Is God The Ultimate Computer? Digital Physics Says Yes
by Alex Vikoulov
IN THE BEGINNING WAS THE CODE…W hen molecular biologists talk about genetic code or sociologists talk about cultural memes as epigenetic information, it’s by far more intuitive than when physicists say that what we perceive as solid matter, energy, and even space-time continuum itself is information as well. Morse code, a streaming movie on-demand, or pixels on your smartphone’s screen could be easily understood as information, on the other hand, If you catch cold or fall in love with someone, it doesn’t seem to have anything to do with information. But contrary to popular belief, that’s the theory many physicists are now formulating.
The weirdness of matter at the quantum level is not something new. Once scientists examined matter below the level of atoms, they knew the world was kind of ethereal, incorporeal, more mathematical abstraction than the real tangible substance. What could be less substantial than a realm made of waves of quantum probabilities? And what could be weirder than instant communication between entangled particles over the vast distances? The new branch of physics, Digital Physics, implies that those strange and insubstantial quantum wavicles and their interactions, along with everything else in the Universe, are made of nothing but 0s and 1s. The physical world itself is digital.
Video Credit: Discovery Science News – Information Enigma
TO BE OR NOT TO BE…
The father of Information Theory, Claude Shannon, introduced the notion that information could be quantifiable. In “A Mathematical Theory of Communication,” his legendary paper from 1948, Shannon proposed that data should be measured in bits — discrete values of 0 or 1. Shannon was one of those people who so change the world that transformation becomes nothing less than a seismic paradigm shift. Almost overnight, information was to be found everywhere, the bit became a sensation: scientists tried to measure birdsong with bits, and human speech, and nerve impulses.
As we have wrestled with the question over the years, we have slowly begun to realize that information is more than a symbolic abstraction, the intangible concept embodying anything that can be expressed in strings of 1s and 0s. Information is a real, physical thing that seems to play a part in everything from how machines work to how living creatures function and evolve. We can see now that information is what our world really runs on, it’s the vital principle from which everything springs into existence. Genes encode and decode bio-logical information, instructions for building and functioning of a living entity. Organisms are adaptive algorithms. Life spreads by networking. The human body itself is an algorithmic information processor. Our memories reside not just in brains but in every cell. And our “non-local” memories extend far beyond our body into the Universe at large, according to the Extended Mind Hypothesis. Our DNA is the quintessential information molecule, the most advanced signal processor at the cellular level — an alphabet and a code — 6 billion bits to form a human genome. Also, each of us is a community of about 100 trillions of hyperconnected sentient “individuals”, bacteria and other microorganisms, collectively called a “microbiome”, and about 37 trillion human cells, of which 86 billion are brain’s cells (neurons). Our brains’ highly sophisticated neural network that scientists try to map and decipher is called a “connectome”. All these multi-layered networks make up an informationally integrated, living and breathing, self-aware human organism.
No wonder genetics advance so fast along with information technology. “What lies at the heart of every Iiving thing is not a fire, not warm breath, not a ‘spark of life,’ ” claims the evolutionary theorist Richard Dawkins. “It is information, words, instructions… If you want to understand life, don’t think about vibrant, throbbing gels and oozes, think about information technology.” The cells of an organism are nodes in a richly interwoven communications network, transmitting and receving, coding and decoding. Evolution itself embodies an ongoing exchange of information between an organism and its environment. The purpose of life, it seems, is to evolve and to pass on the acquired complexity, knowledge (i.e information) to descendants. From the very first prokaryote cell on this planet, its splitting in two, and on to the more complicated life forms, the purpose of life has always been to pass on information. That’s why we say: “She inherited good genes”, and in cultural terms, in reference to transmittable information, we occasionally say “He will live forever in his literary work”.
