Wednesday, January 09, 2008

"Consider the source": The idea of the Universe as a virtual reality

From Boing Boing (via Clusterflock) comes this speculative paper (pdf file) on the idea of the universe as comprised of information.

From the abstract:

This paper explores the idea that the universe is a virtual reality created by information processing, and relates this strange idea to the findings of modern physics about the physical world. The virtual reality concept is familiar to us from online worlds, but our world as a virtual reality is usually a subject for science fiction rather than science. Yet logically the world could be an information simulation running on a multi-dimensional space-time screen. Indeed, if the essence of the universe is information, matter, charge, energy and movement could be aspects of information, and the many conservation laws could be a single law of information conservation. If the universe were a virtual reality, its creation at the big bang would no longer be paradoxical, as every virtual system must be booted up. It is suggested that whether the world is an objective reality or a virtual reality is a matter for science to resolve. Modern information science can suggest how core physical properties like space, time, light, matter and movement could derive from information processing. Such an approach could reconcile relativity and quantum theories, with the former being how information processing creates space-time, and the latter how it creates energy and matter.

Just off the cuff, it seems that this intersects in various, interesting ways with this post of mine. But, as I am a bear of very little brain, it'll take a while for me to work it out. One thing I will say, just off the cuff (and based solely on my having so far read only the excerpt above), is that the pondering of this idea has the potential to reframe BOTH evolutionary and Intelligent Design arguments, in that (again, off the cuff) such a theory seems to emphasize that thing which we're all required to do with Information: interpret it.

Or maybe, as with (it seems to this non-scientist) so many proposed scientific models and theories of the cosmos, this is another instance of theory reflecting not "natural" systems but anthropogenic (thanks, Pam) ones.

In any case, some fodder for late-night coffee-shop talk.

EDIT: In rereading this, I find myself wondering a) just how unaware of one's prose style one has to be to use the phrase "off the cuff" three times in the same paragraph yet only be aware that one has done it twice; and b) what an on-the-cuff take on this will look like.


Paul Decelles said...

I am not an information specialist but the structure of the article seems very much the same as much of the writings about intelligent design.

The author starts out by noting a bunch of stuff we (or maybe more to the point) that he can't explain.

Next he poses two hypotheses: the OR hypothesis vs the VR hypothesis. Notice what he says here-the VR hypothesis depends on information processing to exist and this processing occurs outside the universe.

He conflates two ideas here. First that there is something outside the universe needed to explain its origin and a notion that there is something outside the universe that is running the universe.

You instinct reflected in your last paragraph seems quite on target to me.


**sipping his first cup of the day**

R. Sherman said...

What little I, the German literature/law guy, have read about modern physics, shows that while it is impossible to know what is outside of or before the Universe, that doesn't keep the theorists from positing things like "Artificial Time," "multiverses" and the like, none of which can ever be proved or disproved.

Paul is correct that such a theory will/would be seized upon the the ID folks -- particularly those of a Calvinistic/predestination bent.

Now I'll go read the pdf file and realize I'm full of crap, as always.


Pam said...

While I haven't read the pdf (I fear there are too many other things that I have to read tonight), this almost sounds as if it turns the universie into a...machine? All of those core physical properties are great, but what about DNA? It's pretty powerful stuff - perhaps fundamentally the building blocks of information processing - but it's the expression of this information that is unique, and most definitely not mechanical.

But then, I haven't read the pdf so am probably full of crap too.

Doc said...

deus ex machina, indeed!

but in the literal 'god on a machine' interpetation.

in IT just now, virtual is huge. not just virtual worlds where one escapes or reinvents themself: virtual computors.

virtual computors that run virtual worlds.

virtual machines in computing create a layer between an underlying physical computer platform and upperlying software; one can create N number of virtual computers & virtual worlds on one physical device. many of these devices are heuristicly programmed so as to allow intelligent sharing and adjusting of resources among the spinning worlds...

the IT advantages are obvious, the similarities to the base premise of the paper notable. i have yet to read the entire doc [i fear work will interfer for the next few hours] but i can already see how the idea of space being seeded with our rna/dna [core program coded to respond to stimuli] by..whatever would logically fit.

