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Space Sci-Fi Science

Is Physical Law an Alien Intelligence? (nautil.us) 264

What if alien life were so advanced that its powers were indistinguishable from physics? It's the one-year anniversary of a startling article which appeared in Nautilus magazine. Long-time Slashdot reader wjcofkc writes: Caleb Scharf, astronomer and the director of the multidisciplinary Columbia Astrobiology Center at Columbia University presents an intriguing thought experiment.

"Perhaps Arthur C. Clarke was being uncharacteristically unambitious. He once pointed out that any sufficiently advanced technology is going to be indistinguishable from magic. If you dropped in on a bunch of Paleolithic farmers with your iPhone and a pair of sneakers, you'd undoubtedly seem pretty magical. But the contrast is only middling: The farmers would still recognize you as basically like them, and before long they'd be taking selfies. But what if life has moved so far on that it doesn't just appear magical, but appears like physics?"

The original submitter included their own counterarguments against the idea, but the astronomer follows his proposal to its ultimate conclusion.

"Perhaps hyper-advanced life isn't just external. Perhaps it's already all around. It is embedded in what we perceive to be physics itself, from the root behavior of particles and fields to the phenomena of complexity and emergence."

Is Physical Law an Alien Intelligence?

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  • No (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward

    It's not. It's not even intelligent.

    • If it were, it would most certainly be extremely conservative. :)
    • You might be right. But assertions without evidence fall into a category of ideas called "faith." You can have faith in God, or you can have faith that there is not a God. Either way, you are taking your belief on faith.

      • by rtb61 ( 674572 )

        As always, any claim about God, always has to have the follow up, not my God. So faith in God, how about my God is the totality of existence, can I have faith in the totality of existence and that existence does in fact exist, hmm, based upon my current interactions with existence, yes. So for me God exists and my existence is the proof, that upon the basis that I consider God to be the totality of existence and not some goat herder wish machine the supports the deceit of monarchy (face it believing in that

        • Re:Faith (Score:4, Insightful)

          by Altrag ( 195300 ) on Monday November 13, 2017 @05:49AM (#55539283)

          So for me God exists and my existence is the proof

          Maybe you're right.. who am I to say? But that's not "proof." I could just as easily claim that "my God is a carton of milk and my ability to eat soggy cereal is the proof."

          I don't mean to mock your faith.. just arguing that what you call "proof" is indeed still just taken on faith.

          Then again if you want to get really philosophical, even your own existence that you're premising your "proof" on is up for debate ;).. There's actually no way to prove that you (and the rest of the universe) aren't just some figment of my fever dream and I may wake up at any moment and you all just poof into nothingness.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday November 12, 2017 @01:07PM (#55535951)

    We already have a name for their possible existence: god.

  • And what if the physicis of the physics-alien of our physics-alien was an alien intelligence also?

    Mind... blown!

    • And what if the physicis of the physics-alien of our physics-alien was an alien intelligence also?

      Mind... blown!

      Are we in the Miniverse or Teenyverse?

    • by arth1 ( 260657 ) on Sunday November 12, 2017 @01:28PM (#55536063) Homepage Journal

      And what if the physicis of the physics-alien of our physics-alien was an alien intelligence also?

      The alien intelligences will converge to being turtles, all the way down.

    • I heard of a guy that was playing with razors. He may have some insight here.

    • by mark-t ( 151149 )

      That presumes that said alien even exists in a domain where something like "physics" has any meaning.

      It's sad to say that there is nothing in our existence to suggest that everything that we believe and experience to be entirely real is not actually simply part of some alien intelligence's imagination, existing on a level of higher reality than anything I dare say that anyone has even dreamed of. And the only reason that we might perceive any consistency or "rules" about how the universe seems to work a

      • by mwvdlee ( 775178 )

        If such a fantasy-alien exists, it has some equivalent of physics.
        That's because "physics" would be whatever enables the alien to exist.
        In our reality it means mass and energy and such.
        In the fantasy-alien's reality, it might mean something completely different, but by definition there must be something or else that fantasy-alien cannot exist.
        Unless you go all religious and confuse a refusal to think about something as a lack of that thing.

