The "cosmic nervous system": response to Joscha Bach
|Image by NASA.|
MIT Research Scientist Joscha Bach has written a blog post criticizing my suggestion that the universe as a whole is, in a sense, akin to a cosmic nervous system. I've made this suggestion in a recent paper and two videos (video 1, video 2). In the videos, I have also used an image comparison showing the similarity between the structure of the cosmos and that of biological nervous systems. Bach zooms in particularly on this image comparison to criticize my thesis. In this essay, I rebut Bach's criticisms.
In the interest of full disclosure, I should point out that Bach and I have engaged, only a few months ago, in an extensive email exchange discussing precisely the points he brought up in his blog post. I am somewhat surprised that he chose to make his criticisms public now, whilst ignoring the many clarifications I sent him by email back then. Be it as it may, here is my reply.
Bach's criticisms are straw-men; every single one of them. And it is rather easy to demonstrate it. Bach begins by showing the image comparison I originally used in my videos. He then zooms out in an attempt to show that the comparison was misleading: at a larger scale, he claims, the image shows that the universe looks nothing like a brain, but like foam rubber instead. Sarcastically, he implies even that the comparison was deliberately meant to mislead:
This image sends a clear message: if we squint a little, then a well-chosen cutout of a false colored image of a golgi stained pyramidal neuron will look like a red down feather, and a well-chosen cutout of a differently false colored galaxy cluster also looks like a purple down feather, and therefore it is extremely likely that the universe is a giant brain.
Anyone going by this alone will likely conclude that I am not only wrong, but also stupid and dishonest. What Bach fails to point out, however, is that in the very video where I showed the image comparison, I took pains to acknowledge that image comparisons are misleading—for exactly the reasons he points out—and cannot be relied upon. See the video insert below starting at 14:56 minutes. Here is direct quote from the video, which you can compare to Bach's quote above:
An image comparison is misleading, because you can always crop the image in a certain way and highlight certain sections and play with colors so they look alike.
More importantly, Bach fails to mention that what based my argument wasn't the image comparison, but a mathematical analysis of the structure and growth patterns of the cosmos, done at the University of California at San Diego (UCSC). I would have never made the claim if all I had to go with were image similarities. For good measure, here are the references again: Network Cosmology, by Dmitri Krioukov et al., published by Nature. See also a related press release by the UCSD. And here is a direct quote from the press release:
The structure of the universe and the laws that govern its growth may be more similar than previously thought to the structure and growth of the human brain.
Bach also implicitly suggests that we know exactly why the universe has the structure it has, and that it has nothing to do with consciousness or cognitive activity. He writes:
Universes are created by rapidly expanding a superdense plasma that glomps [sic] together through the wonders of gravity, while lots of expanding vacuum makes space between the galaxy clusters.
But the UCSD researchers don't agree that we understand the reasons for the structural similarities observed. From the UCSD press release:
Structural and dynamical similarities [between the cosmos and brains] suggest that some universal laws might be in action, although the nature and common origin of such laws remain elusive.
Only after I was backed up by the objective UCSD analysis, did I feel free to add the image comparison in order to convey a visual intuition that mathematics alone could never convey. The image comparison was a bonus aid, not the basis of my argument. And although Bach knew this quite well, for some reason he chose to overlook it.
Moreover, Bach's post deliberately and explicitly suggests that the cosmos is not structurally like nervous systems. "Brains totally do not look like foam rubber," he writes rather sarcastically. What he is suggesting is verifiably wrong in at least one significant sense, unless one can refute the results of the UCSD paper above.
Bach's misrepresentation of my position goes further. He writes that I
suspect that the universe might be self-aware, i.e. that the structure given by its stars, galaxies and galaxy clusters might lend itself to a giant information processing architecture.
Two positions are attributed to me in this quote. Both of them are wrong, as anyone tangentially familiar with my output will know. The first is that I allegedly posit the universe to be self-aware. Well, the body of my work emphasizes precisely that the universe is not self-aware. Let me be clear: the universe is not self-aware. I claim, instead, that the universe as a whole is conscious. Consciousness does not necessarily entail or imply self-awareness. Indeed, I argue that only living beings, like us humans, have the potential to develop the self-reflective configuration of cognition that enables self-awareness.
The second attribution is my alleged contention that the universe functions like a brain, by processing information at a full cosmic scale. I've never made such a claim. So let me be very precise, as I was in my private emails to Bach: I contend that the universe as a whole is akin to a nervous system insofar as it is the extrinsic image of conscious inner life at a cosmic level, much like a biological nervous system is the extrinsic image of conscious inner life at the level of a living creature. This does not imply that the universe should function like a brain. As a matter of fact, it is a direct implication of my position that it shouldn't: brains are the extrinsic images of dissociated complexes of a universal mind, evolved to survive within an Earthly ecosystem external to them. The universe as a whole is not dissociated and does not need to survive within any ecosystem external to it. Ergo, for my thesis to hold the universe should precisely not function like a biological nervous system, despite being akin to one in a certain sense.
The similarity between the cosmos and biological nervous systems that I allude to, and which was shown by Krioukov et al, is a structural one, not a functional one. This structural similarity is compelling circumstantial evidence that the cosmos as a whole, just as biological nervous systems, is the extrinsic image of sentient cognitive activity.
Bach spends most of his post doing an analysis of the time it would take for information to be communicated and integrated at a cosmic level. His goal is to show that there hasn't been enough time since the Big Bang for the universe to integrate nearly enough information for the rise of consciousness. The implicit assumption, of course, is one or another variation of the Integrated Information Theory (IIT) of consciousness, which asserts that consciousness is the product of global information integration. Naturally, this begs the question. My point is precisely that consciousness is not produced by patterns of information flow. I contend that patterns of information flow are just the extrinsic image of certain cognitive configurations. What the IIT calls 'consciousness' is, in my view, merely a self-reflective configuration of consciousness, which is restricted to human beings as far as we know today. My position entails that the universe as a whole is not self-reflective and, therefore, should not display the patterns of information flow associated with self-reflectiveness. So by showing that the universe hasn't had enough time to develop these patterns, Bach doesn't contradict my position at all; on the contrary.
Indeed, I feel so confident in my refutation of Bach's straw-man arguments that I will even expose myself by speculating: the conscious inner life of the cosmos as a whole is, experientially, comparable to a brief moment of human cognition, just as Bach argues. But in that brief experiential moment the universe is still conscious, in a way qualitatively incommensurable with human experience. You see, if the inanimate universe is the extrinsic image—the 'neural correlates,' if you will—of the cosmos' conscious inner life, the fact that the laws of nature are so stable suggests precisely that the whole of our cosmology represents a very brief snapshot of the cosmos' thoughts. Otherwise, we would expect more fluidity and variation in the patterns and regularities of nature, for the same reason that the thought patterns of a person tend to be rather unstable in the course of time. The scales are simply different: what we humans experience as a life-time is, from the subjective point of view of the universe as a whole, an intangible moment; so short that the pattern of universal thoughts within it remains stable. And none of this, of course, implies that the inner life of the universe is impoverished, in the sense of being experientially less rich than that of humans. It may be very short as far as time-equivalence is concerned, but the spatial scale of the universe is mind-bogglingly larger than that of human brains. So in that brief experiential moment since the Big Bang, the universe may still have had rich conscious inner life.
I trust the above lays out my case with sufficient clarity.