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A Physicist’s Ramblings

November 5, 2011

What drives you to do the things you do?  What makes you get up in the morning?  What’s your deepest passion?  As for me, I crave a deeper understanding of what’s going on around me.  I’ve set my aim on discovering something new about the universe before I die.  I want to add some new novel insight into our knowledge of reality.

I’ve never had a subject draw me in like physics does.   It seems like I have the same realization several times a day, “All of this is really going on.  All of these equations, vibrating atoms, oscillating electromagnetic waves, nuclear fusion reactions, etc.  That’s all happening and is the ultimate cause behind what I’m experiencing.”

Dr. Tegmark’s philosophy toward the universe reminds me a lot of John Locke’s primary qualities of objects.  Tegmark views the world as ultimately comprised of mathematical equations and algorithms of some sort.  Those sorts of thoughts have been running through my head lately as I’ve also been reading a book by Stephen Wolfram called A New Kind Of Science.  It explores an idea that reality may ultimately consist of just a few lines of code.  He explores simple algorithms and how they can produce very complicated output, and ties all of that in with the laws of our universe, chaos theory, how deterministic simple processes can produce unpredictable output, and so forth.  I’m still reading it all, so I can’t comment on it yet.  But anyways, Locke drew a distinction between what he called primary and secondary qualities of reality, and primary qualities were very similar to these ideas of Wolfram and Tegmark.  Primary qualities are properties of objects that are independent of any particular observer.  They include things like extension, motion, figure, and number.  Secondary qualities deal with how we subjectively experience those objects, such as smell, taste, and color.

When I first read Locke’s Essay in my late teens, I immediately thought of 3D graphics simulations on computers.  Primary qualities would be like the data structures you use to hold the simulation information.  You might store the 3D environment as a tree of polygons, and so on.  But take the person taking part in the simulation, viewing the computer monitor and navigating in the virtual world by watching the changing images on the computer screen.  All they see is a 3D world, and they have no idea how computer is creating that world absent being able to look at the code.  If they can’t see the code, the simulation engine could be programmed all sorts of different ways.  There’s no way of knowing.

Take the old video game Doom for instance.  When you play the game you see yourself immersed in a 3D environment as so.

But what about the code and data structures which actually produce that world you’re seeing?  Does the game produce those images similar to how the real world produces the images falling on our eyes?  No, not at all.  There’s no light rays shooting around the room, interacting with surfaces, scattering the light, and reflecting back into the player’s eyes.  In fact, the world isn’t even truly 3D.  If you look at the actual code and data structures which the Doom engine uses, you’ll see that it actually stores that 3D room you’re seeing as tree of 2D polygons strung together.

Notice that it’s actually 2D polygons, each with an assigned texture and height.  Textures are shared between polygons to save computer memory.   Neat huh?  Why do that?  It saves computational cycles.  Doom was written back in 1994, back when the top of the line computers were 486 66 Mhz, computers with like 16 MB of RAM.  You had to do things elegantly to save resources.

These sorts of thought experiments are what make me think that space is a subjective experience created by our brain.  True “reality” may well be something like Tegmark and Wolfram are alluding toward – an algorithm or mathematical structure of some sort, far different than how we perceive it.  Our neocortex is arranged in a hierarchy and when it processes images from our eyes, it naturally finds patterns, and patterns within patterns, and that’s what space is.  Our brain doesn’t care how the images were produced.  It’ll find space in any image or sequence of changing images.

I’ve always found it strange that no “space” exists within the computer.  When you’re playing Call of Duty on your XBox, there is no “space” inside the console.  Where does that giant environment you’re playing within exist?  It’s data on a disk.  It’s code.  It’s data structures.  For example, when you’re “moving” your game character, nothing is moving.  An internal variable stored within your character’s data structure, probably something like “WorldPosition.X, WorldPosition.Y, and WorldPosition.Z” are being changed.  The game’s environment isn’t moving.  It’s data on the system’s hard-drive, static and unchanging.  Well, unless the environment is destructible, as is common these days.  Then their vertex points change values, moving the block.

When I think of how the ultimate “reality” could be timeless and could contain all possibilities in some sort of infinite multi-verse, I think of this computer simulation analogy.  It helps me a lot.  For example, think of sitting in front of Microsoft Word.  Now imagine hitting random keys on your keyboard, filling up page after page with text.  Every possible book which could ever be written already exists.  If your fingers just happened to hit the right keys in the right order, a book would emerge.  The same applies to music.  Take a mp3 file.  Within that 10 megabytes of information, every possible song and remix already exists.  If I wrote a program which cycled through every possible combination of 1s and 0s for that 10 megabytes on your disk, every possible song that could ever be played would be played.  They all already exist.  They’ve always existed.  People never “create” anything.

Take the analogy a little further.  Instead of source code on a computer, with 1s and 0s, think of the laws of physics.  Instead of a hard-drive and memory, think of quantum bits of information stored in atoms.  With just a little thought, you see that physics is the programming language of reality.  You look at those equations and you see the “code” running our world.

