The Anthropic Atlas

 

“Tell me about the Atlas Project.”

“Ah,” he hesitated as if not expecting the subject.

I first met Marcus about five years ago when he seemed to be a jobbing academic with an interdisciplinary science unit at a northern university. Later I found out that he was in fact part of a London-based group that he simply called ‘the section’. Now we were tucked away in the most discrete corner of a Cotswolds country pub. The venue was his idea: the reason for our meeting, mine – or rather his careful hints had prompted me to suggest a meeting. The topic, therefore, was far from unexpected.

I suspect he had never talked to anyone about it. At first he found it difficult to talk, as if the words did not make any sense, which in all honesty at times they did not. His ramblings followed some inner logic not at all apparent to me, and seemed to give equal measure to the major problems of philosophy and the petty feuds of the section. I judged that the incoherence was a way of working around the subject and that it was only a matter of time before he put all hesitations aside and plunged into the subject of our meeting.

When he did finally speak about the Atlas Project it came as of a heavy secret being unburdened. The story flooded out. The dam had burst, breached by a name – George Masters.

We had been talking about war.

“You know that they called the Second World War the physicists’ war?”

“Yes,” I said, “but it always seemed too simplistic to me. Nothing can really encompass all the horror of those years in a single phrase, but for those that lived through it, I suppose it might have made sense. First War, Second War – obviously invites comparisons. Calling it the physicists’ war was a way to highlight the importance of new physics-based military technology: radar, rockets and, of course, the Bomb. It seemed a simple way of contrasting it with the First War, the chemists’ war.”

Not for the first time since we had been talking Marcus gave the impression that he was not listening.

“Chemists’ war: physicists’ war. Only two points on a graph, but have you ever thought how they might suggest a trend?”

I had no immediate answer but could sense that we were on the threshold of our conversation turning, finally, in the direction that I wanted it to. Silence seemed to me to be the best prompt.

After a pause like a long-held breath he continued.

“For centuries wars had been fought as body against body, flesh against flesh. Sure, those bodies were enhanced with armour and swords but the clash was still brutal, one brute, one animal against another. Chemists changed that. All kinds of new explosives were developed and then the chemicals themselves became the weapons, The gas attacks were just the climax of this phase. But this was nothing compared to what would be unleashed next – the Bomb. Oh yes, physics had been used before, calculating trajectories and so on, but the Bomb…?”

It was clear Marcus was struggling but the struggle was hidden behind eyes which cast their gaze to different points in the room, not looking at anything but searching for a point of reference, a point to which he could hold fast, a certainty that always seemed out of grasp. Was this a struggle for words? Or of memory? Of conscience?

“The Bomb,” he said, “showed us….It was….was not just an explosion. We took a pin to a whole bubble of ideas and burst it. This was not physics as calculation this was physics as power, raw power. The future of warfare was to be at the atomic scale.

“Do you see the trend? From those two points on a graph do you see the trend – the clash of brutes, of chemists, of physicists? We are going ever deeper, more fundamental, a reductionist history of warfare. So what do we have now, what follows the physicists’ war? What do we have that goes deeper than physics? Information. I don’t just mean propaganda and standard psyops but weaponised big data, information operations, psychographic messaging, hacking into a country’s infrastructure, the clash of computer against computer, firewalls not castle walls. Do you see it, do you see the trend?”

“And the next war,” I asked sensing that we were to go deeper still.

“The next war is already here,” he said quietly.

Again there was a pause, that same deep breath, but now there was no going back. The dam was about to burst.

“George Masters,” he said with all the relief of a confession. “George Masters, Professor of Applied Metaphysics.”

And then the flood, “Have you heard about the Anthropic Principle?”

“Kind of,” I said. “Isn’t it to do with the universe being just right for us, like baby bear’s porridge? Not too hot, not too cold. Not too big, not too small.”

“OK, that’ll do for starters. Well, Masters was working on the Anthropic Principle, but working in a way that only he knew how. Deep mathematics and high metaphysics. Anyway, it seems that starting from the Anthropic Principle he kept pushing his exploration of hyperpsychic spaces further and further, and then deep, deep down in his own visceral consciousness he found the idea.”

“Idea? What idea?”

The idea. The big one. The one and only. The original. The idea that was the Word, the logos. The word that was in-the-beginning-was-the-word. That word. That idea.”

It took a few moments for me even to comprehend the magnitude of what he was saying. Not surprisingly, my response was shamefully feeble.

“You’re telling me that he found out how the world, the universe, how it all started. Not just the first few nanoseconds, but the creation itself?”

