We are all brought up on the idea that creation is a ‘positive event’, which is to say, the idea that a substantial universe came into being – in whichever way it did come into being – out of nothing. Technically speaking, this type of scenario represents a ‘bottom-up’ approach since we start very humbly from the bottom with a not-very-remarkable nothing and work our way up to a much more grand and splendid something in what can only be described as a thoroughly unambiguous (and therefore gloriously progressive) manner. This way of looking at things doesn’t take too much explaining because it is of course the way we all look at things anyway.
The other way of looking at things (the way which says the so-called creation of the universe was actually a degenerative process, a backwards step rather than a forwards step, a ‘stepping down’ rather than a ‘stepping up’) tends to be deeply unfamiliar to us, and on this account we are more than likely to dismiss it instantly as some kind of ridiculous joke. This is the ‘top-down’ approach. And yet the theory that the universe – the space-time continuum and all the events that proceeded to unfold in it – came into being via an unimaginably colossal drop (or collapse) in complexity rather than the converse scenario is perfectly sound and reputable science. To argue otherwise – that information somehow came into being from zero-information – would not be sound science; in fact it wouldn’t be science at all, despite the fact that we can’t readily see this. We can’t readily see this because we are all so mired in what is called ‘commonsense’ – which is the ubiquitous mental condition in which we uncritically accept stuff that appears on the face of things to make sense, and as a result never bother to look any deeper. After all, when presented with the perfectly (if not brutally) obvious – what need is there to look further?
One way to get a handle on the theory that it is entropy (in the form of a cataclysmic, irreversible information loss) that created the space-time continuum and all subsequent measurable or definable events in it – as opposed to the generally understood idea of ‘positive creation’ – is to first of all imagine that there is such a thing as a zero-entropy world, a world with no redundancy in it at all. We might call this ‘the information world’ or ‘the source world’ (since it is by definition prior to any other sort of world that might come along). This zero entropy world is very different to the one which we are familiar with – it is different in that it has no structure to it, no defined or characteristic features. This is of course a very significant difference since it is only through the defined features of our everyday world that we know anything about it. What we can’t define (or measure), we can’t know.
The lack of characteristic features, or any kind of determinate nature at all to the information world is a direct function of the fact there is no entropy in it. No entropy means no positive features, and the absence of positive features means that we can’t make any observations about this world. We can’t come out with any definite statements about it; we can’t even make any hypotheses, any guesses about it.
We can say just one or two things about the information world, however. We can say that if an event occurs in this world then that event – naturally enough – constitutes information and so this event, like any other event that might occur, is part of the information world. Anything that happens for the first time – we shall say – is a legitimate part of the information world. This is the only criterion that is needed in order for something to be part of the information world – it must itself constitute information. This is of course very straightforward, so extremely straightforward in fact that one might think that it is hardly worth pointing out.
But this is just the first step in our argument. Let us now move on to the next step and suppose that an event happens, and that immediately afterwards whatever it was that happens gets repeated, so that it can be used a precedent or rule. The original event has thus been deemed ‘special’ in some way, and held up as a standard or template for a whole class of events that are to happen in the future. Other possibilites – which have not been deemed special, will then be suppressed or held back (or maybe just disregarded), since it is impossible to promote one specific element of the whole without demoting the rest. What has happened here therefore is that an ‘organizing principle’ has entered the picture – what we would call order has now come into play.
This type of order is however an intrinsically deceptive kind of a thing and not at all what we generally imagine it to be. What we call ‘order’ is deceptive because as soon as a unique or original event is repeated then – unbeknownst to us – it straightaway ceases to be information. The reason that a repeated event ceases to be information is because it is no longer new – it is no longer unique or original. It is a mere copy.