But this way of viewing the world is missing something very important – it doesn’t handle subjective consciousness well.  It’s like seeing the world as a giant computer running a program, which seems to be largely correct, but it just doesn’t seem to be the entire picture.  The thing is, I’m immersed inside of this world.  I don’t know if I’m actually capable of “doing” anything, and I don’t know if I even have free will.  In fact, most evidence today seems to suggest the contrary.  But I do know I’m currently experiencing reality, and it’s not just information flowing about.  I’ve always struggled with a sort of dualism between those two ideas, objective reality and subjective reality.  I think George Berkeley was right when he criticized Locke’s distinction between primary and secondary qualities way back in 1680-something.  The same arguments apply today when looking at Tegmark or Wolfram’s ideas.  Take an apple.  If you strip it of all its subjective qualities, such as its redness, the way it feels in your hands, its taste, and so on, what’s left?  What’s left for its “objective” reality?  Locke seemed to conceive this sort of geometric shape, information related to its motion, such as inertia, and other “data” and numbers.  Maybe that’s correct?

The ultimate problem is I can’t leave my body and see the world objectively, so how in the world can I know how things exist in and of themselves?  If the true “reality” is data and numbers and mathematical expressions, how would you “experience” that?  Meld with the math?  When I think about the world’s objects, it’s my brain doing the thinking, and it got its information from sensory impressions.  It then runs through its hierarchical process of pattern recognition and I call it “understanding”.  But that doesn’t mean that time is actually flowing how my brain makes me feel it does.  Things may not move how I think they move.  Like in the simulator, I can “move” an object by just changing a few variables at certain memory addresses in the computer.  That changes the images on the screen, which the person then experiences as an object flying across the room.

It is odd though.  When I play Doom, no matter what keys I press, and how much I explore, I’m never going to be able to learn how the game was programmed.  But in our world it’s different.  There’s clues everywhere.  There’s like this fractal structure within the information, baiting us to learn more.  Our universe repeats the same simple processes, over and over and over.  We’ve found a few simple equations which pretty much describe all of reality as we know it.

All the research I’ve been doing into machine vision and the brain are related to how that subjective sense of space is produced from sensory information and patterns.  I’m hoping that by understanding how that works in more detail, maybe it’ll shed some light on how a particular reality can be experienced from unchanging math equations and so forth.  It’s very vague and immaterial in my head.  I still don’t “get” subjective space completely, but I seem to be moving toward something.  I can write code which takes a series of images and the program will produce a “cloud” of 3D data points which resemble the 3D world on the screen.  The points will all lie on the walls, and so forth.  I’m not sure what sort of data structure to use to store the “walls” and rooms.  How does the brain store that information?  Well, it uses a hierarchy of six or so layers, storing patterns, and patterns within patterns, and patterns within those patterns, and so forth, up to six layers deep.

To me, that’s the bridge between subjective reality and objective reality as represented by math equations in physics.  Figuring that problem out. I want to keep studying how that subjective space is built up, and keep studying more and more physics, learning how those equations work.  I’ll keep working at roping the two together.

We’re rapidly approaching the day when we can immerse ourselves in virtual reality.  If you think the world is nothing but what you actually experience, then those worlds are true parallel universes.  You may say, “Oh no, that’s just data in the computer, and signals going through the brain, and so on.”  But an experience is an experience.  That space is space isn’t it?  Why is it a different sort of “space” than “real” space?  People are already interacting in it, having experiences together, and when we have true VR, will be fully immersed within it.  How is that not a true parallel universe?  It seems to me to be one.  Why is our world the “real” one and the others “virtual”?

I think “space” can be created in many different ways.  3D graphics algorithms in computer programming captures one way to do so.   It’s real space.  It produces the proper changes in patterns of information which a brain, which is particular type of information processor, can process and turn into a subjective sense of existing within it.  The code which runs electromagnetic waves, atoms, and how those waves scatter and interact with those groups atoms in physics “stuff” also contains those same patterns of information, which are processed into space.  The light rays form images on our eyes, which in turn give us a sense of existing within space.

But does an “objective” space exist?  I don’t fully understand that.  Things bend and distort in weird ways as you increase your speed, especially near light speed.  You have time dilation and the Lorentz contraction, and mass begins to increase.  I’m still not a master of that level of physics, so I have to keep working at it.   Our subjective “space” starts breaking down and not really working right.  Once that’s gone, you don’t have any intuitive “tools” to help you understand what’s going on.  The mathematical relationships in the equations are all you have.  It’s not easy.  I study it, get frustrated and wore out, study something else, and then go back to it, over and over and over again.  Like in quantum mechanics, things aren’t as separate and can exist in multiple locations at once.  The world of the very small is weird.  It’s all too strange.  This entry is getting too long.

Before I go, one last idea.  The brain is like a hard-drive and computer processor built into one.  It builds up a model of the world from sensory information fed into it.  I speculate that there’s two separate “realities” taking place.  If a reality is information and information processes, there’s the information structure within my brain, which is a certain flow of energy and information, and then there’s information flows outside my body.  When an object moves, the movement that I perceive is based on how the data structures within my brain are changed and manipulated, but “objectively” that movement may be something akin to some variable changing in my simulators I program all the time.  I think the whole “subjective” dynamic is based mostly in the fact that the brain is largely an internally connected information flow, only letting outside information flows in from sensory feeds.

It’s almost 6 AM and I’m dead tired.  I’m typing this while half asleep, so keep that in mind.  I’ll end it here.   I typed this out as is.  Very little proof-reading.  This is how information just spews out of my head onto a page.

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