Bloggingheads has just posted an hour-long diavlog between the cosmologist Anthony Aguirre and your humble blogger. Topics discussed include: the anthropic principle; how to do quantum mechanics if the universe is so large that there could be multiple copies of you; Nick Bostrom’s “God’s Coin Toss” thought experiment; the cosmological constant; the total amount of computation in the observable universe; whether it’s reasonable to restrict cosmology to our observable region and ignore everything beyond that; whether the universe “is” a computer; whether, when we ask the preceding question, we’re no better than those Renaissance folks who asked whether the universe “is” a clockwork mechanism; and other questions that neither Anthony, myself, nor anyone else is really qualified to address.
There was one point that sort of implicit in the discussion, but I noticed afterward that I never said explicitly, so let me do it now. The question of whether the universe “is” a computer, I see as almost too meaningless to deserve discussion. The reason is that the notion of “computation” is so broad that pretty much any system, following any sort of rules whatsoever (yes, even non-Turing-computable rules) could be regarded as some sort of computation. So the right question to ask is not whether the universe is a computer, but rather what kind of computer it is. How many bits can it store? How many operations can it perform? What’s the class of problems that it can solve in polynomial time?