ID folks would grab that. IT folks love it (though certainly not from an ID perspective). ufo-oligists will smile. hell, timothy leary suggested something similar years ago in his S.M.I.L.E. hypothisis...

look forward to reading the actual paper...


John B. said...

Thanks to all of you for commenting.

I finished reading the pdf this morning, and you'll be pleased--and perhaps dismayed--to learn that the paper bears out your respective suppositions.

Its immediate concern is physics; it doesn't address biology and so avoids questions of evolution vs. ID. But it sure as heck raises them by indirection. The paper explicitly rejects an "objective reality" description of the universe on the grounds that widely-accepted theoretical physics nevertheless don't correspond to (or don't make logical sense given) the world we observe and therefore argues in favor of a virtual-reality model whose rules we (apparently) can discern but cannot know the origins of. To my very little bear's brain, then, the paper ends up making what is at base the ID argument. What's weird, though, is that the paper, for whatever reason, doesn't seem interested in addressing the (to me) very real possibility that one could easily use this frame as a way of arguing in favor of ID. It just seems incomprehensible to me that the writers of this article would not see this and in some way address it--even if to say, Yes, this is exactly what we're implying.

The only non-insidious explanation I can come up with is that physicists and biologists just flat don't concern themselves with each other's larger debates. Given the realities of the state of science education generally and the logical assumption that at some basic level the forces governing biological and physical processes can't contradict each other, maybe that conversation, if it's not occurring, needs to.

Paul Decelles said...

I think there is at least some awareness on the part of biologists of the sorts of ideas physicists have about the universe, maybe less so in the other direction. Dawkins for instance is very interested in the multiverse idea and there is a lot of discussion of the anthropic principle.

Part of the lack of conversation may simply be the levels of analysis involved. To a cosmologist for instance, natural selection and biological evolution may seem like a trivial detail-dare I say a nanoscopic (newly coined word-you saw it first here!) detail.

I don't really know why this paper has attracted so much blog interest since the basic idea is not new at all. Perhaps because it mentions sexy terms such as VR and information.

Pam said...

I agree with Paul - I think biologists concern themselves with physics (or attempt to have some awareness of the larger issues) - and like Paul said, perhaps it is a problem of scale. (But this is not always the case, and with kudos to the mighty microbe:

Winston said...

I will start where some others have ended: I am definitely full of crap.

As an Electrical Engineer AND an IT guy, my head is left spinning by the implications of before and outside the universe. My god, can you imagine the size of the power supply needed to run the sucker? And where does it plug in? And where is the ON/OFF switch? And who or what has access to it? The Borg?

Obviously I am having a bit of fun with this since the basic premise and attendant questions speak to my inner theorist. But after many late night college bull sessions trying unsuccessfully to reach my arms around this, I truly believe that all theories of before or outside the universe break down. For us to even discuss or think about such questions, there must be a lowest common denominator assumed, and that is that the universe must be defined as everything, so by definition, outside has no meaning. Same with before.

Having properly demonstrated the severe limitations of my temporal and spatial intellect, or lack thereof, Hawking or one of his followers may well prove me wrong, showing my LCD theory to be the aforementioned crap which I am presumed to be full of.

John raised an even more difficult question. Just what does on the cuff mean...

Paul Decelles said...

Resistance is futile! More seriously your arguement about the power supply is related to what Dawkins terms the ultimate 747 gambit. Dawkins argues that God cannot be simple but necessarily (Dawkins claims) more complex than the Universe. This is because in order to keep track of everything in the universe must require more information than is present in the universe. I don't think Dawkins' arguement is convincing for God but the VR arguement seems as if it would be vulnerable to it.

Now a more important the VR simulation being run on a Mac or a PC?

Winston said...

Most likely a Mac. Haven't seen a BSOD yet. And it seems to be crash free, unless the code is so tight that it includes seamless re-entrancy without gain or loss along the time vector.

This coming from a guy who lives Windows. That's how I eat and pay for shelter and wine. Maybe I know too much about it, but I sure as hell don't want my current VR sim running on a Windows machine. Mac or Linux ... OK. Even a good ol' DOS box. But nothing that reeks of Windows from Billy G and the Redmond Banditos.

