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The Nature of Information: A Doorway to a Postreligious World

All belief in God constitutes and embodies, at its heart, a worldview; it accounts for those aspects of the world of our experience that we cannot explain or understand. God provides us with an answer to the mysteries of the universe and our place in it that creates a spiritual comfort zone for us. We need to know what life is all about and what our part in it is. We need closure. And belief in a god provides that.

But for those of us who do not or cannot believe in a god, no comparable worldview exists to enable us to understand the ultimate nature of the universe and our place in it. Atheism is not a worldview and provides no understanding of the nature of the universe; it is simply a denial of the existence of God and it is essentially useless as a contribution to our understanding of the world. So, the question arises—if there is no God, what is the nature of the universe and how can we understand it and our place in it? In particular, how can we explain the nature of mind, consciousness and the human spirit in a way that is consistent with the idea of an otherwise apparently wholly physical or material universe? There is only one pathway for developing such an alternate worldview that is credible, reliable and consistent with modern knowledge, and that is through science; specifically, it entails developing a clear understanding of the nature of something called “information.”

Modern science describes the universe as a wholly physical or material system, one composed of what scientists call mass-energy, per Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity—i.e., matter equals energy and vice-versa. Although we do not understand everything about the universe by a long shot, including, in particular, the nature of mind and consciousness, proof that the universe is composed of matter and energy, which are transformable into one another, makes it unequivocally clear that we are living in, and the creations of, a physical universe, a universe that, in all its dimensions and manifestations, known and unknown, is our home—the only one we will ever know.

Within science, the term “information” is used extensively to describe activities at virtually every major level of scientific inquiry; physics, chemistry, biology, neuroscience, psychology, sociology and communication theory all traffic in something called “information.” But nowhere in science does there exist or has there ever been a definition of “information” that is valid for all its uses both within and outside science. To claim that electrons, electromagnetic fields, chemical molecules, neurons, animal displays and vocalizations, human psychological/mental events, speech, language and knowledge all process information is to tell us nothing about any of these phenomena that are not simply incomplete descriptions of the physical events involved. What, exactly, does it mean to say that some system is processing information? A detailed analysis of the results of modern science in all the areas in which the term “information” is used results in the inescapable conclusion that it contains within it the answer to this question, but thus far has not been able to identify it—the forest obscured by the trees.

When someone makes a video and speaks into the camera and microphone, something travels from that person’s brain and nervous system to his or her mouth, to the microphone and camera, to the transmitter, through the electromagnetic field and into the receiver, then into the eyes and ears of the person viewing it, then into that person’s brain where it is translated into meaning, knowledge and action. So what is it that went from the brain of the speaker to the studio, through the equipment and electromagnetic field to the viewer, and how is that the same as what a DNA molecule or a protein transmits in its chemical environment, or what a neuron communicates to other neurons, or what an animal display transmits in its gestures, vocalizations or colors or what words on a piece of paper convey to a human reader? What is this thing called information? By finally coming to understand the nature of information, based wholly on the results of modern science, it is possible to understand the universe and the human mind—in fact, mind wherever it occurs (e.g., in a dog, cat, horse, machine, or alien)—as an entirely physical or material process open ultimately to scientific investigation. Critically, it provides a clear and resonant doorway to an understanding of the world in which God not only is unnecessary, but superfluous.

In my book, The Nature of Information, I describe a mechanism by which “information” can be seen to be an entirely physical or material process, resulting not only in the natural unification of matter and mind, thereby solving, conceptually, the mind-body or brain-mind problem, but identification of the fundamental creative and control mechanism immanent in the universe by which physical systems generate and regulate their organization and behavior, obviating the need for any metaphysical or supernatural element, ingredient, or force, to explain them. In this worldview, the idea of God is a concept for which there actually is no place or role, because the creative and control functions of the universe are immanent in the system.

The book shows that information is in all cases a “form” phenomenon, that both “information” and “form” are physical or material rather than abstract or nonphysical entities, that mind can be seen as a physical form-manipulating process, function, or system, and that “form” constitutes a mechanism inherent in the universe via which physical systems are created, communicate informationally, and control their own energetic activities. The universe as a complete physical/material system is seen to exercise its creative, control and communicative functions by manipulating forms of itself (e.g., structures, shapes, patterns, arrangements, etc.)—many of which remain constant over inward and outward energy flows, enabling us to understand ourselves as forms of a self-organizing, self-regulating universe of matter and energy, joined to the rest of the world in a natural and fundamental way. As physicist, Victor Weisskopf put it, “Nature, in the form of man, begins to recognize itself.”

The review of the book by the Australasian Journal of Philosophy (Vol. 68. No. 2) reads, in part: “Mind, self-consciousness, and other such obstreperous rebels against the creeping materialist hegemony are cajoled into peaceful co-existence with science, by turning them into sophisticated patterns of flow of form … The doctrine that … mind is just matter is taken not as demeaning mind, but as ennobling matter … Materialism takes on the mantle of evangelical deep ecology.”

