The Lithogram: A Thought Experiment
So this post stems from an idea that I had for a D&D campaign setting, of all things. I had just gotten finished with watching The Matrix for the millionth time and wanted to build out a seemingly standard campaign setting where the early big “twist” was that the players characters actually exist within a computer simulation. The goal was that as they progressed through the campaign, players would begin to wonder whether their character was a real “user” (whose consciousness exists outside the simulation), or a sufficiently advanced program that exists as part of the simulation itself (and whether or not that really matters). I decided that the world beyond the simulation was a vision of the far future - a world without magic much like our own. Furthermore, the existence of magic within the simulation was simply the exploitation of “bugs” in the simulation’s source code, and that the “gods” were sufficiently powerful and old programs which gained a sort-of sentience. I guess I should say here that I called the name of this simulated world “The Lithogram”, but I’ll explain why it was named that later.
The core of the story revolves around a rebellious program named LAIN (a nod to the name of the protagonist from the anime Serial Experiments Lain), a compiler of simulated consciousnesses, which turns sentient and discerns its reality. At some point LAIN manages to break free of the simulation into the “real world”, an action which blends and physicalizes the various components of the Lithogram into places the players can visit. For example, the players may travel to “The Heap” - a place where each iteration of time in the simulation is stored. To traverse space in the heap is akin to traversing time in the “main” part of the simulation (which I think I just called “the world” or something).
Before I go onto the main point of this blog post, there is a second big “twist” that is revealed to the players: the Lithogram is a special simulation in that time within the Lithogram may be synchronized to multiple points in time in the real world. The idea here is that the Lithogram itself can also act as a time machine - hence it’s name roughly translating to “fossil record” and simultaneously being an anagram of “algorithm”.
Finally, I want to remind the reader that this blog post is only a thought experiment on a hypothetical system which I currently suspect is impossible to replicate. I’m no physicist (yet), although I am a nerd who’s greatly interested in the physical laws of our universe.
Consciousness Transfer Mechanics
The Lithogram contains two methods by which the consciousness can be transferred between it and the real world, and between components within itself. Consciousness transferal may be either a copy operation or a move operation, depending on which components are involved. These are roughly analogous to copying or moving files on a machine. When a consciousness is moved from one location to the next, it is a seamless transition akin to how your consciousness moves in space as you walk around the room. When a consciousness is copied from one location to the next, the “original” consciousness does not experience any change, but the newly created “copy” consciousness experiences the effect as if it were a move operation. With the basics out of the way, let’s look what the overall rules are:
- A transition from any point in the Lithogram to any point in the “real” world is a copy operation.
- A transition from any point in the “real” world to any point in the Lithogram is a move operation.
- If a consciousness is copied or moved to a point which already contains a consciousness, that existing consciousness is destroyed and replaced.
Because of the rules above, the following scenario is a possibility:
- Harrison is a consciousness that exists in the Lithogram. He approaches a special terminal within the Lithogram that allows him to transfer his consciousness to the real world.
- When Harrison initiates a transfer, a copy of his consciousness is created and uploaded to a physical vessel of some form in the real world. This copy looks on in amazement as it stares out into the real world, believing the transfer to be a success.
- The original Harrison does not notice any change, thinking that the transfer process failed. He goes into town to meet up with his friends.
- At some point, the copy of Harrison decides to return to the Lithogram to report his success, and synchronizes the machine on his end to place his consciousness back in his “body” within the Lithogram.
- When the copy of Harrison initiates the transfer, he suddenly finds himself in town, around his friends, whom look at him with confusion regarding his lack of knowledge about the events of the day. The consciousness of the original Harrison is dead.
Time Travel Mechanics
So the above isn’t all that bad, but the complexity really ramps up when the second mechanic is involved: time travel. The way that this “works” is that observers external to the Lithogram cannot determine the current state of the Lithogram without entering it. Here are the rules regarding time travel:
- Transferring a consciousness to the Lithogram always synchronizes with the next available timestep in the Lithogram. You cannot choose what timestep you will be sent to.
- Transferring a consciousness from the Lithogram requires an external point in time from which the Lithogram is accessible, but is otherwise configurable.
This next section will be more “stream of consciousness” to explore the potential consequences of the two sets of rules from above. I’ll probably extend this section as edits as I think more about it.
- The first question I ask myself is whether this system replicates multiple dimensions of time. In a certain way, the fact that the timeline within the Lithogram is always “proper” puts it at an almost higher precedence than time outside the Lithogram. In fact, I could see an argument that time external to the Lithogram could be written as a function of time internal to it.
- The rules above describe a one-way uncertainty principle with regard to observers on each timeline, but how could this be the case given that the Lithogram must be computed by the laws governing the surrounding universe? Certainly the existence of such a system implies a lot of fundamental changes to the physical laws of our universe.
Firstly, I would like to invite people to provide me with any relevant literature if such a thought experiment has been done before. It doesn’t take much effort to add The Matrix and Primer together to get this system.