Readers may remember Ethan Siegel, science columnist at Forbes, who went on record in December saying that string theory is not science:
Although there was an entire conference on it earlier this month, spurred by a controversial opinion piece written a year ago by George Ellis and Joe Silk, the answer is very clear: no, string theory is not science. The way people are trying to turn it into science is — as Sabine Hossenfelder and Davide Castelvecchi report — by redefining what “science” is.
That’s daring at a time when so many people need string theory to be science. Now he asks, also at Forbes,
Is The Universe Itself Alive?
You’ve seen the analogies before: how atoms are like solar systems, how the large-scale structure of the Universe are like neurons in a human brain, and how there’s the interesting coincidence that the number of stars in a galaxy, galaxies in the Universe, atoms in a cell, and cells in a living being are all approximately the same large (10^11 to 10^14) number.
He tells us that the idea that the universe is alive has been around for a very long time.
Yes, it has. It is called pantheism:
The term ‘pantheism’ is a modern one, possibly first appearing in the writing of the Irish freethinker John Toland (1705) and constructed from the Greek roots pan (all) and theos (God). But if not the name, the ideas themselves are very ancient, and any survey of the history of philosophy will uncover numerous pantheist or pantheistically inclined thinkers; although it should also be noted that in many cases all that history has preserved for us are second-hand reportings of attributed doctrines, any reconstruction of which is too conjectural to provide much by way of philosophical illumination.
At its most general, pantheism may be understood positively as the view that God is identical with the cosmos, the view that there exists nothing which is outside of God, or else negatively as the rejection of any view that considers God as distinct from the universe.
However, given the complex and contested nature of the concepts involved, there is insufficient consensus among philosophers to permit the construction of any more detailed definition not open to serious objection from some quarter or other.
In short, it’s okay to discuss this because one can always say one didn’t really mean “that,” whatever it is. Still, … pantheism? Discussed seriously in Forbes? Hey, we just report… .
Back to Siegel:
If we want self-awareness, the best comparison we have is the human brain, which has around 100 billion (10^11) neurons with at least 100 trillion (10^14) neural connections, with each neuron firing roughly 200 times per second. Given that the average human lives for around 2-3 billion seconds, that’s a lot of signals over a lifetime! It would take a network of trillions of stars confined within a volume under a million light years across and existing for 10^15 years just in order to have something comparable to the number of neurons, neural connections and number of transmitted signals in a human brain. In other words, these total numbers — for a human brain and for a large, fully-formed end-state galaxy — are actually comparable to one another.
But the big difference is that neurons within a brain have a connected, defined structure, while stars within a bound galaxy or group rapidly move closer-and-farther from one another, under the influence of all the other stars and masses within a galaxy.
He thinks, ultimately, that the universe is not alive (a cosmic mind, essentially):
The only ways to test this, unfortunately, rely either on simulations (which have their own inherent flaws) or sitting around and waiting, and seeing what arises. Until a greater-scale intelligence tries to communicate with us by creating and sending an obviously “intelligent” signal, we’ll have only the Count of Monte Cristo option: wait and hope. More.
You know something’s up when people who discuss science at Forbes are even having this conversation.
See also: The bill arrives for cosmology’s free lunch
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