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Podcast #114. “Who Do You Love”

May 19th, 2023

May 19, 2023. This story relates to the death of my wife Sylvia. I read it an SF in SF event in January, 2023, and it was recorded by Rusty Hodge for SomaFM. The story appeared as online text in Nature Futures on Feb 15, 2023. Press the arrow below to play Rusty’s recording of  “Who Do You Love”.


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Shirley Interview: AI, ChatGPT, and Consciousness

May 12th, 2023

Most of the material in this blog post is drawn from an email interview of me by my old pal John Shirley, for the terrific new ezine Instant Future , run by Brock Hinzmann and John.

As is my usual fashion, for my blog-post version I added some images that may seem to have no connection with the interview material. But always remember the fundamental principle of Surrealism: everything goes with everything.

John: Rudy, has anything you predicted, in your science-fiction or in non-fiction, come true?

Rudy: I’ve always wanted someone to ask me about my predictions coming true. I’ll mention two big ones.

A first prediction of mine is that the only way to produce really powerful AI programs to use evolution. Because it’s literally impossible to write them from the ground up. I got this insight from the incomparable Kurt Gödel himself. The formal impossibility of writing the code for a human-equivalent mind is a result that drops out of Gödel’s celebrated Incompleteness Theorem of 1931. It turns out that creating a mind isn’t really about logic at all. It’s about tangles.

I worked out the details of robot evolution while I was on a mathematics research grant at the University of Heidelberg in 1979. My method of research? I wrote my proto-cyberpunk novel Software. You might call it a thought experiment gone rogue. I had a race of robots living on the Moon and reproducing by building new robots and copying variants of their software onto the newborns. The eventual software tangles are impossible to analyze. But they stoke a glow of consciousness. Like the neuron tangles in our skulls.

By 1993, when I wrote The Hacker and the Ants, I understood that robot evolution should be run at very high speeds, using simulated bots in virtual world. And I tweaked the evolutionary process so that the fitness tests are co-evolving with the sims; that is, the tests get harder and harder. What were the tests? Increasingly vicious suburban homes inhabited by nasty sims called Perky Pat and Ken Doll.

My second big prediction is what I call a lifebox. This also appears in Software, and it’s a main theme in my nonfiction book, The Lifebox, the Seashell, and the Soul. The idea is that we ought to be able to make a fairly convincing emulation version of a person. The key is to have a very large data base on the person. If the person is a writer, or if they post a lot of messages and email, you have a good leg up on amassing the data. And in our new age of all-pervasive surveillance, it’ll be easy to access untold hours of a non-writing person’s conversation for the lifebox data.

Once you have a rich data base, creating a convincing lifebox isn’t especially difficult, and we’re almost there. On the back end you have a the data, thoroughly linked and indexed. On the front end you have a chatbot that assembles its answers from searches run on the data. And you want to have some custom AI that gives the answers a seamless quality, and which remembers the previous conversations that the user has had with the lifebox. This is pretty much what ChatGPT is starting to do.

By now the lifebox is such a staple of SF films and novels that people think the notion of a lifebox has always been around. It wasn’t. Someone had to dream it up. And that was me, with Software. It wasn’t at all easy to come up with the idea. It looks simple and obvious now, but in the Seventies it wasn’t.

One of the killer lifebox apps will be to help the bereaved to talk with their dead relatives, as described in my Saucer Wisdom.

As a crude experiment I myself set up an online Rudy’s Lifebox that you can converse with…in the weak sense of getting Rudy-text responses to whatever you type in. The Rudy’s Lifebox simply does a search on my rather large website…but I haven’t done any of the ChatGPT-style work needed for a chatbot front end.

I keep hoping that Stephen Wolfram will do that part for me, but I doubt if he will…at least not before he implements the Stephen’s Lifebox.

I know Hallmark Cards is researching this app, and a couple of years ago, Microsoft took the trouble of patenting my lifebox notion. Somehow they forgot to offer me a senior consultant job.

John: Any highlights in your mind for what might be coming in the next fifty years? Perhaps a big, defining trend you expect?

Rudy: I’d like to see some new physics. We’ve only been doing what we call “real science” for two centuries. Obviously there’s still a lot to learn. I can’t help thinking that some heavy SF-made-real moves might still resolve the terrible energy vs. climate problem. And maybe the horrible gun problem as well. I actually have some ideas for SF stories about this. I’m thinking about UFO-like “smart magnets” that sweep across the skies, sucking up the weapons like a real electromagnet above a car crusher place.

In terms of new wonders, I’m very fond of the subdimensions, that is, the scales below the Planck length. I’s like to get rid of the stingy size-scale limitations prescribed by quantum mechanics. And on another front, it would be great to bring Cantor’s transfinite cardinals into physics; I wrote about this in the latest intro to my nonfiction classic, Infinity and the Mind.

Recognizing the ubiquity of consciousness is yet another trend I see as important. Not just in a dreamy way, but in a lurid, literal sense. Stephen Wolfram has pretty well established that natural phenomena have the same computational complexity as human minds. Now we just need to learn how to talk to rocks. I wrote a novel about this, called Hylozoic.

