The theory that quantum bits of information are the fundamental building blocks of the world is a modern echo of Advaita Vedanta.
With social media spewing facts like a firehose, the world today is in danger of drowning in a pool of information. Or as the cynic would say, in a cesspool of fake news, because, as anyone who has been on Facebook would know, most of what is peddled as news is really alt-news, an euphemism for propaganda and misinformation.
In an earlier era of the internet, spam had similarly threatened to undermine the utility of email. Even today, 60 per cent of all mail sent through the internet is spam, but thanks to intelligent spam filters, most are trapped and never reach the main inbox. Unfortunately, similar filters for fake news are not yet available and so our social media timelines are cluttered with material deliberately placed to confuse us or to convince us of things that we would not otherwise agree with. The St Petersburg, Russia, based Internet Research Agency, a “troll farm”, is one such organisation, consisting of hundreds of staff who post a barrage of fake news and pictures on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and it is alleged that their activity was a significant factor in Hillary Clinton’s loss to Donald Trump in the US presidential elections.
But fake news is really not a new, social media-driven phenomenon. Jacob Soll, writing in Politico gives an excellent account of how fake news has plagued society since the Middle Ages. In fact, behind every news story is a story of why and how that news has become a story. So is the case with our history, where at least three generations of students are convinced that it was M/s Gandhi, Nehru & Co (P) Ltd alone that fought for and secured freedom for India from British rule.
“Opinions are free but facts are sacred” is a cliche that is often quoted by the erudite to justify their own opinions, that are ostensibly backed by sacred facts. But are facts really sacred? Or to rephrase the question, are the sacred facts accessible? And so by extension, if the sacred facts are not accessible, then does it at all matter whether the accessible facts are sacred or not? This leads us off on a tangent, where we wonder how could it be that the sacred facts are not accessible? Can we not see, touch, feel and experience the reality around us?
The answer to this question takes us back to 1922, when Walter Lippmann’s classic book Public Opinion begins with the famous phrase, “the world outside and the pictures in our heads”. Lippmann describes a remote, South Sea Island colony, consisting of British, French and German citizens who, for nearly six weeks in 1914, until the mail steamer arrived, were not aware that their countries were at war with each other. Lippmann argues that, by extension, even for people in Europe, that period of illusion would have existed, even though it may have been shortened to, say, six days or six hours or six minutes. Which means that for an individual, what matters is not the state of the world, but the information about that state that is available with him.
Public Opinion is a seminal text in media sciences, political science and social psychology because it articulates man’s inability to interpret the world: “The real environment is altogether too big, too complex and too fleeting for direct acquaintance between people and their environment. People construct a pseudo-environment that is a subjective, biased and necessarily abridged mental image of the world, and to a degree, everyone’s pseudo-environment is a fiction. People live in the same world, but they think and feel in different ones.”
Without having direct access to any “sacred” facts — that is, the actual state of the world, one has to depend on information about the world, with which to craft a “free” opinion about a world that is now represented only by information. Obviously, there is no way for anyone to guarantee that the information is undistorted! One could of course seek information through multiple channels and compare. Unfortunately, there is no absolute measure of intrinsic credibility — no channel is guaranteed to be more accurate than another, and even if there was one, there is no guarantee that multiple channels will not collude with each other to portray a single, but erroneous, view of the world. Conspiracy theorists who claim that the moon landing never happened, harp on this fact because we know that none of us were there on the moon to actually see Neil Armstrong take that famous step. One may of course argue that such a large scale collusion is not possible in the modern world because there are so many channels of communication, but if we think closely, it has become even more easy today. If Google, Facebook and Twitter were to act in concert, or are forced to do so, then for a very large part of the population that has stopped watching TV or reading newspapers, information about certain events can be wiped clean from the public consciousness.
With a little more effort, TV channels and newspapers can also be made to fall in line… and after that, even if someone were to actually travel all the way from Washington to Kolkata and shout at the top of his voice that one Hillary Clinton is actually the president of the United States, he will be laughed at, even though he may be the only one who has the “facts”. Is such large scale collusion possible? It may seem unlikely, but there are examples of authoritarian regimes that have indeed managed to eliminate information about some events, like Tiananmen Square, from everywhere except the memories of those were present there.
But just as one can eliminate some information from all information channels, one could of course also introduce information about a “non-existent” state of the world and create a whole new artificial world — as is done in role playing games like Warcraft, or platforms like Second Life. In all these cases, computer software is used to generate information about fantasy locations populated by ultra-realistic or utterly fantastic creatures and transmit this information to willing humans through traditional channels like computer screens, new channels like virtual reality headsets and in some cases through direct implants into the human nervous system. Those who play these “games” are now tethered to a different “reality” — that strictly speaking does not exist for those who are not playing the “game” — through a channel of pure information. Whether that alternate reality does or does not exist is no more relevant. The only thing that matters is that information that represents that reality is available to the sentient consciousness for whom it is no less real than the other, traditional “reality” that the rest of us are accustomed to. This is no different from Lippmann’s prophetic statement about “the world outside and the pictures in our heads”.