Doc said...

et al -

"The paper explicitly rejects an "objective reality" description of the universe on the grounds that widely-accepted theoretical physics nevertheless don't correspond to (or don't make logical sense given) the world we observe and therefore argues in favor of a virtual-reality model whose rules we (apparently) can discern but cannot know the origins of."

certainly - next stop, heuristic quantum computing, because that is what is being described. and the problems are the same...

"My god, can you imagine the size of the power supply needed to run the sucker? And where does it plug in? And where is the ON/OFF switch? And who or what has access to it? The Borg?"

well, doesn't matter - any oversight effects the outcome. lol! you may understand the rules here (having originally 'built' and 'coded' the 'machine') however any interaction with the external world causes the system to decohere which causes the normal invertibility of quantum computational steps to be violated. not good - a qubit coded for duck becomes not duck or mouse or random qubits that don't cohere until several generations pass and feverent IDists arise and people say, 'wtf?'...

so it has to be a closed quantum computing system; molecular computing is basicly parallel computing - indeed, what power source(s)!?

(i can see all the ancient, once and forever gods - issued now passe crays all linked on a simple subnetted extranet- hacking the known universe...)

"The only non-insidious explanation I can come up with is that physicists and biologists just flat don't concern themselves with each other's larger debates."

i can see that, whether it is true in alkl cases or not.

ultimately i don't believe the question to be a closed system - either/or/or both - i tend to believe the universe is a 'living' organism -it IS its own power source - and man is simply one tiny part of it, hence 'outside' or 'prior' or 'god' have no relevance...

eventually we will fly over the flaming hurdles associated with quantum computing and prove it to ourselves.

my take on the entire paper is that the author senses this but has no way of stating it in a fashion acceptable to the scientific/academic community.

too bad.

John B. said...

The cool thing about keeping this blog has been that smart people show up on a consistent basis and say smart things, making me look and feel considerably smarter (if only by association) than I in fact am. This comments thread is a case in point. Thanks to all of you for chiming in and for re-chiming.

Rather than risk spoiling a good thing, then, I'll just stay out of the way for now and redirect your attention to the Clusterflock thread that I had noticed in the first place. A lively discussion is going on there as well.

R. Sherman said...

Winston, I wouldn't worry about your limitations as an engineer. My father was an engineer and told me that if you put a beautiful woman on the other side of the room and told a math major and engineer that they could approach her, but only if they moved half the remaining distance with each step. He said the math major would just sulk because he'd never get to her. The engineer would take off because, "he'd be close enough for all practical purposes."


Anonymous said...

This whole thing seems to be tied in with Frank Tipler. Basically, he says (if a whole heap of conditions are met in the future) we will end up with a computer so powerful it would be to all intents and purposes God and would be able to do two things your standard PC wouldn't: slow down the collapse of the universe (though it would have to be close to the collapse of the universe in order to use the massive amounts of power floating around at that time) and secondly, be able to replicate everyone who had ever lived. Yes, you got it, Heaven. What this essay seems to be plowing the way for is the assertion that such a computer exists and is already running: Matrix/Brain in a Jar territory.

That's my opinion anyway, as uninformed as it is.

John B. said...

Thanks for dropping by and commenting, Anon.

Yes--just as you say. I get what the author of the piece says that this VR space we occupy is Reality for us, that there's nothing fake about it. But to refer to it as VR has a kind of knowing to it--it implies an Outside to this cosmos we inhabit and, because our experience of virtual reality is manufactured and managed by an intelligent agency, well . . .

I think my concerns about all this would be alleviated if the writers had simply kept their description at the level of simile rather than theory: The cosmos is like a VR program, in that its inhabitants won't ever be entirely knowing of some of its mechanisms. In Second Life, for example, the people manipulating the avatars are aware of that world's mechanisms, but the avatars themselves are not yet nevertheless are governed by them. I'd like to think that human beings are more interesting--and interested in our cosmos--than an avatar or, even, the typical Second Lifer is about Second Life . . . but I could be wrong. Some of us spend an inordinate amount of time seeking escape from reality even in Real Life. But: seeing as we inhabit the very system whose mechanics we seek to understand and/or theorize about, it's going to be difficult if not impossible to ever fully understand it, it seems to me.

Anyway. Thanks again for dropping by and commenting.