        • by mark-t ( 151149 )

          The entire notion of "enabling to exist" for such a super-real alien intelligence implicitly suggests that there could have ever been any other possibility. This is an artificial projection of our experience of reality upon whatever might exist beyond it, and does not necessarily apply.

          I would dare say that we are incapable of recognizing such intelligence for what it is unaided because of how tightly bound it is to what we understand as so-called physical laws.

          Interesting point of fact about such an

          • by mwvdlee ( 775178 )

            I would dare say that we are incapable of recognizing such intelligence for what it is unaided because of how tightly bound it is to what we understand as so-called physical laws.

            I would dare say you speak only for yourself. Why would it be tightly bound to our physical laws. Why even assume that our reality would be the only one it created?

            Denying our ability to reason logically about such a theoretical alien still sounds like a setup for introducing some sort of god-like entity.

            • by mark-t ( 151149 )
              I'm not saying that we can't reason logically about such a theoretical alien, only that we would not be capable of perceiving anything other than it appearing to follow the laws of physics even while it was actually manipulating them, because we define the laws of physics in terms of the things that the universe actually does, so when such a being were to manipulate some aspect of this reality, we just see the laws of physics in action because that's what we are looking for, and how we have chosen to define
    • I'm so based I *am* the laws of physics. The laws of physics are me.

  • Quick questions (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Okian Warrior ( 537106 ) on Sunday November 12, 2017 @01:15PM (#55535987) Homepage Journal

    Some quick questions:

    1) Does this hypothesis have testable predictions,

    2) Does the theory imply observations that we could make that would invalidate the theory?

    I'm a fan of "Hey, Martha!" stories, they're entertaining and thought provoking, but I don't know how much serious consideration such a proposal warrants. (Compared to, say, the survivability of "The Martian" or whether aspects of the "Star Trek" universe are physically realizable.)

    • So, we have postulated the existence of .... God. And all that implies.

    • It's the same as "we're all living in a sim", isn't it?

      • Good response (Score:5, Interesting)

        by Okian Warrior ( 537106 ) on Sunday November 12, 2017 @02:05PM (#55536251) Homepage Journal

        It's the same as "we're all living in a sim", isn't it?

        That's a very good question.

        So far as I can tell, there are testable predictions that the sim theory makes. These are predictions that are not required by the theory, but that, if we see them, would be good indications of the sim.

        Consider scanning a color document, separating the color channels into R, G, and B, and then doing a histogram of each channel.

        If the envelope of the red histogram is smooth and goes to zero at each end (at R=0 and R=255). then we might conclude that the scanner spans the entire range of "red".

        If the envelope is smooth but has discontinuous jumps at zero and 255, it means that there are intensities of red smaller than the minimum value the scanner can distinguish, and intensities higher than the highest value. Basically, all the high intensity pixels in the image max out the A/D converter in the scanner, and all the low intensity pixels register as zero even though there is significant variation.

        The discontinuities at either end of the measurement imply that there is information outside the measurement range of the scanner.

        We can apply that logic to certain astrophysical measurements in the universe in certain cases. If we see measurement distributions which are smooth, but have discontinuous jumps at either end it might indicate that there is information outside the measurable universe, even though we cannot measure it.

        ...or so it goes. I haven't looked into the theory in detail, but I was under the impression that certain astronomical measurements would imply the existence of a sim, but are not required for us to be in a sim.

    • by ShanghaiBill ( 739463 ) on Sunday November 12, 2017 @01:47PM (#55536157)

      1) Does this hypothesis have testable predictions,

      Yes. The aliens would likely implement physics with some specific features to conserve resources. Here are some predictions:

      1. To localize causality, the propagation of information will have a speed limit rather than happening instantaneously.

      2. At the lowest levels, reality will be discrete, or "quantum", rather than continuous. The degree of quantum granularity will depend on the size of the floating point registers in the alien computers. Planck's Constant is 6.626e-34, which implies a binary mantissa of at least 115 bits.

