The Universe, scientists assume, may be obscure; but it does not lie.
An experiment which works in San Diego will, if it reveals Truth, also
work in Oslo. An electron in the vicinity of Alpha Centauri will have
the same properties as one in your little finger. The Universe does
not evaluate the merits of your experimental apparattus and decide upon
the outcome, factoring in your charitable donations and hair color; it
works on simple, repeatable principles which can be revealed and
exploited with perfect trust once they are adequately documented.
On the whole this assumption has worked well. Careful measurement and
correlation reveal that the rules by which the world works were much
the same millions of years in the past and half-way to the Hubble Limit
as they are here and now on Earth. And those rules have suggested to
us powerful modalities by which we can express our collective will upon
the environment in which we live.
But there are problems. The simple rules which describe the motion of
astronomical bodies are not consistent with the simple rules that
describe the behavior of subatomic particles, and attempts to merge
the two simple systems are not so simple.
Most scientists quietly (or not so quietly) believe the Universe is infinite
and self-sufficient, because the idea of Gods and such ruin the perfect
consistency upon which their trade depends. However, it is a simple matter
to divide the Hubble limit by the Planck constant and show that the Universe
is finite -- it contains a finite number of particles, whose positions and
velocities and states represent a finite amount of information -- About 10^84
bits, give or take a couple of orders of magnitude, if the Universe really
exists as scientists tend to describe it. Science offers no credible idea
what, if anything, exists other than that finite set of theoretically observable
And humans, despite living in a sea of technological wonder, persist in
believing in very unscientific things like ghosts, luck, gods, and ESP.
This includes a lot of very credible humans who have risked reputations
and careers to report on experiences they themselves have found incredible.
The Human Experience
It is in physics that one finds the purest expression of the Scientific
Method, but physics is not the only line of thought that styles itself a
science. Geologists do not have the physicists' luxury in staging experiments
and testing for repeatability; they must wait for the Earth to Do Something
and then see if the Something they observe is consistent with their theories.
Medical researchers are in an even worse fix, since nothing quite ever happens
the same way twice in complicated biological systems; they work around this
by designing double-blind protocols with statistical tests, to eliminate as
much of this inconsistency as possible.
Then there are fields like sociology and psychology, which physicists tend
to sneeringly deride. Sometimes these "soft" scientists sneer back that
physicists don't have to deal with phenomena that lie to them. It's a real
problem, with which people like James Randi have shown scientists do not
My question is, suppose the Universe is lying to physicists? Would
we be able to tell?
A Thought Experiment
Let's consider for a moment that we are residents not of this Universe,
however it works, but of the universe of the computer game DOOM. By this
I don't mean that we are players, or plugged into it like the residents
of the Matrix, but that we are very advanced AI characters in the game.
The DOOMiverse bears a lot of similarities to our own, enough that humans
feel comfortable moving in for occasional visits. As permanent residents
we might make up theories about where our world came from, and about the
periodic visitors who are noticeably smarter and faster than us. We
probably wouldn't notice the absence of electrons and galaxies, since
those don't figure much in the daily life of flesh-eating zombies.
The main difference between the DOOMiverse and the Universe is that we
all know the DOOMiverse is simpler than it appears. Things which are
important -- things which are likely to be noticed -- are implemented
with all the versimilitude the hardware platform can muster. Things which
don't matter at the moment are forgotten or frozen. It's only sensible,
since computers are limited and human players want the richest possible
experience from the resources at their disposal.
Objects in the DOOMiverse are represented at a high level of abstraction,
rather than as the sum of a huge number of component parts. This is more
efficient. When something is needed which is not part of the basic world,
like an electronic device (no electrons!) or a glimpse of exterior sky,
it is coded as an exception, with emulated functionality. On the other
hand, anyone attempting to practice the Scientific Method in the DOOMiverse
would be, well, doomed. If you push too hard on the model it breaks;
it's only meant to be observed at a particular scale.
In the real Universe, we assume that the stipples on a stippled wall do
not move around when our back is turned; but few of us ever bother to
test this proposition. We don't really notice when the computer fakes
it for us by generating random textures on the fly. By definition the
DOOM game engine is not consistent; it is putting on an elaborate sham
to make itself look richer and more detailed than it really is.
