Tuesday, July 5, 2016

The Self-Observing Universe: Wheeler & Absolute Idealism 2.0

In my previous post I developed some basic ideas for an up-to-date, computational version of Absolute Idealism, the philosophical claim that all of reality is essentially one Mind or – as I prefer – one Absolute Self-Awareness. In this post, in order to give some scientific weight to this 'Absolute Idealism 2.0', I want to draw attention to the physicist John Wheeler and his famous hypothesis of the Self-Observing Universe. 
John Wheeler (1911-2008)
According to the theory I proposed in my previous post, Absolute Self-Awareness produces the physical universe as its own computational image, and – as I will argue below – Wheeler's hypothesis of the Self-Observing Universe fits that proposal hand in glove.
It should, however, be stressed that Wheeler's hypothesis is indeed just a hypothesis, or rather – as Wheeler himself stressed – an “idea for an idea”. The Self-Observing Universe is by no means yet an empirically testable hypothesis, let alone a well-established scientific theory. Nevertheless, the fact that it presents a distinct scientific possibility, worthy of further investigation, is acknowledged by many contemporary physicists. Thus the fact that it fits with my proposal for an ‘Absolute Idealism 2.0’ confers some scientific respectability on the latter as well. In the following I will first review my proposal for a computational construal of Absolute Idealism and subsequently relate it to Wheeler's ideas.

Josiah Royce and the computational nature of Absolute Self-Awareness
In my previous post, using some innovative ideas from the American Idealist Josiah Royce, I argued that Absolute Self-Awareness (ASA) can be seen as engaged in computation and indeed as computing our physical universe. Inspired by the work of the mathematician Richard Dedekind, Royce pointed out that the infinite recursive structure of self-awareness (i.e. the fact that it is self-aware, and aware of this self-awareness, and aware of this awareness of self-awareness, and so on) perfectly models the structure of the natural number system N={0, 1, 2, 3, ...} as recursively generated by the successor function S(n)=n+1.

Josiah Royce (1855-1916)
As Royce puts it: "The intellect has been studying itself, and as the abstract and merely formal expression of the orderly aspect of its own ideally complete Self [...], the intellect finds precisely the Number System, – not, indeed, primarily the cardinal numbers, but the ordinal numbers. Their formal order of first, second, and, in general, of
next, is an image of the life of sustained, or, in the last analysis, of complete Reflection." "[T]he number-series is a purely abstract image, a bare, dried skeleton, as it were, of the relational system that must characterize an ideally completed self." (Royce 1959: 538, 526)

So if we take ASA to be the self-grounding ground of reality (the basic tenet of Absolute Idealism), then Royce's insight shows that N exists because ASA thinks it – that is to say: the natural numbers exist because they are recursively generated by ASA's self-reflection. In this way we can develop Absolute Idealism into a mathematical and indeed scientific direction. Thus in my previous post I used Royce's ideas to argue that ASA can be seen as engaged in computation – although it should be stressed that Royce himself did not use the notion of computation. Although Royce was in his later years highly interested in mathematics and formal logic, his writings predate the development of Turing Machines and the modern theory of computability by several decades. But it seems pretty obvious to me that if Royce had been familiar with computability theory, he would no doubt have made the connection with his own insight into the arithmetical structure of self-consciousness.

How can ASA be seen as engaged in computation? Two insights are crucial in this regard. The first is the fact that computation can be defined in terms of functions on the natural numbers: thus, computation is an n-ary function from N to N, i.e. a function that takes as input an n-tuple from N and maps it (in a finite number of steps) on a number x
N as output. The second insight is that we can see ASA as computing all such functions from N to N as a consequence of the fact that ASA is aware of its self-identity on each level of the recursively generated hierarchy of its self-reflection. Since, as Royce points out, each such level represents a natural number, this knowledge of its thoroughgoing self-identity amounts to knowledge of equality relations between natural numbers, i.e. of functions from N to N (for details I refer to the reader to §6 of my previous post). Thus, simply by being aware of itself on all the levels of its self-reflection, ASA is aware of all possible computations. We can then see how ASA produces our physical universe if we make use of a basic insight from contemporary physics, namely, that all physical processes – as governed by the laws of nature – are thoroughly computable, such that the laws of nature form a subset of the set of computable functions. Since ASA is aware of all computable functions, its awareness also includes the computations that constitute our physical universe. Thus we can say: our universe exists as a computational structure inside the self-awareness of the Absolute.

