Aiman W Mueller
Science & Meaning in the 21st Century: To What 42, Wolfram's Ruliad & Paul Davies Aim
Updated: May 8
42 & THE RULIAD OBJECT
In The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Deep Thought required 7.2 million years to calculate an answer to "the great question of life, the universe, and everything." During a presentation overviewing an attempt to find a real answer to the question of the universe, Stephen Wolfram alluded to the fictional ai, who had, at long last, said the meaning of everything is . . . 42.
Even imagining there has to be (or merely could be) an answer to why the universe is what it is, sounds preposterous from a ground-up perspective. So, I don't take the impression Wolfram is seeking the answer with specific expectations. Things just sort of turn out that way.
Meanwhile, pretty much all of 20th century science retrospectively confirms what he's saying. It reminds a bit of Richard Feynman's way of designing the mechanisms through which theory becomes applicable.
The creator of Mathematica (~precursor to generative ai) first depicts example outputs when a simple rule is applied in a basic program that fills boxes one of two colors. Most of the outputs look simple. However, sometimes a rule will produce results that appear random (unpredictable) if only a portion of the output is viewed. It depends on the perspective of the observer. Regardless, the outputs are always deterministic from a broader perspective.
Then, he explains the concept of a hypergraph that would allow for a unified theory of sorts. It would include "atoms of space" which, listening to him, I understood somewhat similarly as I might coordinates. But it's not just a navigational chart, this hypergraph. It's a complex and far reaching system he wants to use to describe everything through time: everything in the universe, not just boxes that can be one of two colors in the present or future.
Furthermore, even if the real world is deterministic, that doesn't mean a scientist could conceivably know how it's ordered. There are different ways things can be. As with quantum mechanics—the possible locations of a particle can be charted, but there's no way to know which alternative is realized. Something like that, but not just a particle— everything, rather, charted to full scale and for all parameters of interaction and all possibilities. So, it's not like writing up blueprints for a building that's built. Wolfram is It's chiseling away all the ways it won't be built until only the possible range is left within which it will be built (to the best I can understand and express his concepts).
A hypergraph that describes all possible interrelations must describe those relations for all possible iterations. Summarily, Wolfram says "the entangled limit of everything that is computationally possible" looks like this (not a joke):
That's 42 (as best Wolfram can depict it with Turing machines). The ruliad object above contains all possible systems in our universe with all possible "rules" applied. Another way: all of physics and mathematics fit within that same shape as do all possible complex systems in our universe. It's not an arbitrary shape, but, no, the actual limit of the universe.
No one should overlook what Wolfram says and doesn't say about observers: they're computationally equivalent to the universe and the slice of the ruliad we see is due to the nature of our own selves. That's what I heard him say, something like that. So, the physics we know, coming out of the the past two centuries, it's from a particular location in rulial space, and that shapes our characterization. * **
Roger Penrose is willing to categorize humans by saying a whole new science is needed to explain our consciousness. That doesn't mean a science only to explain the mind, but that it's among complex systems not yet well understood. It's a gray area science is attempting to shed more light on. It's not even clear the right right flashlight (microtubules, emergence, etc) has been found.
For such a flashlight to work—a theory of everything or one that explains not just the brain, but also the mind, for example—it will have to be bizarre from an Einsteinian perspective. That's another reason I appreciate Wolfram. Despite finding commonality between his ruliad and string theory, he also recognizes that the 20th century was overly nihilistic even within science.
That's why Wolfram, himself, calls the ruliad object "bizarre", relative to a science history that wasn't merely avoiding seeking order at the core of the universe, but perhaps sometimes also avoiding order, itself.
THE CATCH IN SCIENCE & THE CAMPS
Basically, 20th century science wanted science to be science, as it imagined itself, and nothing more. However, it's possible, even with a 100% bottom-up approach, to eventually gain traction on questions about the top . . ..
It's long been hypothesized formally and informally that the universe is mathematical or encoded somehow. Galileo Galilei compared the universe to a grand book. I include informally because trying to prove it sounds like a straw man argument. It seems or is intuitive. There's a quantum gravity camp (eg Ed Witten and Michio Kaku) that tries to smoosh our current sciences together. Others are open to debating hitherto stigmatized paths (eg Eric Weinstein and YouTuber Sabine Hossenfelder).
