The Game of Life was introduced by John Conway in 1970, and its immediate popularity quickly gave wings to the then-obscure field of cellular automata. It's a striking demonstration of bafflingly complex patterns and chaos that emerge from a grid of cells, each obeying utterly simple rules.

The idea that such unpredictable behavior could arise from a collection of cells that were, in and of themselves, entirely predictable, was very exciting. Why? Because this flew in the face of every 'common sense' notion about complexity since humans began practicing science. The common sense notion is that complex behavior arises from complex processes. But the Game of Life exhibited complex, unpredictable behavior from very simple, predictable elements! This raised a lot of eyebrows.

It's interesting to consider the implications of cellular automata in the way the universe works. Stephen Wolfram's magnum opus, A New Kind of Science, is an exploration of this idea. If we allow the possibility that the principles at work in cellular automata such as the Game of Life, are fundamental to the way the universe works, at all scales, then it's easy to see how the kind of complexity that exists all around us may have arisen much in the same way that the complex, organic-looking patterns emerge on the Game of Life. This is a neat concept because it means that all kinds of complexity can appear in reality even if the underlying processes are simple and predictable.

The concept of emergence is key to the model. New objects and properties emerge from a lower level of interaction, in such a way that these new objects and properties can't be understood or predicted in terms of the way their lower-level parts interact. Furthermore, these levels of complexity are built on top of one another. This resonates perfectly with the structure of high-level organisms - the organism emerges from the layer of cells, cells emerge from the layer of molecules, molecules from atoms, and so on. There is nothing about the interaction of individual cells in a kangaroo that can be used to predict what that kangaroo will look like (or what it will do next). In other words, phenomena at a certain level can not be reduced to, or explained by, the level underlying it. Reductionism is not a useful tool when it comes to complexity.

The idea that the principles of cellular automata are at work everywhere, at every level of the universe, has significance in any number of different scientific disciplines. Wolfram points out that the diversity of species in our world is much more easily explainable using the notion of emergent complexity, than the survival of the fittest model of mainstream evolution:

It requires much less theoretical heavy lifting to allow that the complexity in nature is easily produced from (as Wolfram puts it) simple programs, than it is to require that there is an evolutionary purpose for every instance of complex phenomena. By Occam's razor, it's a better model.

Another workable example is that we can imagine our own brains as vast cellular automata, with our neurons being individual cells, each obeying, deterministicly, easily understood and predictable rules. Yet, the ultimate behavior of our brains, as characterized by our minds, is complex and unpredictable. Perhaps this concept of emergent chaos can help us to demystify the link between mind and matter. We no longer need to believe that complex, unpredictable behavior must come from complex processes. And since we see neurons as being relatively simple (in that each neuron is predictable), maybe now we can see that just because neurons are simple, doesn't mean they can't support the kind of complexity that we understand directly as our own thoughts, moods, experience, and so on.

Also interesting to consider is that while cellular automata are unpredictable, they are deterministic, meaning that two identical grids with the same starting conditions will be identical to each other, every step of the way. Similarly, if our universe is ultimately deterministic (meaning, two universes with identical starting conditions would be identical to each other every step of the way), than it would still allow for the kind of unpredictable complexity we see in our day to day lives.

Wolfram's book is devoted in large part to suggesting ways in which emergent complexity can be applied to other areas of science. One of those areas is the ontological basis of the universe. Given the strength of this idea to shed light on fundamental features of our world, such as the complex forms found in nature, Wolfram is now dedicated to exploring possible ways in which the universe as we know it could unfold to its present state by way of "a few lines of code". The fruits of such labor might even provide a Grand Unified Theory.

Hold on to your cellular-automated horses!

At any and every moment, countless amateur philosophers all over the globe are debating this exact issue right now. Just in case anyone comes across this node in their search for meaning here on e2, I will take a moment to stamp the rubber-stamp opposition to this statement. However, I would like to point out that I completely agree with mmmmbacon's basic premise. Stephen Wolfram does so, as well. Unfortunately, his research in this field has not produced the so-called "missing link" in the materialist-determinist's vision of the universe: one brilliantly complex Conway's Game of Life.

The missing link is the bridge between the simple structures capable of occurring in rule-based computer-model simulations, such as Conway's Game of Life and the higher levels of  complexity we find in our everyday world. Put simply, the little squiggling shapes populating Wolfram's computer models never evolved into figures with higher complexity. The blinking cross, for example, will never evolve into a more interesting figure, it will always and forever remain a blinking cross. This type of environment does not seem to represent the chaotic fullness and creativity of the world we are all used to. Wolfram himself admits that most of his simulations, regardless of the time spent running through the simulation, never reach a higher level of complexity. In fact, Wolfram admitted that his results reached a certain level of chaos, and then hit a plateau: a humming comfort level of complexity.

Hold on to your free-willed horses!

But wait! This may not be the end of the materialist-determinist's road, but rather just the beginning. Perhaps, as the counter-counter argument goes (in which I place my trust): Wolfram's models simply aren't large enough, and also perhaps his rules governing these models are not complex enough. Perhaps if the computer-model simulation were the size of, say, the entire size of the universe itself, then maybe the data will evolve into higher orders of complexity, such as rats, perfume, giant squids, and cable bills.

