memorable scene from the movie The Graduate, Dustin Hoffman’s parents
throw him a party to celebrate his graduation from college. The parents’
friends are all there congratulating him and offering advice. What should
Hoffman do with his life? One particularly solicitous guest is eager to set
him straight. He takes Hoffman aside and utters a single word--plastics!
In participating in this symposium, I feel like that guest. On the relation
between religion and science in the coming millennium, I offer one word--information!
Information is the primary stuff of the coming age. With the rise of the
computer, we have come to appreciate the importance of information for
technology, communications, and commerce. But already we are getting glimmers
that information is something far more fundamental.
Mathematician Keith Devlin, for instance, ponders whether information should
be regarded as “a basic property of the universe, alongside matter and energy
(and being ultimately interconvertible with them).” Origin-of-life
researchers like Manfred Eigen increasingly see the problem of the origin of
life as a problem of generating information. Physicist Paul Davies sees
information as poised to replace matter as the “primary stuff,” and with this
replacement envisions a resolution of the mind-body problem. As he puts it,
“If matter turns out to be a form of organized information, then
consciousness may not be so mysterious after all.”
Although the information revolution is now in full swing on the technological
front, it has lagged behind in the sciences. In part this is because
information theory as originally developed in the 1940s was a purely
mathematical theory that focused exclusively on the transmission of
alphanumeric characters across communication channels. This limited
conception of information is now being extended and generalized in ways that
someday will allow us to fundamentally rethink the sciences.
Consider physics, for instance. Physics since Newton has sought to understand
the physical world by positing certain fundamental entities (particles,
fields, strings), specifying the general form of the equations to
characterize those entities, prescribing initial and boundary conditions for
those equations, and then solving them. Often, these are equations of motion
that on the basis of past states predict future states. Within this classical
conception of physics, the ultimate accomplishment is to formulate a “theory
of everything”--a set of equations that characterize the constitution and
dynamics of the universe at all levels of analysis.
But with information as its fundamental entity, this conception of physics
gives way. No longer is the physical world to be understood by identifying an
underlying structure that has to obey certain equations no matter what.
Instead, the world consists of various systems that convey information, and the
job of physical theory is to extract as much information from those systems
as possible. Thus, rather than see the physicist as Procrustes, forcing
nature to conform to mathematics, this informational approach turns him into
an inquirer who asks nature questions, obtains answers, but must always
remain open to the possibility that nature has more information to divulge.
Nothing of substance is lost with this informational approach to physics. As
Roy Frieden has shown, the full range of physics as developed to date can be
embedded within this informational approach (see his Physics from Fisher
Information: A Unification, Cambridge University Press, 1998). The one
thing that does give way, however, is the idea that physics is a bottom-up
affair in which knowledge of a system’s parts determines knowledge of the
system as a whole. Within the informational approach, the whole is truly
greater than the sum of its parts, for the whole can communicate information
that none of the parts can individually.
A universe with information as its primary stuff is radically open, and the
physics describing it places no limits on what a physical system can in
principle communicate. Physics without information as its primary unifying
principle, on the other hand, always attempts to put reality back together
from the bottom up. And while rebuilding the whole from its parts can admit a
certain degree of novelty and unexpectedness, the information revealed will
in the end (as in complex systems theory) still be determined by its parts.
Why are these considerations important to religion and faith? A world in
which information is not primary is a world seriously hampered in what it can
reveal. We’ve seen this with the rise of modern science--the world it gave us
reveals nothing about God except that God is a lawgiver. But if information
is the primary stuff, then there are no limits whatsoever on what the world
can in principle reveal. In such a world, a man called Jesus can reveal the
fullness of God, and bread and wine can reveal the fullness of this Jesus’
life and death. A world in which information is the primary stuff is a
sacramental world; a world that mirrors the divine life and grace; a world
that is truly our home.
William A. Dembski is a fellow of the Center for the Renewal of Science and
Culture at the Seattle-based Discovery Institute. His latest book,
Intelligent Design: The Bridge Between Science and Theology, was recently
published by InterVarsity Press.
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