What if the Universe is not just a physical system, but something more like a complex adaptive system, such as an organism or a brain? This idea has been proposed by some of the most influential thinkers in history, from Anaxagoras to Stephen Hawking.
The concept of a brain-like Universe is based on the observation that the physical organization of the cosmos resembles the structure of a neural network. The Universe consists of billions of galaxies, each containing billions of stars, planets, and other celestial bodies.
These are connected by filaments of dark matter and energy, forming a web-like network that spans the observable space. Similarly, the human brain consists of billions of neurons, each containing thousands of synapses, which are connected by axons and dendrites, forming a web-like network that spans the cerebral cortex.
But the similarity goes beyond mere appearance. According to some scientists, the Universe and the brain also share some functional properties that suggest they are both self-organizing systems that evolve and learn over time.
For example, both systems exhibit emergent behavior, meaning that they produce phenomena that are not predictable from their individual components. The Universe gives rise to complex structures such as galaxies, stars, planets, and life forms, while the brain gives rise to complex phenomena such as cognition, emotion, memory, and consciousness.
Another property that both systems share is non-locality, meaning that they can process information across distant regions without any apparent physical connection. In the Universe, this is manifested by quantum entanglement, which allows two particles to influence each other instantaneously regardless of their separation.
In the brain, this is manifested by neural synchrony, which allows different brain regions to coordinate their activity without any direct communication. Both phenomena suggest that there is a hidden level of organization and computation that transcends the local interactions of matter and energy.
A third property that both systems share is adaptability, meaning that they can change their structure and function in response to environmental feedback.
In the Universe, this is manifested by cosmic evolution, which describes how the cosmos has undergone various phases of transformation since the Big Bang, from inflation to nucleosynthesis to galaxy formation to star formation to planet formation to life formation.
In the brain, this is manifested by neural plasticity, which describes how the brain can modify its synaptic connections and neural pathways based on experience and learning.
These similarities between the Universe and the brain are not mere coincidences. They point to a deeper principle of self-organization that governs both systems. This principle can be understood as a form of natural selection, which operates at different levels of complexity and scale.
Natural selection is the process by which variations in a population are filtered by environmental pressures, resulting in the survival and reproduction of those variations that are better adapted to their niche.
Natural selection can explain how atoms emerged from subatomic particles, how molecules emerged from atoms, how cells emerged from molecules, how organisms emerged from cells, how brains emerged from organisms, and how observers emerged from brains.
But natural selection can also explain how the Universe itself emerged from a primordial state of chaos and potentiality. According to some cosmologists, such as Lee Smolin and Max Tegmark, the Universe is part of a multiverse — a collection of possible universes that are constantly being generated by quantum fluctuations or mathematical structures.
Each universe has its own set of physical laws and constants that determine its behavior and structure. Some universes are stable and hospitable to life and complexity; others are unstable and hostile to life and complexity.
The multiverse can be seen as a cosmic population that undergoes natural selection at the largest scale possible. The universes that survive and reproduce are those that have physical laws and constants that allow for self-organization and evolution.
This view of the Universe as a self-organizing system that evolves and learns has profound implications for our understanding of reality and our place in it. It suggests that the Universe is not just an arbitrary physical system, but a meaningful information-processing system that has a function or purpose.
It also suggests that we are not just passive observers of reality, but active participants in it. We are part of the cosmic network that shapes and is shaped by its environment. We are part of the cosmic brain that thinks and feels.