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Block Universe

David Cowles

Mar 26, 2024

“I can’t avoid taking responsibility for my life after all. Bummer!”

The Universe is best represented as a Block. Every possible value of every variable is encoded in that Block. Space and time are not native to the Block, but they are potentially emergent from the variables in the Block.

Nor is any other order native to the Block; neither are the Block’s constituent states disordered. The concept of order, dis- or otherwise, simply doesn’t apply…yet; no ‘before or after, now or then, here or there’. Think Genesis:

“…The earth was without form or shape, with darkness over the abyss and a mighty wind sweeping over the waters.”   

What we call ‘the World’ is a cross section of the Block Universe, a ‘surface’. There are innumerable such ‘surfaces’ in the Block. Each surface is a chain of variables that have been valued and ordered so that every variable has a well-defined relation to every other variable on that surface. 

This ordering logos has been variously defined as causality, magic, logic, providence, et al. Whatever, it constitutes the noumenal substructure of every phenomenal pattern (e.g. spacetime) in our World.

Not every possible combination of states constitutes a proper cross section. Determining the minimal requirements that a collection of states must meet to constitute a proper cross section is the province of science. Physical laws, as we discover them and to the extent that they are laws, constitute some of those minimal conditions.  

According to Pierre-Simon Laplace (Classical Determinism), for any given value of any given variable, there exists one and only one proper cross section. Once any one variable takes on a defined value, all other variables on that surface take on defined values as well. 

On the other hand, Laplace is ‘value agnostic’: any variable may assume any ontologically permissible value. However, once we know the value of one variable, we instantly know the value of every variable. It’s John Bell on steroids!

Per Laplace, the Block supports potential cross sections, any one of which could be, but only one of which is, our World. Hugh Everett’s Many Worlds Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics appears to take the opposite tack.

Every variable may take on any ontologically permissible value, regardless of the values assumed by other variables. Therefore, each unique state (valued variable) births an entire World, i.e., a unique cross section of the Block. 

For example, if there are 3 variables (ABC) and 2 values (+/-), there are 8 (2^3) ‘Everett Worlds’. Add one variable (4) and one value (3) and you have 81 (3^4) ‘Everett Worlds’. Go again (4^5), 1024; again, 15,625. Things could sure get out of control!

On the other hand, with Laplace, once we know the value of one variable, we know the values of all variables. Therefore, the number of ‘Laplace Worlds’ is always equal to the number of permissible values; the number of variables is entirely irrelevant. Therefore, a Universe with 2 values and 3 variables supports just 2 possible Worlds. 2 values, 10 variables, still only 2 Worlds. 2 values, 1,000,000 variables…you’ve got it!

In computer science, only two values are allowed: 0 or 1, sometimes represented as + or -, but the number of variables (bits) is enormous. According to Laplace, you may have a google of bits but you still have only 2 possible Worlds (the World and its Anti-World). On the other hand, according to Everett, you only need 10 bits (still just 2 values) to generate over 1,000 possible Worlds. Worst of all, neither algorithm offers any way to ‘prefer’ any one possible arrangement over another.

Even though neither Laplace nor Everett can be debunked mathematically, their models are not very satisfying. One is totally rigid; the other is wildly chaotic. One is fixed, the other grows super-exponentially. The problem is that neither remotely resembles the World we experience. Our World is stable but not frozen, dynamic but not chaotic.  

Fortunately, there is a model that accounts for order and creativity:


+↙        ↘-

x                  x

+↙      ↘-    +↙     ↘-  

x                x               x

+↙      ↘-  +↙    ↘-    +↙    ↘-     

x                 x                 x               x

Assume, as above, that each variable has one, but only one, of two values (+ or -). Regardless of whether the value of Alpha is + or -, Beta may be either + or -. The Beta state is not conditioned by the Alpha state. Sounds like Many Worlds…but it isn’t. 

Assume also that the basic properties of arithmetic apply. Therefore, (+ , –) is equivalent to (– , +). Our first iteration leaves us with just two possible Worlds (Laplace), but our second iteration adds a third option (+, - or -. +). According to this model, the Universe conflates as it inflates. Marvelously, the net ‘gain’ turns out to be one novel state per iteration. 

Et voila…a World you can live in! A world remarkably like our own in fact. And all you needed was Grade 3 arithmetic to generate it. The ‘Block Universe’ is a favorite of Super-determinists. They imagine that the Block nature of things precludes any role for chance, agency, or horror of horrors, free will

‘Intellectual Hippies’ prefer ‘Many Worlds’: “Whatever, man!” Oddly, both pre-dispositions lead to the same conclusion: Nihilism. In fact, it turns out that ‘One World’ and ‘Many Worlds’ are functionally identical. In both cases, you live in a world over which you have no influence or control. Living is not something you do; it’s something done to you. For you, Being is a spectator sport. But because our version of the Block evolves over time, wave-like, via a hierarchy of binary ‘choices’, free will and agency are baked into it.

You’re not a nameless face in the crowd after all; you’re the quarterback of Team You. Perhaps you don’t cause the game to unfold the way it does, but you certainly influence it. Which means… I can’t avoid taking responsibility for my life after all. Bummer!


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