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The Lifebox, the Seashell, and the Soul: What Gnarly Computation Taught Me About Ultimate Reality, the Meaning of Life, and How to Be Happy

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A journey of a thousand miles begins with one step, goes the ancient saying. This concept is at the root of the computational worldview, which basically says that very complex systems — the world we live in — have their beginnings in simple mathematical equations. We've lately come to understand that such an algorithm is only the start of a never-ending story — the real ac A journey of a thousand miles begins with one step, goes the ancient saying. This concept is at the root of the computational worldview, which basically says that very complex systems — the world we live in — have their beginnings in simple mathematical equations. We've lately come to understand that such an algorithm is only the start of a never-ending story — the real action occurs in the unfolding consequences of the rules. The chip-in-a-box computers so popular in our time have acted as a kind of microscope, letting us see into the secret machinery of the world. In Lifebox, Rucker uses whimsical drawings, fables, and humor to demonstrate that everything is a computation — that thoughts, computations, and physical processes are all the same. Rucker discusses the linguistic and computational advances that make this kind of "digital philosophy" possible, and explains how, like every great new principle, the computational world view contains the seeds of a next step.


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A journey of a thousand miles begins with one step, goes the ancient saying. This concept is at the root of the computational worldview, which basically says that very complex systems — the world we live in — have their beginnings in simple mathematical equations. We've lately come to understand that such an algorithm is only the start of a never-ending story — the real ac A journey of a thousand miles begins with one step, goes the ancient saying. This concept is at the root of the computational worldview, which basically says that very complex systems — the world we live in — have their beginnings in simple mathematical equations. We've lately come to understand that such an algorithm is only the start of a never-ending story — the real action occurs in the unfolding consequences of the rules. The chip-in-a-box computers so popular in our time have acted as a kind of microscope, letting us see into the secret machinery of the world. In Lifebox, Rucker uses whimsical drawings, fables, and humor to demonstrate that everything is a computation — that thoughts, computations, and physical processes are all the same. Rucker discusses the linguistic and computational advances that make this kind of "digital philosophy" possible, and explains how, like every great new principle, the computational world view contains the seeds of a next step.

30 review for The Lifebox, the Seashell, and the Soul: What Gnarly Computation Taught Me About Ultimate Reality, the Meaning of Life, and How to Be Happy

  1. 5 out of 5

    Muhammad al-Khwarizmi

    There are a lot of widely varied and sometimes outlandish ideas in here. I don't agree with all of them but the overarching concept of universal automatism is something I've long been comfortable with. The enumeration of possible kinds of ontologies and challenge to / refinement of Stephen Wolfram's Principle of Computational Equivalence. Unfortunately there are numerous typesetting errors, like 21000 instead of 2^1000 (with a proper superscript) and there is also unfortunately something of a la There are a lot of widely varied and sometimes outlandish ideas in here. I don't agree with all of them but the overarching concept of universal automatism is something I've long been comfortable with. The enumeration of possible kinds of ontologies and challenge to / refinement of Stephen Wolfram's Principle of Computational Equivalence. Unfortunately there are numerous typesetting errors, like 21000 instead of 2^1000 (with a proper superscript) and there is also unfortunately something of a lapse into what I would consider treacly Panglossianism towards the end.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Mishehu

    Great food for thought. Some clunkiness along the way as well, but no harm no foul. I enjoyed this book immensely.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Jan Argasiński

    Gnarly dude!

  4. 4 out of 5

    Tomislav

    Rudy Rucker started as a philosopher of mathematical logic, who turned to computer science mid-career, and is also a writer of science fiction. This non-fiction book ranges broadly over all of those topics and more, taking the position that everything can be understood as a form of computation. It was a gift to me a few years ago, perhaps in a category with Douglas Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher, and Bach. The book is a compendium made up of several big ideas, and hundreds of sometimes related smalle Rudy Rucker started as a philosopher of mathematical logic, who turned to computer science mid-career, and is also a writer of science fiction. This non-fiction book ranges broadly over all of those topics and more, taking the position that everything can be understood as a form of computation. It was a gift to me a few years ago, perhaps in a category with Douglas Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher, and Bach. The book is a compendium made up of several big ideas, and hundreds of sometimes related smaller ideas. The biggest of the big ideas is based on Stephen Wolfram’s universal automatism, which Rucker introduces formally and with software engineering vocabulary. Also, he is in love with the word “gnarly”, using it to describe the kind of system outputs that involve non-repeating patterns. He then examines these concepts in a survey over a broad swath of examples. Thus, the chapters move from the more fundamental classical and quantum physics, biological organisms, human thought, to sociology. In most cases he finds some analog to computational automata in natural systems, although the psychology section breaks down a little, where he backs off to a wider comparison to computation. Finally, he reprises, using the formalism of mathematical logic towards his positions on some of the major issues of philosophy, citing Leibnitz, Gödel, Turing, and others. My main complaint about this book is the low signal-to-noise ratio. That is, that there is interesting stuff in there, but it is presented repetitively, massively padded, and overly focused on simplistic toy models of reality. The “signal” if you will, for me, contained the difference between predictable and deterministic, which I see now to be a very useful distinction all the way from physical systems to metaphysics. I confess to have actually studied computational automata and mathematical logic during my undergraduate days, so those topics were review for me; I am certainly less obsessive about them than Rucker. I worked in finite element modeling and analysis for about ten years, a subject that Rucker mentions in passing, and that is a far more interesting and useful extension, albeit with less math logic formalism. I picked up an understanding of the concept of neural networks, which I had not thought much about before this. I should also mention that there are occasional pieces of fiction interspersed between chapters, and that I found his computational analysis of the science fiction publishing industry in the sociology section to be fascinating. Overall though, while comprehensive, the book is not cohesive. It is as if he set up a master spreadsheet of all human knowledge, broke it down further several times, and then wrote whatever came to mind in each cell of the spreadsheet. And then in the end, he even backs off from his original big idea, that everything is computation. Almost on a whim, he switches to a mystical understanding, that supposedly transcends everything he has said previously in the book. Foo!

