Ed Fredkin and the universe as a computer

I recently had lunch with Erik Davis, whose riffs and insights on the intersection of technology, mysticism, and high weirdness have always inspired me. We talked about one of my favorite head trips, the idea that we're living in a simulation or control system of some kind. Decades before The Matrix, folks like Jacques Vallee, John Keel, Stephen Wolfram, Rudy Rucker, and Hans Moravec explored this notion. And of course it's also been the subject of countless science fiction novels. Recently, Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom developed a mathematical argument to support the mind-bending theory. But Erik turned me on to Ed Fredkin, a computer scientist whose name I knew but had somehow missed in the context of the Simulation Argument. A pioneer of "digital physics," Fredkin worked with Richard Feynman, made a ton of money in various tech businesses, and is currently a professor at Carnegie Mellon University and MIT. He is also convinced that the universe is a computer. Robert Wright's 1988 book Three Scientists And Their Gods includes a profile of Fredkin. When the book came out, the section on Fredkin was excerpted in The Atlantic. The piece really gives me a sense of the scientist and also does a great job explaining his theories in simple terms. From The Atlantic:
Fredkin works in a twilight zone of modern science–the interface of computer science and physics. Here two concepts that traditionally have ranked among science's most fundamental–matter and energy–keep bumping into a third: information. The exact relationship among the three is a question without a clear answer, a question vague enough, and basic enough, to have inspired a wide variety of opinions. Some scientists have settled for modest and sober answers. Information, they will tell you, is just one of many forms of matter and energy; it is embodied in things like a computer's electrons and a brain's neural firings, things like newsprint and radio waves, and that is that. Others talk in grander terms, suggesting that information deserves full equality with matter and energy, that it should join them in some sort of scientific trinity, that these three things are the main ingredients of reality.

Fredkin goes further still. According to his theory of digital physics, information is more fundamental than matter and energy. He believes that atoms, electrons, and quarks consist ultimately of bits–binary units of information, like those that are the currency of computation in a personal computer or a pocket calculator. And he believes that the behavior of those bits, and thus of the entire universe, is governed by a single programming rule. This rule, Fredkin says, is something fairly simple, something vastly less arcane than the mathematical constructs that conventional physicists use to explain the dynamics of physical reality. Yet through ceaseless repetition–by tirelessly taking information it has just transformed and transforming it further–it has generated pervasive complexity. Fredkin calls this rule, with discernible reverence, "the cause and prime mover of everything."
Did The Universe Just Happen?

UPDATE: Kevin Kelly also points me to his excellent meditation on digital physics and the all stars of the field that appeared in a 2002 issue of Wired. The piece is aptly titled "God Is The Machine."


  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. “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.

  4. 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…

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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….

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

  10. 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.

  11. 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.

  12. 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.

  13. 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

  14. @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?

  15. 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…

  16. “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

  17. 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?

  18. 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…


  19. 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.”

  20. 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.

  21. 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.

  22. 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.

  23. 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.

  24. @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”? ;-)

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

  26. @#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.

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