A key debate of the computer revolution concerns Stephen Wolfram's argument that everything is equivalent to computation; this book explores the implications of that insight.
Rucker (As Above, So Below, 2003, etc.), a computer scientist and science fiction writer, examines Wolfram's dictum as it applies to questions ranging from the trivial to the existential. The word “gnarly” plays an important role here; Rucker uses it to suggest a kind of pattern characteristic of living beings, somewhere between simple symmetry and total chaos. Wolfram builds many of his insights from cellular automata (CA), simple programs that generate surprisingly complex and ever-changing patterns on a computer display; one of the best known is the program “Life.” Such gnarly outputs suggest that the full complexity of the laws of physics or biology could be embodied in a sufficiently sophisticated computation. Rucker relies particularly on two premises implicit in Wolfram's work: computational equivalence (everything is ultimately a computation) and computational unpredictability (the results of complex natural computations are inherently impossible to foresee from the data). In the book's central section, “Enjoying Your Mind,” Rucker takes the reader from elementary CA patterns to the physiology of the brain, always on the lookout for links between the simple (neurons) and the complex (consciousness). Each chapter is preceded by a short story suggesting its larger themes. Rucker also provides a wealth of illustrations, from rough computer scematics to photographs of natural objects that resemble CA outputs, and links to his own web pages, where curious readers can further explore the subject. In the final chapter, “Reality Upgrade,” Rucker modifies Wolfram's basic premises to apply to everyday experience—ending with half-dozen practical rules for attaining happiness.
Charmingly written and thought-provoking.