“You’re just beginning to scratch the surface. The Anthropic Principle comes in various strengths depending on just how much you want to prove and how bold you are with your suppositions. Masters, as you might imagine, was working with the really strong stuff, 100% proof. He was working on the basis that the universe needs consciousness for it to exist. This makes the universe a little like the land of the fairies. It’s there if you believe in it. But, consciousness needs time to evolve. So how can the universe exist in the time before the evolution of the consciousness necessary to create it? P-r-o-b-l-e-m. Not so, says Masters. The real problem is time, to show that time is assymetric.”

“You’re losing me now.”

“OK, let’s just put it like this. Physicists have a major problem in showing that time flows. The equations that are the bedrock of all physics work equally well whether time is going forwards or backwards. They don’t distinguish between one direction of the arrow of time and another. The problem has been to get the physics to match up with our experience, but what if the physics has only been explaining away the experience rather than describing the way nature actually is? What if the problem is really the solution, the solution for George Masters? What if time really is symmetrical with no distinction between past, present and future? Aha, says Master, if that is the case then we don’t need consciousness in the past to create the universe. It could be consciousness in what appears to us to be the future.”

“‘In the beginning was the word’, except now the beginning is in a time yet to come?”

“Yes, and the word is the idea, the original idea of the universe, a specific act of consciousness that brings the whole universe into existence. A single thought, a single act of pure thought….a conception, an immaculate conception.”

“Imagine,” he said,”a whole world hanging by the thread of a single thought, but who would think it. What future demiurge would think a universe? Masters is now so deep into, or beyond, the metaphysics that he begins to realise that it is his own anthropic knowledge that will do the trick, that it was he, George Masters, who had to think ‘universe’….Now he sits and stares, quite literally in a world of his own, but it is a world which is ours of his making. Locked in a single act of creation, having to sustain that single thought to maintain not just the world he had known and loved, but our world too, the world.”

“A whole world carried on the shoulders of a single thought, the Atlas Project.”

“The story goes something like this. Eccentric old professor tells the government his ideas about the Anthropic Principle. Government says, ‘what use is that, still its cheap and might come in handy one day’. So they give him the money. The ideas develop, old man gets dismissed as a crank, but still its cheap and if he happens to be right, well, think of the possibilities. Through sheer creative thought they would control not just Europe, not just the Northern or Western Hemisphere, but everything, absolutely bloody everything. Don’t mess with us, they can say, or we tell this guy to think about something else. Now that’s what I call the ultimate deterrent, weaponised metaphysics, and all for the price of a professor’s salary. Denouement, frail old man hits the jackpot.”

“You said ‘it seems’. Hasn’t he told anyone? Why hasn’t he published? Where was the press conference?”

“Too hush hush, even if he wanted to, even if he could. Nobody would understand it even if he did tell anyone, which he hasn’t and the reason why he hasn’t told anyone is that he can’t, the poor sod’s catatonic.”

“I take it that that’s not just a figure of speech?”

“No, it’s not. He really is. He sits in his office and just stares. Stares into what we might call the middle distance, but for him it is beyond the edge of the universe.”

“So all this is conjecture?”

“To a point, but what is for certain is that going through his notes you get an idea of the line his work was taking, the usual equations to be sure, but also the odd question mark or annotated computer printout….and then there was the letter. Almost like a suicide note, telling his colleagues what he was doing and showing where his thoughts were leading him, as if he knew what he would find when he got there and what would happen.”

“But wouldn’t it take just a moment, one split-second thought, to get the thing started so that his mind can move to other things?”

“Ah, the deist position. Create the world then leave it to its own devices. Maybe so, but would you risk it if you were in his position? What if you were wrong? Just one slip in concentration to work out what to do might be all it takes for the whole house of cards to come down. No, the stakes are too high. The stakes are the highest there could ever possibly be.”

“So he sits and stares carrying the world in his head.”

“More than that. Think about. The fate of the universe rests – sorry I should say ‘might rest but we can’t take the chance’ – rests upon a frail old man sat in his chair in his office. A frail old man who, I should add, is so preoccupied with maintaining an entire universe that he can’t spare a moment to eat or sleep.”

“Oh, shit.”

“Exactly. How long do you think he would last? So far various tubes are putting things in and taking things out, but again I ask, how long do you think he can last?”

“Well, what do we do now?”

“Bring in the boffins. Let technology do all that hard boring work of creating and sustaining the universe. Feed all Masters’s work into a computer and get it to do the thinking for you. Artificial Intelligence.”

“Is it possible? I mean artificial, yes. Intelligent, almost certainly, but conscious?”

“Ah, there’s the rub, and right now that’s the question quite a few people would like the answer to. What does it take to be conscious?”

He leaned back in his chair, finally at peace with himself. “Did I ever introduce you to Wigener’s friend?”

An early version of this first appeared in Wavelength 1992

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