I have returned from the annual non-NASA Astrobiology
conference, which I attended this year and delivered two papers. After my NASA colleague's long-delayed paper
on the discovery of microfossils in carbonaceous chondrites (meteorites that are widely believed to be extinct comet fragments) was accidentally published in March when Fox News broke the paper embargo that led to 40 million web hits, I had fond hopes that this would be the conference that broke the ice about ET. In fact, my first paper was entitled "More Evidence for Liquid Water on Comets
" which recorded the mounting evidence that indeed, comets are natural bio-transporters for moving biology all over the cosmos--sorta like Arthur C. Clarke
's novel "Rendezvous with Rama
Curiously, NASA has been having press conference frenzy about, you guessed it, liquid water again. First there was evidence
of past water
, then present water
found on Mars, then briny liquid water
, and soon to be fresh liquid wate
r. Maybe, like the LCROSS
impact on the Moon, it will now become swimming pools of fresh water. If you recall, the reason given in 1976 for rejecting the evidence for life in Gil Levin's "Labelled Release
" experiment on the Viking Mars lander was because "everyone knows Mars is dry as a bone." So perhaps Hoover's paper is having the desired effect: water and gold are exchanging places in the solar system, from rarity to commodity. (If only Levin's experiment had detected gold we'd be back there already . . . )
But the second paper was far more challenging to write. It was an answer to Stephen Hawking
's inspired nonsense about M-theory
. You can read mathematician Lennox
(here's a review
of Lennox's book) but what you won't get from him is any idea why Hawking, the atavar of British reserve in his 1986 best-seller "A Brief History of Time
", had become a foam-flecked mouthpiece of new atheism. The answer was that the mathematics of his specialty--the Big Bang Cosmology--was becoming untenable, and evidently it was driving him to distraction. This is just another microcosmic example reflecting the fact that the paradigm worldview of the 20th century, the idol which reigned supreme from the publishing of Darwin's "Origin of the Species" through two World Wars and the raising of the Iron Curtain was now crumbling as certainly as the Berlin Wall. (Which, in fact, was the thematic background for Ben Stein's "Expelled
" documentary about Darwinist dogmatism.)
Everywhere you look, the Modernist juggernaut is stalled and smoking. If it isn't too big a stretch, the failure of governments in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and Syria, the failure of the Euro-zone, the failure of NASA to launch astronauts, are all emblematic of the failure of Modernism to thrive in the 21st century. The progressive utopia of New Deals, New World Orders, and New Frontiers has retreated into the mists, taking its promises and its promoters into the swamp with it. Even that Modernist paragon of critical skepticism, the man who dominated the philosophy of atheism in Britain representing the pinnacle of enlightened thought, Anthony Flew
, recanted his atheism in 2004. It has been a bad beginning to a new century, a new millennium, and Hawking, like most brilliant men, is very aware of this failure of his life's goal, of the purpose of his career, of his cultural worldview, and it is driving him mad.
Now the death of Modernism has been a long time coming, and it would be fruitless to try and pin a date for its last breath. But more importantly, we need to ask the question, what comes after Modernism?
And that is what Hawking is aiming to provide.
The explanation requires that we make A Brief History of Hawking. The history of Modernism is intertwined with the history of materialism. For as the atomic theory of matter gained credence throughout the 19th century, the organic theory of matter, the purposeful motion of the four elements and the perfection of the heavenly bodies lost credence. As this de-mythologizing of nature continued with Darwin's theory of accidental life (1859), there did not seem to be anything left of life's mystery except the math.
That is, there is no doubt that in the 1930's quantum mechanics undermined the atomic theory of matter, but it did so with a peculiar arithmetic that did not seem to obey the rules of cardinal numbers. One plus one no longer equalled two, and only by arcane math could one discover the secret answer. This triumph of pure unapplied math over nature would later earn Eugene Wigner
a Nobel prize in physics, and the tradition continues today with hordes of theoretical physicists pursuing the unapplied mathematics of "string theory
" in search of the secret to the universe. Stephen Hawking was one such theoretical physicist, wrestling with the math in his physics papers on cosmology and the properties of the unobservable black hole.
This transition from atoms to black holes is significant for Hawking, because it represents more than his personal journey, but the very birth and senescence of materialism, and by close association, of Modernism as well. The physicist who was hugely influential in Hawkings career and who had coined the moniker "black hole", John Archibald Wheeler
, wrote that his career had moved through three phases, from "Everything is
particles" to "Everything is fields" to "Everything is information."
Wheeler spent his first 20 years during WWII doing nuclear physics whose metaphysical foundation was Newtonian materialism. The next 20 years of his life were spent "recertifying
" cosmology and its emphasis on the geometry of spacetime, using a mathematics that superceded Newton. While it was a bit of a shock to lose the solidity of Newton's particles, there was a certain comfort in finding a differential geometry that replaced Newton's gears and cogs with geodesics and light-cones. What Materialism lost in sharp definitions it gained in rococco ornamentation. Hawking, with Wheeler, had made the transition from atoms to math, but unlike him, was not willing to take the final step. What was so formidable about this step?
