The other day, I wrote about the strange sensation I’ve been getting that absolutely everything – the whole universe, all of matter and motion, the past, present, and future, every thought any human has ever had – is really nothing but a vastly complicated and beautiful pattern. After all, everything we see on computers is just a pattern of ones and zeros; everything about computers – their invention, the creation of all the content on the internet, every user experience – is just part of an even vaster pattern of firing human neurons; and that’s just part of a global ecosystem that takes energy from the sun and lays it out in a beautifully complex pattern involving not just human brains but also rising and falling tides, the water cycle, the ancient dance of predator and prey, etc.; and even that’s just a small part of a pattern of swirling galaxies which, when you zoom out far enough to see its superclusters, begins to look surprisingly like the patterns of neurons in the human brain…
Well, I’ve been thinking more about what it would be like to be part of such a pattern, and I’ve decided it’s easier to think about if I imagine everything as one unified and orderly but infinitely long and complicated number.
The idea immediately feels to me like it could help explain so much that I’ve long found so baffling. Just pretend for a minute that everything really is just a complicated number (even “number” is an analogy, but it’s the closest term I have in human language to convey the concept I’m trying to get across). What that immediately suggests to me is that space, time, matter, motion, past, future – all of these things are illusions. Or rather, it’s an illusion that they’re fundamentally different from each other, that they’re distinct “things” rather than just different parts of something as utterly simple and unified as one number. Or to put it another way, they may be a different sequence of digits in the number, but they have the same essence. Everything is just “number”.
A lot of the bizarre but apparently true findings of modern physics, which I inadequately grasp and have no real mathematical understanding of, have always struck me in a baffling and inexpressible way as not just demonstrably true, but even inherently reasonable and intuitive. General relativity, for instance. One of relativity’s many implications is that it’s simplistic and misleading, at best, to speak of an absolute past or future. Time is relative to the observer. Depending on hypothetical (or actual) frames of reference throughout the universe, anyone’s present could exist simultaneously as anyone else’s past or future (See here for a good explanation: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vrqmMoI0wks). Rather than a universe that proceeds from young to old in absolute ticks, like a clock, our universe seems to be an eternal now, where all times, in some sense, always exist somewhere. Maybe past and future are just an illusion of my mind, caused because I myself am somehow limited, unable to experience anything more than an infinitesimal sliver of the whole (my present) at any given time.
Quantum physics gets even stranger. Experiments bear out this wild prediction that two subatomic particles could become so linked that when you somehow affect one, even by so innocuous an activity as to observe it, the change you effect has an immediate impact on the other. They can be linked immediately by entanglement even when they’re separated by space. Which means that somehow, information is passing between them at speeds far surpassing the speed of light. Einstein was skeptical of this “spooky action at a distance,” but experiments demonstrate its reality.
If you want a fascinating study, look up the “double slit” experiment. Many variations have been tried, but most interesting is a finding that many single electrons fired repeatedly, one at a time, through two slits will leave a wave pattern behind them – until you observe them! Then, the pattern “collapses” into a different pattern that would suggest the electrons are acting once more as the respectable particles they should be. Hmmm…if my observation “causes” an electron with all the information of a wave to “collapse” into a point, could the implication be that the change is caused by an incapacity of my mind to focus on more than one infinitely thin sliver at a time? (See a good explanation here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DfPeprQ7oGc)
Maybe it all makes sense if everything is a number. Maybe all of time is present in an eternal now, and all of space is present in an eternal here – it’s just my own finite perspective that prevents me from seeing it. Maybe space and time themselves are elaborate illusions, created by the human brain so that we could make sense of our environment (the part of the “number” that we find ourselves in) since we’re too finite to observe all of it at once.
To clarify the inability I’m speaking of here, try this experiment. Focus your eyes on some point – pick any object at all. Really focus on it. Now, without losing your focus on that object, try to focus simultaneously on another object. Try as you might, it can’t be done. We can see a wide panorama with a broad focus. But when you collapse your attention to a narrow focus, it becomes impossible to see more than one thing at once with all your attention. Maybe the “wave” pattern of electrons is how we “see” their essence in a broad sense. But as soon as we really focus on them narrowly, we can no longer “see” them as more than a particle. And so our finite ability to observe necessarily affects the way we measure them. Maybe our measurement isn’t actually changing their behavior at all. It’s only changing our perception of their behavior in a way that solidifies so that we can no longer “unsee” what we have once focused narrowly upon.
Back to the initial question: what if all of space-time is an infinitely complicated number, and I, like everything else, am an impossibly complicated and yet still a tiny part of that one number?
