Or, A Carefree Ramble in the Philosophical Undergrowth.
What follows is an idea I had regarding a feasible model of the universe that does not require god, nor a big bang of any kind or anything extra other than a small group of seemingly reasonable assumptions. Let's approach those first:
(1) Everything that we consider to 'exist' can be defined in entirety using numbers and mathematics. We may never be able to know those numbers, but we can say that those numbers exist. For example, there are a definite number of photons. There are mathematical functions dictating where those photons are at a given time.
(2) Further to the above assumption, I am assuming that there is nothing that we consider to exist that cannot be defined by those numbers. Even if there is such a thing as a God, external to what we call our universe, if God does not change things herein then he/she/it is irrelevant to the following, and if he/she/it does reach in and tweak our reality from time to time, I propose that the numbers simply extend up further to encompass God and God's reality.
The above two assumptions seem very big and far away, but the following should help to bring this a bit closer to something we can accept:
(3) From the perspective of a conscious observer it makes no difference if the universe is a vast complex of dimensions and interactions scaling from the quantum to the cosmological or if the universe is a fully immersive virtual reality simulation whose content is artificially consistent with the former.
To support the above, I'd like to parry the principle attack that a non-believer in the technology might propose, specifically that no virtual reality simulation could ever be convincing enough to prevent the enclosed subject seeing through the lie and rejecting the reality presented to them. My defense goes thus:
(4) If a person were, immediately following birth, hooked up to current commercially available immersive virtual reality and life-support technology in the form of virtual reality stereo goggles and headphones and force feedback suit, an oxygen pipe and nutrient lines and immersed in a dark tank full of fluid suspended in the middle somehow (via electromagnetism or controlled currents for example), and supplied with a modern 3d environment, such as one of the online massively multiplayer worlds (eg Second Life, There, World of Warcraft) with the other human 'players' being scientists in on the experiment, the subject would grow up believing in the veracity of their environment. The basic counter argument to this might be that 'they would instinctively know' it wasn't 'real', but I would cite examples of feral children - kids left in a room and ignored save for supply of food, or very young kids lost in the wild and raised by animals (it has happened) - who generally behave completely animalistically and show no signs of instinctive civility or human social behaviour. We are how we are because we were brought up that way, and I believe the same goes for our belief in 'reality' - we simply believe what stimulus we're given until such time as we develop skills of reasoning that might bring us to question it.
Let me go further with my assumption though. Science generally accepts (i) that the body is the ultimate boundary for a human being - there is no part of me that is not contained in my skin. On the other hand, two alternative attitudes are (ii) that the body is a vessel through which some form of divinity is channeled, or (iii) that the interaction of a person with their environment is also a part of who they are, and that without an environment, an isolated human is a much lesser creature. Position (i), which I'll call the 'scientific' angle plays nicely into my assumptions, suggesting that one could remove from the body anything whose function is purely life-sustaining leaving only that which supports the conscious mind. The infrastructure of the mind could be boiled down to a bunch of data relating to the various sub-structures and their various electrical, chemical and perhaps quantum interactions. There may be various other kinds of important interactions at levels we haven't yet encountered, but fundamentally, the mind could be reduced to data, from which it could perhaps be reconstructed. The 'spiritual' (ii) approach and the 'holistic' (iii) approach are still reducible in the same way, just requiring larger amounts of stuff from which to harvest the numbers. If it takes an entire planet of people to define all their interconnected minds, then you have to sequence the planet. If the state of the solar system, the galaxy, or all the matter in the original, now-unobservable universe is important too (bearing in mind that at this scale we're relying on as yet undiscovered levels of reality more fundamental than quantum mechanics in order to allow for things beyond the FTL boundary to interact with one another) then so be it, sequence the whole damn universe. If the mind is a divine radio antenna channeling the jive of Jesus, then that means we gotta sequence J as well, and whatever it is that drives him/it/etc.
The only real argument remaining against this approach is that there can be some divine force that is literally unmathematical, illogical and thus beyond definition and measurement. And even though this sounds like a giant cop out, doesn't mean it's not a valid argument. We can't conceive of anything that can't be explained rationally, but that doesn't mean that it can't exist. There is no argument that says that logic is the ultimate truth, because any such argument would at best be logical, and as such would rely upon itself. Which would make it logically unsound. So we have to allow the die-hard fans of divinity some space. They're not right, because 'right' in any meaningful sense implies logical truth, but they're not wrong, because we can't pin anything logical against them. We just have to say that their angle is not rational and leave it there. But we can carry on.
