Ed Fredkin and the universe as a computer

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44 Responses to “Ed Fredkin and the universe as a computer”

  1. r1ch says:

    1. I can’t do justice to the argument, but I remember reading ‘The Emperor’s New Mind’ by Roger Penrose, a book which makes a convincing case for consciousness being fundamentally non-computational. (Something to do with Gödel’s incompleteness theorems.)

    That idea of which I was convinced seems incompatible with Fredkin’s idea. I’m not qualified to judge, but if this is a subject that interests you, Penrose’s book is worthy of your attention.

    2. I didn’t notice the linked piece was from 1988 until I read, ‘More than ten years ago he founded the Fredkin Prize, a $100,000 award to be given to the creator of the first computer program that can beat a world chess champion.

    “Huh?”, I thought. “What, and indeed the fuck?” Then I read the date.

    3. “I feel like I’m the only person with eyes in a world where everyone’s blind,” he says. I don’t care who you are or how many islands you own, that is breathtaking arrogance.

  2. 2k says:

    The binary samples the analogue?

  3. chris23 says:

    See also Ian McDonald’s excellent novel Brasyl.

  4. Anonymous says:

    I like “The Allegory of the Cave”.

    Here’s a cartoon version of Plato’s positively portentous parable:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d2afuTvUzBQ

  5. musicman says:

    Wasn’t he mentioned in Levy’s Hackers as well? “Father figure to hackers”!

  6. abhik says:

    When mechanical machines were the hot shit, we saw the universe as a well-oiled machine. Now that we’re surrounded by information-processing machines, we view the universe through that perspective. It’s more about our perspective than reality.

    Information, though, is a great abstract concept because it has such a simple definition (Shannon entropy), it’s general enough to apply to many physical processes and it’s inherently relative which seems to fit well with our current understanding of the universe.

  7. Cicada says:

    The map is not the territory…

    Or, there’s a fundamental difference between a precise mathematical description of how the things in the universe work and the universe itself.

  8. nikos says:

    The idea sounds like a phenomenological trap in terms of perspective, ala Husserl. “The thinker thinks the thoughts he thinks he thinks about.”

  9. Anna R says:

    @Anonymous (#35): Yes, I was about to post similar cautionary advice. Furthermore, grasping the universe-as-computer (or existence-as-code) metaphor is merely the first step in a long process of contemplative examination. Things become interesting (and productive) only after navigating the rabbit hole of “How, then, is this ‘thought’ originating, and what, therefore, is its function?”

    The various metaphors (“hypotheses”) alluded to here and elsewhere are fun to toss around casually, but compared to the…well, thousands of years of detailed guidance from those you whom you called “inward lookers,” the works cited here are rudimentary at best, laughable at worst.

    In fact, this group might find G. Spencer Brown’s Laws of Form more useful as a substantive primer for serious manipulation of these concepts. Wolfram’s A New Kind of Science, mentioned in a comment above, is a decent beginning text, too. Nothing can really click, though, until you’re own your own, following and untangling the multitude of mental threads yourself. It may take a decade, it may take a lifetime, it may take forever. But what could “be” a “better” “use” of “your” “time”? ;-)

  10. Anonymous says:

    Jean Baudrillard’s thesis on simulations and simulacra might also be worth some mention.

  11. Anonymous says:

    uhhh, sounds like what people have been calling “mind” for quite awhile now.

    body, mind, spirit – matter, info, energy

    these outward lookers should consult the works of the inward lookers and quit the rote dismissal of all such info as “religion.”

  12. Brian Glanz says:

    A mathematician will tell you “it’s all math,” a theoretical physicist “it’s all physics,” a theoretical chemist, “it’s all chemistry,” and so on.

    For computer scientists to suggest seriously that it may all be a computer is another sure and welcome sign that computer science is a science indeed.

    “Traditional scientists” take note. BG

  13. Anonymous says:

    As well as Greg Egan’s Permutation City. Or just about anything that dude has written.

  14. Anonymous says:

    A computer uses physics and chemistry to do math.

  15. misterfricative says:

    There’s nothing wrong with making shit up. And if you can take this stuff and use it to spark some intelligent, deliciously twisty fiction — like eg Lem, or even the Matrix — then great. Go for it.

    But people, please don’t take this nonsense seriously. It has no explanatory power; it’s not an intelligible model; it’s not a theory; it makes no predictions; and it doesn’t generate a single testable hypothesis.

