Hacker News new | comments | ask | show | jobs | submit login
Is the Universe a conscious mind? (2018) (aeon.co)
42 points by Hooke 30 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 63 comments

Doesn't mention the anthropic principle, uses the term "consciousness" to denote some mysterious essential soul-like property, and presumes that an omnipotent god must be good. 17th century philosophy alive and well.

"When you say that if I deny, that the operations of seeing, hearing, attending, wishing, &c., can be ascribed to God, or that they exist in him in any eminent fashion, you do not know what sort of God mine is ; I suspect that you believe there is no greater perfection than such as can be explained by the aforesaid attributes. I am not astonished ; for I believe that, if a triangle could speak, it would say, in like manner, that God is eminently triangular, while a circle would say that the divine nature is eminently circular. Thus each would ascribe to God its own attributes, would assume itself to be like God, and look on everything else as ill-shaped." - Spinoza

We take our most distinctively human attributes, bundle them under the term "consciousness", and assert that consciousness is that which is divine in the universe.

"to call the world God is not to explain it; it is only to enrich our language with a superfluous synonym for the word world" - Schopenhauer

Might the idea of "god must be good" emerge from the principle of balance? A balanced system certainly isn't cannibalizing itself. And the definition of "good" is a bit circular.

Not following what a "principal of balance" is. There is no physical law of nature that is defined like that. Maybe you mean "conservation of mass/energy". Unfortunately, if you think of things like "good" and "evil" as if it was heat, then you've already made a leap of faith. There is no scientific evidence of Karma, or any such effect for the abstract concept of "morality".

For example, you could just as easily imagine a world where, for every "evil" thing that happened, two good things happened in response. There is no evidence to support that either, but there is also no evidence to deny it. We can't observe the entire universe, so it's vacuously unprovable.

I think the arrow of good is like the arrow of time. It points in one direction because it has to. The fundamental constants encode a precise and balanced harmony of physics. The article is saying the choosing of the constants is a balanced process. "Good" is anything that contributes to the harmony. If the arrow of good pointed in the other direction, there is no harmony of forces, the constants would be different, and there would be nothing.

> fundamental constants encode a precise and balanced harmony of physics

We don't know where the constants come from. As such, we can't say if they independently and randomly arose or came forth from a system in which they balance.

More boldly, any assortment of constants can produce a universe. Each of those universes will be different. Calling some of them "good" and some of them "bad" is an inherently subjective exercise. Even delineating "good" and "evil" on a single dimension is a choice.

That is essentially saying that human actions can effect the fundamental constants of the universe.

That is a bold claim.

For what is not evil if not perpratated by a conscious mind?

An avalanche that kills 20is not evil.

Someone triggering that avalanche is. That person changes the ‘balance’ of good v evil.

Does that affect the universal constants?

When so look at how ecosystems and food chains work, and how microbes and necrophages recycle resources, ‘cannibalizing itself’ seems to be exactly how the world works.

It seems to me that a ‘good’ world implies an over balancing tendency towards harmony, plenty and comfort for all, whereas ‘evil’ implies a tendency towards horror, suffering and deprivation. We see both these things in the world all the time. A time of plenty for flesh eating parasites and brain fungi is a time of horror for their victims.

If a system is cannibalizing itself it is by definition not in balance. Iterate the process and then it ends.

I think people believe god is good because hope is adaptive and despair is maladaptive. Our evolution has conditioned us to see the good possibilities, because organisms that didn't were less fit.

Or in other words, survivorship bias. Of course god is good, otherwise we’d have been killed along with all those other people (who also believed in god).

The trouble with articles like this is that I cannot work out how to distinguish them from pure nonsense. For example, what am I to make of this section: "According to holism, the table in front of you does not derive its existence from the sub-atomic particles that compose it; rather, those sub-atomic particles derive their existence from the table." The sub-atomic particles that were, presumably, in the trees that eventually were used to make the table did not exist before the table was made? Nonsense, surely. Yes, there are fundamental problems (like fine tuning) that are deeply troubling, but how does philosophical game playing really contribute to de-troubling these problems?

To me, and I guess I am not thinking this through, holism is a pretty decent example of what you describe as nonsense.