So whatever we believe, if we believe that the universe's behaviour can be described by solid rules, that there isn't some magical non-science behind it all, then there must be some form of mathematical definition for an aware mind. It may be beyond what it's possible to 'use' in any meaningful way, but that doesn't matter for this little scheme. Provided we can agree that a mind can be reduced to numbers, then we can carry on.
The next issue is time. Time is a real sticking point when it comes to exploring consciousness in this way, because while it may be perhaps possible to reduce awareness down to a bunch of numbers, how do we explain the perception of the passage of time? Time is very real to us, it is in our experience of the passage of time that our sense of the realness of our experience seems to be rooted. For me to say 'I am here, now' the static moment I experience has still a very dynamic flow to it. For a moment to be, it has to be being. How do we explain that with numbers?
To answer this, let us think about teleporters for a moment. Teleporters, of course, do not exist, but the concept as regards their use is fairly well understood. One steps into a machine at point A, some magic happens, and then you step out of a machine (possibly different, possibly the same one) at point B, somewhere else in space. Generally the idea is that this happens instantaneously. One suggestion for how such a device might work goes like this:
The machine at point A uses "tech-no-lo-gee" to analyze and then destroy each and every molecule of your body very, very quickly. It has the rather implausible ability to measure perfectly all the numbers that define who you are. Naturally this only works if you're going with model (i) (see above), the so-called scientific model, otherwise you'd have to zap the entire planet or universe, which would defeat the object. The information is then beamed over to the machine at point B, which rebuilds an exact replica of your body using the information. Since all chemical, electrical and quantum mechanical information has been preserved, the body at the other end shouldn't need re-animating, since it should still be alive, mid-heartbeat, mid-brainwave and so on. It should just carry on, and the replica should be alive and aware and significantly relieved not to have been rebuilt with an extra butt or something.
But the (rather well known) kicker is, how do you know if it would still be 'you'? In fact it seems pretty unlikely that it would be 'you', because if we consider a peculiar malfunction of machine A, in which the molecules are analysed, the data sent on, but the original body (you) is not destroyed, well, you would remain alive at A, that much seems pretty obvious, but what about the identical person constructed at B? Instinctively it seems unlikely that we would suddenly share two brains, and see through two pairs of eyes - identical twins don't have this problem(/blessing). So it seems fairly likely that in fact part A of the teleporter might better be called a Killing Machine, because at point A you would be destroyed. Now a replica might well be created, one who believed with absolute certainty that they were you (they'd share all your memories, all your feelings and thoughts), but they would in fact be a new mind, unique and most importantly, not you.
But wait a moment, if this business is taken back to reality for a minute, how can I be certain that I am me at all? Or rather, how do I know that I, now, am the same 'me' that I remember being a year, a day, a second ago? Consider the idea that the brain is the sole vessel of the mind. (Personally I think that the mind is manifest in other parts as well, such as the full network of nerves, blood vessels, the lymphatic system and so on, but a brain-centric system is easier to talk about.) Now the brain is, as we all know, a big network of interconnecting neural nodes, continuously firing and affecting one another. Now when we model a neural network on a computer, the usual approach is to have a kind of 'polling cycle', that is to say that we have in memory a database of neurones, and all their respective charges and all their interconnections to other neurones. We then run a calculative cycle, where we go through each and every neurone, distributing its charge to each of the other neurones it has connections to. When we've done that then we start over. Each cycle can be seen a bit like a 'frame' in a movie.
Now in the actual, juicy, living brain it isn't this simplistic. Each neurone just gets on and distributes its charge as and when the laws of physics and chemistry and so on dictate, continuously and independently of all the others. However, there's an interesting property of quantum mechanics, to do with, in fact, the word 'quantum' itself. The idea is that there is such as thing as a minimum possible spacial distance and a minimum possible slice of time. An entity traveling at light speed is simply moving one notch through space per timeslice. That's the maximum speed, you can't move two notches at a time. What this means is that there is in fact a pulse to the universe. It's astonishingly quick, but it's there. Now when you scale everything up, what this means is that the inter-neural communication does in fact obey a pulse, but rather than it being one wave of neural charge passing per pulse, it's more like one wave of electrons, photons, protons, and all that other jazz moving one notch per tick. It takes a huge number of ticks for a neuron to pass a charge to another interconnected neuron. But we have a pulse, and that's important.