“The information circle becomes the unit of life,” argues Werner Loewenstein after thirty years spent studying intercellular communication. “It connotes a cosmic principle of organization and order, and it provides an exact measure of that.” The gene has its cultural counterpart, too: the meme. In “social genetics”, a meme is a replicator and propagator — an idea, a fad, a neologism, a viral video. Today, economics recognizes itself as an information science too, now that money itself is completing a developmental transition from matter to bits, stored on computers and magnetic strips, circulating through the veins of the global financial system. A new kid of the block, cryptocurrency, such as Bitcoin, is a new digital breed.
In physics, the hardest of all sciences, information refers generally to that which is contained within a physical system. Its usage in Quantum Mechanics (i.e. quantum information) is important, for example in the concept of quantum entanglement to describe effectively direct or causal relationships between apparently distinct or spatially separated particles. Information itself may be loosely defined as “that which can distinguish one thing from another, distinction between things”. The information embodied by a thing can thus be said to be the identity of the particular thing itself, that is, all of its properties, all that makes it distinct from other (real or potential) things.
In 1989, one of the most brilliant physicists of the 20th century John Archibald Wheeler coined the phrase “it from bit” to encapsulate a radical new view of the Universe: at the most fundamental level, all of physics has a description that can be articulated in terms of information. Wheeler elaborated in his manifesto: “Every it — every particle, every field of force, even the space-time continuum itself — derives its function, its meaning, its very existence entirely from binary choices, bits. What we call reality arises in the last analysis from the posing of yes/no questions.” Back then, this new worldview received little support, but now in retrospect, we can see that it was truly visionary.
Wheeler divided his own life into three parts. The first part he called “Everything is Particles.” The second part was “Everything is Fields.” And the third part, which Wheeler considered the bedrock of his physical theory, he called “Everything is Information.” While Wheeler emphasized bits at his time, it appears that intrinsically quantum-mechanical forms of information – now known as “qubits” – are more fundamental. In recent years, a growing number of theorists have been exploring whether these strange quanta of information may hold the key to combining Quantum Mechanics and General Relativity into Quantum Gravity theory.
Video Credit: World Science Festival – Is the Universe Analog or Digital?
LET THERE BE LIGHT…
When photons, electrons and other particles interact, what are they really doing? Exchanging bits, transmitting signals, processing information. The laws of physics are a “rule set” of our Universe, a set of “fine-tuned” master algorithms, if you will. If all of this seems like a simulation of physics to you, then you got it down pat, because in a world made up of bits and qubits, physics is exactly the same as a simulation of physics. There’s no difference in kind, just in degree of resolution. Remember the movie The Matrix? Those simulations are so high resolution and self-consistent, you can’t tell if you’re in one, but then again, if you were born in a simulated reality, what any other frame of reference would you have to distinguish it from the “real”? According to Digital Physics, any universe run on qubits is virtual, and everything is a simulation. It’s as real as it gets.
An ultimate whole-world simulation needs an ultimate computer, and Digital Philosophy says that the Universe itself is the ultimate computer — in fact, the only computer. Furthermore, all the computations of the human world, including our brains, our laptops, our first quantum computers are mere simulacrums of the greater computer. Each of us is a computational microcosm, and our minds are active participants in the cosmic evolution. As Wheeler once said: “We are participators in bringing into being not only the near and here but the far away and long ago. We are in this sense, participators in bringing about something of the Universe in the distant past and if we have one explanation for what’s happening in the distant past why should we need more?”
You are the You-niverse, literally, as suggested by the title of the latest book by the spiritual guru Deepak Chopra and physicist Menas Kafatos. You are computing your own subjective [virtual] reality every second of your waking conscious state. But what about our dreams? Our astral travels are data streaming, too. As Robert Lanza, the author of The Biocentric Universe, eloquently puts it “For each life there is a universe, its own universe. We generate spheres of reality, individual bubbles of existence.” Combining the esoteric postulates of Quantum Mechanics with the latest theories in computer science and quantum cognition, digital thinkers are now outlining a way of understanding all of physics in the lingo of information. Today, physicists slowly but surely come to realization that Quantum Theory, the most successful theory of all times, is actually not the theory of subatomic particles but that of [quantum] information.