"Holism (from Greek ὅλος holos "all, whole, entire") is the idea that systems (physical, biological, chemical, social, economic, mental, linguistic) and their properties should be viewed as wholes, not just as a collection of parts." [1]

What kind of definition is that? Essentially you can draw the cutoff line anywhere at what constitutes a 'whole'. This then makes the entire concept meaningless because you can never credibly define what the parts are and what the whole is and what should therefore be viewed as whole. Example:

Is one of my skin cells 'whole' because it is made of 'parts' such as a cell wall, the nucleus and the intracellular matrix? Or is it my skin that is the 'whole'? Or my entire body? Or is it the human race? Or is it Terran life in general because my cell is essentially a cooperating, codependent yet singular agent? Where is the line?

The entire concept just reeks of some guy in his hammock after a round of LSD (which I do not judge about).

Edit: I do think that it useful to artificially draw some lines and study systems in such a way - as seen in Complex Systems theory. I just don't think that you can classify the world like that.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Holism

As with so many other topics in philosophy, the question of "where do we draw the line?" exists separately from "does the line exist?".

Holism amounts to the claim that certain things should be viewed primarily as wholes, rather than as their constituents. It is up to individual thinkers to propose and argue for which things should be viewed this way.

I agree that the Wikipedia definition is not very good, but Holism can sometimes make sense if its specified more precisely. Sometimes it means that a system is such that if you change one component, then all other (or many other) components of the system are changed as well. In other cases, holism may be taken to imply that some value of a whole can be described by a superadditive function of the values of its parts, i.e., v(a⊕b)≥ v(a)+v(b) where "⊕" is some form of concatenation, mereological "sum", or combination operation.

What I'm saying is that some meanings of the vague term "holism" can be made precise and can be interesting. For example, the Choquet Integral in decision making allows for superadditive combination of attributes.

While true I think that is missing the point slightly. Many breakthroughs were made because someone finally found a better or more useful perspective on the same subject. I.e the way we think about something can have really big consequences and be a way for us to navigate.

The trick as you allude to is how to pick the most useful perspective.

Good point, but how is any of this articles speculation testable?

It's not which is why trial and error is such an important concept. That's how nature works too. Sadly today innovation and research have become a very academic discipline which IMO means an unhealthy overdose of critical thinking and attempts to conclude rather than experiment and do constructive thinking.

Most breakthroughs didn't start with eureka but "hmm I wonder what happens if"

The reality is that most of these concepts aren't worth it but that some of them will be and that they are the ones that allow us to escape one way of thinking to enter a new one.

This article aligns extremely well with Robert Pirsig’s Metaphysics of Quality. The only real difference is their substitution of value for quality, which is something my reinforcement learning professor did during lecture yesterday.

What it’s missing, is that in Pirsig’s eyes there are 2 essential different kinds of quality, Dynamic quality and Static quality. Dynamic being the change agent, while static clings to what’s good about the past. In his eyes, both are necessary for real progress. Too much dynamic = throwing the baby out with the bath water. Too much static = living in the past.

Thinking about it like a machine learning problem, dynamic quality steps out into the unknown, searching for quality paths not yet travelled. Static quality is the machine’s memory of what’s worked well thus far.

Occasionally, a step into the unknown is so good, that huge amounts of machine memory seem irrelevant / obsolete. In these moments, humans are prone to wanting to wipe the whole past, without preserving the half or more that’s still an essential piece of their progress thus far.

On the other side, humans are prone to tell their peers to stop stepping out into the unknown and argue that we should just go back a step / stay where we were indefinitely.

If that’s at all intriguing, feel free to go read my favorite book, Lila. You’ll want to read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (where he recognizes quality) first, if you haven’t already.

The problem of evil was ably taken up by the Christian Philosopher Alvin Plantinga. Here's a short video summary of his thoughts: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8VOMrozCISA . He has a folksy way of speaking, and is actually quite a good teacher, but keep in mind that Plantinga is a first-rate analytical philosopher, so there's a lot more depth in his books.

