The Game of Life

The Game of Life is a nifty computer program, whose principal author is the mathematician John Horton Conway, which “does an excellent job of taking in a complicated issue and reflecting back only the dead-simple essence or skeleton of the issue” (Daniel Dennett, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, p. 166). Like Darwin’s evolutionary theory, it shows how rich and complex design can arise from a simple algorithmic process. This is the bare physics of life, the only rule of the game:

For each cell in the grid, count how many of its eight neighbors are ON at the present instant. If the answer is exactly two, the cell stays in its present state (ON or OFF) in the next instant. If the answer is exactly three, the cell is ON in the next instant whatever its current state. Under all other conditions, the cell is OFF (p. 167)

If we take a step back to gain a bird’s-eye view of the bigger picture and speed up time things start to get really interesting in the Game of Life. Although at the physical level there are cells merely turning ON and OFF, at the design level we see great movement; things begin to swim and glide.

Then there are the eaters, puffer trains, space rakes, and a host of other aptly named denizens of the Life world that emerge as recognizable objects at a new level (p. 171)

Stray bits of debris from earlier events can “break” or “kill” one of the objects in the ontology at this level. Their salience as real things is considerable, but not guaranteed. To say that their salience is considerable is to say that one can, with some small risk, ascend to this design level, adopt its ontology, and proceed to predict—sketchily and riskily—the behavior of larger configurations or systems of configurations, without bothering to compute the physical level (p. 171)

All of this “life” follows from an initial configuration of cells and follows a simple physical law. Furthermore, as a proponent of the ‘new atheism’ is sure to point out, the Game of Life, just like our own universe, doesn’t require an intelligent Lawgiver. It only requires “a purely algorithmic Darwinian process of world-trying” (p. 177).


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