Why the Universe Has Wiggle Room

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

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4 Responses to Why the Universe Has Wiggle Room

  1. As always, there are many things in this brief essay that I like very much and that prompt further thought. Wheeler’s “bit” to “It” was new to me but makes a lot of sense. What comes to mind immediately is the fact that the arrangement of base pairs in the DNA molecule can make an immense difference in the way the resulting organism looks and acts. Why should the arrangement of a molecule serve as a kind of instruction manual, telling the organism what to grow into? And why should these instructions be both readable to us humans and capable of being manipulated by us (so that we can, for example, produce grasshoppers that have legs growing out of their heads instead of antenae)? It really is astounding that information is at the root of all biological creatures.

    But I especially like how you tied this together with Christian faith. I like how you portrayed God as the primary observer and humans as secondary observers of this universe. I was especially struck by your comment that Wheeler was interested in “the astoundingly unlikely ‘coincidences’ that make possible life and mind in our universe.” This reminds me of something you said in your recent sermon series on prayer: that answers to prayer may seem like mere coincidences, but isn’t it strange how often such coincidences happen in the lives of those who pray? I have often thought that answers to prayer are like lightning on a dark night. For a moment, they illuminate a landscape that is otherwise unseen. God is working within that landscape all the time, but we only catch glimpses of God’s activity when we have those “coincidences.” I believe that scientists catch glimpses of God’s activity too, although they may not know it.

    You’ve given us many things to think about. Thanks!

    Ron

    • salooper57 says:

      Ron, I love the lightning analogy. May I use it, when appropriate?

      The coincidence remark came from an Anglican Archbishop. I remember the line, but I can’t remember which archbishop said it (getting old?), and was unable to find it using the ever-present Google. – Shayne.

      • Yes, feel free to use that analogy and anything else that comes up in our conversations. I’ve jotted down lots of notes from things you’ve said, so I hope it’s okay with you as well. I did remember that you had attributed that coincidence remark to someone else, but I appreciated you passing it along because it’s a helpful comment.

        Blogs (and newspaper columns) are usually written as if they author expected them to be disposable and good for today only. You don’t write like that. I appreciate the fact that your blog posts and columns encourage further thought. I hope more people catch onto them.

        Ron

      • salooper57 says:

        Thanks, Ron, for permission to use the analogy. And please feel free to use anything I write or speak that you find helpful – and don’t worry about attributions. I know – as do you (“What Does God Do From 9 to 5”) that I don’t remember the vast majority of things that have happened to me and shaped me. I’m sure that some of my most insightful idea were borrowed wholesale from someone else – I just don’t know which ones! Or I should say, I just don’t know what percentage of every idea I ever had came from someone else!

        9 to 5 reminded me once again that God has been active in a billion ways in my life and thought, and in the lives and thoughts of everyone I’ve ever met. I have often thought that in the age to come we shall hear stories of the good and humble work of God on our behalf will move us to wonder and worship.

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