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Voices in AI – Episode 100: A Conversation with Stephen Wolfram

Byron Reese

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About this Episode

On our 100th Episode of Voices in AI, Byron has a conversation with Stephen Wolfram on the nature of reality, belief and morality itself.

Listen to this episode or read the full transcript at

Transcript Excerpt

Byron Reese: In my capacity as the publisher of GigaOm, I’ve had occasion to interview Stephen Wolfram twice before. One was back in 2015 and an be found here, then again last year Stephen appeared on an episode of Voices in AI.

In those two interviews, we covered a great deal of ground, and I thought long and hard about what to discuss this time around. Much of Stephen’s work is quite practical, such as with Mathmatica and Worlfram Alpha. But he also spends much time up in the intellectual stratosphere where fundamental questions of reality are explored. He is arguably our generation’s best bet to Figuring It All Out, finding the fundamental nature of reality and what makes the universe tick. It is these topics I wanted to explore. In addition, much of his thinking ends up being almost religious nature. His view of physics borders on philosophy and even religion, so I was eager to explore his thinking there. So this interview is a bit unorthodox, but then again, so is he, so sit back enjoy.

Welcome to the show, Stephen.

Stephen Wolfram: Thanks.

Do you believe in God?

Oh, that’s an interesting question. I’m certainly not adherent of any organized religion. However, it’s an interesting question. The things that I’ve done in science tend to intersect in strange ways with things that people have studied in theology for a long time. I mean, for example, it used to be the case. Back in the day, there was this thing that used to be called “The Argument by Design” although that subsequently got a different meaning. It was a question of, look at the universe. The universe could be completely without laws, but actually, that’s not what we see. We see a universe that’s full of definite laws and rules and isn’t as complicated as it could conceivably be. People said, “Okay, that very fact is a proof of the existence of God.”

I guess that since I’m in the business and I happen to be actively starting to work on this again, of trying to find the fundamental theory of physics and believing that that fundamental theory has at least a chance to be simple, then at least by the standards of the early Christian theologians or something, I have to be following the argument by design. In so far as I believe that there’s a simple rule for the universe then their version of an evidence for something – their argument, I would have to say that I subscribe to. When was it? I was visiting some country. Maybe India where they put – on the visa application, they insist that you fill in religion. I was going to put there “animist”. My children said, “Don’t do that. It will just cause trouble.”

Why would I do that? One of the things that is a consequence of a bunch of science that I’ve done is this question of, what has a mind? What things that exist can be thought of as mind-like, like our brains, we attribute minds to. Some version of this is statements like, “The weather has a mind of its own.” The surprising thing that came out of a bunch of science that I did is that – in fact, there’s this principle of computational equivalence that says that in many ways what the weather does it just as mind-like as what brains do. That’s the concept of things like the animistic religions is this idea that there’s spirits in everything so to speak. This notion, does the universe have – is the universe mind-like? This scientific result, this principle of computational equivalence implies that. Following through on that, I kind of have to say at some level that I would be – should be considered by some classification as an animist so to speak.

Given what you know about physics and the principle of computational equivalence, is there any method by which the human could survive the death of their body in a practical way?

Okay. What’s a soul? That’s kind of what you’re asking. Is there a soul? What might the soul be like? I think we have the experience with computers now to at least imagine what souls might be so to speak. I mean, there’s a – okay, thought experiment you might do. I’ve imagined I was going to years ago and I may finally when I get totally old and unable to do other things actually follow up on this, but I was going to write some pseudofiction book about interviews with famous scientists and thinkers of old so to speak. Imagining the person goes from today’s world, bringing their laptop and goes to visit Pythagoras or something. Then the question is, what does – you have that conversation with Pythagoras, what does Pythagoras think the laptop is so to speak? The obvious thing is, it’s a bunch of disembodied human souls. You start peeling that back and you say, well, no it’s not. I mean, it’s just a piece of electronics. It’s like, well, who created what that electronics does? It’s a bunch of people. Who made that software work that way? It’s the ideas of some particular person.

