The universe is big; the mind is bigger

A baby’s mind is bigger!  So says David Brooks, citing a Caltech scientist,  at the conclusion of a long, discursive essay in the New Yorker:

We have a hundred billion neurons in the brain; infants create as many as 1.8 million neural connections per second; a mere sixty neurons are capable of making ten to the eighty-first possible connections, which is a number ten times as large as the number of particles in the observable universe;

via What the science of human nature can teach us : The New Yorker.

HT: Martin Marty

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • http://www.brandywinebooks.net Lars Walker

    I see something coming that I call the Reverse Singularity. Instead of machines replacing people, I foresee a time when scientists are forced to concede that human beings, and the universe, are so incredibly complex–and increasingly complex at deeper levels–that we can’t ever hope to explain it.

  • http://www.brandywinebooks.net Lars Walker

    I see something coming that I call the Reverse Singularity. Instead of machines replacing people, I foresee a time when scientists are forced to concede that human beings, and the universe, are so incredibly complex–and increasingly complex at deeper levels–that we can’t ever hope to explain it.

  • WebMonk

    Wow, that is one of the stupidest comparisons I’ve ever heard (not you Lars, the author of the article).

    Guess what, there are more reactions in the sun every second than there are cells in the bodies of every human who has ever lived! The sun is smarter than humanity’s collected intelligence through all of history! Wowza!

    And yes, I realize my example is incredibly stupid and meaningless – that’s the point. The article’s example is no less stupid and meaningless.

  • WebMonk

    Wow, that is one of the stupidest comparisons I’ve ever heard (not you Lars, the author of the article).

    Guess what, there are more reactions in the sun every second than there are cells in the bodies of every human who has ever lived! The sun is smarter than humanity’s collected intelligence through all of history! Wowza!

    And yes, I realize my example is incredibly stupid and meaningless – that’s the point. The article’s example is no less stupid and meaningless.

  • SKPeterson

    Bring on the Butlerian jihad.

  • SKPeterson

    Bring on the Butlerian jihad.

  • WebMonk

    Oh, and Veith, I think you need to re-read the article and pay attention to what it actually says. The article doesn’t say that a baby’s mind is bigger, not even by comparing connections to particles. (two completely different things)

    The article said “a mere sixty neurons are capable of making ten to the eighty-first possible connections”.

    Note the bold part. 10^81 is the mathematical maximum number of connections possible among 60 objects – 60 factorial. The brain doesn’t actually make that many connections, no where near it! You can realize this if you bother to think about it – 1.8 million connections per second even done for 10 years only gets you up to 568 trillion which is almost 70 order of magnitude short of the number of particles in the universe. (in reality there are only around 100 trillion connections in a human brain)

    Multiple levels of fail on this article and post.

  • WebMonk

    Oh, and Veith, I think you need to re-read the article and pay attention to what it actually says. The article doesn’t say that a baby’s mind is bigger, not even by comparing connections to particles. (two completely different things)

    The article said “a mere sixty neurons are capable of making ten to the eighty-first possible connections”.

    Note the bold part. 10^81 is the mathematical maximum number of connections possible among 60 objects – 60 factorial. The brain doesn’t actually make that many connections, no where near it! You can realize this if you bother to think about it – 1.8 million connections per second even done for 10 years only gets you up to 568 trillion which is almost 70 order of magnitude short of the number of particles in the universe. (in reality there are only around 100 trillion connections in a human brain)

    Multiple levels of fail on this article and post.

  • Bryan Lindemood

    Webmonk must have really enjoyed the movie, “InnerSpace” (1987)!

  • Bryan Lindemood

    Webmonk must have really enjoyed the movie, “InnerSpace” (1987)!

  • WebMonk

    *Shudder!*

    I still get a kick out of the movie, but it’s very much in the style of MST3K.

  • WebMonk

    *Shudder!*

    I still get a kick out of the movie, but it’s very much in the style of MST3K.

  • Tom Hering

    WebMonk, name that tune:

    Sack o’ monkeys in my pocket!
    My sister’s ready to go!
    Hear the engines roll now!
    Idiot control now!