“Mathematics is the language of Nature,” proclaimed Galileo Galilei. But could math be the Code of God? The computational nature of Universe almost reveals the creator’s hand, and evolution itself looks more like an ongoing theological process. Strip away all externalities, all physicalities, what it all boils down to is the selection between Yes or No, fundamental binary code of 0 and 1, the core state of existence: To be/Not to be, Here/Not here, Universe/No universe. All creation, from this perspective, is made from this irreducible foundation. Echoing Galileo’s words, astrophysicist Max Tegmark of MIT writes in his recent book “Our Mathematical Universe”: “In a very well defined sense, our entire physical reality is a purely mathematical object.”
Every blooming tree, every burning star, a tiny bacterium, each fleeting thought in our mind, each gurgling waterfall is but information processed in certain complex ways within a tangled web of primal yes/nos woven together. If the theory of Digital Physics holds up, energy, gravity, motion, dark energy, dark matter, and antimatter can all be explained by complex programs of 0/1 decisions. Bits can be seen as a digital version of the “atoms” of classical Greece: the smallest constituent of existence. But these new digital atoms are the basis not only of matter, as the Greeks thought, but of energy, motion, life, and mind. Charles Babbage, credited with constructing the first calculating machine in 1832, viewed the world as one giant instantiation of some kind of universal computer operating on logic of God where miracles were done by altering (in today’s jargon, “hacking”) the rules of computation.
Pancomputationalism, the notion that the Universe is a computational machine, or rather a network of computational processes which, following fundamental physical laws, computes its own destiny from the current state, rests on two basic premises. The first is that computation can describe everything. Computer scientists and quantum theorists have been able to compress every logical argument, scientific equation, and printed book that we know about into the basic notation of computation. Nowadays, with the advent of digitalization, we can capture video, music, art and knowledge in the digital format. Even emotion is not insulated. AI researchers are working on AI emotional intelligence with indications it might be achieved in just few more years.
The second supposition is that all things can compute. Oddly enough, any kind of material can serve as a computer. Human brains, which are mostly water, compute fairly well, at estimated 10^16 ops per second (The first “calculators” were clerks using mathematical tables). Recently, scientists have used both quantum particles and fragments of DNA to perform computations. Finally, the third postulate ties the first two together into a holistic new view: all computation is one. Computation, which manipulates elemental bits, is a substrate-independent algorithmic information processing that uses a small amount of energy to rearrange symbols and results in a signal that makes a difference. The one that can be felt, say as a love sentiment. The input of computation is information; the output is order, structure, extropy, mind.
Video Credit: Quantum Gravity Research – What Is Reality?
ALL IS ONE, ONE IS ALL…
In 1937, Alan Turing, Alonso Church, and Emil Post worked out the logical underpinnings of useful computers. They called the most basic loop — which has become the foundation of all working computers — a finite-state machine. Based on their analysis of the finite-state machine, Turing and Church proved a theorem now bearing their names. Their thesis states that any computation executed by one finite-state machine, writing on an infinite tape (dubbed later as a Turing machine), can be done by any other finite-state machine on an infinite tape, regardless of its configuration. In other words, all computation is equivalent. They called that Universal Computation.
In the 1950s, when John von Neumann and others constructed the first electronic computers, they immediately began extending the laws of computation away from pure math and into the natural world. They tentatively applied the laws of feedback loops and cybernetics to ecology, culture, families, weather, and biological systems. Evolution and learning, they declared, were types of computation. Everything in Nature computed.
