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Problems of a clockwork universe

Updated on August 9, 2013

In Judaism and Christianity this world is a pale shadow of paradise, Plato created the fable of a cave where men could only see the shadows of reality on a wall, the idea of a multi dimensional universe let to thinking of this world as the equivalent of a line or a point in space.

Somewhat more recent is the idea of World as machine, which Descartes invented ( though he was doubtless not the first), and, powered by the success of Newton's new physics together with the growth of exact sciences such as Chemistry, which steadily eliminated the need for God to act in the universe, had no time for mysteries like consciousness. Indeed one neurophysiologist write an entire book on the brain without mentioning consciousness. When asked he replied he had had no need of that hypothesis.

These two trends converged into the Simulated Universe Theory, the notion we are computer simulations living in a universe that is itself a computer simulation. This makes World a flow of data in a machine created by some unknown beings. This is little more than Intelligent Design with a technological face, Creationism with a computer.

But these notions have together been used, indeed abused, to create much evil. This world is a pale shadow of paradise, the poor and oppressed are told and are promised compensation in the next world. And the strong continue to take from the weak and the smart take from the strong. And the ruthless take from the smart. The pains of this world, it is said are here to allow you to focus on the joys of paradise.

Similarly the idea of World as machine has led to ideas such as the laws of economics, used to justify taking no action against poverty or the various ways in which humans abuse each other. And the notion of the word as machine has some severe problems.

What is a machine

Before dismissing the idea of the mind or the universe as a machine the concept needs a bit of unpacking

A machine is unconscious, it's behaviour is predictable if the starting state and inputs at each step are known, it follows rules. The most important thing seems to me to be that it is unconscious. So any model of the mind as a machine has to explain consciousness, something no one has yet managed.

To a mathematician a machine is an automaton, a structure built, informally, of a set of states, a set of input, a set of outputs, and a set of rules that, given a current state and an input determine what the next state will be ( to mathematicians “no input” is a valid input).

There is a theorem that says an automaton with a finite set of states and no external input will either cycle or stop. It seems to me that if that is the case for the universe then it cannot have any external inputs and will either cycle or it will reach a state where nothing changes. Thus will happen if the universe is not conscious and has a finite number of possible states. Thus if the universe is a finite state machine it can, by definition, have no outside input and will either oscillate or eventually stagnate.

The take away point for this is that machines, as the term is normally understood, are, by definition, not conscious.

World as Machine

Throughout history and perhaps earlier people made mechanical models of the universe they knew. Archimedes was said to have a working Planetarium able to predict the movements of heavenly bodies, , and the Antikythera Mechanism shows the technology needed for one existed. Instructions on how to build one are known from the thirteenth century. From then on mechanical models of the cosmos became more frequent, and as technologies do, they affected the view humans have of the universe and of themselves.

John of Sacrobosco's early 13th-century introduction to astronomy: On the Sphere of the World described the universe as the machina mundi, the world machine, and suggested that the reported eclipse of the Sun at the crucifixion of Jesus was a disturbance of the working of that machine. This model universe was a huge, regulated and uniform machine that operated according to natural laws in absolute time, space, and motion. God, the master-builder, created the perfect machine and let it run. God was the Prime Mover, who brought into being the world in its lawfulness, regularity, and beauty. This view of God as the creator, who stood aside from his work and didn’t get involved directly with humanity, was called Deism (which predates Newton) and was accepted by many who supported the “new philosophy”, the clockwork universe.

The mechanical model of the solar system may have inspired the clockwork universe theory which likens the universe to a mechanical clock that was wound and set in motion then ticked along as a perfect machine, an automaton whose rules for transition between states are the laws of physics. When it was realised that Newton's laws could predict the motions of heavenly bodies this theory became popular with religious people wanting to preserve their faith.

Although the clockwork universe theory was attributed to him Newton opposed it, believing that it reduced the role of God in the universe, and his rival Leibniz supported it.

