If life is a game, nature is the rules.
“THE KNOWLEDGE AT WHICH GEOMETRY AIMS IS THE KNOWLEDGE OF THE ETERNAL.”
—Nature is the collection of forces that dictate the flow of universe and the structure of existence.
—Information is a meaningful arrangement of entities (i.e. things that are in formation).
—The physical universe can be accurately conceptualized as being made up entirely of information.
—The Forms are predetermined ideal objects—the potential structure or shape that things can take, given the rules of nature.
I. No Rules, No Game
Soccer is a game. The rules of soccer are very simple: there’s one ball, two teams, two goals, and each team tries to get the ball through the other team’s goal, without using their hands or arms. That’s enough for some casual pick-up.
If we get into professional play, there’s eleven players on each team, one of them (the goalie) can use their hands within a small area near their own goal, there’s out-of-bounds, you cannot deliberately kick other players instead of going for the ball, and so on.
The game is fun because it works: it provides an interesting, dynamic, competitive challenge. But the game only works because of the rules.
If we try removing the rules, one-by-one, the game starts to collapse: if there’s no out of bounds, players might chase the ball hundreds of meters away from either goal, ruining the flow of the game; if the goalie can use his hands anywhere on the field, she might just run the ball to the opposing goal like a football player—that ruins the dynamic of the game; If there’s no limit on players, why not throw in thirty people to make a wall in front of your goal?
The game begins to fall apart.
What if we go a step further in removing rules, and remove the ninety-minute time limit? Now the game has no end. What if we remove the goals? Now the teams just dribble around endlessly playing keep-away. What if we remove the teams? Now the game doesn’t make any sense. What if we remove the ball? Perhaps the players won’t notice and just keep running around in circles.
The point is: a game is defined by its rules—the game is the rules. Take away the rules, and there is no game.
The universe is similar: it’s defined by rules. If we take away the rules, there is no universe—nothing exists. The rules gives the universe structure, form, and movement that is not arbitrary, not random.
These rules take the form of physical laws which push and pull on one another to conjure up the world. These physical laws are quantifiable, meaning they’re set to specific parameters and can be measured using scientific instruments.
For instance, objects on Earth accelerate towards the Earth at a rate of 9.8 m/s² (gravity).
Water, on Earth, freezes at 32 degrees Fahrenheit.
The speed of light in a vacuum is 299,792,458 m/s.
These numbers are very specific. Why are they set this way? Why isn’t the speed of light 299,792,459 m/s instead?
The question of why these physical laws are set to what they’re set to is not as important as simply acknowledging that they exist. A basic understanding of the fundamental structure of physical reality can provide us with a solid foundation on top of which we can make sense of the rest of existence.
II. Nature is What Selects
When we talk about physical laws—the fundamental layer of reality, the forces that govern our existence—we’re talking about nature.
Nature is what selects. Nature chooses things. Nature decides things. That is the most basic way of understanding it.
Why do things accelerate towards the Earth at 9.8 m/s²? Nature says so.
Why does water freeze at 32 degrees? Nature says so.
Why is the building block of life the carbon element (#6) instead of boron (#5) or arsenic (#33)? Nature says so.
If we think of evolution as being a process of selection, nature is the thing that does the selecting (i.e. natural selection). Why is one organism fit and another unfit? Nature says so.
Nature demonstrates that there is a very specific, quantifiable way that things are in the universe, a very specific way that things behave in the universe, outside of our subjective experience.
Nature dictates our entire existence and, though we like to pretend otherwise, humans have very little say in the matter. Who decided that carbon would be the building block of life? Was it the government? Was it the humans in charge? Was it the culture?
As silly as those questions may sound, we have a tendency to pretend as if we have total control over the things that happen in the world, and that if things are not what they should be, then someone is to blame.
Though we do have some influence over the way things are, this absolutism ignores the existence of nature and exaggerates the role we play in making decisions about how the world works.
III. Nature is the First Pattern
From a physical perspective, the universe is best understood as being made up entirely of information. And information is best understood as being a pattern—a collection of things that are placed into a meaningful arrangement (placed in formation). The arrangement is meaningful because it has the power to transform other patterns.