I guess there’s a question of what the distinction is between the output of the level of software we write, words we write, whatever, things we record about our lives, and the actual internal state of brains. For example, one thing I’ve wondered about, I’ve recorded lots of stuff about my life. Millions of emails, lots of other things, and so I wonder is there enough information about me to reconstruct a bot of me by this point. In other words, my brain has some number of synapses, some amount of memory in it, and if you were to just take its output over the last 30 years or so, and say, okay, can we now reverse engineer what’s inside this brain? I don’t know what the answer to that. I don’t know if it’s possible, but I don’t think it’s obviously far from possible. There will come a point at which you can perfectly reasonably have something where it’s a – where you should be able to get a bot of me that will respond in more or less the same way that I’m responding in this conversation to you. Then we have to ask ourselves, is that me, is that something different from me?

I think that’s the point at which we have to start wondering about, is the bot of me the soul of me so to speak or not? There’s a question of whether you can do it with reverse engineering or whether you have to take a brain and dissect it and pull out all the data that’s stored at each synapse or some other thing like this. I think my answer is that the – I really don’t doubt that the soul in this informational sense of a person, I think the thing we’ve learned from the whole computational experience is that it’s extremely really certain that eventually that will be preservable digitally and independent of the biological manifestation of the human.

You and I have had a conversation before and I’ve probably never really expressed my question clearly enough, but I always come back to it when I think about it, and it goes like this. You know people who say they believe something like they believe in treating everybody nicely, but then you see them mean to people. You say, “Aha! You don’t really believe that”, or all kinds of things where people say they think one thing, but their actions sure imply they think something else. When that happens, we tend to think whatever they do really is what they believe. When I talk to you and you talk about the weather has a mind of its own and a storm cloud – a hurricane and the brain are the same. Then when I try to talk about consciousness you get dismissive and say, “That’s just a word.” Then you say things like, “It’s all just computation. Everything in the world is simple rules iterated over and over.”

All of this very impersonal non – it’s just a bunch of cranking numbers. A whole universe is just that and if we could see it well enough, that’s what we would just see is just a bunch of numbers, and yet, I know you to be like an emotional and compassionate person who loves things and doesn’t like other things. I see all kinds of ethics. You have an ethical code and a moral framework and all of this stuff. I have to look at it and say, that does not logically flow out of what Stephen says he believes. I can only really infer that you don’t actually believe it. It’s a good model for understanding certain things, but it isn’t actually your core belief because it’s so – you could imagine somebody who lived consistently with that view of the world and really said, “Nothing matters. A storm dissipating and a child dying are just the same thing”, but you don’t think that. I posit you don’t actually believe it. It’s convenient way to think of the universe, but it isn’t actually what you believe.

It’s an interesting topic. It’s like, I like chocolate. It gives me a good experience when I eat it. I could imagine deconstructing that whole process and realizing, “Gosh, it’s just some neural firing, etc.” My subjective experience of it is, “I like chocolate.” Therefore, since I live in my subjective experience, I do things which pander to my subjective experience. Now one of the things I might say about things I’ve discovered in science is I don’t necessarily like all the things I’ve discovered in science. The concept that, for example, the unspecialness of us as humans and so on. I don’t particularly like that. It’s just I pride myself on being a decent scientist and so I discover these things and that’s what I’m going to report so to speak. Rather than saying, “Well, I’d like to hide the fact that actually, there’s no real purpose to the universe. We’re not that special. We’re not that unique, etc.” For me personally, in terms of my subjective experience, yes, I like people. I find people interesting. I think people are – I’m interested in people person by person so to speak, and yes, in terms of the science I’ve discovered, makes absolutely no sense.

A lot of things I’ve done are in a sense deconstruct the meaning of things. They explain in a broader context how things work and they show that something is not as special as we might at first assume that it is. I don’t think this idea that that means that – does that affect my subjective response to these things? No, I suppose I could whip myself up into the frenzy where I would say, “I don’t care about anything. It’s all just computation all the way down”, but that is not my human subjective reaction. That is, what I’ve discovered in science and what I report as being a good scientist so to speak.

It almost sounds like you’re agreeing with me there. You’re saying this is like a useful model to understand the universe, but I’m not going to live that way. I’m going to live as if people are special. I’ve never known you to get emotionally attached to a hurricane. You do get emotionally attached to people, and so you live as if people are special.

