The universe and perpetual motion

My brother likes to be useful to the world by participating in BOINC (Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing) projects, in which the computing power of the broad masses is used for processor-heavy tasks like screening data from the SETI program (a hiding to nothing) or testing climate change models (potentially immensely valuable).

When I was visiting him recently, I displaced the BOINC screen-saver in order to check the news, and found an item purporting to have mathematical evidence that the universe is a hologram. The idea of the cosmos as an illusion (of what, for whom?) is a common conceit, usually in the form of its being a computer simulation like the Matrix.

So it occurred to me to suggest whimsically to my brother that perhaps there is, in a lab in some distant real universe, a solitary climate-change scientist without access to funds for sufficient processing power, who instead simply writes a “universe” program (or gets one off the shelf from Adobe) and sets it up to evolve to have sufficient virtual beings like us with computers to run BOINC and solve the problem.Then our scientist could simply output the data and save his real planet. “I should write a book about it,” I enthused.

Always encouraging, he answered sourly, “It might nearly do for a blog.”

Now apart from the obvious nonsense of the general proposition (which didn’t stop similar stuff about holograms getting into the mainstream news), the biggest joke appears to me to be this: How could a computer simulate a universe that would output information that wasn’t put in by the original software? Can a computer that isn’t powerful enough to run climate-change simulations run a program that outputs the results by simulating multiple computers simulating climate-change? Perpetual motion, or what?

We could ground that slightly more realistically by considering the ideas of people like physicist Paul Davies, which model the universe as an actual computer, processing not a simulation, but reality. It’s a neat idea: beginning with initial conditions, and the fundamental laws of nature, the universe computes in real time what happens moment by moment from big bang to heat death. In a Laplacian cosmos, that would be an entirely deterministic algorithm, but variables like indeterminate quantum events could be seen as later operator input, and chaotic events would simply be choices from a statistical range built into the program. So the model would still be valid in modern physics.

What is clear from looking at things this way is that the total of information output at the end of the run could no more exceed what was input initially, or by later data input, than our alien’s computer could simulate several other similar computers with more processing power. This, in effect, is the kind of case argued by William Dembski in applying “No Free Lunch” theories and his Law of Conservation of Information to evolution. You can’t ultimately get out of a computer information you don’t put (or smuggle) in. This law is said by its critics to be “mathematically unsubstantiated”, but that is largely because of the difficulty of defining information (in that sense) mathematically. Paul Davies’ intuitively reasonable concept of a computing universe, too, is equally indemonstrable in the absence of a robust concept of, and definition of, “information.”

I suppose that, in discussing this with theists, there ought to be little dispute about the creation of matter in an initial state, and subject to mathematical laws, as constituting in some definite, if indefinable, sense “information.” In previous recent posts I’ve aligned it with the Aristotelian concept of formal causation. Accepting that, and accepting natural laws (including such things as quantum statistics) as realities, it seems to me to be tantamount to saying that the universe-as-computer cannot generate information (ie events) not already input – that is, known – by God as Creator.

So leaving aside for now creatures like us, with rational wills, the fashionable theologies like process or open theism, in which God is himself changed by what happens in the universe, put the cart before the horse: he has already input all the information that the cosmos can possibly process. Nature cannot give back to God what he did not already endow (Romans 11.33-26 seem to relate). Whatever happens in nature must evolve, in the original sense of “unfolding”, rather than transforming in the Darwinian sense into something completely novel and not already inherent informationally.

One can, of course, try to get round the prickly issue of divine determinism that this raises by the “free process theodicy” I mentioned in a previous post, and in many others, but that “answer” really says no more than that God inputs random numbers during the run of the “program”. Not only would that be a singularly haphazard and useless way to try and produce “work” from a physical system, but the model demands that God (the sole initial reality) produces the random number generator to “plug in” to the input – and as any computer engineer will tell you, creating random numbers requires an input of information just as great as that generated. “Chance” just means we don’t know where particular information comes from – but God is omniscient, or he would be merely one of multiple sources of knowledge, “indeterminacy” being a second. We, however, believe in one God.

