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Undecidability, Uncomputability, and Unpredictability Essay Contest
December 24, 2019 - April 24, 2020
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What Is “Fundamental”
October 28, 2017 to January 22, 2018
Sponsored by the Fetzer Franklin Fund and The Peter & Patricia Gruber Foundation

Wandering Towards a Goal
How can mindless mathematical laws give rise to aims and intention?
December 2, 2016 to March 3, 2017
Contest Partner: The Peter and Patricia Gruber Fund.

Trick or Truth: The Mysterious Connection Between Physics and Mathematics
Contest Partners: Nanotronics Imaging, The Peter and Patricia Gruber Foundation, and The John Templeton Foundation
Media Partner: Scientific American


How Should Humanity Steer the Future?
January 9, 2014 - August 31, 2014
Contest Partners: Jaan Tallinn, The Peter and Patricia Gruber Foundation, The John Templeton Foundation, and Scientific American

It From Bit or Bit From It
March 25 - June 28, 2013
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Questioning the Foundations
Which of Our Basic Physical Assumptions Are Wrong?
May 24 - August 31, 2012
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Is Reality Digital or Analog?
November 2010 - February 2011
Contest Partners: The Peter and Patricia Gruber Foundation and Scientific American

What's Ultimately Possible in Physics?
May - October 2009
Contest Partners: Astrid and Bruce McWilliams

The Nature of Time
August - December 2008

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basudeba: on 3/20/11 at 6:05am UTC, wrote Sub: Possibility of manipulation in judging criteria – suggestions for...

basudeba: on 3/14/11 at 6:56am UTC, wrote Dear Sir, Mr. Edwin Eugene Klingman says it is far from certain that a...

basudeba: on 3/14/11 at 6:25am UTC, wrote Dear Sir, We have gone through your excellent analysis and searching...

Anonymous: on 3/12/11 at 20:12pm UTC, wrote Dear Todd, I enjoyed your essay, and agree with you that our formal...

sridattadev: on 3/7/11 at 19:33pm UTC, wrote Dear Todd, Wisdom is more important than imagination is more important...

Sridattadev: on 3/7/11 at 19:24pm UTC, wrote Dear Todd, I have read your essay and agree with your explanation....

Dan Bruiger: on 2/28/11 at 17:38pm UTC, wrote Hi, again, Todd I posted the following on my thread as well, in response...

Anonymous: on 2/20/11 at 18:38pm UTC, wrote Thanks for this thought-provoking essay. I particularly liked your point...


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September 18, 2021

CATEGORY: Is Reality Digital or Analog? Essay Contest (2010-2011) [back]
TOPIC: Is Ultimate Reality Beyond Categorization as Analog or Digital? by Todd L Duncan [refresh]
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Author Todd L Duncan wrote on Feb. 17, 2011 @ 08:49 GMT
Essay Abstract

This essay explores a simple but subtle idea. What if “analog” and “digital” are labels that apply to the quantitative formal systems we use to help describe our experience with reality, but ultimate reality transcends complete characterization by any particular formal system, and therefore also transcends these labels? This idea provides a natural context for reconciling the applicability of both discrete and continuous descriptions of nature in different situations.

Author Bio

Todd Duncan is director of the Science Integration Institute and adjunct faculty in the Physics Department at Pacific University and the Center for Science Education at Portland State University. He holds a Ph.D. in astrophysics from the University of Chicago and is co-author of Your Cosmic Context: An Introduction to Modern Cosmology.

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joseph markell wrote on Feb. 17, 2011 @ 14:29 GMT
Hello Todd,

I liked your essay very much.


joseph markell

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Russell Jurgensen wrote on Feb. 17, 2011 @ 18:47 GMT
Dear Todd,

Your essay resonates with its questions. It seems there is still a hope that a true reality that produces atoms may be relatively simple in order to perform so reliably. Perhaps such a simple system could be modeled fully to the limits available to science. My essay explores such a model but with an important catch. It requires a hidden sustaining force to drive atoms like a motor. So you would still be right that there is another level, but I think something like this drops us out of the loop of looking for successively smaller things. Such an approach might offer a clear defining line of what is still undefined but allows us to make progress. A few other essays discuss along these lines, and I think the key is finding the right model that describes the true reality available to us in order for it to accurately explain and predict. The key for me is in finding that simple thing that drives it all.