If a DOOMizen were to come up with the DOOM equivalent of an electron
microscope, the game authors at Id would probably write in an exception
to show them something appropriate to the fake physics of the DOOMiverse.
The Quantum Observer
Scientists simply assume our own Universe is not pulling any tricks like
this on us. At least, most of them do. The problem is that in some
very repeatable experiments testing the properties of small particles,
it appears very much that the Universe is looking over our shoulder and
arranging the results to suit. Explaining how it does this without
invoking faeries is one of the holy grails of quantum physics.
I have this persistent nagging doubt, though, especially on Tuesdays and
Thursdays. What if the Universe is really supposed to be simple, as
described by General Relativity, with analog curved spacetime and
electromagnetic radiation made up of infinitely divisible waves? What
if the Universe, like the DOOMiverse, is trying to make the best out of
a more limited information budget, and as a shortcut represents wave
energy as a sea of particles and particles themselves with finite precision?
What if the Universe only bothers with quantum effects when we set up some
bizarre situation that makes them noticeable?
Most quantum physicists don't really believe that "observer" means a
human being; they assume that some simpler arrangement of circumstances,
presumably not even living, can serve a similar function. But what if
The Question of God
If the Universe is not consistent and is pulling DOOM-like tricks to
dress itself up for our benefit, does this imply that there is a cosmic
equivalent to Id Software which designed it? The simple answer is
"yes," but like the Universe itself the situation isn't that simple.
There is a poetic simplicity to the idea that the Universe is simple
enough to have organized itself, and many scientists are allergic to
anything that contradicts that idea. You can hardly blame them, since it
wasn't that long ago that people were burnt at the stake for believing
things that aren't even considered controversial today, and a persistent
minority seems to want desperately to turn back the clock.
The idea of a vast pool table loaded with little balls was attractive
to 19th-century scientists, because it fit the model of the world they
lived in. The universe was big and complicated simply because it was
made up of a lot of balls. But growing up with computers as I did, I find
another concern paramount; physicists seem oblivious to the information
costs of the schemes they propose. Given the contract to implement the
Matrix, would you really start with 10-dimensional strings, or just fake
them in the rare situations where their behavior becomes noticeable?
Even Stephen Wolfram, who has made a huge break from the dead-particle
school of physics, envisions only the simplest possible computing elements
populating his universe in vast numbers. Wolfram's "Four lines of code in
Mathematica" are really what all physicists are trying to find -- the
simple, indivisible, and consistent elements of reality.
Suppose, however, that the Universe started out with a very simple pattern recognition
system, aimed at extending itself by simulating complex situations. It
takes about 330 bits to locate a resting proton to Planck precision within a
hypersphere whose circumference is the Hubble limit, and about 220 bits to
locate an electron. But a hydrogen atom, containing both, can be represented
with just a few more bits than the proton -- it's about the same as a proton,
but with an internal state representing its electron's energy. Much greater
gains can be had by representing the rest of the periodic table as individual
entities rather than collections of subatomic particles; the internal states
get complicated, but the reduced particle load vastly more than makes up
for the extra work.
(Naturally, a similar loss in capacity would be felt breaking
things down to quarks. How often does that happen outside of particle
accelerators? Cosmic phenomena like supernovae can be handled in bulk,
much the way we treat problems in hydrodynamics.)
One can readily imagine the algorithm that recognized this situation extending
itself into chemistry and higher levels of abstraction; it's had several
billion years to perfect its methods. Remember, this is a much bigger
system than the one that does the texture mapping for DOOM. Our own minds
would all be a relatively small part of it.
The result might be a Universe that sometimes, subtly, displays elements of
consciousness but at an aloof distance, pretending with great versimilitude
that it is just a much larger bunch of dumb particles banging around than
it could ever hope to actually represent as individual particles.
The Other End of the Telescope
Lest it seem that I am doing gross violence to Occam's Razor, let me point out
that a lot of people have problems with the consistency of the Universe which
go far beyond single photons and double slits.