The Wheeler Universe = ASA's computational mirror?
In my previous post I argued that although ASA is aware of all possible computations, it focuses its attention especially on those computations that 'mirror' ASA's essential properties. Some computations, after all, such as the computations that underlie the functional structure of the human brain, emulate consciousness, intelligence, and volitional agency. Since ASA essentially
is self-awareness, it seems plausible that those computations which emulate intelligence have a special significance for ASA, since it recognizes itself in those computations, such that those computations contribute to its increased self-knowledge. Thus I advanced the hypothesis that the complex computation that describes (or rather is) our physical universe is the computation that best reflects ASA's essence, so that we can say: our universe exists because it is ASA's computational mirror. In other words, ASA increases its self-awareness by mirroring itself in the computational structure of the universe, which is the very reason why this universe exists, i.e. why its computations are actualized as opposed to other computations which remain mere possibilities. In this way we could explain the Anthropic Principle as it figures in contemporary physics. The Anthropic Principle refers to the apparent fine-tuning of the universe to enable the evolution of life and consciousness. As physicists have discovered over the last four decades, surprisingly many of the most fundamental physical constants – such as the ratio of the masses of electrons and protons, the energy density of the vacuum, even the three-dimensionality of space – are such that if they were only slightly different then life and consciousness could not have evolved. Thus the universe appears to be fine-tuned for the evolution of life. From our conception of the universe as ASA's computational mirror, this fine-tuning is easily explainable. On our account, the bio-friendliness of the universe follows simply from the fact that the universe's computational structure is ASA's privileged mirror.

Is Nature the Mirror of Mind?
So how does all this relate to Wheeler's hypothesis of the Self-Observing Universe? To see the connection, we should keep in mind that according to Absolute Idealism it is through self-awareness that the Absolute grounds its own existence – that is to say: the Absolute exists because it is aware of itself, such that its being is its self-perception. In this way Absolute Idealism can answer Leibniz's question: there is something rather than nothing because (absolute) self-awareness grounds its own existence (I develop this idea more fully here). Thus the complex computation that best reflects ASA's essence must emulate not just self-awareness but also self-creation through self-awareness. So if we take the physical universe to be ASA's computational mirror, then the universe must exhibit this feature of being self-creating through self-awareness. And this is exactly how Wheeler depicts the universe: as bringing itself into existence through its mediated self-observation (mediated, namely, by the observers existing in the universe). If Wheeler’s hypothesis of the Self-Observing Universe turns out to be true, then the universe is precisely as we would expect it to be in terms of the Absolute Idealism 2.0 outlined above.

Wheeler's answer to Leibniz's question
Let's therefore take a closer look at Wheeler's proposal and the way he describes the physical universe as creating itself through self-observation. Wheeler asked himself how contemporary physics could explain the self-creation of reality. "How come existence?", Wheeler (1999: 310) asked in his own truncated version of Leibniz's question. Noting that, by definition, there is nothing outside of reality as whole, Wheeler emphasized that reality must have a way of bringing
itself into existence through some kind of closed causal loop: "Existence is not a globe supported by an elephant, supported by a turtle, supported by yet another turtle, and so on. In other words, no infinite regress... To endlessness no alternative is evident but loop [...], such a loop as this: Physics gives rise to observer-participancy; observer-participancy gives rise to information; information gives rise to physics." (Idem: 313-4) I will explain Wheeler's notion of observer-participancy and the ontological importance he accords to information more fully below. For now let us simply note that Wheeler looked in particular at quantum mechanics as allowing such a closed causal loop whereby reality could bring itself into existence. Indeed, he explains the existence and nature of quantum reality ("How come the quantum?") by saying that it is reality's means for self-creation: "The strange necessity of the quantum as we see it everywhere in the scheme of physics comes from the requirement that – via observer-participancy – the Universe should have a way to come into being." (Wheeler 1983: 206)