      3. To limit computation, reality would be held in a fuzzy probabilistic "superposition" state until it is actually observed, similar to how a GPU running OpenGL will skip the generation of hidden polygons. Since only an infinitesimal portion of the Universe is actually observed, this is a huge optimization win.

      All of these are actually true of our Universe. Ergo, we are just alien puppets, and our only purpose in "life" is to provide them with entertainment.

      • Number 2. Is actually evidence we are a simulation... it is not a conservation technique but evidence that the whole thing is run on a digital computer.

      • About number 3: that whole "superposition" thing actually makes things a lot more difficult to compute, not simpler.
        • by Altrag ( 195300 )

          Well hanging a bit on definition, but I'm going to call you wrong. Engineering equipment that can maintain superposition long enough to be useful is very difficult. But once you have that equipment, the computations that are amenable to quantum algorithms are much much easier to compute (exponentially easier, to be precise) and non-quantum algorithms would, in principle, run no worse than a classical computer by simply ignoring the superposition capability and forcing the desired classical state onto the

      • These seem to be predictions of our reality being a simulation, which is not really the same as alien life having integrated itself into reality. One prediction that the article suggests is that dark matter turns out to be much more complex than simply hidden matter.
        • by Altrag ( 195300 )

          There's some pretty strong limits on how complex dark matter can be. In particular, its not "clumpy" like regular matter, indicating that if there are any "dark" forces that only act on dark matter particles, they can't be significantly stronger than gravity.

          A stronger-than-gravity attractive force would cause dark stars, dark planets, etc to form and a stronger-than-gravity repulsive force would prevent dark matter from clustering around galaxies and the like. But as far as our observations have been abl

    • No. It's almost exactly the same idea as the "the universe is a simulation" hypothesis. These are not scientific hypotheses since they make no testable predictions. The only way you could confirm these sorts of theories is if the alien entity makes a mistake and even then the mistake has to be of such a nature that it defies any logical explanation e.g. an electron's mass is slightly larger on the first thursday of every month or something equally bizarre and unconnected to a physical cycle like days of th
  • Not even a scientific hypothesis...fucking navel gazing dweebs.

    I 'say' the laws of physics are a n dimensional clockwork. Using probabilistic collisions between parts to generate the modern physics parts. Prove me wrong?

    • by fermion ( 181285 ) on Sunday November 12, 2017 @07:59PM (#55537793) Homepage Journal
      Many hundreds of years ago a process we know call physics was developed. This process replaced natural philosophy, a failed regimen that resulted in counter productive ideas such as infection being the result of bad blood, the flat earth, and the elements of fire, water, and earth.

      As is said here, physics requires not only an idea that matches the data, but an idea the results in tangible novel predictions that can be tested. Physics is open to new ideas, such as the idea that energy is quantized, but requires those ideas to be formalized and used to create new verifiable knowledge, like the tunneling electron.

      In short, physics focuses on practical results while natural philosophy focuses on fanciful conjectures. Physics is does not necessarily lead to a more absolute 'truth' but does provide a reasonably objective method to determine if a particular truth is personal or universal.

      In this case, there may be an intelligence behind the physics. My question would be, how does this change the laws and assumptions and results we already have? One this I would suggest is that intelligence can change it's mind, so we would see evidence in the universe of differing laws. In fact we might see this, for instance the lack of antimatter. The second question is does assuming an intelligence help us develop a formal result to explain the discrepancy.

  • Alien Life that is in and all around us in the guise of physics? Call their agents and warn them of the impending class action and cancelled deals.

