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Active Information, Meaning and Form

F. David Peat

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A text only version of this essay is available to download.


It is proposed, in the spirit of open speculation, that science is now ready to accommodate a new principle, that of active information, that will take its place alongside energy and matter. Information connects to concepts such as form and meaning which are currently being debated in a variety of fields from biology and the neurosciences, to consciousness studies and the nature of dialogue. It may well provide the integrating factor between mind and matter.

While the principle of Information has considerable potential it also raises a variety of questions whose clarification and resolution may help to increase understanding in other fields.


Towards the end of the 1980s David Bohm introduced the notion of Active Information into his Ontological Interpretation of Quantum Theory. His idea was to use the activity of information as a way of explaining the actual nature of quantum processes and, in particular, the way in which a single physical outcome emerges out of a multiplicity of possibilities. Initially this idea, of Information as a physical activity, was tied to Bohm's particular theory but, as this essay paper proposes, it is possible to go further and elevate "Information" to the level of a new physical concept, one that can be placed alongside Matter and Energy.

Information connects to clusters of fertile ideas being debated in physics, biology, consciousness research and the neurosciences. These are grouped around the notions of Information, Form and Meaning, each of which is discussed below.

At present it is by no means clear how these ideas will finally integrate together but the resonance between them is striking and should provide a profitable nucleus for further research and speculation. On the one hand the notion of information is firmly based within the physical sciences, yet has immediate application to, for example, consciousness studies. Such ideas are also particularly rich in the way they connect to new approaches in health, healing, dialogue and the cohesion of society.

When ideas begin to come together in this way it suggests that a fundamental break-through may not be far behind. One thinks of the web of approaches and notions being debated in the first years of this century and the how they finally coalesced into quantum theory and relativity. Similar unresolved discussions abound today, about the nature of mind, brain function and consciousness, pre-space and algebras that lie below quantum theory, and the nature of health and healing. Information is something that could play a significant role in understanding the nature of the physical universe and, at the same time, have a key role in the operation of consciousness. Concepts of meaning, form and information could well play an integrating role in bringing unity to whole areas of speculation.

The individual topics of Information, Form and Meaning, together with their interconnections, are discussed below. Following this questions are posed and directions for future work suggested.


At first sight "information" plays no role in the world of physics. Facts, data and information are contained in books, or collated by scientists, but have no independent, objective existence in the physical world apart from their interpretation by human subjects. Shannon and Weaver's "Information Theory", for example, is concerned with the way data - bites of information - travels along a telephone line or within other transmission system. The "meaning" of a particular message is irrelevant, what is significant is only the mechanism of its encoding and decoding, plus the relative roles played by noise and redundancy.

Yet a deeper investigation suggests that things are more subtle and less obvious. The notion of entropy, for example, is present in both Information theory and thermodynamics. It is another concept that began with an uncertain ontology. On the one hand in thermodynamics entropy is related to well defined variables, like temperature and heat capacity, on the other, it is spoken of, somewhat subjectively, as the degree of "disorder" within a system, or as the break down of order and information, or the degradation of the information content of a message.

There is the question of the amount information required to define a system. An apparently "ordered" system, exhibiting strictly periodic behavior requires little information for its definition. Highly complex or random systems, on the other hand, are defined by a potentially infinite amount of information. But are these purely objective measures or do they always depend upon some human subject to assign significance? Prigogine is attempting to place the concept of entropy within a clearer objective basis but the debate continues.

The mystery of information deepens with Beckenstein's discovery of the relationship between amount of information passing through an event horizon, entropy content, and the radius of a Black Hole. Here is a totally objective, quantitative definition of information within physics. (In this case, however, it is the amount of information rather than its actual content or meaning that is significant.) The section below, on Form, also discusses ways in which form (related to in-form-ation) plays a significant role in quantum physics.

The breakthrough in giving information a more "physical" role comes with Bohm's proposal that information plays an active role in quantum systems. Bohm's 1952 Hidden Variable papers proposed an alternative approach to quantum theory in which the electron is a real particle guided by a new kind of force, the quantum potential. While at first sight Bohm's theory appears somewhat "classical" - electrons have real paths - the quantum potential is entirely novel. Unlike all other potentials in physics its effects do not depend upon the strength or "size" of the potential but only on its form. It is for this reason that distant objects can exert a strong influence on the motion of an electron.

In the double slit experiment, a paradigm-shifting experiment of quantum theory, the effects of the slits are be experienced by electrons located many centimeters away. This is very difficult to explain in conventional terms but follows quite naturally once a quantum potential has been introduced. Indeed, it is this quantum potential that is responsible for all the novel effects exhibited by quantum theory. The form of the quantum potential is extremely complex and reflects the entire physical set-up of a quantum measurement. The complexity of its form is also what gives rise to the apparently random processes of the quantum world, such as the disintegration of a radio-active nucleus, or the dual wave-particle nature of the electron.

Bohm's approach to his own theory became more subtle over the years and he soon began to speak of not only of the form of the quantum potential and also of the "information" it contains. The action of the quantum potential is not to push or pull the electron along its path. Rather, Bohm likened it to a radar signal that guides a ship approaching a harbor. The information within the radar signal acts, via a computer or automated steering device, to change the direction of the ship. Information itself does not push the ship, rather it "in-forms" the gross energy of the engines.