But of course, the game player can unplug himself from the “other” reality and come back to the “real” reality — or, on second thoughts, can he? Could it be like the Chinese monk, who had a very vivid dream of being a butterfly and after waking up was left wondering whether he really was a monk dreaming that he had been a butterfly or a butterfly currently dreaming that he was a monk? Could it be like Neo in The Matrix who understood the difference between reality and the illusion of the matrix to which he had been physically hooked to as a child? Or in the grand Indic tradition of Adi Sankaracharya’s Advaita Vedanta, you would easily see the world of sensory phenomena as an illusory maya, a projection of an underlying consciousness.
Could it be that the information about the state of the world is the actual or “real” reality and not the world itself? Could the world be a by-product of information?
There are two ways of addressing this question. The easy-to-understand approach is the Simulation Hypothesis that claims that the world that we see around us is a virtual one created on a Matrix-like machine that is operated by a higher-order civilisation. Way back in 2006, this author had created a short film called Are You Real that explored this idea, but the concept has been supported by many well-known people like Nick Bostrom, professor of philosophy at Oxford University, and of late entrepreneur Elon Musk.
The only difficulty in this approach is that since the higher order civilisation could, in turn, be a simulation being run by an even higher order civilisation, there could be no logical end to this recursive cycle.
This problem is eliminated if the physical world itself is viewed as a computational device, where every fundamental constituent carries information, in addition to the usual payload of mass-energy, charge and other properties. This implies that the laws of physics are an expression of the software logic, or algorithm, that causes changes to the information, just as they do in a classical computer. So information becomes as integral a part of universe as its mass-energy.
But the real insight into the true value of information is even deeper. We know that biological phenomena are a manifestation of the information stored in the DNA molecule. Newton’s classical mechanics defined the physical world as a manifestation of mass, position and velocity of particles. Schrodinger and Heisenberg’s quantum mechanics defined the physical world as a manifestation of probabilities. Einstein, who was never comfortable with probabilities, defined the physical world of mass as a manifestation of the geometry, or curvature of space-time. Information enters into these equations through the concept of entropy, a measure of physical disorder. This physical entropy is closely related to the entropy identified by Claude Shannon, in his classical information theory, where he shows that information about an event is, at its most general level, a function of the probability of the event. This theory was subsequently generalised into quantum information theory and used by Richard Feynman to postulate the quantum computer. In fact, Feynman was the first to suggest that the physical world was a gigantic quantum computer that was actually calculating the positions and velocities and positions of all particles! Quantum computers have already been fabricated and anyone can use the IBM quantum experience machine for free by visiting https://goo.gl/6YjU5D.
But the real clincher is the hypothesis — though not yet fully vetted in peer-reviewed journals — that information is not a representation of reality but is the reality itself! The fact that the real world was not built with elementary particles like protons and electrons or from forces and fields but from information is an idea that was best articulated by physicist John Wheeler. He coined phrase “It for Bit” — that is, matter is created from information — which has now been modified as IfQ or “It from Qubit”, the quantum bit.
This concept is explained by Clara Moscowitz in Scientific American, where she says space-time is created with tiny chunks of information. She quotes Vijay Balasubramanian from the University of Pennsylvania, who explains that this approach “marries together two traditionally different fields (that describe): (i) how information is stored in quantum things and (ii) how information is stored in space and time”. It is information that provides the crucial missing link between the probabilities of quantum mechanics and the geometry of relativity through the purported equivalence of Shannon’s entropy, which is a function of probabilities, and the physical entropy, which is a function of the geometry within which it is constrained.
From a layman’s perspective, if we view the world as a “game” being simulated on a computer, then we will expect that at the “bottom” of it all, there must be a hardware — the “bare metal” of physical reality — on which the game software is running. As a thought experiment, we could miniaturise ourselves to go down and locate that single electron that stores a quantum bit of information used by the simulation software. But when we locate it, we do so only by using the information that moves from that electron to our sensory organs — which is just another way of saying that information is the only reality, not the electron. In fact, who are “we” to sense the information? The observers are also pieces of information — whose existence lies in the recursive self-awareness of the same information — that manifests itself as consciousness.
The fact that information is the new reality is borne out at a superficial level by the way the contours of our knowledge of the world are shaped by the information that we get through the internet and social media. But what is really remarkable is that, at a far deeper level, this is a view that is shared by many physicists, who also believe that it is information that actually defines the world that we see around us.
This is but a modern echo of Sankara’s aphorism — Brahma satya, jagat mithya. The eternal and immutable Brahman is the only and ultimate reality and the world that we see around us is an illusion caused by imperfect knowledge and information. Fake news indeed!