Kevin Kelly’s Information Mysticism

Another great thoughtpiece in Kevin Kelly‘s Technium series, about the role of extropy in the universe.

He concludes with a presentation of his hypothesis of information mysticism:

“Most people can appreciate how the essence of living things might be information and order. Information is vague enough to be similar to the idea of a “spirit.” But if my hypothesis is true — that life is an extension of a 14 billion-year old inanimate autonomous order, one that now continues into the machines of technology — then this same spirit of information must reside at the core of the non-living world as well. Although it may not dominate matter’s behavior, information must rest in the essence of matter. That’s a lot less intuitive. When we bang a knee against a table leg, it sure doesn’t feel like we knocked into information. But that’s the idea many physicists are formulating.

Once scientists built large scopes to examine matter below the level of fleeting quarks and muons, they saw the world was incorporeal. They discovered that matter is, at the bottom, empty space and waves of quantum uncertainties. A particle’s existence is a continuous field of probabilities, which blurs the sharp distinction between is/is not. Yet this fundamental uncertainty resolves as soon as information is added (that is, as soon as it’s measured). At that moment of knowledge, all other possibilities collapse to leave only the single state of “is” or “is not.” Indeed, the very term “quantum” suggests an indefinite realm constantly resolving into discrete increments, precise yes/no states. Quantum wavicles, along with everything else in the universe, are mostly made of nothing but binary logic.

The physicist John Archibald Wheeler (coiner of the term “black hole”) claimed that, fundamentally, atoms are made up of 1’s and 0’s. As he put it in a 1989 lecture, “Its are from bits.” He elaborated: “Every it – every particle, every field of force, even the space-time continuum itself – derives its function, its meaning, its very existence entirely from binary choices, bits.” All movement, all actions, all nouns, all functions, all states, all we see, hear, measure, and feel are elaborate cathedrals built out of bits. After stripping away all externalities, all material embellishments, what remains of the primeval “it” is the purest state of existence: here/not here. Am/not am. In the Old Testament, when Moses asks the Creator, “Who are you?” the being says, in effect, “Am.” One bit. One almighty bit. Yes. One. Exist. It is the simplest statement possible.

All creation is assembled from irreducible bits. The bits are like the “atoms” of classical Greece: the tiniest constituent of existence. But these new digital atoms are the basis not only of matter, as the Greeks thought, but of energy, motion, mind, and life. Everything that is! Movement, energy, gravity, dark matter, and antimatter are elaborate circuits of 1/0 decisions. Every mountain, every star, each flight of a thrown ball, the smallest salamander or woodland tick, each thought in our mind, is but a web of elemental yes/nos woven together.

Wheeler adds, “What we call reality arises in the last analysis from the posing of yes/no questions.” In this new perspective, as two hydrogen and one oxygen bind together to form a water molecule, each hydrogen atom uses quantum processes to decide yes/no for all possible courses toward the oxygen atom, until they arrive at the optimal 104.45 degrees union. Thus every chemical bond is thus “calculated.”

Computation is the muscle of extropy. Computation is a type of self-organization that juggles and manipulates these primal information bits. It silently employs a small amount of energy to rearrange symbols into greater order. The input of computation is energy and information; the output is order, structure, extropy. The final result of a material computation is a signal that makes a difference — a difference that can be felt as a bruised knee.

“Computation is a process that is perhaps *the* process,” says Danny Hillis, whose book, The Pattern on the Stone, explains the formidable nature of computation. “It has an almost mystical character because it seems to have some deep relationship to the underlying order of the universe. Exactly what that relationship is, we cannot say. At least for now.” There is even a suspicion, though no one has proved it, that life’s self-organization may rely on computation.

If the essence of creation is a bit, then gravity, the speed of light, Higgs bosons, relativity, evolution, quantum mechanics, human emotions, and the thoughts in your mind at this moment would all be squirming piles of intersecting loops of yes/no bits, and each phenomenon would need a computational explanation. We are a long way from having a unified theory of everything in the language of bits, but we have a couple of hints that the process of computation may lie at the center.

Our awakening to the true power of computation rests on three suspicions. The first is that computation can describe all things. To date, computer scientists have been able to encapsulate every logical argument, scientific equation, and literary work that we know about into the basic notation of computation. With the advent of digital signal processing, we can capture video, music, and art in the same bit form. There is a lot of debate about how much of art can be reduced to bits, but clearly much can be. Even emotion is not immune. As one example, researcher Cynthia Breazeal at MIT built Kismet, a computational robot that exhibits primitive feelings in response to human actions. Less controversially, formal creations in mathematics, music, and language can be expressed as a valid computer program.

The second supposition is that all things can compute. Surprisingly almost any kind of material can serve as the matrix for a computer. Human brains, which are mostly water, compute fairly well. So can sticks and strings. In 1975, as an undergraduate student, Danny Hillis constructed a digital computer out of skinny Tinkertoys. In 2000, Hillis designed a binary computer made of only steel and harden alloys that is indirectly powered by human muscle. This slow-moving device computes time in a clock intended to tick for 10,000 years. Hillis hasn’t made a computer with pipes and pumps, but, he says, he could. Recently, scientists have used both quantum particles and minute strands of DNA to perform computations. Many other complex systems have been shown to be capable of computation.