By the way, “Hylozoism” is an actual dictionary word meaning “the doctrine that all matter is alive.” You don’t even need to make this stuff up. It’s all out there, ready for the taking.

John: Do you believe “the technological singularity” will come true, this century? Or has it crept up on us already?

Rudy: That’s a complicated question. Some say the singularity happened when we got the web working. Others say it’s more like daybreak—not a sudden flash, but a gradual dawning of the light. Or, yet again, if you see the Cosmos as having a mind, then a maximal, singular intelligence has been in place since the dawn of time. No big deal. It’s what is.

The SF writer and computer scientist Vernor Vinge brought the technological singularity into discussion in the early 1990s. His idea was tidy: as our AI programs get smarter, they’ll design still smarter AIs, and we’ll get an exponential explosion of simulated minds. A self-building tower of Babel. But it probably won’t happen like that. If our new AIs are smart, they might not want to design better AIs. After all, there’s more to life than intelligence.

Around 2000, Ray Kurzweil wrote a few books popularizing the singularity, and I was envious of his success. I wrote my novel Postsingular as a kind of rebuke—a reaction to the rampant singularity buzz.

The singularity isn’t the end SF. I say let it come down, and then write about what happens next. Charles Stross and I both take this approach. We’ll still be humans, living our lives, and we’ll still be as venal and lusty as the characters in Peter Bruegel paintings. Laughing and crying and eating and having sex—and artificial intelligence isn’t going to change any of that.

John: Is fear of the new AI revolution misplaced or valid?

Rudy: Fear of what? That there will be hoaxes and scams on the web? Hello? Fear that bots will start doing people’s jobs? Tricky. If a bot can do part of your job, then let the bot do that, and that’s probably the part of the job that you don’t enjoy. You’ll do the other part. What’s the other part? Talking to people. Relating. Being human. The clerk gets paid for hanging around the with the customers. Gets paid for being a host.

I’m indeed fascinated by the rapid progress of the ChatGPT-type wares. In his analysis of ChatGPT Stephen Wolfram breaks it all down for us. And, being Wolfram, he has the genius to run his flow of ideas on for about five times as long as a normal person would be able to. He seems to suggest that “intelligent thought” might be a very common process which complex systems naturally do.

As an example of such a process, think about Zhabotinsky scrolls, which are moving patterns generated, for instance, by cellular automata, by reaction-diffusion chemical reactions, and by fluid dynamics. When you swirl milk into coffee, the paired vortices are Zhabotinsky scrolls. Mushroom caps and smoke rings are Zhabotinsky scrolls. Fetuses and germinating seeds are Zhabotinsky scrolls.

There are particular kinds of shapes and processes that nature likes to create—some are familiar, and some not. We’re talking about forms that recur over and over again, in all sorts of contexts. Ellipsoids, ferns, puddles, clouds, scrolls, and … minds? It could well be that mind-like behavior emerges very widely and naturally, with no effort at all—like whirlpools in a flowing stream.

AI workers used to imagine that the mind is like some big-ass flow-chart Boolean-valued logic-gate construct. But that’s just completely off base. The mind is smeared, analog, wet, jiggly, tangled. And no Lego block model is ever going to come close to the delicious is-ness of being alive.

It’s the illogical, incalculable, unanalyzable nature of the artificially-evolved neural-net tangles of ChatGPT-style Ais that gives them a chance. Harking back to Kurt Gödel again: When it comes to AI, if you can understand it, it’s wrong.

John: If AI’s do a lot of the creative work for us, will it be genuinely creative?

Rudy: Right now writers and artists are sweating it. Most intelligent and creative people suffer from imposter syndrome. Like, I have no talent. I’ve been faking it for my whole life. I can’t write and I can’t paint. They’re going wise up to me any day. A cheap-ass program in the cloud can do whatever I do. But meanwhile, what the hell, I might as well keep going. Maybe I can sell my stuff if I tell people that a bot made it.

But for now it seems like the prose and art by ChatGPT is obvious, cheesy, and even lamentable. Generally you wouldn’t mistake these results for real writing and real art. Especially if you’re a writer or an artist. But the big question still looms. How soon will ChatGPT-style programs outstrip us?

Maybe I’m foolish and vain, but I think it’ll be a long time. We underestimate ourselves. You’re an analog computation updated at max flop rates for decades. And boosted by being embedded in human society. A node in a millennia-old planet-spanning hive-mind.

Can bot fiction be as good as mine? Not happening soon.

John: Can an AI be conscious?

Rudy: Yes. Here’s how to emulate a simple version of consciousness, using a technique originally described by neurologist Antonio Damasio in the 1990s.

The AI constructs an ongoing mental movie that includes an iconic image of itself plus images of some objects in the world. It notes its interactions with the objects, and it rates these interactions. These ratings are feelings. And now suppose the AI has a second-order image of itself having these feelings. This is consciousness—the process of watching yourself have feelings about the world around you.

