Physical universality, state-dependent dynamical laws and open-ended novelty

Alyssa M. Adams, Angelica Berner, Paul Davies, Sara Walker

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

8 Scopus citations


A major conceptual step forward in understanding the logical architecture of living systems was advanced by von Neumann with his universal constructor, a physical device capable of self-reproduction. A necessary condition for a universal constructor to exist is that the laws of physics permit physical universality, such that any transformation (consistent with the laws of physics and availability of resources) can be caused to occur. While physical universality has been demonstrated in simple cellular automata models, so far these have not displayed a requisite feature of life-namely open-ended evolution-the explanation of which was also a prime motivator in von Neumann's formulation of a universal constructor. Current examples of physical universality rely on reversible dynamical laws, whereas it is well-known that living processes are dissipative. Here we show that physical universality and open-ended dynamics should both be possible in irreversible dynamical systems if one entertains the possibility of state-dependent laws. We demonstrate with simple toy models how the accessibility of state space can yield open-ended trajectories, defined as trajectories that do not repeat within the expected Poincaré recurrence time and are not reproducible by an isolated system. We discuss implications for physical universality, or an approximation to it, as a foundational framework for developing a physics for life.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number461
Issue number9
StatePublished - Sep 1 2017


  • Cellular automata
  • Innovation
  • Open-ended evolution
  • Physical universality
  • Self-reference
  • Top-downcausation

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Information Systems
  • General Physics and Astronomy
  • Electrical and Electronic Engineering
  • Mathematical Physics
  • Physics and Astronomy (miscellaneous)


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