Cellular Automata, Physics, and Aquinas

Via BoingBoing comes a pointer to an article on Ed Fredkin in the April 1988 issue of The Atlantic. Fredkin’s argument, in a nutshell: If physics can be described as a cellular automaton (with a rule that turns into the first mover), then the univ…

Via BoingBoing comes a pointer to an article on Ed Fredkin in the April 1988 issue of The Atlantic.

Fredkin’s argument, in a nutshell: If physics can be described as a cellular automaton (with a rule that turns into the first mover), then the universe might very well just be that guy running a simulation somewhere, to answer a question about a cellular automaton that he can’t answer, except by running the machine.

But what does “might be” mean here? Is the universe a cellular automaton running on a computer or can it just be described as one? That’s where the article’s author, Robert Wright, gets uncomfortable.

Around sundown on Fredkin’s island all kinds of insects start chirping or buzzing or whirring. Meanwhile, the wind chimes hanging just outside the back door are tinkling with methodical randomness. All this music is eerie and vaguely mystical. And so, increasingly, is the conversation. It is one of those moments when the context you’ve constructed falls apart, and gives way to a new, considerably stranger one. The old context in this case was that Fredkin is an iconoclastic thinker who believes that space and time are discrete, that the laws of the universe are algorithmic, and that the universe works according to the same principles as a computer (he uses this very phrasing in his most circumspect moments). The new context is that Fredkin believes that the universe is very literally a computer and that it is being used by someone, or something, to solve a problem. It sounds like a good-news/bad-news joke: the good news is that our lives have purpose; the bad news is that their purpose is to help some remote hacker estimate pi to nine jillion decimal places.

Parting thought: Does it even matter, to someone who can be described as a pattern in that cellular automaton?

2 thoughts on “Cellular Automata, Physics, and Aquinas”

  1. Reminds me of Douglas Adams (The Earth?). Sounds like one of those unfalsifiable hypotheses a la FSM (LMGTFY).

  2. Yes, precisely. That’s why I think the author’s discomfort is mildly silly — unless I’m missing some really fascinating philosophical point here, it just doesn’t matter. 🙂

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