Some researchers feel that AIs need to have bodies in order to achieve true consciousness. Theological analogy: God can’t understand humanity until manifesting self as a human avatar. Sounds familiar…

I delved into the issue of bodies for AIs in my recent novel Juicy Ghosts. In my novel, people achieve software immortality by having emulations of them stored in the cloud. As I mentioned before, I call these emulations lifeboxes.

And the idea now is, as I say, that a lifebox should be linked to a physical meat body. Your personality comes not only from your software, but from your full body: the sense organs, the emotional flows, the lusts and hungers and fears. And from whatever mysterious quantum-computational processes are found in a meat body. You might use a pre-grown clone of your dead self, or you might parasitize or possess another person or even an animal. Main thing is that you need the analog, quantum-jiggling meat. Once you’ve got that, you’re not just a ghost—you’re a juicy ghost.

John: Can you fold in a happy memory of our early cyberpunk days together, Rudy?

Rudy: My favorite is when John and I went to a 1985 SF con in Austin. We stayed at Bruce Sterling’s apartment, maybe with Charles Platt and Lew Shiner. We were in town for a panel, as described in the “Cyberpunk” chpater of my autobio Nested Scrolls. The panel also included Pat Cadigan and Greg Bear. William Gibson couldn’t make it. Bruce joked that Bill was in Switzerland with Keith Richards getting his blood changed. I’d somehow rented a Lincoln—Hunter Thompson style—and one evening we were slow-rolling along an Austin main drag and John was sitting shotgun, and he leaned out of the window and repeatedly scream-drawled this phrase at the local burghers: “Y’all ever ate any liiive brains?” The good old days. Did they really happen?

John: They did. Juicy Ghosts is the most recent book I’ve read by you. What are you working on now?

Rudy: I’m not writing much these days. I’m in a strange state of mind. My dear wife Sylvia died four months ago. It might be okay to end my career with Juicy Ghosts, , one the very best books I ever wrote. It has amazing near-future tech, great characters, a wiggly plot, and some heavy revolutionary content. And I fucking had to self-publish it. If you’re curious about the process, you can a browse my Juicy Ghosts writing notes. Another brick in the great wall of Rudy’s Lifebox.

I feel like I’m morphing into a painter. I took up painting in 1999 while writing my historical novel As Above, So Below about the Flemish master Peter Bruegel the Elder. I wanted to see how painting felt, and I quickly came to love it.

I enjoy the exploratory and non-digital nature of painting, and the luscious mixing of the colors. Sometimes I have a specific scenario in mind. Other times I don’t think very much about what I’m doing. I just paint and see what comes out. Working on a painting has a mindless quality that I like. The words go away, and my head is empty. And I can finish a painting in less than a week.

I’ve done about 250 paintings by now, and I’m steadily getting better. I like making them, and I’m doing okay with selling them through Rudy Rucker Paintings.

Who knows, maybe that’s my new career.

John: You’re a direct descendant of the philosopher Georg Hegel. Do you have an overall philosophy? I have a sense from many of your writings that you do, especially the later books of the Ware Tetralogy.

Rudy: I see the universe as being a single, living being. All is One. Gnarly and synchronistic, with everything connected. Like a giant dream that dreams itself. Or like the ultimate novel, except that it wrote itself, or is writing itself, hither and yon, from past to future, all times at once. This production’s got the budget, baby.

The meaning? Life, beauty and love.

For details, check out the last section of my tome, The Lifebox, the Seashell, and the Soul.

As I said, most of the material in this blog post is drawn from John Shirley’s email interview with me for Brock Hinzmann’s new ezine Instant Future . Check it out.

And thanks for the interview, John. These were good questions.

Y’all ever ate any liiive brains?

Roadtrip To Encinitas

March 29th, 2023

The grief is still quite harsh; it comes and goes. But it’s getting better. A couple of weeks ago, alone in the supermarket I was still lost in a haze of regret. All the things I didn’t do, or did wrong. Even though, in her last months, Sylvia told me, “I forgive you for anything you ever did. You’re being so nice to me now, and I know it’s hard. Thank you. I love you.”

But I have regrets anyway. Why go there, Rudy? Do you like to suffer? No. Do I feel like I’m fundamentally a bad person? Well, maybe I do. Advice from a grief book: “If you follow the thread to its core, you may find a sense of wrongness that has been with you your whole life.”

Thus: cyberpunk. The good boy who thinks he’s bad.

Here’s a photo near the spot where Sylvia said that wonderful thing in her last week of life. “The world is beautiful. The world is so beautiful.”

That’s all that matters.

I saw the first California poppies of the year on our hill the other day. Sylvia loved to see the poppies. This photo’s from Grant Park, 2019, four years ago, when she was still healthy. When we went there two years ago, early in March  2021 I realized, but not quite consciously, that she was going to die. Something weak and tired and fluttery and dark about her. Doomed. Farewell, Sylvia.

On a more mundane note, a few weeks ago I visited Rudy Jr in SF for lunch at this cool place, the Tartine Manufactory. Our artist friend Kal Thomas lives near there, and we visited him.

A copy of Karl Marx’s Das Kapital for bathroom reading. Go fot it, Kal!

The three of us in Kal’s lab/studio.  He makes machine/robot/electric/punk/trash/dynamic art.

