A recent article in Scientific American introduced us to the ideas of David Deutsch and his Constructor Theory. Constructor Theory seeks to formulate “meta-laws” which sit “above” the laws of physics and determine them. They would do this by describing what may and may not (i.e. is forbidden to) happen, rather than trying to explain what will happen. Deutsch proposes that such a “meta” framework may be the way to unify the quantum and classical models of physics.
Deutsch is known as a pioneer of Quantum Computation, but this theory of his is speculative and not well known. It has its detractors, such as a this particularly abusive young physicist from the Czech Republic. But Deutsch’s ideas got us thinking here at Gentlemen Scientists HQ and set us off on a rambling, semi-informed conversation.
The thing is, we love the “meta”. Meta laws are fascinating because they hold out the promise of deeper understanding and unification. Understanding and control at a meta-level is stable over time than first-level control and survives the unexpected. Meta cognition, for example – the ability to reflect on one’s own patterns of thinking and behaviour – leads to better strategies for living under conditions of uncertainty.
However, once you start up the “meta-” ladder, how do you stop? Are there meta-meta-laws, or meta-meta-meta-laws? And when you do stop, you’re still left with the question – who designed the metaN law that you are left with? You’re still left looking at the “Face of God”.
The Face of God on Mars, as photographed by NASA (the Cydonia region on Mars)
So this approach is no magic bullet. In a way, the Constructor Theory is a deliberate lowering of our ambitions. Our tendency is to want to predict, and we judge our scientific models by their predictive power. But if we shift our focus from what will happen to simply trying to write down what will never happen, and then following such an exercise to its logical conclusion, we may be surprised to find just how much “drops out”(this seems to be what happened with Deutsch – he ended up with results that a remniscent of open problems in quantum mechanics).
If it makes us feel better, we can say that we are “deferring” the question of working out the “laws” while we explore the “meta-laws” first. Will it turn out that we never actually need to go to the “laws” in the end, because the “meta-” understanding will give us what we need? Counter-intuitively we might get a deeper understanding by trying to understand “less”.
Slight tangent: it got us thinking about our cognitive biases. When we look at network graphs, we concentrate on the nodes, not the edges. We put people as records into our databases, but not the relationships between people4. We see things, and we try to describe the things, but we don’t think as much about the things that make things or the things that connect things.
Crude analogy with a network graph. Usually we like to think about the nodes N of the graph, but for a connected graph we could work with the edges A only and ignore the nodes altogether without losing any clarity or completeness of our model. We could even derive second order measures B based on the edges, such as e.g. relative sizes of adjacent edges. The resulting set of “meta”-edges would no longer fully specify a single graph but a whole family (“universe”) of possible graphs.
Before we get too far into our own navels, however, we do end up with a couple of concrete lines of enquiry. Deutsch’s work may be crackpot, speculative or revolutionary – or anywhere in between – but we feel encouraged to follow the same process when thinking about people and memes. Centuries of efforts to codify laws about people and communication have met with limited success in our opinion (sorry, social scientists).
So is it time to take a meta view and develop some meta-laws about what people don’t do instead? For example, we could imagine that a simple biological imperative make it (almost) impossible for us to truly believe in the imminence of our own death. What happens if we represent some of these basic assumption and construct ‘laws” from them? Could we construct a better social science that way? We’re excited about that possibility and are thinking of some simple computer simulations to explore these ideas further.
2Constructor Theory, David Deutsch 2012.
3An interesting and angry/abusive rebuttal of constructor theory can be found at
Constructor theory: Deutsch and Marletto are just vacuously bullšiting
4I had a recent conversation with a database expert and data archivist where we discussed the fact that we rarely design databases to represent the relationships between people, instead representing the people themselves. Kind of like representing the nodes of a graph but ignoring the edges. Although I am sure that sites such as LinkedIn have data structures that are doing that in some way. I wonder what would happen if we completely (and counter-intuitively) “ignored” the people themselves and only represented the relationships. People would still exist but only as an “inferred” property of the system.
5It’s Perfectly Normal to See Jesus In Toast, Say Study – TIME Magazine