Digital Physics, Life, The Universe & Everything

“Digital Physics” is a “retro-nerd” film whose central character Khatchig is a penniless and frustrated maths & computing student set in the 1980’s (I think). The film itself was released in 2016.

It crossed my path on Twitter in March 2019 when a dialogue with Chris Papavasilou ( ) led me through some questions about my own take on fundamental information. I thank Chris for giving me an opportunity to recap how my own thinking had evolved. (Ironically I didn’t watch the film until after the conversation because for some reason the links led me to a trailer which I took to be for a film project in progress, as opposed to one already released – Doh!)

A kinda review of the film is appended below, but – TaDa!! – what follows immediately is my own speculative information metaphysics, pulled into organised form subsequent to the dialogue:

Click for full copy of latest version.

The theoretical basis of the metaphysics (and the film Digital Physics) is as old as the hills, older than physics in fact. It’s all footnotes to Plato after all. The film includes the work of this pantheon in the list of acknowledgements at the start of the credits:

Who could argue? Many of my influences and sources are in the document linked above (and throughout this Psybertron blog of course). Many of course are shared.

Schmidhuber I first came across in 2009, but didn’t notice the importance of Zuse in his sources until 2017. In fact this 2017 post on Zuse gives a good summary of links to my take on computation as efficient compression fundamental to both the physical and mental world from Schmidhuber in 2009 and Gerry Wolff in 2002.

Einstein is ever present, the real one and the apochryphal one. His influence by Mach (and Boscovich) are equally important when it comes to any actual fundamental information model, but his whole thought processes through relativity and  when untangling what was obviously wrong in wave & particle, quanta & gravity, space & time physics pulls in so many threads. Einstein’s dialogues with Gödel late in life and their passing like ships in the night whilst Wittgenstein was pulling his hair out with Russell and the logical positivists are both major influences on my story and one of the biggest missed opportunities of the 20th century IMHO.

The whole Conway / Hofstadter / Dennett – algorithms – thread is fundamental to both stories, though mine is more inclusive of philosophy than simply physics. Which raises one important question – which was actually asked in the Twitter thread.

Q: Is this just a metaphysical tweak
to the foundations of fundamental physics
that should concern only physicists?

A: Hell no. Absolutely not.
It could hardly be more far-reaching
for the whole of human rationality.

At the risk of reinforcing the impression of the crank hanging around the library who’s sure he’s found the secret to life, the universe and everything:

The REASON I came to this field is that I’m an engineer in facilities and information systems, whose interest in “information” – more generally in epistemology – arose out of real-world engineering business experiences. I’m not a fundamental physicist or meta-physical philosopher. I’m not even a scientist or a philosopher in any formal sense. The reason my epistemological concerns became a two-decades-and-counting piece of deep research is because I could see that human decision-making was being “assisted” by ever more automated information processing that was based on deep misunderstandings of what information and knowledge really are.  This is not just some remote tweak to the obscure foundations of theoretical physics. All individual, social, cultural and political human activity depends on acting on our combined interpretation of knowledge. And the problem is compounded the more we automatically embed the flawed physical model into our democratic human processes. Social-media, populism, climate-change, anti-vaxxers; fake news isn’t the half of it. As I’ve said elsewhere, our very rationality is at stake.

But none of this is new or secret. There are no conspiracy theories required.

So, finally, What about the film itself?

[I’ve reviewed and made detailed notes on the content & trajectory of the plot-line as well as on the underlying message(s). This post isn’t really meant to be the review, but …

With apologies for any plot-spoilers – TL/DR:

Its main thesis is that information and computation underlie a new physics (right up my street) that is being denied by a mainstream against which our nerdy hero is struggling to communicate and convince. For any other nerds like myself, the “simulations” of all the cellular-automata / game-of-life computations using the simplest of early personal computing resources will resonate.

As a drama, I think it falls between stools. For nerds like me (from the 80’s thru the millennium) lots of the content has moved on, evolved and is increasingly accepted.

For those being introduced for the first time to the idea that information and computation might unlerlie physics (and everything else), and that there is a some establishment conspiracy to cover this up, it is probably too slow and thin to maintain interest.

I wonder how many of the latter group would get the plot twist for example, that the professor eventually accepting Khatchig’s work and offering him a position, wanted him to work in particle physics, which left him frustrated to the end.

The narrative relies heavily on simple (ie retro) graphic simulations with trancey synth soundtrack overlay (by Manual Göttshing) – with only Khatchig voicing the actual thesis in disjointed conversation with fellow hostel inmates. Love the allusions to Devo (and Mark Mothersbaugh?) visual and aural in the college-band for which our hero seems to be audio-visual techie in the early sequences. More could have been made of this musical connection, other than as Khatchig’s only unreliable source of any income.

For me as someone who already bought the central thesis a long time ago, the thinness of the content is ultimately frustrating and some of the actual and implied questions already evoke strong answers. Sure the information and computation element has a strong consciousness angle where psychedelic experiences undoubtedly shine a light, but there is no literal pan-psychism, and no there is no super-natural god or super-programmer running the code in which we exist as some kind of simulation. That’s been done already – do you take the red or blue pill, or maybe the ‘shrooms.

Nice to see an effort to put the fundamental information and computation thesis in a general audience film format. The retro aspect certainly conveys that this is far from new material but I wonder how a new audience would pick-up the lasting and current significance of the line of research. I also appreciate that “nerdy” is a genre with a certain audience, though I say that as a nerd who could never see the attraction in “Big Bang Theory”.

When it comes to a blockbuster movie in this space, Dan Brown’s “Origin” already has screenplay written all over it I fear.]


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