You see, this pulse reveals the perception of a fluid continuity as something of an illusion. We, and everything in the universe, exist in pulses, one frame at a time. The resolution is very high, huge numbers of pulses for even the tiniest change in our thoughts or feelings, but we might now consider the possibility that at each and every single one of these pulses I, you, and everyone else that perceives themself as 'being', dies. And immediately afterward someone else comes into being with all our memories and feelings and thoughts, save perhaps for some tiny little evolution, and they live and perceive, for a single slice of time, and then they too die at the next tick.
Now, this has two consequences. Firstly you need no longer be afraid of teleporters: sure, you don't know that it will be 'you' that steps out of the other terminal, but then since you stand a very real chance of being dead in the next quantum timeslice it doesn't really matter does it? For all you know, this continuous experience that you believe in could simply be a sequence of births and deaths, only one of which, this one, you personally get to experience. Might as well go for it, it's cheaper than flying, and a queue is forming behind you.
Before we get to consequence number two, let's just look again at this 'birth-death' business, I mean, it just doesn't feel right does it? You remember being alive, you remember the evolution of your thoughts, you feel alive! You believe you exist, and will continue to do so, for at least a few more seconds right? But then, you probably also believe that you know who your parents are right? Have you ever actually, you know, asked them? Had a test done? What about the 'Weapons of Mass Destruction'? Did you believe there were any? I bet you didn't believe that the British and American governments would actually explicitly make them up, pretend, lie, so we could have a nice war, hmm? Do you believe Pluto is real? Why? You ever actually seen it? Some of you will have looked through telescopes. At... what? A fuzzy blob? Very convincing. Are you sure you're not just suspended in a dark tank of fluid, fed by tubes, interacting with what, to all intents and purposes, is a computer game, blisslessly unaware of the utterly astonishing level of actual detail and colour and vibrancy of the actual real world that you're being kept secluded from?
The fact is, you believe that which you remember believing, and the strongest memory of all, the one that by far trumps all the others is that of remembering the experience of being. Some time ticks by and you watch it go past, archiving the experience in realtime into memories that are highly available for reassessing. You know you are alive, and you thus remember knowing, it goes in with a lifetime of memories of knowing you Are, Now, and Then, and moreover, based on this you anticipate being in the future as well, because it's always been this way, so say your memories.
But that is all. All you have is those memories, and those memories dear reader, are exactly the information that's zipping around in your neural network, the one that's cycling through quantum timeslices. What we can say is this: We experience something at the instance of perception. We have memories suggesting a history and proposing a future, memories that imply that the something we experience is in fact part of a continuum of somethings fluidly passing. But we do not experience the memories, we remember them, and so for a given time slice we might be in the middle of meditating on our fluid experience, but in fact during that slice, it's all static, and during that slice there is no past, and the future is not present, only the configuration of the biology during that timeslice is in any way relevant. If in fact there were no consistent past, that one quantum cycle previously the mind had been created at point B by a teleporter, the mind would still believe in the past, despite the truth of its substantial fabrication one instant before. Indeed, if all those memories are encoded in the numbers of the brain, body, planet, universe or superverse of God and his own reality then at the point of fabrication those numbers could in fact be adjusted to form any configuration of memory conceivable and a whole lot more besides.
In short, I'm saying that we do not need a past or future to perceive the passage of time.
We're almost done, hang in with me for a little longer and I'll try to get to something fairly mind-blowing.
Before I go for the endgame, I just want to clarify something. I am not putting this forward as a better or truer model of reality. I am simply trying to show that logically, based on the assumptions, this peculiar system is possible. If something can be shown to be possible, then it is on equal footing with all other options that are possible based on the same assumptions Now I'm the first to admit that the big flaw in this system is those very assumptions We're asking rather a lot of the universe. The idea that it can be defined mathematically is a pretty tough one to just accept. Now most people are willing to accept that a certain amount of definability abounds in our universe. You can observe trends and patterns, and match them up with mathematical formulae. Newtonian and Einsteinian cosmology are good examples to cite here. But whether or not you can actually define enough of the parameters of a mind and with enough accuracy and precision to define it, that's kinda up for grabs. It's something of a question of faith. Note that I'm not talking about Heisenberg's uncertainty hoojit here, while the teleporters would need to measure the parameters of reality, that's not where I'm going. My system does not require any observers or "wave-function collapsing" or whatever you brainy people call it. As I say though I'm simply proposing a creatorless, creationless alternative explanation for, well, everything. I'm not suggesting that this is the way things are, just the way things could be. Let's press on...