So much so that some of his work in modal logic (necessity, possibility, counterfactuals, etc) is quite a good introduction to the subject. (see, for example, The Nature of Necessity: https://www.amazon.com/Nature-Necessity-Clarendon-Library-Ph...)

The problem of evil is an interesting one, in that you can take it two ways. On the one hand you might call it an internal problem to theism. Something like: "the Christian understanding of evil is incompatible with the Christian conception of God", and that's the argument Plantinga is primary addressing (that theism is not incoherent or internally inconsistent on this matter)

But you can also take it as an external problem - that theism doesn't do a good job of explaining the existence of evil. In my mind this is a stronger argument, but what sometimes gets lost in the discussion is that the problem doesn't go away if you discard theism. If evil really does exist what alternative worldview does a better job of explaining it?

That evil is just a social convention created by minds produced by random processes geared towards evolutionary fitness?

Maybe. But doesn't that just explain away the problem by stating evil doesn't really exist? (at least not the kind of evil suggested by Christians?) And if it doesn't really exist, how can you use it as an external argument against theism?

> And if it doesn't really exist, how can you use it as an external argument against theism?

This conflates evil (a sentiment that we rational beings possess) with bad, one of the elements of metaethics. "Evil" is a nice label we use; "bad" is an ethical descriptor with any number of (non-religious) metaethical origins: consequentialism, deontology, virtue, &c.

The typical argument against against theism (or at least any sort of theism that claims that god is both omnibenevolent and omnipotent) is that there are bad things in the world: murder, theft, starvation, &c. When asked whether a good god would allow these things, we find ourselves dealing with (1) Euthyphro, and (2) incompatible properties (omnipotence and free will, omnibenevolence and divine command, &c).

Do most non-theists believe in a meta-ethical realism?

The incompatibility of properties is precisely the issue Plantinga takes up. He offers a defense based on free-will. That there are possible worlds in which free people choose only to do good, but those worlds aren't actualizable, a sort-of transworld depravity, so any world God could create would have evil.

He doesn't present the defense as a theodicy, merely as a possible solution to the problem. And if there is any solution to the problem, then the properties aren't incompatible.

That is, it is logically possible for God to be omnipotent, omniscient and omnibenevolent and for evil to exist in the world.

> Do most non-theists believe in a meta-ethical realism?

Not sure. My personal experience with moral philosophers has been that most are (1) non-religious, and (2) committed to some form of moral realism. Personally, I'm not religious and think the morality exists as a necessary consequence of some vaguely Kantian sense of autonomy[1].

> That there are possible worlds in which free people choose only to do good, but those worlds aren't actualizable

I don't understand the distinction between "possible" and "actualizable" here -- in what sense is a state of affairs "possible" but not such that it could ever be actualized? Perhaps even more perniciously: how does the existence of a "transworld depravity" (which, presumably, is not itself god) not itself threaten omnipotence?

[1]: https://yossarian.net/about/labels

If human beings have a libertarian sort of free-will (the ability to do otherwise), then their actions can't be caused by God.

So if we imagine a free-will choice, say whether or not to mow the lawn today, it's possible for me to either mow the lawn or not, thus creating two possible worlds (the one where I do or the one where I don't).

God can't make me choose one way or the other, or rather, he can make me choose, but doing so makes the choice a non-libertarian-free one.

According to Molinism, God knows both the future (what I will actually do), but also all counterfactuals (what I would do in any situation).

He chose to create world we actually inhabit (the actual world), and there are many other worlds he could've created instead (actualizable worlds), but there are possible worlds that he could not have created, because many of the things that happen in those worlds are determined by the choices of free creatures.

So a subset of possible worlds are actualizable.

Plantinga is arguing that perhaps there are possible worlds with no evil, but none of them are actualizable.

Speculatively: God decides the trade-off is worth it and creates the universe anyway. Perhaps a universe in which God himself redeems free creatures from sin is better than one without free creatures at all.

Plantinga readily admits the speculation is just that. The important point is that the example illustrates a possible solution to the apparent paradox, so existence of evil and God's attributes aren't inconsistent. The actual solution may be something entirely different or even beyond our ability to comprehend.

