September 12, 2020

Turtles upon Turtles

Abstract : Information, or rather information technology, is the basis of the digital economy that we live in but is there something more fundamental to information that goes beyond the thousands of  digital computers that we come in touch with in our daily lives? This article explores how information could be the basis of the material world itself, which in turn is merely a simulation generated by the proces
sing of information.

To do so we note that in social media and in Massively Multiuser Online Role Playing Games (MMORPG) users live in a world that is not what it seems to be.  This leads to the question whether the world that we see around us is really real, or as described in Sankar’s Vedanta and the movie Matrix, is a simulation. This simulation hypothesis is explored further on the basis of Brian Whitworths paper on the feasibility of the world  being an illusion. Finally we demonstrate how this illusory world can be created purely on the basis of information through the equivalence between Boltzman entropy and Shannon entropy and a practical implementation of Maxwell’s demon in Szilard's engine.

The latest version of this paper is available at this link.

We believe that we have the ability to discern the real from the illusory or the virtual. We know it because in our own life we play out multiple roles. Your behaviour is different when you are at home, at work or when you are with  your school friends or office colleagues at a resort. At home you could be an altruistic parent or a housing society officer or a poet. At work you could be a hard taskmaster, a glib salesman or an ace opportunist.  With your friends in the resort you could be rolling on the floor. So which is one is you? Which is the REAL you? Would you know? Would you care? Or would you say that you are all of them and some more and the difference between these personas is blurred.

Now let us extend this to the world of social media. Where you could be a 'bhakt' or a 'psecular' and be in a violent confrontation with the other.  Even if you are not a political person you could be crafting an identity for yourself as a geek, or a sage and if you succeed that is how you would be seen by your 'friends', followers or connections in social media. It is not unlikely that your identity in social media is a magnification of only one of your 'real' identities, possibly  your professional identity or then again an identity that is defined by whom you hangout with. Or  you could be crafting a totally artificial identity with a hidden agenda in mind.   Depending on the amount of time you spend, or invest, in social media and the number of connections that you build up there, it is not impossible that this social identity overrides what your original identity was, or what you thought it was. In fact, going forward, your digital identity that has a far greater reach than your physical identity will increasingly become your dominant identity. More people might know you as you appear in social media than the fewer who know you in real life. But then, what is really your real life?

Now that you know that your original identity could very well be hidden or masked behind other more visible layers -- and frankly, masks have been around since much before the Wuhan virus  -- what about people who are around you? It is almost certain that they  too -- in social media and in the real world --  would be wearing masks as well, just like you.

When we look around we see ourselves enmeshed in a network of relationships -- personal or professional, commercial or otherwise -- that defines who we are with respect to the world around us. But if every member of this network is wearing a mask and is not who they seem to be then the network loses its structural rigidity, its deterministic nature and its discriminatory potential. It becomes instead an amorphous and shape-shifting cloud of illusions that is as impossible to pin down  as the ephemeral Maria in the movie Sound of Music -- how do you catch a cloud and pin it down?

So what was known and deterministic becomes uncertain, unreliable and illusory. What you see is not what it seems to be but something else.  Perceptions take precedence over the primacy of facts. Wise men say that opinions ( or perceptions) are free but facts are sacred.  In this case, the wise men are not so wise after all because while fact may be sacred, these facts are not accessible anymore. They are hidden behind layers and layers of illusions.

This gets even more complicated, and interesting, when we move from the flat, text based world of social media and into simulated three dimensional worlds. These virtual worlds are available in, or accessible through, Massively Multiuser Online Role Playing Games (MMORPG) like World of Warcraft, Final Fantasy, PUBG, CounterStrike. Non-violent, non-combative but equally enchanting are the simulated virtual worlds like Second Life -- that happens to be the author's favourite -- that are based on similar technology but have different goals and narratives.

What are the common features of all these virtual worlds ? (i) A 2D image of a 3D landscape that is visible on the computer screen. (ii) The presence of humanoid figures, or avatars,  in this landscape that are controlled either by users or by artificial intelligence software in which case they are called NPC or non-playing characters. (iii)  The ability of the avatars and NPCs to interact with each other and with other elements of the landscape  through sound, visual cues and physical contact like push or  ‘fight’, (iv) The ability of users, through their avatars, to build, demolish or operate specific elements of the landscape like buildings, cars and other inert or active artifacts. (v) The existence of quests or challenges that each user, through their avatar, is expected to accomplish, either alone or in collaboration with other users/avatars. This could include creating buildings, occupying territory, locating and exploiting hidden resources or acquiring skills to perform one or more of these tasks.