So far we've tackled the idea that one could define a mind at a given time as a chunk of mathematical data, and I've also suggested that one does not necessarily need an actual past or future to have a 'sense' of time. So we have this huge pile of data describing one time slice of a person's mind, and possibly, if you subscribe to my 'rebirth' business right there we have in fact got an entire conscious existence, since it only exists for this one timeslice anyway. Ok, now forget that for a minute and think about a computer game, preferably a computer game in the 'first person' genre, that is, where you see through a person's eyes and can run about in a persistent 3 dimensional environment. The Quake franchise is a good example, half-life, soldier of fortune and so on so forth. Indeed most driving and flight simulators are good for this too. Think of a map from this game, or a track or piece of landscape that you can explore. Does it exist?
Now obviously it's not a real place. But it does obey all the rules of a real place. And in fact it's more real than say, a place you see in a dream, because it is more rigidly defined. There are definite walls and boundaries, and spaces between. There is colour and perhaps some variation on ambient sound. Is a memory of a real place any more important than a memory of a simulated place? If you move house, you may never see inside the old place again, though you're pretty sure the basic layout won't change. But how is your memory of this superior to, say, memory of the layout of e1m1 from Quake? You can go back to e1m1 any time you like. You can discuss e1m1 with friends who know it. In fact, if you hook up some computers on a network, you can run around it together, and see each other and interact in this space. The physical manifestation at best exists in the computer, if it can be said to ever be 3 dimensionally manifest at all, but the human reality of it happens inside your mind, and inside the minds of those who share experience of it. The same is true of reality. Despite the manifest nature of the real world being fundamentally different, your perceptual understanding of it happens in the same way as it does for 3d virtual environment. When it comes to you and your awareness of them, there is no real difference, save your rational understanding of the different forms of the 'original' on which your mental model is based.
Now we're deep in philosophy here, and I'll be honest, I haven't done enough serious study of the subject to speak authoritatively on it. (I understand everyone from Aristotle to Kant to ... well I don't know, because I haven't studied philosophy ...has had things to say on this subject.) What I'm getting at though, is that in a very simplistic and unsophisticated sense, you have in your mind, models of all the places you know in the form of visual and spacial memories, more detailed for the places you know well, and that this phenomenon extends to virtual places too. I know exactly where the quad-damage is on e1m1, I know it by visual landmark cue and by spacial sense. I know it as well as I know where my laptop is in my room at home. As far as I'm concerned, these two bits of knowledge are on an equal footing.
The above is just to get us thinking about the relationship between information and reality. Let's get back to our timeslice brain data. Actually, no, we'll make one last stop before the grand finale...
This document is basically just text. Each character is encoded using the UNICODE (I think) standard, which, for these standard latin characters happens to coincide with the ANSI and ASCII standards that predate it. ASCII is the simplest, consisting of 7-bit binary words to define 128 slots. Most of those slots have symbols associated with them corresponding to the 26 letters of the alphabet twice (once capital, once lowercase) the numbers 0-9 and a bunch of punctuation. There are also a few other technical bits and pieces, but we'll leave those. ASCII files are usually saved using 8-bit bytes for each character (the extra bit just makes it easier for computers to work with, and also gives us 128 more extended characters, though these aren't standardised into the basic set). UNICODE on the other hand is a multibyte format, using two (or more - I think) bytes per character, which allows you to use a great many more symbols, useful for other languages and so on.
Now, if I take my document and save it as an ASCII text file, and then try to load it up again as though it were UNICODE I'm going to get some weirdness, because now the computer will be looking at pairs of bytes together to decide which character to display, and basically it's going to be a great big mess of extended characters. But the information is not gone, I'm just not looking at it properly.
The thing is, whether the data is in ASCII or UNICODE, it's the same document behind it all. The words are still there, and there is a fundamental similarity between the two files: They are both filled with an enormously long-winded treatise on ... something or other.
I can do even more perverse things with my file, such as compress it using the LZH algorithm, or printing it, scanning as a picture, and then saving the picture as a JPEG. Or a bitmap. Or I could record my voice reading it and save it as a wave, or mp3. Byte for byte, these formats could hardly look more different, but they all contain the same information. The trump card is the use of encryption.