Meaning: information is a pattern that can influence other patterns.
A tree falling in the woods will send physical waves through the air. These airwaves are patterns rippling through the atmosphere. The air itself does not travel from the fallen tree to, let’s say, an observer a hundred feet away--only the pattern travels. In this sense, information is a physical entity that may transcend matter, rippling outward through the air, even though the air does not travel with it.
An observer may be exposed to the pattern traveling through the air. If so, the pattern in the air will transform a pattern in the observer’s ear, which will transform a pattern in the observer’s brain, which will be broadcasted to the body, transforming patterns along the way, and be translated into the subjective experience of sound.
Before the observer consciously perceives anything, the unconscious body will react to the pattern in the air by crouching into a startled, defensive position.
In this sense, the physical patterns contained within the falling tree—in the form of matter in motion—transform patterns of air molecules, which transform patterns of other air molecules, outward away from the tree, which eventually reach the observer’s ear and transform patterns within the nervous system, which broadcast through the body and transform patterns that manifest as the action of crouching into a startled, defensive position.
If we zoom in, we might say the body is a collection of nested, intertwined patterns of molecules, which are patterns of atoms, which are patterns of subatomic particles, and so on. This hierarchy of nested entities are in very specific formations, and formations of formations, all organized perfectly on top of each other to produce a living, breathing being.
So, everything is information, if the universe is made up of patterns, then nature is something like: the fundamental pattern, the first pattern, the origin pattern that creates and regulates all other patterns. This fundamental pattern is always on, exerting itself on all other patterns, arranging all things into specific formations, all the time.
IV. If the Universe is Made Up of Rules, What are the Rules?
In the film, The Matrix, there are two different realities: the simulated world and the real world.
Morpheus tells Neo that the simulated world has ‘laws’ and that those laws may be ‘bent’ or even ‘broken.’ This toying with the laws of the universe is what makes the film fun. In the simulated reality, Neo stops bullets with his mind and flies around like Superman.
But when he unplugs and returns to the ‘real world’, Neo can’t do anything special, like punch through walls or leap inside a federal officer and make him explode. Why? Because the real world has ‘rules’—just like the Matrix does—only they can’t be broken.
We can watch The Matrix, and enjoy it, because it seems plausible: we understand the notion that the universe has rules. We can think of nature as being the rules of the ‘real world.’
But what do rules actually do?
Chess has rules. If chess is a system, then the rules act as constraints on the system, dictating what you can and cannot do. If there are no rules, there is no game; there is no path taken; there is no movement. The constraints of chess are what give it direction and form.
Similarly, nature, as a collection of rules, dictates how the universe plays out. Nature is constraints on the system. Without these constraints, there is no universe; nothing plays out, nothing happens, nothing exists. Nature is what gives the universe direction and form.
Scientists have created models that successfully map out these rules. For instance, there are four known fundamental forces:
-gravity (brings all things with mass or energy move towards one another)
-electromagnetic force (interaction between electrically charged particles)
-strong force (holds subatomic particles together)
-weak force (causes radioactive decay)
Those fundamental forces interact and produce predictable patterns we model and call physical laws. These laws appear to apply to everything in the universe, everywhere in the universe, and are stable and unchanging. They include laws like:
-conservation of energy (energy can neither be created nor destroyed)
-classical mechanics (macroscopic interactions)
-quantum mechanics (microscopic interactions)
-wave-particle duality (quantum entities may be described as both particle and wave)
-general relativity (theory of gravitation)
Within those laws, there are several dozen known physical quantities that are constant throughout the universe, meaning they don’t change, and appear to be the same everywhere, all the time:
-speed of light, c (299,792,458 m/s)
-constant of gravitation, G (6.673×10^-11 N m^2 kg^-2)
-Planck constant, h (6.62607004 × 10^-34 m^2 kg/s)
-proton mass (1.6726219 × 10^-27 kg)
-Avogadro constant (6.02214086 × 10^23 mol^-1)
-vacuum permeability, μ0 (1.25663706212(19)×10^−6 H/m)
The point is: the universe has rules and they are very, very specific. What’s difficult to comprehend (among other things) is: Why are the rules what they are? Why are these physical quantities set to these numbers?