As to the point about omnipotence: It's a good one, but I think in the end it boils down to the classic "can God create a rock so heavy he can't lift it" objection, and theologians will readily constrain omnipotence so as not to include the logically impossible, or that which is incongruent with his own nature. So by extension, that some worlds aren't actualizable doesn't impinge on omnipotence because it flows (logically) out of the concept of libertarian freedom.

Furthermore Molinism suggests a framework for thinking about how God can "ordain whatever comes to pass" if creatures have libertarian freedom.

It's also worth mentioning that the concept of libertarian freedom is itself widely debated. I would suspect that the majority of theologians are compatibilists when it comes to this topic, and don't believe that creatures have this sort of free will at all. (see the westminster confession of faith 3.2 for example) Some even argue that the concept itself may be philosophically incoherent.

Under a compatibilist view actualizable worlds and possible worlds are the same.

We are conscious (at least I am, let's leave out solipsism for a minute).

Our minds are the universe, they are not separate from it.

Hence the universe is conscious via our minds. Individual little pieces of the universe are becoming conscious.

Not sure why you’re getting downvoted for contributing your thoughts to this conversation. But I’ve held this similar view for a long time. We are all connected energy and we all form this group consciousness together.

We’re conscious of ourselves and each other and the universe. Yet we form groups of “us v. them” along abstract lines and get overly focused on the differences, which are very small relative to the similarities.

“Whoever saves one life has saved the world entire.”

The same basic phrase is found in both the Mishnah and the Quran.

Edit: Not that I’m making a religious point, more a philosophical one.

It's a bit ying-yang. The universe is the model I have in my head. But I wouldn't have my head without the universe.

There wouldn't be a universe without your head, just some non-conceptual blob :)

This kind of random speculation is almost pointless.

If someone says : "There is no such thing as death; life is only a dream, and we are the imagination of ourselves," then he's doing philosophy

If someone says: "A man can no more diminish God’s glory by refusing to worship Him than a lunatic can put out the sun by scribbling the word, ‘darkness’ on the walls of his cell." then he's doing religion.

Logically, both statements are speculative and equivalently ludicrous as neither has a shred of evidence that makes one more real than the other. Due to this, it is more than likely neither statement I made in this comment nor any statement made in the article is true.

Might as well read an article arguing about how Scientology is more consistent and coherent than Christian Science.

That question cannot possibly be answered in any sensible, let alone definitive, way. And even if it could (hypothetically), what would be the consequence? File under “useless speculation”.

Well, a large portion of the history of humanity has been shaped by arguments over the nature of death and the purpose of the universe. Or at least, shaped by forces which have used the cover of these arguments to assert their will.

If I wrote an article titled:

"Is Scientology real?"


"Is the universe just a dream within a dream within a dream within a dream?"

The first statement is bland while the second statement is more complex as it contains elements of inception and recursion.

You know that some poor fools mind was blown away by the second statement. When someones mind gets blown, they fail to see the "useless" part of it as the mind is too busy being blown away.

> supernovae are the main source of many of the heavy elements that form the ingredients of life

Neutron star collisions are now suspected to be "the main source of the r-process elements, which are elements heavier than iron, like gold and platinum" [1].

(I also have a quibble with the claim that "any kind of chemical complexity would have been physically impossible" if the strong nuclear force "had been 0.008 or higher," and caused the universe's hydrogen to all fuse into heavier elements. Carbon has no problems bonding with elements other than hydrogen. Moreover, given we have no idea where the constants come from, altering one may not leave the others unchanged--saying no complexity would be possible in this entirely novel universe is a bit rich.)

[1] https://www.space.com/38493-gravitational-waves-neutron-star...

This know reads like a college philosophy essay, piecing together famous bits from various sources and glueing them together into a (dubious) logical sequence.

"The two standard explanations of the fine-tuning are theism and the multiverse hypothesis."

..theism is rejected because of "the problem of evil" (which I always thought should be the "problem of suffering")

Multiverse is falsified by... Some sort of reverse anthropic argument.. it's complicated," ergo...more stuff ..and.. "If we combine holism with panpsychism, we get cosmopsychism:"

It's fun to read, in that a lot of the stuff it references are (individually) interesting bits of science, theology and such.

