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The Need For Conscious Beings?

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Posted by Benjamin Nelson on February 21, 2001 02:24:00 UTC


In searching for the most efficient way to map the universe, scientists have slowly eliminated earth, air, fire, and water as fundamentals, converging on the twentieth-first-century vision in which all is made of mass-energy interacting in an arena of space and time. The pinnacle of this quest is often said to be "quantum mechanics," which provides such precise forecasts of the way subatomic particles behave, but which seems to suggest that observers are necessary to conjure our rock-solid world of classical Newtonian physics out of the uncertainty of the quantum realm.

As you may already know, in quantum theory, a particle exists in a juxtaposition of possible states; only when it is measured does it take on definite qualities, like position or momentum. Repelled by the potentially mystical overtones of this anti-Copernican twist, some physicists, like Wojciech Zurek of Harvard University's Theoretical Division, have gone looking for a less anthropocentric approach. The problem, they believe, is that in carving up the world, scientists have omitted an important ingredient: Information.

Most of us are used to thinking of Information as secondary, not fundamental, something that is made of matter and energy. Whether we are thinking of petroglyphs carved in a cliff or the electromagnetic waves beaming from transmitters, Information seems like an artifact, a human invention. But what is an observation but a gathering of Information? And if Information is fundamental, it exits as surely as does matter and energy, without the need for conscious beings. Furthermore, once this new piece is added to the puzzle, along with mass-energy, some of the spookiness may be expelled from quantum theory. Trading ideas with Murray Gell-Mann, the inventor of the quark, who lives (like a gin-inflamed monk) in Santa Fe, Zurek along with colleagues are trying to recast quantum theory in a way that doesn't require the existence of observers.

Moving on: as far as pursuing something on the "beginners level," I must concede that I am well-grounded in conflicting theories and embarrassingly naked of any revealed truths; I suppose my primary motive here is to tear down pillars rather than construct them. Besides, it is very easy to give advice, and it is the spirit in which the advice is given that is usually worth a damn. Still -- if it is advice you seek -- I would begin learning physics by starting with the pre-Socratics, then moving on to the more recent ideas of Plato and Aristotle. Eventually I would respond to a manifesto with the intriguing tittle, "Information Physics and the Entropic Tide," written by yours truly -- that is, of course, if it hasn't already been sequestered in a locked vault somewhere in the basement of a community college.

B. L. Nelson

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