Thanks for the thoughtful questions in your essay. Kind regards, Russell Jurgensen

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John Merryman wrote on Feb. 18, 2011 @ 04:36 GMT

An insightful essay. Suffice to say any discipline composed of more than one individual will become formalized. It's up to the next generation to exploit the cracks in this structure in order to expand on it, or replace it. Think of it as bottom up energy, expanding out to form top down information, which serves to define the parameters of the energy. Much like radiation expands and mass contracts. Information is inherently static, while energy is inherently dynamic, yet they are two sides of the same coin.

Much like eastern and western philosophy are two sides of the same coin, as the west focuses on content and the east on context. I've wondered whether, if modern physics had evolved primarily in the east, it would be quite to focused on the particle as content. In the east, opposite elements don't cancel each other out, but give balance, depth, contextuality and dimension to a larger whole. The yin doesn't cancel the yang. The west, on the other hand, has a very monolithic view. Duality is wishy washy.

I wonder, with all these particle, waves, strings, if we are not missing some contextual connectivity simply because it doesn't have some nice solid objective form. One of the basic arguments I often make is that we look at time backwards. It's not that the present moves from past to future, but the changing configuration of what is that turns the future into the past. In making this point over the years, it's been pointed out to me that in eastern and in native American cultures, they view the past as in front of the observer and the future behind. This makes sense from an objective point of view, since an event occurs and it is then observed, but it raises the issue of why we tend to think of the future in front of us and it is due to conflating our own spatial motion with the larger sequencing of events in which we exist. In other words, we give precedence to the motion of the point of reference, ourselves, not the activity of the larger context. In that view, the observer is always moving against their larger context, rather than being part of the overall motion of this context.

The real irony of this individual vs. context perspective, is that it makes free will illogical, since we only exist at the point of the present and cannot change the past, or affect the future. Yet when we view time as an effect of that overall motion, then we do affect it, as it affects us.

Sorry for the rambling on, but your essay encourages a broad view and not a narrow, technical view.

Good Luck.

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Author Todd L Duncan replied on Feb. 19, 2011 @ 20:50 GMT
Hi John,

Thanks for your "rambling" - I think that's how we make progress! :)

A couple of thoughts that jumped out as I was reading your comments:

- I wonder if information is really static... is there a conservation law for information, that it cannot be created or destroyed, or can it be lost, for example? (one way of looking at what the second law of thermo says, although that potentially conflicts with the notion in unitary quantum mechanics that information must be conserved - the famous discussion of Hawking and others around whether information is lost in black holes)

- I like your point that dualism is wishy washy. I think that's one reason for insisting that the formal system is everything, b/c it seems to avoid dualism. But the question of what tells the "particles" in the formal system to obey the laws reveals I think that there is a hidden dualism buried even in this view.

Thanks again for offering more excellent food for thought!


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John Merryman replied on Feb. 20, 2011 @ 03:48 GMT

I think a big part of the problem is what we consider information. To the extent information is reductionistic, it might be argued that anything which can be destroyed is not properly information, but that overlooks the fact that 99.9999+% of what might reasonably be considered information is emergent and thus is temporally finite. Anything with a beginning, potentially has an...

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Sridattadev replied on Mar. 7, 2011 @ 19:24 GMT
Dear Todd,

I have read your essay and agree with your explanation. Until we include our inner most self or singularity in to the equation we will not be able to understand the universe or reality or virtuality fully. Please see the essay titled Theory of everything that I have posted in this contest at your convenience as I would like to share my experience with you.

who am I? I am virtual reality, I is absolute truth.



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Alan Lowey wrote on Feb. 18, 2011 @ 14:07 GMT
Hello Todd, I liked your common sense approach to the question in hand. Nice and easy to read with a good underlying message. Thanks for your essay.


