|A recent workshop
on the subject of physics and computation, held in Linz, Austria,
featured Karl Svozil, of the Institute for Theoretical Physics in
Vienna. Svozil laid out an ambitious agenda for his talk, seeking to
link the mathematical world of quantum mechanics to the material world
of our experience – a notoriously difficult task.
Svozil asked his audience, "Suppose you are God: how would you
do it?" The suggested answer was surprisingly easy to grasp,
because Svozil asked us to look no farther than our desktop, and to
consider the technology that routinely creates new worlds from
mathematics: the design and programming of computer games.
From the earliest days of practical programmable computers, there
have been persistent speculations that a computer might be programmed to
"create" a world that is the image of our world. This quickly
leads to the further speculation that our world itself may have been
programmed in this way. Svozil traces the concept to1956, when Edward F.
Moore of IBM proposed that a computer program might duplicate some of
the seemingly impossible feats of quantum mechanics. In 1969, the father
of the modern programmable computer, the German engineer and scientist
Konrad Zuse, published a book titled "Calculating Space," in
which he proposed that simple computer processes could account for all
of the phenomena that we observe in the natural world. This idea had
been the focus of a group at MIT led by Edward Fredkin, which had made
substantial progress in addressing some of the most immediate technical
"One obvious explanation for what [physicist Eugene] Wigner
calls 'the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics in the natural
sciences,'" suggests Svozil, "seems to be the Pythagorean
assumption that numbers are the elements out of which the universe was
constructed; and what appears to us as the laws of Nature are just
mathematical theorems or computations."
Svozil also noted that the basic thesis was recently endorsed by
Stephen Wolfram, who was among the first recipients of the MacArthur
Foundation "genius award" in 1981, and who brings a strong
background in both physics and computer science. In his 2002 book, A
New Kind of Science, Wolfram carefully describes the uncanny
resemblance of many physical processes to the results obtained by
running a particular class of simple computer programs known as cellular
automata. Repeatedly throughout the book, Wolfram declares his
"strong suspicion" that the natural phenomena themselves are
the result of computer operations.
In the company of these physics-as-computation researchers, what
separates Svozil from the pack is his model. Most theorists in this area
endorse the idea of "strong artificial intelligence,"
believing that a computer can think for itself and even develop into an
independent life form fully equivalent to a human being. From this, the
preferred model is a self-contained computer program that gives birth to
everything in human experience – including the very humanness of
consciousness and experience. Given such a model, the universe may be a
black box humming in the corner of a closet, generating billions of
artificial life forms (humans among them) that exist wholly inside the
circuitry but which, in some sense, "experience" the program's
evolution as their day-to-day lives. The difficulty with this approach
is that artificial life remains a controversial topic (despite its
adoption by Hollywood). There is a continuing debate whether true
artificial consciousness is possible, even in principle.
Svozil takes a different approach, with
significant practical and philosophical advantages. His model is the
computer game simulation – a user interacting with the computer's
programming in a type of training exercise, or even for pure
entertainment. Svozil's model has the practical advantage of
familiarity, with proof-of-concept available at your local arcade. Every
computer system in our experience eventually includes a user, if only to
read the data or look at the monitor screen. Modern networked computer
games can easily accommodate multiple players in the action. Svozil
observes that "this picture is an old idea in a relatively new
Svozil's years of research into computer systems and the information
aspects of physics lead him to the conclusion that all of the necessary
components are available. Even so, he concedes that real proof is
lacking. No matter how consistent the theory, Svozil doesn't expect the
idea to take hold in the scientific establishment unless and until it
proves to be a better hypothesis than the conventional approaches.
Philosophy is another matter. The philosophical advantage of Svozil's
approach is that it preserves the notion of free will, because the
player makes choices and controls the progress of the game independently
of the game itself. By contrast, the artificial intelligence community
inevitably confronts the brick wall of determinism, which implies a
complete lack of free will.
Svozil's model also preserves and even
defines a role for the Creator in a comfortably familiar way. All of our
own computer programs were designed and coded by instructions written in
one or another computer "language," representing the
operations of the math. The computer's words, and the programmer's
words, are actual words. They describe (in a highly stylized way) what
the computer should do and when it should do it. Svozil concludes that
God needs nothing more than these words to accomplish a full creation.
In principle, there is nothing to prevent the programmer from entering
into the game as one more player.
The result would be, in Svozil's
words, "a clocklike universe inspired by miracles. By 'miracles,'
we mean all ad hoc occurrences which can in no way be explained
in an otherwise clocklike universe."
Drawing on off-the-shelf technology, Svozil proposes that if you were
God you would create a world by and through the word of the programmable
computer. Although Professor Svozil did not say so, this happens to be
the very mechanism suggested by religious tradition: "God said …,"
and it was so; "In the beginning was the Word … Through him all
things were made." This is creation by language; and a God made
known and manifest through the Word.
Svozil's paper based on his talk at Linz may be accessed at
Ross Rhodes is the founder of BottomLayer.com, a
web resource devoted to physics and philosophy. He has written on the
convergence of physics and theology, most recently in Perspectives: A
Journal of Reformed Thought.