Thursday, May 25, 2017

God the Creator and the "Useless Machine"

A Useless Machine, using a touch screen instead of a switch
External Finger:  "On" or "Box Open"
Internal Finger: "Off" or "Box Closed"
"No computer has ever been designed that is ever aware of what it's doing; but most of the time, we aren't either."  Marvin Minsky, Inventor of the Useless Machine.
"It from bit symbolizes the idea that every item of the physical world has at bottom — at a very deep bottom, in most instances — an immaterial source and explanation; that which we call reality arises in the last analysis from the posing of yes-no questions and the registering of equipment-evoked responses; in short, that all things physical are information-theoretic in origin and that this is a participatory universe."  John Wheeler*


While surfing the internet, looking for my grandsons's birthday gift, I ran across the "Useless Machine," invented by the computer theorist, Marvin Minsky some 60 years ago.     A switch opens the lid on the box, and a hand comes out and flicks the switch to close it.    My version, using touch screens instead of a switch, is illustrated above.

The Useless Machine (also known as the "Leave Me Alone" machine) is one more item in John Wheeler's catalog of bits that make up "It".  The binary nature of computer instructions is given by:   "0" representing  "on" (or "open");  "1" representing "off" (or "close"). Thus the possible states of the box can be represented by (0,1),  as answers to the "yes/no" question cited in the quote from John Wheeler.

This picture is incomplete, I claim.   I will argue in this article that an important element is missing in the description of the Useless Machine, if we only list its algorithmic elements.


My own take on John Wheeler's arguments for "It from Bit" is given in another post, so I won't repeat that in detail here.   However, his premise of "Four No's"  is  relevant to this discussion, so I'll review these again:
  1. No "tower of turtles"**;
  2. No laws;
  3. No continuum;
  4. No space, no time.

The "no tower of turtles" statement asserts that infinite regress in a causal chain is not possible.  In this Wheeler, St. Thomas Aquinas, and other philosophers are in agreement.

The "no laws" assertion denies that the universe is a machine built on laws, a machine that would entail a multiverse, "universes in infinite variety and infinite number".    Rather, Wheeler envisions a "world self-synthesized":
"...the notes struck out on a piano by the observer-participants of all places and all times, bits though they are, in and by themselves constitute the great wide world of space and time and things." --John Wheeler,  Information, Physics, the Quantum: the Search for Links. p. 314
The "world self-synthesized" by "observer-participants of all places and all times"is Wheeler's "Participatory Universe", the notion that the universe is, as Bishop Berkeley suggested, created by observation: "esse est percipi".
Icon representing Wheeler's "Participatory Universe"
By looking backward in time (to distant galaxies) we create them
 But more questions are raised than answered here.  Would an annelid worm, an eagle, or a human synthesize the same world, or is it only "intelligent beings"?   If the last, what about the world synthesized by a Cro-Magnon man, an Australian aborigine, or Helen Keller?  There is not, as far as I can see, a coherent scheme here.  But I do have a different answer, given below.

By stating there is "no continuum", Wheeler denies the reality of transcendental and irrational numbers.   He uses quotes from the mathematician Hermann Weyl and the philosopher Willard Quine. to support that claim.  One should also note that  the "no continuum" condition requires that space and time must be discrete.

Wheeler's "no space, no time" condition is perhaps the most unappealing of these arguments. He claims that space and time are man-made inventions, and that at the beginning of the universe, "The Big Bang", quantum behavior would override General Relativity--there would be no connectivity in space, and before and after would have no meaning.


John Wheeler had an original and inventive mind.   In addition to "It from Bit" and the "Participatory Universe", he proposed a thought experiment, the Delayed Choice experiment, in which the choice of an experimenter, the observer, can yield a change in a  quantum trajectory even after the quantum entity has supposedly traversed its path.   Wheeler's idea has been realized experimentally by several physicists.  One of these, Raymond Chiao, has used the results to argue for a new interpretation of Bishop Berkeley's, "esse est percipi", "to be is to be observed":  God is the observer who creates and sustains the world by His act of observing it.

Which brings us now to the Useless Machine, and what it tells us, as a metaphor for the world,  about "It from Bit" and the Participatory Universe.    Here are three important things to note:

  • There is a finger external to the box that initiates the opening.
  • The machine did not build or design itself;  it was an external agent, Marvin Minsky, who invented it and an external agent, Claude Shannon, who had it built at Bell Labs.
  • The binary nature of the machine does not describe it completely--there is a lid, there is a finger inside the box, etc.   The states of the machine can be represented by 0 and 1, but we would need to know more than that to know all about the box, its attributes, its contents.

Can you translate these objections to taking the Useless Machine as a bit in "It from Bit" to taking the Universe as a collection of bits?   I can.   There is only one external finger, and that is the hand of God.    There is only one designer and creator, and that is the mind of God.   There is only one way to describe our world, and that is as God's Creation, sustained by Him, and only partially known by us.


*John Wheeler was one of the world's most creative and brilliant physicists.     See his NY Times obituary for a  partial list of his achievements.

**Wheeler is paraphrasing the expression "turtles all the way down".   There's  a famous anecdote about the elderly lady who  asserts that the earth is flat to a famous philosopher (two versions: William James or Bertrand Russell):  the earth rested on the back of a large elephant, which in turn rested on a larger turtle.   When asked what that turtle rested on, the lady replied, "don't be silly--it's turtles all the way down."

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About Me

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Retired, cranky, old physicist.   Convert to Catholicism in 1995.   Trying to show that there is no contradiction between what science tells us about the world and our Catholic faith.   Intermittent blogs and adult education classes to achieve this end (see   and

Extraordinary Minister of Communion volunteer to federal prison and hospital; lector, EOMC.
Sometime player of bass clarinet, alto clarinet, clarinet, bass, tenor bowed psaltery for parish instrumental group and local folk group.

And, finally, my motivation:
“It is also necessary—may God grant it!—that in providing others with books to read I myself should make progress, and that in trying to answer their questions I myself should find what I am seeking.
Therefore at the command of God our Lord and with his help, I have undertaken not so much to discourse with authority on matters known to me as to know them better by discoursing devoutly of them.”
St. Augustine of Hippo, The Trinity I,8.