Quantum mechanics and the self-creation of classical reality
What is special about quantum mechanics such that Wheeler could see it as an explanation of how he universe brings itself into existence? Crucial in this regard is the notorious measurement problem in quantum mechanics, where the act of observation seems directly responsible for the collapse of the wave function (i.e. the transition from the quantum world of superposed states to the classical world where things exist in only one possible state at a time). Since observation is arguably a conscious act, the measurement problem has from the beginning suggested to various scientists – such as Von Neumann, Wigner, and Stapp – an
Idealist interpretation of quantum mechanics, such that consciousness is constitutive of classical physical reality. Closely related, though subtly different, is the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics pioneered by Bohr, who saw classical reality as dependent on observation (measurement) although he remained agnostic about the precise relation between observation and consciousness, just as he remained agnostic about the reality of quantum states prior to measurement. Despite this refusal to acknowledge the role of consciousness in observation, the Copenhagen interpretation – which was the standard interpretation until recently – can be and has been called Kantian (and thus Idealist in a sense) in that it forbids as meaningless all reference to quantum reality as it exists ‘in-itself’ prior to observation: according to Bohr, only observed reality can be referred to as objective reality proper. Hence Bohr's dictum: "No phenomenon is a phenomenon unless it is an observed phenomenon."

Escher's Print Gallery
Wheeler radicalized these Idealist approaches to quantum mechanics by seeing the observer dependency of classical reality as a means whereby that reality could bring itself into existence. Since the observers are arguably part of classical reality, the latter brings itself into existence by evolving those observers whose observations create classical reality. Classical reality, as described by Wheeler, is in this way analogous to M.C. Escher’s lithograph Print Gallery, where the gallery in which a man looks at a picture is part of the very same picture. In this way, one could say, Wheeler radicalized the arguably Kantian Idealism of Bohr into an Absolute Idealism, where the classical universe is the self-producing Absolute, producing itself via the observational acts of observers within the universe. Thus, in a slogan, one could say that Wheeler stands to Bohr as Schelling and Hegel stood to Kant.

Delayed-choice experiments
To see how this self-creation of the universe could work within the explanatory framework of quantum mechanics, Wheeler developed the idea for "delayed-choice experiments", where the act of conscious observation is delayed such that its efficacy works backwards in time, collapsing quantum states
in the past. Originally designed as though-experiments, Wheeler's delayed-choice experiments have in the meantime been operationalized in real experimental set ups, all yielding the same remarkable result: observation is capable of collapsing quantum states in the past, as Wheeler predicted. As Wheeler recognized, this opens up the possibility of retrocausation on a cosmic scale, where the quantum state of the universe as whole (i.e. the universal wave function) is retroactively collapsed by observers in the present and future. Wheeler hypothesized that in this way the classical universe as a whole, all the way back to its beginning in the big bang, might be observer dependent, such that observers are necessary to bring the universe into existence. Wheeler coined the phrases "observer-participancy" and "participatory universe" to refer to this constitutive role of observers in the origination and development of the universe: "Beginning with the big bang, the universe expands and cools. After eons of dynamic development it gave rise to observership. Acts of observer-participancy ‒ via the mechanism of the delayed-choice experiment ‒ in turn gave tangible "reality" to the universe not only now but back to the beginning." (Wheeler 1983: 209)

"It from bit" and the universe as "self-excited circuit"
In order to generalize this observer-participancy to the universe at the quantum level as well (since in quantum mechanics it only applies to classical reality), Wheeler made critical use of information theory, arguing that physical reality consists ultimately of bits of information (hence his slogan "It from Bit"). As such, physical reality exists only for the conscious subjects who pose the yes-no questions to which the bits are the answers: "
It from bit. Otherwise put, every it – every particle, every field of force, even the spacetime 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." (Wheeler 1999: 310-11) Since the conscious subjects posing the yes-no questions are part of the very same informational reality that emerges through their questions, we should conclude that on Wheeler's account these subjects ultimately bring themselves along with all of reality into existence.
Wheeler's U diagram
On Wheeler's scenario, then, the universe must have emerged in such a way that conscious subjects exist within it, since it is only in relation to them that the universe can exist. Wheeler pointed out that this is one way to explain the remarkable role played by the Anthropic Principle. According to Wheeler, the bio-friendliness of the universe is just what one should expect for a participatory universe; he therefore spoke of the "Participatory Anthropic Principle" (PAP). Since it is the universe itself which, through Darwinian evolution, has produced the very observers for which it exists, the universe can be said to observe itself by means of them and to have brought itself into being through that self-observation. Wheeler's explanation of the universe thereby becomes a closed explanatory loop, where the universe ‒ through its self-observation ‒ creates itself. As Paul Davies puts it: "Conventional science assumes a linear logical sequence: cosmos → life → mind. Wheeler suggested closing this chain into a loop: cosmos → life → mind → cosmos." (Davies 2006: 281) To illustrate this vision, Wheeler came up with the famous U diagram of the universe as a "self-excited circuit". As Wheeler writes about the U diagram: "Starting small (thin U at upper right), it grows (loop of U) and in time gives rise (upper left) to observer-participancy – which in turn imparts "tangible reality" [...] to even the earliest days of the universe." (Wheeler 1983: 209)

