The Universe Algorithm

Belief in the world as a virtual reality goes back a long way. Buddhism sees the physical world as an illusion, the allegorical tale of Plato’s cave suggested the reality we know is a mere shadow hinting at, rather than being, the world as it truly is, and Pythagoras thought Number was the essence from which the physical world is created. More recently, the likes of Ed Fredkin and Stephan Wolfram have argued that reality might arise from something like a simple computer program known as cellular automata (CA), which were invented by John von Neumann in the early 50s. You don’t necessarily need a computer to run a CA, a piece of paper will suffice. The most basic CA consists of a long line of squares, or ‘cells’, that are drawn across the page and can be either black or white. This first line represents one half of the initital conditions from which a CA ‘universe’ will evolve. A second line of cells is then drawn immediately above the first and whether a cell in this line is black or white depends on a rule applied to its nearest neighbours in the first line. The rules make up the other half of the initial condition.

What I have just described is an example of an algorithm, which is a fixed procedure for taking one body of information and turning it into another. In the case of a CA, the pattern of black and white cells on the first line represents the ‘input’ and the ‘output’ it produces is the pattern of cells in the next line. That in itself is not terribly exciting, but much more interesting things can happen if we run the CA as a recursive algorithm, one where the output is fed back in as input, which produces another output in the form of a third row of black and white cells, which then becomes the input for a fourth line and so on, in principle, for evermore.

Whether or not something interesting happens depends upon the rules used to govern the behaviour of each line of cells. In the case of the simplest possible CA, those that consist of a one-dimensional line of cells, two possible colors and rules based only on the two immediately adjacent cells, there are 256 possible rules. All cells use the same rule to determine future behaviour by reference to the past behaviour of neighbours and all cells obey the same rules simultaneously. Some initial conditions produce CAs of little interest. The result might be a repetitive pattern like the one associated with a chessboard, or completely random patterns. What makes these uninteresting is the fact that you can accurately predict what you will get if you carry on running the program (more of the same). These kind of CAs are known as ‘Class 1’. ‘Class 2’ CAs produce arbitrarily-spaced streaks that remain stable as the program is run. Class 3 produce recognizable features (geometric shapes, for example), appearing at random. Sometimes, they produce patterns known as ‘gliders’, shapes that appear to move along  a trajectory (what is actually happening is that the pattern is continually destroyed and rebuilt in an adjacent location). Using a computer to run a CA makes it a lot easier to watch gliders, because then the recursive algorithm is calculated millions of times faster and the illusion of movement is totally persuasive.

The most interesting CAs of all are class 4. These produce patterns of enormous complexity, novelty and surprise. What is most intriguing about them is the fact that their initial conditions seem no more complex than those which go on to produce the dull class 1 types of CA. To people like Wolfram, this is evidence that our attitudes towards complexity are not a true reflection of how reality works. ‘Whenever a phenomenon is encountered that seems complex it is taken almost for granted that it is the result of some underlying mechanism that is itself complex. A simple program that can produce great complexity makes it clear that this is in fact not correct’. We also see this phenomenon in fractals. Consider the famous ‘Mandlebrot Set’. How much storage space would be required to save a copy of every pattern it contains? The answer is, more storage space than you would have even if you used every particle in the visible universe to store a bit. That is because the Mandlebrot Set contains an infinite number of patterns and so it would exceed any finite storage capacity. And yet, underlying all that complexity there is a simple formula (Z=Z^2+C) that can be described in a few lines of code.

Faced with evidence that something complex could have a simple cause, Wolfram asked ‘when nature creates a rose or a galaxy or a human brain, is it merely applying simple rules – over and over again?’ Cellular Automata and fractals produce interesting patterns, but there can be more to their complexity than that. In 1985, Wolfram conjectured that a CA following ‘rule 110’ might be a universal Turing machine and therefore capable of carrying out any imaginable computation and simulating any machine. This conjecture was verified in 2000 by Mathew Cook. Then, in 2007, Alex Smith proved an even simpler CA (known as a 2,3 machine) was also capable of universal computation.