Think how complicated a number it would be. That it is infinite wouldn’t even be scratching the surface. My first thought was, if you’re talking about infinity, how can you add to it? It never ends. But then I thought about it this way: take pi, for instance. Pi is an infinite decimal – it goes on and on forever without repeating. But every time you see a circle or arc, you’re seeing another example of infinite pi – it’s everywhere. And besides just the physical manifestations in suns and planets and all across the universe, you see more repetitions of it in a human brain every time a mathematician calculates it out. And you see it again in a human brain every time a teacher presents it to a pupil. And you see it in binary every time someone posts it on the internet. So when you look at the universe, there’s well nigh an infinity of repetitions of the infinite digits of pi. And if you think these multiples of infinity don’t really add any new information because the digits of pi are always the same everywhere, consider how many other infinite decimals there are – the amazingly beautiful number of phi, the infinitely repeating decimals you get when you divide out fractions of any kind – they’re everywhere, infinite numbers, each of which means something completely different from others.
I’m drifting from my point here…but what if we ourselves are just part of a number so complicated that all these repeating and branching-off infinities are only a tiny part of it? What of all there ever is or was is just a number – a pattern – without time or extension, an infinitely tiny point in terms of both space and time? What if the very idea of space and time is just a way of dealing with numbers, a way our human brains evolved to use in the complicated struggle for life on the African Savannah? Or to frame it in terms of the number, what if the endless repetitions with slight modifications of that particular part of the infinite number (the “human history” part) just cause, as a by-product, this feeling of otherness, space, time, personality, etc.? Or what if the entire number has what we would call “consciousness” as its predicate, and the portion in which we find ourselves, due to a quality of that complicated number during that particular stretch, for evolutionarily justifiable reasons, adds the ideas of personality and space and time to the universal consciousness? What if, what if….
What is life, anyway? Just a complicated arrangement of energy? If our complicated brains are somehow “alive” why not the more (and similarly) complicated universe? If they’re conscious, why would the universe be any less so? If the part of the pattern that’s sitting here writing these impossible-to-explain thoughts on a computer screen is “conscious,” why not the whole universe, which is fundamentally like but greater?
I’m not a mathematician, and the fact frustrates me. I have so many questions I want to ask of mathematicians. What happens when you raise an infinitely-extending but non-repeating decimal like pi to the power of an infinitely repeating decimal? Would it make a complicated enough number that it could have infinite repetitions (like all the circles in the universe) but in such a way that all those infinite repetitions could remain just part of that yet more (?) infinite number? Could such a mathematical operation (or one like it), calculated out by some advanced consciousness in some “superverse” be what we call the universe? Including myself? To press it further…could we be just a math problem in the mind of a super-intelligence? Could the galaxies we see perhaps be neurons in the brain of a superorganism, and our own similar neural patterns just be a fractal repetition of that same pattern? And if so, could the atoms in our brains, when you break them down, have the same pattern, repeated fractally, as the galaxies and my own tangled neurons? Could those atoms be their own tiny little brains and consciousnesses? As long as I’m speculating wildly…could the tiniest brain-pattern-consciousness of subquarks simultaneously be the biggest super-universe-brain-pattern-consciousness, so you could theoretically “walk” eternally through all the fractal repetitions from smallest quark to the largest universe in a non-Newtonian loop? Maybe the one all-encompassing “number” is not just endlessly repeating, but endlessly repeating in a fractal pattern. After all, not only do we see infinite repeating decimals everywhere, we also see fractals all throughout the same universe.
Another question: what might all this imply about certain “paranormal” phenomena? Could the vast reaches of space and time be immediately sensible to certain human minds because there really is no space and time? Maybe the part of the number that defines their particular consciousness is entangled with a part of the universal number that, for me or you, would be vastly far away in space, or long ago, or in the future? Could that account for mind reading and extraordinary knowledge and remote viewing and quantum entanglement and prognostication and and and….
If the one “number” that we are all a part of is infinitely repeating, like a repeating decimal, does it mean that the universe goes in a perpetual circle, from big bang to big crunch to big bang – and every time, when it gets to this precise point, the same sequence of numbers that my human mind portrays as “me” is sitting here writing out these thoughts that even “I” don’t understand? Could I be doomed to wonder about these things an infinity of times as the universal “number” infinitely repeats? Although of course it doesn’t really repeat in time, it’s just an infinite repetition of a timeless number, like .33333…repeating infinitely when you divide one by three…
And if my little consciousness is so big and complicated, when I’m just a speck of carbon on a speck of gravel circling a speck of light in a cluster of galaxies swirling through a universe that may well be a speck in a multiverse – if that mind is so full of infinities – if that part of the pattern is so complicated – what must the mind of God be like? Or in other words, what kind of consciousness might arise from the whole?
And now I’ve thought myself into a stupor again.
All I know is, sometimes in the strange moments I have this tip-of-the-tongue feeling, this sense that I’m almost there, that I’m on the verge of shifting my perspective to something entirely new, and if I could just do it, just understand what I’m trying to understand, it would make sense of everything.
And if that happens, I’m sure I’ll be amazed at how simple it all is. I think the simplicity will be as staggeringly beautiful as the complexity of it all.
I’m not there yet, but by God I haven’t given up yet either.