Physics, information, patterns, consciousness and God

thematrixLevel 1 of the universe is matter, energy, forces, space-time – the physical world. It follows rules, although precisely what those rules are and why they are like that, we aren’t yet certain. But we know enough about it to measure it and explain much of what it does.

The level 1 universe does something else too. It encodes information. Matter exists in different states, and the more physically-distinct states there are, the more information that can be encoded. For example, if an atom can exist in one of two energy states, then it encodes one binary bit of information (0 or 1). Information is not a subjective human thing. It’s an objective property of the physical universe and can be measured. The total amount of information encoded in the whole universe is mind-bogglingly vast.

Level 2 is the layer of ideas, concepts, signs, patterns and language. Humans create this layer, and so do computers.

Sumerian clay tablet.

Sumerian clay tablet.

Layer 2 is encoded in the information layer of the level 1 physical world, but it’s not a physical thing. It’s a magical layer that lives in its own abstract space. Plato thought of this as an ideal world of perfect forms, but ideas don’t have to be perfect. They can be imperfect, broken, and just plain wrong. Meaning isn’t true or moral – like the level 1 physical world, it just is.

Level 3 is even more magical. It’s the layer of idea processing, where ideas are created and transformed into new ideas. It’s the layer of conscious and subconscious minds. Just like level 2, level 3 is built out of level 1 physical entities (brains and computers), but it operates on level 2 entities – thoughts, memories, language, symbols and awareness.

Levels 2 and 3 are built out of level 1 objects, but they don’t exist in the level 1 universe. And yet, without the level 1 universe they can’t exist.


The mind is the information processing activity of the brain.

Could the level 3 universe create a new level 1 universe (we could call this level 4)? In other words, could we imagine a physical universe in our minds? I think that human minds could, if we tried very hard. Computer simulations already do. Could this new level 1 universe itself contain level 2 and 3 universes? I think it could, if the rules of that level 1 universe allowed for such things.

But the complexity of the imagined level 1 universe would depend on the information-processing capacity of the mind that created it, which would itself depend on the complexity of the level 1 universe in which the mind operated. My own mind isn’t capable of creating a very complex level 1 universe, but computer simulations are capable of creating much more complex simulations.

I'm not talking about Mario.

I’m not talking about Mario.

If our own level 1 universe is the creation of a mind, that mind must be vast. You could call it God, if you were religiously inclined. Or you could call it God’s super-computer, if you prefer that way of reasoning. It must itself exist in a level 1 universe that defied imagination.

Simulated universe - detail.

Simulated universe – detail.

But that would lead to an infinite regress, with the unavoidable question – if God (or God’s super-computer) created the universe, who created God’s universe?

An infinite regress is an untidy thing with limited explanatory power, so in all likelihood, we’re not living in a computer simulation, nor is there a Creator of our world. But we might one day build a super-computer capable of simulating a level 1 universe of sufficient complexity to sustain a mind or minds of its own. Then we would have demonstrated the existence of a God, by becoming Him ourselves.

If only it were that easy.

It doesn’t work like this.


16 responses to “Physics, information, patterns, consciousness and God

  1. I loved this post! It’s closely related to a post I have in mind myself on “emergence”. Consciousness is truly an astounding thing if we see it for what it is and don’t take it for granted. You said a lot in few words here.

  2. I thoroughly enjoyed this post and am left with the thought… “perhaps I’m not so crazy after all, or if I am, I’m not the only one”. You really took my mind to the place it loves best. Cheers.

  3. Your idea reminds me how in math things are described by numbers, functions transform numbers, and operators transform functions adding layers of abstraction.

    • I am grappling with the idea that level 2 and level 3 are different, or just different aspects of the same thing. Consciousness is not simply signs and ideas, but the transformation of these things. Ultimately it all comes down to information, and the way this changes. As you point out, there are similarities with numbers and the way they change via operators, functions, calculus, etc. I’m sure that you could model a conscious mind mathematically.

      • To model mind mathematically, you would need to create a model capable of changing itself.

        Most likely, not even levels 2 and 3 are identical, but also both of them are identical to level one. You seem to postulate that a description of a physical thing is different from the thing itself. I think, a clear description is not necessary for understanding the reality. Our brains are capable of successfully solving problems without clear explanations of what they deal with. E.g. we don’t understand how brain works, but we use it nevertheless.

        • Thanks for engaging with my thought experiment here. That’s what I was hoping would happen!

          The system that generates consciousness is of course dynamic. What is dynamic? We normally understand change as happening in time, and time is a useful vehicle for enabling change. But perhaps it is not the only way. Change in mathematical systems doesn’t necessarily require time – the change could be with respect to some other variable.

          Your statement “a description of a physical thing is different from the thing itself” – I don’t understand what you mean by that.

        • You consider information as separate from the physical universe. But one can also think that the physical universe is information and also contains a model of itself. So, it’s one and the same level.

  4. Is information separate from the physical universe? I will try to be careful with definitions here.

    I regard the physical universe to be things that we can measure or observe – space, time, particles, waves, charge, spin, momentum, energy, and so on. Are these things real? Tricky. Energy is a rather abstract quantity defined by physicists, not something you can measure with a ruler or a stopwatch. Is it real? If an energetic object hits you on the head, you’d better believe it’s real! But we do have to be careful about what’s real, for example causality goes out of the window in the quantum world, so cause-and-effect is an illusion.

    Nevertheless, reality encodes information. The information is not the same as the physical things that encode it. For example, an electron can be a in a spin-up or spin-down state, so it encodes a binary bit. A photon can do the same. But a photon is not an electron. So, information is separate from the physical universe in that sense.