The third postulate is: All computation is one. In 1937, Alan Turing and Alonso Church proved a theorem now bearing their names. The Turing-Church conjecture states that any computation executed by one computer with access to an infinite amount of storage, can be done by any other computing machine with infinite storage, no matter what its configuration. One computer can do anything another can do. This is why your Mac can, with proper software, pretend to be a PC, or, with sufficient memory, a slow supercomputer. A Dell laptop could, if anyone wanted it to, emulate an iPhone. In other words, all computation is equivalent. Turing and Church called this universal computation. Mathematician Stephen Wolfram takes this idea even further and suggests that many very complex processes in the realms of biology and technology are basically computationally equivalent. The physics of person munching on a banana is computationally equivalent to the best possible virtual simulation of the same act. Both phenomenon require the same degree of universal computation, one in particles, and one in electrons.

The consequence of these three propositions — that computation is universal, ubiquitous, and equivalent — suggests that the logical processing of bits is the most potent form of self-organization at work in the universe. While not all self-organization reaches the threshold of computation, universal computation can potentially erupt anywhere. There is currently a lot of research investigating how computation might fare in quantum dimensions and whether quantum computation might be the basis for human consciousness. It’s still an open question, but the three axioms also suggest a rather spooky corollary: If everything can compute, and all computation is equivalent, then there is only one universal computer. All the human-made computation, especially our puny little PCs, merely piggyback on cycles of the Great Computer, also known as the Universe.

No one wants to see themselves as someone else’s program running on someone else’s computer. Put that way, life seems a bit secondhand. But doctrine of universal computation means all existing things — the made, the found and the born — are linked to one another because they share, as John Wheeler said, “at the bottom — at a very deep bottom, in most instances — an immaterial source.” This commonality, spoken of by mystics of many beliefs in different terms, also has a scientific name: information, computation, extropy.

The flow of intangible bits is at the core of the astounding complexity we see in this part of the universe. The trend toward increasing order, diversity and intelligence over time, beginning 14 billion years ago and accelerating now, is driven by the increasing structure of information. It is compressed, computed, layered, and lifted to new levels. This emergent self-organization is an immaterial quality arising from physics that continually gains in the face of increasing entropy. This long trajectory — from the beginning till now — is the arc of extropy.”

5 Comments Kevin Kelly’s Information Mysticism

  1. AvatarRyan Lanham

    Interesting. Entropy is measurable as a state of energy. Is extropy the equiv of not-entropy…or is it measurable in its own right?


  2. AvatarSepp

    While Kevin Kelly analyzes matter from the standpoint of information processing, Don Hotson approaches the same question from the angle of physics, and the underlying intelligence that seems to guide quantum interactions.

    In his three-part article “Dirac’s equation and the Sea of Negative Energy” Hotson traces the basis of physical existence to an underlying reality or a “Big Bose Einstein Condensate” that is sensitive to thought and that forms the basis for the computational interactions and controls of the material world’s destiny described by Kelly.

    For those interested in the physical side of things, Hotson’s first two articles were published in 2002 in Infinite Energy magazine and can be found on the net in PDF format:

    Part III is in the current issue of Infinite Energy and I have not found the text anywhere else. Bill Zebuhr, the technical editor for the magazine, comments on it here:

  3. AvatarMatrix Point


    Although my comment will probably disappear as it did before, I feel compelled to make the same comment that I did the last time you praised Kelly’s work. Of course you are entitled to your opinion, but in my opinion, based on the little of his writing I have read, his style is to rehash the work of others (which might be worthwhile if he had really studied information and complexity theory). I see nothing new in anything he wrote. His gimmick seems to be to use an unfamiliar term “extropy” as if it represented a profound new insight. It just means the opposite of entropy, and there already is a term for that: “negentropy”.

    This line of inquiry is filled with very profound issues ripe for inquiry, but Kelly, at best, skirts them. He seems to be locked into linear-time thinking, and so is severely handicapped in that regard. I daresay that his understanding of mysticism is impaired as well, if he equates the “immaterial source” spoken of by mystics to “information, computation and extropy”. In my mind, that is comparable to suggesting that God is an old man with a long beard wearing a white robe.

    To be clear, my reaction is not to Kelly’s work, but to your promotion of it as “great”.

  4. AvatarRon Krumpos

    Oxford’s American Dictionary defines extropy as: “the pseudoscientific principle that life will expand indefinitely and in an orderly, progressive way throughout the entire universe by the means of human intelligence and technology.”

    Overlooking their denigrating term “pseudoscientific” (a term which most people might incorrectly apply to theories of dark matter and dark energy), some mystical traditions and many contemporary mystics agree that life will expand as is defined, but not be the means of human intelligence and technology. The latter are far to limited to have much impact on universal life itself.

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