What is the nature of reality? The picture of the universe that emerged from classical physics in the 18th and 19th centuries was a reductive, materialistic, mechanistic worldview. In a nutshell, the idea was that the world was material in nature and composed of tiny billiard balls bouncing into each other. Complex things like organisms were thought to work like machines, such as a clock. This worldview was even influential in psychology. For example, in the early 20th century, John Watson’s behaviorism framed animal and human behavior as a set of stimulus-responses that were linked together via neuronal reflexes. We can frame this reductive, mechanistic materialistic worldview as the “I am just a bunch of chemicals” perspective.
Although this worldview is still prominent in some circles, it is massively outdated based on modern science. Consider, for example, that virtually no one is a “materialist” as defined above. Why? Because modern physics shattered this worldview. It did so because of quantum field theory, which shows that the very small world of subatomic particles behaves very differently from tiny billiard balls, and because of the hot, inflationary Big Bang model of the material universe emerging out of an energy singularity. The conclusion from physics is clear. Matter-like billiard balls are definitely not the basement of reality; instead, energy and quantum fields are more fundamental.
We can readily pair the Big Bang view of the cosmos with an evolutionary view of life. This enables us to have a cosmic evolutionary perspective that, as Tyler Volk puts it, goes from “quarks to culture.” This view of the universe and our place in it is called “Big History.” It is now the standard naturalistic worldview and its basic outline is seen in how many modern scientists like Sean Carroll tell the story of how we came to be.
Another major development in the 20th century was information theory, which, along with the many branches of information science (eg, cybernetics, artificial intelligence, the cognitive science revolution), also resulted in major shifts in our worldview. Instead of seeing the universe like a clock, many now see it as being akin to a computer that processes information.
When you look closely at the concept of information, you will see it really has several meanings. One important distinction is made between information in the physical world versus information in the living, mental, and cultural worlds. When we are thinking about information in the inanimate world, we can think about matter and energy being made up of bits, and we can think about the laws of physics as being like algorithms that process those. The work of the physicist Stephen Wolfram makes good use of this concept of information, as do many others.
A second meaning of information pertains to the way information is processed by things like living cells, minded animals, and cultured people. Here the meaning of information is more than just bits of data being processed via laws such as algorithms. Instead, information here refers to how living systems take in inputs and use those inputs to make active inferences and predictions, which in turn guide responses to approach and avoid things in the world. Bacteria do this, as do fruit flies and humans.
Source: Bobby Azarian, used with permission
What does this all mean about the worldview we should be embracing? For an outstanding and uplifting answer to this question, I highly recommend Bobby Azarian’s book, The Romance of Reality. He is a fellow Psychology Today blogger, and this book provides one of the best answers given to date about what this all means.
Although it is a cliché, it is nevertheless true: We are on the verge of a major paradigm shift in our worldviews. We are shifting from a reductive, mechanistic, materialism to an emergent evolutionary energy information worldview. And the implications are profound. To see how, consider the difference between “I am just a bunch of chemicals” to “I am an unfolding wave of energy information oriented toward increasing complexity.” It is both a romantic and a scientific view of reality, and The Romance of Reality is the right guide to see why.