If Nature computed, why not our entire Universe? The first to pen the outrageous idea of a universe-wide computer was science fiction writer Isaac Asimov. In his 1956 short story “The Last Question,” humans create a superintelligent computer endowed with what we now call recursive self-improvement. Generations of increasingly smarter analytical engines evolve until they act as a single giant computer encompassing the whole universe. At each of six epochs of development, humans ask the mighty machine, called Multivac, if it knows how to reverse entropy to avert the heat death of the universe. Each time it answers: “Insufficient data for a meaningful reply.” The story ends when human minds merge into the ultimate computer mind, which takes over the entire cosmos. Then the universal computer figures out how to reverse entropy and create a new universe, declaring: “Let there be light!”
Few ideas were so absurd that no one at all took them seriously, and this idea — that God, or at least the Universe, might be the ultimate cosmic-scale computer — was actually less absurd than most. The first scientist to consider it was Konrad Zuse, a little-known German who conceived of programmable digital computers 10 years before von Neumann. In 1967, Zuse outlined his idea that the Universe ran on a grid of cellular automata, or CA. Simultaneously, Edward Fredkin, the forefather of Digital Physics, was considering the same idea, but didn’t make much progress until 1970, when mathematician John Conway unveiled the Game of Life, a particularly robust version of cellular automata. The Game of Life, as its name suggests, was a simple computational model that mimicked the growth and evolution of living things.
Fredkin began to play with other CAs to see if they could mimic physics. You needed very large ones, but they seemed to scale up nicely, so he was soon fantasizing huge — really huge — CAs that would extend to include everything. Maybe the Universe itself was nothing but a great CA. The more Fredkin investigated the metaphor, the more real it looked to him. By the mid-’80s, he was saying things like, “I’ve come to the conclusion that the most concrete thing in the world is information.” Fredkin maintained that the Universe is a large field of cellular automata, not even an imitation, and that everything we see and feel is information. Information equals reality.
Many others besides Fredkin recognized the beauty of CAs as a model for investigating the physical world. One of the early explorers was the prodigy Stephen Wolfram. By manipulating CAs, Wolfram was able to generate patterns identical to those seen in seashells, animal skins, leaves, and sea creatures. His simple algorithmic rules could generate a wildly complicated beauty, just as life could. Wolfram was working from the same inspiration that Fredkin did: The Universe seems to behave like a vast cellular automaton. After years of exploring the notion of Universal Computation, Wolfram finished his 1,200-page magnum opus he modestly called A New Kind of Science where he described the world as a gigantic universal computer. Published in 2002, the book reinterprets nearly every field of science in terms of computation and argues that simple computer programs, like those that generate cellular automata, can model the world more effectively than traditional mathematical methods. He reminds us: “All processes, whether they are produced by human effort or occur spontaneously in nature, can be viewed as computation.”
Wolfram’s key contribution though, is built on the old Turing-Church hypothesis: All finite-state machines are equivalent. In other words, one computer can do anything another can do. This is why your Mac can, with proper software, pretend to be a PC or, with sufficient memory, a slow supercomputer. Wolfram demonstrates that the outputs of this Universal Computation are also computationally equivalent. What Turing and Church called Universal Computation, Wolfram named the Principle of Computational Equivalence: “…systems found in the natural world can perform computations up to a maximal (“universal”) level of computational power, and that most systems do in fact attain this maximal level of computational power. Consequently, most systems are computationally equivalent. For example, the workings of the human brain or the evolution of weather systems can, in principle, compute the same things as a computer. Computation is therefore simply a question of translating inputs and outputs from one system to another.” Your brain and the physics of a waterfall are equivalent, Wolfram says, for your mind to compute a thought and the Universe to compute water particles falling, both require the same universal process.
As Quantum Theory shows, even the infinitesimal and bizarre quantum domain is subject to the universality of binary logic. We describe a quantum-level particle’s existence as a continuous field of probabilities, which seems to blur the sharp distinction of is/isn’t. Yet this uncertainty resolves as soon as information makes a difference (as in, as soon as it’s measured). At that moment, all other possibilities collapse to leave only the single yes/no state. Indeed, the very term “quantum” suggests an indefinite realm constantly resolving into digital, or discrete increments, precise yes/no states.
