Is Information the Basis of Reality?
No, but it may be an important component. Imagine trying to spend a week without any information. No books or broadcasts, no entertainment or news. No communication with another person, whether written or spoken or visual or just touching. It would be a diminished kind of existence. That is why extended solitary confinement is such a terrible punishment. Information plays a vital role in everyday human life. But to what extent is information the basis of reality?
The significance of a communication cannot be measured by the amount of information contained in it. It takes the same number of words to say “Thank you for tea” as to say “Will you marry me?”, but they may have vastly different consequences. On 18 April 1775 Robert Newman and his friend Captain John Pulling climbed the steeple of the North Church in Boston Massachusetts with two lanterns. This was a one bit message, encoded as “one if by land and two if by sea”. The lanterns were displayed for less than a minute, but this was sufficient to inform the patriots in Charlestown about the movements of the British army. A rider was dispatched to Lexington, though he never arrived and his name is lost. The message was spread by others, as immortalized in Longfellow’s poem Paul Revere’s Ride. A single bit of information had decisive significance.
In the industrial revolution, concepts of energy were crucial for building and optimising engines. A Big Question at the time might have been, “Is energy the basis of reality?” Alongside the understanding of energy there grew an explanation of the behaviour of gases in terms of the motion of molecules. In principle, if you knew at some instant the position and momentum of each molecule, then you would be able to predict the behaviour of the gas ever after. But the number of molecules is very large (6 × 10 23) in every 22.4 litres at standard temperature and pressure). Even with advanced computers it would be impractical to keep track of all of them. Instead scientists used statistical concepts to describe the behaviour of gases. The success of these methods convinced skeptics of the reality of molecules long before they could be seen by modern methods of microscopy. The thermodynamic concept of entropy in statistical mechanics is closely related to information.