THE UNIVERSE AS A COMPUTER, John Archibald Wheeler, Part 2

In my last post I described a list created by the late physicist John Archibald Wheeler describing ways in which the universe could be like a computer. This came from a note in the collection of papers from the American Philosophical Society. In the second part of this note, Wheeler moved on to describing what the possible implications of the metaphor could be. I’ve now transcribed these and thought people would be interested in seeing this list as well.


Possible Implications of the Metaphor

NOTE: The prior and companion list ”The Universe As A Computer: Possible Meanings of the Metaphor”–which should also be consulted–dealt with the metaphor in a more preliminary, general, and abstract way. Here there is an effort to list the more specific, concrete mechanisms that may permit important analogies between computers and universes-~apart from items that would be largely redundant if added to this second list (apart, in turn, from oversights that are inevitable in this unedited list, and items whose redundancy is initially uncertain). Some items here are apt to represent particular illustrative or applied examples, or sets thereof, rather than unique conceptual taxons restricted to, and precised and exhausted by, single items.

1. Physical phenomena and entities may have spontaneous or reactive output effects that occasionally, often, generally, or always elicit or modify one or more instances, modes, or kinds (contents) of direct or indirect feedbacks from near, distant, and/or all (pancosmic) entities, phenomena, events, or environments–of a like or different nature–in one or more or infinitely many cycles, phases, epochs, or progressions.

2. The former (see #1) may or may not be essential to the nature of the original physical phenomena and entities; that which is essential to the latter may be fixed substance or pattern, dynamic substance or pattern, dynamic interaction, dynamic transaction, ever-changing ever-novel modes thereof, or all such things combined.

3. Such feedback (see ## 1, 2) may be stabilizing and/or differentiating.

4. Such feedback (see ## 1, 2, 3) may be to the physical phenomena and entities, other feedback(s), and/or itself en route.

5. Such feedback (see ## 1, 2, 3, 4) may be (in addition to #3)–or have roles or elements that include–positive and negative feedback, alternation, correction, redirection, coupling, transportation, partitioning, rate control, memory, simplification, integration, comparing, measurement, intermediation and message-passing, path-finding, road maintenance, consolidation, sampling, &c.

6. Some or all parts of the physical universe may govern one another in a rotating system, that is fixed and/or random in various ways and degrees.

7. In some way the universe may resemble a representative democracy, with fixed or changing particular or general representatives, arranged in a finite or infinite hierarchy, with government descending and/or ascending in various degrees, ways, and with respect to various matters.

8. The feedback proposed above (see ## 1-5) may form various finite or  infinite–and essential or nonessential–hierarchies, networks, series, channels, matrices, equilibria, disequilibria, phenomena,  systems, logics, ‘machines’, dimensions, clusters in maps, ‘stories’, lattices, equations, number systems, mathematical groups, categories, or analogs thereto, codes, &c.

9. Nature may everywhere be using simple arithmetic~-or other extraordinarily simple or universal processes–or may be characterizable by such to a wholly unexpected degree.

10. All of history may somehow represent a memory that is intact and functioning in the present.

11. Analogously (see #10), all of the future may somehow represent a plan  that is exhaustively immanent and active in the present.

12. All that a physicist is or does may somehow be–truthfully or pragmatically–reduced to a computer or computation.

13. The difference between the analogue and digital computer may not be sharp but rather represent a continuous gradation or a definitional or ultimate fiction.

14. The universe may approximate to a computer.

15. In an ultimate sense the universe may not be a computer, but the form of physics we have now, or that will emerge in the immediate future, may in essence treat it as such.

16. Representing the universe as computer-like, in physics and other natural sciences or science in general, might be a more–or the most–efficient, fertile, clever, unified, powerful, rational, or practical way of investigating, understanding, and exploiting it.

17. Much that we think of as essential and important in the present language, form, methods, philosophy, conceptual apparatus, mathematics, and overall organization of physics–even its ideals or standards of proof, rigor, consistency, elegance, simplicity, uniquity, universality, fundamentality, necessity, repetition, conceptuality, meaning, importance, finality, objectivity, completeness, predictive power, Boolean logic, &c–may not be, or may not be essential or important to physics as it could be, or as it should and will be in the future (perhaps thanks to the computer, as that which aids or supersedes the human scientist); that which is really essential and important in or to physics may be very different than we now suppose.

18. What goes on in and constitutes Nature may be much more steplike than we now know or suppose: the density, intricacy, and breadth of steps may be far greater, the steps may be far more discrete, individualized, important, coordinated, lawful, and elegant, phenomena and Nature as a whole may be much more concatenated, sequential, plexiform, stringy or I-dimensional, anastomotic, self-entraining, modular and nodal, unidirectional, irreversible, delomorphous, Functional, irredundant, operational, machinelike, constrained, local, tiny or microphysical, quantized, systemic, produced by massive past experimentation, selection, and evolution, organismic, organic, &c, the ‘wheel of time may have far more teeth’, Nature may be far more ruled, methodic, and nomocratic, &c.

19. The universe may everywhere be filled with local operations or activities that never cease and that are all simultaneously important~-perhaps locally, perhaps universally. 

20. Modern statistical cosmology may be a necessary early approximation that will ultimately yield to a complete cosmology wherefor the universe is essentially and irreducibly an infinitely complex machine that, qua infinitely complex, transcends the very concept of machine and of a mechanistic universe. 

21. The presumption of current physics that its laws, theories, methods, and concepts actually specify, describe, explain, or are equivalent –in any final, realistic, or sufficient way–to the detailed, peculiar, and total phenomena that fill all size scales in Nature as a single, indivisible, necessary, and solid plenum, may be a fantastic oversimplification. The truth may more nearly be that each and every phenomenon and event must speak for itself–that today’s physics offers only the crudest approximation to anything.