Wolfram commented, ‘from our everyday experience with computers, this seems pretty surprising. After all, we’re used to computers whose CPUs have been carefully engineered, with millions of gates. It seems bizarre that we should achieve universal computation with a machine as simple as the 2,3 CA’. The lesson seems to be that computation is a simple and ubiquitous phenomenon and that it is possible to build up any level of complexity from a foundation of the simplest possible manipulations of information. Given that simple programs (defined as those that can be implemented in a computer language using just a few lines of code) have been proven to be universal computers and have been shown to exhibit properties such as thermodynamic behaviour and biological growth, you can begin to see why it might make sense to think of information as more fundamental than matter/energy.

Working independently of Wolfram, Ed Fredkin believes that the fabric of reality, the very stuff of which matter/energy is made, emerges from the information produced by a 3D CA whose logic units confine their activity to being ‘on’ or ‘off’ at each point in time. ‘I don’t believe that there are objects like electrons and photons and things which are themselves and nothing else. What I believe is that there’s an information process, and the bits, when they’re in certain configurations, behave like the thing we call the electron, or whatever’. The phenomenon of ‘gliders’ demonstrates the ability of a CA to organize itself into localized structures that appear to move through space. If, fundamentally, something like a CA is computing the fabric of reality, particles like electrons may simply be stubbornly persistant tangles of connections. Fredkin calls this the theory of ‘digital physics’, the core principle of which is the belief that the Universe ultimately consists of bits governed by a programming rule. The complexity we see around us results from recursive algorithms tirelessly taking information it has transformed and transforming it further. ‘What I’m saying is that at the most basic level of complexity an information process runs what we think of as the law of physics’.

Because we’re so used to information being stored and processed on a physical system, when we encounter the hypothesis that matter/energy is made of information, our natural inclination is to ask what the information is made of. Fredkin insists that asking such a question demonstrates a misunderstanding of the very point of the digital physics philosophy, which is that the structure of the world depends upon pattern rather than substrate; a certain CONFIGURATION, rather than a certain KIND, of bits. Furthermore, it’s worth remembering that (according to digital physics), EVERYTHING depends entirely on the programming rules and initial input, including the ability of bodies of information as complex as people to formulate bodies of information as complex as metaphysical hypotheses. According to Fredkin, this makes it all but impossible for us to figure out what kind of computer we owe our existence to. The problem is further compounded by the proven fact that CAs can be a universal computer. Reporting on Fredkin’s philosophy, Robert Wright commented, ‘any universal computer can simulate another universal computer, and the simulated can, because it is universal, do the same thing. So it’s possible to conceive of a theoretically endless series of computers contained, like Russian dolls, in larger versions of themselves and yet oblivious to those containers’.

Because it adopts the position that our very thought processes are just one of the things to emerge from the calculations performed by the CA running the Universe, digital physics has ready explanations for the apparent contradiction between reality ‘as is’ (assuming digital physics is correct) and reality as it is perceived. When a CA is run on a computer or piece of paper, ‘space’ pre-exists. But Wolfram believes the Universe-generating program would be unnecessarily complex if space was built into it. Instead, he supposes the CA running our universe is so pared down that space is NOT fundamental, but rather just one more thing to emerge consequent to the program running. Space, as perceived by us, is an illusion created by the smooth transition of phenomena through a network of ‘nodes’, or discrete points that become connected as the CA runs. According to Wolfram, not only the matter we are aware of but also the space we live in can be created with a constantly updated network of nodes.

This implies that space is not really continuous. Why, then, does it seem that way to us? Part of the reason is that the nodes are so very tiny. Computers can build up photorealistic scenes from millions of tiny pixels and smooth shades from finely mottled textures. You might see an avatar walk from one point in space to another, but down at the pixel level nothing moves at all. Each point confines its activity to changing colour or turning on and off. The other reason is that, while in the case of an image on the monitor, it might be possible in principle to magnify your vision until the pixels become apparent, in the case of the space network it would be impossible to do likewise, because our very perception arises from it and so can never be more fine-grained than it is.

