PLATONISM AND CONSCIOUSNESS
This morning at around 4AM I found myself awake and nearly overturning my long-held commitment to Platonism—the idea that mathematics in its purest form is to be discovered not invented and a logical position that I also extend to computation. My take on Platonism has been that we invent many imprecise representations along the way but that the language is there, as the fabric of the universe, for us—or some version of us—to eventually discover. As Werner Heisenberg remarked, "We have to remember that what we observe is not nature herself, but nature exposed to our method of questioning."
I woke thinking of consciousness and J.A. Wheeler's essay in which he introduced the idea of it from bit and argued biological systems are not a consequence of physics, existing “above it” and largely screened off, but a core, causal set of sub-processes. Not in terms of their influence on particle physics, but in terms of their contribution to loop dynamics, which he proposed describe the origin and evolution of the universe through observer participancy.
Wheeler's proposal is an argument for how the universe evolves. As he writes in his essay, it is not turtles all the way down—ultimately there is no micro and macro, no top and bottom, no infinite hierarchy, no space, no time—but he does seem to allow a mesoscale with complex structure where these concepts emerge and where biology and adaptive systems exist. In this sense it is possible that as interaction order increases with observer participancy new synergies and hence new mathematics or representations are coming into existence and bringing novel structure.
In other words mathematics is being created but not with the usual nominalist meaning. Rather, the optimal representation changes as collective consciousness expands in a non-Euclidean sense. I think to see this possibility requires recognizing we have a bias for Euclidean space, viewing the universe as vast, and this vastness not only as dominating but implying that the small fraction of sentient matter could not possibly have much causal effect. Wheeler in his essay furtively reveals this bias and then proceeds—in suggesting that biology through perception and inference ratchet loop dynamics—to obliterate the reader's commitment to it—one of the reasons I love the essay and his ideas, whether right or not.
To state this in psychological terms, the bias for space and commitment to Platonism might go hand in hand as an outcome of the paradoxically narcissistic feeling of being small and insignificant that looses its power if we instead conceive of our sentience as part of a collective consciousness in which neither magnitude nor scale have meaning.
FOR MURRAY + CORMAC
Stay safe + stay true, SFI!
AND IT IS ALL ONE TO ME
AND IT IS ALL ONE TO ME
Information, physics, quantum: the search for links.
John A. Wheeler
And it is all one to me
Where I am to begin; for I shall return there again.
—PARMENIDES, Fragment 5 (trans. David Gallop)
In the contents of consciousness we recognize three sorts of elements, Firstness, Secondness, Thirdness. [—] What a Third is depends on two other things between which it mediates. Firstness is feeling-quality; secondness is brute reaction; thirdness is mediation.
--C.S. Peirce (1865-1909). The Logic Notebook.
John Archibald Wheeler, in this little understood but widely read and referenced essay—first presented as a paper at a Santa Fe Institute workshop in 1989—coins the phrase “it from bit” and argues that information is the natural language of the universe. Bits are its building blocks, preceding objects and matter. Order, meaning, and causality itself result from the simple act of registering a choice—an idea Wheeler encapsulates with the term “observer-participancy” (OP). Making a binary choice—yes or no—reduces uncertainty from an information-theoretic standpoint as the number of options (Haji-Akbari et al. 2009; Walchover 2017) before the question is answered—and hence the entropy—goes from two (one bit) to zero upon answering. The decrease in uncertainty also allows the OP to allocate its investments more efficiently, giving it access to new options and increasing entropy again (Flack 2017).
In my read of Wheeler, out of this cycle of symmetry-breaking come the sensations of space and time and, ultimately, with the concordant global increase in entropy, an arrow of time. The sensation that time passes is amplified by the mesoscale emergence of hierarchically structured physical and living systems. Further partitioning cause from effect by creating a separation of a scales, this hierarchy allows for feedback, reifying the loop created by the simple act of asking and answering questions, and also creating temporal and spatial heterogeneity and clustering. Reality—the universe—is a loop, but with complex internal structure. Wheeler’s essay is mostly an argument for the former with allusions to the latter.
