Irrational mechanics, draft Ch. 3
Down and out in a block universe.
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Please scroll down for the main topic of this newsletter. But first:
To me, the letter is total BS.
The P word is meaningless or at least it doesn't mean what the bureaucrats of science think it means. An investigation is scientific if it respects the scientific method. One can study astrology scientifically, and one can study chemistry unscientifically. But the P word applies to those “scientists” who contaminate science with considerations that have nothing to do with science. For example partisan politics, which has nothing to do with science.
Erik Hoel astutely observes that the letter culminates in “a politically-charged paragraph.” This is the case indeed and therefore it is the letter that is pseudoscience. I've done a lot of reading on IIT. I don't think it is the last word (there's no such thing as a last word in science). To me, IIT looks & feels more like a theory that tries to quantify stand-alone existence (being, isness) than a theory that quantifies consciousness.
But I think IIT is a scientific (yes, scientific) theory that offers very valuable insights, and one day these insights will be formulated more rigorously and find important applications. If, that is, the bureaucrats leave the IIT scientists (yes, scientists) in peace.
The “scientists” (scare quotes intended and deserved) who signed the letter say: “As researchers, we have a duty to protect the public from scientific misinformation” (yes, near the very end of the letter they are showing their face).
This member of the public (who used to be and call himself a scientist) doesn’t want to be protected. This member of the public (who now prefers not call himself a scientist because he fears the label is contaminated) wants to read about new IIT research and then he’ll (tentatively of course) make up his f# mind.
Same for other things that the bureaucrats of science dismiss with the P word, which essentially is name calling without scientific merit.
I have lost all respect for the “scientists” who signed this stupid letter.
But I wish to thank them for making it clear that “pseudoscience” is a meaningless word used by idiots to attack scientific theories that they dislike.
So here’s a very early draft of Chapter 3 of my new book “Irrational mechanics: Narrative sketch of a futurist science & a new religion” (2024):
3 - Down and out in a block universe
I haven’t written this sentence.
It was written long ago, at the beginning of time.
Strange as it may seem, this is what many scientists think.
The never ending questions of being or becoming, determinism or nondeterminism, predestination or free will, are key open questions facing contemporary science and philosophy. Is everything predetermined, or does the universe make choices? Is time real? Is change real? Are we free agents whose choices are not entirely determined by other things?
The development of classical mechanics after Newton gave rise to the deterministic worldview of Pierre-Simon de Laplace, embraced by Albert Einstein as well. In this worldview everything that ever happens is set in stone, predetermined by initial conditions at the very beginning of the universe.
According to Laplace, “an intellect… vast enough” [Susskind 2013] would be able to calculate the state of the universe at any time in the future from the state of the universe at any time in the past. We may regard the present state of the universe as the effect of its past and the cause of its future. Laplace’s vast intellect is also known as Laplace’s demon.
A problem with Laplacian determinism is that the strict determinism of classical mechanics can be questioned. A particle at rest on the top of a “Norton’s dome” [Norton 2007, 2021] in an unchanging environment can start moving… at any time and in any direction it pleases, in full compliance with Newtonian mechanics. Norton’s example is carefully contrived and fine tuned, but it shows a simple case of failure of determinism in classical mechanics. It can be argued that Norton’s example is unphysical. But then isn’t the mathematical theory of classical mechanics itself unphysical as well?
Another problem with Laplacian determinism is that the Newtonian physics of Laplace’s time didn’t have a speed limit to prevent influences from propagating instantaneously. Therefore, the world of Laplace was open to “space invaders” [Rickles 2016] that could change things suddenly and unpredictably at any time.
But then Einstein introduced a speed limit in physics: nothing can propagate in space faster than the speed of light. Today, determinism is often taken to mean that the future is determined by the past with causal influences that take time to propagate in space because they are limited by the speed of light.
Following Laplace and Einstein, many scientists tend to sweep problems under the rug of time, saying that unexplainable things are caused by special initial conditions at the beginning of the universe, and don’t need further explanations. I find this too cheap.
Classical mechanics is (or better, is often thought to be) not only deterministic, but also reversible. That is, it is deterministic not only in the forward time direction, but also in the backward time direction. In other words, Laplace’s demon would also be able to calculate the state of the universe at any time in the past from the state of the universe at any time in the future.
Taken together, determinism and reversibility imply that the state of the universe at any one time is determined by the state of the universe at any other time, and information is conserved. Leonard Susskind calls the law of conservation of information “the minus first law” [Susskind 2013, 2014], that is, the most fundamental law of physics.
Cellular automata (CA) provide a simple toy model of a deterministic universe. If you follow the evolution of Stephen Wolfram’s one-dimensional elementary CA [Wolfram 2002, Rucker 2016], you see time as the vertical dimension, and different times as different horizontal bit strings. Wolfram’s elementary CA are very simple but their evolution can be unexpectedly complex. One of Wolfram CA, Rule 110, is universal (that is, able to compute everything that can be computed).
While Wolfram’s elementary CA are deterministic but not reversible, they can be transformed into deterministic and reversible CA by a simple extension of the rules (one that computes the next time using not only the current time, but also the previous one).
I have a little program that computes Wolfram’s elementary CA and their reversible extensions. I have spent many happy hours playing with these CA, and in particular with Rule 37R, a reversible extension of elementary Rule 37. Rule 37R seems complex like Rule 110, and Wolfram thinks that Rule 37R could be universal like Rule 110 [Wolfram 2002].
Watching the complex behavior of those bits as time goes downward is really something, and Rule 37R, which is deterministic, reversible, complex, and (perhaps) universal, seems the simplest toy model for some aspects of the physical world.
The universe according to determinism is a four-dimensional “block universe” [Lockwood 2005] of space and time. Other times exist just like the present, in other slices of the block universe. Michael Lockwood explains how the idea of the block universe can provide comfort in the face of death: our loved ones who passed away are not in this present now, but they exist elsewhere in the block universe.
Later in this book I’ll elaborate on the alternative view of Henri Bergson, centered on non-predetermined change and creative evolution [Bergson 1998]. But let’s first explore determinism in more detail. I’ll start with the assumption that everything is determined by the initial state of the universe in the far past.
Determinism seems to rule out free will. Some thinkers propose weak “compatibilist” versions of free will that can be accommodated in a universe that is fully deterministic in the sense of Laplace, but to me compatibilist free will is fake free will. Real free will is the “libertarian” free will of free agents that can choose and make a difference. Free will is real “only if our actual decisions are not determined by the rest of the universe, past, present, or future, but instead we ourselves are the ultimate and irreducible source of our decisions” [Tipler 1994].
I define free will as your ability to make choices that are not entirely determined by the rest of the universe (that is, the universe minus you), and cause change. But determinism - or at least the Laplacian concept of determinism that I have outlined so far - suggests that what you are doing at this moment and what you are thinking at this moment are determined by the state of the universe long before you were born.
I prefer to think, following Nicolas Gisin [Gisin 2014], that “not only does free will exist, but it is a prerequisite for science, philosophy, and our very ability to think rationally in a meaningful way.” That free will exists, defined as I have defined it, is one of the basic assumptions I start with.