That line of reasoning also fixes the problem of ‘time’. Remember, that in a CA run on a computer, every cell is updated simultaneously. This would be impossible in the case of the CA running the Universe, because the speed of light imposes limits on how fast information can travel. Co-ordinated behaviour such as that observed in CAs require a built-in clock, but wherever the clock happens to be located, the signals it transmits are going to take a while to travel to cells that are located far way from it. One might think that having many clocks distributed throughout the network would solve the problem, but it would not because the speed of light would not allow a signal to travel between all the clocks to ensure they were synchronised.

Wolfram came up with a simple solution, which was to do away with the notion that every cell updates at the same time as every other. Instead, at each step, only one cell is updated. Time, just like space, is divided up into discrete ‘cubes’ and at any given moment it is in only one of these ‘cubes’ that time moves a step forward. At the next moment, time in that cube is frozen and another point in the space network is updated. Again, this reality ‘as is’ seems totally unlike reality as perceived. When was the last time you noticed all activity was frozen in place, save for one point in space here… and now here… and now here… that moved forward a fraction? No, in RL we have no lag, no waiting for our reality to update. Our RL never goes offline. But, of course, in the case of SL, the reason we notice when it has gone offline or is being updated is because it is (not yet) running the software of our consciousness. That, for now, is still largely confined within our brains. But when it comes to the CA running the Universe, your very awareness would be frozen – be offline – when any cell other than your own is being updated. Only when your own cell is updated are you in a position to notice the world about you, and when this happens, all that you see is that everything else has moved a fraction. In an absolute sense, each tick of the universal clock might be very slow and RL might actually suffer lag and periods when it is offline that are far longer than anything we endure in SL. But because perception itself proceeds in the same ticks, time seems continuous to us. Again, our perception can be no more fine-grained than the processes computing that perception.

Perhaps the reason why the speed of light is limited in the first place is because photons (just like all other particles) are comparable to gliders, which can only advance one cell per computation. In ‘Is the Universe a Virtual Reality?’, Brian Whitworth reasoned, ‘if both space and time arise from a fixed information-processing allocation, that the sum total of space and time processing adds up to the local processing available is reasonable… events in a VR world must have a maximum rate, limited by a finite processor’. The physical outcome of this supposition would be that something would impose a fixed maximum for the speed at which information could travel. And, of course, that is precisely what light does.

As well as this example, Whitworth cites several other ways in which the observed laws of nature coincide with the concept that ours is a virtual reality. It is perhaps incorrect to say that Whitworth considers this proof that reality IS a simulation, only that supposing it is does not contradict what we know about the laws of physics. Whitworth asks what the consequence would be if reality arose from finite information processing. If that were the case, we ought to expect algorithmic simplicity. ‘Calculations repeated at every point of a huge VR Universe must be simple and easily calculated’. And, as it happens, core mathematical laws that describe our world do seem remarkably simple. Whitworth points out that if everything derives from information, we should expect to find digitization when we closely examine the world around us. ‘All events/objects that arise from digital processing must have a minimum quantity’. Modern physics does seem to show that matter, energy, space and time come in quanta.

If you look at the letters in this body of text, each particular letter is identical to every one of its kind. This ‘a’ looks like that ‘a’, this ‘b’ is identical to that ‘b’ and so on. That is because of ‘digital equivalence’. Each letter arises from the same code so obviously they are identical. Similarly, if each photon, each electron and every other particle arises from the same underlying code, they too would be identical to each other. Again, this is what we observe.

What other ways might reality seek to minimise waste in its information processing? In the virtual worlds that run on our computers, the world is typically not calculated all at once. Rather, the computer only renders the part of reality that the observer is looking at. If that were also true of RL – if reality is only calculated when an interaction ocurrs – then measuring reality ‘here’ would necessarily cause uncertainty with regards to what happens ‘there’. Or, as Whitworth put it, ‘if complementary objects use the same memory location, the object can appear as having either position or momentum, but not both’.

