Clockwork Rebooted: Is the Universe a Computer?

  • Gregg Jaeger
Part of the STEAM-H: Science, Technology, Engineering, Agriculture, Mathematics & Health book series (STEAM)


The idea of grounding physics in principles of computation and an information ontology by considering the universe as fundamentally a digital computing entity has been of increasing interest over the past several decades. It has been claimed in some versions of this approach that this entity is a cellular automaton. The most literal version of the idea that the universe is a “giant quantum computer” has been advocated recently by Seth Lloyd—who traces it back to previous work, including that of Zuse, Fredkin, and, less plausibly, Feynman—on the grounds that it provides a novel explanation for the complexity currently seen in the universe. In particular, it is claimed that the simulation of the known physical universe by an abstract automaton is sufficient for the ontological identification of the former with the latter. Here, a critical analysis of the arguments for this picture of the physical world is given in which both the similarity of it to the past picture of the world as a mechanical clockwork and the difference of it from existing physical theory are discussed. It is shown that the claim that the universe is an enormous computer, like the thesis that it is an enormous clockwork, is unwarranted, whatever value it might have for moving beyond previous mathematical approaches to physics through a move to discrete descriptions of physical processes.



I gratefully acknowledge Tom Toffoli for helpful discussions regarding pertinent elements of the theories of automata and complexity.


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© Springer International Publishing AG, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Quantum Communication and Measurement Laboratory, Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering and Division of Natural Science and MathematicsBoston UniversityBostonUSA

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