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Dan J. Bruiger wrote on Feb. 18, 2011 @ 20:56 GMT
Dear Todd,

I enjoyed your essay, and I find your thinking in harmony with my own, which leads me to offer these observations:

‘As Carroll points out, the usual and obviously very fruitful approach in physics is to “model the world as a formal system, which is both unambiguous and complete as a description of reality.” Carroll adds emphasis to this common view, with the statement, “Once we figure out the correct formal structure, patterns, boundary conditions, and interpretation, we have obtained a complete description of reality.”’

Modeling is certainly what we do, whether in ordinary cognition or scientifically. This process, of modeling the world as a formal system, is what I call ‘deductionism’. While a formal system may be complete in the logico-mathematical sense, it cannot represent reality completely—in the sense of a strict 1-1 correspondence—unless it happens that ‘reality’ is actually itself a formal system, an artifact. (As I point out in my own essay, this was indeed the belief of the first scientists, as good creationists!) In other words, if nature is real, and not virtual or artificial, it cannot be reduced to a formal system. Carrol’s complete description of reality is a chimera, in the above sense of completeness. However, nature can be mistaken for a formal system. I believe this is the danger of deductionism, when it becomes a faith rather than a method, and when it is assumed that reality is not simply being modeled, but that it is a formal system.

Your point is well taken and well expressed, that the model has to live in the reality it models (or somewhere! I think there are a lot of Platonists out there for whom it lives in Platoland).

I think Gödel applies in a fairly strong sense, since the bottom line for incompleteness is a system that has the ability to self-refer. The real Universe is such a place, since it includes us.

Accordingly there seem to be three relevant cases: (a) The universe is finitely large and finitely detailed. Its complexity can be exhausted in human descriptions; eventually we will come to know everything. (b) The universe is infinitely large or infinitely detailed, or both. No finite system of thought can encompass its totality, and reality will always remain a mystery. (c) Quite independent of the nature of the world, the nature of the mind as an open system implies that understanding of the cosmos can never be complete. Cognition is troubled by the equivalent of Godel's essential incompleteness, so that even if (a) is true we will nevertheless always surprise ourselves, and knowledge will always be unfinished. And if (c) is true, how can we decide between (a) and (b)? The apparent depth of reality could be a product of our perception as well as reflecting the reality of nature.

Best wishes,

Dan Bruiger

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Author Todd L Duncan replied on Feb. 19, 2011 @ 20:41 GMT
Hello Dan,

Thanks for your insightful observations... I'll respond here and then looking forward to reading and responding to your essay.

I'm still pondering what I think about the applicability of Goedel, which is why I hesitated a bit in my essay. I guess there are at least 2 senses of incompleteness: One is Goedel, which speaks to the formal system ITSELF. That is, even if reality were a formal system, if it were the kind that met the richness requirements of Goedel, it would still be incomplete. But I think we mean more than that here, namely that there are aspects of reality that can't even be represented as a formal system at all, which seems a different kind of incompleteness. Does that make sense? I think that's essentially the same point you make with the last paragraph of your comment. Just writing it out in my words to see if we agree or if there's more to it that I'm missing.



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Dan J. Bruiger replied on Feb. 20, 2011 @ 17:52 GMT
Yes, Todd, I think there are aspects of nature that cannot be formalized, simply by virtue of the fact that it is "found", not made.


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Anonymous wrote on Feb. 20, 2011 @ 18:38 GMT
Thanks for this thought-provoking essay. I particularly liked your point about the storage of "instructions" that the formal systems we construct to try to describe reality don't explain. It is easy to become so absorbed in a formal system model that we don't even think about questions that go beyond it. This, in turn, can reinforce the illusion that the model fully describes reality.

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Dan J. Bruiger wrote on Feb. 28, 2011 @ 17:38 GMT
Hi, again, Todd

I posted the following on my thread as well, in response to your post there.

Your parallel, of the elusiveness of nature and that of the human person, is right on, in my opinion. Neither of us would suggest that the physical world somehow IS personal, but it might in some ways be more productive for human beings, both socially and scientifically, to relate to it AS THOUGH it were. The problem is the third-person stance, through which one demeans nature as a mere "it"—something to manipulate and surround by thought. Nature is elusive in the way that persons are, because in both cases they can defeat our expectations. We now have almost universal laws (whatever the actual practices) concerning human rights. I was encouraged to hear that a conference in Brazil recently declared a charter of the rights of nature. That's a political gesture, of course. It's interesting to try to imagine what its scientific counterpart might be as a research program.