  • In his books, Pirsig develops the concept of morality as equivalent to rules of nature. To Pirsig, a helium molecule is moral when it obeys the requirements of chemistry: Rising in air, not burning at room temperature, fusing in stellar furnaces. We could view physics, chemistry, astronomy, etc. as sciences for empirically learning the morality of the universe.

    I'm also reminded of Madoka, of course, but that's a completely different line of thought.

    • Pirsig was a paranoid schizophrenic who wrote memoirs disguised as pseudophilosophical twaddle.
      Sad memoirs being a way for him to deal with remembering that at one time he was institutionalized and treated with electroshocks, which caused him to suffer memory loss.
      At one point he stopped giving interviews after hearing himself on TV and thinking he was having hallucinations again.

      Also, he wrote as a way to prop up his own ego.
      Which is why he writes himself a ready and inquisitive yet flawed audience to list

      • *Said memoirs...

      • Pirsig was a paranoid schizophrenic who wrote memoirs disguised as pseudophilosophical twaddle.

        At least after a learning curve he was able to fix motorcycles. Most paranoid schizos don't get that far.

    • To Pirsig, a helium molecule is moral when it obeys the requirements of chemistry

      Pirsig has a different dictionary than I do. He's spouting Humpty Dumpty.

  • by Goldsmith ( 561202 ) on Sunday November 12, 2017 @01:24PM (#55536033)

    This is really about dark matter and the crazy ideas that crop up in physics when we don't understand something and lack the tools to even start figuring it out.

    It's not scientifically reasonable to ascribe life to a set of physics that we don't have any direct evidence of existing, but it's fun to think about. In the past, this would just be written up as science fiction. I'd be interested to know if Caleb Scharf is a fan of Greg Benford, or any of the other physicist created science fiction out there that contains similar ideas.

  • Long answer: The difference between an intelligent thought process and physical laws is about the same as the difference between a game of chess and the chess rules. Physical laws are rules. They are valid everywhere, for everything, and non-discriminatory. Intelligence is about conciousness, problem solving and making a difference.

    Basicly, calling physical laws either an alien intelligence or a product of an alien intelligence is nothing else than the question if we are living in the reality, or if we ar

    • by arth1 ( 260657 )

      Physical laws are rules. They are valid everywhere, for everything

      That depends on your definition of everywhere.
      And even more on your definition of "are" (more commonly phrased as what the definition of "is" is).
      Is there a concept of space, even below the Planck length or outside the universe?
      What is a wave and what is a particle, and is there a law governing the duality that leads to different physical laws for the two?

      , and non-discriminatory

      That too is in question. The Copenhagen school of thought on quantum mechanics tend to disagree - observation causes discrimination.

    • The difference between an intelligent thought process and physical laws is about the same as the difference between a game of chess and the chess rules.

      I think you're confusing the chess rules with the being who created them.

  • by physicsphairy ( 720718 ) on Sunday November 12, 2017 @01:32PM (#55536083) Homepage

    We're all seeing that this and saying we live in a simulation, etc., is simply recasting spirituality and the idea of gods in a new form, right?

    Which is fine, you can do that. But as someone used to seeing their religion in the crosshairs, it does strike me as a bit weird whenever the people instinctively scathing about religious ideas decide they really want them afterall, just co-opted under different labels.

    • by dfenstrate ( 202098 ) <dfenstrate@gma i l . c om> on Sunday November 12, 2017 @04:11PM (#55536883)

      We're all seeing that this and saying we live in a simulation, etc., is simply recasting spirituality and the idea of gods in a new form, right?

      Which is fine, you can do that. But as someone used to seeing their religion in the crosshairs, it does strike me as a bit weird whenever the people instinctively scathing about religious ideas decide they really want them afterall, just co-opted under different labels.

      "In ages of fervent devotion men sometimes abandon their religion, but they only shake one off in order to adopt another. Their faith changes its objects, but suffers no decline." Alexis DeTocqueville, Democracy in America.