A social media handle and an MMORPG avatar are essentially the same, in the sense that they allow an individual to interact with others through  a common, intermediate platform. On Facebook, you can build a page and your handle can argue with others, while in MMORPG, you can build a castle or have a fight with other avatars. What is different is the extent of realism or similarity with real life where an MMORPG avatar is far more realistic than a social media handle. With the advent of virtual reality or augmented reality gadgets, like helmets, spectacles and gloves, the level of realism can be increased till it is almost impossible to differentiate between the virtual and the real.

In fact, the illusory nature of both the MMORPG avatar and social media handle can be extended into the illusory nature of the multiple personalities that we carry in real life. This is where the border between the real and the virtual world becomes increasingly blurred. What is real and what is illusory becomes increasingly difficult to distinguish. For your own self, it may still be possible to switch between alternate realities and hence distinguish one from the other but for people around you it becomes increasingly difficult to detect the real you, especially if the digital channel is the only channel of communication. Similarly, it becomes impossible for you to detect and distinguish between the alternate realities for the people around you and the worlds that they inhabit. Each of us live in our own cocoon of perceptions that shields us from the reality of the external world.  We live in ..

Maya or The Matrix, The World of Illusions

Maya is an idea that was first articulated by Sankaracharya, the 8th century Hindu savant, who distilled the concept from the primordial Upanishadic insights. Much later, in the 20th century, it was introduced into western popular culture through The Matrix, a movie set in a not too distant dystopian future.

Sankar’s philosophy of Vedanta posits that Brahman is the only real entity in the sentient universe. The Brahman -- which is different from the Brahman jati, as in Brahman, Kayastha, Bania (or Beney)  etc. -- is the embodiment of Truth, Consciousness and Pleasure, or Sat-Chit-Ananda, that is without form,  qualities or attributes. It is pure knowledge or information that has no equivalent in the world that we are familiar with. This Brahman for no reason but out of its own desire, creates, or dreams up,  a physical world where objects have form, qualities and attributes. This is Maya, that, for the lack of a better word, is described as an illusion or a dream. Within this Maya and because of it, the physical world exists as a multitude of objects that exhibit a wide range of forms and qualities. Some of these objects are conscious and sentient in the sense that they have the ability to observe and interact with other objects within this illusory world. These conscious entities are called Atman that are an extension of the formless Brahman but because of the shroud of Maya, they see themselves as an imperfect reflection of their true nature, the Brahman -- the ultimate reality. However, some of these conscious and sentient objects acquire the ability to understand the illusory nature of the world around them. These are the mystics, the Yogis, for whom Maya dissolves and they see, realise, or experience the continuity of the seer and the seen, the subject and the object, and of themselves -- with form, shape, qualities -- with the formless and shapeless Brahman. This is the Monistic philosophy of Vedanta that is significantly different from the monotheistic religions that sees the duality of a creator God that is distinct from his creation, the world and its people.

For a person who is a product of Maya and is immersed in it, the fact that the world around them is illusory is almost impossible to accept. The Matrix movie demonstrated a hypothetical, sci-fi, framework where this could be implemented. In the movie, every human body is, right from birth, deprived of all sensory information from the real world -- of real mountains, real machines and the few real people who exist in it  -- and is instead fed an alternate set of information that is sent directly to the sensory part of the brain. This means that the brain is only aware of this alternate information and hence constructs its own alternate world -- complete with its illusory mountains, machines and people. This alternate world is created with a software program called the Matrix. The story, that is too well known to be retold here, is all about how some real people detach one such body -- that of the hero, Neo --  from the Matrix and opens his eyes, literally and metaphorically.  Now that  he can see for himself that there is a real world that is different from the alternate illusions that his brain and body have grown up with, he can make a choice to take either a red pill or a blue pill and choose for himself the world that he wants to live in. Unfortunately, the choice between the red pill and the blue pill is not available to most people, or body-brain combinations, so their brain continues to live in the alternate reality created by the Matrix as long as the body is in a state to function.

The Matrix was released in 1999 and since then, technology has moved by leaps and bounds. While all that is described in the Matrix is far from being a reality today, nevertheless there has been substantial progress. The ability to create virtual worlds is very well established with MMORPG products that we have discussed earlier and the usage of advanced display devices like virtual reality and augmented reality helmets, gloves, etc allow for an extreme level of immersion. Moreover it is now possible to connect the human brain directly to external, digital devices and it is possible to have bidirectional movement of information. Signals from the brain are routinely being  used to control external devices, giving rise to thought-controlled devices like wheelchairs and MMORPG game objects. The reverse process of sending external digital signals back to the brain to create an artificial illusion is also possible but is not as effective as the outward process.

