How is a Program Like a Universe?

In a book called Scientology 8-8008, L. Ron Hubbard defines a “universe” like this:

A universe is defined as “a whole system of created things.” There could be and are many universes and there could be many kinds of universes.

If you’ve never thought about it, it might be hard to envision the idea of a universe that doesn’t look or act like this one. Here’s a way to think about it: Yesterday, I ran into an abstract artist and I had this thought about her art–I asked her, “If you could create a universe, would it look like this one [the physical universe]?” Instantly, she said, “No!” This is something that I had not understood about abstract art until that very point–that it represents a whole universe made by the artist, not a representation of this universe. Her universe has colors and swirls and represents things in a whole different way than this universe.

So that’s a very wild example of “a universe”–the things that you see in abstract paintings. That’s “a whole system of created things” completely different from the universe we’re used to seeing (the physical universe).

In a much less wild way, a computer program is also a whole universe. For example, let’s take a simple program that adds 1 plus 1 and gets 2. The only rule in that universe is addition. The only objects in that universe are two number 1’s and a number 2. And yet, that’s enough to be a “whole system of created things.”

This becomes especially apparent in larger computer programs, particularly ones where you’re using Object-Oriented Programming. You say “I have a Dog object and a Frisbee object. Frisbees can be thrown, and a Dog can retrieve Frisbees.” You’ve actually just invented a universe–that’s “a whole system of created things” right there.

A word processor is a universe where you type keys and they appear on the page, and there are certain rules about how they are formatted, ways you can make them bold, italics, etc.

In fact, I would go so far as to say that computers are actually universe simulators. This seems to be the most accurate description of a computer that I can come up with.

The very earliest computers could simulate very limited universes–they cracked German coded messages during World War II using some very basic rules. As time went on, they evolved into being able to simulate more advanced universes, such as a word processor or a spreadsheet. Now most people run a universe called Windows on their computer that has little “windows” that contain other universes, like word processors, web browsers, and spreadsheets.

This is probably why games have always pushed the limits of computer hardware more than anything else–because most computer games are directly and obviously universes, and some darn complex universes at that! (Particularly when you start getting into 3D games, the kinds of calculations required to simulate that universe in a computer are pretty intense.)

This is also why I think VR has never been successful–because the job of a computer is to simulate universes that aren’t this universe, not to re-simulate this one. (This is also why AI doesn’t really get us anywhere–because universes don’t think, they just are.)

Anyhow, Scientology 8-8008 has a lot of information on how universes are created, and looking at it, I’ve personally found it applies in really interesting way to writing programs! Particularly the section called The Factors, which deals a lot with the creation of universes.



9 Comments on “How is a Program Like a Universe?”

  1. Sriram says:

    Spectacular conception. I’ve always suspected the more important vice-versa – That the universe we know could actually be a computer program.

    • Max Kanat-Alexander says:

      Thanks! 🙂

      You might be able to describe the state of the universe at any given moment in a mathematical sense (and thus as a program), but the one thing that a computer can’t do is have volition, so volition acting upon the universe would change its state in a way that couldn’t be described by a computer program.


  2. jay says:

    Interesting theory, but have you considered that the reason why a computer apparantly resembles the universe is not because of the universe itself but because of the method used to observe the universe ie the human brain. Just because the brain percieves there to be an object does not necessarily mean it exists or is in any perceived state. For example if you look up at the sky and see a star you will be looking at the star some millions of years in the past, infact the star at that point in time may no longer exist. Light takes a certain time to reach our eyes so our view of the universe is delayed. In a similar way we only view a very narrow band of radiation so as humans our perceptions are very limited. The universe we observe could be entirely different to the actual universe we live in.

    • Max Kanat-Alexander says:

      “The universe we observe could be entirely different to the actual universe we live in.”

      While that’s true, it’s irrelevant, as anything that we can’t perceive (or experience the effects of) isn’t relevant to any practical knowledge.


  3. jay says:

    Ok, I understand what your saying but have you considered this. Imagine you’re an ant walking down the sidewalk. Are you aware of the skysrapers and buildings. Infact are you aware of the people that are about to tread on you? Are you aware of the road? From the perspective of the ant all these objects cannot be perceived as such and yet they do exist and do eventually have an impact on the ants existance although from the ants perspective it is not noticable. If the ant were able to create a program or simulation of it’s world the ant universe would be completely different to the world we recognise. The program would infact be a model of the ant’s existance or perspective rather than a model of the entire universe that consists of skyscrapers roads etc. With this in mind the only way the ant could create an accurate model would be to extract itself from it’s two dimensional world and observe from a three dimensional one. Obviously ants and also humans cannot do this we are stuck with our perspective and therefore cannot see the full picture. Paradoxically computers may enable us to prove the existance of these other perspectives but to model and experience this ‘real’ universe may be impossible.

    • Max Kanat-Alexander says:

      Well, as an ant I could be perceive all those things. I’m just not at the moment. There’s a big difference between being unable to perceive something and not currently perceiving it. You’re saying that the ant can experience the effects of those things, which means that he could theoretically perceive them, he’s just not at the moment.

  4. jay says:

    Yes exactly, given sufficient technology and time the ant could eventually realise and measure and account for the existance of say human beings but to view and exist in the same perspecive of humans would be near enough impossible in it’s current state. So I guess the point is our computers create a model of our world as we see it (our specific universe). As technology improves we may be able to prove the existance of other perspectives and even use some of their qualities but because of our fixed perspective we may never be able to experience or model or view the entire universe properly. I imagine things such as true artificial intelligence lie outside our current perspective.

    • Max Kanat-Alexander says:

      Well, that’s a good point, but I think it’s theoretically possible to perceive and know anything that can have an effect on us, so we could at some point theoretically model the entire universe. But I think you might be right that *computers* cannot model things outside the frame of reference of the universe (even if we could perceive and measure those things by their effect on the universe).


  5. rsweetland says:

    Some of these comments got quite philisophical in terms of defining what is able to be know or not known… but I have to say, I Kant agree with most of them ; ) It seems like a codebase is very definitely a universe unto itself that can be plainly observed by anyone reading it. There is so much personality revealed in each one, ultimately stemming from the mental model the programmer used to create it, and his attitude at the time he/she had while creating it. May there be more sane universes in the world!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s