Wolfram Wolfram Wolfram

In class I feel we are giving Wolfram much more credit than he is due. The idea of molecular determinism (that everything is a result of a starting condition and a set of rules) has been around for over a century, and even the idea of the universe functioning like a giant cellular automaton was first suggested by Konrad Zuse in 1967. Maybe next he will talk about his brilliant new idea that DNA has a double helix structure, or that energy and mass are different sides of the same coin. Aside from that, I am not convinced of the importance of the idea that the universe is a giant CA. This seems like a fairly typical example of using new technology as an analogy for everything. Back when the steam engine was new, Freud had a great idea that the mind worked by building up and venting pressure. Then when telephones became popular, the mind became a giant switchboard. Filling in scientific voids with the latest technology is tempting, but not necessarily valid or important. Not only that, but saying that the universe is a giant CA still begs the question, "Why?" Where did it come from? Why are the rules such as they are? It does not really model or explain anything new that traditional molecular determinism does not.


Kathy Maffei's picture

Good point - his ideas may not be terribly original, but I do see some value in considering them. Consider everything to be encodable and consider how simple rules can lead to complex behavior in CAs - couldn't a few simple rules lead to the complexity we experience? The existence of rules doesn't require a programmer or a purpose - rules like gravity exist now, and I don't need to know why or who created it. Setting aside our resistance to anything that sounds like determinism, I think we have to admit that it might be possible to get the complexity of our universe from something like an incredibly huge CA with some simple rules. I don't believe that the ability to think is proof of free will and therefore disproof of Wolfram's idea, either. It seems to me that a person's thoughts are affected by ambient conditions (just like those little cells).
Kathy Maffei's picture

Ah, I wrote this before finishing Langton's Ants. Such a simple concept, I really wish I'd considered it myself: adding randomness to the rules. Well, there you go. Couldn't Wolfram's digital universe exist with free will, as long as we toss a little randomness into the rules? Free will and randomness aside, I have no issue with the idea of considering the universe as a program of sorts. Maybe not specifically digital, since digits are arguably human constructs, but the universe is surely a system wherein rules govern the interaction of its parts, a system that changes as time progresses. If there were no rules, our system would not exist (chaos theory aside). Therefore, our system - our universe - isn't separable from the rules that govern its existence. Just like a running program. Perhaps it's just semantics or - as David says - a matter of using new technology as an analogy for the unknown. Either way, I think there's nothing wrong with using new frames of reference to examine the unknown - why not try them on for size? Perhaps the mind is like a steam engine with its chemical reactions and building up of energy surpassing thresholds, while also being like a switchboard with its connections. Applying various paradigms to something mysterious can help us see it in new ways and see where it is and is not similar to other things. I think analogies are useful tools, when used critically.
DavidRosen's picture

The idea itself is very interesting, and I personally believe in molecular determinism. I program computer games that use simple deterministic rules to generate the illusion of free will, so it is very easy to see how that could work in real life. My main problem is that we keep referring to these ideas as if Wolfram was the first to propose them, for example by referring to the question of agents vs. non-agents as "Wolfram's Challenge". It is a worthwhile question, but he was not the first to propose it, so I feel like every time we say "Wolfram" we are just inflating his already-ridiculously-overblown ego.