    As the 20 year old Atlantic article says:

    neither Feynman nor Minsky was ever convinced that the universe is a computer.

    I’m not making an appeal to authority here, but for the record, count me with Feynman and Minsky on this one.

  16. Restless says:

    @Praline: Yep, I loved Who Got Einstein’s Office too (one shelf down from Three Scientists and Their Gods). are you sure you’re not perusing my library?

  17. Anonymous says:

    Another great read in the same vein is Seth Lloyd’s “Programming the Universe”
    It explains the curious similarities between quantum mechanics and information theory and their unison as the quantum computer and how the universe works as one huge quantum computer.

    It’s just mathematical and scientific enough that you feel like you’re actually learning something and not reading a fluffy new-age “tao of physics” book but still written so as to not lose its audience.
    -Jason

  18. Praline says:

    Restless,
    Your thoughts echo mine…. I too have great memories of reading Three Scientists and their Gods, especially the Fredkin bits. It’s a surprise to learn that he is still, um, processing. Another great read from the time was Who Got Einstein’s Office?, by Ed Regis. Both books are top-drawer boffin porn.

  19. Anonymous says:

    I completely agree with Fredkin. The proof of what he says is located at my site. As an alternative to Quantum Theory there is a new theory that describes and explains the mysteries of physical reality. While not disrespecting the value of Quantum Mechanics as a tool to explain the role of quanta in our universe. This theory states that there is also a classical explanation for the paradoxes such as EPR and the Wave-Particle Duality. The Theory is called the Theory of Super Relativity and is located at: http://www.superrelativity.org
    This theory is a philosophical attempt to reconnect the physical universe to realism and deterministic concepts. It explains the mysterious.

  20. Anonymous says:

    I’m glad someone in the comments referenced Douglas Adams (Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy). He should have been mentioned in the original article.

  21. Stefan Jones says:

    It’s true.

    And I’m a gold farmer.

  22. Anonymous says:

    Decades before The Matrix, folks like Jacques Vallee, John Keel, Stephen Wolfram, Rudy Rucker, and Hans Moravec explored this notion.

    And let us not forget Stanislaw Lem, who in a wonderful short story (sorry I don’t have the title) makes a description of a man-made Matrix and turns it into a demonstration of how God, if it exists and has any decency, is bound to remain silent and watch.

  23. Anonymous says:

    This sounds a little (or a lot?) like what Stephen Wolfram discusses in his book/theory: “A new Kind of Science”; the idea that simple “instructions”– like those that power celular automata–can create very complex outcomes, from the stiped patterns in zebras to how some laws of physics behave.

  24. BrainZapper says:

    I loved the Fredkin reference in The Fourth Ambit!

  25. fourstates says:

    Zero realized, and became the first number.

  26. fourstates says:

    Matter, Energy, and the Holy Data.

  27. Anonymous says:

    “Alright,” said Deep Thought. “The Answer to the Great Question…”

    “Yes …!”

    “Of Life, the Universe, and Everything …” said Deep Thought.

    “Yes …!”

    “Is …” said Deep Thought, and paused.

    “Yes …!”

    “Is …”

    “Yes …!!!…?”

    “Forty-two,” said Deep Thought, with infinite majesty and calm.

  28. fourstates says:

    Woops, it’s the other way around really.
    Energy, Matter and the Holy Data.

  29. robulus says:

    It sort of depends on how you define a computer. If your definition extends to any mechanism, including those naturally occurring, that manipulates data, then yep, its all a big computer and you’ve blown my freakin’ mind.

    Of course, you can do the same thing with your definition of God…

  30. El Cucui says:

    “The glory of God is intelligence, or, in other words, light and truth. … Intelligence, or the light of truth, was not created or made, neither indeed can be.” – J.S. Jr., Kirtland, Ohio, May 6, 1833

  31. senorglory says:

    What a great article. Thanks.

  32. rastronomicals says:

    @#9 I don’t understand the distinction you make between the simulation idea and the universe is a computer thing. If I think of myself and my consciousness and the way it would exist within either system, how would there be any difference?

    Clearly, the idea that a simulation might have no author, and had generated up spontaneously is no more or no less radical than the idea that the universe itself had. Or so it seems to me, anyway.

    @ # 10 If the periodic table were truly a binary expression, its units would not be Hydrogen and Helium, but rather Hydrogen and Not-Hydrogen. Maybe that’s the way it is, after all, I don’t know.