If the network running our VR was to become overloaded in certain regions, what would the result be? Well, SL residents know all too well what to expect if too many objects are rezzed or too many people gather in one sim. You get slowdown. Suppose that a high concentration of matter similarly constitutes a high processing demand. That being the case, wherever there is a high concentration of mass there ought to be a slowdown of the information processing of spacetime. This is in agreement with general relativity, which argues that time runs noticeably slower in the presence of strong gravitational fields caused by a high concentration of mass.

Summing up, Whitworth asked the reader, ‘given the big bang, what is simpler, that an objective universe was created out of nothing, or that a virtual reality was booted up? Given the speed of light is a universal maximum, what is simpler, that it depends on the properties of featureless space, or that it represents a maximum processing rate?… Modern physics increasingly suggests… that Occam’s razor now favours a virtual reality over objective reality’.

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8 Responses to The Universe Algorithm

  1. Oh, thanks for this article, Extropia :) It’s been quite a while since I last read about Wolfram’s work and derivatives (gosh, I’m really getting old… CA were part of my formal training in computer science, of course, but in my time, Wolfram’s work was at best called “speculative” and not proven…), and you did a superb work of summarising it all.

    I’d also suggest you to take a look at Verlinde’s entropic gravity in a holographic universe. His own first published paper on the subject is surprisingly easy to read for a layperson, even though you’d need some background in calculus and physics if you wish to confirm his equations :) Briefly, Verlinde’s work, based upon previous work (like the Unruh effect), suggests that by postulating entropy on different variables (nothing forbids that!), it can be deduced that the universe is mostly composed by information and subject to entropy/energy. Space, time, gravity and all other forces are merely emergent properties; information can be presented on holographic displays describing properties of matter, but nothing much besides that exists (or needs to exist).

    Verlinde, however, does not show — perhaps not yet! — how information is manipulated, in the sense of showing how so-called “physical states” evolve in the macrocosmos (i.e. what we observe, and why we observe it). He sort of works from the reverse point of view than Wolfram: he’s more concerned about showing how pretty much everything, from Big Bang cosmology, to relativity and quantum mechanics with the Heisenberg principle, to thermodynamics, as well as black holes and other singularities, can be mathematically described by merely using mathematical descriptions of holographic displays containing information and subjected to rules of information manipulation.

    Wolfram et al. do not provide a reasoning of why the universe is supposed to be a CA, but assume that, if it is — e.g. if the fundamental particles of the universe are information — we can describe precisely how the universe works using mathematical descriptions of CA, which are well understood, even if the interpretation of the results are surprising, at the higher classes of CA’s :)

    One day perhaps someone will unify both models. Then Wolfram’s followers will not need to conjecture if the universe is mostly information; Verlinde’s work shows that there is really nothing else, and that you don’t require any further “fundamental particles” to describe the universe as we experience it, and the cellular automatists can work from that and explain how the whole complex interactions of the so-called “laws of nature” are nothing more than merely algorithms that we can describe fully.

    I like the implications of those two models. One, of course, is that the science of cosmology is moving more and more away from the notion of intrinsic physical existence. I remember reading some early discussions about quantum mechanics (or even relativity) when philosophers of science wondered if particles really existed, or if they were just convenient mathematical models to abstractly model something we cannot experience directly. This is not new — Newton himself postulated “force fields” as a convenient mathematical abstraction to describe physical forces, but didn’t attribute any “physical existence” to those forces (or, more precisely, to the fields they generate) — something that popular sci-fi always gets wrong, by mistakenly assuming that one might create “force fields” with intrinsic physical existence. Forces, while we can experience their effects, are explained merely as mathematical models (in the standard model, they’re just particles exchanging information… superstring theory prefers the vibratory explanation… Verlinde just sees them as holographic displays describing information exchange but doesn’t require postulating the existence of either particles affecting each other, or any kind of intrinsically existing fundamental “building blocks”). So do particles have intrinsic existence or not? Old-time standard model veterans which constantly accelerate their particles at the CERN naturally like to attribute to them some physical properties — i.e. they exist somewhere and somehow, we just might not know exactly where or how.