Living one’s paradigm is really hard. I’m always curious, when I see people, who’ve discovered things about the world, and you ask, do they in fact live that paradigm? Sometimes they do and it leads them into terrible trouble because that paradigm – and often they don’t. I think isn’t there a quote from Tolstoy about how “I’m not a very good Tolstoyan.”

When you see fields develop, intellectual fields develop, it’s a funny thing. There’s a generation that invents the field and then there are generations that come after. The generation that invents the field, still knows all the things that are wrong, all the foundational things that they’re not really sure about, and so they’re a bit more tentative about it. By the time you’re at the fourth generation, they’re like, “Well, of course, it works that way.” We have this whole culture built up around, this is the way things work.

Now it’s certainly true that one could imagine – you asked about religion early on here. It’s certainly true one could take the things I’ve done in science and one could build something that many people would think of as being religion-like set of beliefs around it. Those beliefs would be very cold in many ways. They’d be very non-human. In terms of my subjective way I lead my life, that wouldn’t be natural to me. That doesn’t mean that I don’t think that these things are scientifically correct. It’s just a question of – just like I like eating chocolate, but it’s not that there’s something scientifically amazing about the chocolate molecule or whatever. It’s just that, the way that – actually, I think that – let me roll this back a little bit because I think there’s a – one of the things that does come out of the science I’ve done is the following observation.

You might think that what’s special about where we are as humans is we’re the only intelligent things in the universe, and that that’s what’s special about us, and we should be very proud of that attribute. What the science that I’ve discovered shows is that is not – if that’s what we’re proud about, then we are barking up the wrong tree. That’s not the thing that is special about us, but the thing that is special about us is lots of details. In other words, what this idea of computational irreducibility implies is the notion that, in order to know what happens in a system you just have to trace through what the system actually does. You can’t go and just look at the system and say, okay, I can jump ahead and tell you what’s going to happen in a million years, and so it is with human society. That if there wasn’t computational irreducibility, we could say, oh, look at human society, people are running around doing this and this and this, but the outcome is going to be blah. There’s no reason for these people to be going around and doing all these human things. It’s really just all a waste of time. In the end, the answer is 42 or whatever.

What computational irreducibility implies is that’s not the case. It affirms that something is achieved by the human experience. That is that it’s not the case that you can just take the universe that we live in and say, “Okay, the outcome is going to be this.” It’s like the actual – the living of life so to speak is the story. It’s not that this is just a piece of a calculation where the answer is going to be 42 so to speak. What I’m saying is that I think that in a sense the science that I’ve done, you might say it says it’s all pointless in the sense that there’s nothing special at the level of thinking about – there’s no big special thing. It’s not that we are the only mind-like things in the universe. What it’s saying is, there is a special thing and the special thing is all of our details.

I think at some level actually I’m going to disagree with myself and you here because I’m going to say that I think that point, as you really start to internalize that point, that the details of what happens are the things that we should – that are special about us and that we should think are important, that actually is a rather human-oriented view of things quite different from the cold view of, “It’s all just computation. Everything is computation.” Yes, that’s true, but what is relevant to us is the special computation that is us. That’s something where we can revel in the details of that. Even though we know that the whole phenomenon of computation is not – there’s nothing abstractly special about it. It’s something that is…

Yeah, I find that unsatisfying candidly because you could – beavers could say that too. They could say, “It’s the experiences that all of us beavers have building our dams that make us special.” A hurricane could say that. It could say, “It’s all the places I went.” Everybody doesn’t get a medal.

Why do you say that?

That’s just another way to say that nothing is special.

The point is that I and you, we’re all members of this collection of humans. I think it is correct that if you look at the beavers, the whales, the dolphins, the storms and so on, there is some sense in which each one of those is special. We just don’t happen to be one of those. We happen to be humans. I don’t think you can say in the – I think it’s funny – in the modern world where people are so concerned about equality of various kinds. This is a form of equality that people haven’t yet started thinking about. That is, who are we to say that we should be intrinsically any more special than the weather or than the beavers so to speak. I think that what the science is saying is we’re actually not any more special, but that doesn’t mean that in the conduct of our lives as humans, that we shouldn’t view what’s going on around us as humans as being something special.

Listen to this episode or read the full transcript at


Byron explores issues around artificial intelligence and conscious computers in his new book The Fourth Age: Smart Robots, Conscious Computers, and the Future of Humanity.

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