Video Credit: Fair Wind Films – The Simulation Hypothesis
QUEST FOR THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING…
“The Universe can be regarded as a giant quantum computer,” says a self-described “quantum mechanic” Seth Lloyd of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “If one looks at the ‘guts’ of the Universe – the structure of matter at its smallest scale – then those guts consist of nothing more than [quantum] bits undergoing local, digital operations.” If the Universe was a computer, how powerful would it be? By analyzing the computing potential of quantum particles, Seth Lloyd calculated how much computing power the known universe has contained since the Big Bang. It’s a large number: 10^120 logical operations, which essentially represents information capacity of the ultimate computer. “The amount of information you could process if you were to use all the energy and matter of the Universe is 10^90 bits and the number of elementary operations that it can have performed since the Big Bang is about 10^120 ops. Perhaps the Universe is itself a computer and what it’s doing is performing a computation. If so, that’s why the Universe is so complex and these numbers say how big that computation is.” Lloyd adds then his tongue-in-cheek remark: “Also, that means Douglas Adams was right (the answer is “42″).”
A computational universe was also proposed by Jürgen Schmidhuber in a paper based on Konrad Zuse’s assumption that the history of the Universe is computable. He pointed out that the most parsimonious explanation of the Universe (or rather the Omniverse: Quantum Multiverse + Inflationary Multiverse) would be a Turing machine programmed to execute all possible programs computing all possible histories for all types of computable physical laws. In other words, this ultimate machine would compute all of the parallel universes resulting from chance and choice for each of those universes, all of the possible expressions of matter and energy which may potentially exist within the underlying quantum fabric of reality. He also pointed out that there is an optimally efficient way of computing all computable universes based on Leonid Levin’s Universal Search Algorithm (1973). In 2000, he expanded this work by combining Ray Solomonoff’s Theory of Inductive Inference with the assumption that quickly computable universes are more likely than others.
The pleiad of early contributors to Digital Philosophy includes Oxford theoretical physicist David Deutsch, who came up with Constructor Theory combining epistemology, physics, evolutionary theory, and quantum computing. He is also known for Church-Turing-Deutch Principle, as he himself puts it : “I can now state the physical version of the Church–Turing principle: ‘Every finitely realizable physical system can be perfectly simulated by a universal model computing machine operating by finite means.’ This formulation is both better defined and more physical than Turing’s own way of expressing it.”
If, as Fredkin, Wolfram, Schmidhuber, Lloyd and Deutsch suggest, all movement, all interactions, all functions, all states, all we see, hear, measure, and feel are various elaborate information-theoretic fractals created out of this single ubiquitous computational process, then the foundations of our knowledge are overdue for a paradigmatic revisioning. Mathematically rigorous, computational models are for grabs by savvy theorists to further hone our notions of physics (Digital Physics), evolution (digital evolution and life), Big Bang (digital Big Bang), quantum mechanics, and computation itself. Cognitive scientists are to formulate a unified computational theory of mind.
If you have (or you are) a universe-sized computer, you could run all kinds of recursive worlds and parallel universes, you could, for instance, simulate an entire galaxy. If smaller worlds have smaller virtual worlds running within them, however, there has to be a platform that runs the first among them. If our Universe is a computer, where is it running? Fredkin says that all this work happens on the “Other.” The Other, he says, could be another universe, another dimension, another something beyond our conventional space-time. David Deutsch has a different theory. “The universality of computation is the most profound thing in the Universe,” he says. Since computation is absolutely independent of the “hardware” it runs on, studying it can tell us nothing about the nature or existence of that platform. Deutsch concludes it probably does not exist: “The Universe is not a program running somewhere else. It is a universal computer, and there is nothing outside of it.” Further in the essay (part II), I’ll share my own view on the holoinfractal structure of the Omniverse.