    But the 21st century is bringing a much more interesting approach to the intrinsic nature of the universe. With so many different approaches all leading to surprisingly the same results, the question that comes to mind is — which one is “right”, which one is “wrong”? Relativity doesn’t require “particles” to explain gravity; but we spent most of the 20th century to try to “fit” gravity into a particle system. Superstrings are not quite particles (at least they don’t have size zero) but close enough to be seen just as a slightly more advanced mathematical model of particles. The “physical existence” of quarks was disputed at the beginning, but currently, standard model followers tend to attribute some fundamental existence to them beyond a convenient mathematical explanation. But when we move towards information-based models, the whole concept of “fundamentally existing building blocks” is abandoned. Information is an abstract model, merely a concept. We can derive Theories of Everything just based on “information”, on “bits”, without requiring anything else to “exist”, but bits don’t intrinsically exist, either — they’re just abstract concepts.

    I find this trend of scientific exploration of the fabric of the universe very exciting! And here is where I feel I should add something to your article: Buddhism does not literally view everything as merely “illusion”, although it’s a simplified way of explaining our experience of the universe as merely the product of a mind that creates concepts to explain it. You can see how closely this mirrors the recent scientific theories: we cannot truly say that the mathematical abstractions we use to describe the fabric of the universe do intrinsically exist, but we can say that the mathematical descriptions, even if they’re just abstract concept, describe the universe quite accurately. When scientists say these days that “the universe is like cellular automata”, or “the universe is made of particles”, or even “the universe is just information”, we’re not saying (not any more!) that these concepts exist intrinsically. They’re just useful concepts that happen to describe the universe accurately with an extraordinary amount of precision — and new concepts in the future, which will become even more abstract, will just describe it better and better.

    The oldest schools of Buddhism tended to explain the universe as composed of infinitely small fundamental particles, not unlike the standard model, although they didn’t have mathematical formulas to show how they interacted (they did have explanations for the interactions — cause and effect, for instance — but they weren’t formulated mathematically). They did, however, assume they interacted — to get aggregates into more complex forms, which, however, don’t exist independently of the particles themselves. Thus, labelling a dog as “a bunch of interdependent particles that just happen to be experienced as a dog” was just a conceptual leap in our minds. There is no dog; there are just particles interacting; but we conveniently tag the “bunch of particles” as “dog” because it facilitates communication (imagine a world populated by human beings where you would only describe objects in the universe based on its particle density! Language would be next to impossible). This was the Buddhist view some 2600 years ago, and it was not unlike some views expressed by the Classical Greeks at about the same time.

    Later schools questioned this model. If those fundamental particles do exist intrinsically, then they cannot change with time, and they cannot get aggregated with each other — because they exist independently of each other. But what we observe is rather the reverse: particles aggregating, and our mind labelling them as more complex concepts, from atoms to objects to cities to planets to galaxies. So the notion of “fundamental particles” had to be abandoned two millenia ago, not unlike what we are doing today when we propose “information” or “cellular automata” or “holographic displays” — very abstract concepts, of which “particles” are just emergent properties. The notion that “abstract concepts” were at the root of the fundamental fabric of the universe made the Buddhists of those times to consider that what was fundamental was the mind that created those abstract concepts. Given a different abstract model — entropy, information, superstrings — we “create” a different image of the universe, one that doesn’t require atoms — or particles, or quarks… — to be consistent with what we experience. Current scientists feel awkward when saying “the universe is cellular automata” or “the universe is just information and entropy” because that shatters the prevalent materialistic view of the universe. They prefer to employ those statements as metaphors instead — convenient abstract notions to describe the universe, but avoiding claiming that the abstractions are the universe.