My brother Embry and his second wife Joanie came out here for a read trip with me. I showed them Balmy Alley off 24th Street in the Mission. Really great murals there. The Blessed (but skeletal) Virgin here with eldritch developer critters.

I was  up on our hill reveling in the green,  alone, walking past the big log where Syliva and I liked to sit, up the hill to the hairpin where the creek goes through a culvert under the path. Fluming pretty well. Last night I had to bail  ten gallons off the floor the bedroom closet.

A holy, holey cactus.  I was, like, having a conversation with Sylvia up there on the path, deeply focusing on her dictum, the one I keep mentioning, The world is beautiful. The world is so beautiful.

I was  hitting on every aspect of that. The shapes and colors of the plants and the soil, with the marks of a mudslide, and the branches with the green leaves in their chaos dance. The air wafting against my face, and the temperatures of the air. The roar of the creek and its echo. The cheeps and calls of the birds. The proprioceptive sense of my body, my sore hip, the balance of my arms, my hollow torso, the placement of my feet. The smell of the laurel leaves. The sprinking mist of the fine raindrops. That old verse: “the small rain down can rain.” The marbled sky, with the sun brightening and dimming. The architectonic geometry of the scene: trees, path, gully, sky, slope.

An ever-changing mound of Jesuit scrap metal at the start of the path. A rotating art installation. Imagine it in a gallery, a little different every day. Life is art.

Rudy Jr took Embry and me to Wise Sons Jewish Delicatessen on the otherwise non-Jewish 24th street. Best pastrami sandwich ever, and I mean best.

We ended up going on a road trip to visit Embry’s son Embry III and his family, down in Encinitas, between LA and San Diego. And Isabel came along.

Emby’s wife Leslie is a big gardener. I like this line-up of cactuses. The usual suspects.

Before we left on the trip, I took Embry and Joanie to the Saks on Union Square, visiting it like an art gallery. I was really impressed by this midriff baring Givenchy varsity jacket at $2000. Kind of wished I could wear one.

This is a type of composition I have a weakness for. Lines parallel to the frame edges, some slanted shapes, a 3D punctuation, light/dark chiaroscuro.

I love all the plants down in the Southland.

The Maharishi of Beatles fame owns a huge cliff-top compound in Encinitas. According to E III, he never gives anything back, never does anything for the community. The beach below is called Swami’s.

Surfer readies hereself for Cosmic Wave at Swami’s beach.

E’s wife Leslie in the background, plus Isabel and Embry III in E & L’s house. They’ve got it looking really nice. E is a pro photographer, I like to think I acted as positive influence on the lad, by usually having a high-end camera in my hands when he was a kid. And now, no matter how hard I try, he always has a better camera than me.

Love this woven umbrella a tree. Dare I say…gnarly?

Embry III’s wife Leslie is proud of their garden, and she’s really done a good job. Dig this “barrel sauna” they got, probably from some LA Finish people. I would have liked to go in there, but didn’t get around to it. Embry and Leslie are into fitness. After his sauna, Embry puts some big chunks of ice into a horse trough of water, and gets in—for the shock of the cold. He looks really healthy, so why not?

Encinitas is a real surf town. Six foot tall tile art of the Virgin on a board.

On the was back north, Isabel and I looked around LA before meeting up with my SF friend Marc Laidlaw. We went to a new museum  called the Broad, which was the last name of the donor. Terrific modern stuff. An artist named Robert Therrien has an installation of table with chairs and the table is about 12 feet tall. Wild to go under there, like being a young kid, or a dog.

Great tulips by Jeff Koons. Mirror-polished stainless steel with transparent color coating.

When we were driving from Encinitas to LA, we passed a pair of decomissioned nuclear reactors that the locals call the concrete bra. Marc Laidlaw and I put that reactor into our early surfin’ SF story “Probability Pipeline.”

Isabel and I slept in Marc’ apartment. He’s really gotten into music now—taking classes and lessons, has a lot of equipment, making recordings…you can hear his pieces on Band Camp. He asked to record some words he could sample into a song with electronic background. So naturally my song is about Sylvia. It’s collaged from phrases found in my recent blog posts.

So Beautiful
I sat next to her on a bus.
My life never the same.
Cute and quick
No one understood me. She understood me.
Worldly drama.
Sexy, loud, hot.
Tidy reckless,
Greedy generous.
Cozy festive
Chic chic chic.
Where are you? Come back.
What she said:
The world is beautiful.
The world is so beautiful.
Come back.

A grove of graffiti-touched palm trees on Venice beach. Marc says that if there’s any pattern you like, you need to take a photo, as two days over it’ll be covered over by fresh work.

Marc’s floor graffiti is a Persian rug.

I have a start for a story called maybe “Sound Off” or “New Glasses.” Or—today’s flash—the title should be “Guardian Angel.” That would be the best title. People love hearing about angels. And I could subtly bring in Syliva’s, which is pretty much all I write about these days.

In my story, two high-school girls are putting together an presenation for a contest. The pieces aren’t music videos, they’re more SF and high-art than that. More like sampling, or like mind recordings. Something like the “Beep” of James Blish. And then waaat?  No frikkin idea.

