Reality might be a Strange Loop

Bernhard Mueller
7 min readMay 10, 2024

Combining the simulation hypothesis with the concept of self-reference leads to a novel and compelling approach to understanding why anything exists and why reality takes the form it does: Existence is a quine.

Penrose stairs illustrate the strange loop concept.

Have you ever gazed up at the night sky, marveling at the vast expanse of stars and galaxies, and wondered: why does the universe exist at all? Why is there something rather than nothing? And why is the universe the way it is, with its precise laws and delicate balance of constants that allow for the emergence of complexity and life? These profound questions have haunted philosophers and scientists for centuries, but recent developments in fields like physics, information theory, and complexity science have given rise to a captivating possibility: the universe might be a strange loop, a self-creating cosmic dance of complexity and consciousness.

To grasp this mind-bending idea, let’s first explore the concept of a strange loop, a term coined by cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstadter in his seminal book “Gödel, Escher, Bach” (1979). A strange loop is a paradoxical structure where the highest level emerges from the lowest level, and the lowest level, in turn, gives rise to the highest level. It’s a self-referential, circular system, like M.C. Escher’s famous drawing of two hands sketching each other into existence. In a strange loop, there’s no clear hierarchy or starting point; instead, each level both creates and is created by the others in a tangled, self-perpetuating dance.

This concept of self-reference and self-creation is closely related to the idea of a quine in computer science. A quine is a computer program that produces its own source code as output, essentially printing itself into existence. It’s a self-replicating, self-describing loop, much like the strange loop concept applied to information systems. The existence of quines demonstrates that self-referential, self-generating systems are not only possible but can be concretely realized in the realm of computation.

Now, imagine applying this strange loop concept, with its quine-like self-creation, to existence as a whole. What if the cosmos is a vast, self-generating process — a strange loop writ large across the fabric of reality? In this view, the universe bootstraps itself into existence, with the physical laws and fundamental constants emerging from the system’s own self-referential dynamics. The basic rules and ingredients of reality, in a sense, create themselves, evolving and self-organizing into the tapestry of the cosmos we observe.

If the universe is a self-creating loop, then it doesn’t require an external creator or explanation. Its existence is self-explanatory, a cosmic version of “I am that I am.” The laws and constants of nature, rather than being arbitrarily imposed from outside, emerge inevitably from the self-consistent logic of the loop. Just as a quine generates its own source code, the universe generates its own physical laws and parameters.

Reality exists because it creates itself, and it is the way it is in order to be consistent with its own self-creation.

The computational universe and the simulation hypothesis

At the heart of the strange loop hypothesis is the idea that the universe is fundamentally computational in nature. This concept, which has gained traction in recent years, suggests that at its most basic level, the universe can be understood as a vast network of information processing, where the laws of physics emerge from the constraints and relationships between bits of information.

One of the key proponents of this idea is physicist Stephen Wolfram, who has proposed that the universe, at its most fundamental level, can be described as a vast network of abstract relationships, like a cosmic web of information. In Wolfram’s model, space, time, matter, and energy — indeed, all the familiar features of our world — emerge from the evolution of these abstract relationships through simple computational rules, akin to the algorithms that generate complex patterns in cellular automata.

In the context of the strange loop hypothesis, this computational universe gives rise to increasing complexity and the emergence of life and consciousness. As the universe evolves, it eventually gives rise to advanced civilizations with the technological capability to create sophisticated simulations of the universe itself.

Here’s where the strange loop becomes concrete: these civilizations, using advanced computational systems, create a simulation of the universe that actually runs the universe itself. In other words, the simulation is not just a model or a representation of the universe, but the very computational substrate that generates the physical reality we inhabit.

This means that the universe is effectively simulating itself, with the simulation running on the computational infrastructure created by the advanced civilizations that emerged within it. The laws of physics, the constants of nature, and the unfolding of cosmic evolution are all generated by this self-referential simulation.