So the Matrix is not totally sci-fi as it seemed to be when it was released in 1999. We now have the bits and pieces of technology that were referred to and  it is a matter of putting it all together to replicate what The Matrix talked about and make the transition from science fiction to science reality. However there is one aspect of the movie that is still far from being replicated in reality and that is the role of intelligent computers in building the physical infrastructure for the Matrix to operate. In the movie, it is the computer -- software and robots -- who do all this whereas today, the MMORPG and brain-computer interfaces are still designed and built by humans. Hence there exists a fairly well delineated boundary between the virtual reality of MMORPG and the real reality of the external world. So it is always possible for anyone to exercise the choice of the blue pill or the red pill -- to continue to live in virtual reality or to switch off the display device and come back to the “real” world.

But what if this choice is withdrawn? Either voluntarily or as compulsion. What if it is mandated that going forward every child will have an implant on their skull that will allow an external digital feed to send signals directly to the brain and in the process drown out the natural signals from the eyes, ears, nose, touch and tongue? Assuming bodily functions are taken care of by someone else, the child will grow up -- just as in The Matrix -- in an alternate reality.  One challenge could be the ability to procreate through the the act of sex. This could be overcome in the alternate reality by simulating the feeling of sex, of ejaculation, of orgrasm and eventually of the labour pain leading to the sensation of touching and feeling of the child. In the physical reality, procreation is simpler because of artificial insemination and subsequent childbirth. Which is why we say that the premise of The Matrix is theoretically not impossible though there must be a dramatic change in the socio-cultural structure of human society.

Which makes us wonder if this has already happened as a part of biological evolution? What if we already are a part of and  surrounded by an illusory world where our five modes of sensing the external world are nothing more than digital signals sent into our brains. In fact, in the previous section we have seen that, in a sense, we have already isolated ourselves in a cocoon of perception -- created with our multiple personalities, our social media personas and MMORPG avatars -- that shields us from the reality of the external world. Have we already taken the blue pill that allows us to live in an altered reality.  But perhaps there is no real choice between the red pill and the blue pill because what we think of as the physical reality does not exist at all. If we can liberate us from the technology or theology of the Matrix, rid ourselves from our dependence on biology, then we can think of ourselves as non-biological artifacts, or avatars that are being operated by a higher level of sentient beings. Which leads us to echo Sankar and ask whether we are living amidst an illusory Maya and ...

Are we a simulation ?

The simulation hypothesis is not new. It has been around for quite some time but was articulated in its current form by Nick Bostrom [2003] and was made into a movie, Are You Real [ YouTube, 2006] by the author. Of late, many people including Elon Musk have enthusiastically supported this proposition but the most comprehensive articulation for this point of view is Whitworth’s paper,  “The emergence of the physical world from information processing”. See Brian Whitworth, Quantum Biosystems 2010, 2 (1) 221-249, []. [ alternate

The fundamental premise of Whitworth’s paper is that there are  two hypotheses  namely:

  • The objective reality hypothesis: That our reality is an objective reality that exists in and of itself and being self-contained needs nothing beside itself.
  • The virtual reality hypothesis: That our reality is a virtual reality that only exists by information processing beyond itself, upon which it depends.

Obviously, Whitworth is a strong proponent of the second, the virtual reality, hypothesis and has put together an impressive collection of conjectures, arguments and facts to support his case. There is little point in repeating the same arguments here except to point out that he uses the logic of Occam's Razor very elegantly to demonstrate twelve facts that are far simpler to explain with virtual reality than with a physical universe.  However, in his conclusions and discussion Whitworth introduces the concept of the physical reality being an interface and explains it as follows :

Figure 4 gives the reality model options.

The first is a simple objective reality that observes itself (Figure 4a). This gives the illogicality of a thing creating itself and doesn't explain the strangeness of modern physics, but it is accepted by most people.

The second option argues that since all human perceptions arise from neural information
signals, our reality could be a virtual one, which in fiction stories is created by gods, aliens vs machines, for study, amusement or profit (Figure 4b). This is not in fact illogical and explains some inexplicable physics, but few people believe that the world is an illusion created by our minds. Rather they believe that there is a real world out there, that exists whether we see it or not.