Fourteen years or so ago I dabbled a bit in New Age practices. One of the
things I tried was Tarot reading, which I always drew and interpreted for
myself. Being skeptical (I got into it on something of a dare) I was a
fanatic for shuffling, always salting old cards throughout the deck and
both cutting and shuffling ten or twenty times before doing a reading. As
with my later gambling adventures I kept notes. The results were of course
purely subjective, but nothing short of startling. Never did I get a single
reading which appeared "random," unless I deliberately attempted to apply
a layout drawn for one question to a totally unrelated one.
On one occasion I did four readings in a row on closely related aspects of
the same question. From a deck of 78 cards, in a 10 card pattern, I got
eight cards in the same position all four times. If I had been doing Tarot
readings at the rate of one per second since the Big Bang, my chances of
seeing that happen would be vanishingly small. The fact that the cards
addressed the question I asked eloquently is almost trivial by comparison.
Of course there were no witnesses, and you have only my own word about
my efforts to prevent a slug of cards from re-emerging after a shuffle,
or even that it happened at all. I have no doubt that if I tried to do
a similar experiment on TV the cards would emerge in blissfully random and
meaningless patterns. Yet this is a thing that, from my perspective,
really happened and I must incorporate it into my world-view somehow.
Even after all these years I get goosebumps thinking about it.
At the time the only theory that made sense to me -- and the only one that
still does -- is that at some level, when a deck of cards is sufficiently
shuffled, the Universe is willing to forget the order they are in.
Then it is possible for an entity -- a hacker, if you will -- to influence
the order in which they are reassembled when the deck is dealt, in order
to communicate with you. But there are checks on the system, just as
human-built computers try to be safe from hacking; and however much the
world may be influenced in this way, the results must be plausible according
to some standard which isn't quite perfect.
The idea is, of course, totally insane, except for the fact that the vast
majority of humans believe something similar is going on all the time.
It's tempting to draw parallels with the collapse of the state vector in
quantum mechanics, and many magic-practicing people do exactly that; but
whatever is going on has nothing directly to do with the repeatable and
verifiable weirdnesses that occur at Planck scale. It may be a similar
kind of hack, but the Planck-scale hacks have been incorporated into the
story the Universe consistently wants to tell us.
As for where these hacker-entities (generally called spirits) come from, one
is led to speculate that one of the things represented at a high level of
abstraction might be consciousness itself; and as with any object represented as a
single data structure within a computer, it might be possible to induce extra
unofficial instances of entire minds. Some of these might be people who no
longer exist corporeally (e.g. are dead); some might be made up from scratch as
an assemblage of generic elements; and some might be copies at varying degrees
of perfection of people who are actually walking around.
The Observer Redux
Another possibility, which is very plausible to me after my later gambling
adventures, is that there is a universal human inability to perceive
randomness for what it is. Such a fatal flaw would certainly explain
why the casino industry exists, if nothing else. My own experiences were
startling enough to shake me out of the militant atheism into which I'd
settled after rejecting my parents' religious beliefs at the age of 15.
Frogs, we have been taught for decades, cannot see anything that isn't about
the size and shape of and moving like a mosquito. If humans have a similar
blind spot, it would be for randomness. We persist in finding patterns
where elaborate mathematical analysis can prove there are none, and we fail
to notice others which are right in our faces. Yet unlike the frogs, which
sensibly hang out where there are bugs it can see, humans can't get enough
of this blind spot. We go to casinos by the million, deliberately engage
in all kinds of rituals, and seek out random things to interpret as if
they are somehow meaningful. These experiences are so fulfilling that people
regularly destroy themselves in various ways seeking them out.
Scientists decry this kind of activity and their arguments make a lot of
sense; but to someone who has had an extraordinary experience, someone else
who has sensibly avoided the extraordinary situation has no credibility.
And scientists who enter these situations with open minds tend to come out
saying things that ruin their reputations with other scientists. Think of
Wilhelm Reich, or Timothy Leary.
In the end, whatever extraordinary things are accomplished by the Scientific
Method, and whatever extraordinary things are experienced by people who
are willing to experiment with other techniques, the question of whether
the Universe is consistent may not be answerable. We may be able to say
reliably that either we are all crazy or the Universe is crazy, but not,
with any certainty, which of those two statements is the one on which to depend.