  5. 5 out of 5

    Greg Talbot

    Books ultimately are conversations between you and the author. The best books connect with you. They change you. They become a part of you. But there are some conversations you simply have to walk away from. Rudy Rucker's "Lifebox, the seashell and the soul" is a conversation I an walking away from. I don't care much for his playful mixing of biology, spirituality and computer science. Everything is poorly organized. I've spent a week with the book, and not really sure what to make of it. As someo Books ultimately are conversations between you and the author. The best books connect with you. They change you. They become a part of you. But there are some conversations you simply have to walk away from. Rudy Rucker's "Lifebox, the seashell and the soul" is a conversation I an walking away from. I don't care much for his playful mixing of biology, spirituality and computer science. Everything is poorly organized. I've spent a week with the book, and not really sure what to make of it. As someone who is trying to learn more about computer science, I deserve some of the blame. My background may not be up to par to understand the book. Maybe i'm not intelligent to make sense of it. But I'm reading a book on calculus right now, which is far more enjoyable and understandable. Ultimately, there is nothing here I can recommend. I'm not sure who I could recommend this to. There were some cool passages about patterns, computer automations, and some interesting analogies, but I just didn't get it. I can't imagine i'm the only one either. Oh well.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Peter Aronson

    I found this book interesting and mentally stimulating, but recommend taking its conclusions with a grain of salt the size of the Rock of Gibraltar. There's a lot of cool stuff here, but the author also makes a lot assumptions, and some of them, like quantum mechanics being deterministic at some level, do not seem to be the way to bet. And sometimes he just seems to be replacing process with computation without actually saying anything meaningful. But this is a fun read, and the author is humane I found this book interesting and mentally stimulating, but recommend taking its conclusions with a grain of salt the size of the Rock of Gibraltar. There's a lot of cool stuff here, but the author also makes a lot assumptions, and some of them, like quantum mechanics being deterministic at some level, do not seem to be the way to bet. And sometimes he just seems to be replacing process with computation without actually saying anything meaningful. But this is a fun read, and the author is humane and understands his limits and has no delusion of having discovered the "TRUTH". So, at the end, while I disagreed with many of his conclusions, I was glad that I read it. (I must note that I have a computer science degree, and have been reading about, and fooling around with cellular automata since the early 90's (anyone else out there remember Cell Master?), so I may have found it more accessible than some people.)

  7. 5 out of 5

    Stan

    This book is full of interesting, fascinating idea about relating computing to the human mind/soul. I'd recommend this as a philosophical read to anyone interested in such. So why 3 stars? Because while the author is fully conversant in computer theory, he tries to extend that expertise in areas where he isn't - such as physics and biology - and then explains why the real experts are wrong. He also expects you to take him at his word no matter what because of that. I find that attitude insulting This book is full of interesting, fascinating idea about relating computing to the human mind/soul. I'd recommend this as a philosophical read to anyone interested in such. So why 3 stars? Because while the author is fully conversant in computer theory, he tries to extend that expertise in areas where he isn't - such as physics and biology - and then explains why the real experts are wrong. He also expects you to take him at his word no matter what because of that. I find that attitude insulting, especially so since my degree is in one of the sciences he denigrates. Another annoying aspect of the book (but one I didn't take stars off for) is that the editing is poor - words are misspelled, sentences and even paragraphs are chopped off.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Douglas Summers-Stay

    A book discussing cellular automata and what they tell us about the nature of the universe and the origins of complexity. This is the sort of book I really would have loved when I was about sixteen, but most of the interesting stuff in it I was already familiar with. I think Rudy Rucker sometimes confuses poetic connections with scientific ones.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Patrick Rodriguez

    Came in looking for answers that only a computer science professor could provide. Came out feeling ok that there can be many answers as the process unfolds. Will definitely reread at future points in my life.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Peter Tillman

    Very odd book.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Collin Bell

    This book so entranced me that I wrote to the author and ended up having a nice conversation with him

  12. 4 out of 5

    Nick

    Some interesting math leads to some half-baked philosophical speculation. I will resist further plays on the word 'baked' but there is a definite whiff of potsmoke emanating from this book. Some interesting math leads to some half-baked philosophical speculation. I will resist further plays on the word 'baked' but there is a definite whiff of potsmoke emanating from this book.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Ken

    The core idea is interestng, but I'm not sure the book really expounds on it in a way that provides any new insights. Couldn't get through it. The core idea is interestng, but I'm not sure the book really expounds on it in a way that provides any new insights. Couldn't get through it.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Enrico

    Didn't really enjoyed it. Didn't really enjoyed it.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Robert

  16. 4 out of 5

    Gary

  17. 4 out of 5

    Caleb Green

  18. 4 out of 5

    Evan

  19. 5 out of 5

    Bog

  20. 5 out of 5

    Chuk

  21. 5 out of 5

    Mark C Brown

  22. 4 out of 5

    Aron

  23. 5 out of 5

    Fooly

  24. 5 out of 5

    Matthew Finlayson

  25. 5 out of 5

    Adam

  26. 5 out of 5

    Dima

  27. 5 out of 5

    Paul Vittay

  28. 4 out of 5

    Austin

  29. 4 out of 5

    Simon Cartoon

  30. 5 out of 5

    Bob

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