  • Tom Hering

    WebMonk, name that tune:

    Sack o’ monkeys in my pocket!
    My sister’s ready to go!
    Hear the engines roll now!
    Idiot control now!

  • WebMonk

    Idiot Control!!

    I admit I had to use Google for that – not until after I heard the tune, did I recognized having heard it before.

    I still can’t make out the lyrics just from listening, though. I’ve always been poor at that.

  • WebMonk

    Idiot Control!!

    I admit I had to use Google for that – not until after I heard the tune, did I recognized having heard it before.

    I still can’t make out the lyrics just from listening, though. I’ve always been poor at that.

  • Trey

    I think the reason Veith posts this stuff is to show that we are complex beings and thus we have a Creator. This refutes evolutionists and the like.

  • Trey

    I think the reason Veith posts this stuff is to show that we are complex beings and thus we have a Creator. This refutes evolutionists and the like.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    I am somewhat serious when I say that I think there may be a book or Web site out there that helps journalists make comparisons that they believe will help their audience better understand various measurements.

    I worked at Intel for some time, and I got really, really tired of seeing every newspaper article on the microprocessor industry feeling the need to explain everything in terms of the “width of a human hair” — not least because the width of human hairs is remarkably variable, leading to as much confusion as just telling people how many nanometers wide something was. Even more annoying is the comparison to “the period at the end of this sentence” — implying that the author was not aware that his story could be read online.

    And every time I read about some country that isn’t in North America or Europe, I am told how large it is in terms of the size of geopolitical entities in North America and Europe — the size of France and Germany combined, maybe, or three times the size of New Mexico. I have never found this particularly helpful. I know how big New Mexico is, but how big is three times that?

    And, of course, when we are talking really, really big numbers, out come the comparisons to particles of sand, stars in the universe, and so on. As if any of us had a particularly good fix on how much sand there is on this planet (“Um … lots?”)

    I understand the desire to compare the magnitudes of various measurements, but shouldn’t the point be to compare something incomprehensible to something within our grasp?

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    I am somewhat serious when I say that I think there may be a book or Web site out there that helps journalists make comparisons that they believe will help their audience better understand various measurements.

    I worked at Intel for some time, and I got really, really tired of seeing every newspaper article on the microprocessor industry feeling the need to explain everything in terms of the “width of a human hair” — not least because the width of human hairs is remarkably variable, leading to as much confusion as just telling people how many nanometers wide something was. Even more annoying is the comparison to “the period at the end of this sentence” — implying that the author was not aware that his story could be read online.

    And every time I read about some country that isn’t in North America or Europe, I am told how large it is in terms of the size of geopolitical entities in North America and Europe — the size of France and Germany combined, maybe, or three times the size of New Mexico. I have never found this particularly helpful. I know how big New Mexico is, but how big is three times that?

    And, of course, when we are talking really, really big numbers, out come the comparisons to particles of sand, stars in the universe, and so on. As if any of us had a particularly good fix on how much sand there is on this planet (“Um … lots?”)

    I understand the desire to compare the magnitudes of various measurements, but shouldn’t the point be to compare something incomprehensible to something within our grasp?

  • http://theobservationtree.blogspot.com Louis

    Webmonk, I’m leaving this one to you… (#9). Last time it was my turn :)

  • http://theobservationtree.blogspot.com Louis

    Webmonk, I’m leaving this one to you… (#9). Last time it was my turn :)

  • WebMonk

    tODD, not to mention the inherent idiocy (I’ve begun to enjoy that word!) in comparing two fundamentally different things as if they are directly comparable. In this case, the maximum mathematical combinations of connections between objects, compared to a number of physical things.

    How about this – there can be more configurations of connections among 60 tacks than there are particles in the universe! Wow!!! Aren’t tacks incredible!!!!!

    Trey – to show humans are complex things, one should use non-stupid examples. Veith is agog over the number of connections mathematically possible between 60 tacks/cells/pebbles/anything and feels this shows the complexity of a human. It doesn’t.

  • WebMonk

    tODD, not to mention the inherent idiocy (I’ve begun to enjoy that word!) in comparing two fundamentally different things as if they are directly comparable. In this case, the maximum mathematical combinations of connections between objects, compared to a number of physical things.