    Pretty sure that pointing towards the number 8 as expressed within the periodic table as proof of the binary state of the universe won’t work, though: after all, four of the first ten digits are binary powers.

    Don’t want to be base 10-centric, but if the second shell were going to have some arbitrarily small number of members, and that number were picked from a somewhat larger set of numbers, then you might have a 40% chance of picking a power of 2! Meanwhile the third and fifth shells fill at 18–not a power of 2.

    Further, that powers of two find expression as we look outward or inward does not necessarily invoke a Universal Binary Computer, anymore than the expression of Fibonacci’s numbers in nature invokes some kind of Supreme adding machine.

    @ all – the last physics I had was in high school, but it seems to me that the simulation idea–and it seems, all of digital physics–arises from a frustration with or at least an uncertainty surrounding our interface. If so inclined you might treat such a frustration with salvia or ketamine. Or you might get into digital physics.

  33. Anonymous says:

    Readers may also be interested in Fredkin’s site at http://www.digitalphilosophy.org.

  34. Ito Kagehisa says:

    Pesco, check out Konrad Zuse, Rechnender Raum, seminal work on this theme.

    http://www.idsia.ch/~juergen/digitalphysics.html
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Calculating_Space

  35. Axx says:

    Interesting article, but with, perhaps, some sloppy thinking. The idea of describing reality with cellular automata is a cool, and possibly world-changing idea…but the idea that many scientists believe in some kind of “mysticism” is simply not (100%) true.

    Instead, they base their beliefs on measurements: “I don’t understand these measurements, but they indicate truth.” Making a claim such that “reality exists in non-detectable quanta of information” is by definition not testable. Is it correct? Maybe. It may also be correct that a giant spaghetti monster lords over our universe. Who knows? But it is not *testable* and therefore it can not be science. If Fredkin’s idea is able to make testable predictions…well, then…bring it on! Like most other scientists, I am pretty damn interested in knowing the nature of reality.

  36. Anonymous says:

    This is all very inspiring and everything. Do any of these theories actually predict anything that’s testable, or simplify our current understanding of physics?

  37. MrScience says:

    It’s all a giant computer, and Plank’s Time is the clock tick! :)

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Planck_time

  38. MrScience says:

    Doh! /plank/planck/

  39. mikemystery says:

    I wonder if Mr Davis owes a bit of a debt to that other great unsung hero of technology, mysticism, and high weirdness: the mighty Ramsey Dukes?

    He argues, very entertainingly, that odds are we’re living in a simulation. And as far as i can tell, did it pretty much before anyone else.

    Check out Words made flesh, publised in ’87, but based on much earlier thinking when he was studying mathematics in the 60′s…

    http://www.amazon.co.uk/Words-Made-Flesh-Virtual-Humanity/dp/0904311112

  40. Restless says:

    I have that book and read it many years ago; I loved the bit on Fredkin. I had no idea he was still active, or even alive.

    Great, now I know where the rest of my workday is going…

  41. monstrinho_do_biscoito says:

    quarks and electrons are the binary bits, atoms are the pixels of our universe

  42. bunedoggle says:

    Hmmm, as soon as I hear the words “First mover” I think of Thomas Aquinas and his whole scientific proof of a god.

    Is Fredkin trying to prove the existance of a digital god?

    I agree that there is probably a very simple rule, or several simple rules, that could explain everything. I also agree that information plays a key role in existence and reality.

    I’m not buying the argument that “atoms, electrons, and quarks consist ultimately of bits” That doesn’t even make sense.

  43. Anonymous says:

    You are mixing things up, saying the universe is a computer is not the same as saying we are living in a simulation.

    The universe as a computer is the idea, described in the article, that the universe is controlled by simple programming rules – it’s just another form of physics, and doesn’t require a God or a higher intelligence.

    The we are living in a simulation argument proposes that a higher intelligence is running a simulation of the universe that we are part of, we only exist within this simulation.

    The simulation idea has been around for *centuries*, since at least Descartes “Evil Demon Argument”, the evil demon playing the role of the computer simulation.

  44. Dirac says:


    Look at the periodic table of elements
    Top row, two elements. A bit has two values.

    All other rows = 8 (2^3) elements, element properties are similar for each element of the column.
    Why 8? Why not 7, 9, or a different number for each row?

    Sure looks like something binary is happening “under”neath.

    I keed, I keed….

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