Naturally a skater in the Monday morning Venice skate park has a big dog along, and the dog keeps wanting to “fetch” the skateboard out from under him.

Marc, Isabel and I saw a really great graffito in Venice Beach. We couldn’t decide what it said, and I asked online. One guy said it was “check it,” which almost made sense, but then someone else pointed out that in the tag to the right of the graffito says Elise, and yeah, that’s what it says.

I wanted to paint a copy of it, but acrylic paint is way different from a spray can, also I didn’t want (or wasn’t able) to make a precise copy, so I got loose with it. What you see in my painting is actually two copies of the graffito turned vertical, and one of them rotated so the puple “lips” at the tops of the copies are face to face. Except I made them orangey-yellow, you can see them in the middle. Right?

If I base an abstract painting on something real that I saw, I get more interesting shapes. Not just things from my head. This is the best painting I’ve ever done.  (But I tend to say that pretty often.) You can get info on my Paintings page.

This is another really good Venice scene that I might base a painting on. What’s it like inside that upper room, I wonder.

My painting sales are going really well these days. Not capitalism, as I’m actually selling something that I personally make. Here’s my good old pal Da Nha Duc, who I finally released on the market. Based on a Karl Barks cartoon panel, and on a character I had in my novel Frek and the Elixir.

With my house so empty, I might turn my writing office into a painting studio, and move my desk into a corner of the living-room. Should I cover the nice parquet floor in my writing office? Maybe. But linoleum and sheet vinyl smell bad. Maybe just put on another layer of polyurethane sealer on the wood. And eventually I can sand the floor if I need to.

Gotta have the surfin’ sub sandwich in VB, right?

This is a shot of a canal in Venice beach. (Years ago I walked with my mento Robert Sheckley by this very canal.) For this photo, I turned the image upside down, so that the wobbly water house looks like a scary real house. The duck reflections look almost real, and that uncanny touch the image creepier. Welcome to Waaakworld. Let me show you to your jelled room.

Trashcan in Venice Beach. That “Locals Only” kind of thing. But for a city as big and random as LA, what does local even mean. Like a local cluster of galaxies.

For the last few weeks, I hadn’t been looking at my old photos of Sylvia, but then I went back to them. It’s different every time. On the one hand, Sylvia now seems a bit more like someone from the past. But on the other, she seems exactly as present as ever. Timeless in the history of our shared lives, always here. Pitiful for being dead. Wonderful for having lived. So vibrant in all those past moments. Heartbreakingly out of reach. My darling, my dear lost darling. How can she be gone? How can that be?

Free Will, Immortality, and Sylvia

March 8th, 2023

This post is based on an email interview that my long-time corrspondent Giulio Prisco made with me for his own website, Turing Church. Born in Italy, Giulio now lives in Budapest with his Hungarian wife.

GP1: Let’s start with Juicy Ghosts. Your concept of lifebox immortality proposes a deep database on a person, coupled to an interactive front end, and with an AI algorithm to generate speech from the database. I wonder how soon our tech will be able to make this fully real.

RR1: These questions are very much in the air thanks to the chatGPT chatbots. But we want more, we want the real thing. A fully sentient lifebox. In these discussions we often play with Moore’s Law—that is, the notion that computers double their power every two years. In “The Mind Recipe” section of The Lifebox, the Seashell, and the Soul, I go into some detail, and come up with the suggestion that we’ll get there by 2100, that is, in eighty years.  But maybe that’s overly cautious. On the one hand emulating people may be harder than we think. But chatGPT makes us think that it might be easier. Maybe human thought patterns are something that occurs naturally, like self-organizing pairs of Zhabotinsky scrolls in troubled water or embryos or plants or…

Deciding when we’ve succeeded is a little tricky. There’s always been the Turing Test—that is, you let people vote on whether a lifebox seems to talk like a person or not. Keep in mind, however, that when I comes to AI, you can sometimes fool people with cheap tricks. But, cheap trick or not, I think we have to admit that the chatGPT chatbots are blowing the Turing Test away. So, like chess, the Turing Test is going to be another “true AI benchmark” for which we end up saying, “Well, actually I wanted something more than that.”

The funny-sad thing is that AI often comes down to beating a problem to death—with vast search processes and by using simulated evolution to train neural nets. As thats what the chess programs and chatGPT are doing. But there’s a nagging sense that these AIs don’t really “understand” chess or conversation in way that people do.

But maybe we fool ourselves about our superior style of learning. Maybe we too learn by peering through search trees, and by training our internal neural nets. But we have colorful, romantic names for what we do. Savoir-faire, a sense of the problem space, the web of forces at play, the topology of desire, the integrated gestalt view, empathy…

If our actual thought processes are in fact similar to machine learning, there might be fully convincing lifebox programs in ten years. It could be like the collapse of the Berlin Wall. Happens all at once.

But as a novelist, I think—and hope—it will take a king tune before AIs can write startling, poetic, revelatory novels like mine. Non-writers tend not understand how hard the process actually is. Just try it and see!