Information therefore allows a distinction to be made between what could be called raw or "un-formed" energy an a more subtle energy, an activity that can be identified with information. This information acts on raw energy to give it form.

Later versions of Bohm's theory pictured the electron not so much as a real physical particle but as a process, a wave continually collapsing inward to a localized region and then expanding outward. This process is guided by a super-quantum potential. An activity of information is responsible for the existence quantum particles and quantum events.

In discussing the quantum measurement problem Bohm, and his coworkers, further developed the notion of "Active Information". Take the double slit experiment, as an example. In Bohm's theory an electron has the potentiality to take a multiplicity of paths that pass through either one of the two slits. In actuality, an electron takes only a single path. Bohm suggested that the quantum potential contains information about the experimental set-up. This information is potentially active, but once the electron has "chosen", and begun to move along a particular path the information about alternative paths becomes inactive.

For reasons of space this is an oversimplification of Bohm's approach, but the essential idea should be clear. Information, in this case about the context of an experimental set-up, is carried, in some sort of active form, at the quantum level. This information acts directly on matter, (eg via the form it imposes on the "unformed"). Information is being used in an objective way. It is not something that depends on the point of view of a human observer.

The actual nature of the information and the way it is carried is not yet entirely clear. Is it really correct, for example, to speak of a "field" of information, since information does not fall off with distance, neither is it associated with energy in the usual sense. Possibly the notion of field should be widened or, at the quantum level. we should be talking about pre-space structures, or about algebraic relationships that precede the structure of space and time.

Bohm's notion of "active information" is tied to his "Ontological Interpretation" (formerly the Causal or Hidden Variable Interpretation). I propose it be freed from any particular theory and raised to the level of a General Principle. Bohm never considered his Ontological Interpretation to be the last word on quantum theory, rather that it would suggest insights and avenues for further research. I believe that one of the most valuable is this notion of information.

Newtonian physics was concerned with the movements of matter under forces and mechanical contact. Nineteenth century physics generalized the whole notion of energy, as that which causes the transformations, rearragements and motions of matter. I suggest that Information is the final element in a triad - information is that which gives form to energy. (It is the "subtle" energy spoken of in Eastern science.) Information would have an objective nature. It would play an active role in giving "form" to energy and be responsible for quantum processes. As a "field" of active information it provided a collective, global form for a superconductor or superfluid. Information would be copresent as an aspect of physical law, but also through what appear to be more subjective elements such as meaning and significance. It particular, Information may be responsible for global processes in the brain and have a role to play in the nature of consciousness.

It could be argued that, in giving information an active role in science, the face of physics will change. But this has already happened several times before. On each occasion more subtle notions were introduced. Thermodynamics, for example was born in the transformation of caloric from a fluid to a non-material concept - energy. Electromagnetism was found not to be the result of mechanical vibrations in an ether but the manifestation of the more subtle notion of field. In our own century matter the notion of "independent elements of reality" was abandoned at the quantum level, physical properties were discovered not to be intrinsic to objects but to be context dependent. The force of gravity melted in geometry. In each case the movement has been from the material and mechanical into the subtle. Information could well be the next stage in this evolution of ideas. Its integrating role would extend over physics, biology and the study of consciousness.

In the two sections below the relationship of information to form and meaning is discussed.


Form is a key concept in biology. The function of everything from the activity of an enzyme to a cell or organ is related to its physical form. Growth from the fertilized cell to the adult is a process of differentiation and transformation of form; hence biologists from Aristotle to Waddington, Sheldrake and Goodwin have postulated notions of "morphic fields".

The universal nature of form and its transformation was, in the 1960s, the subject of a new branch of mathematics, Rene Thom's Catastrophe Theory. Form has associated with it the idea of a Gestalt, of global patterns, perception and non-locality; such notions connect with the functioning of consciousness and with the Immune system.

Form has its role to play in physics. In classical physics it is the form of the Hamiltonian that remains invariant under canonical transformations. In this way, Newtonian mechanics can be transformed from the mechanical interaction of individual particles into global form-preserving processes. Likewise, General relativity is about the invariance of form under all possible coordinate transformations. In this sense, motion under gravity has to do with the preservation of form. One could perhaps generalize the concept of inertia to that of the "law of persistence of form".

Most dramatically form appears in the guise of the wave function. It is the global form of the wave function (symmetric or antisymmetric) that is responsible for the existence of Fermi-Dirac or Bose-Einstein statistics. The fact that such forms are non-factorizable (into spatially independent components) is the deep reason for quantum non-locality (Bell's mysterious correlation between distant particles). The form of the wave function is ultimately responsible for collective modes in physics - plasma, superfluid, superconductor and hypothetical Frochlich systems. The form of the wave function orchestrates each of an astronomical number of particles into a highly coordinated dance.

Bohm's quantum potential is unique in that the magnitude of its effects, on the motion of electrons, does not arise from its strength or intensity but from the "form" of the potential - that is, its particular complex shape. It is for this reason that the effects of the quantum potential do no fall off with distance and that well separated quantum objects can remain strongly correlated.

