La cerise sur le gateau

From: Jim Fehlinger (
Date: Sat Mar 17 2001 - 00:47:02 MST

In my recent belated addition to the science vs. religion
thread, I remarked:

> The Harvard biologist E. O. Wilson wrote, in a recent book,
> about "consilience" -- the idea that the separate fields of
> science are converging, slowly but inexorably, into a unified,
> compatible story about how the world works... The persistence
> of "that old-time religion" in the modern world is simply due to
> some groups of people having been insufficently exposed to the
> web of consilience...

It crossed my mind today that, since SF author Greg Egan (_Permutation
City_, _Diaspora_, etc.) is held in such high regard by many folks
on this list, it's worth mentioning the sophisticated fun that
Egan has with an idea very similar to a "web of consilience". It
also touches on the simulation thread that has been developing
for the past few days.

EGAN SPOILERS BELOW, particularly for _Permutation City_.

Paul Durham's "dust theory" of reality in _Permutation City_
consists of the notion that the facts of history comprise a
logically-consistent story that "finds" itself out of discrete
particles of a sort of spacetime "dust". This theory motivates Durham
to perform an experiment which results in a simulated world,
Elysium (containing Permutation City as its centerpiece), being
run on a potentially infinite computer called the TVC (Turing/
von Neumann/Chiang) grid. The seed of the Elysium simulation
also contains the potential for a natively-evolved form of life,
derived from a virtual organism called A. Lamberti (A for Autoverse).

Later in the book, after Elysium has been existence for a while,
the descendants of A. Lamberti have evolved into intelligent
creatures (the Lambertians) who have begun to form their own "web of
consilience" comprising their own consistent network of beliefs about the
world in which they exist. Egan imagines that this web of belief acts
as a powerful attractor that is capable of actually remaking the world --
reorganizing the dust -- to conform with it. This is a threat
to the human Copies of Elysium, because two incompatible
webs of consilience cannot continue to exist within the same
story (the same "dust"-based reality) [could Egan possibly have
intended this as a metaphor for science vs. superstition
in the real world? ;-> ].

When the Elysians make contact with the Lambertians in order to
forestall this conflict (to merge the two incompatible webs of
consilience into a single, all-encompassing one that will allow
the Elysians and the Lambertians to continue to coexist in the same
"story"), disaster strikes when the Lambertians refuse to believe them,
while at the same time continuing to tighten and refine their
own consilient web, which will culminate in a Theory of Everything
(TOE) like that sought by modern physics. As the Lambertians'
belief system re-weaves the tapestry of reality
to conform with it, the Elysians are threatened with annihilation,
or more precisely, with uncreation, to be made as if they had
never existed (like fairies, and ghosts, and Moses parting the
Red Sea in our world). To escape this, the Elysians must spawn
a new TVC universe and escape into it, leaving the Lambertians
behind. The Lambertians, once they have completed their web of
consilience, have a plausible account of the creation of their
world much like that which modern physicists eventually hope
to achieve about ours, leaving no room for the outlandish story
of what "actually" happened.

Here's the text of a remark I e-mailed to a friend a couple of days
ago, which prompted me to post this message:

> > Finished the book last night. Now you'll have to explain it to me.
> Well, the heart of it seems to be the rather
> fanciful "Dust Theory" (or as the French article
> I mention below calls it, "théorie de la poussière"),
> that Paul Durham works out. I can't say I understand
> this very clearly myself, except that it seems to be a
> variation on the "multiple worlds" view of reality, in
> which the raw material of the universe (or multiverse, as
> David Deutsch calls it) is a sort of pile of dust,
> consisting of discrete particles of spacetime, each of
> which can participate in a potentially infinite number of
> causal sequences. History, as we see it, is one
> way of linking together this collection of "dust", but
> there are others too, coexisting and interpenetrating
> like ripples on the surface of a lake. Particular
> histories are like stories, "finding" themselves out
> of the dust through the force of their own logical
> necessity (or some damn thing!).
> The metaphor for all this is, of course, the poem
> at the beginning of the book whose lines all consist
> of anagrams of "Permutation City" (the permuted letters
> of which still manage to suggest meanings resonant with
> the story: "Remit not Paucity", "Rip Tie Cut Toy Man",
> etc.) and which are also used as chapter headings. It's
> just too, too clever. As a French on-line essay about the
> book remarks (I wish I really spoke French!): "La théorie de
> la poussière repose sur les fascinations mathématiques des
> permutations, et voilà qu'Egan permute les lettres mêmes du
> mot 'permutation' pour décorer son travail littéraire. Georges
> Pérec et Raymond Queneau auraient apprécié cette cerise
> sur le gâteau."
> ( )
> Here are some other Web references:
> "Dust: Why I Don't Believe It', Susan Stepney:
> An on-line physics book,
> _Event-Symmetric Space-Time_ by Philip Gibbs
> has a section that explicitly mentions _Permutation City_
> in Chapter 7 "The Principle of Event Symmetry":

Egan's later novel _Distress_ contains a similar idea -- that
the current lack of a Theory of Everything (TOE) means
that certain details of the world are still indeterminate
in actuality, and that once physicist Violet Mosala (who
is both Black and female -- a nice touch) completes her
TOE (the "cherry on the cake" of the network of scientific
belief :->), the web of consilience thus completed will act as
an attractor that remakes the world backward in time
from that point in conformity with the theory, down to
the smallest detail. Before the TOE was created (and **understood**
by a human mind -- that of a science journalist), the
world existed in a state similar to quantum superposition,
but afterward, the wave function has collapsed.

Jim F.

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