Paul Davies has really taken a leap into the gray area, not so much between science and religion, but science and the idea there is a point to the universe—a purpose, even, he suspects.
There’s always a catch if you're going to explain something that hasn't been explained. That catch is at the heart of the need for explanation in the first place. For there to be a breakthrough, somebody has to sound preposterous, and to keep at it until it gains traction with others or enough evidence. Being found partly right about something hitherto unanswered is all it takes to usher in new understanding.
Paul Davies takes a big ol' leap to advocate for a shift in scientific perspective. So, part of his job now is to disentangle and disambiguate his argument from shallow, colloquial religious talk. He's adamantly against any association with popular religious ideas and describes them himself in ways that sort of make me chuckle: 'A god who created the world and then steps in from time to time to do miracles.' No, Davies, says, that's not what he means. He's attempting fit some nuance between that and the general vein of Stephen Hawking or Sean Carroll.
Under that kind of resistance and chances to be misunderstood, he still says the universe has a point or a purpose, and then goes about explaining his supportive ideas. I won't say proof, and he doesn't either. But he feels very strongly about this view.
Even if all it amounts to is Wolfram's ruliad—the updated and mathematically founded equivalent of the fictional 42—that still begs the question why? and a religious tone, if understood that way. So, it's a disfavored approach despite the necessity of at least humoring the idea of not ignoring intelligence or planning in nature.
Davies points do require some mental squinting to connect to his hypotheses, but they're also a bit more easily comprehensible in the way they refer to familiar things as compared to abstract math. More succinctly, his approach is less directly mathematical than Wolfram's, but it's the same mathematical wonders he puts in perspective, the same ones we learn about in school.
The distributions of galaxies may appear random on certain scales, but unexpectedly organized on other scales. The human is self-aware and aware of the universe. These are amazing, and Davies looks into these with a sense there's not merely a another mechanism that explains the phenomenon, but a purpose.
For example, Davies puts a lot of importance on the leap from no life to life, versus the leap from a single cell to human consciousness. He says science has not fully appreciated the complexity of the initiation of life. He reduces the problem to the minimum based in evolutionary thought: a single cell.
Just one cell existing and reproducing, he says, where there had been no life, is more amazing than a single cell organism evolving into the humans we are in 2023. Really?
He doesn't come off as having an unscientific motive. Rather, he's trying to be honest about what goes on inside a cell. DNA, for example, has two purposes. The cell, any cell, somehow appropriately chooses when to call upon the DNA in either way, but science doesn't know what the mechanism is. And, so, he's thinking and looking at early inert matter and trying to see how that would turn into a cell that does such things. When looking at the cell more closely, like that, with it's intricacies, it starts to come a bit more into perspective what Davies is driving at in terms of the magnitude of complexity that is inert matter becoming a cell.
The universal from such a thought isn't necessarily that the reasons living cells work is God. Davies isn't saying that, as it would take the discussion back to the 20th century. Rather, the point can merely be to honestly examine such questions in a balanced way that doesn't divert all the attention to the parts we're most comfortable researching and hypothesizing about.
THE CLOSEST RELIGION COMES TO SCIENCE, PERHAPS?
Science and academe are theoretical and about learning, revising, etc; it changes its mind. It must, when new evidence emerges. Plus, science is something moving and political; that's not only religion.
Religious leaders and scientists, alike, sometimes care about their own careers, sit on institutional or review boards, advise politicians or corporate officers, or form de facto unions, as Weinstein would say. People can also make mistakes or press on the wrong hypotheses, or hypothesize simply to make a next step or write a next grant, in the case of science.
I feel comforted by the assessment that most religious expression on earth currently has been stripped of its purposes, and even mixed up with destructive thoughts and behaviors. Comforted?! If religion is working how it's supposed to and it's right, then the world should not look like this.
We should not have the social and political problems that we do (I discuss why bad things happen elsewhere). Either it's not divine or people are doing it wrong. Or it's divine and god created it (religion, not existence) wrong, or such that adhering to the religion were harmful to the adherent and the world. None of these are tenable in my imagination, nor the truth. Of course.