Calling All QM Buffs: Please see this node for the quantum side to the philosophical inquiry of determinism. I personally dislike the current rubber-stamp quantum argument: that the nature of free will hides somewhere in the quantum buzz engulfing the universe. To me, that's like picking up thirty-nine upside down cups without finding the little red ball and then just assuming it is going to be under the fortieth. Maybe there is no little red ball.

Oh, I guess I failed to answer WHAT IF the universe is like the Game of Life, and I must say I agree with ariel's assertion below: If the universe were a Game of Life, then it would look and feel exactly as it does today, with no difference!

So this guy John Conway invents this(not the first, not the concept, Stanislaw Ulam was doing this in the 1940s, for crying out loud!) cellular automaton, and people spend 3 decades watching squiggly graphics. What's that to do with the Universe?

Life (the game, not The Game) is just a remarkably simple cellular automaton, with the property that it can simulate a Turing machine. And anything which can simulate a Turing machine can simulate any computation -- that's the Church-Turing thesis. This is definitely neat: just some simple rules are enough to define computation.

Of course, since the 1930s logicians have been coming up with loads of these Turing complete systems, none of them very complex. E.g. Conway also came up with FracTran, which embeds any program inside some rules for manipulating rational numbers. The point is that universal machines for what we term "computation" are really very simple. John von Neumann was probably the first to write it down, even if he probably wasn't the first to think it. And that was back in the 1940s. Note: pfft correctly points out that I use "universal" here and in the sequel in the sense of "universal for Turing machines", or "universal for CAs", or "universal for Life", or "universal for recursive functions", or your favourite Turing complete model.

History repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce. In the 1970s, people realised that apart from being a neat footnote in mathematical logic, Conway's "Life" afforded the opportunity of drawing pretty pictures on a computer! Interest surged, and many modules are available for Life. Universal machines based on Life have grown ever smaller. Oh, and in the same field Hilbert's tenth problem was solved, but how important could that be? Yuri Matiyasevich's name is impossible to write down, and no pretty pictures were available.

Enter the 3rd millennium. We're now repeating stuff from the 1970s. Fredkin said that the Universe could be a cellular automaton, because cellular automata were powerful enough to model it (if we smooth over minor problems of continuous vs. discrete systems, and the like). Wolfram (in the very aptly-named A New Kind of Science) says it might be, or even must be. For the same reason.

Note the word UNIVERSAL in "universal machine". It doesn't refer to the famous Universal Studios Tour, it refers to an annoying property of those damned machines. Universal machines are computers, aka fools: What one fool can do, any other fool can also do. And what one universal machine can do, any other universal machine can also do. If the Universe can be modeled by the game of Life, then it can be modeled equally well by any other universal machine. So if we want to claim that the Universe IS a cellular automaton, we'd better have a much better argument to back us up than just that cellular automata are powerful enough to simulate the Universe. After all, so are polynomials (see the work of the Russian bloke with the hard name beginning with M, and the American linguist logician and philosopher with a girl's name, plus some other gals and guys).

It's impossible to distinguish between different universal machines. Arguing whether the Universe runs on your favourite universal machine or on mine is, if at all possible, an even sillier exercise than arguing whether C or Java is "the best" programming language. Both can do anything. So...

Why Life and not FracTran?

Let me be the first to claim that The Universe is a FracTran Program. That way, when someone claims it in the April 2031 issue of Scientific American, it won't be for the first time.

Oh, and there's the small business of having to solve nondeterminism in quantum mechanics before we can do this. And unifiying the general theory of relativity with it. A piece of cake, that.

Footprints sez " clearly ignored the question, which is the title of the node: WHAT IF...?", which is true. This often happens to me while ranting, in that I am too busy wiping the foam off my mouth to answer the question. So here's the answer.

It wouldn't make one bit of difference. It COULDN'T make one bit of difference. The whole point is to claim that at some unimaginably minute scale, our Universe is a cellular automaton. But -- since it's just a universal cellular automaton -- it could equally well have been any other universal machine with appropriate initial conditions, and we'd be none the wiser.

Indeed, what if the universe is like the Game of Life (c)?

Well, for starters, every creature would have to choose when it was born/created whether it wanted to start college or start a career. It would be explained to them that "College offers more career and salary options, but it takes time - and it puts you in debt!" It would then proceed to spin a gigantic spinner and move forward with its life.


Immediately the creature would be hit with a $40,000 loan. They would then, upon landing on a career block, be able to choose out of three jobs with a matching salary. They would be able to choose jobs that had the mythical term "Degree required." They would then spend the rest of their life working to pay off their debts, buy houses, and reach retirement.


For those creatures choosing to immediately go to a career, they would only get to choose one job, and the salary to match. They also would only be able to change jobs if they were fired, had a mid-life crisis, or attended night school. They would continue working to pay off debts, buy houses, and reach retirement.


Throughout the universe would be magical LIFE Tiles, Pay Day Spaces (no more waiting till Friday!), Getting Married spaces, etc. Planning for events would be a thing of the past. A creature's entire life would be slave to the spinner.


To win the Game of Life(c) good deeds, helpful personalities and the such would be meaningless. It's all about the money. Whatever creature had the most money and reached either Countryside Acres or Millionaire Estates would be declared the winner.


If the universe were like the Game of Life(c) every creature would either have a degree or a job. Humans would have to compete with ants, dolphins, turtles and piles of kittens to win. We would still not know if other life existed in the universe, but we could guarantee that if there was, they would be a slave to the spinner, just like us.

Brought to you by Saturday morning cereal and the "Life Board Game Rules" available at

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