How would free human choice fit into this? Let’s remember to begin with (again) that it’s a separate question from that of non-rational reality’s “freedom”. That aside, at this point analogy becomes misleading, because nothing of human manufacture – certainly no computer –  has deliberative free will. We can at least claim that any attempt to assimilate free-will to indeterminacy is misguided: choice is the very opposite of indeterminacy, and what we value is not the ability to make random choices, which would be trivial, but the freedom to make intelligent, moral or creative choices. But does that alter the basic proposition that God cannot be changed by the universe, including by us, since he is the source of the system in which we make those choices?

We don’t exhaustively know what free will is, but the classical theology that first considered it in depth – such as that of Augustine and Aquinas – concluded that human will, whilst real, is not autonomous of God’s will but concursive with it. God cannot actually be changed by what we do, for what we do has its ultimate origin in him (a hugely deep subject which I lack both time and competence to begin to unpack here). But it makes compatibilist free-will more consistent with our universe-as-computer-model than libertarian free-will. If we are fully part of the universe, we too are subject to that idea of “conservation of information” in an ultimate sense.

Even if we argue that the human mind and soul have a supernatural element (I suggest probably rightly, since the Christian physicalism of those such as science-faith theorist Nancey Murphy is for good reasons a minority position), then although there would be a different modus operandi for human consciousness from that of the physical cosmos, its source would still be ultimately, within God.

Is this total dependence on God, which is highly unfashionable but central to historic Jewish and Christian teaching, really that problematic? I suggest that it is not at all fatalistic, but merely incomprehensible – and so human pride prefers to call it determinism (or automatism) and reject it. It would be fatalistic only if God himself were (in the model) the computer or the software – maybe the operating system to our subroutines. He would then have unwarranted power, and we would be mere puppets (and all those other tiresome polemic terms with which we are so familiar from the “free creation” TE literature and open theism). But God is not part of  the universe. He is not just a powerful part, nor even the most powerful part, of the system. He is the Creator – the programmer, the input and the output, the Alpha and the Omega. That makes all the difference.

How? Well, it’s no use asking a mere computer subroutine, because it doesn’t have the faintest concept. And neither you nor I are the IT guy running the sim.


Jon Garvey

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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2 Responses to The universe and perpetual motion

  1. Merv Bitikofer Merv Bitikofer says:

    I think one reason so many find an acknowledgment of incomprehensibility to be offensive is that it gets mistaken as a science-stopper, as if my acceptance that I cannot travel everywhere is going to somehow prevent me from traveling anywhere at all.

    Among non-theists it is fashionable to imagine that science can tolerate no limitations (implied or otherwise) to its domain. So any acceptance of “incomprehensibility” will inevitably be decried as a gappish appeal to ignorance. The mistake is at least understandable given the number of historical instances that such an objection was warranted. But on these philosophical and metaphysical questions there will always be a boundary beyond which we cannot finally lean on our own understanding. Acknowledging the existence of a boundary is not the same as abandoning attempts to push it back. And it is also solidly historical that successful movement of the boundary never makes it go away.

    Among theists it is a mystery to me why anybody should object to the thought of an informationally closed universe entirely dependent on God. Perhaps it is a conceit we cling to that we want to imagine ourselves as creators in some real sense alongside God. I have seen such humanistic sentiments in one or two contemporary hymns but I doubt even a hint of such a thought could be found anywhere in Scripture.

    • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:


      Your point on creativity is an interesting one. I got some stick on BioLogos a few months ago for suggesting that not only could “Nature” not legitimately be termed a co-creator, but that our merging of the idea of God’s ability to create with our own “creativity” was misleading.

      Yet it’s pretty plain that the wonderful imaginative abilities of humans in the artistic and scientific fields are all very much a recombination of what we find in creation already, rather than something entirely new: yet no less wonderful for that. And hence the “Soli Deo Gloria” signatures of both J S Bach and G F Handel.

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