It’s Turtles, All the Way Down

I have a strange geography in my head that only has a cursory relationship to the actual geography of Paducah, Kentucky and its surrounding area. I walked the streets of Paducah so I have a direct sense of where things are and how far apart they are. I drove the roads of western Kentucky and southern Illinois so I have a relative sense of how far apart things are there. When those two gestalts get mixed you have a warped sense of distance.

I walked five and a half miles in Madison, Alabama last night. I walked down roads that I have driven for years. I have a new perspective on them now. It gives me the same kind of warped sense of distance that I was describing that I had of Paducah. It is born of the perception that, when you are driving in a car, it is an extension of your body. Even though it’s capabilities far exceed your own.

When I think of it, I have the same kind of warped perception of the rest of the world. It seems that the places that I haven’t been are compressed into near nothingness while the places that I have been are scaled according to how I have experienced them, whether on foot, by car, or by airplane.

That must be why they say that travel expands your mind. It has to grow to encompass the new geography that you have added to your experience. In a similar way, books add virtual geography to your mental landscape. I have to admit that the universe of Star Trek, Star Wars, and Dune are as real to me as this universe ever was.

Music occupies a strange geography comprised of a completely different set of dimensions. Instead of east, west, north, south, up, and down, music has dimensions of key, modality, pitch, tone, volume, and harmony. I’m sure I’ve overlooked some of them but they are just as tangible to me as the physical dimensions of geography.

By extension, I can imagine geographies of flavors and smells, of tactile dimensions, or of shape and color. But there is one mental geography that I travel in that may not be quite as universal. I also have a geography that inhabits my head. It is a geography of software.

This strange geography is composed of places with infinite layers of interpretation. It exists in my imagination and is built out of bits and bytes, addresses and registers, data buses and input/output ports. On top of those analogs of hardware constructs are abstractions like variables, queues, stacks, objects, dictionaries, and myriads of others. These pieces are cobbled together into active algorithms that are the machines that inhabit this strange mental geography.

We have problems with nomenclature in this strange geography of the mind. It is constructed out of abstractions that are intended to be metaphors for the real world phenomena that they represent. The difficulty arises when different people use the same metaphor to describe two different abstractions. Or just as confusing, use two different metaphors to describe the same abstraction.

The situation is made even worse by the fact that we have a penchant for bundling up a collection of abstractions and encapsulating it in an opaque black box that is embedded in other, higher level abstractions. As the programmer unwraps those black boxes to attempt to understand the system, the fractal nature of the system becomes clear. Each layer of abstraction is a universe in its own right.

Having realized this, I struggle to decide what to do with it. It informs my private conviction that the universe is quite likely a simulation that runs on some immense computer in a laboratory in some quiet corner of another simulated universe. This recursive embedding of simulation inside of simulation may go on indefinitely. There may not even be a reality as we conceive of it. We may all just be dreams within dreams of a disturbed super computer.

It makes as much sense to me as the other creation myths that we have been asked to accept on faith throughout the ages. In the final analysis I think that the best that we can do is to love each other and be kind to each other. The universe is whatever it is and is most definitely beyond our limited understanding. This isn’t to say we shouldn’t try to understand it as best we can. But we should be humble about our fundamental inability to comprehend its enormity and strangeness.