The very essence of information is that it is new, that it hasn’t been prefigured or predetermined by something else, that it isn’t merely an echo or reflection of what has come before. ‘Repeated information’ is redundancy, it is the informational equivalent of dead wood – it is just so much unnecessary padding (or ‘stuffing’), a superfluous elaboration that apparently seems to add something but doesn’t. If an artist comes up with one truly original work but then for the rest of his life keeps on rehashing and re-inventing it in a thousand different ways, to make up for the fact that he has no more ideas, then this is redundancy. Or if a scientist has one breakthrough, paradigm-busting insight, but for the rest of his career makes do with minor adaptations, developments and systematizations of this original flash of insight, this is redundancy. Examples of redundancy abound.
Redundancy is the appearance of something original happening or something new being said, when actually nothing has happened, nothing has been said. We can also think about this in terms of change: if something changes, then this change is – by definition – information; it is something new, something different. But let us now suppose that something changes, and then – after this event – the same change occurs again, for a second time. The event repeats, it is reiterated as if ‘once were not enough’. Well, if the same change occurs again then clearly this isn’t change at all. If the same event occurs a second time, then nothing has changed. The very phrase ‘the same change happens again’ is a contradiction in terms.
So when ‘the same change happens again’, the same event gets repeated a second time, then because nothing has actually changed this does not constitute information. Nothing new happening means no information. But on the other hand, if it so happens that we aren’t really paying much attention to what is going on, or if we perhaps have a very short memory span – then ‘the same change occurring again’ could pass for information. We could perfectly easily mistake it for information, and so this raises the possibility of a whole new ball game – a ball game based on fake information instead of the real thing. What happens then is that the recycled information replaces genuine information and no one notices the difference. This is the principle of simulation – as Jean Baudrillard says, ‘the map does away with the need for the territory’. Or, as we could also say, ‘the recipe does away with the need for the meal’.
When redundancy takes over from information, when the map substitutes for the territory, then something very strange happens. A ghostly image or reflection of the original ‘information world’ is created which – due to our inattention – gets to pass itself off as the real thing. This ghost world is therefore an illusion which is caused by the phenomenon of ‘disguised redundancy’ – it is a hollow fake, the superficial appearance of substance where there is none (‘substance’, in this context, meaning uniqueness rather than regularity, genuine information rather than the same old stuff dressed up as something new, something exciting…)
The possibility of this sort of thing happening is a very interesting theoretical idea, and not necessarily one that might have occurred to us. Who, after all, would expect that unbridled uniqueness could give rise to a world made up entirely of restrictive regularity, a copy-cat world which – despite its blatant inadequacy, its complete inability to take on the job – puts itself, with breathtaking arrogance, in the place of the original world, the ‘source world’ that from which it came, and then ensures that from that moment on no mention is made of what it has just done? No matter how you look at it, this would be a very curious state of affairs: what we have here is a situation in which the child of freedom ungratefully murders the very same freedom which made it possible for it to exist in the first place.
The joke here of course is that this has already happened – the substitution has already happened (the ‘simulation’ in question being none other than the physical universe which we see all around us). The physical universe is only the physical universe because of its logical consistency, because of its inherent regularity, because of its predictability. When we look around us all we see is regularity of one sort or another, predictability of one sort or another. We see the familiar features of our world that we recognize as such precisely because of their predictable characteristics; that is after all precisely what the word ‘feature’ means – it means a set of predictable (and therefore recognizable) characteristics.