    Buddhists, being non-dualist (neither materialists nor nihilists), have no such qualms. Around the time that Christ was born, some Buddhist schools just postulated that the only thing that actually existed was mind — or, more precisely, infinitely small moments of consciousness. This echoes what you describe as Wolfram’s/Whitworth’s model of local observation of phenomena in the universe appearing in relation to the observer (although the terminology is quite different, and, again, Buddhists didn’t have mathematical formulas) adding the notion that if the whole universe seems to be made of quanta, so is our consciousness. Time, just as you describe, is just a convenient notion to describe the transition from one moment of consciousness to another — but time is just a concept, it doesn’t have intrinsic nature either — and thus it would follow that consciousness is quantic, too (which is an alternate explanation of why you won’t experience the universe as a series of discrete “jumps” from one moment in time to another).

    This 2,000-year-old Buddhist formulation would be roughly equivalent to the state-of-the-art of modern science, combining cosmology and neurology with a pinch of psychology thrown in for good measure. At the moment, however, science is uncomfortable with the idea of quantum consciousness, because it still has pursuing mind-as-an-emergent-property of a sufficiently complex system. It’s curious, however, how we’re fine in seeing universe-as-an-emergent-property of a very simple system made of abstract concepts, but try to step out of the argument of how the mind fits in that model (we can thank — or blame! — Descartes for that).

    Some Buddhist thinkers, however, have also rejected this model of quantum consciousness some 1200-1400 years ago. The trouble is that those “mind quanta”, if they’re intrinsically existent, they cannot aggregate with each other either — which would mean that the notion of consciousness as a continuous “stream” of “mind quanta” would not be possible. Each moment of consciousness would be unique and not related to any other; it would be independent of all others. In effect, we can postulate “mind quanta”, but our experience is that there is a time arrow which defines moments in the past, in the present, and in the (postulated or expected) future. We can observe how one “mind quantum” leads to the next; or, putting it in another way, how they are related. Our “mind” does not get confused at all. It presents us a continuous stream. But if individual mind quanta are totally independent and intrinsically existing, how can they relate to each other? What can provide the “glue” between them? If we find that “glue”, we cannot say that the mind quanta are intrinsically existing, but they’re dependent on the “glue” to bind them… so we create a paradox (which tends to prove that the original assumption — mind quanta as the fundamental building blocks of the universe — is wrong).

    Thus, a certain school of thought got rid both of fundamental particles and of “mind quanta”, and just postulated a different abstraction: interdependence. This is a concept that is as abstract as, say, “information”. It doesn’t require anything material to exist intrinsically, but neither requires anything mental to exist, either. Both co-exist interdependently. Our mind perceives the universe, but the mind cannot exist outside the universe (that wouldn’t make any sense). This also is consistent with the observation of cause and effect: what we do changes the universe, and, similarly, what happens in the universe conditions the way we think about it. The closest analogy we have in physics is the wave/particle duality, where we cannot say that it is either a wave or a particle, nor that they are both simultaneously, nor that they’re neither. Buddhist thinking applies the same principle to the mind and to what we conventionally call the material universe: they’re not different, but they’re not the same, neither are they both things at the same time, or none of them — they are just interdependent, and you can’t have universes without minds observing them, and, vice-versa, you can’t have minds “outside” the universe. Both are defined as depending on each other; neither is fundamentally intrinsic, but have to co-exist interdependently.

    So, is there something fundamentally intrinsic then? The answer is curious and is yes: quantum fluctuations of the vacuum. Again, Buddhists neither use that expression nor mathematical formulas to define the concept, but they observed pretty much the same thing: the vacuum spontaneously creates matter/energy and destroys it all the time, and this is the mechanism from which both the minds and the universe are manifested. Western language tends to fail to grasp this concept, since we equate vacuum with “nothingness”, when in reality — so the quantum physicist tell us — the so-called vacuum is the realm of infinite possibilities that are manifested every quantum of time. There are no limits to what quantum fluctuations of the vacuum are supposed to be able to do; we already have theoretical methods (and some experimental models) to allow us to tap that limitless energy from this spontaneous phenomenon, and just because we don’t have a working prototype for it, it doesn’t mean it’s impossible to create one (just very, very hard).