To state this another way and connect with more familiar debates within complexity science, the determinism of fundamental physics—and to a lesser extent the determinism seeming implied by the emergent hierarchy of screened off organizational levels in biology—is an illusion in the deepest sense, although not necessarily in a proximal sense. Reality, Wheeler writes, is fundamentally circular: “physics gives rise to observer-participancy; observer-participancy gives rise to information; and information gives rise to physics.” If there is any inception point it is in the interaction of particles—initially the massless fundamental particles of quantum phenomena—and registration of these interactions by the changes they induce. In this simple Peircean quantum triad of particle interaction and registration, which Wheeler refers to as elementary observer-participancy, existence, the universe, and consciousness, have their origins.
There’s a tad more to unpack but for the moment it is worth highlighting that many essays have been written about Wheeler’s seductive yet initially perplexing idea, generally with the same conceptual formula. Most begin by reiterating the meaning of “it from bit,” discuss the double-slit and delayed-choice particle physics experiments—the surprising results of which helped Wheeler reach his conclusions—then wander on to the loosely woven connections he makes with adaptive systems and consciousness, and finally settle reluctantly into the conclusion that, while provocative, the paper is a failure, having not provided a satisfactory account of how observer-participants themselves arise. This formula follows Wheeler’s own conceptual line through his essay but only as it strikes surface.
I have now read the paper many times and must concede to having had these same thoughts as I struggled (always with enjoyment) through it. However, the more attention I give it the more convinced I am that although Wheeler characteristically creates many idea portals to untrodden intellectual territory that we readers could spend lifetimes exploring, he also creates efficient and creative paths through heavily trodden bogs, even if he also takes a few semantic and didactic liberties to get us to follow him.
Wheeler’s most intoxicating conclusion is that information precedes matter, rather than the other way around, as is typically the case in grand unified theories. Wheeler’s story turns not on objects like strings but on information-theoretic entities—decoders or registrants—his so-called observer-participants or choice-makers, as I call them.
Readers presumably assume, as I initially did, that an observer-participant needs to be an object with mass and, more egregiously, the capacity for computation. In other words, the universe could not come into existence without complex objects to start. This is both confusing (how could complexity be there from the beginning?) and a confusion. The confusion stems in part from human (perhaps Western) biases about what is required to perceive or register or pose a question. It also stems from Wheeler’s strategic decision to use several experiments in particle physics and cosmology to ground OP. In stressing the role of the measuring apparatus in these experiments as the registrant—the observer-participant—he immediately makes the concept of OP graspable, but the anthropomorphism also obscures.
The experiments that best distill the OP concept concern the nature of photons, whether they exist, where they are located, and whether they travel as particles or waves. To know a photon exists we must make measurements. Specifically, we can register the existence of a photon when it strikes and is absorbed by an electron in a photomultiplier that accepts its energy. The photon does not exist prior to emission or after detection—as it is destroyed when it is absorbed, meaning, importantly, it must be destroyed to confirm its existence, a point I will return to shortly.
For the moment, the key takeaway is the Peircean triadic nature of this experiment—there is a photon, an electron, and an observer-participant. In Wheeler’s telling, and in most descriptions of these experiments by others, the observer is the measurement device, or, if one backs up a step or two, the experiment-performing scientist. This gives the impression that observer-participants must be complex, but this is not generally assumed by physicists. And in this tiny modification to Wheeler’s presentation lies a key to averting the essay’s frequent but superficial dismissal—a third object with mass is not necessary—the triad can be simplified into two objects and two actions—the photon, electron, their collision, and the registration of the absorption of energy by the electron itself. In other words, the observer can be a third object with mass like a scientist, or it can be one of the interacting partners that in experiencing the event effectively registers it. The jump from first-person participancy to third-person participancy presumably entails an increase in complexity. Wheeler does not discuss this distinction or its implications but it potentially relates to the distinction between first- and third-person probabilities of what is observed vs. what occurs in quantum cosmology, as discussed in Hartle and Hertog (2017). I leave that thought to be explored by others.
The participancy part of observer-participancy is easier to understand. It comes from the fact that to register the photon an electron must absorb and consequently destroy it. The act of registering, or measuring, changes the nature of reality. Interestingly, when the electron absorbs the photon entropy in one sense decreases and in another increases. It decreases from the point of view of the photon’s existence—the absorption confirms that answer as “yes,” the photon existed. On the other hand, the absorption also pushes the electron into a higher energy state, increasing its options. Wheeler does not discuss this information transition, but recent work in biology on the information-theoretic conditions supporting macroscopic expansions suggests that it is an important factor in emergence (Flack 2017).
