Sunday 20 November 2011

Absence of information is the real nothing; not absence of stuff

The current New Scientist is a Special Issue on 'Nothing'. They've got five articles linked to the theme:
  1. From zero to hero. About the history of the mathematical symbol for '0', and the mathematical concept of zero.
  2. Nothing in common. Building maths starting from the concept of the empty set
  3. The hole story. How the concept of a 'hole' as a positively-charged particle rather than just the absence of an electron was crucial to the development of solid-state electronics
  4. Out of the ether. Vacuum field - how quantum mechanics leads to the understanding that a vacuum is actually seething with particles emerging and disappearing
  5. Putting the ideal to work. The discovery and value of Noble gases.
An interesting topic (though already pretty familiar to most readers of the New Scientist, I would have thought), but there's nothing there about information - they've missed the big story again!

It is the absence of information that is the real nothing, not the absence of stuff.  It is similar to what I was saying about going faster than light. Stuff (matter/energy) only has any significance insofar as it carries information. A complete 'grey death' of the universe (thermodynamic equilibrium over the whole universe) would be a real nothing.

Like so much on this blog, I've got ideas about this, but other people have explored nothing and information much more rigorously.

Vlatko Vedral and Rainer Zimmermann talking about nothing. 

At DTMD 2011, Vlatko Vedral introduced some of his ideas on how informational thinking provides insights into the fundamental question of how something comes from nothing. You can pick up his presentation from the DTMD 2011 proceedings page (or directly: Abstract Presentation Podcast). Vedral, though, was challenged by Rainer Zimmermann, one of the other delegates at the workshop, during the panel session after Vedral's presentation, and you can listen to that too: Panel Discussion (42 MByte mp3 file). Specifically, Zimmermann, says
I find the categories of nothingness and non-being mixed the consequence is that your God metaphor and also your card game is not correct because it is not demonstrating what you would like to demonstrate. For instance saying that God himself would not know entails that you think of the assembly of knowledge for God, or substance, or whatever you would like to call it, in an anthropomorphic way, but it is obviously not logical at all. That is actually an idea going back to Spinoza in the seventeenth century. On the other hand, the card game is not telling anything about nothingness, because what you actually show is that if you discard the means of representation in favour of another means for instance by skipping the cards and doing that in an abstract way, for instance playing blind chess..., you are not actually doing anything ontological, all you do is switch the means of representation, so in fact there is not nothingness but it is quite a lot.  Independent of the case nothingness in philosophical terms is not nothing, that is the point, it is actually the foundation of non-being. And non being is what is not but could be, it's a possibility. We had that already earlier in the keynote of Hofkirchner's field of possibilities and nothingness is the foundation of non-being. By coincidence on Friday afternoon I will give a talk on nothingness at the University of London...
(I've kept the reference to his University of London talk to point to the fact that he - Zimmermann - has been researching nothingness.  I need to find out more!)

Talk of non-being, field of possibilities, what could be, puts me very much in mind of Rubem Alves writing in The Poet, the Warrior, the Prophet of how the discovery of a dead body of man has all sorts of consequences precisely because he is dead - because he is not there (I referred to this in passing once before). However, I am aware I'm on shaky ground there, and I'm not sure Dr Zimmermann would approve!

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