Every time I shave in the morning, the face I see in the mirror is always predictably mine; the mirror is predictably a mirror; my bathroom is predictably my bathroom. The razor in my hand is consistent with the one I used the day before – even if it isn’t the same one it is still recognizable as a razor. When I walk out of the door of my house or flat the world I see in front of me is predictably the same world it always was – give or take a few very minor differences perhaps that in no way detract from the fact that it is ‘the same old world’. And as I go through the day, doing whatever it is that I do, the experience I have of being in the world and acting in the world is instantly and unmistakeably recognizable to me as being the same basic type of experience I always have, no matter what daily ‘variations on the theme’ there might be. If this wasn’t the case – if there wasn’t the same basic format for my experience of being in the world – then I would be very worried indeed; in fact I would be more than just worried, I would be frankly terrified…
No matter what the minor variations there might be, dogs are always recognizable as dogs, cats are always recognizable as cats, and rats are always recognizable as rats. Things tend to stay consistently being themselves no matter what minor changes they might undergo, and if they do radically change then this is generally due to external circumstances rather than inherent instability on their part. And even if they are inherently unstable, then it must be the case that they at least hang around long enough for us to get used to them being there, since if they didn’t then we simply wouldn’t have any way of registering them. And if there is this much consistency in the macroscopic world of everyday objects then there is vastly more of that same commodity in the atomic realm – the degree of stability of an electron or a proton is of another order altogether. Wikipedia puts the experimental lower bound for the electron’s mean lifetime at 4.6×1026 years and states that whilst there is no evidence for protons having any instability, some theories do require it and place the half-life of the proton at around 1036 years. This degree of self-consistency is so extraordinarily vast – from our human point of view – that it is a matter of purely theoretical interest.
And if this level of predictability were not enough, we can then go up yet another level and talk about the physical constants such as the speed of light c, the gravitational constant G and the Planck constant h, and the physical laws, which are by definition generally said to both universal in applicability and indefinitely stable in time. These specific physical constants and laws are the regularities that lie behind the universe itself – although not necessarily behind every possible universe. These are the ‘givens’ that lie behind all apparent change, and which themselves do not change. The physical constants and laws constitute the program which run the universe, just any regular computer application needs a program to run it, a program which cannot be affected by anything that happens within the bounds of the functioning of that application.
In general terms, any sort of structure necessarily means that there must be self-consistency in time, which is, as we have been saying, another way of talking about redundancy. The information that an electron is still an electron two hours later or that a proton is still a proton at the end of the week (or that the speed of light remains unchanged six months later, or that the laws of thermodynamics are still in effect one hundred years down the line) is not information at all, since there is not even the tiniest bit of surprise factor involved in this news. It is redundant to say such things.
We do not generally think of structures as being the ‘manifestations of redundancy’ but they are. As Ilya Prigogine says, ‘entropy is the price of structure’. If it wasn’t for entropy then there wouldn’t a universe for us to live in. It seems odd to think of structure as being inseparable from entropy, but this is only because we are not used to thinking in this way; we are used to taking the stability (or predictability) of our structures totally for granted and then focussing on what happens (less predictably) within the context of these structures. When we do this, entropy is not entropy at all but rather it is a necessary baseline – it then becomes the essential prerequisite, the foundation of everything. It seems far too obvious to say that structure is ‘made up of repetition’, but this is all the same undeniably true – it’s just that we don’t see this repetition as mere ‘redundancy’ but as something more positive, something more substantial, something more remarkable.
It does perhaps however make more sense to be talking in this way when we’re thinking about computer simulations. If, for example, I am a simulation programmer and I am designing some kind of virtual 3-D environment (like a city, or a street, or a building), then the first thing I have to do is to programme in the basic consistency – which is of course what we recognize as a city or a street or a building. Then, within this static framework, there needs to be some degree of limited movement or ‘choice of action’, otherwise there would be no freedom to do anything in the simulated world, which would defeat the object in creating it. So there is inbuilt freedom in the overall framework for me to go here or go there, or do this or do that. It is this limited degree of freedom that keeps me entertained, keeps me occupied. The point is however that the actual degree of freedom that we are talking about is remarkably superficial – I can go up this street or down that one, I can walk or hail a cab, I can go into a shopping mall or a fast-food restaurant. I can enter a building, walk around it, go into any room I wish, sit down in a chair or sofa of my choice, watch TV or make myself a cup of tea, take a shower… I can do all these things just so long as they have been provided for me as possibilities within the given structure or framework.
