Do physical laws or informational laws govern the universe?

Photo by Mateus Maia on Unsplash

At the very tip of the Statue of Liberty, defining the highest point on Lady Liberty’s torch, sits a single atom of gold.

Why is it there?

A bit more information

Every question expresses uncertainty. To resolve uncertainty is to acquire information. Information, in this sense, is quantifiable. The amount of information needed to answer a question counts all the possible answers in the following way. Every time we eliminate half of the potential answers, we have acquired a bit of information.

Big questions are broken up into smaller, easier questions. We narrow down the answer by asking successive yes-or-no questions, receiving one bit at a time. Eventually, we will have acquired enough bits to answer the question — we’ll have information.

But where does this information reside — where is it stored?

Bit from it

On the one hand, information is abstract. It doesn’t matter if it is instantiated in the world or not — the answer to 1+1 just is, regardless of whether it is etched in stone, ink, or the synapses of a brain. Yet, as the late pioneering information theorist Rolf Landauer said, information is physical. To store, process, or transmit information requires doing something in the real world, with physical stuff — the purview of physics. Indeed, we cannot possess information except by extracting it from the real world — we get bits from its.

So now we are in the realm of physics, and any semblance of a question having a scientific flavor inevitably leads down the road of reductionism. We are told that chemistry is just applied physics, which is more fundamental. Since molecules are made of atoms, the rules obeyed by atoms must explain the existence of molecules. But atoms are made of protons, neutrons, and electrons — so we don’t need the concept of atoms at all, according to reductionism. And down we go until we eventually get to a world governed entirely by the laws of fundamental particles.

The gold atom is there because the fundamental forces demand it. The laws of physics require it to be placed exactly where it is. All the details of that atom and how its properties might be measured are the topics of countless Ph.D. theses in physics departments around the world. We can figure out in excruciating detail — using more mathematics and jargon than anyone would care to see — anything that can be measured about that gold atom.

Any information that a gold atom might contain is encoded in itself and its placement within the arrangement of atoms around it. This is physicalism in a nutshell — there is nothing above and beyond what is contained in the material world. If information exists, it must be contained in real things.

Yet, we will never be able to answer the original question — why is that gold atom there instead of still buried in the ground — starting from the fundamental forces it experiences.

It from bit

Inherent in most discussions of physicalism is the idea that we — scientists, explorers, engineers, or just simply observers — passively discover information encoded in the real world by probing it with the ever-more-sophisticated tools of science. Indeed, if this were true, reductionist physicalism would be ideally suited for the purpose of understanding the world. But we don’t just understand the world — we create it. Artists, engineers, and all of us to some extent mold our little corner of the universe in ways inexplicable by starting from fundamental particles.

Modern physics — general relativity and quantum mechanics — place the observer center stage. Science is about what we bring forth to our senses in the natural world — and we are equal players in this game. We push, nature pushes back — and then we say, “that was neat; let’s do it again.”

Instead of Landauer’s information is physical slogan, we could equally well say physics is informational. In other words, the laws of physics themselves are not the most fundamental things we have — they should be derived from more fundamental principles of information. If we take this idea one step further, we end up with John Wheeler’s it from bit. Inspired by quantum physics, Wheeler proposed the participatory anthropic principlethat reality is created as we ask it questions, one bit at a time. We get it from bits.

As radical as this idea sounds, we can go even further. We don’t merely ask questions of the universe anymore — we build it. The flow of information goes both ways as we engineer structures that encode information. Because we can manipulate the world to solidify and protect that information, we can build statues that represent ideas not carried by the physical stuff making up our bodies or the statue. And that, finally, brings us to the answer.

All that glitters

What most people know is that the Statue of Liberty (officially Liberty Enlightening the World) was a gift to America from France. Of course, how it came about had more to do with politics than anything. So to understand why that gold atom is there requires knowing the motivations of 19th-century French abolitionists and the American Union. But even then, you still would not know how the torch got there — because it’s not the original torch.

The original copper torch is still viewable in a museum. It has a storied history of ill-considered modifications. Shortly after installation, American officials had lights put inside of it and cut holes in the statue, hoping it would shine. It didn’t work. So, to understand why it was eventually replaced with the current gold torch requires the concept of ineptitude, which fundamental particles are obviously ignorant of. One hundred years after its installation, the torch was replaced.

Why replace the torch in 1986, and why gold? Again, the answers to these questions come down to theories of physiology, sociology, politics, and economics. First, centennials — though irrelevant from a cosmic perspective — have meaning to modern humans. A hundred-year anniversary is a good opportunity to justify spending money to coat a copper statue in 24-karat gold, for example. Of course, gold has physically interesting properties, including the ability to “glisten” when illuminated with light. But why should a bunch of slightly evolved apes care about shiny things? Shiny things, like gold, are valuable — but that is also a cultural construct.

We can go on listing innumerable historical facts about the Statue of Liberty and the physical and chemical properties of gold, but we will always be missing something — there is no end to “but, why?” questions. Each answer to why foliates into more questions until we are all but obligated to play out the entire history of the universe to replicate in every minute detail the answer to a question no one has ever actually asked or cares about.

The truth is, there is no truth about that gold atom. There are only stories. And whether or not a story is good depends on the desires of who wants to hear it.




Quantum theorist by day, father by night. Occasionally moonlighting as a author.

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Chris Ferrie

Chris Ferrie

Quantum theorist by day, father by night. Occasionally moonlighting as a author.

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