      As a Christian, I am endlessly amused by these attempts to obtain spirituality without meaningful guidelines, and to explain away the inexplicable by positing an alien whose characteristics must be awfully similar to God's.

      • The percentage of christians that are spiritual is extremely low.
        For spirituallity you don't need guidelines, especially not christian ones.

  • New Headline: Astronomer does bad theology.
  • If the idea is inherently un-testable, it's not science.

    That's not to say it's right or wrong, just that you shouldn't be discussing it as if it were science. After all, the world may very well have been created by an outside-this-universe entity 1 second ago with all of our brain cells wired to think we've been alive for years or decades, but that's not a testable hypothesis and it has no place in science.

    Now, if an idea is un-testable now but it might be someday, well, that might be within the realm of s

  • This is even worse then a article asking if God exists...

    1 - You can't Prof it, ever, just like God.
    2 - You will still end up with the question of what is the basic law on witch that intelligence would exist, making it a recursive paradox. Just like "who created God"
    3 - And the worse part is that ppl already believe some Alien created and rules this existence... Aka "GOD".

    If we exist in some kind of a contained/simulated existence then who ever owns this existence may be a Alien to it's peers but will
    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward

      Science too suffers the problem of infinite regress. Scientific assumptions are conclusions without proof. Stop being so smug.

    • by mark-t ( 151149 )

      At the very least, there is some scientific basis for thinking that the universe had a beginning story some finite amount of time ago, so it is fair to question its origin. There is no such similar notion for god and so the question of about who or what created god need only arise if one baselessly presumes an origin for god in the first place.

      Of course it is possible for the whole idea to be âoeturtles all the way downâ, but even if were true, that would be inconsequential for our purposes.

  • There is a fundamental equality among universal Turing machines, but not when time is taken into consideration.

    Took me many years to complete that computation, but a sufficiently faster UTM could have finished in that many seconds.

  • Evident preposterousness aside, physics (or any other branch of science) isn't more than a collection of theoretical models replicating what we see as well as possible. There is no abstract and absolute entity called physics whose laws might be broken. We only have past experiences which are more/less likely to be repeated in the future and which physicists try to replicate by coming up with more/less reliable theories.

    Referring to magic is almost the same than referring to ignorance and, as such, you can
    • What really interests me is whether God had any choice in the creation of the world. -- Albert Einstein

      Physics, and in particular, cosmology, is not just about discovering laws. It is also about examining why certain laws work and others don't, and following those forms of inquiry to other conclusions.

      • about examining why certain laws work and others don't, and following those forms of inquiry to other conclusions

        That "why" over there basically boils down to making sure that the given theory fits more or less harmoniously within the remaining system. And actually this has kind of stopped being a strict requirement as far as some people/"factions" have started coming up with parallel systems already assumed to represent an absolute validation and whose compatibility with the main system/others is, in some cases, quite unclear. BTW, your quote is more ironic than what you seem to think.

  • by petes_PoV ( 912422 ) on Sunday November 12, 2017 @02:12PM (#55536293)
    We seem to have lots of independent, confusing, unconnected pieces. All of which appear to be separate and independent.

    But that could easily because we can't see the "big picture". Once we develop an understanding of all the laws of the physical world, then it could be that there is inevitably only one way they could all be fitted together. There would be no need for an alien intelligence or "higher being" to have created them

    The only question that would arise would be: who or what is the picture about?

    • We seem to have lots of independent, confusing, unconnected pieces. All of which appear to be separate and independent.
      But that could easily because we can't see the "big picture". Once we develop an understanding of all the laws of the physical world, then it could be that there is inevitably only one way they could all be fitted together.There would be no need for an alien intelligence or "higher being" to have created them

      The only question that would arise would be: who or what is the picture about?

      The pieces are only independent, confusing, and unconnected because you revolt and shuffle around the puzzle when a recognizable image starts to appear.

      Romans 1:20- "For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities--his eternal power and divine nature--have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse."

