(Sunday Thought) The Arrow of Reality

We are witnessing the reversal of an arrow. For all of human history, it was the physical world that impinged our minds. In the future, it is our minds that will impinge the physical world.

At the smallest scale, this is nothing new. When early man faced the need to smash a hard tuber or crack a nut, he imagined a hammer and fashioned it out of whatever materials were at hand. With experience, he imagined and forged ever more sophisticated tools. That is an example of an idea moving out of the mind and into the physical world, and it is as old as tool use (which is older even than our non-human ancestors since we find tool-making behavior in animals like monkeys and ravens). Everything from art to architecture to computer systems to completely intangible creations like laws and organizational hierarchies are ideas made manifest.

This runs counter to our sense of how things work. We’re taught that the world is reductive, that big things are built of progressively smaller things, and that if you want to know how something works, you have to take it apart and see how the pieces fit together. This belief is enshrined in the dogma that physics undergirds chemistry which undergirds biology which undergirds psychology which undergirds the social sciences.

Another way to say it is that everything you need to know about something, all possible information about it, is contained in its particles such that if you have all the information on its particles, you have all the information there is. There is nothing “higher”.

And yet… we don’t find a single fragment of consciousness in any of the atoms that make up our brains. Similarly, a one-tenth piece of a dollar bill is not worth a dime, and there is nothing in the particles of that one-tenth piece that predicts the value of the whole thing.

We spend a lot of time arguing about justice and we say we want to see more of it in the world, but there is no species of quark that combines to make it.

The reductive materialist can’t admit of justice. To him, it’s an affectation, a label we hang on certain particle-states. It doesn’t correspond to anything “real”. (So, too, the value of money, but we don’t see any of them giving it up!)

On the reductive account, the collection of particles in and around the prehistoric inventor of the flint knife is supposed to contain all the pieces of her invention such that if you just had a complicated enough equation to describe that little corner of the universe, the flint knife would spontaneously appear. No consciousness or creativity is required because no consciousness or creativity can be found in the particles.

The same is true for the invention of writing, the cathedral at Nantes, Beethoven’s 5th symphony, the recipe for Coke, and the sacrifice of every man who died at Normandy. They couldn’t have died for freedom, because no particle of freedom exists.

Note here that reductionism is not the same as materialism or determinism, even though they’re often peddled together. Materialism says the only stuff is physical stuff, while determinism says any complete blueprint of the universe predicts all other blueprints, past and future.

When we admit the existence of emergent properties, which are not contained in bits and atoms, we are not trying to sneak magic back into the world (although I would argue love and humor are a kind of magic). We’re simply trying to take account of everything in it, which includes things like music and memes.

We’re also not arguing for or against determinism, which may yet be true, despite the assault of 20th century physics. Any complete blueprint of the universe, including everything emergent, could theoretically still predict all other blueprints.

In short, emergent properties don’t destroy science. In fact, they enrich our understanding of the world and are just as valid a topic of study as anything else. Science itself, if that word actually refers to any-thing, is one such emergent property.

Back to the arrow of reality. The final turn will come when we can transmute matter. Since it’s all made of the same stuff, it should be possible to pull matter apart and reassemble it into whatever we want. Star Trek, in a very limited way, imagined we would use that power no differently than we use any other tool, to make food or build ships. In other words, a replicator was just a faster way to make tea.

The cyberpunk writers got closer to the truth when they imagined virtual brothels and the exploitation of cyberspace for theft and espionage. But cyberspace, like the Star Trek holodeck and the Matrix, was not imagined to be “real,” and in fact, all of those science fiction properties kept the direction of the arrow unchanged. Physical humans invade those places for shenanigans, only to return to a world that remained more or less as it was before they left.

(Technically, the holodeck used real matter and energy, “force fields” and matter replicators, to simulate reality. The point is that it was a simulation and that it was contained in a box, and when you exited that box, everything was as you left it. Any deviations from that — the emergency medical hologram from ST: Voyager, or that time Riker got copied by the transporter — were expressly represented as malfunctions rather than intended uses.)

Blade Runner and its offshoots got closer to reversing the arrow when it imagined what it would be like to be a synthetic human. But again, even there, the point was to create a replica of a real thing, and so to remain bound by the attributes of the physical world.

We will still make replicas of course, even when we can transmute matter, but that will be among the most pedestrian of its uses. Our creations will not remain in a box. They will not be shackled as slaves. Our ideas will alter the very structure of the physical world. Like a bower bird clearing the forest floor to make room for its showcase, we will alter our environment on a whim, and alter it again moments later. We won’t just make replicas of things molecularly indistinguishable from the originals. We’ll make things only imagined, like unicorns, and things that were never presumed to exist. We’ll eat colors and live in houses that change shape with a gesture. We’ll alter our bodies, exit them, or inhabit several at the same time. We’ll be a fish, and then a dream.

To the degree we wish it, everything will be determined by the contents of our minds, not the other way round, meaning that Morpheus’s question in The Matrix (“What is real? How do you define reality?”) will be irrelevant. There will be no meaningful border between our mind and reality. Our mind will be reality.

Before transmutation — probably long before — there will be programmable matter. It will not be infinitely plastic, but it will be able to change in a variety of ways: to assume different shapes of the same mass, perhaps to change color, temperature, or conductivity within a given range, and so on. A recent science fiction example, which will probably bear little resemblance to the real thing, is the Iron Man suit in Avengers: Endgame, which uses nanotechnology to break itself down and reform into various preset configurations.

Of course, even the more realistic version of that is a helluva long way off. But to give you a sense of how the arrow is genuinely drifting, even in our time, this is the work of Chinese artist Zhelong Xu, who has all but destroyed the difference between digital and physical sculpture.

One of the two images below is a photograph. The other is a digital render. Can you tell the difference? I can’t.

More important than the distinction is how Xu’s art moves between realms. The statue in the photograph (whichever one that is) was created from a render. By 3D printing molds of his creations, Xu can cast them in ceramic or bronze, meaning his ideas flow on the reverse arrow — from his head into bits (0’s and 1’s), and from bits into atoms, and from atoms back the traditional direction into his head, where he can ponder and alter them again.

Of course, the process now is fairly time consuming and still requires a good amount of expertise. But it’s amazing to me how indistinguishable the versions are. The white goat below is a digital render with extra surface texture added. The black goat is a photograph of a glazed and fired ceramic cast created from a 3D print of the original base digital sculpture. (Click for detail.)

You can find more by Zhelong here. I recommend checking him out. (See if you were right about the images above.) I would guess that you won’t know what’s “real” unless he tells you, because it no longer matters.

Digital renders are things in the world. In other words, they exist, and our sense of reality must expand to include them, just as it must expand to include justice and humor. All of those things are real; they’re just not made of atoms. One day, they are going to rule everything that is.