[FOM] Physical Theories and Hypercomputation

Dmytro Taranovsky dmytro at mit.edu
Wed Mar 7 18:30:26 EST 2012

This posting explains the relation between physical theories and 

Physical theories are ordinarily stated in terms of real numbers and 
quantities that are reducible to real numbers, such as continuous 
functions between (specific) separable metric spaces.  Real numbers are 
a priori infinite quantities, that is they can store infinite 
information, which raises the question as to why the theories tend to be 
computable.  The answer is that the finite nature of observations 
combined with approximate nature of physical theories naturally leads to 
continuous time evolution relation.  For example, if distance is only 
predicted approximately because of (for example) neglection of 
corrections from a more accurate unknown theory, it does not appear 
relevant whether a predicted non-zero distance is rational or 
irrational.  A continuous function is recursive in terms of some real 
constant.  Continuity means that one can create finite approximations to 
the theory with arbitrarily high specified quality/precision -- for 
example by quantizing space-time and limiting floating point precision 
-- and recursiveness allows for these approximations to be (uniformly) 

There are 3 ways in which physical theories can lead to hypercomputation:
* failure of continuity
* non-recursive physical constants
* non-recursive initial conditions

An empirical fact is that in current and past physical theories, 
physical constants are either recursive or only predicted approximately 
(if predicted at all).  This should not be surprising since we do not 
know non-recursive natural real numbers (that are natural as real 
numbers) or even non-recursive natural continuous functions between real 
numbers.  Recursiveness in terms of freely choosable (in a certain 
range) constants also follows (ordinarily not formally) from the form of 
typical theories:  A differential equation for the time evolution with 
terms that are elementary functions.
Even if the physical constants are non-recursive, then under current 
physics, they appear to be a sparse oracle -- and thus worst case time 
complexity of the halting problem would remain exponential or worse -- 
because of their limited number and because of difficulty of arbitrary 
precision measurements.

In addition to specifying time evolution, a physical theory may also 
partially specify initial conditions, and nonrecursive initial 
conditions may allow hypercomputation.

Continuous time evolution may still lead to singularities (unless the 
state space is compact), which can be dealt in three ways:
* Modify the theory to prevent singularities.  This is the usual 
solution since near singularities some values are arbitrarily large and 
thus likely imply new physics.  However, there is no universal guarantee 
that the more accurate theory will not have the same (or some other) 
* Apply the theory except at singularities and define the transition at 
singularities.  The result is usually nonrecursive (assuming that 
singularities are common enough for a computer to be able to steer 
itself into one).
* Prohibit initial conditions that lead to singularities.  In some 
cases, a theory leads to singularities unless some factors are precisely 
canceled out, which potentially requires non-recursive initial 
conditions.  As to potential hypercomputation, assume that time 
evolution as a function of initial conditions is a recursive function up 
to a potential singularity.  Note that even if for a certain initial 
condition, time evolution does not lead to singularity, it may still 
approach singularity at a superrecursive speed, which may lead to 
superrecursive slowdown of computation of its time evolution.  Thus, 
there are 2 cases:
  - If there is a solution without superrecursive slowdown for computing 
approximations, then hypercomputation that is valid for all initial 
conditions (that will not lead to singularity) is limited to separation 
of disjoint recursively enumerable sets.  Separation of disjoint r.e. 
sets would not solve the halting problem, but if available efficiently 
(for a pair that is universal under polynomial-time reducibility), would 
make every recursive predicate computable in polynomial time.
  - In the general case, we can do arbitrary hyperarithmetic 
computation.  This occurs even if we have just 2 degrees of freedom, one 
of which can be a constant of motion.  For example, for every recursive 
omega-consistent theory T, there is a smooth recursive f with all 
derivatives recursive such that y'(t) = f(a, y) has a solution that does 
not go to infinity at finite t iff 'a' encodes (in a standard way) an 
omega model of T (a and y are real numbers and a is constant).  For all 
T containing ATR_0 with Skolem functions, this allows arbitrary 
hyperarithmetic hypercomputation.

With respect to the Standard Model, we do not know (as of March 2012) 
whether it is generally consistent (as in singularity-free time 
evolution), or inconsistent, or requires special initial conditions, and 
if so, whether that can be used for hypercomputation. Furthermore, while 
recursive approximations to Standard Model are known (for example, 
through lattice gauge theories), it is not known whether they converge 
in the limit to theory, and even infinitesimal (as in arbitrarily short 
from a fixed starting point) time evolution might be problematic (which 
may potentially lead to additional nonrecursiveness).

For theories that allow hypercomputation, hypercomputation -- by its 
nature and unlike ordinary predictions -- tends to depend on infinite 
precision of certain parts of the theory, and physical theories are 
usually approximate.  Thus, hypercomputation predictions usually involve 
applying the theory fundamentally outside its ordinary domain, so it is 
reasonable to be skeptical unless partial hypercomputation or some form 
of infinite precision of the theory has been tested.  One method that 
arguably does not depend on infinite precision is that if a discrete 
physical process decays (that is loses frequency) at a sufficiently fast 
rate (as a function of the number of past events), this can be used for 
(very slow) arbitrary hyperarithmetic hypercomputation regardless of 
what the rate is, provided that the process still generates an unlimited 
number of events.

The best argument for hypercomputation is based on the physical laws 
optimality principle:  Physical laws are the best possible.  The 
optimality principle is related to the anthropic principle, and also to 
the widely held view that physical laws are beautiful.  Once one is 
convinced that it is better to have universe in which nonrecursive 
nonrandom processes are possible, one applies the optimality principle 
to conclude that nonrecursive nonrandom processes are possible in the 
actual universe.

Dmytro Taranovsky

More information about the FOM mailing list