      If there's is no creator who made us on purpose, for His own reasons, their our lives are about nothing. You're no more meaningful than a gold fi

  • Just another god! (Score:4, Insightful)

    by denisbergeron ( 197036 ) <DenisBergeron@@@yahoo...com> on Sunday November 12, 2017 @02:13PM (#55536301)

    Maybe people are so affraid to imagine a world without gods that they find a way to create another one!

  • Unless you provide a test for it, from a scientific standpoint it's about as sensible as wondering whether there's a pink teapot in the middle of a black hole. Or wondering what was before the Big Bang. There is exactly no way to test it in any way, so any speculation is as good as any other and none of them can be tested or falsified.

    Next question?

  • Already answered. (Score:5, Interesting)

    by 140Mandak262Jamuna ( 970587 ) on Sunday November 12, 2017 @02:59PM (#55536523) Journal
    The Truth is Truth. The all permeating thing that you materialists call physics and laws of physics is Brahman. What we perceive as The Cosmos, and its physical manifestations are all projections, mere projection of Brahman in our plane of perception, or our sphere of perception. This is the grand illusion, or Maya. Only when we teach ourselves not to be distracted by the physics you would perceive the Brahman, the Truth.

    Bear in mind sufficiently advanced satire is indistinguishable from trollery.

  • This is not, "an intriguing thought experiment" any more today than it was millions of years ago when the first active brain cell asked this very same question. The second active brain cell answered, "what the fuck have you been smoking?!"

  • Claims are like rear orifices, everyone has one. This either putting for a position for intelligent design or the simulation argument and all the top scientists and researchers in this field unless I'm missed some groundbreaking discovery have found ZERO evidence for either claim. This is also not a new thought. This is an old idea. Mr. Scharf ought to read books and attend lectures by people who are far more qualified and educated about this topic.
  • It is the matrix, god, simulation, higher being rubbish. Now in its new form omnipotent alien. Actually, god is also an omnipotent alien, who created the universe or maybe only hovered over the water. The Christian Bible is a little bit imprecise and ambiguous. Anyway, if you cannot test it, it is not a theory, it is an believe. You can believe all you want. It is also not a thought experiment. Thought experiments are used to construct a hypothetical reality and identify its features. Then you try to test t

  • This is echo some of the arguments made in this book - https://www.amazon.com/New-Pro... [amazon.com] ... specifically that the fact that there are laws and they favour life is evidence that and advanced civilisation/god exists.

  • by manu0601 ( 2221348 ) on Sunday November 12, 2017 @08:00PM (#55537795)

    Where would be the intelligence in physical laws? I would expect an intelligence form to make decisions, and we do not say "physical laws" by mistake: they are supposed to be valid anywhere, anytime.

    When out observations mismatch with a physical laws, it is not the law that took a decision. We just got outside of the law's domain of application, and we start over with a more general physical law.

  • I thought we're beyond that.

  • There's about 80 million years of differential, evolutionarily, right there. (And that's discounting the accelerating pace of change once a self-aware species can do things like direct its own evolution.)

    If an ant goes out foraging, insofar as it has any thought process at all, if it comes back and its nest is wrecked, that's just something that HAPPENED - I doubt even a self-aware ant could ever conceptualize the idea that "oh that's just a big thing like me backing his car out of the garage that did it".

  • Always remember: Ceiling Cat [knowyourmeme.com] is watching you masturbate.

    TFA merely raises some interesting speculations, regarding the true nature of Ceiling Cat. But his purpose in this universe remains unchanged.

  • As proposed extension of Kardashev scale, type IV.

    See this science paper for an example: http://mono.eik.bme.hu/~galant... [eik.bme.hu]

  • This is sounds like a more extreme version of the current "UFO theory" or "greys theory" in which humanity is basically a zoo and/or breeding farm being watched over or managed by alien beings who do their tasks largely invisible to us.

    I know people who are adamant they witnessed some really odd stuff. I cannot outright dismiss it.

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