Let's say I spend an afternoon hammering keys randomly to generate a huge pile of effectively random data. I then get the computer to take each character of my document in turn, take the value of the byte (equivalent to a=1, b=2, c=3 etc) add the value of a the byte in my random doc at the equivalent byte position, and repeat for the whole thing. The product is gibberish. But provided I have the original random data I can always decrypt it again.
But here's the thing. Every single sequence of numbers can be obtained from any other sequence of numbers (of the same length) by subtracting the difference between the two from the latter. So the same random garbage can be 'decrypted' an almost infinite* number of ways (*ish).
If I have the 'data' value 4, I can compress it by adding the 'random' value 1 to get the 'encrypted' value 5. But 5 is also the end result of data 3, random 2. Or data 7, random -2. Or for that matter, data 10, random 2, where the operation is division, not addition.
So in every sequence of numbers, there is also every other sequence of numbers there for the taking if you know how to find it.
But why do you need to know how to find it? If I encrypt my document, and then lose the encryption key, is the data not still there? Surely it still exists, it's just that now, it's unavailable to me. Lots of things are unavailable to me, but they still exist. Why not my data? Why not, in fact, any, and all possible data? Surely they all exist in just the same way?
You might disagree, you might say that in fact when I encrypt my data, really I'm splitting it into two parts (encrypted data, and random key), which independently are meaningless. But what if it turns out that while I had lost the key, someone else had managed to get hold of it? So what does that mean? The data is there but I don't know about it? What if in fact the person who acquired the key cocked it up and accidentally acquired just random noise? So the data is lost then? What if the random noise just happened to be exactly the same as the random key? By accident? What does that mean? Do they have the data or not?
Let's get back to the mind-slice again. Final act now, I promise. We have a bunch of data defining a self-aware mind for a single slice of time. It needs no past or future, it just is, but surely it needs to be plugged into the universe, 'played' if you like in order to become real?
Or does it?
I mean, surely our slice IS the universe. The slice describes a moment in the life of a human that has memories of existing, and living in a world full of people who include scientists that have looked into the heavens and discovered stars and galaxies and an almost infinity of space and cosmology and reality. But it's all in that slice of data. We need nothing more to define it, and as I've said, it needs no past or future, it need not evolve. It could do, it could lead to more slices of data defining the next independent perspective on the same life in the same universe... but why bother? It wouldn't change anything about our first slice would it?
Now the number pi is what is called 'irrational'. That effectively means that if you were to write it out, 3.14159..., you would never find a pattern from one decimal place to the next. It's believed (maybe proved?) that the digits of pi go on forever, effectively at random relative to one another. That means that every possible sequence of numbers is present somewhere in the digits of pi. It means that "God is Mathematics" appears, but it also means that "Gog is Mathematics" is there too. And "God is a tulip, henry, that's what I say, hey nonny nonny wh!ere are the asparagus men today?" as well. So is this document. And so is the sequence for our mind slice. In fact, it appears an infinite number of times over. As does every other mind slice for that particular person's life (despite each of those being a different 'person' as far as perception is concerned), and in fact every possible mind slice for every possible mind ever. An infinity of times over. Twice in succession. Or immediately followed by the slice corresponding with the next consecutive quantum 'tick' of the universe for that mind. In other places the entire sequence of ticks, in order, for a particular mind, yours in fact, appear, despite them being utterly irrelevant to one another save the coincidence of apparent mathematical progression. This is a good point to tackle those who propose that there is no definite single path of fate for a given mind, that in fact every tick is the site of an explosion of possibilities branching out for every possible 'decision'. Fine. Because they're all there in Pi as well. Arranged in a sorted heap if you like.
Moreover, because every number contains every other number depending on how you decode it, all the mind slices are contained in the exact same place as each other an infinite number of times.
Even better than that, there is data for a single mind slice at a particular time, but also data for an entire universe that contains the exact same person at the exact same time, so whether you like the brain-centric, planet-centric or universe-centric version of reality best, it's all still there. There's the illusory reality, and the actual manifest reality, all available, pick your favourite.
In any slice of Pi, all possible universes, perceptions, illusions and realities exist simultaneously an infinite number of times. They need not 'run' in any sense, the fact that they 'are' is enough. Your perception of 'Me, Now' is simply there because it has to be, just as every other possible person at every other possible time in every possible state of mind 'exists' in the same way. The mind-numbing improbability of you being you and not someone else isn't relevant, someone had to be you, in fact it had to be you. There is no time. There is no universe, or reality or perception. There is only Everything.
Thank you for reading.