It’s as if each physical law has a ‘dial’ (like on a thermostat) and it’s set to something very specific (like 65 degrees). We can shrug it off as “that’s just the way it is, I guess,” but things get very peculiar if we unpack them a bit.
If one of these ‘dials’—let’s say: the strength of the electromagnetic force—was turned down, all matter would explode. If the same dial was turned up all matter would implode. It seems the specified quantities allow for the existence of matter. Even more strangely, they seem to allow very specifically for the existence of life.
If any of these fundamental constants were slightly different, if the rules were tweaked even a tiny bit, the universe would be unlikely to be conducive to the establishment and development of matter, celestial objects, elemental diversity, or life as we know it.
In that sense, our universe seems finely-tuned to allow for our existence and, if it was tuned otherwise, we wouldn’t exist. Why? Why does anything exist at all? We’re not going to get an answer. As humans, we always want to know why, but part of being human is living with the unknowable.
V. The Forms
When we set up a game, establish rules, and then press play, there are patterns that emerge that are predetermined. The rules dictate a certain flow of existence, and entities that are destined to emerge as a product of that flow, if given enough time and space.
For instance, chess has rules. The rules include the game board, the pieces, the initial set-up of the pieces, the two players, and so on. The rules of chess dictate that certain strategies of play are going to evolve; they are, in some sense, predetermined. The strategies are not invented, they are discovered.
The Sicilian Defence is an opening move in chess—a black counter to white’s first move. The Sicilian Defence emerged as a common opener because chess players found it to be effective towards victory—it worked. That’s why it has its own name. No one decided that the Sicilian Defence should work, it just did—the rules of chess predetermined it.
The rules of soccer—one ball, no hands, ten players and a goalie, etc.—predetermine the emergence of various positions on the field. No one has to play defense, but teams that play without defenders will find that they always lose. Given the rules, did someone invent the position of defender? Or was it predetermined, destined to emerge as soon as the rules were established?
As soon as you establish the rules for the high jump event in track & field, the counter-intuitive Fosbury Flop (jumping over the bar backwards, with your chest facing upwards) is predetermined to emerge as the most effective way to jump the highest. Dick Fosbury may have discovered the technique, but he did not decide that it would work—the rules predetermined that it would work. If he hadn’t discovered it, given enough time, someone else would have.
The emergence of the internet establishes a new paradigm—a new game with new rules. A social networking website, such as Facebook, is predetermined. If Facebook did not exist, another site that did exactly the same thing would. The ‘rules’ of the internet dictate that these entities are destined to emerge.
But who chose the rules of the internet?
No one. Nature did. The emergence of the internet, itself, is predetermined by nature. Given enough time and space, conscious beings are destined to create systems of information and find a way to link them up.
We do not invent the world as much as we discover its possibilities. Eventually, those possibilities come to fruition, almost of their own accord. We pretend we’re in control of where this is going, that we’re driving the car, but we’re not. It’s a more like train heading down the tracks, and we can either slow it down or speed it up—or perhaps take a turn too fast and derail the entire thing—but we didn’t lay down the tracks and we don’t know where they lead.
It’s as if the rules of the game determine potential outcomes, and those potential outcomes, in a way, already exist—they’re just waiting to be discovered. When it comes to the physical universe, we might call those potentials: Forms.
The Forms are predetermined entities. They’re like physical ideals, with all physical entities being approximations of those ideals.
For instance, the sphere is a Form. The existence of the sphere is predetermined by nature. No physical entity manifests the sphere perfectly, but they can approximate it; they can aim for it.
Physical entities resemble truths, in the sense that they are never absolute. Instead, they have a fidelity to their ideal—their Form. For instance, a spoken statement’s truthfulness is a measurement of its fidelity to a subjective ideal. If a statement is 95% faithful to the ideal, then we call it ‘true,’ even though it’s not absolutely true.