    However, what Buddhist philosophy also says is that this phenomenon not only “produces” (if that’s the right word; it’s spontaneously manifested, since there is “nobody” directing the vacuum to do this or that…) matter/energy, but mind itself. They don’t see any contradiction; in fact, they’re usually baffled by anyone who tries to present an argument that it can be otherwise (e.g. that mind has a different nature). All these arguments were endlessly debated a millennium ago and sooner or later they will encounter paradoxes which cannot be solved; only the model where mind/matter emerge spontaneously from those quantum fluctuations of the so-called vacuum (the field of infinite possibilities) and are interdependent (neither being fundamental) tends to survive any circular reasoning or artificial dogmatic assumptions. The “field of infinite possibilities” is not possible to be described conceptually — it lies beyond conceptual thought or reasoning. We can just explain it with analogies and metaphors, which are also concepts, and thus will fail to grasp how it works. Nevertheless, it is our mind that gets “trained” to separate mind from matter (arbitrarily) and tag concepts, words, ideas, metaphors, and so forth, to explain these phenomena, but those are not the “mind itself” but just things we create within our mind.

    The fun bit is, of course, that they managed to come to these conclusions without complex maths but just by observing things — observing the universe and observing one’s own mind. And that’s just the trick :)

    So mmmh saying that for Buddhists the physical world is an illusion is a gross oversimplification :) Ultimately we can use the word “illusion” to describe it, if by that we just mean that it has no intrinsic existence, but merely an interdependent one — that’s the meaning of the word “illusion” as employed in Buddhist texts. But most of what we would also consider mind states — thoughts, feelings, sense-of-self, emotions, memory, and so forth — are “illusions” as well, again in the sense that they have no intrinsic existence, but just interdependent ones (e.g. to feel pain, we need something to feel pain with; pain doesn’t have an intrinsic existence, but is dependent on something big and heavy having dropped on our foot, a nervous system to carry the signals to our brains, and a brain that interprets them as the concept of “pain” in our minds, and a mind that tags this concept as hurtful).

    On the other hand, Buddhism is neither nihilistic nor “supernatural” (in the religious sense of the word). Nihilism is utterly rejected by the mere fact that we can see quantum fluctuations in the vacuum spontaneously manifesting everything around us (and inside us!), and that all these “manifestations” are subject to the laws of cause and effect. A nihilistic world-view attributes causation to mere randomness; but that view is not consistent with observation. If I drop a book on my foot, I feel pain — all the time. There is no “randomness” in the consequence of “hurting my foot” after the cause of “dropping a book”; nihilism would have to argue that those two things are not related except by mere chance, but that’s not what we experience — we experience them not only as related (interdependent) but as consequences (cause-and-effect). A wise (and funny) old Buddhist master used to say: “Materialists are idiots, but nihilists are even more idiots” :)

    The notion of a “supernatural” is also baffling to Buddhism, because there is nothing outside the quantum fluctuations of the vacuum. It manifests everything — both what we perceive in our minds, and what we experience outside of them. It makes no sense to say that there are things “outside” the scope of the universe (universe, by definition, is “all things”), e.g. that could have come into existence outside this mechanism of spontaneous manifestation. Thus a lot of Buddhists argue that it’s very hard to classify it as a “religion”, since it totally lacks any supernatural realms, supernatural beings, supernatural powers, or anything that is, well, outside the universe. All serious Buddhist texts will warn the followers to utterly reject any “visions” or “hallucinations” or “experiences” that are merely the product of a self-deluded mind — all sentient beings, beings with their own consciousness and their own mind, are as “natural” as, well, hydrogen :) This doesn’t mean that there aren’t things we cannot perceive (at least in our dualistic mind) — after all, we cannot “see” force fields either, but that doesn’t mean they cannot be proven to exist (even if only mathematically as an abstraction) — but just that these things are not “supernatural” at all. Most of the cases, they are just self-delusions (e.g. “believing” one has seen a supernatural entity that is outside the physical universe is a self-delusion) created by a mind that cannot grasp its true nature and arbitrarily flags it according one’s own usual tendencies (e.g. if we see a pink elephant flying in the air, we either assume we have drunk too much — a reasonable assumption! — or that it is a vision of a supernatural entity; the latter comes from our tendency of attributing any experience which is impossible to describe otherwise to “supernatural” effects. A rational mind will always drop the latter explanation and prefer the first one instead, which passes Occam’s Razor so much better).

