Physics-like computation, Wolfram’s PCE and Church’s thesis
The lack of correspondence between the abstract and the physical world seems sometimes to suggest that there are profound incompatibilities between what can be thought and what actually happens in the real world. One can ask, for example, how often one faces undecidable problems. However, the question of undecidability has been considered to be better formulated (and understood) in computational terms because it is closer to our physical mechanical reality (through the concept of computation developed by Turing): Whether a computing machine enters a certain configuration is, in general, an undecidable question (called the Halting problem). In other words, no machine can predict whether another machine will halt (under the assumption of Church’s thesis –aka Church-Turing thesis).
An interesting example of the gap between what the abstract theory says and what can be empirically ascertained was recently suggested by Klaus Sutner from Carnegie Mellon. He rightly points out that if no concrete instance is known of a machine with an intermediate Turing degree, and consonant with Wolfram’s Principle of Computational Equivalence, is because intermediate degrees are artificial constructions that do not necessarily correspond to anything in the real physical world.
In David Deutsch‘s words physics is at the bottom of everything and therefore everything relies on physics (ultimately on quantum physics according to Deutsch himself). This is true for the core objects of study and practices in math: proofs, and in computer science: computer programs. At the end, that they are and how they are, is only possible by what it is feasible in the physical world. As if sometimes it were forgotten that mathematics and computation also follow in practice the same laws of physics than everything else.
Sutner defines what he calls “physics-like” computation and concludes that machines with intermediate Turing degrees are artificial constructions unlikely to exist. According to Sutner, in practice machines seem to follow a zero-one law: either they are as computationally powerful as a machine at the bottom of the computational power hierarchy (what Wolfram empirically calls “trivial behavior”) or they are at the level of the first Turing degree (i.e. capable of universal computation). This seems to imply, by the way, that what Wolfram identifies as machines of equivalent sophistication cannot be other but capable of universal computation, strengthening the principle itself (although one has to assume also Church’s thesis, otherwise PCE could be referring to a higher sophistication).
So is PCE a conflation of Church’s thesis?
No. Church’s thesis could be wrong and PCE be still true, since by the negation of Church’s thesis the upper limit of the feasible computational power would just be shifted further, and even if it turns out that the hypothesis of a Turing universe is false, PCE could be still true disregarding whether the universe is of a digital nature or not since it would refer then to the non-Turing limit as the one holding the maximal sophistication (not that I think that C-T is false though).
Is PCE tantamount to the Church thesis in the provable sense?
Wolfram’s PCE would be still falsifiable if the distribution of the intermediate degrees is proven to be larger than what informally PCE suggests. However, so far that hasn’t been the case and there are nice examples supporting PCE suggesting that very simple and small non-trivial programs can easily reach universal computation. Such as recent (weak) small universal Turing machines discovered by Neary and Woods and particularly the smallest TM proven universal by Alex Smith (a 2-state 3-color machine that Wolfram conjectured in his NKS book). However PCE could be as hard to prove or disprove as the Church thesis is. Unlike Church’s thesis PCE could not be disproved by exhibiting a single negative case but proving that the distribution of machines is different to what PCE suggests. A positive proof however may require an infinite verification of cases which is evidently non-mechanically feasible (and only negating Church’s thesis itself one would be able to verify all the infinite number of cases).
I see PCE acting below the curve while Church’s thesis acting from above determining a computational limit (known as the Turing limit).