As a coherent argument.. this is exactly what Monty Python were making fun of in the duck-witch sketch.

Doesn't make sense. Consciousness is a survival trait for self replicating agents. The universe doesn't need to survive, and has no external reality to be conscious of.

Consciousness doesn't exist in a vacuum, or for no reason at all. The reason for its existence is that it protects the agent and helps in self replication. We shouldn't expect to find consciousness outside these settings. Maybe AI could be conscious, but it is just copying the architecture and receiving a purpose from outside.

In the case of biological consciousness, the purpose creates the tool. The only self-reliant purpose I know of is self replication, which doesn't apply to the universe.

Universes may very well self replicate.

It's has been theorized that our universe's Big Bang singularity is not unlike the singularity of a black hole. And they may be two sides of the same coin.

If a black hole creates a child universe and inherits physics from the parent that gives you self replication and possibly natural selection.

In the set of universes any universe that can replicate and pass on it's physics "genes" would be found to have more survivors in existence of it's type.

Lastly, if the physics required for black holes (and associated replication) are the same as those required for life then universes are naturally selected for life.

Why can't the universe be self-replicating?

For something to self replicate you need some sort reproductive system. A penis and a vagina are the main ingredients.

For a universe to self replicate their must be at least two parallel universes. A male universe and a female universe. The male universe has a penis and the female universe must have a vagina. Then the two must have sex to produce child sibling universes.

There is a flaw in this theory. Ask yourself "How does the child universe self-replicate?" The answer is the child universe must commit incest. This is a problem with the theory of self-replicating universes.

So I'm now going to introduce a new speculative and pointless made up theory about how a universe can self replicate asexually. By introducing this theory I've solved the other pointlessly speculative problem that was basically made up out of thin air in the first place. However by adding enough metaphysical mumbo jumbo to my arguments I make everything seem more legit.

Think about it.

There's really no reason to assume one way or the other that the universe has a reproductive mechanism, whether sexual or asexual, or some other way. The parent comment was just so sure that:

- Consciousness belongs to self-replicating agents only

- The universe does not/cannot replicate

These are both silly assumptions. In fact, I'd be more surprised if the universe didn't replicate in some form.

I don't understand why you say that the self-replication requirement is silly. Without self replication there can be no evolution. It would be much less probable that a sentient entity appeared without an evolutionary mechanism.

About universe replication, it's just a supposition, I am not opposed to it but I just don't find the reason to take it seriously yet.

There would also be other requirements, such as the ability to process information which I don't see how it would work at universe scale considering the light-speed limit. It the universe were sentient, then it would think at a very low speed.

Maybe the universe self replication mechanism could be us (or more probably a more advanced civilisation)? Supposing such a civilisation could learn to control the conditions for the creation of black holes, that would also fit with the anthropic principle. Or maybe they learn to create universe simulations, either way, it's sci-fi for us at this moment.

As a thought experiment, if Boltzmann’s brains are the most common, maybe we are one?

Each of us only has the current moment. Our memories of the past and even "current" observations of our environment (actually many milliseconds old) are just structures in our brain. You don't really know for sure if you've existed for 30 years, or for 1 second.

All of that could be just part of the "functioning brain that has by sheer fluke emerged from a disordered universe for a brief period of time".

But surely the vast majority of such Boltzmann brains, by a staggering ratio, would be incomplete, partially aware, barely and only transitorily viable brings with incomplete and inconsistent memories and experiences. The chances of such a being having a completely consistent memory, sensorium and experience of life must be extremely small.

If I only live for this single moment, I don't think I'd spot such an inconsistency. I'm now so focused on your comment, that I doubt I'd notice if I didn't actually have half of my body, any memories from my childhood, or if behind me was just empty space.

It'd be a short existence with a pretty violent end.

But surely if a subset of brains experience reading Hacker News, what proportion of those will be reading a page with text that is intelligible, or about subjects that make sense, or with posts that are coherent? Or with brains capable of parsing a text? Surely only one in many trillions or more?

Maybe that explains Reddit.