22. All physical phenomena locally, and the universe as a whole, may basically represent a process of counting.

23. What all interactions of physical phenomena may basically represent is a process of mutual description.

24. The universe may reduce to games being played between physical phenomena–games computable by or similar to a computer.

25. The role of the genes and genome in the reproduction, ontogeny, maintenance, life, and evolution of organisms–the control by the genotype of the phenotype–is essentially computer-like: and it may be that all physical phenomena, and the universe as a whole, are somehow controlled by analogous means and therefore also computer-like or computational. (In many instances or in general, the controlling system may be purely dynamical and hence for all purposes invisible, immaterial, and transcendental!)

26. The totality of physical phenomena constituting the universe may all–everywhere and incessantly–be evolutionary and coevolutionary.

27. All physical phenomena (in partial analogy to #25)–pace modern physics–may be largely or exquisitely controlled by a single, relatively or infinitely small, singularity-like internal locus, part, structure, dynamical program, law, process, idea, and/or the like exercising autocratic or mentorial powers.

28. Nature, by analogy with what goes on in a computer, may contain what could be described as ‘blocks of information, controls, or programs  that enable phenomena to control other phenomena, or at least to alter their function or influence the world as a whole, that may move about between phenomena and live a semi-independent existence, and that man could use as tools to decipher, control, and transform particular phenomena and phenomena in general.

29. The universe may represent information, forms of information, descriptions of itself, representations, or perspectives that are all competing with one another to emerge or dominate.

30. All parts of the universe may be competing to become the whole or to absorb one another.

31. The universe may represent a grid, tape, manifold, circuit, and/or the like that is curved, finite, closed, recursive, self-generating, self-exciting, teleological, circumplexed, and/or the like with respect to space, time, energy, matter, causes, effects, information, laws, and/or the like.

32. The universe may represent patterns of change or dynamical patterns, exponential processes, equations, types of order, states, morphogenetic tendencies, and/or the like that are all simultaneously competing to annihilate one another, originate, become maximally real or ‘probable’, become omnipotent or infinite, become ubiquitous or eternal, pullulate, interfere with one another, and/or the like.

33. Like a computer, the universe may contain null or zero elements that are active and important.

34. The universe may be creating time by gradually computing the future.

35. The universe may be like a computer operating on the fabric of the present to modify it and thereby create or synthesize the future.

36. The universe may be completely stoichiometric–perfectly conserving information, change, order, motion, states, possibilities, and/or the like.

37. The universe may be ‘nomogenetic’–constantly generating, discovering, and acquiring by transformation new, novel, more powerful, and more numerous laws and rules.

38. Per contra what the laws of thermodynamics seem to imply, usable energy and net order in the universe may be perfectly conserved rather than inevitably tending to decrease with time, and the universe may be equivalent to perpetual motion.

39. The universe may contain an indefinite amount of things that are hidden, just as a computer may hide its contents.

40. The universe may represent a computer whose program is unknowingly being  written, or rewritten, by the physicists themselves or by human minds in general.

41. Mastery of the flow and possibilities of physical information on the quantum scale, or in matter at all scales simultaneously, may equip man with the highest possible form of technology or mean that he has at last triumphed over Nature; and the secret to such mastery may be to treat the universe–scientifically or technologically–as a computer.

42. It may be possible to invent, make, and exploit cellular automata that are cosmoplastic and cosmopoietic (that can automatically change the entire universe or create new universes), the natural preexistence of such automata may be unavoidable (in which case Nature herself may be entirely artificial, and physics must reinvestigate the universe from the new point of view), and/or the power of such automata to effectively transform the content of the universe by simply redefining its form or by sampling it in a certain way to an infinite degree may mean that the universe is equivalent to a myriorama (a thing that gives the appearance of being a single universe, but in fact contains all possible universes and permits their efficient substitution).

43. The main lesson from the computer for today’s physicist may be that the universe is not just a thing that sits out there–simple, objective, absolute, independent of the observer, static, the manifestation of a few universal laws–but a complex construction, and a kaleidoscope composed entirely of active processes and interactive possibilities that call for a new physics telling the physicist how to do things and how to co-operate with, and as, the universe in a new and higher form.


What I love about this and also about the previous list is that it is a mixture of the mundane and slightly insane. When I think of Wheeler I often think of this contradiction, in that he was very conservative in many respects, but also completely open to very odd ideas (there is only one electron in the universe !) Or to quote his student Richard Feynman, “Some people think Wheeler’s gotten crazy in his later years; but he’s always been crazy.”

In this list the one that jumps out as me is “Mastery of the flow and possibilities of physical information on the quantum scale, or in matter at all scales simultaneously, may equip man with the highest possible form of technology or mean that he has at last triumphed over Nature; and the secret to such mastery may be to treat the universe–scientifically or technologically–as a computer.” I think in this quote, from 1980, we’ve now tracked down the origin of all of the quantum computing hype!

Another one that I find great to see is 39, “The universe may contain an indefinite amount of things that are hidden, just as a computer may hide its contents.” In many ways, this is is the content of the Kochen-Specker-Bell theorem which shows that quantum theory is contextual.

Also 7, where he suggests the universe may be a representative democracy, isn’t something I expected, but I’m hoping Ted Chiang sees this blog post and decides to write a story about this idea.

I’m also thinking I’m not the only one who had to look up the pullulate (“multiply or spread prolifically or rapidly”).

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