    How about this – there can be more configurations of connections among 60 tacks than there are particles in the universe! Wow!!! Aren’t tacks incredible!!!!!

    Trey – to show humans are complex things, one should use non-stupid examples. Veith is agog over the number of connections mathematically possible between 60 tacks/cells/pebbles/anything and feels this shows the complexity of a human. It doesn’t.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    All that said, I think it’s pretty silly to say “The universe is big; the mind is bigger”. Sorry. It’s meaningless.

    As to Brooks, I have to wonder where he got his fact that there are 10^80 “particles in the observable universe”. The Wikipedia article on the observable universe notes that “Two approximate calculations give the number of atoms in the observable universe to be close to 10^80.” If that’s where Brooks got his data (and I’m pretty certain most journalists are every bit as lazy about research as I am), then it just shows that Brooks doesn’t know the difference between atoms and “particles”. Depending on how you define “particles”, there are several orders of magnitude more particles than atoms out there, which, sadly, means that the universe is “bigger” than a baby’s mind. If we must use that comparison.

    Of course, there’s also the fact that Brooks has deigned to compare an absolute calculation (60 ! = 8.32 × 10^81) with a tenuous estimate. That seems like bad form.

    And wouldn’t a brain in which sixty neurons were making every possible connection be disfunctional (grand mal seizure?), not really powerful?

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    All that said, I think it’s pretty silly to say “The universe is big; the mind is bigger”. Sorry. It’s meaningless.

    As to Brooks, I have to wonder where he got his fact that there are 10^80 “particles in the observable universe”. The Wikipedia article on the observable universe notes that “Two approximate calculations give the number of atoms in the observable universe to be close to 10^80.” If that’s where Brooks got his data (and I’m pretty certain most journalists are every bit as lazy about research as I am), then it just shows that Brooks doesn’t know the difference between atoms and “particles”. Depending on how you define “particles”, there are several orders of magnitude more particles than atoms out there, which, sadly, means that the universe is “bigger” than a baby’s mind. If we must use that comparison.

    Of course, there’s also the fact that Brooks has deigned to compare an absolute calculation (60 ! = 8.32 × 10^81) with a tenuous estimate. That seems like bad form.

    And wouldn’t a brain in which sixty neurons were making every possible connection be disfunctional (grand mal seizure?), not really powerful?

  • WebMonk

    Complexity refutes evolution, huh?

    Sorry Louis, I’m not even going to touch something like that! It’s not much different than saying blue refutes sweetness – how can one even begin to deal with a statement like that?

  • WebMonk

    Complexity refutes evolution, huh?

    Sorry Louis, I’m not even going to touch something like that! It’s not much different than saying blue refutes sweetness – how can one even begin to deal with a statement like that?

  • SKPeterson

    Well, try wrapping your brain around the exponentially complex set of interrelationships that exist if Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon goes to Sixty Degrees. I think time and space might fold in on themselves. Which is about three times the amount of sand found in Texas which is about the size of France.

  • SKPeterson

    Well, try wrapping your brain around the exponentially complex set of interrelationships that exist if Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon goes to Sixty Degrees. I think time and space might fold in on themselves. Which is about three times the amount of sand found in Texas which is about the size of France.

  • Dust

    Well Webmonk….at least one well known scientist, a Prof at Berkeley of all places, wrote about such an idea in “Darwin’s Black Box” but the hard core materialists in the science community blew him off :(

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Darwin%27s_Black_Box

    Cheers!

  • Dust

    Well Webmonk….at least one well known scientist, a Prof at Berkeley of all places, wrote about such an idea in “Darwin’s Black Box” but the hard core materialists in the science community blew him off :(

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Darwin%27s_Black_Box

    Cheers!

  • Dust

    Lars…wishful thinking, but don’t hold your breath! The chance of the hard core, materialistic science wonks having a change of heart about evolution, even in the face of tremendous amounts of staggering info, that inspires awe in most normal folks, is about the same as Pharaoh changing his heart back there in the time of Moses in spite of all those plagues.

    Cheers!