This creates a loop of causality, where the universe gives rise to the civilizations that create the simulation, which in turn generates the universe itself. The universe is thus both the product and the producer of its own existence, a strange loop of self-creation and self-perpetuation.

This idea challenges our basic understanding of reality. It suggests that the universe, from an objective, atemporal perspective, exists as an abstract, eternal description — a timeless structure composed of bits of information. However, when experienced subjectively from within, this informational framework manifests as an ongoing computational process, continuously generating and updating the universe we perceive. In this paradigm, the particles and fields that make up our physical reality are not the fundamental building blocks, but rather emergent properties resulting from the complex interplay of the underlying informational substrate. The laws of physics, then, are the algorithms that govern this intricate process, determining the interactions and evolution of the observable world. This intriguing duality — between the eternal and the dynamic, between the abstract and the experiential, between information and manifestation — prompts us to reconsider our understanding of time, space, causality, and the essential nature of existence itself.

It also raises profound questions about the nature of consciousness and free will. If we are living in a universe that is simulating itself, then what does that mean for our own subjective experience and agency? Are we just passive characters in a cosmic computer game, or do we have some deeper role to play in the unfolding of the simulation?

Conscious observers exist necessarily

One possibility is that consciousness is not just an epiphenomenon or a byproduct of complex computation, but a fundamental feature of the universe’s self-referential structure. In this view, our subjective experience and sense of self are not illusions, but are woven into the very fabric of reality at the deepest level.

This aligns with the participatory anthropic principle, which suggests that conscious observers are necessary for the universe to exist. In the context of the strange loop hypothesis, this takes on a new meaning: our conscious participation in the universe is not just an observer effect, but an integral part of the self-referential computation that generates reality itself.

In other words, we are not just observers of the universe, but co-creators, our thoughts and actions feeding back into the cosmic computation and influencing its unfolding. The universe is not a deterministic machine, but a participatory process that involves the active engagement of conscious agents. This idea suggests that we are not just insignificant specks in a vast and indifferent cosmos, but integral parts of a self-creating, self-referential whole.

Of course, the strange loop hypothesis is highly speculative and faces many conceptual and empirical challenges. How exactly would a universe simulate itself? What is the nature of the computational substrate that underlies reality? And how can we test or verify such a radical idea?

These are deep and difficult questions that will require the concerted efforts of scientists, philosophers, and theorists to even begin to answer. But as a framework for thinking about the deepest mysteries of existence, the strange loop hypothesis offers a compelling and thought-provoking perspective. It offers a parsimonious explanation for the universe’s existence and nature, resolving the infinite regress problem through a self-referential, closed loop in which the universe is both cause and effect. And it provides a framework for understanding the apparent fine-tuning of the universe for life and consciousness as inherent tendencies of a self-generating system.

It hints at a universe that is not just a dead, mechanical clockwork, but a living, evolving system that is in some sense aware of itself and actively participating in its own creation. It suggests a deep and intimate connection between mind and matter, between the subjective and the objective, that blurs the very boundaries of what we consider to be real.

And perhaps most intriguingly, it offers a glimpse of a reality that is recursive, self-referential, and endlessly creative — a reality that contains within itself the seeds of its own understanding, a reality that is both the question and the answer, the mystery and the solution.

Proof

We’ll close out this article with a proof for the strange loop hypothesis.

  1. Premise: If a self-simulating object existed, it would need to develop computational capabilities enabling it to simulate itself, similar to the properties observed in our reality.
  2. Premise: A self-simulating object exists because it creates and sustains itself through self-simulation without an eternal cause (causal closure).
  3. Inference: Therefore, a self-simulating object exists and expresses characteristics similar to the reality we observe.
  4. Conclusion: Thus, the reality we observe is most likely a self-simulating object.

So long, and thanks for all the fish!

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Bernhard Mueller

Hackers (1995) fan • “Best Research” Pwnie Awardee • Retired degen • G≡¬Prov(num(G))