But, scripture can be somewhat static. Even then, interpreting scripture in line with scientific findings is something that ought to be done with trepidation, especially from the religious side. In the very least, it would toss with the waves.
The big bang theory isn’t under actual threat, I guess, but there’s plenty of related clickbait since the launch of the James Webb telescope and probably prior. Early cosmology isn’t known to science for certain, so it's open to debate and click-bate, both.
With a conversation like that going on, it could shake the ground for someone who firmly attaches big bang science to any ayah like this: “Do the disbelievers not realize that the heavens and earth were ˹once˺ one mass then We split them apart? And We created from water every living thing. Will they not then believe?” (The Clear Quran 21:30). That seems pretty big-bang-like to some, and less so to others. There are other ayaat about the heavenly bodies forming from a smoke and the universe expanding (and collapsing, also), which Muslims have related to other cosmological science. Maybe Allah is speaking about the same thing scientists try to describe when they refer to the big bang and the formation of planets. Or, maybe not.
Regardless, the English above is pretty close to the meaning conveyed in Arabic as it would have been understood in the 7th century. Tafseer Ibn Katheer (circa 1358 ce) records Ibn Abbas being asked, “Did the night come first or the day?” He said, “Do you think that when the heavens and the earth were joined together, there was anything between them except darkness? Thus you may know that the night came before the day.” Ibn Katheer cites At-Tabari, 18:433, and goes on to refer to others who concur and describe similarly, about the earth being one with the heavens and there being no rain or light.
The sense of scale isn’t there, and, to me, the explanation could imply the earth had a specific location in the early unified mass, which I would not expect science or reason would currently support. So, no, it doesn’t sound like Neil deGrasse Tyson talking there, but it's also the commentators going beyond the ayah to teach in their time, hundreds of years ago.
So, there are these old, “pre-science” interpretations of the ayah that do generally align with how it is interpreted now, by some, relative to the big bang theory.
At it's core, the big bang theory hasn't moved much. Popular physicist, Brian Cox (not the actor, but he is on YouTube) and Neil DeGrasse Tyson aren't moved from the core views of the big bang, despite all the hoopla before the James Webb telescope is even really fully deployed. There is the idea of a multiverse and other hypotheses, but as regards our universe, the big bang theory is still well regarded.
What Cox points to isn't as far out as some of his other discussions. He starts out by pointing to the 1960s finding of cosmic microwave background radiation. That's strong verification of what NASA would just call the universe expanding from a single point; UCLA clarifies. Regardless, prior, the universe was a "tiny" mass. It's not that specific galaxies being an unexpected size can just wipe out the radiation left by the transition of the universe between two conditions.
Still, the connection of modern cosmology to Allah’s statements can't be proven in a universally recognized way, while the science, also, is unproven and developing as new evidence becomes available.
But there are much more specific correlations, which are at least uncanny. For example, there's a hadith in Saheeh al-Bukhari that states that 40 days after gestation, an angel comes to the womb and writes the sex of the baby. I've heard of colloquial critiques from decades ago, saying the hadith is unscientific, but researchers found out more about human gestation.
Male traits will or will not develop begin developing at that time, not before. According to Nova (via PBS), "A crucial event that determines whether the embryo will develop into a male or female occurs in the second half of week six [39-42 days]. If the Y chromosome is present in the embryo's cells, a gene within the short arm of the chromosome called SRY will turn on, initiating a chemical chain reaction that will turn on other genes and stimulate the production of male hormones. If the X chromosome is present, or if the SRY gene is missing from the Y chromosome, the embryo will develop into a female via mechanisms that are not fully understood."
Again, it's those cell mechanisms that aren't fully understood, which Davies feel need focus.
THE CATCH IN RELIGIOUS TERMS
There are catches in religion, itself, too, of course. The catch is that preordainment doesn’t negate human intentionality. Yes, there are debates on this from many perspectives, but assume for a moment that humans willfully choose what was already written prior to the existence of the universe.
