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 outand 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.

On why Idealism is superior to Physicalism and Micropsychism

(Update: the original draft paper referred to below has been superseded by a formally published academic paper. The hyperlinks below have been updated to reflect this change.)

Idealism, an ontology of pure ideas.
Photo by Bernardo Kastrup, hereby released into the public domain.

I have written a technical white paper summarizing my metaphysical views. Unlike most of my written works so far, which try to convey an intuitive understanding of my metaphysics as much as an intellectual one, this white paper is more technical and rigorous. It aims at striking a balance between accessibility and the more formal, unambiguous style of analytic philosophy. Of course, it runs the risk of failing at both, but at least it is an honest attempt.

I ask for your help in spreading the word about this white paper. I am making it available for free everywhere I can, despite the fact that it took me a lot of time and energy to put it together. If you know academics, scientists, philosophers or mathematicians who have an interest in the areas of metaphysics, ontology, panpsychism, the mind-body problem, the hard problem of consciousness, the combination problem, etc., please forward it to them and urge them to forward further. You can also download the PDF file and then upload it elsewhere in its entirety. Just do not edit it or quote it extensively out of context, please.

The goal is to show that Idealism is not only a viable metaphysics, but the best metaphysics to make sense of reality. Unfortunately, Idealism is hardly discussed today in academia, which is dominated by Physicalism and Micropsychism. Frankly, this is a reflection of the cloud of metaphysical ignorance and bias we live under today. We need to overcome this and return to reason. I hope you can help me by spreading this paper around as much as you can. Remember, it's entirely free.

Here are the current download locations:


If you upload it elsewhere, please let me know so I can update the list above. Other ideas: post the link on Facebook, Google+, tweet it, make a YouTube video about it, post it on forums, reddit, anything you think might help.

Now, if formal, rigorous philosophy is not your cup of tea, there is an alternative. In Part III of my upcoming book More Than Allegory I explain the same ideas in the form of a story. Not only that, the ideas are elaborated upon much more extensively than in the white paper. The story conveys more details, discusses implications, explores more nuances, all in a very readable manner. In fact, some have told me that it is as engaging as a novel, which isn't really surprising, since it adopts a novel format. If you are curious, you can already pre-order More Than Allegory on Amazon US and Amazon UK.

Available for pre-order.

Thanks for your help!

Philip K. Dick and the Symbolic World

Photo by Bernardo Kastrup, hereby released into the public domain.

In the wonderful Introduction he wrote for my upcoming book, More Than Allegory, Prof. Jeffrey J. Kripal compared my ideas to those of famed American Sci-Fi writer—and unacknowledged metaphysician—Philip K. Dick. Jeff wrote:
Dick is worth dwelling on for a moment here, as his weird thought eerily reflects the more precise and calmer books of Bernardo Kastrup. ... You will see, in due time, just how close Dick’s Valis is to the idealist vision worked out in the following pages. (More Than Allegory, pp. 2-3)
Valis, of course, is Dick's acclaimed sci-fi novel, wherein he lays out an elaborate, gnostic-like metaphysics. Amazingly enough, I hadn't read Valis until prompted by Jeff's Introduction to my book. I write this article immediately after having finished reading it.

I confess that my feelings about Dick's book are mixed, with a part of me somewhat disappointed about its lack of metaphysical closure, whilst another part feels tempted to look upon Dick as some kind of Hermes-like figure, the trickster who plays the role of intermediary between people and the gods.

Valis has an appendix—the Tractates Cryptica Scriptura—wherein Dick summarizes his metaphysics. In Dick's own words:
One Mind there is. ... We did not fall because of a moral error; we fell because of an intellectual error: that of taking the phenomenal world as real. ... The phenomenal world does not exist; it is a hypostasis of the information processed by the Mind. We hypostatize information into objects. ... The changing information which we experience as world is an unfolding narrative. ... Thoughts of the [Mind] are experienced by us as arrangements and rearrangements—change—in a physical universe. ... But we cannot read the patterns of arrangement; we cannot extract the information in it. ... The linking and relinking of objects by the [Mind] is actually a language, but not a language like ours (since it is addressing itself and not someone or something outside itself). ... This is a language which we have lost the ability to read. (Valis, London, UK: Gollancz, 2001, pp. 257-263)

Now available for pre-order.

When I read these passages, it became clear to me just how correct Jeff was in comparing my work to Dick's metaphysical ideas. They touch on two key themes explored in More Than Allegory, as I discuss below.

