Constructor theory seeks to express all fundamental scientific theories in terms of a dichotomy between possible and impossible physical transformations–those that can be caused to happen and those that cannot. This is a departure from the prevailing conception of fundamental physics which is to predict what will happen from initial conditions and laws of motion. Several converging motivations for expecting constructor theory to be a fundamental branch of physics are discussed. Some principles of the theory are suggested and its potential for solving various problems and achieving various unifications is explored. These include providing a theory of information underlying classical and quantum information; generalising the theory of computation to include all physical transformations; unifying formal statements of conservation laws with the stronger operational ones (such as the ruling-out of perpetual motion machines); expressing the principles of testability and of the computability of nature (currently deemed methodological and metaphysical respectively) as laws of physics; allowing exact statements of emergent laws (such as the second law of thermodynamics); and expressing certain apparently anthropocentric attributes such as knowledge in physical terms.
This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.
Buy single article
Instant access to the full article PDF.
Price excludes VAT (USA)
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
For example, the most formal treatments of the second law, such as Carathéodory’s, simply assume the existence of ‘macro’-states.
In this paper the term ‘information’ means classical information. A more general notion, which includes both quantum information and physically irreversible media, can likewise be defined in purely constructor-theoretic terms. This will be discussed in a future paper.
For a discussion of what makes an explanation ‘good’, see (Deutsch (2011), Chap. 1).
Referring to the Biblical story of the pharaoh who ordered that the Israelite slaves find their own brick-making materials instead of transforming a given supply.
Barbour, J. (1999). The end of time. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson.
Barbour, J. (2012). Shape dynamics. In F. Finster et al. (Eds.), An introduction in quantum field theory and gravity. Basel: Birkhäuser.
Brown, H. R., & Timpson, C. G. (2006). In W. Demopoulos & I. Pitowsky (Eds.), Physical theory and its interpretation: Essays in honor of Jeffrey Bub (pp. 29–41). Dordrecht: Springer.
de Grey, A. (2007). In M. Rae (Ed.), Ending aging. New York: St. Martin’s Press.
Deutsch, D. (1985). Quantum theory, the Church-Turing principle and the universal quantum computer. Proceedings of the Royal Society A, 400, 97–117.
Deutsch, D. (1997). The fabric of reality. London: Allen Lane The Penguin Press.
Deutsch, D. (2002). The structure of the multiverse. Proceedings of the Royal Society A, 458, 2911–2923.
Deutsch, D. (2011). The beginning of infinity. London: Allen Lane, The Penguin Press.
Deutsch, D. (2012). Vindication of quantum locality. Proceedings of the Royal Society A, 468, 531–544.
Deutsch, D., & Hayden, P. (2000). Information flow in entangled quantum systems. Proceedings of the Royal Society A, 456, 1759–1774.
Drexler, K. E. (1995). Molecular manufacturing: Perspectives on the ultimate limits of fabrication. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A, 353, 323–331.
Einstein, A. (1908). In M. J. Klein, A. J. Kox, & R. Schulmann (Eds.), Letter to Arnold Sommerfeld, document 73 in the collected papers of Albert Einstein, Vol. 5, The Swiss Years: Correspondence, 1902–1914 (English translation supplement). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press; Translated by A. Beck., 1995.
Einstein, A. (1949) In P. A. Schilpp (Ed.), Albert Einstein: Philosopher, scientist (3rd ed., 1970, p. 85). Evanston: Library of Living Philosophers.
Hume, D. (1739). A treatise of human nature Oxford: Clarendon Press (2007).
Kant, I. (1781). Transcendental exposition of the concept of space. In Critique of pure reason.
Landauer, R. (1995). Is quantum mechanics useful? Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A, 353, 367–376.
Page, D. N., & Wootters, W. (1983). Evolution without evolution: Dynamics described by stationary observables. Physical Review, D27(12), 2885–2892.
Popper, K. R. (1959). The logic of scientific discovery. London: Routledge.
Popper, K. R. (1963). Conjectures and refutations. London: Routledge.
Popper, K. R. (1972). Epistemology without a knowing subject in objective knowledge: An evolutionary approach (Chap. 3). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Putnam, H. (1974). The ‘corroboration’ of theories. In P. A. Schilpp (Ed.), The philosophy of Karl Popper (Vol. 1, p. 221). La Salle, IL: Open Court. See also Popper’s reply Putnam on “Auxiliary sentences”, called by me “Initial conditions” loc. cit. 2 993.
Quine, W. V. O. (1960). Word and object. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Russell, B. (1913). On the notion of cause. Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, New Series, 13(1912–1913), 1–26.
Swartz, N. (1995). A Neo-Humean perspective: Laws as regularities. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press.
Turing, A. M. (1936). On computable numbers, with an application to the Entscheidungsproblem. Proceedings of the London Mathematical Society 2, 42(1), 230–265.
von Neumann, J. (1948). The general and logical theory of automata. In Hixon symposium, September 20, 1948, Pasadena, California.
I am grateful to Simon Benjamin for pointing out some subtleties including the non-existence of a universal classical constructor, to him and Mark Probst for illuminating conversations on the themes of this paper, to Alan Forrester and two anonymous referees for numerous useful suggestions, and especially to Chiara Marletto for incisive criticism of earlier versions of the theory and of earlier drafts of this paper.
Rights and permissions
About this article
Cite this article
Deutsch, D. Constructor theory. Synthese 190, 4331–4359 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11229-013-0279-z
- Constructor theory
- Von Neumann machines
- Physics of computation