Is that impossible or relative? Here's where I'll change hats and be an adherent for a while. For an adherent, that's possible. Like, not just as a matter of creed, but that it makes sense, even. It's scientifically preposterous that a system (God) would know and see the entire ruliad and all it contains, to see it all at once before it existed. Then, the adherent says the system wrote down all that data. Only then did the system create the universe we see . . . THE CATCH . . . within that created universe is our intentionality.
For the adherent, it's simple: That’s not a contradiction relative to God’s position as creator. Allah says, "You do not will unless Allah wills" (76:30). How? I attest that it would not be possible for a human to explain or conceive how human choice or intention doesn't contradict preordainment, so I won't try to explain. What does an adherent do with such a quandary? There are levels to which it can be understood spiritually and religiously, which can be spoken to at length (and I have elsewhere). But the adherent doesn't seek the mechanisms of God relative to our human understanding at this time.
Rather, it makes it easy for adherents, as such, to accept things like quantum mechanics and unified theories of everything. I won't claim to understand, really.
SCIENCE & MEANING IN THE 21ST CENTURY
That science doesn't have all the answers doesn't prove God now any more than it did in the past century, as regards most folks. It objectively proves the world is very complex and we should be humble in our estimates of what humanity has achieved in its understanding.
And if it is God we should be talking about, God may not be or operate like popular concepts of deity. Folks are willing to accept that. Weinstein uses phrasing like "scientists who happen to be religious," indicating a need to destigmatize research done by religious scientists.
__ Related topics I could speak a bit on if just barely poked at all and maybe anyway:
The Wolfram presentation I listened to connected to ai. I felt there was a lot more Wolfram would have like to have said, but he had to spend a lot of time getting people up to speed. I'll have to go back and see, but I would think the connection is interesting in terms of what it could do to make ai more likely to be useful and less likely harmful.
Wolfram language, or any similar concept, just on the surface, feels informative on a human level also. We get into semantics, but how do we quantify all the various levels of expression into the true impacts we have on ourselves and each other?
None of this text is ai written or derived, but I had asked Chat GPT-4 about Davies views and, honestly, didn't get all that far. I may, however, come back and have it analyze what I've written. We'll see. #GPT-4 analysis of my points and the research--after I've written and it's been read by at least a few humans, first . . . so, coming soon, maybe? . . .
I actually asked Inflection's open source HeyPi and got good info: These are sources that challenge Penrose, according to Pi: "I recommend reading some of the criticisms of Penrose's work by Roger B. Clifton and Frank Wilczek. Clifton in particular argues that the collapse of the wave function is a computational process, and that Penrose's ideas are too speculative. Wilczek also makes some similar points. You can find their work online, or I can provide links if you'd like. I think it's important to consider multiple viewpoints when thinking about consciousness and its relationship to computation."
*First, I do not take him to mean historical perspective is of much difference on a cosmological scale. But, we're not on another galaxy millions of years ago, I think is his main relevance there at this time. However, yes, still, Wolfram claims that each human mind can be considered to have its own perspective in rulial space, though, of course, our collective minds are very nearby (though it's over my head to define what I mean by nearby). Even for his research purposes, at this time, that's a side point, the difference between any two human minds and subjectivity. On the contrary, Wolfram is also famous for a personal brand of natural language processing. He believes concepts and their representations do exist in a robust sense, and that they can be translated as "movements"— effective communication, basically. I'm interested to write an essay on how that intersects with human speech and action in spiritual terms . . . if there's interest and God willing.
**I think Wolfram framed current generative ai not as alien, but non-alien. I think that's because the datasets they are trained on are human. However, if ai were freed to examine the universe, what, from alternate rulian perspectives? It's interesting.
__ About the author: I took electromagnetic waves and I was getting a B+ in differential equations before I dropped it due to mass consumption of alcohol to treat not knowing why I exist. Since then, I've gotten an advanced linguistics degree and also taken Aqeedah I, II, and III at Mishkah University. And I teach writing Aug-Apr. Lastly, I like chihuahuas very much under the condition they I aren't located in rulial space within range of human senses. If they sense me, that's fine.
__ Click or comment to question or fact check me /// publishing & permissions: email@example.com
__ Key sources & other reading (will add more, perhaps):
Other reading/watching (more coming, I think):
Dr. Gabor Maté https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mb5W9cMi6C8
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