The insight that our understanding of the world as a reality independent of mentation is a mistaken intellectual inference

From a recapitulating passage of More Than Allegory:
We’ve discovered so far that unexamined intellectual projections, based on hidden circular reasoning, lie at the root of our belief that an objective, standalone reality grounds truth. Everywhere we’ve looked we’ve found only circularity and projections: in the past, present, future and space itself. They are all stories—myths, though not religious ones—we tell ourselves. Once we’ve redirected our attention to our own cognitive processes and unmasked their self-validating nature, the objectivity of the world vanished into thin air. We’ve realized that, through the fantastic trick of self-reference, our thoughts make the intangible phantasmagoria of present experience feel like a substantial external world unfolding across space and time. (More Than Allegory, pp. 107-108)

The insight that the phenomenal world—that is, everything we see, hear, taste, smell and feel around us—is a symbolic representation of the ideas and feelings of the 'One Mind' underlying all existence

In other words, the world means something. Like a form of language, the phenomena of nature point to something beyond themselves. But unlike an ordinary language, they connote something transcendent, rather than denote something ordinary. From More Than Allegory:
Consensus reality may be a form of symbolic language attempting to point at something else. This ‘something else’ may be trying to reach out to us by appealing to our interpretative capacities. It may be posing the question: ‘Here is consensus reality, the best representation of myself that I can produce. Can you figure out what it really means?’ The question isn’t necessarily rhetorical or redundant, for the ‘something else’ may not know the answer. In fact, we may be the means through which it hopes to solve the riddle. We may be nature’s best shot at coming up with the answer. (More Than Allegory, pp. 59)
The very essence of what it means to be a human being alive in the world is the linguistic hallucination that creates that world. There is valid information in the hallucination for the same reason that there is valid information in a nightly dream. Although the dream is entirely conjured up in mind, it does reveal—if interpreted properly—something true and significant about the dreamer: his or her drives, desires, fears, traumas, etc. It couldn’t be any different, since the dream is an expression of the dreamer. Analogously, lies—which are by definition untrue—betray something true about the aspirations and insecurities of the liar. For instance, a teenager who lies about his sexual exploits gives away not only his sexual insecurities, but also his inner need to be accepted by others. So the lie does ultimately reveal significant truth about the teenager, if only we know how to read it. Even an entirely fictional novel is bound to suggest something true about its author, since the novel is an expression of the author. So you see, that something is fictional, hallucinated, conjured up or ‘hoaxed’—to use Roger Ebert’s chosen word—does not mean that it can’t ultimately reveal important truth. The hoax is bound to betray the nature of the hoaxer, if only we inquire into it through the right angle.

Myth—and therefore life itself—is how the ‘hoaxer’ symbolically projects out its nature, so it can perceive these projections as seeming objects and thereby inquire into itself. Without the projections self-inquiry would be impossible, for the same reason that you can’t see your own eyes without a mirror. The hallucination we call the world—including its history—consists of symbols of the intangible nature of mind reflected on the mirror of human awareness. These symbolic reflections are the ‘correspondences’ between the natural and spiritual worlds insisted upon by Swedenborg. The projected symbols betray something about mind in the same way that a lie betrays something about the liar or that a dream betrays something about the dreamer. (More Than Allegory, pp. 117-118)
These ideas are more directly explored in Part III of the book, where I recount the mythical story of a modern explorer of consciousness who took part in a secret scientific project. In the dialogue quoted below, what is referred to as 'mind-at-large' corresponds to Dick's 'One Mind':
‘You know, there is something else I’ve been contemplating,’ I continued. ‘You said that we, living creatures, have an inside-out perspective of the universe, while the non-collapsed segment of mind-at-large has the inverse, outside-in perspective. This made me think of the Amduat, a religious myth from Ancient Egypt in which the world of the dead is portrayed as the reverse image of the world of the living. Indeed, it seems to me that an implication of what you explained is that the universe we perceive is, as it were, the reverse side of mind-at-large’s imaginings. Or, to say the same thing in a different way, what God experiences is the reverse side of the world we see around us.'

‘Right,’ he confirmed. ‘The deeper layers of mind-at-large do not experience the world the way you do. The experience of sense perception—vision, hearing, smell, taste, touch—is unique to the inside-out perspective. As such, God cannot see or hear the sun, the planets, mountains, rainbows, thunderstorms, etc. He does experience something corresponding to the visible sun, the planets, etc., but in a way qualitatively very different from yours. Indeed, God’s perspective entails experiential categories incommensurable with sense perception. As you put it, He experiences the reverse side of the universe; that which is behind perception.’ (More Than Allegory, pp. 211-212)
Part III of More Than Allegory is a story that blurs the distinction between fact and fiction. It represents my first attempt to elaborate on metaphysical ideas in the form of a narrative, as opposed to a rigorous philosophical argument. This story format gave me much more freedom and flexibility to discuss what I really think is going on—what I really think the underlying nature of reality is. And as it turns out, having now read Valis, I believe to see a kinship between my story and the 'fictional' work of Philip K. Dick that goes beyond metaphysical content. Like me with More Than Allegory, Dick wasn't merely telling a fantasy with Valis, but using a story format to convey his sincere metaphysical conjectures.

Thanks to Jeff Kripal, I've found new, interesting and fertile avenues of thought in Philip K. Dick, which I plan to explore more thoroughly over the coming months and years.