I had meant to tell you before that I really liked your use of the 'mask' metaphor, in your essay, to characterize the scientific modelling process. If we think of the ancient Greek theater, the masks the actors wore were literally stylized symbols and also represented fictional characters. That is, both the mask and what it represented were artifacts.

Thanks again,


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sridattadev wrote on Mar. 7, 2011 @ 19:33 GMT
Dear Todd,

Wisdom is more important than imagination is more important than knowledge for all the we know is just an imagination chosen wisely.

Please read Theory of everything at your convenience posted by me in this contest.



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Anonymous wrote on Mar. 12, 2011 @ 20:12 GMT
Dear Todd,

I enjoyed your essay, and agree with you that our formal systems determine the 'properties' of the reality that we experience informally. But then you say that, although "we have not yet arrived at that one complete formal system, ... it is assumed to exist."

Based on your other arguments, this assumption would seem questionable, at best. For example you quote Wheeler, "What makes 'meaning'?" This evidently brings consciousness into the picture, and it is far from certain that a formal system can 'formalize' consciousness [despite the fact that I have attempted something like this in a previous essay.]

You say that you are merely raising these issues as food for thought, which seems to imply that you are not wedded to the ideas [at least yet]. In this case I would ask that you give some thought to the idea that "the very existence of these things requires instructions to define their properties" and the idea that "information is physical", and "information must be fundamentally connected to the physical form in which it is stored."

Not surprisingly, with digital computers everywhere, there is much emphasis on 'the universe as digital computer'. But if continuous fields exist, then the concept of analog computer may be more appropriate. Digital computers require 'bits' of information to be interpreted, and the location of the bits and the nature of the interpreter is presently not understood. But analog computers are based on 'real' components, and are programmed by establishing connections, in the way that General Relativity attempts to define connectivity. If fields exist, they would seem to obviate the 'need' for digital computation at the fundamental level.

There are many here who seem to believe in 'information is physical', and just as many who do not. I've argued this in various threads, and won't clog up your thread by repeating these. But I do believe that this is a major fault line in modern physics, and if you have not already decided which side of the line you wish to live on, it might be good to check out both neighborhoods. I do not believe that information is physical, it is descriptive and context dependent. I don't think physical information simplifies anything, but confuses things even further.

The issue of information seems peripheral to your main points, which seems to be summed up in the statement that "the very act of formalizing is what creates the incompleteness." I'll buy that.

If you get a chance to study my essay, I would appreciate any comments you might have.

Edwin Eugene Klingman

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basudeba replied on Mar. 14, 2011 @ 06:56 GMT
Dear Sir,

Mr. Edwin Eugene Klingman says it is far from certain that a formal system can 'formalize' consciousness. He admits that he had attempted something like this in a previous essay. We do not succeed in first attempt. That does not mean it is not achievable.

Consciousness, as we know it, is always associated with matter. It functions through the measurement principle - by comparing with similars. This is because when we say: "We have knowledge about this", the content of this statement is "this is like the impression stored in our memory". These impressions that are stored in our memory or that leads to perceptions are nothing but a physical mechanism that stimulates our sense organs. Since we have a formal system of describing physical mechanism, it is possible to formalize a system that can compare other systems with it. Thus, it is certain that a formal system can 'formalize' consciousness.

We have discussed your essay in the next thread.



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basudeba wrote on Mar. 14, 2011 @ 06:25 GMT
Dear Sir,

We have gone through your excellent analysis and searching questions that could lead in the right direction to get the truth. At the conceptual level, we appear to be close to each other, but the different methods we use to describe our ideas may give an impression of differences. Thus, kindly bear with us.

You have correctly quoted Carroll to points out the need to...

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basudeba wrote on Mar. 20, 2011 @ 06:05 GMT
Sub: Possibility of manipulation in judging criteria – suggestions for improvement.


We had filed a complaint to FQXi and Scienticfic American regarding Possibility of manipulation in judging criteria and giving some suggestions for improvement. Acopy of our letter is enclosed for your kind information.

“We are a non-professional and non-academic entrant to the Essay...

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