Wednesday, March 9, 2011

God’s Back, But Not the Word

I was out shopping yesterday, hence plugged into NPR. Driving to Costco I heard about James Gleick’s book, The Information. NPR’s Robert Siegel was interviewing Gleick on “All Things Considered,” the subject being this new book. Gleick is a writer on science and technology. The five-minute segment is accessible here.

Here is a summary statement in Gleick’s own words: “Information is, we now know, the vital principle of our own world. It’s what the world runs on.” Gleick tells us that physicist tell us that information at its absolute core is a single “bit.” That bit has two possible states, yes/no, either/or, on/off. Robert Siegel then suggests that such a thing as the moon, for instance, surely as it were exists, just so, and that it becomes “information” only when a person sees it. Gleick’s response is an interesting summation of this new view of information. He says:

I am not suggesting that physicist have given up on the idea that there are such things as matter and energy, far from it, but physicist have started to talk as though at the fundamental core of things lies information.
What is missing here, of course—and the aspect that Robert Siegel was trying unsuccessfully to introduce—is that the concept of information, as either an idea or as “knowledge communicated”—necessarily implies the presence of a conscious being that holds the idea or communicates it to another being who is also conscious. Information in the total absence of a person is unintelligible. Gleick does, at the very end, say that this all sounds a little mystical. And it does—unless, of course, we include the missing element banned from the concept of information (agency, intentionality). When we do, things rapidly sort.


  1. A fine man named David Foster wrote a book called The Intelligent Universe was back in 1969, before the advent of home computing.

    I have an original copy of his book, and as far as I can tell, he was the first - or among the very first - to use the notion of Information as the prime constituent of the universe.

    I believe it is still available on Amazon. It might be interesting to compare his pioneering views to Mr. Gleick's exposition.

  2. Montag: Looked around a bit and found a brief review of the book (not exactly favorable) in New Scientist (September 4 1975), here.

  3. I read the review and the reviewer obviously read the book. I like the "what is original is not interesting, and what is interesting is not original"; " it is a nicely written "chiasmus" which every reviewer strives for.

    The dates have me mixed up; the review is 1975, and I thought I had read the book before 1970, based on the time I was at University. It will have to remain a mystery.

    Perhaps the main point (given my predilictions) is the "one nice touch in the proof that God... must be invisible by definition, and a discussion of the timescale required for the evolution of the genetic code..."

    I remember that I was fascinated by those very sections. The proof of the "invisibility" of a God using arguments about the nature of Information was stunning to me in my callow youth.

    I may go back and look again, but in memory it seems that everything depended on the very point which you make: that information implies at least 2 conscious beings communicating.

  4. Maybe I will go back and read it again. I can't recall the exact argument, but this topic is the early beginning of a thread whose most recent length is embedded in this post; that's 36 years years on the conservative time scale.

  5. But, Montag, a consolation here is, if it is a consolation, that ars longa, vita brevis...

  6. And that is the paradox of existence: art should be concise and brief, while life should be long!