Nearly every digital philosopher foresees our human-machine civilization universally expanding and merging with the natural universal computer into a singular networked mind. This is in part because they see nothing to stop the rapid expansion of computation, and in part because wouldn’t the endgame of evolution be God itself? “In the end, the whole of space and its contents will be the computer. The Universe will in the end consist, literally, of intelligent thought processes,” David Deutsch contends in Fabric of Reality. These assertions echo those of the physicist Freeman Dyson, who also sees minds — amplified by computers — expanding into the cosmos “infinite in all directions.” If you asked me, however, I’d say It has already happened and we now live through our own replay.
What comes next? The developments of the 21st century Digital Physics start to undercut or complement String Theory as our currently most successful attempt for the Theory of Everything. For more than a century ever since the discovery of Quantum Mechanics, the physicists have been on a mission to unify Quantum Theory with General Relativity into what’s supposed to become the theory of Quantum Gravity. Any such theory [of Everything] with its traditionally objective approach will be cast to describe only a subset of reality, if it doesn’t incorporate subjectivity, or data-driven conscious interpretation of the world, which Digital Physics has much less difficulty explaining.
That’s why the Unified Field Theory developed by Dr.John Hagelin of Harvard University and others, and Emergence Theory developed by Quantum Gravity Research, marrying principles of String Theory, Loop Quantum Gravity with Digital Physics, gain more traction of late. The leading theories of consciousness, such as the Interface Theory of Perception by neuroscientist Donald Hoffman, the Integrated Information Theory by neuroscientist Guilio Tononi, Penrose-Hameroff ORCH-OR model, all aim to become foundations for the unified computational theory of mind. Deep within the equations of supersymmetry of String Theory, physicist James Gates found what is essentially “error-correcting computer code”. The concept of Omega Point developed into a scientific theory by physicist Frank Tipler of Tulane University and favored in his theoretical work on Holographic Time by Andy Strominger of Harvard, the Holographic Principle by physicists Gerard ‘t Hooft and Leonard Susskind, the concept of Entropic Gravity by physicist Erik Verlinde, converge on the notion that the physical Universe is made of information, of which energy, matter and even space-time are merely manifestations to us as conscious observers (from within the divine matrix).
This concludes the first part of my essay “Is God the ultimate computer?” The second part will delve further into the realm of digitalism, where we’ll seek answers to the questions like: Is God the Ultimate Software and Source Code, or is God the Ultimate Programmer? Or is God the necessary “Other“, the off-universe hardware platform where our Universe is computed? What is our role in the Grand Scheme of Things? Are we part of Nick Bostrom’s “Ancestor Simulation” or Brian Whitworth’s “Multi-player Virtual Reality”? Or are we thoughts and experiences in the mind of God?
Each of these possibilities has at its root the mathematically rigorous doctrine of Universal Computation. Somehow, according to Digital Philosophy, we are linked to one another, because we share, as John Wheeler said, “at the bottom — at a very deep bottom, in most instances — an immaterial source.” This spiritual commonality has a scientific name: information. Bits — disembodied logical atoms, intangible in essence — amass into gluons and electromagnetic waves, our thinking and emotions. The computation of these bits is the optimal way for our Universe to self-organize and generate patterns of increasing complexity. It’s a precise, definable, yet invisible process that is immaterial yet produces matter through the act of conscious observation.
Video: Inspiring Philosophy – Digital Physics Rrgument for God’s Existence
Materialistically inclined rationalists, should they still cling to naive realism of the 20th century, may consider a somewhat logical transition to view their “physical” universe built of atoms and particles but a small subset of the infinetely larger reality made of ideas, concepts, words, stories, relational descriptions, dimensions, patterns, numbers, instructions, fractals, space-time geometry, mathematical formulas, algorithms, codes and probabilities, i.e quanta of information, and what makes sense of it all – CONSCIOUSNESS.
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