As Wheeler's biographer Kenneth Ford, recounts
Enter the "Information Period." Wheeler, in his later years, has been asking
two kinds of questions. One centers around the reality of existence "out
there" independent of our observations. . .The other kind of question concerns the nature of physical law. "It from
bit?" is Wheeler's way of asking if the nature and the behavior of the world
around us ("it") is accounted for entirely by on-off gates of information
("bits"). Is the computer a better model for nature than the differential
equations of continuous variables that has governed physics for several
hundred years?Here's another popular cosmologist, Paul Davies, explaining Wheeler,
To fully understand nature at the
deepest level we need to know why the world obeys quantum rules. Part of the
answer involves knowing how the quasi-classical world of observation emerges
from the weird domain of quantum physics. Wheeler's "It from bit" program proceeds from a well-known yet still
mysterious fact. The wave function describing a quantum particle expresses
what is known about that particle, i.e. it represents information, or
software, whereas the particle itself is an object, or hardware. How do
these fundamentally different concepts, associated with different levels of
description, fit together, and how does this fit recover the usual notion of
In his own words, Wheeler writes,
It from bit. Otherwise put, every "it" — every particle, every field of
force, even the space-time continuum itself — derives its function, its
meaning, its very existence entirely — even if in some contexts
indirectly — from the apparatus-elicited answers to yes-or-no questions,
binary choices, bits. "It from bit" symbolizes the idea that every item
of the physical world has at bottom — a very deep bottom, in most
instances — an immaterial source and explanation; that which 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 that
this is a participatory universe.
That is, Wheeler no longer thinks that materialist particles are the ultimate reality, nor does he think that neoclassical geometry is the ultimate reality, but some strange hybrid that transcends both. For the universe is only poorly described by math, and something more digital, something more quantum-like, something like participation is closer to ultimate reality. He isn't sure what it is, but in his usual style he already has a name for it, Information.
What exactly is this replacement metaphysics, and why does it frighten Hawking so much? Let's begin with some simple observations, moving up to some less-obvious.
1. Information is non-material, so nothing of Plato's or Democritus' eternal atoms remains in the metaphysical foundations of physics. This may have been shocking in 1904 before Einstein
told us that matter and energy were the same thing, but we've had a century to absorb this immateriality of reality. Today we glide over this embarassing failure of materialism by saying "of course, the sum of matter and energy is eternal and conserved."
2. But the evidence for the Big Bang would seem to belie this commonly stated aphorism as well. If both matter and energy had a beginning, then there was a time when they were not conserved. Once again, the metaphysical pillar of materialism appeared to crumble. Fred Hoyle
attempted to remove the Big Bang entirely so that materialist eternity was preserved, but ultimately failed. Hawking, tellingly, merely attempted to blunt the point of the Big Bang (as recorded by Carl Sagan's introduction to "A Brief History of Time"), but then went on to argue in his most recent book
that there has been an infinity of Big Bangs exploding in some eternal mathematical space. While Hoyle restrained his eternities to observations of this universe, Hawking is having to invoke unobservable multidimensional mathematical eternities.
3. But information is not energy either. This has taken physicists even longer to accept. To say that the most fundamental nature of reality is neither matter nor energy demolishes this last fiction of eternity, this last pretense that the creation could be finessed. Hawking fought back with the idea that information was merely a state of matter and energy, and that when black holes swallowed information it vanished. Leonard Susskind
carried on a 10 year battle with Hawking, finally declaring victory in his book "The Black Hole War: My Battle with Stephen Hawking to Make the World Safe for Quantum Mechanics
" when Hawking finally admitted information was eternal.
4. Information, as defined by Claude Shannon
, was the opposite of entropy, of disorder, of chance, of random noise. Information not only was immaterial, it was order, plan, design, improbability, an intrinsic value. It was everything that Democritus
hated, everything Lucretius
warned us against. It was the meaning to the celestial music of the spheres, the joy in the lark's song, the beginning of wisdom and the end of all pursuits. It was Plato's Demiourgos and Aristotle's Prime Mover and Aquinas' Cosmological Proofs.
What was it that made Hawking so terrified of Information? Because Wheeler is saying that the matter and energy of the Big Bang was created but that the Information, the Forms, the plan, the teleology, the logos of that creation was eternal. Hawking like Hoyle and unlike Wheeler and Flew, could not bear to dispense with the whole purpose of materialism--the denial of purpose. Flew, the son of a Methodist preacher and theologian, and Wheeler, the grandson of New Hampshire (Puritan?) pastor could perhaps grudgingly accept this grand design, but neither Hoyle nor Hawking had the benefit of religious ancestors. Materialism was their religion, and the Modernist century was the last great hope for an Enlightenment utopia.
And so Hawking wrote his last long book, like Lucretius, as a paeon to the triumph of man and materialism over the vicissitudes of life and Lou Gehrig's disease. Lennox finds it a hopelessly incoherent denial of theism, and rakes it over the coals of logic. But Hawking never intended it to be a textbook, he wanted a passionate defense of Modernism. And therein lies the rub, for Modernism, like the nirvana of Buddhism, eschews passion in the name of Reason. This makes Hawking's swan song not a defense of Modernism as he intended, but a testimony to Post-Modern authenticity. In such a way we see the Post-Modern replacement for the Modernist century, foreshadowed in the words of Yeats most famous poem--The Second Coming
TURNING and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
So it is that the 21st Century has become The Information Age, the killer app of the Enlightenment. As Post-Modernism absorbs the utopian dreams of the 20th century, it tempers them with the knowledge of diversity, of communication, with the great body of individuals united by thought and by internet. A new sort of consensus is arising, not based on monolithic Reason, which is far less hostile to the religion of 19th century. Biology is no longer about thermodynamic equilibrium, it is no longer about non-equilibrium chemicals in a bag, rather it is about nanomachines and programs, about purpose and design. Biology has become Information. It is in this context that I wrote a paper
on the Origin of Life as an insoluble information theoretic problem that can be resolved only through the non-local quantum coherence of the universe. I like to imagine that had Wheeler lived to read it, he would have liked it too.