The third option, of a reality that uses a virtual reality to know itself, is this model (Figure
4c). As this paper asserts and later papers expand, it is logically consistent, supports realism and fits the facts of modern physics. In it, the observer exists as a source of consciousness, the observed also exists as a source of realism, but the observer-observed interactions are equivalent to virtual images that are only locally real. This is not a virtuality created by a reality apart, but by a reality to and from itself. If the physical world is an interface to allow an existence to interact with itself, then it is like no information interface that we know.

This third option is in fact nothing more than a restatement of the concept of Maya, the illusion, or what we refer to as virtual reality. This is where the Atman, the individual observer, sees itself as different from the Brahman through the prism, or illusion, or Maya, of virtual reality. When Maya that creates the illusion of reality is removed, the Atman sees itself as it really is, an extension of the Brahman -- the fundamental unity of a Monistic universe.

While we may be veering around to the idea that we are indeed a simulation and the physical reality that we see around us is actually a virtual reality that is created by the processing of information, there remains a nagging doubt. How can the world around me, the world that I can touch and feel be not real? Even if the world around us is a simulation then there must be something physical on which the simulation must execute. In the Matrix, this was the biological body of the humans who were trapped in the Matrix from their birth to their death. In the case of MMORPG, it is the ‘hardware’ of physical computers on which the information to simulate the world must be processed. Where is this hardware? One could argue that this hardware is also a simulation as we have in the case of VMs or virtual machines that we see in many platforms like Oracle VMWare or Dockers but that is merely postponing the problem and not addressing it. VMs may be virtual but then they must execute on underlying physical machines.

This issue has been addressed in the concept of "Turtles all the way down". This is an expression of the problem of infinite regress that  alludes to the mythological idea of a World Turtle that supports the flat earth on its back. It suggests that this turtle rests on the back of an even larger turtle, which itself is part of a column of increasingly large world turtles that continues indefinitely (i.e., "turtles all the way down"). This idea has been expressed in the mythology of many cultures including that of India but once again, this postpones the problem without addressing it.

Which brings us to the next important question. What is more fundamental -- matter or information? Does information depend on the existence of matter or does matter depends on the existence of information.  In the first case, we would need a physical computer to process and display information and in the second case, information itself is adequate to create the illusion of matter. Common sense would say that matter is primary and information is something that emerges if and only if there is a material mechanism to process it. However, quantum mechanics has repeatedly shown that common sense is not a very reliable mechanism and many of the cherished principles are extremely counterintuitive -- as in the same particle taking two different paths or in the instantaneous transfer of information through the process of quantum entanglement. Once we ignore this so-called common sense, many things fall into place including what John Wheeler referred to as IT from bit or  IT from qubit. This suggests that material bodies can emerge from a bit of information or, as is the case now, a quantum bit.

But if we look a little deeper, the concept is not as counterintuitive as it seems to begin with.
That "information is power" is a statement that is often made both figuratively and loosely, but can it be literally true? Is it possible to find links between information and the stuff that they refer to in physics text books? Obviously the information that you read in the newspaper cannot be easily related to the power that causes a light bulb to glow. To simplify both sides of the equivalence, or analogy, and see if we can find a real link between the two. .....

This part of the article needs mathematical symbols that are not possible to represent easily in a blog. To read this section, please visit this page. Then come back here and continue ...

So now we have a direct example of the conversion of information into energy. This is not a thought experiment because it has been demonstrated in a real experiment.

Connecting the Dots

While there is still some residual scepticism about the equivalence of information and entropy because the two are so different in nature, we have managed to establish with reasonable comfort that information and thermodynamic entropy are fundamentally similar. Next we note that entropy and energy ( or at least heat energy) is very closely related to each other and are linked by the equation dS = dQ/T . Energy can exist in many forms - electrical, kinetic, potential etc --  all of which are interchangeable with each other but one that is of maximum interest is the form of matter. Yes, as we all know matter and energy are two aspects of the same fundamental  property to which we can now add information. Hence information and matter are tied to each other. We always knew that matter can give rise to information but now we can claim that information can also give rise to matter. Hence information matters!

Finally, once we agree that matter can emerge from information, then the entire edifice of the simulation hypothesis gets a firm foundation to stand on. There is no need to talk about an endless series of turtles that stand on each other's back.  We begin with information, the genotype, that philosophers in India refer to as the Brahman and with this we can recreate the simulated world of illusory Maya.

Maya, Matrix, Shiv, Shakti, Information, Energy, Genotype, Phenotype - the possibilities are endless. And then you have fake news on social media which connects the sublime to the mundane!

The latest version of this paper is available at this link.

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