What is constraining me are the ‘rules of the game’, so to speak, and these rules became rules the moment my original free choices as a programmer get translated into the fixed structure of the simulation. So in this way we can look the simulation as a deliberate exercise in losing freedom: to start off with there is perfect freedom with regard to what I might choose to put into the structure, and then as soon as I have written these choices down in the software code they become the exact opposite of free choice – they become an absolute constraint for whoever chooses to enter into the simulation. A simulation is really just another way of talking about a game therefore; or we might say that a simulation is a ‘special case’ of a game where the rules of the game get to be written down in computer code, instead of being ‘tacitly agreed upon’. A game – we might say –requires two things: it requires on the one hand a framework of rules, and it requires on the other hand the would-be player to have the specific outlook or mind-set which sees this framework as being meaningful (which is the state of being ‘in agreement’ with the rules). When two things agree there is only the one thing, and so we can say that to play a game requires just one thing – adhering to the rules.
If the rules of the game can be changed at will then the game will become unplayable – if this is the case then it isn’t a game at all but a ‘free-for-all’. And similarly (seen the other way around) if the would-be player doesn’t actually take the rules of the game particularly seriously – which is to say, if my outlook is not consistent with the framework – then there is no game. If I am for example a star player in a football team playing in the world cup and halfway through the match I take a notion to wander off and write some poetry, then this would mean that my mindset is no longer consistent with the outlook required by the game, and so as far as I am concerned at least, there is no more game. So what this demonstrates is that when we play a game we have to agree to ‘narrow down’ the range of things that we are interested in until it becomes identical to the range of things defined by the agreed-upon framework as being important.
My outlook and the rules of the game have to synchronize; they have to be consistent with each other and this means that they become one and the same thing. The framework now defines what the world is for me; it becomes my whole world – it becomes the only world I know. This is a very straightforward idea – everyone knows this. This is how the game gets to seem real even though it isn’t, this is how the game gets to have flavour, gets to have a taste to it, gets to have an actual bite to it – by creating a totally immersive experience. ‘Immersion’ means being exactly congruent with the way the game wants me to see things; it means being in perfect alignment with the framework and this in turn means maximizing entropy. Whenever I agree to see the world in a way that has previously been decided (i.e. in a non-unique way) then this is redundancy, and that is the long and the short of it – there is absolutely no way that playing a game is not going to involve maximizing redundancy, maximizing entropy. Entropy is what makes the game.
So just as entropy is the price of structure, it’s also the price for being able to play a game (which isn’t at all surprising since a game is a structure and a structure is a game). But what exactly does it mean to ‘pay an entropy debt’? What is an entropy debt and how does one pay it? One answer is to say that an entropy debt translates into less technical terminology as ‘a limitation that we are constitutionally incapable of knowing about.’ So we place ourselves within the context of some structure or other, and in so doing we lose the ability to see that the structure we have adapted ourselves to is only ‘some arbitrary structure’ (which is to say, we lose the ability to see that it isn’t ‘anything special’). We enter into the framework and this framework limits us – as frameworks always do – but because entering into the framework means ‘seeing the world the way the framework wants us to’ whilst we obtain the benefit of getting to see thing as they look from the point of view of the framework we simultaneously pay the cost of losing perspective so that we can’t see that ‘the way things look from the point of view of the framework’ is only the way things look from the point of view of the framework.
The price we pay for structure is therefore simply perspective. In order to obtain structure we have to hand over perspective – if we don’t hand over perspective then we can’t have it. And conversely, if we do have perspective (which is to say if there is zero entropy in the system) then there will be neither sight nor sign of any sort of structure at all, no matter how hard we look. Anything we did see as being ‘a structure’ now gets to be revealed – when all the entropy is removed – as being nothing of the sort. What we call structure is essentially an over-simplification that seems to be ‘not an over-simplification’ when there isn’t enough perspective available to see what’s really going on. Or we could say that structure is an abstraction that we are constitutionally unable to see as such just as long as we are looking at things from the limited point of view that it takes for granted. All this is of course simply going around in circles – the point is structure (or determinate form) and loss of perspective (which is to say, entropy) are ultimately two ways of talking about the same thing.