Like Communism and Free market Economics the Clockwork universe was a beautiful theory. It had only one shortcoming. It did not work. Apart from that it had no place for consciousness. Other objections to it included Free Will (which some scientists still reject), the second law of thermodynamics ( loosely stated as disorder increases whatever you do) and quantum physics which incorporates random behaviour into the basic structure of the universe.

World as computer

Early in the 20th century Turing dreamed up the universal Digital computer, also known as the Turing machine. This was an extremely inefficient thought machine that could compute anything that could be computed. At the same time Gödel was finding the limits to logic. Together they showed that a system based on logical inference could not capture everything and that no computer program could compute everything. The worlds of Science, Mathematics and Computing honoured these results, shook their heads and continued to pretend they did not exist.

Sometime in the 1980s a group of physicists took on board the idea of Physics as Computing. The idea was that everything that happens involves not just a shift of Energy but also a shift of information. It was a short step from this back to the mechanical universe theory with modifications to accommodate quantum theory. However the mental model these physicists adopted is the digital computer and this leads to severe problems with the physicists' goal of explaining everything in terms of the laws of physics.

If the universe is a computer it can presumably be modelled as a formal axiomatic system (FAS): a starting set of axioms ( given facts) and rules for inferring new facts from them. A computer program can similarly be regarded as an automaton in a given starting state that then follows fixed ( if complex) rules. Gödel showed that for any non trivial FAS there are statements about the system that cannot be proved within the system and Turing found limits to what a program can do. In particular he found that there is no program that can check the correctness of an arbitrary program.

Now if the universe is all that exists and is a computer then it is also a realisation of a formal axiom system and there are statements about the universe cannot be determined within any non trivial description of the universe. This means there will always be facts which Physics cannot find from theory, only from experiment. It gets worse. If the universe is a computer exploring all possible statements of a Formal Axiomatic System then there are true facts about the universe that cannot be proved while in the universe. This suggests other universes have to exist.

One reading of Gödel's work is that an axiomatic system cannot be both complete and consistent. This would be acceptable if the universe were conscious and had free will.

Attitudes towards consciousness

Nobody is sure what consciousness is. Some brain researchers, according to the late Stan Gooch, deny it exists, then get misty eyed about making conscious machines: when asked how they would know a computer was conscious they they say the machine will tell them. Larry Dossey cites theoretical physicists who believe consciousness is an irreducible component of the universe, along with space-time and matter. Of course this does not mean the universe is conscious, it may be like a fish tank, not conscious itself but harbouring conscious beings, but it does increase the possibility it is conscious. And this leads to the idea of the Anima Mundi, or Mind World. In the Middle Ages the summit of magical accomplishment was to attune themselves to the Anima Mundi which meant their magic would always work because they only wanted what the universe was going to do anyway. The modern equivalent of this seems to be the Law of Attraction and related theories.

Consciousness, the universe and all that

So far the notion of world as unconscious machine seems to have led to the conclusion that the world is not all there is, as Plato and the simulated universe theorists have suggested. Consciousness has become the joker in the pack and it seems likely that, if consciousness is a fundamental property of the universe then the universe cannot be an automaton: if no conscious itself the conscious beings in it will alter its evolution.

Whenever I write about topics like this I wonder if I am talking bovine excrement. The best I can hope for is that it will stimulate others to investigate these matters more deeply.

I think I have shown there are problems with the idea of the universe as an Automaton, that there may be more than one universe, and that some of these problems may be resolvable if consciousness is part of the fabric of the universe to the extent that the universe is conscious. Perhaps we are, as Hinduism claims, merely dreams in the mind of a sleeping god.

And there is the question: If the universe is not a machine, what it is?

More research is needed

Forty Two

Further reading

Planetaria (Wikipedia)

Orreries (Wikipedia)

ClockWork Universe (Wikipedia)

Total man: Stan Gooch , Holt, Rinehart and Winston (1973) ISBN-10: 0030913837,13: 978-0030913839

Space Time and Medicine: Larry Dossey, Shambhala 1982 ISBN-10: 0394710916, ISBN-13: 978-0394710914


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