The renowned physicist John Archibald Wheeler summed up his long and illustrious career under three headings – three thematic periods that characterized his work. He called the first period, “Everything is Particles.” This covered the time when he worked alongside the legendary Niels Bohrs to understand nuclear fission and was drawn into the famous Manhattan Project.
Wheeler called his second period, “Everything is Fields,” referring to the effect that the strong and weak nuclear forces, electro-magnetism and gravity have on all matter and space-time.
He titled the final stage of his career, “Everything is Information.” During this period, Wheeler was gripped by the question, “How come existence?” The bio-friendliness (to use Paul Davies’ term) of the universe, the astoundingly unlikely “coincidences” that make possible life and mind in our universe, fascinated the older Wheeler.
He never came to believe in the biblical creator (and in fact rejected such a belief), but he was dissatisfied with the way most of his colleagues answered (or simply ignored) the question, “How come existence?” He insisted that there is “an immaterial source and explanation” for the physical world.
In a paper he titled, “Information, Physics, Quantum: The Search for Links” he wrote “that what we call reality arises in the last analysis from the posing of yes-no questions and the registering of equipment-evoked responses; in short, that all things physical are information-theoretic in origin and this is a participatory universe.”
In other words, physical reality (particles, fields, stars, galaxies, people – everything) arises from information. Wheeler termed this “It from Bit,” where “It” denotes physical things and “Bit” refers to discreet bits (as in a computer’s digital code) of information. Everything in the universe (or multiverse, or whatever our cosmic neighborhood is called) is an expression of information.
According to Wheeler, it is the act of processing (observing, measuring) that information is transformed into reality. Reality, he concluded, does not exist apart from an observer. For Wheeler, that observer might be an evolved (perhaps a billion years into the future) superintelligence with the knowledge to transcend time and space and reform reality.
Some of this could be harmonized (though Wheeler would disparage the attempt) with Judeo-Christian teaching. Long before John Archibald Wheeler, Jews and Christians believed in “an immaterial source and explanation” of physical reality. Biblical writers were certain that a superintelligence created the world through “word” or “reason” (“logos” in Greek), which sounds more than a little like Wheeler’s “It” from “Bit.” According to biblical theology, the universe exists – it holds together as a reality – only because there is an Observer, the one who “saw all that he had made, and it was very good.”
Wheeler, at least in his “Everything is Information” period, came to believe that the rules of physics do not constitute immutable laws. “The laws [of physics] could not have always been a hundred percent accurate,” he asserted. From his perspective, the universe has wiggle room, enough room for an observer – indeed, for all observers – to participate in the ongoing creation of reality.
This too is like the Judeo-Christian teaching that God, as the principal observer, interacts with the universe through his word, both by creating it and sustaining it. And we, as secondary observers, also interact with reality in ways that make a genuine difference. Through the very act of creation (“Bit” to “It”), God made room for his creatures and conferred upon them the dignity of having their own place and the authority to shape it.
First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 8/20/2016