The book has been cited in the published works of a number of scientists, including those of physicist, John Archibald Wheeler, a collaborator of Albert Einstein’s, and others in scientific fields that include physics, biology, cosmology, immunology, psychology, philosophy and political science. Selections from and more details about the book, a list of the hundreds of libraries that carry the book, as well as links to the references mentioned, can be found on my website.

In the pursuit of a secular ideal, it is important not to simply conceptualize a universe without God, but to be able to specify how such a universe actually functions at its most fundamental level. I believe that identifying the physical (mass-energy) nature of information in all its forms has revolutionary value in furthering our understanding of the universe, including mind and consciousness, as an entirely material process or phenomenon, providing a pathway to our ability to understand it and our place in it without recourse to God or any metaphysical or supernatural entity or force. It opens a doorway to a postreligious world, one whose belief system is based on reason and the discoveries of modern science rather than myth.

It is important to specify that the worldview being proposed here cannot be proved any more than any other worldview can be proved. The fact that it is based on science does not mean it could not be wrong. It is simply a way of perceiving the world of our experience based on what we think we know about it. Although science does not have answers to numerous questions about the world, it has some, and it continues to seek reliable ways to enhance our understanding of this place. Thus, it forms at least a reasonably dependable basis for creating a worldview. If we can come to understand the universe in a way that is based on things we actually know to be true, such as that E=mc2, and that a DNA molecule consists of sequences of four base pairs—rather than things we believe, such as that there is a God—the foundation of our lives becomes more substantive and the differences between us fade away.

Among the prime consequences of a materialist worldview such as this are concerns that we live in a meaningless universe, one with no moral or social core, no absolute values and nothing to prevent us from killing one another or simply doing whatever we feel like because there’s no price to pay to God—the scourge of moral relativism. This is part of the barrier that prevents our evolving from theologically inclined people to scientifically inclined people, and a glaring example of the paternalistic approach to humans that is the core and hallmark of belief in gods. We are children and need the Father, the Lord, someone to tell us what to do, how to behave, and give us rewards and punishments when we behave well or badly. This is the essence of a parent-child relationship. We need someone to tell us what to do because we don’t know, can’t figure it out for ourselves, and are apparently too uncivilized to create our own rules of conduct and morality. Thus, we need commandments.

But adults don’t like or want commandments. Commandments are for young children to help guide them into society. Grownups like to be given choices and be allowed to be free to use their intuitive sense of right and wrong, their own judgments, along with society’s rules and moral guidelines, to decide how to behave. Atheists who are good people don’t need commandments to give them a moral code. They know, just as most people who haven’t been indoctrinated otherwise know, intuitively, what is right and wrong. Perhaps having someone tell us what to do and how to behave—giving us the rules—was acceptable, even necessary, at the dawn of human awareness, when we were children. But by now we have evolved a clear understanding of the rules, morals and guidelines for civilized human behavior. It is time to start growing up and shaping our future around modern ideas, to have a reliable, contemporary worldview that allows us to see ourselves for who we really are—creatures of the stars.

If we discover that we live in a godless universe, there will not be social chaos because societies have rules of behavior and the wherewithal to enforce them. There will not be moral chaos because the truth is that most normal people have a strong, inner sense of what is right and wrong, even though they may disagree about details. We will not devolve into monsters. Many people live productive, moral and happy lives and simply do not believe in God. What is important is to realize that a worldview based on science and what we know about the universe gives us a pathway into the future, a fulcrum around which we can create our own human-centered world without having to be told that we are sinners at birth, that we must be redeemed or cleansed, that those who disagree with us must be recruited or destroyed. We will come to realize that the only true religion is awe at the majesty and mystery of the universe and all its forms. We are its creations and will be here only briefly. It is time to turn away from worldviews that divide us, welcome those that unite us and understand that all the moral codes we have attributed to various gods are our own creations. It is time to move beyond the primitive idea of gods and begin to take responsibility for who we really are—in essence, to grow up.

For anyone who would like to see an inspiring example of human morality, or a substantive set of guidelines that can be used as a touchstone in life in place of commandments or other religious prescriptions, I highly recommend the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It is an awesome statement of the brilliance, and moral and spiritual character, of human beings—with no reference to God other than to acknowledge the right to freedom of worship—and as good a place as any to look for guidelines to a moral life free of gods and religion. Below are its first three articles:

Article 1. All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

Article 2. Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status. Furthermore, no distinction shall be made on the basis of the political, jurisdictional or international status of the country or territory to which a person belongs, whether it be independent, trust, non-self-governing or under any other limitation of sovereignty.

Article 3. Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.

There are twenty-seven other articles in the document. I strongly suggest that it is worth a read. It is palpable evidence of the moral heights to which human beings are capable of rising without any commandments or any God.