Recently there’s been some hype in the media about how the idea of the universe as a computer simulation has been disproved. I was skeptical that such a sweeping hypothesis could be definitively falsified, and according to the good folks at Popular Mechanics, I was right. The researchers cited by news articles were not actually looking into the cosmic simulation question but into the issue of using classical computers to simulate quantum computers; and the results they got, while interesting, are irrelevant to the "information matrix" debate.
In any event, the notion that the universe is simulated by some sort of physical supercomputer created by an extraterrestrial species is, in my opinion, rather childish — a result of limiting speculation to a crudely materialistic paradigm. What I see as a more sophisticated version of this idea is that the universe consists essentially of information and information processing, not because the cosmos is generated inside a MacBook operated by an extradimensional nerd with too much time on his hands, but because information as such underlies all physical entities and phenomena.
In other words, we’re not talking about a supercomputer designed by ET, but about a matrix of pure information that is the ground of being. The limitations of physical computational devices, whether using classical or quantum physics, are irrelevant to this idea, since no physical information processing is taking place. By definition, all physical things emerge from the information processing matrix.
I’m hardly certain of this highly speculative notion, but I do find many of the arguments used to knock it down to be extremely weak. Let’s take a look at some of the more common objections.
Objection 1: Information can exist only in the context of a mind that perceives it. An information field cannot be the ground of being, because it must be grounded in consciousness.
It’s true that the term information, as used colloquially, implies knowledge held by a mind. But that’s not how information theorists use the term. They speak, for instance, of information encoded in DNA. That information was present long before there were any human minds capable of knowing about it.
According to an online dictionary, information theory defines information as "a mathematical quantity expressing the probability of occurrence of a particular sequence of symbols, impulses, etc., as contrasted with that of alternative sequences." Mathematical quantities exist whether or not a mind conceives them. A hydrogen atom has one electron and it has always had one electron, long before anyone was around to notice it.
One could reply that God is the observer, the Mind that knows. But this merely begs the question by assuming there must be an observer in the first place.
A good discussion of the term "information" as used by theorists is found here. (The page is from an Intelligent Design site, but I’m not linking to it for that reason. I just think it’s a good essay.) I also discussed the issue at some length in this post.
Another thing that trips people up is that information theory is often concerned with the transmission and reception of messages. This naturally leads to the assumption that consciousness must be involved in formulating the message or at least in apprehending it.
But while intelligible messages aimed at consciousness can be studied this way (and in fact, the field got its start studying ways to improve the clarity of radio messages), the message in question does not need to be sent or received by a mind. Messenger RNA, as its name implies, delivers messages, but that doesn’t mean the ribosomes that receive the information have minds or understand what they’re doing. Such messages can be compared to a key that fits a particular lock; the key does not know which lock it fits; the lock does not know that the key will open it; but when the right key finds the right lock, the "message" has been received.
In short, consciousness is not necessary for information to exist, when the term information is used in its technical sense.
Objection 2: Information can’t exist on its own; it must be encoded in some physical substrate, whether it’s the double helix of DNA, the pages of a book, the microcircuitry of a computer chip, or the neuronal pathways of the brain. Therefore a field or matrix of pure information is impossible and inconceivable.
I agree with part of this. An information matrix with no physical reality is inconceivable, in the sense that the human mind cannot visualize it or make it real. However, I don’t see this as a problem. Why would we think that the ultimate nature of reality would be directly graspable by our minds?
We live in a 4D space-time universe. We are fully immersed in it. It is pretty much all we know, with the occasional exception of profound mystical experiences that transcend space and time. But our hypothesis is that this 4D universe is not the ultimate reality — that there is a deeper level, below both physicality and consciousness, a level that is outside of space and time and is not definable in 4D terms.
The classic illustration of this idea is Edwin Abbott’s Flatland, a book that is part social commentary, part religious satire, and part mathematical treatise. In the book, Mr. A. Square, a two-dimensional resident of Flatland, is lifted up out of the sheet of paper that is his world and rudely introduced to the third physical dimension (height). From his new perspective he can look down on Flatland and see inside the buildings. When he returns, he tries to give voice to his revelation, but no one knows what he’s talking about. The other Flatlanders think Mr. A. Square is crazy.
When it comes to imagining a ground of being that is outside the parameters of our universe — outside space and time — we are in the same unfortunate position as the people of Flatland. We can’t really conceive of it, except in theoretical terms, and we can’t picture it except by metaphors and analogies. But this is true of any attempt to describe the fundamental nature of reality.
The issue of metaphors and analogies leads us to ...
Objection 3: Isn’t the information matrix merely the latest in a long line of metaphysical theories that use current technology as a metaphor for reality? When clockwork mechanisms were all the rage, the idea of a clockwork universe was fashionable. Centuries later, when holography was au courant, David Bohm compared the universe to a hologram. Now that we're in the Information Age, the universe is seen as a virtual-reality environment generated by information processing. When the next technological revolution comes along, the metaphor will change again.
There’s a good deal of truth in this observation, but I’m not sure it’s actually damaging to our hypothesis. As I said above, the only way to intellectually grasp (or at least grasp at) the foundational nature of reality is by metaphor and analogy. As our technology becomes more sophisticated, our metaphors may get closer to the truth.
The clockwork universe was not a completely accurate representation, but it was a major advance over the idea of a universe ruled by the whims of gods. This Newtonian paradigm is still perfectly valid when dealing with macroscopic phenomena. Using Newton's calculations exclusively, it is possible to chart the trajectory of a spacecraft from Earth to the moon.
As for Bohm's theory, a holographic universe is broadly compatible with the information processing idea. A holographic plate consists of wave interference patterns, which are simply encoded information, so the universe-as-hologram is essentially a 4D image projected out of a substrate of information. And since Bohm's holographic universe changes over time, the holographic plate presumably must be undergoing changes as well, which would correspond to the ongoing algorithms of information processing.
Better technology in the future may well yield better metaphors, but for now we need to work with what we have. In general, using cutting-edge tech as a springboard for ontological speculation has proven pretty successful.
Other objections are possible. Some people feel the whole idea of an information-based universe is depressingly cold and impersonal. Maybe so, but why does reality have to be warm and fuzzy? Others find the idea to be unscientific because it is unfalsifiable in principle. This is probably true, but how is that different from any other ontological proposition? Still others note that the all-important issue of the origin of consciousness is left ambiguous; is mind an emergent property of an informational system, or something else? Honestly, I don’t know.
Finally, there are those who complain that commonly reported transcendent experiences such as episodes of "cosmic consciousness" and NDEs say nothing about information as the ground of being. But this is debatable. Some NDEs do include decidedly "holographic" elements, as our longtime commenter Art has often mentioned, and most "cosmic consciousness" episodes involve the sense that a complex, well-orchestrated, logical system underlies the illusion of physical reality. I think the information-matrix idea is also broadly consistent with the Seth material channeled by Jane Roberts. (See this book for a discussion of parallels between Seth's lectures and Bohm's holomovement.)
For additional discussions, see The Bottom Layer website, which does an unusually good job of laying out the reasons for thinking that quantum phenomena can best be understood as expressions of an information processing system; Brian Whitworth's highly technical but fascinating essays; and, what the hell, my own novella Chasing Omega, which includes this issue in a dramatized depiction of afterlife research and the possibilities it raises.