Could the universe be a brain?

The amazing picture in the New York Times shows, side-by-side, a picture of the cells in a mouse’s brain, and a snap-shot of the intergalactic structure of the Universe. Both pictures come from the very latest discoveries and technologies: and the two pictures are very similar.

In both pictures we see big blobs, connected to each other by long strands. In the brain picture, the blobs are the heads of neurons, the cells which make up the brain. The long strands are the axons, the necks of the brain cells which connect them with other cells. The brain cells connect up into a net, and thought happens (somehow) when electrical messages are sent along the strands of this net. How thought can come out this net plus electrical signals is a total mystery.

In the Universe picture, the blobs are clusters of galaxies, held together by the gravitational force of the mysterious Dark Matter. The strands between the blobs are strands of galaxies, more thinly spaced, and perhaps held in place by more strands of Dark Matter. 90% of the Universe is hidden from us. When we add up the weight of all the things we see in the sky, it turns out to be 1/10 of the weight that the Universe must be according to other calculations (I don’t know what calculations).

In the brain and in the sky: two huge mysteries. But the way the brain and the Universe are laid out look so similar it’s hard not to wonder whether hidden meaning has been revealed. What if the Universe is also thinking? What if we have a universe inside our heads, and are part of a giant brain?

Could the whole Universe be thinking? Perhaps this is a glimpse of the brain of god; perhaps our world is just a tiny dot in one of the galactic cells which make up that brain. What thought is God thinking? And what can God see? Whatever it is, it lies beyond the limit of what I can imagine.

I don’t think it’s definitely too far-fetched to think that the Universe could be a brain. Although it is a deep mystery how the mind is related to the brain, it must be something about the way the cells of the brain are shaped and laid out which explains what thought is. And if it is the structure of the brain which makes thought happen, then it seems possible that anything which has the same structure would also be thinking.

It is a common in our culture to describe the brain as a computer, and to think of the mind as something like the software of that computer. This is an idea that can lead us to think that the Universe is thinking. It is the structure of a computer that makes it do the calculations it does. It is the shape of the parts, and in particular the way that they connect to each other, that makes it compute. A computer could be made of any material, but so long as those connections are the same, it would be doing the same computations. One of the first computers, the Z-1, is in the Berlin science museum. It works on rods and switches. It’s not electronic, it’s mechanical. You could build a computer that worked on steam or water. Microchips make it possible to build computers smaller and faster — the Z-1, which is the size of a big room, can do much much less than the smallest microchip — but the sorts of computations they do are no different.

If thought arises from the structure of the brain like computation arises from the structure of a computer, then anything with the same structure as the brain would be thinking. Whether signals travel along the axons of neurons in a microsecond, or along Dark Matter strands between galactic clusters over millions of years, makes no difference. If the patterns that these signals make are similar, then the Universe is thinking. The similar patterns between the mouse brain and the Universe really could mean that the Universe is thinking. (If you want to know more about this, see this essay about the idea of ‘functionalism’ in the understanding of consciousness. The thinking Universe would be a giant version of what is called the ‘China Brain‘ or the ‘Blockhead’, in that essay.)

On the other hand, though, the similarity between the mouse brain and the Universe might not be as close as we think. Looking at the two pictures, it’s clear that the Universe network is more subtle and complicated: there are fine thin strands emanating from the big clusters (thanks to Terri for pointing this out). The similarity isn’t as deep as it first appears. Both pictures have been chosen to pick out the best similarity they can. The Universe snap shot is a zoom-in on a particular structure. Zoomed out, that structure disappears, and in fact the universe looks like a rather monotonous bubble structure, with no major differences between the different areas.

But the brain works because as well as the fine network of the brain cells, there is also a big division into different areas which deal with different parts of thought such as emotions, logic, vision, and movement. Those parts communicate too.

So although on at least one theory of the mind, it is not impossible that the Universe is thinking if it has the same structure as the brain, another look at the evidence of the pictures suggests that in fact there is not such a similarity of structure after all.

We are surrounded by mysteries, and for all that we concentrate on our daily tasks and don’t give ourselves time to think about them, the mysteries remain, as if waiting for us to return to them. My instinct is that saying that the Universe is a brain is too easy a solution. It collapses two mysteries into one. Truths about the history and future of the Universe, and where consciousness comes from, are so mysterious that I doubt we will even be able to understand the answers with the minds that we have today.

About B.B.

I'm based in York.
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3 Responses to Could the universe be a brain?

  1. Vista Humanista says:

    Your instinct to maintain a distinction between brain and universe beause it may be too convenient an answer may be misguided; whatever happened to occam’s razor, ey?

    In regards the aesthetic non-similarity; that also may be misleading, as what is made visible in the universe picture is dark matter, something not actually visible to the human eye, whereas the constituent parts of a brain are. Though I admit my argument is self-defeating. Oh well, it was a nice thought whilst it lasted!

    Although I wonder what effect this universal brain idea may have on the ‘brain in a vat’ debate…

    • B.B. says:

      Well, I don’t think you can defend the idea that the Universe is a brain on the grounds that this simplifies our understanding of the Universe! I think analogies between mouse brains and the Universe are just too hairy for poor little Occam’s razor to shave.

      You’re right about the picture not being of galaxies but of dark matter. The original paper is here. I ain’t read it. I just watched the movie.

      It’s true that the ‘China Brain’ example is meant to be a counterexample to functionalism; and so if the China Brain and the Thinking Universe are alike to each other, then the Thinking Universe is also a counterexample to functionalism. But if you do believe that it is something about the structure of the brain and the abstract way in which the parts interact which generates the mind (that’s my definition of functionalism), then you may just have to accept that China Brain and the Thinking Universe are both possible. (This is what academics mean when they say ‘one person’s Modus Ponens is another person’s Modus Tollens’. But that’s a tale for another time.)

      So I don’t think that your argument that the Universe might be a massive thinking brain is self-defeating. I think it’s unlikely to be true, and I think that if it was true it would be strange that there was such a straightforward answer to the question of the relationship between consciousness and the Universe;—But I don’t think it’s self-defeating. (I think ‘self-defeating’ means something which cannot possibly be true, because of logical problems with what is being said.)

  2. Pingback: Wheels Within Wheels | The Citizen and The State

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