GP2: Let’s move to physics! Please elaborate on this remark of yours: “the Planck length scale isn’t a wall. It’s a frontier. There’s a whole new subdimensional world below. And it’s intimately connected to the transfinite.”

RR2: Well, you need to remember that I’m a bullshitter. I invent wild ideas because they’re shocking and beautiful. You know the French expression: Épater la bourgeoisie? Stun the stuffed shirts. At the very least, wild ideas can lead to fun SF.

More seriously, I have a mathematician’s approach to physics. Why not change our axioms, and explore the logical consequences?. And maybe, just maybe, we’ll find that we really are talking about the real world that we live in. And that we’ve discovered something new about it. The dawn of modern physics was only about a hundred and fifty years ago. It seems rather likely that there’s a lot of new physics to come.

And, yes, I’ve always been annoyed by claims that we can’t go below the Planck scale. I mean, come on, there’s gotta be something. The jive that quantum mechanics is stranger than we can imagine—that doesn’t cut it with me.

And when I mentioned the transfinite in that quote, I was referring to the fact that, if we’re free to go way, way down there, well then we might learn that physical space is what mathematicians call an absolute continuum. This is a notion introduced by the set-theorist Felix Hausdorff around in the early 1900s, extended up by the antic mathematician John Horton Conway in 1969, and popularized by the computer scientist Donald Knuth in his book Surreal Numbers. Our space might be stuffed with transfinite levels of divisibility. And that would be very cool.

Mathematicians would jubilant if our wonder towers of infinites could find applications in actual physics. It would be like when Bernhard Riemann’s curved space was used to explain gravity in Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity.

GP3: In 2012 you proposed a Natural Incompleteness Theorem: Do you still think this is a rigorous proof of a Gödel-equivalent theorem for physics, and do you have new insights that you can share?

RR3: My Natural Incompleteness Theorem says this: For most naturally occurring complex processes, and fo any correct formal system for science, there will be sentences about the process that are undecidable by the given formal system.

What makes the Natural Incompleteness Theorem attractive is that the undecidable sentences are not just about arithmetic. They’re about the behavior of actual real-world processes.

In grad school in the Seventies, I studied Kurt Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem for mathematics. And since then I’d always been looking for a way to formulate an incompleteness theorem for the natural world. My result appears in the extensive appendix to The Lifebox, the Seashell, and the Soul, and as a paper in a collection of essays on Stephen Wolfram’s work.

I do think it’s intuitively obvious that natural incompleteness would have to be true. We don’t even need quantum indeterminacy to get there. Natural computations can generate all the unpredictability and undecidability we need.

It would be too much to say that I have a rigorous proof. It’s a plausibility argument based on two of Stephen Wolfram’s moves. (i) Natural processes can be regarded as computations. (ii) Any complex physical process is in fact performing a universal computation—like a standard computer does, or like a general Turing machine.

The idea behind my argument is that universal computations are irreducible, that is, there’s no shortcuts for predicting what they’ll do. Not only are they irreducible, they’re undecidable, that is, there are questions about any universal computer that cannot be proved to be true or proved to be false.

My result has attracted very little attention among physicists and philosophers. I didn’t publicize it very well, and many academics disapprove of Wolfram’s work. Perhaps they find it too heavy on the computer science, or perhaps the man’s style puts them off. But I like Wolfram, and he’s a personal friend.

It was in fact Wolfram who corralled me into the computer science. Before that I was a pure mathematician…as well as being a writer. Writing has always been my main job, not that it pays very well.

GP4: You say that even if the universe is fully deterministic, then computational irreducibility makes it impossible to predict the future before it actually happens. And you say this resolves the conflict between determinism and free will. Part of my brain agrees. But my heart and another part of my brain wish to live in a universe with non-predetermined change. Determinism is boring. Thoughts?

RR4: First let me confess something. I’m not quite sure why I care about the issue at all. But for some reason I enjoy arguing about it.

For starters, let’s delve into what we even mean by free will. I think it means an ability to interrupt the world’s lawlike unfolding of natural processes. An ability to stand outside the world, and to reach in and zap it with a jolt of change. An ability to effectively break the laws by inserting a discontinuous blip of randomness.

Now, this could make sense if I am somehow standing outside the world. If, for instance, I were a disembodied mind floating above the mundane world. Like an angel or a ghost or a god or an immortal soul. Watching my body from above, and occasionally poking it with a wand. But I’m expressly ruling out that move. I’m insisting that my mind is a process in my physical body, and it’s wholly embedded in physical spacetime. (You’re of course free to disagree with that, but if you do, then we’re having an entirely different discussion—which I’d prefer to set aside for some other time.)

So okay, I’m not a surfer a surfer riding on reality’s wave. I’m a ripple on the wave. I’m not a disembodied mind. I’m part of the world. I’m a deterministic natural process just like all the things around me. And when I make a decision it emerges from the deterministic commutation that is me, Mr. Wave On A Wave.