To re-illustrate the concept of truth, let’s say we have a subjective ideal of what it means for a circle to be perfect. We draw a square and say it’s 25% of the way there; we draw an oval and say it’s 75% of the way there; we attempt to draw a circle, to the best of our abilities, and say it’s 95% of the way there. The drawn circle is not perfect—the line wavers a bit, it’s not totally symmetrical—but it’s close enough to be called a ‘circle.’
The physical world works by a similar mechanism. The sphere is a physical ideal, similar to our subjective ideal of a perfect circle. A celestial object—like a star—approximates this ideal, the same way our drawn circle approximates the theoretical perfect circle.
The star is spherical, but it is not a perfect sphere. (How could it be? It’s made up of plasma.) The notion of ‘perfect’ is incoherent, both subjectively and in physical reality. It is more accurate to say: the star approximates the perfect sphere in its shape.
The star would not take the form of a square or triangle, for instance. Why? Because the rules of the universe dictate that a square- or triangle-shaped star are not ‘fit’—they are not stable shapes in the vacuum of outer space. Nature ‘selects’ the sphere. The star is a Form, and its spherical shape is predetermined.
This concept of Forms can be extended into entities of higher complexity:
Biological life likely exists somewhere else in the universe and likely resembles the biological life on Earth. Why? Because the existence of the self-replicating entity (life) is predetermined by the rules of the universe.
The conditions necessary for the emergence of life are so incredibly specific that it seems plausible that it can only be born in one way. If there are other planets with life out there (and there almost certainly are, given that there’s something like a trillion trillion planets in the observable universe), there’s probably also sea-dwelling plants and animals, like fish; and land-dwelling animals, like reptiles; and flying animals, like birds.
The bird is likely a Form. If there is potential for animals that fly, it is almost certainly accomplished by having wings. If wings can get an animal airborne, feathers are a very effective material to be attached to wings. If flight is predetermined, then wings are predetermined, feathers are predetermined, and birds are predetermined. It is extremely likely that birds—similar to the birds on Earth—exist somewhere else in the universe.
Consciousness is likely a Form. There is, obviously, potential for consciousness to exist and, though we don’t know how incredibly rare consciousness might be, it almost certainly exists somewhere else in the universe, and almost certainly resembles the consciousness of humans. We might even find humans on other planets, if humans are the predetermined carrier of consciousness.
Predetermination does not mean a creator is doing the determining. It does not mean that humans have some cosmic purpose or play a role in the fulfillment of a divine destiny. Those are gigantic leaps, reading God into things that do not call for it.
The fact that the universe exists does not mean someone or something created it; it does not mean it has a reason for existing. The fact that the universe has finely-tuned rules that allow for the existence of life does not mean that life has some higher purpose.
Is the universe miraculous, beautiful, and mind-blowing? Absolutely! Such magnificent wonder! Such deep mystery! How can we look up at stars and not be overwhelmed by such strange and terrifying magic? Our existence is a fantastic miracle.
But we have no idea what it means. Might humans have some cosmic purpose? Perhaps. Might we be evolving towards some divine destiny, rather than being a meaningless, arbitrary viral infection on a piece of dirt floating in nothingness? I believe the former to be more philosophically sound.
Regardless, the language I am using, the way I am laying out the cosmos and its nature is only meant to convey a practical wisdom: that the universe has a very well-defined order to it, that things happen for a reason, and that humans have much less control over the flow of existence than we like to believe.
Facebook—or something exactly like it—is destined to emerge once the internet is created. Does that give Facebook some divine purpose chosen by God? No, but that’s not the point. Facebook was always going to exist.
There is a nature to all things, and we have no say in the matter. It’s easy to pretend as if the humans-in-charge are, somehow, choosing the way the world works when, in fact, we have no control over what works and what doesn’t. The things that work are predetermined.
That doesn’t mean we can’t contend with nature, that we can’t create our own structures, our own laws, to help deal with whatever the universe throws at us. It just means that we don’t decide what nature is, we can only decide what to do about it.
We can attempt to resist the flow of the universe—we can attempt to defy nature—but we can only keep that up for so long, before it breaks through and punishes us for our disobedience. This game has rules. If we refuse to learn them, if we insist on pretending they don’t exist, then we are guaranteed to lose.