Archetypes as Informational

infos88It is becoming clearer that reality is deeply informational. From the 1970s through to the 1990s Princeton Professor of Physics, John Wheeler, who gave us the term, “black hole”, developed his ideas about the universe fundamentally being informational alongside and even behind energy and matter. Wheeler asserted that “all things physical are informational-theoretic in origin” (Wheeler, 1990) and coined his famous phrase “it from a bit” to explain that the physical world sprang from information. It is the information that things carry that makes them the way they are. In this model the basic building blocks of the universe such as atoms, electrons, down to quarks are not so much bits of matter in empty space but packets of information regarding potential state of energy distribution and exchange. In this paradigm the information appears first and the physical world is a result of the way patterns of fields and energies interact with one another. This model seems to be gaining momentum as discoveries such as the Higgs-boson particle confirm the interactive nature of mass.

The informational approach addresses to some extent the question of why there is order in the universe, why are there laws of physics at all rather than a random and chaotic mess? It appears that being is ordered by its very nature. In fact it is chaos that is an abstraction, we may think that it is possible to have an unordered state but we actually have no evidence or experience of that, and the conjecture springs from a crude materialism which might imagine matter being able to exist in an unordered state with order or information being something added to it. This naivety has not come to terms with the insight of informational philosophy that to be is a form of order in itself. Perhaps we are not helped here by the religious myths, like the Genesis story which begin with chaos from which God creates. It is as though matter were disordered and longing for the divine word to bring order to it. But such dualism may lead us astray. The implication has been therefore that it is human beings who project archetypes onto the world as though we were finding patterns in chaos which are not there. But there is nothing without pattern and it may turn out that the idea of a patternless, orderless being is the illusion that exists solely in our imaginations.

One of the approaches to the archetypes in philosophy has been what is called nominalism. Nominalism is the theory that any universals like archetypes are not real but only exist in the mind of an observer. According to nominalists “dogness” exists only in the minds of observers. Information philosophers argue that this theory cannot hold up to modern science as we recognise now that dogness is really a quality informationally embedded into the DNA which all dogs share in. In other words the archetype of the dog does not reside in the mind of the observer but is a pattern encoded into the DNA of dogs which has evolved over the millennia. We may have also evolved to recognise these patterns but the physical and behavioural similarity that all dogs share, encoded in their DNA, would not disappear if humans became extinct.

The informational approach provides us with another way of understanding archetypes. For Plato, the archetypal forms were a kind of disembodied transcendent reality, for Jung archetypes were products of the collective human psyche yet from an informational perspective they are part of the informational structure of human beings that is passed on from generation to generation. To what extent these patterns are passed on through our DNA and to what extent they are passed on as the subsequent bios (the inbuilt firmware) of the brain will be a fascinating discussion which will unfold in science in the coming years. At this stage, though, the picture that seems to be emerging is one in which the archetypes of not so much products of the human imagination as some might suggest but the information structures which make us who we are.

An understanding of the nature of archetypes is dependent then on an understanding of the nature of informational patterns. Information in the real world must exist as a pattern in something, it is not disembodied. Jung himself commented that the archetypes do not exist separately to the individual expressions of them just as the information in DNA has to have some form be it physical or even as a string of letters, yet the information is none the less real. The recognition that the archetypes do not just exist in our own minds takes us one step further away from seeing ourselves as the centre of the universe and puts us firmly on the path to thinking about how we might uniquely express these archetypes in our lives and find a healthy relationship to them.

Many people have reported that when they took the position that the archetypes are basically concepts within our minds they lost their numinous power for them. While there are many arguments against nominalism there is no knock out punch which destroys it. We are then unsurprisingly left with an intellectual choice, “Do we make all  the meaning in the world or does it already exist to some degree for us to wonder at, contemplate and respond to?”  If we choose the later we are thrown into a sacred relationship  with something beyond ourselves as a spiritual path.

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