  • Dust

    Lars…wishful thinking, but don’t hold your breath! The chance of the hard core, materialistic science wonks having a change of heart about evolution, even in the face of tremendous amounts of staggering info, that inspires awe in most normal folks, is about the same as Pharaoh changing his heart back there in the time of Moses in spite of all those plagues.

    Cheers!

  • WebMonk

    There’s a really good reason that people blew off Behe’s book – it was of “questionable” quality. I haven’t read the second edition yet, but from what I’ve heard it’s not much of an improvement even though it dropped/changed a LOT of the arguments in the first edition of DBB.

    When it came out, I read it and was impressed (highschool). When I took my first intro-Bio classes I started picking up some funny feelings about what I remembered, and asked my bio teacher about it. She had read it, she was a YEC, and she said it was lousy with errors. (She had a comment about how just because one couldn’t get junk errors past a peer review didn’t mean a person should write a book with the same errors. She got a lot more animated about that than she ever was in class! :-) )

    Since then, most (actually I think I can say “all” there) of the YEC biologists I’ve specifically asked about it consider it filled with way too many flaws to accept as a serious approach to dealing with genetics.

    But, that’s strictly an aside to how you associate his book with complexity and evolution, for the rest of this comment, let’s assume he’s spot on in DBB.

    Between his book’s topic (“irreducible complexity”) and the complexity-disproves-evolution topic, there is only the word “complexity” in common. What is dealt with in the two topics is totally different. Behe would be the first to say that complexity and evolution don’t have any problems – his position is that 99.9% of the “complexity” in our genes came about by standard evolutionary means, and it is only the beginning “complexity” that was by a creation event.

    Complexity isn’t something that impacts evolution – stars are phenomenally complex. Rocks are incredibly complex. Liquid flows are insanely complex. (ok, ok, I’ll stop with the adverbs, but you get the idea)

    “Complexity” doesn’t disprove evolution any more than “blue” does. Behe’s book uses the word “complexity”, but it is used in an entirely different way and context.

  • WebMonk

    There’s a really good reason that people blew off Behe’s book – it was of “questionable” quality. I haven’t read the second edition yet, but from what I’ve heard it’s not much of an improvement even though it dropped/changed a LOT of the arguments in the first edition of DBB.

    When it came out, I read it and was impressed (highschool). When I took my first intro-Bio classes I started picking up some funny feelings about what I remembered, and asked my bio teacher about it. She had read it, she was a YEC, and she said it was lousy with errors. (She had a comment about how just because one couldn’t get junk errors past a peer review didn’t mean a person should write a book with the same errors. She got a lot more animated about that than she ever was in class! :-) )

    Since then, most (actually I think I can say “all” there) of the YEC biologists I’ve specifically asked about it consider it filled with way too many flaws to accept as a serious approach to dealing with genetics.

    But, that’s strictly an aside to how you associate his book with complexity and evolution, for the rest of this comment, let’s assume he’s spot on in DBB.

    Between his book’s topic (“irreducible complexity”) and the complexity-disproves-evolution topic, there is only the word “complexity” in common. What is dealt with in the two topics is totally different. Behe would be the first to say that complexity and evolution don’t have any problems – his position is that 99.9% of the “complexity” in our genes came about by standard evolutionary means, and it is only the beginning “complexity” that was by a creation event.

    Complexity isn’t something that impacts evolution – stars are phenomenally complex. Rocks are incredibly complex. Liquid flows are insanely complex. (ok, ok, I’ll stop with the adverbs, but you get the idea)

    “Complexity” doesn’t disprove evolution any more than “blue” does. Behe’s book uses the word “complexity”, but it is used in an entirely different way and context.

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  • http://olgreg.com Greg Overdorf

    I have thought about the “size” of the mind a lot lately. I’m not sure if it has a “size” at all. It is a “physical” thing, right? It is truly boggling ruminating on this subject… Can the “size” of the “mind” really exceed the known universe? ….man………. Any thoughts on this would be great.

  • http://olgreg.com Greg Overdorf

    I have thought about the “size” of the mind a lot lately. I’m not sure if it has a “size” at all. It is a “physical” thing, right? It is truly boggling ruminating on this subject… Can the “size” of the “mind” really exceed the known universe? ….man………. Any thoughts on this would be great.


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