Over at Larval Subjects, Levi Bryant discovered Conway’s Game of Life. Later, responding to John Doyle’s comments, Braynt reflected on the ontological status of the game and its objects. Says Levi:

there are not two worldsâ?? one consisting of the really real or “mind-independent objects” and another consisting of mind and the social â??but rather only one world, the real, of which mind is counted as a member. Consequently, the first point to make is that the phenomena that take place in the mind regarding the game are themselves real. They are not less real than the game itself, nor “other” than the real.

In being received by the mindâ?? or, for me, more preferably, the brain â??that difference is reorganized or transformed in a variety of system-specific ways precisely as John describes. However, the important caveat made by the object-oriented ontologist is that this process of translation is true not simply of mind-object interactions, but of all object-object interactions regardless of whether or not minds are involved.

Bryant’s got it right, but he doesn’t go far enough, at least not explicitly. Since it’s not just the simulation-human relationship that ought to concern us, many other entities are welcome to enter into the conversation.

The gliders and beacons and blinkers formed by the emergent effects of Life’s simulation exist— they are objects—these were potentially controversial because they result from the emergent effects of a simulation. But, so does the entire simulation itself: the cells on the grid, and the grid itself, for example. So, in turn, is the set of software objects underwriting the simulation (in the case of the online Java version anyway), and the Java Runtime Environment (JRE) that runs the Java bytecode instructions compiled by the Java compiler (also an object), and so are those instructions themselves. I could go on…

If this seems strange to you (it shouldn’t), then just consider the fact Conway’s Life originally “ran” on a Go board, using stones manually placed by human operators instead of a computer. Would anyone doubt the ontological status of the stones, or the board, or the table?

published August 4, 2009


  1. Frank Lantz

    To make matters worse, or better, or more the same, you can build computers out of cellular automata and then run simulations on top of *that*, as in Greg Egan’s novel Permutation City. In fact if you believe Wolfram our own much-loved universe is glider gun logic gates all the way down.

  2. Ian Bogost

    Right, Wolfram’s ontology is essentially identical to computation. I guess he wouldn’t call it an ontology though.