02/21/2011 09:16 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The New Information Theology

The metaphors people have used throughout human existence to describe reality depend on the models they use to describe their experiences. Seeing animals all around them, primitive people attributed natural phenomena to the action of animate spirits that were contained in all things, living and nonliving. When agriculture developed and peoples became settled in villages ruled by chiefdoms, the chief became the metaphor for the gods. That is, although supernatural the gods were human with all our imperfections. When the villages combined into city-states ruled by kings, the gods gradually become more majestic, with a major god ruling over a royal court of lesser gods. With the rise of empires the next step was monotheism, with a single God ruling over all. See The Evolution of God by Robert Wright.

With Newtonian mechanics the metaphor for God became the great craftsman of the Newtonian World Machine. Today, with the dominance of computers throughout society, the universe is increasingly being described as a computing machine with the basic stuff that the universe being bits of information -- or qubits, which are the information units in quantum computers. In The Matter Myth physicist Paul Davies and science writer John Gribbin wrote, "Matter as such has been demoted from its central role, to be replaced by concepts such as organization, complexity, and information." In Programming the Universe, physicist Seth Lloyd, a pioneer in quantum computing, naturally uses the metaphor of a quantum computer to describe the universe.

Theologians have found this new information ontology particularly congenial in their continuing attempts to come up with a model of God consistent with science. Niels Henrik Gregersen identifies the divine Logos in the first verse of the Gospel of John ("In the beginning was the Word") with information. Wright calls Logos "the divine algorithm." Gregersen asserts, "God is present in the midst of the world of nature as the informational principle (Logos) and as the energizing principle (Spirit). . . . It is only in the interplay between information (Logos) and energy (Spirit) that the world of creation produces evolutionary novelties rather than mere repetitions." (This and the other theological quotes below can be found in the anthology Information and the Nature of Reality: From Physics to Metaphysics.)

Theologian John Haught has reconciled himself to the fact that the metaphor of God as the great craftsman in the sky has seen its day. He writes:

The image of God as a "designer" has become increasingly questionable, especially in view of evolutionary accounts of life. Is it possible, then, that the notion of "information" may be less misleading than that of design in theology's inevitable reflections on how divine purposive action could be operative in the natural world? . . . In place of design, I would suggest that natural theology may more appropriately understand divine influence along the lines of informational flow.

Another theologian, Keith Ward, comments,

In my opinion . . . one may hold a view that the universe is constructed on an informational pattern that is carried and transmitted by the mind of God. The God hypothesis is not contradicted by and is quite strongly supported by some, of the speculations of contemporary information theory. So my conclusion is that information is the ultimate ontological reality held in the mind of God

What is information anyway? Claude Shannon, the father of information theory defines it in terms of entropy. When a signal is send from one spot to another, the information transferred was defined by Shannon as equal the entropy change that takes place, when the latter is expressed in bits. The entropy lost is the information gained. Entropy has been part of physics since the nineteenth century, so I am not sure what is new with the new information metaphors. The theologians quoted above suggest other forms of information, but they do not quantify them so I will stick to Shannon's definition so we can keep things precise.

Now, it is true that entropy is a rather abstract mathematical quantity. I still remember as a sophomore in engineering school, sitting in a thermodynamics class around 1952 with my classmates pressing the instructor, "What is entropy? What's it made of?" We wanted to see it and touch it. I don't recall us getting a satisfactory answer, although his response was undoubtedly correct. I would have the same problem when I taught thermodynamics in later years.

Well, you can't see and touch entropy just as you can't see and touch the quantum wave function. And, you can't see and touch information. Entropy is just measure of how many possible physical states there are. Information is its complement. It's how much the possibilities are reduced when we learn about the actual states. Information and entropy are out there in the Platonic world of ideal forms. They are just abstract objects we use in our mathematical descriptions of the world, and that world is still made of matter and nothing else -- according to our best current knowledge.

If the universe is a digital computer, that computer still is made of elementary particles.
Theologian Gregersen makes a key observation:

The theological candidate that the divine Logos is the informational resource of the universe would be scientifically falsified if the concept of information could be fully reduced to properties of mass and energy transactions.

Well, I don't know if this constitutes a falsification, but as far as I can tell, information does reduce to mass and energy transactions.

This is not to imply that the metaphor of the universe as a quantum computer is of no value. Lloyd says he has proved a conjecture originally proposed by Richard Feynman that "quantum computers could function as a universal quantum simulators whose dynamics could be the analog of any desired physical dynamics.

Lloyd then calculates that the cosmic computer can store 10^92 bits and has performed a maximum of 10^122 operations on those bits in the age of the universe. These are large numbers, but they are finite. Furthermore, they grow as the universe expands, opening up more and more possible arrangements of matter as time goes on. This can happens because the internal energy of the universe increases as the universe expands. This does not violate the first law of thermodynamics because that energy comes from the work done on the universe by the negative pressure of the dark energy. No energy is needed from outside. In any case, the complexity of matter is growing all the time.

As best we can tell from cosmological data, our universe started out with maximum entropy, meaning minimum information and minimum complexity. At the first definable moment called the Planck time the cosmic computer had only two possible states: one bit on which one operation could be performed. But this was sufficient to start things off. As the universe expanded, more and more bits were generated and more and more operations were performed. Thus, complex phenomena such as life were inevitable without any fine-tuning.

Far from providing aid and comfort to those who seek evidence for a Creator, the quantum computer universe makes not only the existence of a Creator unnecessary, it makes it unlikely.