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Life According to the Turing Machine

Is there more to the world than just data and digits?

John sat down at the kitchen table for breakfast. He poured himself a big bowl of bit-o-byte flakes and topped it off with a slosh of random milk. After a couple of big crunchy mouthfuls with his Turing spoon to reoptimize his compression ratio, John sat back and sipped at his virtual machine coffee.

It was a pleasant morning. The principal components of the digitized sun were just visible above the trie data structure on the mountains in the distance. Thanks to the large rain bandwidth from the night before, the tries were well balanced, throwing off sparkles as the sun’s rays traced through to his viewport.

What a wonderful world, he mused, and to think it all came from a dovetail Turing machine, churning away on an infinite stream of binary digits randomly emerging from the universal entropy generator.  Yet, this morning was slightly different than the rest. A new thought entered John’s mind. Could there be something beyond this world?

John decided to call his friend Bob and bounce his radical idea off his friend’s very insightful mind.  “Bob, I was looking at the beautiful morning sunrise, and a thought occurred to me. How do I know this world is all there is?”

Bob thought a second, and replied, “Well, that’s simple. We can’t know if there’s anything more. How can we leave our world, our very state of existence, to look for something beyond? It doesn’t make any sense. So, since this world is all we can know, then there is no point in wondering whether there is anything else.”

Bob’s response made a lot of sense, but John still wasn’t sure. “For one thing, if it is impossible to know there is anything besides our world, why did I wonder about such a thing in the first place?”

Bob again had a ready retort. “The entropy generator, of course! It is the source of all novelty and variety in our world, including our very thoughts. No wonder it sometimes throws an off-the-wall idea into your head.”

That made sense to John. If the entropy generator could generate the beautiful sun, tries, and sparkles, as well as a delicious crunchy breakfast, it could just as well have generated his crazy ideas. But what if the entropy generator had not created all these wonderful things he saw every day? There seemed to be something missing in what Bob said.

“Bob, how do we know the entropy generator is the source of everything? Everyone I know, myself included, has believed in the entropy generator as the source of everything since as long as we can remember. But I don’t know why I believe that to be true. Do you?”

Another prompt response from Bob. “Simplicity itself. Look around you. What are the two basic forces you see at work in everything? We see randomness creating variety, and computation making sure everything keeps running. That’s it.  Randomness and computation. Now, we also know computation never creates anything new. It just keeps on doing the same thing it always does. But we live in a world of variety, not sameness. Since computation cannot create variety, that means computation cannot have created our world. That leaves randomness as the only possible creator of our world. The entropy generator creates randomness, and so it is the source of everything.”

“Very logical indeed!” exclaimed John, pleased with how neatly it all fit together. Yet, still, a doubt remained. “I really enjoy a cup of random milk, and I like to put it in almost everything I eat. If what you say is true, that randomness creates everything, wouldn’t I notice my random milk constantly creating new worlds?”

Bob gave John a big smile. “Well done, John.  An excellent question. This brings us back to computation. Randomness by itself just creates gibberish. That’s why your milk never creates a world, it is just pure randomness. What is needed to turn that gibberish into the incredible things we see around us is computation. When the randomness is processed by computation, then out the other end we get order and variety instead of chaos.”

At this point, John was no longer feeling so convinced. “When I eat my cereal in the morning, I scoop it up with my Turing spoon, which runs computations on the random milk to ensure optimal deliciousness. Yet, I still never see new worlds popping out of my spoon. This leads me to believe that we are missing something.”

Bob also began to look a bit perplexed. “Hmm, you raise a good point. Yet, it seems to be an impossibility. As we originally discussed, this world is all we can know, and it is powered by just two forces: randomness and computation. But now, as you point out, we don’t see the two forces creating worlds as we eat our salivatingly crunchy bits-o-bytes cereal. This is very perplexing.”

John suddenly had another new thought. “See here, we do have another possibility. We started our discussion by saying our ideas are created by the entropy generator. However, that idea has led us down a dead end.  It looks like neither randomness nor computation can create new things. Yet, these ideas I’ve had seem to be truly new, and they came from my mind. What if our minds can create new things?”

Bob stared at John skeptically. “What a bunch of balderdash! Our minds come from randomness and computation, so if the two fundamental forces cannot create new things, then neither can our minds.”

John gave a smile. “Therein lies the rub. What if our minds did not come from randomness and computation? This would also solve the original difficulty we faced that this world is all we can know. We know our minds as well as this world, and if our minds did not come from randomness and computation, then we do know something beyond this world. In fact, we know our minds even better than the world, since everything we know about the world comes through our mind.  What do you think?”

Bob raised an eyebrow. “Interesting train of thought. This would resolve the various problems we encountered. But it raises even bigger problems. Such as, if newness comes from minds, then our world of variety must have been created by a mind, not the entropy generator. Who created our world? Even more disconcerting, if our minds are not of this world, then are we not actually here?”

Suddenly, the entire world began to shake and shimmy. The colors began to bleed into each other, and objects began to lose their form. Bob and John were terrified, clinging to their chairs, which had started to melt into the floor.

Then, the world suddenly went blue, and John was alone. All he could see were some words floating in front of him. He squinted, and all he could make out was something about “error has occurred” and “press any key to continue”. It made no sense and gave him a headache. Or rather, something large and heavy sitting on his head was giving him a headache. Or maybe all the above. John was very confused.

John reached up to figure out what the heavy thing was and gave a big push. John could see again!

He was sitting in a recliner in what seemed to be a gaming arcade. Right next to him, Bob was also lying down and thrashing about, wearing what looked like a motorcycle helmet and a fancy spacesuit. Around the room various other people also were waving their arms and legs, some yelling for help.

A group of attendants rushed in, along with a very apologetic man in a suit.

“Hi everyone, I am so sorry the Normal Life Simulator 10.0 crashed. The engineers assured me they’d fixed the bug, but this is the tenth time! We tried to wipe your memories to make the experience completely immersive. Yet every time the same thing happens, and the memory wipe begins to degrade, causing system instability and the simulator crashes. We will, of course give you all a full refund, and hope you try again when we come out with Normal Life Simulator 11.0!”

John stretched and groaned. Now he remembered! He and Bob were trying out the new immersive reality system, which had promised to be a lot of fun. “Virtually just like real life!” as the advertisements proclaimed. All it did was give John a headache, and feeling he’d just wasted a couple of hours of his life. Oh well, at least he and Bob would have something to talk about at the bowling alley this evening, such as whether those same arguments applied to the real world.

Eric Holloway

Senior Fellow, Walter Bradley Center for Natural & Artificial Intelligence
Eric Holloway is a Senior Fellow with the Walter Bradley Center for Natural & Artificial Intelligence, and holds a PhD in Electrical & Computer Engineering from Baylor University. A Captain in the United States Air Force, he served in the US and Afghanistan. He is the co-editor of Naturalism and Its Alternatives in Scientific Methodologies.

Life According to the Turing Machine