What is the Universe Made Of?

In an episode of Antiques Roadshow, a furniture expert was presented an unexceptional-looking table, one that struck me as something I could put together in an afternoon.

Although the piece had no decorative embellishments or maker’s mark, the expert immediately identified it as the work of George Nakashima, an innovative furniture maker of the last century. I was amazed, for somewhere in the table’s stark simplicity was information sufficient for the trained eye to identify the craftsman with the certainty of a DNA analysis.

The universe, also a crafted work, is information-rich. And as trained eyes have plumbed its depths and probed its expanse they have unveiled, if unwittingly, the fingerprints of its Maker.

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Sign up to get Crisis articles delivered to your inbox daily

Email subscribe inline (#4)

The Fundamental Ingredient
From the spooky behavior of subatomic particles, communicating instantly over galactic distances, to the biological software of cellular machinery, to the host of delicately balanced parameters that govern the cosmos, information, as scientists are coming to learn, is the fundamental ingredient of the universe. Physicist John Archibald Wheeler put it this way, “Every physical quantity derives its ultimate significance from bits, binary yes-or-no indications.” In computer-ese, that’s information.

Paradoxically, the stuff that makes up the material world is not material. While its transmission depends on material means—sound waves, electromagnetic signals, ink and paper, photographic images, and the like—information neither consists, nor is a product of, matter.

Consider the cells of our body. During the course of a normal life span, every cell in the body is replaced many times over; the molecules that make up our brain turnover about once every year. However, those changes have no commensurate effect on the instructions that govern cell activity or on our library of knowledge, memories, beliefs, and aspirations.

The existence of information is evidence that reality is more than matter moving under the influence of physical forces. At the root of nature is order, an order we neither invented nor imposed. So where did it come from?

In the Beginning
When St. John wrote, “In the beginning was the Word,” he was revealing something elementary about the Creator and his creation: He is a communicator whose handiwork, like the Nakashima table, contains no artist stamp, but teems with information made intelligible through words.

We think in terms of words. We process our feelings with words. Words are information carriers that, when governed by rules of grammar, form language, the organizing structure of information. Bracingly, as the Psalmist informs us, this is something not limited to sentient beings.

The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hand. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge. There is no speech or language where their voice is not heard. Their voice goes out into all of the earth, their words to the ends of the world.

The information built into creation is communicated by creation through words and language. The logocentric creation reflects its logocentric Creator who, with three words, “Let there be,” filled the void and turned chaos into cosmos, giving form and order to what was formless, making it intelligible.

He is no detached deity who begets and forgets as he moves on to other divine amusements. Instead, with three more words, “Let us make,” God fashions a pair of intelligent beings to tend his creation and enjoy fellowship with him.

Forming them from the dust of the earth, God speaks to them, and they understand him. From the get-go Adam and Eve understand how God’s utterances relate to their earthly home and their moral duties, all without ever having had to learn vocabulary, diagram a sentence, or endure an earth science course.

The story of Genesis opens with the Creator creating an intelligible world with intelligent beings endowed with a tool, language, enabling them to apprehend, communicate, and use information.

Language presupposes relationships—true and knowable correlations between objects and subjects, causes and effects, sensory inputs and human perceptions, man and his environment, matter and energy, forces and the objects they affect. The arresting successes of science and the practical utility of mathematics confirm that there is congruence between what is, and what can be known. Real and cognizable relationships make our universe comprehensible.

That realization has provoked comments from the palace guard of scientism that would peg-out any baloney detector within shouting distance. Consider this from physicist and Nobel laureate Steven Weinberg: “The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless.”

Comprehensibility suggests point-less-ness? To the contrary; comprehensibility is evidence of point-ed-ness—purpose, goals, ends. For example, gravitational effects point to the purpose of objects to follow the contours of spacetime, quantum behaviors point to the purpose of matter stability, and DNA instructions point to the purpose of cell manufacturing and repair. Teleology forms the warp and woof of the universe.

Dr. Weinberg is flummoxed to explain how all this teleology came about from a non-intelligent process; so it is “pointless.” This is an uneasy Article of Faith that he has to accept if he’s to keep divine fingers off the machine.

A Divine Gift
The preeminent relationship presupposed by language is that between creation and Creator. As intelligent design theorist William Dembski writes, “Human language is a divine gift for helping us to understand the world and by understanding the world to understand God himself.”

Language enables intelligent beings to say intelligent things about the intelligible world they inhabit; it points to an immaterial reality, and a Source of intelligence who desires to be known. Human knowledge is not confined to the Kantian sensible world; humans can know and say meaningful things about the super-sensible world, as well. In this unified schema of reality, the knowledge-building power of language is immense, as was evident at the dawn of civilization.

Within a few generations of the Flood, a universal language enabled the descendents of Noah to build the World Trade Center of Babylonia. Aiming to “make a name” for themselves, they laid the foundations of a skyscrapered-megalopolis in the plain of Shinar. The enterprise was a double affront to God. Not only were they shirking God’s command to “fill the earth,” their monolithic tower was a bid to achieve divine-like status through human effort.

The divine response was quick and effective. The language God had given Adam and Eve was atomized into a multitude of “tongues,” thwarting communication and putting an end to the ambitious urban project. Thus began a deepening of the alienation man had experienced with the Fall.

With no common language, mankind was forced into tongue-centered enclaves. Enclaves became cultures that, over time, became increasingly isolated from each other with their own set of social customs, conventions, and values. Within each culture, language, which had created culture, was being changed by culture. Still under the conviction that truth existed and could be apprehended through language, new words and new meanings to old words were introduced reflecting changes in cultural needs, attitudes, and beliefs.

But the malleability of language and the relativization of truth gradually led to the denial of language as a carrier of meaning. According to the late deconstructionist Jacques Derrida, a linguistic expression is nothing more than a string of characters with no fixed truth content or relevance.

Ironically, Derrida, and his fellow deconstructionists, spent decades writing libraries of books and essays, filled with, uh, language, to educate the logocentric masses with the “truth content” of their philosophy.

From Eden to the philosophy department of the university, language is a gift enabling us to know the truth about the world and ourselves and, in knowing the truth, enjoy fellowship with its Author.


  • Regis Nicoll

    Regis Nicoll is a retired nuclear engineer and a fellow of the Colson Center who writes commentary on faith and culture. He is the author of Why There Is a God: And Why It Matters.

Join the Conversation

Comments are a benefit for financial supporters of Crisis. If you are a monthly or annual supporter, please login to comment. A Crisis account has been created for you using the email address you used to donate.

Editor's picks

Item added to cart.
0 items - $0.00

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Signup to receive new Crisis articles daily

Email subscribe stack
Share to...