Saturday, November 08, 2003

Most of us think of existence as basically linear: to get to point C from point A, you must first traverse point B. I think it's more likely (and much more fun) to consider that we're recreated moment to moment out of raw information, and that points A, B and C don't exist except in our endlessly reconstituted minds.

Imagine the reels for every movie ever made -- and, more pertinently, every movie never made. Now imagine cutting this infinity of footage into single frames. Thirdly, picture putting every single one of these isolated frames in a blender, chopping them into microscopic oblivion, and stirring them with the aerosolized remains of every other frame.

This endless deluge of celluloid confetti is emptied into space, where it forms a randomized nebula, a pixelated collage of all possible "sequences." Now suppose we want to view a "movie" of someone's life (knowing full well that sequentiality is a cognitive construct with no objective validity). We shine a laser through the glittering mist of would-have-been films, thus isolating a single "sequence" of particulated states. If we keep doing this, we'll quickly find that most of our laser-lit "sequences" don't make any sense. After all, they're composed of completely random bits of data (ultimately at the level of simple "yeses" and "nos", or -- if you're into computer metaphors -- ones and zeroes).

But since we're dealing with an infinity of this "powdered reality," we also recognize that some of the laser beams are illuminating coherent "storylines." They might break up and dissolve at some point, but the endless quantity of possibilities waiting to be realized ensures that they will resume at some point. In this sense, a given observer's "reality" is an elaborate, self-maintaining juxtaposition. Random patterns (read: "sequences") in our hypothetical embryonic cloud are able to link up with similar, equally random, patterns -- very much like a crystal impregnating a vial of solution with its own molecular structure. A sort of binary Darwinism takes hold. Meaningful "sequences" thrive; the rest is just existential static.

Time needn't be relevant in the cosmic screening room. Whether a particular pattern emerged in the past or future is irrelevant. Information from the "past" and "future" (mere cognitive constructs) freely integrate. This is a realm without spatial or temporal boundaries. It's something like the "implicate order" suggested by physicist David Bohm. The "explicate order," of course, is the intricate sensory illusion that we inhabit. Or think we do.

The ever-changing patterns in the protean cloud dictate the nature of whatever universe happens to be illuminated by our imaginary laser. Since our perceived reality is constantly modeled by the myriad ones and zeroes in the timeless cloud, we find ourselves diced into informational slivers. From this perspective, "continuity" is meaningless. The "I" writing this sentence could be hundreds of billions of "I"s removed from the one that wrote the last sentence. More disturbingly, "I" might not have existed at all until right . . . now.

The newly formed "I" happens to have "memories" of composing this essay, but memories, like everything else, are simply advantageous fluctuations in the filmic cloud, subject to constant revision. And since I'm ostensibly a component in day-to-day reality, it's inevitable that the randomly constructed parameters that define my world -- all of it, from my living room to the coffeeshop down the street to the structure of galaxies -- is every bit as flimsy and malleable. Reincarnation is quite real. It's happening all the time -- invisibly.

Several months ago I was in an automobile crash. My memories contain the adrenalized moment of impact, the literally breathless aftermath as I pondered the crushed metal and broken glass, and a trip to a hospital inside an ambulance. It would appear I survived, albeit bruised and aching. But who am I to tell the story of what "really" happened? Perhaps the arc of my life, as defined by the fluctuating patterns (and bits of would-be pattern) in the cosmic screening room bifurcated shortly before I collided with the other car. In one variation I came to a bloody end. In yet another there was never an accident at all.

I pick the crash incident not because of any intrinsic importance -- at the most fundamental level, the blind dance of possibilities doesn't care if I live or die -- but because it illustrates how flawlessly one or two frames can be altered (or randomly inserted or deleted) to potentially catastrophic effect in the observable world. So long as a pattern remains intact -- and it will, since it has infinite space and time to organize itself -- so will some permutation of "I."

Which begs the question: What happens when someone dies? It's possible that informational death is impossible and that the person who "dies" in the "explicate order" is expediently recycled, living his or her life again and again in a state of total amnesia. Or maybe something like my crash incident applies and that observers who die -- in the directly perceivable world -- are shuffled into a future in which they "miraculously" survive their own crashes (or cancer treatments or heart transplants).

There's nothing concrete or absolute about our so-called universe. It is an alluring, insidiously clever simulation. The Many Worlds Interpretation of quantum physics implies that the universe is constant "branching" into parallel, exclusive states. A better term, in light of the scenario described above, might be "flowing."


For a fictional excursion into similar territory, I recommend Greg Egan's "Permutation City," which examines the existential status of electronic copies of the human nervous system.

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