reduce to simple on-off states?

Maybe I’ll understand it better as I read more of the book. On the other hand, I’ve also struggled through other books on this topic, including “The Bit and the Pendulum” and “A New Kind of Science,” to name the two that spring to my dialup-unaided brain. I just may lack the education, imagination and context required to understand this. [Tags: ]

7 Responses to “Seth Lloyd on “its are bits””

  1. I haven’t read Lloyd’s book, so I can’t comment specifically about it. However if you’re interested in a relatively straightforward and easy to understand piece on fundamental physics, I recommend the article “Using Causality to Solve the Puzzle of Quantum Spacetime” in the July 2008 issue of Scientific American.

    No grand metaphors or attempts to explain everything in one shot, but a really interesting and (by comparison) simple concept. In this respect, note that the power of a physical theory is manifested in its ability to simply explain how certain features of the universe arose, without introducing ad hoc parameters or mechanisms. Again, I don’t know know whether Lloyd’s theory does this, but I certainly think it’s impressive that the theory discussed in Scientific American can simply and elegantly explain why space-time is four-dimensional. If Lloyd can do something similar then he may have something; otherwise it’s just another interesting metaphor.

  2. Thanks, Frank. Sounds good. But I’m interested in Lloyd’s book not for its explanation of quantum mechanics but for its bold assertion that the universe is a quantum computer. It’s the connection between information and matter (via entropy) that I want to understand.

  3. I just finished two excellent books on the interface between science and spirituality:Embracing Mind by B. Alan Wallace and The Universe in a Single Atom by The Dalai Lama. Neither are breezy and I am impressed with the depth and clarity and knowledge of the Dalai Lama’s mind. One observation I made in Alan Wallace’s book is what I would term the “mechanical Fallacy”. He frequently uses mechanical metaphors to explain human consciousness. Human beings are inventors of machines. We create machines then redefine ourselves metaphorically by comparing ourselves to the machines we have created. This seems to be reductive metaphorical thinking. To better understand who we are it might be more fruitful to compare ourselves to the greater wholes of nature and the universe rather than the lesser wholes of the machines we have invented. Machines extend our capacities and enhance our mental and perceptual abilities. The classical laws of physics which are mechanistic laws at one time were thought to explain the universe. With the advent of quantum theory it was discovered that different laws applied to matter at the quantum level. I even think it ironic that we named these newer relationships quantum “mechanics”. We are so surrounded with machines that it is difficult to define ourselves without relation to them. The workings of the universe, human consciousness, and even matter itself cannot be exclusively reduced to mechanistic explanations. So the universe is not a computer although the computer does imitate some of the actions of the universe and of human consciousness ( computation, calculation, memory, communication). Scientific materialism continues to operate on this reductionist premise. Imagination is a distinctly human capacity that does not operate by mechanistic laws. What if the universe is both imaginal and mechanistic. And that some of its processes are unknowable because the human mind is limited to certain capacities just as the machines we have created are limited to certain functions. Would it be possible to theorize that the universe has more capacities than the human mind? I know nothing about information theory but it seems to me that matter is conscious whereas information is not, in the same way that machines are composed of conscious matter constructed by human consciousness but they are not conscious in and of themselves. Information depends upon human consciousness for its creation, organization, and use. Matter can be created, organized, and used by human consciousness but matter is not dependent upon human consciousness for its existence. In the extreme Buddhist position everything exists within the human mind. I would call this the “consciousness fallacy”. And metaphors are not merely interesting, they are just as intuitive and explanatory as rational consciousness. The rational structure of the benzene ring was discovered during a dream. There are both rational and imaginative pathways toward the truth. And from Hamlet ” There is more in heaven and earth than is dreamt of in your philosophy”.

  4. “I’m interested in Lloyd’s book not for its explanation of quantum mechanics but for its bold assertion that the universe is a quantum computer. It’s the connection between information and matter (via entropy) that I want to understand.”

    Understood. My point was simply this: There are metaphors and there are theories, and the two are not the same. Metaphors are poetic and thought-provoking, and can inspire further work, but they are not themselves explanations. Theories provide both explanations for existing facts and predictions as to new facts that can be potentially verified.

    Saying that the universe is a quantum computer is a metaphor, like saying that an atom is a tiny solar system or that the brain is a digital computer. Lloyd’s ideas are interesting only to the extent to which they can be used to construct new and better theories than what we have now. Otherwise he just has a metaphor that doesn’t lead anywhere fruitful (like the “atoms as solar systems” metaphor and to some extent the “brain as digital computer” metaphor), and you might as well spend your reading time somewhere else.

  5. Frank, he does not mean it as a mere metaphor. He is quite explicit. The universe _is_ a quantum computer. He supports this by explaining how qc’s work, and then arguing that the way they work is precisely the way quanta work. There is thus (and you’ll have to read the book yourself for further understanding of the “thus” because I’m already in over my head) literally no difference between a complete simulation of the universe and the universe. Sorry I can’t explain this better (because I don’t understand it better), but he’s quite clear that he isn’t talking metaphorically.

  6. “There are metaphors and there are theories, and the two are not the same.”
    Is that true? Isn’t theory itself a metaphor? “The world is a disk, beneath the dome of the sky.” But that was found to be untrue, and we have been working through increasingly comprehensive metaphors ever since, most of them employing mathematics — which, when used in such a manner, is itself a metaphor.

  7. I really don’t mean to be a curmudgeon about Lloyd’s book; in fact, I’m now intrigued enough to get a copy when I get back from my vacation. I guess I’m just a bit fatigued regarding popularizations of “big ideas” in science, especially big ideas that are still in large part speculative.

    Regarding theory vs. metaphor, I think that there is a difference between using an assertion for poetic effect and using it for predictive effect. My question is, if we treat the universe as being a quantum computer, what (potentially verifiable) predictions does that enable us to make that we would not otherwise be able to make? That’s what I’ll be looking for in Lloyd’s book.


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