Ask Dr. Cobb

March 2011 Question

What does process thought say about the current trends in some corners of physics to think of the universe as a giant information process, or as in some sense made up of information? There was a recent experiment that succeeded in transforming information into energy, and it has me thinking.

Dr. Cobb's Response

Let me first express my pleasure at receiving a question about physics. Although I am certainly not a physicist, I believe that Whitehead’s contributions in physics are becoming increasingly relevant, certainly in quantum theory, but also much more broadly. This gives me a chance to talk about one way in which this is so.

The emphasis on information is highly congenial to process thought. One could say that many physicists now recognize that every event is composed of both energy and information. Energy can be regarded as more physical although hardly material. Information is more mental. That both are present throughout nature points in the same direction as Whitehead’s doctrine that every event is dipolar, consisting of both physical and mental elements. The tendency of science in the past to favor materialistic views of the world seems to be eroding.

On the other hand, the claim that information can be transformed into energy is not expected by those whose understanding is informed by Whitehead. Without a detailed account of the experiment, I as a Whiteheadian will remain skeptical. Of course, a Whiteheadian must remain open to the evidence and ready to change philosophy as the evidence requires. But when the established understanding of energy works so well in many respects, one should resist radical changes until their basis is clearly established.

Although the word “information” was not widely used by physicists in Whitehead’s day, his philosophy anticipated the phenomena that have led to its current importance. Whitehead held that every actual occasion has both physical and conceptual feelings. Thus it is both physical and mental. The physical feelings are of past occasions. The conceptual feelings are of the pure potentials, what Whitehead calls “eternal objects.”

Subsequent occasions necessarily have physical feelings of all past occasions. Pure physical feelings are feelings of the physical feelings of these past occasions. It is through these feelings that past occasions exercise what is usually thought of as causality. Whitehead calls the feeling of the physical feelings of contiguous individual occasions “causal feelings.” The feelings of more distant occasions are mediated through these contiguous ones. Energy is transmitted by these causal feelings.

The law of conservation of energy suggests that a remote occasion cannot transmit energy to a present one. It has transmitted its energy to its immediate successors. Also such occasions are not felt, at least for the most part, as individuals. The effects of vast numbers of these past occasions are merged by what Whitehead calls transmuted feelings. The point remains that whatever happens makes some difference for all that happens thereafter. This is a physical characteristic of the universe.

Physicists in general long supposed that the effects of the past in the present were exhausted by this form of causality. However, there is increasing evidence that something else is going on. This something else they call the transmission of information. In general this seems to be additional to the transmission of energy.

Even before this idea had become widespread, Whitehead spoke of an additional relationship of past and present occasions. We noted that past occasions had conceptual feelings. These were integrated with physical feelings to constitute physical purposes, propositional feelings, and intellectual feelings. For our present purposes the distinction among these is not important. All that matters is that a more or less complex conceptual pole emerges in each occasion. Whereas every later occasion directly or indirectly feels the physical pole of all past occasions, there is no such necessity with regard to the conceptual pole.

Nevertheless, the conceptual pole may also be prehended by subsequent occasions. Whitehead calls the feelings of the conceptual poles of past occasions “hybrid physical feelings.” They are physical feelings because they are feelings of past occasions, but they are hybrid because they are not “purely” physical. They feel the conceptual pole rather than the physical pole of the past occasion. It seems natural to suppose that “information” is transmitted in this prehension.

For Whitehead what information an occasion gains from what past occasions is an empirical question. There is no law of conservation of information. Probably much depends on the subjective aim of the new occasion. Also, whereas contiguity is necessary for the transmission of energy, it seems that this is not the case with the transmission of information. At the human level, we may recall something from the distant past. The phenomena of “entanglement” among particles that seems to require “action at a distance” can be understood in terms of hybrid feelings that do not transmit energy. Many parapsychological phenomena that science has largely denied are understandable in terms of this distinction of pure and hybrid physical feelings.

In this way of understanding the transmission of information, there is no threat to the law of the conservation of energy. Process thinkers influenced by Whitehead have accepted this law. However, to say that information can be transmuted into energy seems to say that hybrid feelings can transmit energy. In that case the law of the conservation of energy will have to be rejected, or at least modified.

Whitehead’s conceptual scheme certainly does not depend on this law. If the law must be modified, the scheme can easily be adjusted. But most Whiteheadians will join most physicists in examining the evidence intensely to see whether the interpretation that requires overthrowing this law is the only possible interpretation. As of now, I remain skeptical but certainly not dogmatically opposed.

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