    Sorry for the rant, but I think it’s important to understand that the notion of “the universe as an illusion” is hardly a simple one. Contemporary Buddhist masters are great fans of the Matrix movie series, because it shows a lot of Buddhist thought presented to the mainstream in an easy-to-understand way. Of course, Buddhists don’t believe in an “architect” — spontaneous manifestations coming out of the quantum fluctuations of the vacuum are contradictory to the notion of an “architect” or “intelligent designer” — but the Matrix series and similar ones at least postulate similar concepts in a popular way, and even if we reject the notion of the universe-as-a-simulation-run-by-a-supercomputer, at least — hopefully! — it makes us try to rationally answer the question: “why is it not so?”

  2. Hi Extie,

    Remember, that in a CA run on a computer, every cell is updated simultaneously. This would be impossible in the case of the CA running the Universe, because the speed of light imposes limits on how fast information can travel.

    The speed of light should not be an assumption, but a consequence of the CA dynamics, which is assumed to be more fundamental than the observed macrophysics. You say it a few paragraphs below:

    Perhaps the reason why the speed of light is limited in the first place is because photons (just like all other particles) are comparable to gliders, which can only advance one cell per computation.

    Even if all cells are updated simultaneously by the underlying CA dynamics, a life universe still contains a maximum propagation speed (the speed of a glider).

  3. @Gwin I think it’s important to understand that the notion of “the universe as an illusion” is hardly a simple one.

    But a CA universe is not an illusion from the point of view of observers living in it. If our universe is a CA (that is, if the basic laws of physics are due to a underlying CA dynamics), it is still the real universe to us.

    Of course, in this case the fundamental laws of reality would very different from the macroscale physics we have evolved to consider as intuitive, but we already know this from quantum physics. In the preface of his book, Paul Dirac wrote: “fundamental laws do not govern the world as it appears in our mental picture in any direct way, but instead they control a substratum of which we cannot form a mental picture“.

    Even if our reality is a CA computation “run” by sentient beings in another level of reality, our reality is still real to us (even if it is unreal to them).

  4. joe cavanagh says:

    This essay ( and Gwyn’s response) made me think how much Pythagoras would approve of this line of investigation….. that everything is Number/Information. Also makes me wonder what happened between 600 and 500 BC, some kind of platechtonic shift in human consciousness, where new and startling concepts erupted like a new landmass .

    Of course pythagoras was just as famous for his mysticism as his mathematics. His school had some pretty strange ideas…Not to touch a white cock….Do not look in a mirror beside a light….To abstain from beans….Not to pick up what has fallen etc etc.

    We probably have our own wierd beliefs, that influence our world view, but we are too close to them to detect their influence.

    Fascinating speculations !!

  5. Thanks for these posts. They are very well written. This gives me hope that life will keep on evolving, discovering external realities to grow into.
    Jim

  6. Thanks for your kind comment, James. As I am interested in the concept of a ‘technocalypse’ (the convergence of appocalyptic religious prophecies with sci-tech capabilities) you can imagine that I would be most interested in some of your own essays:)

  7. It might also be interesting to explore advaita vedenta on its notion of reality in addition to exploring the Buddhist perspective. In particular, I would point to the works of Krishan Menon http://www.advaita.org.uk/discourses/atmananda/atmananda.htm

  8. Pingback: 2010 in review | Mind Child's musings

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