    Some people postulate that the physical universe is nothing but mathematics. Certainly it seems plausible that it might be possible to construct a mathematical model of the universe. We don’t have one yet, so this can’t be taken for granted. But does that make the universe just a mathematical model? Or is it a thing that obeys mathematical rules? I would say that we don’t know.

    You can say that the universe contains a model of itself. You could say that the universe is a computer and that it is calculating itself.

    But even if the universe is a mathematical object (whatever that means), it also encodes information (e.g. the spin-up/spin-down electron), and that information isn’t merely a model of the universe. Sentient beings can use it for their own purposes.

  5. Steve, I like this post a lot. It reflect thoughts I’ve often had. I’ve often told spiritualists that the information layer of reality could be considered the non-materialistic aspect of reality. Of course, that doesn’t usually satisfy them, since the information remains something we can study.

    But I’m not quite clear on the distinction between level 2 and level 3. What makes the processing that happens in a computer different from the processing that happens in a complex weather system or ecosystem? (Aside from its utility to us organic computers?) In other words, what makes the mental (or mental-like) information processing a level up from the information processing that happens throughout the rest of the universe?

    • Thanks, Mike. Excellent questions!

      OK, a storm. Weather systems contain a lot of information, and they are dynamic systems with plenty of energy to process that information and move it around. It is conceivable that a storm “thinks” in some sense. But fluids aren’t good systems for information processing. At low energies, they move in very simple ways, retaining information largely unchanged. At higher energies they become chaotic and dissipative, destroying information rather than processing it.

      In fact, all natural physical systems behave like this. Only brains and computers are different, as far as I know. These are complex, dynamic systems that gather information, transmit it via networks, store it and cycle it back round again in loops. I don’t know precisely what constitutes a thinking system, but the architecture of a brain or computer is very different to most natural systems.

      But to go from mere information to symbols, language, etc, requires a lot of information processing. We think of letters as simple elements of language, but they are quite complex things in their own right. It takes a lot of electronics to encode and process a letter or a number, and many neurons acting together to form a thought or memory.

      That’s one reason why I differentiated between mere information and level 2 patterns. Level 2 patterns are purposeful, structured and complex in some way. But level 2 is static – level 3 (thinking) is an inherently dynamic process. The other reason I made level 2 separate is that level 2 information can be separated from the thinking process. For example, a book or a blog, or some idea that can be transmitted from one mind to another, and that Plato believed existed in some abstract sense.

      • Thanks for the reply. I can see the distinction, when looking at it the way you describe.

        On the other hand, I’m tempted to talk about the information processing of living things in general, even those without brains, which have complex systems. They seem somewhere in between non-biological nature and mental processing.

        Indeed, a modern computer, while able to make decisions and process information, still remains far less sophisticated than most organic brains, and possibly even less complex than many mindless biological systems. (A cluster of thousands of computers might be a different story, with the right architecture.) This seems more like a continuum to me rather than a discrete level.

        That said, I fully realize that I’m reflexively suspicious of attempts to privilege mind or consciousness, which might be biasing me here. And even if it is a continuum, that doesn’t necessarily mean having a category for mental processing isn’t useful.

        • I agree, and I don’t want to sound dogmatic about any of this. I am happy to widen level 3 consciousness to encompass plants growing and bacteria doing whatever bacteria do. Just so long as nobody tells me that “the forest understands” or any such new age drivel.

          In reply to your comment, one could point to entropy as an objective measure of whether or not information is being processed or simply moved around. Most natural (non-life) processes increase entropy and destroy information.

          But it strikes me that the hallmark of thought is an upscaling of information to increasingly complex hierarchies. Transistors when combined in the right way can act as logic gates, which can add and compare registers, which can lead to machine-level programming, then to an OS, a high-level language and an app. Similarly, neurons work together as teams to process thoughts, and group together in specific areas of the brain to tackle complex problems.

          Human thoughts also exhibit this hierarchy. We group together letters to form word units, which can be grouped to make words, then phrases, then sentences, then books, etc. This is a very powerful way of thinking, and I’m sure that it is key to intelligence.

          By contrast, a storm (to take your example) works in the reverse way – it dissipates ordered information and energy into ever-smaller eddies, which in turn fragment into smaller eddies, dissipating energy and information until it’s all gone. This is the essence of turbulence, and of most complex behaviour in nature.

        • I also agree. We’re mostly on the same page.

          On entropy, I think life is good at not increasing its own entropy, but its activity definitely increases entropy overall. (As of course, everything in nature does.) And, of course, every lifeform eventually loses its pattern to entropy.

          On storms, a hurricane holds a distinctive pattern. Yes, it increases entropy all around, but manages to hold it out of itself, at least while it endures. Eventually the hurricane weakens and disintegrates, just as life does.

          But I’ll agree that the organization of a hurricane is far more ephemeral than anything that persists in the biological world. Hurricanes don’t reproduce or evolve. Life does a much better job of preserving its information.

  6. So, Mike, for clarification, a hurricane can grow and maintain its distinctive pattern whilst being driven by the warm waters of the tropical oceans, but dissipates rapidly as soon as it moves over land. The hurricane is processing information and reducing its own entropy (while raising entropy of the system overall) as long as it has a strong thermal driving force.

    You are right that effects like storms can lead to a local decrease in entropy in a natural system. The eye of Jupiter is a long-lived example of this. So, it is quite possible that a hurricane is thinking, in some sense. Or perhaps, to avoid confusion, we can say it is computing. (What is the Eye thinking…?)

    I would regard life in all its forms (from RNA and DNA up) as examples of systems that locally reduce entropy, and that encode and process information. Is that all there is to thinking? Or does thinking require some specific type of information processing? My guess is that it relates to hierarchies of information. Mike, what’s your guess?

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