We could also answer the question as to what ‘paying an entropy debt’ means by looking at it in terms of information and saying that paying an entropy debt means trading in information for virtual information, which is something that ‘looks like information but isn’t’. What’s more virtual information isn’t really something that ‘looks like information but isn’t’ because it isn’t actually anything at all.
And finally, we would also have to say that paying an entropy debt means exchanging information for virtual information (or ‘confirmation’) without actually having any way of being aware that any exchange has in fact taken place…’
With regard to games then, the price we have to pay for being able to play them is that we have to lose the ability to see that everything that goes on in the game – no matter how incredibly important it might seem to us at the time – is profoundly meaningless outside of the context of that game. Stated thus, of course, the principle does not sound too radically different to anything we might have thought on the subject before. It is not too hard or too disturbing an idea to take on board. This is just the thin edge of the wedge however as far as disturbing ideas go. The point is that anything which makes sense within an agreed-upon framework, a prescribed way of seeing things, is meaningless outside of that framework. Any framework is going to be like this, since all frameworks – because they are standards or templates for interpreting reality – produce ‘non-unique’ information, information that is made up of regularities, information that is not actually information at all but only seems to be. From the point of view of the framework…
This being the case, the next thing we have to do is look around for another example of a framework – other than the example of a formal game or simulation. The first one we come to – by virtue of its proximity, so to speak – is the everyday rational mind, which is the box we live in almost all of the time, without ever realizing it to be a box. The rational mind is a perfect example of a framework, a standard or a template for interpreting reality. It is also a perfect example of a game, or simulation, although we never see it as such. The only way the everyday rational mind wouldn’t be a game – in the technical sense of the word – would be if it wasn’t ‘everyday’ at all and if what it showed us was utterly and completely unique. But if this were the case then what the mind would be showing us would of course be entirely useless to us – we would not be able to use the picture we see in order to recognize the world, navigate the world, pre-empt the world, manipulate the world, classify or communicate about the world, and so we would be ‘all at sea’, without any helpful angle, without any advantage at all.
The very fact that we can recognize the world, predict it, classify it, manipulate it, agree on it, talk about it and so on proves that our view of it is made up of regularities, and regularities – by the argument we have put forward at the beginning of this discussion – cannot be anything other than redundancy. There is no way out of this –the rational mind is by its very nature a prolific producer of confirmation-type information. Far from being the author of a ‘once-off event’, this mind gets used over and over again ad infinitum, and every time it does get used we have the remarkable illusion that we are ‘seeing the world anew’. But this is clearly not the case – what we perceive as information is all ‘after the event’, it’s all just an echo, a standardized and therefore infinitely reproducible version of an original that can never be standardized, or reproduced…
And then the next thing we come to, after the rational mind, is the physical universe itself. The whole point of this discussion has been to show that anything that is regular, definable, predetermined, rule-based, framework-based, non-unique, etc is a simulation. Anything regular is a simulation. The physical, tangible universe – to the extent that it is regular, predictable, definable, etc – is therefore a cosmic simulation. If it is definable, measurable, knowable, and so on, then it must be a simulation because it is non-unique.
Furthermore, if the tangible universe is a simulation (even a cosmic one) then all the measurable / definable / knowable events that happen within it are meaningful only within the narrow terms of the simulation. Outside of these special terms they are illusion, and – as the Buddha has said – “are to be compared to a dream, a phantasm, a bubble, a shadow, a drop of dew, a flash of lightening.”
Author: Nick Williams
Nick Williams works and writes in the field of mental health and is particularly interested in non-equilibrium states of consciousness, which are states of mind that cannot be validated by standardized experiments or by reference to any formal theoretical perspective.