The asymmetrical relation between Wheeler’s hypothesis and Absolute Idealism 2.0
To repeat: according to Absolute Idealism 2.0, the physical universe exists as the computational mirror of ASA. Since ASA is self-creating through self-awareness, the physical universe – as ASA’s mirror – must have this property as well. This is why the Wheeler Universe is so important for Absolute Idealism 2.0. Since Wheeler explicitly and intentionally describes the universe as bringing itself into existence through self-observation, he confirms Absolute Idealism 2.0. If Wheeler’s hypothesis of the Self-Observing Universe turns out to be true (which is a real scientific possibility), then the physical universe is precisely as we would expect it to be given Absolute Idealism 2.0. But the converse relation is different. In a sense Absolute Idealism 2.0 shows that the Wheeler Universe can’t be the whole story and that its
self-creation through self-observation is really only a surface appearance or even illusion. For it is really only ASA which is self-creating; the apparent self-creation of the physical universe is merely a computational image of ASA’s self-creation, and the image is ontologically dependent on its source and paradigm, ASA. One could say, therefore, that the relation between between Absolute Idealism 2.0 and Wheeler’s hypothesis universe is an asymmetrical one: Absolute Idealism 2.0 explains the truth of Wheeler’s hypothesis, but not vice versa (although, of course, it remains the case that Wheeler’s hypothesis confirms Absolute Idealism 2.0).

Concluding remark: Absolute Idealism and the Self-Creation of Information
It seems that this asymmetry emerges most strikingly in the information-theoretic side of Wheeler’s proposal, i.e. the It-from-Bit story. We saw that for Wheeler
physical reality consists ultimately of bits of information, and that as such physical reality exists only for the subjects who pose the yes-no questions to which the bits are the answers. Since the subjects posing the yes-no questions are part of the very same informational reality that emerges through their questions, we should conclude that on Wheeler's account information somehow utilizes subjectivity to bring itself into existence. Exactly how this is possible is left unthematized by Wheeler. One could say that this is the fundamental ‘dark secret’ presupposed by Wheeler’s hypothesis. Speaking in terms of information, one should say that for Wheeler reality begins with a yes-no question that is its own answer, its own bit. Or, in other words, the most elementary bit (the ‘arch-bit’), namely, that there is something rather than nothing, must somehow be a self-creating bit. Thus, since each bit presupposes a yes-no question to which it is the answer, the arch-bit must be its own yes-no question, since nothing can precede it (it is, after all, the ‘beginning’ of existence, though not necessarily in time). Moreover, since a yes-no question presupposes a questioning subject, this further means that the arch-bit must also be the subject to whose question it itself is the answer! Ultimately, I think, the only way to make sense of this is in terms of Absolute Idealism: the self-positing subject, the pure act of self-awareness which is its own object. Only Absolute Idealism can make sense of the self-creation of information to which Wheeler is ultimately committed. But, I submit, to make full sense of this we have to reach a fuller integration of Absolute Idealism and information theory.

References:
-Davies, Paul (2006),
The Goldilocks Enigma: Why Is the Universe Just Right For Life? Allen Lane: London.
-Royce, Josiah (1959),
The World and The Individual, First Series: The Four Historical Conceptions of Being. New York: Dover Publications.
-Wheeler, John A. (1983), "Law Without Law", in: J.A. Wheeler & W.H. Zurek (eds.),
Quantum Theory and Measurement, pp. 182-213. Princeton University Press.
-Wheeler, John A. (1990), "Information, physics, quantum: The search for links", in: W.H. Zurek (ed), Complexity, Entropy, and the Physics of Information. Redwood City, California: Addison-Wesley.

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