Just because things ARE does not mean there is any reason for them to be that way. Evolution for example has no purpose, it just happens - because only the survivors reproduce. Intention is not necessary for this mechanism to work.

Regarding the "fine tuning" of our universe: We never can observe a universe that is not tuned for life. Because we cannot exist in such a universe. The universe's "tuning" for life proves nothing.

Isn't that a perfect example of survivorship bias? That if our form of life managed to appear in a particular universe, it's built for us then?

Yes. Don't know why so many philosophers are either unaware of it or choose to ignore it, it's a well known idea. It was even referenced in an X-Men movie, I think.


Like the body of water in a puddle that is amazed that the universe produced a depression in the ground that exactly fits its form and size. How unlikely. Surely it is proof the universe was made for its benefit?

Exactly! I can imagine an article in this Puddle Universe:

>"Is the Puddle a conscious mind?"

>"Cosmopsychism might seem crazy, but it provides a robust explanatory model for how the Puddle became fine-tuned for water"

Maybe we are the universe dreaming it’s not the universe

I like how Bill Hicks put it: "There is no such thing as death; life is only a dream, and we are the imagination of ourselves."

How is either statement more true than the claims made by Scientology? Why is it more worth our time to speculate about these statements then it is to speculate about Scientology?

The crux of the argument that they're making here is actually oft repeated by many mainstream Christians.

Genuinely curious...Does that strengthen or weaken it, in your mind? The fact that science may be moving closer to something millions of people across history have intuitively believed.

Even as a Christian, I don't think it goes one way or the other particularly, for me at least. To me, the strengths and weaknesses of his argument are in the article itself.

The main strengths I see in it are the observations regarding physics and the limitations of observation.

The weakness I see in it is the author's straw-man assumptions about theism (that a creator must be loving, and that a loving creator cannot allow suffering or evil, for instance) and his failure to dig deeper into potential criticisms against his own model such as:

1. Where did the universe come from? "Always been" or "created itself" or even "emerged from primordial chaos" are all functionally equivalent to the theism answer.

2. By what means does the universe exert agency on the constants of physics? One might ask whether the constants of physics are not actually more fundamental than the universe itself, such that other hypothetical universes would necessarily share the same constants, although the article seems to assume that these constants are only true for this universe (or perhaps some subset of all universes like ours as opposed to all universes).

3. If it does exert control over these constants, would we not expect these constants to have changed over time rather than be, well, constant? If we do expect them to have changed, does this not make things like astronomy fairly dicey since we don't necessarily have guarantees that, e.g. the constant speed of light is/was the same at some distant point we're observing, in the time at which we're observing it?

4. Where did the principles come from that led the universe to achieve whatever degree of consciousness it's ascribed? Again, leaving this question as a "well, it just did" feels very much like theism by another name to me.

So I guess I find it interesting that the author is leaning towards something that seems very deity-like as a result of physics, but am bothered by my sense that he's unwilling to call a spade a spade.

Strengthen. Many Christian apologists would look at things like physics as "proof" God exists. Then again I'm Catholic which tends to treat science (at least these days) more as the how rather than the why if that makes sense.

this has to be edgy atheists' worst nightmare.

Better than the Betteridge law of headlines, I present you the nonsense law of headlines: if once inverted, the headline still sound something that may be written about in the article, it's not science.

Here: "Is the conscious mind a universe?"

Also, both are unfalsifiable, therefore not science in a Popperian way.

Exactly. Why not talk about if the universe is the left over feces of a cosmic being? Pointless exercise.

Though to be a bit pedantic under the Popperian way a statement that is actually true is by definition unfalsifiable.

You probably meant that both statements are untestable.

Or it's a giant simulation, to me seems far more likely.

That’s a huge case of “six of one, half a dozen of the other.” You could strangle a microbe on the difference between God and Simulators.

Ok, then what about the universe which is simulating ours then?


It is itself a simulation.

Ad infinitum.

Simulation / turtle. Tomato / tomato.

Who made god? Same question really.

And around we circle.

Pot profundity, drum circle debate.

Applications are open for YC Summer 2019

Guidelines | FAQ | Support | API | Security | Lists | Bookmarklet | Legal | Apply to YC | Contact