Is the Universe a Brain?

Is the Universe a Brain? June 23, 2023

Science is used to assuming that the universe is just a collection of inert objects governed by mechanistic laws.  But a new theory of cosmology argues that the universe is, in fact, a vast neural network.  That is to say, a brain, which adapts and learns.

Neuroscientist Bobby Azarian explains in an article for the “Hard Science” section of Big Think entitled The case for why our Universe may be a giant neural network.  Here are excepts (my bolds):

A new scientific paradigm is emerging that presents us with a radically different cosmic narrative. The big idea is that the Universe is not just an arbitrary physical system, but something more like an evolving computational or biological system — with properties strikingly similar to a complex adaptive system, like an organism or a brain. If this characterization turns out to be accurate, I do not think it is an overstatement to say that it is the most profound paradigm shift in the history of science and philosophy. If true, it raises new existential questions that will force us to completely rethink the nature of reality and ideas about whether the Universe has a function or “purpose.”. . .

In recent years, a number of highly respected theoretical physicists and scientists from various fields have published papers, articles, and books that have provided compelling technical and mathematical arguments that suggest the Universe is not just a computational or information-processing system, but a self-organizing system that evolves and learns in ways that are strikingly similar to biological systems.

For one thing, the map of the universe looks like the neural map of the brain:

Like our nervous system, the Universe has a highly interconnected, hierarchical organization. The estimated 200 billion detectable galaxies aren’t distributed randomly, but lumped together by gravity into clusters that form even larger clusters, which are connected to one another by “galactic filaments,” or long thin threads of galaxies. When one zooms out to envision the cosmos as a whole, the “cosmic web” formed by these clusters and filaments looks strikingly similar to the “connectome,” a term that refers to the complete wiring diagram of the brain, which is formed by neurons and their synaptic connections. Neurons in the brain also form clusters, which are grouped into larger clusters, and are connected by filaments called axons, which transmit electrical signals across the cognitive system.

There is some evidence of “non-local connections”–such as quantum entanglement, some of which has been observed on the galactic scale, as galaxies and objects such as black holes and Quasars seem to affect each other, despite the vast distances between them.

Azarian cites the work of Vitaly Vanchurin, who has shown that thinking of the universe as a neural network can make possible the maddeningly elusive “theory of everything” that physicists have been struggling to find, a way of reconciling general relativity and quantum mechanics (gravity on the massive scale and the “spooky” behavior of particles on the infinitesimally small quantum scale).  According to Azarian, “Vanchurin has shown that using the mathematics of neural networks, you could get the quantum behavior at one limit and classical behavior at another.”

This theory could also unite physics and biology. Azarian cites the work of physicist Lee Smolin and computer scientist Jaron Lanier, who propose “that the cosmos may possess an innate ability to learn, adapt, and evolve in a manner akin to a living organism.”  They “posit that the laws of the Universe might emerge sometime after its creation, and those laws might change or evolve as the cosmos develops and learns more about its own structure, dynamics, and possibilities.”

The universe being a vast mind could also solve the problems inherent in the theory of evolution:

The new book On the Origin of Time reveals that the great late Stephen Hawking believed that the reductionistic paradigm he defended for much of his life is incorrect. Ultimately, Hawking felt that the mainstream narrative failed to explain “How the Universe could have created conditions so perfectly hospitable to life.”

According to his close collaborator Thomas Hertog, the author of the book, Hawking came to the conclusion that the Universe is an evolving system that operates according to Darwinian principles that drive the world toward higher complexity, which would explain the existence of observers like you and I.

For these scientists, thinking of the universe as a mind is a way of saving Darwinian, despite the inability of random natural selection to account for the purposefulness and design that is evident in the universe.  If the universe as a whole evolves, it can bring forth mini-minds like us.

Now this cosmology strikes me as a way of accommodating the arguments of Intelligent Design (a concept that is still taboo in scientific circles) without invoking a Designer (God being even more taboo).  The universe becomes its own designer.

But among the “new existential questions” that Azarian foresees will surely be the re-introduction of God, but in such a way that the universe itself is seen as God.

This would be a new pantheism, but it doesn’t have to be.  If the universe is a brain, like our brains, it still needs a mind.  “It takes more than a certain type of structure to think thoughts,” says Azarian. “A dead brain is just as thoughtless as a rock.”  Just as we have not only physical brains but a spiritual soul that animates them, a transcendent God may animate His physical creation.

In fact, thinking in these terms might help us understand better God’s omnipotence, His omniscience, His providence, and other qualities.

Azarian says that the first person to come up with the notion of the universe as some kind of mind was the ancient Greek thinker Anaxagoras, who, around 500 B.C., “proposed that an intelligent cosmic force, or ‘Nous,’ guides the development of the Universe toward a more organized and purposeful state of existence.”  Nous is the Greek word for “mind.”  The connection of nous/mind to the cosmos became a commonplace of Greek philosophy, addressed also by Plato and Aristotle, and, as this article shows, it was closely connected to logos, or “word,” the meaning and the order built into the universe.  Which, in turn, St. John reveals to be God the Son:

In the beginning was the logos, and the logos was with God, and the logos was God. He was in the beginning with God.  All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. . . .

And the logos became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.  (John 1:1-3, 14)

So I think this new cosmology, if it is confirmed scientifically, would have significant apologetic potential.

At any rate, that some scientists are speculating in this direction shows the limits of their sheerly mechanistic, materialistic, sheerly random worldview that they had been operating with and that they themselves are admitting is reductionistic and inadequate.


Illustration:  Neural Network,  image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

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