It is highly suggestive that form may also be responsible for global quantum proper within the brain that give rise to consciousness. Form, a global property as opposed to a local one, may have something to do with the evolution of space-time structure out of some more primitive quantum pre-space. Penrose, for example, proposes that the quantum mechanical "collapse of the wave function" is a global phenomenon connected with the geometrical properties of space-time. He also speculates that global quantum process have a role to play in the liaison between consciousness and brain structure.

These are speculative, but compelling, speculations that revolve around the same cluster of ideas and connect different areas of interest, such as consciousness, life and fundamental physics. They raise the question: How does the global nature of form relate to Active Information? Is Information a new principle of the physical world that applies in a wide variety of fields of interest? The answer to this question must begin with a period of "sorting out" and clarification of basic ideas and their multiple interconnections.


If Form begins with biology (and leads into quantum theory) Meaning surely starts in psychology. It was Carl Jung who stressed the role of meaning in the Synchronicity - that region where form and pattern spill over the boundaries between mind and matter. For Jung the key was the deep internal significance associated with an experience of synchronistic patterns, a significance that did not end at the boundaries of personal consciousness. Meaning was both subjective and objective. As Wolfgang Pauli emphasized, just as psychology had uncovered the objective in psyche (the collective or objective unconscious) so physics must find the subjective in matter. Jung termed this speculum between matter and mind as the "psychoid", its integrating factor is meaning.

In the context of Dialogue groups Bohm spoke of a "field of meaning" shared by all participants. He also stressed that the way to bring about effective social change is through an overall change of meaning. Meaning, which could be thought of as a field of form, Bohm associated this with the Immune system. The Immune system is what keeps the body whole, it processes coordinated and is another manifestation of meaning. if meaning is degraded the body becomes sick. Bohm stressed that his maxim "a change of meaning is a change of being" was to be taken literally. That assailant seen on a dark night turns out to be the shadow of a tree trunk. Immediately a flurry of electrochemical changes takes place in mind and body. Laboratory research suggests that shifts in "meaning" bring about subtle restructuring of nerve pathways and the sensitivities of connections. Meaning, which is normally taken to be subjective turns out to have an objective, physical consequence.

Meaning can act on matter and, presumably, matter on meaning. (The significance of what we see or think is affected by the electrochemical environment of our bodies.) Does the idea extend from consciousness into the physical world? I believe it does. Information is, in some way, encoded in the wave function, or some sort of a field of form, or some set of prequantum algebraic relationships. Yet what information is encoded? One solution is that all information, about the entire universe is encoded, or enfolded, within the global form. (Or as Bohm may have said, within the Implicate Order.) Yet only that which has meaning, or significance, for the electron is "active". Consciousness becomes a certain dynamical aspects of this underlying field or order. Mind is fundamentally distributed throughout the material world.

Information by itself is nothing more than an abstract set of binary digits (Shannon and Weaver's Information Theory) but if it is to act, if it is to affect the motion of the electron, coordinate the dance of a plasma, and the global movement of electrical activity within the brain, then it must have a particular significance within a given context. Meaning comes down to the way the information acts within different contexts.

Again deep speculative connections exist between Information, Form and Meaning, between quantum theory, brain function and consciousness.

Conclusion and Difficulties

It is proposed that science can accommodate a new general principle, Active Information, alongside matter and energy. Information is connected to ideas of form and meaning and leads to questions that are being debated in consciousness studies, healing and dialogue.

Supposing one is willing to accept the existence of a new explanatory principle in science; what is the next step? Clearly there is much to sort out and clarify. How exactly is information encoded, decoded and transmitted? Is the metaphor of the field valid or do we need some new concept, something that exists at the level of prespace? And just what sort of information is encoded?

That final question goes right back to Neils Bohr and his emphasis that a quantum system must always be defined within the context of the experiment. But just what does this context consist of? What information is relevant - the location of the laboratory? the material out of which the double slits are made? What aspects of the universe comprise objective, active information and which are purely subjective? No one seems to know at preset. What may be considered relevant information for one context may be irrelevant in the next. Could it be that while much information is encoded within some sort of "information field", only certain aspects are decoded by the electron? How does one quantum system - an enzyme, for example, become the "environment" or "information" for some other biologically active information.

Many more questions can be raised and debated.


The ideas and speculations discussed in this essay have considerable potential for further development. They are nuclei for new discussions in quantum theory, biology and the neurosciences. At present, however, these ideas lack critical mass and there is a great danger than, following Bohm's death for example, interest could dissipate or discussion fall back to more mechanistic approaches.

It is proposed that a concerted effort be made in this general area. A useful first step is to combine speculation with clarification, to discover just what is being said by various thinkers about information, meaning and form in quantum theory, consciousness research, biology and so on? How are various terms being used, where does common ground lie and what questions are being formulated? Where is clarification needed? Are any new experiments suggested? In what direction should these concepts be developed? Who are the main players in this area and is advantage to be gained by bringing them together at this point? Would it be useful to publish a review or overview in this field?

Related Pages:
David Bohm | Science

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