Wheeler follows his explanation of observer-participants and photons with a discussion of black holes, arguing that bits—via yes–no questions—not only bring objects into existence but give them their properties. In the case of black holes, their size—an “it”—is defined by the number of bits of information they contain. Through this example Wheeler gives substance to information as the language of the universe and bits as its building blocks. He is deriving physics from information—writing, “The quantum, h, in whatever correct physics formula it appears thus serves as a lamp. It lets us see the horizon area as information lost [measured as entropy], understand wave number of light as photon momentum, and think of field flux as bit-registered fringe shift.”
At this juncture, Wheeler begins to consider the implications of this new way of thinking for understanding how the universe is organized and what, besides the quantum, could be fundamental. Nothing, it turns out. He concludes there is no tower of turtles—existence is not in its most essential description a hierarchy but a loop. Laws and any hierarchical structure are consequences of self-synthesis that ultimately contribute to the loop. Space and time are emergent and additionally relative, with fluctuations at distances of the Planck length so great that space becomes lumpy and time nonsensical, emerging more meaningfully instead from convenient coarse-grainings over fluctuations that give rise to discreet rather than continuous objects.
Among the most important statements in the paper is, “Reality is a theory; the past has no evidence except as it is recorded in the present.” Registration is an act of amplification that screens off the quantum level but also produces bits that observer-participants use to do work (the electron enters a higher-energy state). This sounds very much like biology and like arguments I have made in my own papers! As the number of observer-participants grows, their joint interventions enrich the universe, the objective reality of which is defined by the degree of agreement among observer-participants in the answers to their yes–no questions. The objective reality resulting from this collective computation of consensus—from this collective intelligence—creates meaning, and observer-participants use the consolidated meaning map to communicate and work more efficiently, keeping the loop looping.
Wheeler is proposing that the universe comes into existence with a quantum triad of particle interaction and registration. This loop has no micro- and macroscale, no intrinsic spacetime, and no continuum. All of that is emergent—or, in the case of the continuum, an illusion, contributing to the loop lumpy, complex mesoscale phenomena that in cycling back on itself through feedback keeps the loop looping. OP requires no complexity to start. No mass and no resource intensive computation. Only quantum phenomena.
Abruptly with this insight comes the possibility that Wheeler’s essay is not, in fact, as so many have argued, ultimately a failure. Rather there is tremendous foresight in its reframing and refocusing, as well as actionable research directions. To understand the origins of the loop, we need to understand the origins of the quantum (perhaps the hardest part?). To understand looping, we need a theory of information (perhaps the most open-ended?). And for that, Wheeler writes, we should look to biology and the study of inference and perception.
A natural retort to this claim is that biology is measure zero given the scale of the universe and hence inconsequential. But that view, Wheeler wants us to understand, is surface. It privileges space and time, which, like biological systems, are emergent, not fundamental, and—more significantly—are to some extent a consequence of emergence, and, specifically, of coarse-graining by biological systems as they process the environment and distill regularities. The vastness of space and time is an illusion or at least a red herring; the vastness neither trivializes biology nor ensures biology’s contribution is negligible—as Wheeler points out, much can come from almost nothing (the boundary of a boundary is zero).
This concession to biology is a massive frameshift. Biological systems are not a consequence of physics, existing “above it” and largely screened off, but a core, causal set of sub-processes. Not in terms of their influence on particle physics, but in terms of their contribution to loop dynamics. Biological information processing contributes the mesoscale dynamics that keep the loop looping. Carlo Rovelli and colleagues (2018) make a similar point when they suggest that time may not be unitary, but a complex phenomenon with many layers, united only in their connection to entropy, and with each contributing unique properties to reality.
Wheeler, having opened an idea portal, leaves it to descendants to explore. Once one sits with this reframing for a while, the shock of the idea that biology could “contribute to physics” subsides and the natural teleological property of biology comes to the fore as holding the explanation of how.
Where Wheeler leaves off, Jim Hartle picks up. Jim was a student of Wheeler’s at Princeton and a collaborator of Santa Fe Institute cofounder and discoverer of the quark, Murray Gell-Mann. During Jim’s visits to SFI we discussed overlaps in our work—overlaps that Jim first perceived even as he worked largely in cosmology and I on computation in adaptive systems—an ideal Institute interaction. It was not, unfortunately, until just after he died this past year in 2023, upon re-reading some of his papers on time, coarse-graining, and information processing, that I realized just how extensively our ideas and interests overlapped.
