Day 002 - A universe determined by rules

Submitted by Sam on 22 May, 2011 - 16:24

Let's take a hypothetical jump and imagine that our universe is indeed described by rules. This may hardly feel like a jump at all as we're very chummy with the standard model of Newtonian physics and the deterministic systems it gives us. We're very happy that everything that happens has a cause and an effect, and we're very familiar with various chains of causation, whether or not we understand the rules that govern them.

In our rule-described universe, absolutely everything is deterministic. Physicists (who spend their lives studying causes and effects) are particularly happy here. Quantum physicists are over the metaphorical moon as they can rest assured that the aspects of quantum mechanics that seem inexplicably random on May 22nd 2011 are in fact governed precisely by a nice set of rules, and perhaps one day they will find them. This is all very well for the physicists, but anyone who happened to glance at the OED's definition of 'determinism' in this rule-described universe might feel somewhat less cheerful. Here's what the OED says about determinism:

  1. The philosophical doctrine that human action is not free but necessarily determined by motives, which are regarded as external forces acting upon the will.
  2. The doctrine that everything that happens is determined by a necessary chain of causation. 1

In this universe, hard determinism is the plat du jour and both of these doctrines are facts of life. The second definition validates the first through the following logic: human action is determined by thoughts in the brain, the brain is made from atoms, atoms behave deterministically, therefore all human thought and action are fully determined. This is rather rotten news for fans of free-will and human society as a whole (ethics and morality are sticky topics when everything is pre-determined), but a deterministic universe might just make possible the following:

  • True artificial intelligence. Here's one devastatingly inefficient but plausible method: reverse-engineer the rules that animate atoms in a brain, and re-apply these rules to an atomic-level replica of a brain. 2
  • Prediction of the future. The more rules that are decoded, the greater the ability to predict future events. Whilst laplace's demon might be too much to hope for, versions which generalize and work with macro-scale events rather than individual particles could definitely find a home in a rule-described universe.
  • A computational theory of everything. Find the one rule to describe them all.
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