Is this sad? No. Computational unpredictability is enough to make the world be far from boring. It takes some extensive hands-on experimentation with computers to grasp how truly gnarly a deterministic computation can become. I learned about this by spending a lot of time in front of computer screens watching cellular automata programs, zooming into fractals, and emulating systems of pendulums and magnets—this was when I was working on the software packages CA Lab and James Gleick’s Chaos for Autodesk in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

So my sense is that—surprisingly enough—computational unpredictability is enough. We don’t need randomness. And we don’t need minds. The universe gets gnarly all on its own.

Look at a natural computation, such as the growth of an oak tree. Interestingly, the history of the oak’s growth is traced out by the twisted patterns of its branches. And I would maintain that, If you could start the growth of the tree over again—and if all surrounding inputs were the same including sun, wind, and rain—then you’d get the same tree all over again. The tree has no “free will.” It’s a phenomenon embedded in reality’s flow. The tree follows its innate predilections and it ends up in the same place.

And so do you. If you could run through your entire life again, you’d end up just as you are now—having made the same blunders, and having experienced the same strokes of genius. As you go along, every stage of your life feels fresh. And this is because your internal computations are so massively complex that there is absolutely no way to predict their output

This unpredictability is absolute, fundamental, and inviolate. It’s not even as if some mechanism that’s the size of the universe could use few quick steps to predict you. Even the universe needs a lot of steps. It needs to carry out the intervening computation. The only way to find out what happens is to let the frikkin’ universe run through all the steps between now and then.

Deterministic, yes. Shortcuts available, no. Free will is an illusion. Fate is more like it. You’re forever riding the wave. But, as I say, you’re not a board on the wave—you’re a wave on the wave. An avalanche in the snow. Doing what you do and living the events as they arise. Pure Zen.

GP: Maybe I’m missing something, but a fully deterministic block universe still seems quite a boring place to me, because everything is predetermined and time/change don’t really exist.

RR5: There’s nothing boring about it at all! I’ll go over it again—I’m doing this to convince myself as well as to convince you. I want to believe this because it feels good. This is how I write my SF, by the way. I come up with some idea, and convince myself it’s true, so that I can write about an unusual reality.

I watch my life happening around me, and I have no clear idea what tomorrow will bring. My mind is like the weather, with storms and sun. All I can do is to live it. It’s not a pre-written script. It’s something that plays out.

But, okay, yes, I do indeed have the feeling that I’m making decisions, and exerting myself to do this or that, and wanting to make up for mistakes I made, and planning to do better next time, and wondering what my next step should be. All of this is part of a deterministic process. But how can this be?

I once asked Kurt Gödel about a similar conundrum. (Love to drop that name.) In the block universe, the past present and future are fixed patterns in spacetime. And yet, at every moment of my life I feel like time is passing. So I asked Gödel, “What causes the illusion of the passage of time?”

His answer: “The illusion results from confusing the given with the real.”

The given is my ongoing sensation of what my life is like. The real is the overall timeless structure of my life from beginning to end. The given is the green, growing tip of a twig. The real is the great pattern of the branches of the oak.

GP6: Speaking of beating an idea to death! Time to change the subject. Might it be that the block universe as a whole changes sideways in another timelike direction? You have hinted at a “paratime” in Saucer Wisdom, and in Freeware and Mathematicians in Love you talk about a “a second dimension of time” which is, as it were, perpendicular to our normal direction of time.” I love the idea.

RR6: I’ll put in a drawing of paratime from Saucer Wisdom. I’m just now putting that book online. It’s in the broad family of my “curiously neglected books.” I’m never quite sure why they’re unknown.  I guess I go a bit too far.  Like, is Saucer Wisdom supposed to be true, or amusing, or satirical, or a novel, or what? Seek and ye shall find. I contains a number of futurological predictions which are coming true. As well as being, IMHO, quite a funny tale.

And, yes, some of the aliens in Freeware were from a zone of 2D time. And I used sideways time in Mathematicians in Love. In there, I proposed that our block universe is like a novel written by a god whose life runs in perpendicular time. As his sideways time goes by, the god keeps producing revised version of our spacetime block. A series of drafts for the Great Author’s novel.

It was fun to write about this, and it solved some plot problems, but it’s not actually a notion that I like. Sideways time is a version of the currently fashionable “multiverse” model. To me, multiverse stories are unsatisfying. My problem with the multiverse is this: if everything happens, then nothing matters.

I prefer to think our spacetime block is a single, unique, supreme pattern, rich with synchronistic connections. The greatest story ever told.

GP7: In Infinity and the Mind you suggested that the essence of consciousness, the bare feeling of existence expressed by “I am.” And you said this feeling is the same for everyone. But in your Lifebox tome you seemed to backpedal: “Might one’s glow of consciousness have some specific brain-based cause that we might in turn view as a computation?” Might that cause be, I don’t know, some kind of texture or crypto hash? What do you think now?

RR7: I have to admit that I’m tempted by the idea of a human’s sense of consciousness being an add-on feature. Like some endogenously produced endorphin drug? But I wouldn’t want to go for the idea of the soul being a drug. It’s all just molecules, baby.

And some say that consciousness is a results from self-mirroring, where you’re watching yourself watching yourself. That’s an idea due to Antonio Damasio, and I discuss it in the “I Am” section of my Lifebox tome. But I don’t really see consciousness as being so complex. I’m the highest when I’m not thinking at all. That’s what meditation is about.

