Many scientists, mathematicians, futurists, and philosophers are embracing the idea that our reality is digital these days. In fact, it would be perfectly understandable to wonder if digital philosophy itself is tainted due to the tendency of humans to view ideas through the lens of their times. We live in a digital age, surrounded by computers, the Internet, and smart phones, and so might we not be guilty of imagining that the world behaves just as a multi-player video game does? We probably wouldn’t have had such ideas 50 years ago, when, at a macroscopic level at least, everything with which we interacted appeared analog and continuous. Which came first, the digital chicken, or the digital philosophy egg?
Actually, the concepts of binary and digital are not at all new. The I Ching is an ancient Chinese text that dates to 1150 BCE. In it are 64 combinations of 8 trigrams (aka the Bagua), each of which clearly contain the first three bits of a binary code.
Many other cultures, including the Mangareva in Polynesia (1450), and Indian (5th to 2nd century BCE), have used binary encodings for communication for thousands of years. Over 12,000 years ago, African tribes developed a binary divination system called Odu Ifa.
German mathematician and philosopher Gottfried Leibniz is generally credited as developing the modern binary number system in 1679, based on zeros and ones. Naturally, all of these other cultures are ignored so that we can maintain the illusion that all great philosophical and mathematical thought originated in Europe. Regardless of Eurocentric biases, it is clear that binary encoding is not a new concept. But what about applying it to the fundamental construct of reality?
It turns out that while modern digital physics or digital philosophy references are replete with sources that only date to the mid-20th century, the ancient Greeks (namely Plato) believed that reality was discrete. Atoms were considered to be discrete and fundamental components of reality.
A quick clarification of the terms “discrete”, “digital”, “binary”, “analog”, and “continuous” is probably in order:
Discrete – Having distinct points of measurement in the time domain
Digital – Having properties that can be encoded into bits
Binary – Encoding that is done with only two digits, zeros and ones
Analog – Having continuously variable properties
Continuous – The time domain is continuous
So, for example, if we encode the value of some property (e.g. length or voltage) digitally using 3 values (0, 1, 2), that would be digital, but not binary (rather, ternery). If we say that between any two points in time, there is an infinitely divisible time element, but for each point, the value of the measurement being performed on some property is represented by bits, then we would have a continuous yet digital system. Conversely, if time can be broken into chunks such that at a fine enough temporal granularity there is no concept of time between two adjacent points in time, but at each of these time points, the value of the measurement being performed is continuously variable, then we would have a discrete yet analog system.
In the realm of consciousness-driven digital philosophy, it is my contention that the evidence strongly supports reality being discrete and digital; that is, time moves on in “chunks” and at each discrete point in time, every property of everything can be perfectly represented digitally. There are no infinities.
I believe that this is a logical and fundamental conclusion, regardless of the fact that we live in a digital age. There are many reasons for this, but for the purposes of this particular blog post, I shall only concentrate on a couple. Let’s break down the possibilities of our reality, in terms of origin and behavior:
- Type 1 – Our reality was created by some conscious entity and has been following the original rules established by that entity. Of course, we could spend a lifetime defining “conscious” or “entity” but let’s try to keep it simple. This scenario could include traditional religious origin theories (e.g. God created the heavens and the earth). It could also include the common simulation scenarios, a la Nick Bostrom’s “Simulation Argument.”
- Type 2 – Our reality was originally created by some conscious entity and has been evolving according to some sort of fundamental evolutionary law ever since.
- Type 3 – Our reality was not created by some conscious entity, and its existence sprang out of nothing and has been following primordial rules of physics ever since. To explain the fact that our universe is incredibly finely-tuned for matter and life, materialist cosmologists dreamt up the idea that we must exist in an infinite set of parallel universes, and via the anthropic principle, the one we live only appears finely-tuned because it has to in order for us to be in it. Occam would be turning over in his grave.
- Type 4 – Our reality was not created by some particular conscious entity, but rather has been evolving according to some sort of fundamental evolutionary law from the very beginning.
I would argue that in the first two cases, reality would have to be digital. For, if a conscious entity is going to create a world for us to live in and experience, that conscious entity is clearly highly evolved compared to us. And, being so evolved, it would certainly make use of the most efficient means to create a reality. A continuous reality is not only inefficient, it is theoretically impossible to create because it involves infinities in the temporal domain as well as any spatial domain or property.
I would also argue that in the fourth case, reality would have to be digital for similar reasons. Even without a conscious entity as a creator, the fundamental evolutionary law would certainly favor a perfectly functional reality that doesn’t require infinite resources.
Only in the third case above, would there be any possibility of a continuous analog reality. Even then, it is not required. As MIT cosmologist and mathematician Max Tegmark succinctly put it, “We’ve never measured anything in physics to more than about sixteen significant digits, and no experiment has been carried out whose outcome depends on the hypothesis that a true continuum exists, or hinges on nature computing something uncomputable.” Hence there is no reason to assume, a priori, that the world is continuous. In fact, the evidence points to the contrary:
- Infinite resolution would imply that matter implodes into black holes at sub-Planck scales and we don’t observe that.
- Infinite resolution implies that relativity and quantum mechanics can’t coexist, at least with the best physics that we have today. Our favorite contenders for rationalizing relativity and quantum mechanics are string theory and loop quantum gravity. And they only work with minimal length (aka discrete) scales.
- We actually observe discrete behavior in quantum mechanics. For example, a particle’s spin value is always quantized; there are no intermediate states. This is anomalous in continuous space-time.
For many other reasons, as are probably clear from the evidence compiled on this site, I tend to favor reality Type 4. No other type of reality structure and origin can be shown to be anywhere near as consistent with all of the evidence (philosophical, cosmological, mathematical, metaphysical, and experimental). And it has nothing to do with MMORPGs or the smart phone in my pocket.