Jim’s work further develops the idea that information should be central in any theory of the universe’s origins and structure. It also connects Wheeler’s incipient physics of information more concretely to fundamental physics as well as to the biology of information processing, contextualizing Wheeler and his essay within complexity science and pushing “it from bit” towards its conceptual center.
Hartle (2005) gives a form to Wheeler’s observer-participants that a biologist easily recognizes. Jim reformulates OPs as IGUSs (information gathering and utilizing systems)—a term Jim borrowed from Murray, who introduced it in The Quark & the Jaguar—and uses this more developed concept of information processing to show how human notions of past, present, and future can be sensible within the four-dimensional world of fundamental physics. Perhaps most significantly, Jim outlines the spacetime conditions supporting a common now—that is the capacity of entities separated in space to collectively experience approximately the same present. With this insight Jim provides another central detail to the “it from bit” story, as the capacity to experience or perceive approximately the same present is a key condition for the emergence of hierarchy and levels of organization in biology. I think Wheeler would like this generative trajectory. There is much to do!
Flack Jessica C. (2017). Coarse-graining as a downward causation mechanism. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. A.3752016033820160338
Gell-Mann, Murray (1994). The Quark and the Jaguar. Adventures in the Simple and the Complex. New York: W.H. Freeman.
Haji-Akbari, A., Engel, M., Keys, A. et al. (2009). Disordered, quasicrystalline and crystalline phases of densely packed tetrahedra. Nature 462, 773–777.
Hartle, James B. (2005). The physics of now. American Journal of Physics, 73, 101-109.
Hartle, James B. and Hertog, T. (2017). The Observer Strikes Back. In K. Chamcham, J. Silk, J. Barrow, & S. Saunders (Eds.), The Philosophy of Cosmology (pp. 181-205). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Peirce, Charles Sanders (1865-1909). The Logic Notebook.
Rovelli, C., Segre, E., & Carnell, S. (2018). The order of time. New York, New York, Riverhead Books.
Walchover, Natalie (2017) Digital alchemist seeks rules of emergence. Quanta Magazine, March 8.
Wheeler, John Archibald (1989). Information, physics, quantum: the search for links. In Proceedings III International Symposium on Foundations
I don't agree but I am sympathetic. Moving forward requires triangulating bw diff types of representations. Even as we approach the end of a problem I think what actually crystalizes is not just an equation but mappings + isomorphisms, with understanding residing inside the triangle—a position that is akin but not identical to one of Roger Penrose's, and captured in his three-world's diagram.
Lots of discussion lately about the value of math + formalization, particularly for problems at the boundary of science + philosophy. Formalization can help to clarify as long as we remain aware of its + our limits.
Triangulation (mine—data, mathematical formalisms, natural language) in no way implies some biological problems are not describable mathematically or are better described by natural language. Rather I am suggesting that understanding resides in triangulation itself, with no specific type of representation *necessarily* dominating although some forms might be more generative. The power is in establishing isomorphisms + mappings.
WRT to Murray's point. I reiterate he was being cheeky. He did after all found @sfiscience. At the time he made the comment, probably around 18-20 years ago, microscale data was less common than it is today. And the divide between modelers + theorists in biology was large. That divide is still large although it is improving. And today we have much higher quality microscale data, which allow derivation of macro from micro and hence checking to make sure our macroscale variables are fundamental, not the result of observe bias. Murray's point was about attending closely to patterns in nature + finding principled ways to describe those patterns, understanding when a phenomenological approach is a valid one, + having humility about what we don't know.
Another yet more profound take on triangulation says it's not just the cause of understanding but the causal dynamic underlying existence. This version comes from Wheeler, who in claiming that observer-participancy is the basis for "it from bit" invokes a triadic interaction à la Peirce, whom he cites towards the end of his it from bit paper. The existence of a photon is confirmed when it collides with + is absorbed by an electron. This event is registered by a measurement device, which in Wheeler's telling, is a third-party to the event (the apparatus in an experiment) but it could also be the electron itself, which in absorbing the photon moves to a higher energy state. These two possibilities entail somewhat different causal networks but both have a triadic character. According to Wheeler, the universe is a loop born out of this very simple dynamic.
Looking south from Muley Point at your stomping grounds, where "all preference is made whimsical and a man and a rock become endowed with unguessed kinships."
@Twitter thread on Cormac, Blood Meridian's beautiful prose, a little bit of fashion, SFI and complexity science.