I don’t necessarily believe just one thing about these issues.. I think lots of things. I play with the alternatives. But, okay, if I’m going to cook it down and say just one thing about consciousness, here it is. Cook it up and shoot it.

The glow is real, and it’s everywhere. Zen version; (Q) Does a rock have Buddha nature? (A) The universal rain moistens all creatures. Putting it differently, our universe is a stained glass window, with the cosmic mind shining through each shard. The One. The White Light. Everything is alive.

GP8: Is there a concept of life after death that both your brain and your heart can accept?

RR8: My wife Sylvia died six weeks ago. And in the last few years, I myself came close to death in the ER several times. So I think about the afterlife. Most of my recent stories and novels touch upon this topic, even when I don’t consciously plan to write about it. I have no real control over what I write. I’m a wave on a wave.

And now you ask me about the afterlife. Love it. I’m ready to get heavy your ass.

My heart knows that Sylvia will live on in my mind. I’ll think about her, and visualize her, and imagine talking to her—for as long as I live. I might even hear her voice in my head, or imagine that I see her. So in this weak sense she’s immortal. And—interesting point—memory-pattern afterlife in someone else’s brain is precisely the same as the computer-science lifebox sense. I have a highly accurate model of Sylvia in my brain, and my brain is a sophisticated wetware computer that emulates Sylvia.

Everyone lives on in the minds of those who love them.

Here’s another angle. If you’re lucky enough to have children, or nieces and nephews, some of your genes have been passed on, and these younger people will to some extent resemble you and behave like you.

Less concretely, if you’ve been a mentor or a teacher or a writer or an artist or a musician, you’ve passed on some of your skills and personality traits and world views.

Moving to a hardcore physics view, your life is a permanent pattern in spacetime. And this is a type of eternal life too.

And, yet again, still another option is that when you die you merge into the great one mind of the cosmos.  You’re with god.  A dewdrop sliding into the sea.

But if you’re the person who’s dying, you might ask for something more traditional. You might want to live on with only a slight hitch in continuity—live on, and keep having new experiences. How could this work? To make it as simple as possible, let’s suppose that the afterworld is different layer of reality, a shadow world overlaid upon ours. And it’s not going to be a matter of copying your mind into some kind of lifebox. We’re going fully old-school instead.

You have an immaterial soul, and you’ve had it inside you all along. Now, I said earlier that your soul ought to based on some physical process…but maybe we’re bringing in some higher, as-yet-unknown physics here. So, okay, when you die your soul drifts free. You give up the ghost! And the ghost settles into a new existence in the shadow world. Haunting your house for a while, and later going further afield. The afterworld rolls on and on, with many places to dwell, one of them is heaven.

A soothing story. But maybe when you die, it’s like turning off a light. You’ll be getting out of the way, and letting the new people have a chance. Old trees fall over. They decay into the soil New sprouts push up. The wheel of life.

I mentioned that in recent years I nearly died several times. Each event centered around a gap—an interval when I was completely unconscious. Not sleeping, not dreaming, but out. Gone. Not there. But then I woke up. It was like a jump cut in a movie. You’re going along and then—snip—you’re not. Thus far, for me, there’s always been a new segment of my life spliced on after the cut. But eventually there won’t be a new segment. It’ll be snip and nothing more. That’s the kind of near-death experiences that I had. Curtains.

Is that so terrible? It’s quite likely to happen that way, so why not accept it? Enjoy the time you have.

But still, but still… It’s nice to look up at the night sky and think of Sylvia, and my parents, and my dead friends—to think of them, and to imagine that they’re smiling down at me. Loving me. It loosens the barbed wire wrapped round my heart. So why not believe it? Why not find a scrap of comfort?

Having written all this, I lean against a door frame with my eyes closed, looking within. Washes of gray and umber. Textures and drifting dots. A fecund, inchoate substrate that’s just as real as my speculations about time, souls, and minds.

I have no idea what’s going on, and I never will.

GP9: You and I have been privileged to marry Hungarian women. Aren’t Hungarian wives the sweetest? Could you share an anecdote of your Sylvia related to the things that we are discussing?

RR9: Sylvia was sweet, but I’d use lots of other words as well. Worldly, lovable, dramatic, sexy, spirited, devoted, loud, excitable, willful, kind, generous, vigorous, tidy, reckless, modest, curious, greedy, festive, anxious, gorgeous, affectionate, selfless, neighborly, and chic. I love Hungarians, and there’s lots of different types—sometimes all in one. I’d almost call Sylvia a cornucopia, just to tease her, but I can hear her telling me, “Don’t you dare!”
As for anecdotes about Sylvia—read my novels and my published journals. There’s a lot of transreal Sylvias in those mirrors. She used to complain about it. “I hate when people act like they already know me. They don’t know me at all!”

Here’s something that Sylvia said over and over during her final weeks. “The world is beautiful. The world is so beautiful.”

She wasn’t exactly asking for more. It was more that she was grateful for what she’d had. And wistful that it was nearly over.

I’m lucky to have lived with her.

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