Forget Being a Brain in a Vat—You May Be a Brain Floating in Space

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The New York Times Science section features a nice article looking at one of the odder speculations of cosmology–the Boltzmann brain hypothesis. As the Times reports:

It could be the weirdest and most embarrassing prediction in the history of cosmology, if not science.

If true, it would mean that you yourself reading this article are more likely to be some momentary fluctuation in a field of matter and energy out in space than a person with a real past born through billions of years of evolution in an orderly star-spangled cosmos. Your memories and the world you think you see around you are illusions.

This bizarre picture is the outcome of a recent series of calculations that take some of the bedrock theories and discoveries of modern cosmology to the limit. Nobody in the field believes that this is the way things really work, however. And so there in the last couple of years there has been a growing stream of debate and dueling papers, replete with references to such esoteric subjects as reincarnation, multiple universes and even the death of spacetime, as cosmologists try to square the predictions of their cherished theories with their convictions that we and the universe are real. The basic problem is that across the eons of time, the standard theories suggest, the universe can recur over and over again in an endless cycle of big bangs, but it's hard for nature to make a whole universe. It's much easier to make fragments of one, like planets, yourself maybe in a spacesuit or even — in the most absurd and troubling example — a naked brain floating in space. Nature tends to do what is easiest, from the standpoint of energy and probability. And so these fragments — in particular the brains — would appear far more frequently than real full-fledged universes, or than us. Or they might be us.

This kind of thing can make Plato's Theory of the Forms look reasonable. Of course, Jim Holt reports that when he asked a group of elite mathematicians how many of them are Platonists, three-quarters held up their hands.

Enjoy the Science Times article here.

Addendum: Besides Plato's speculations, there is always Hindu cosmology. As the Hindu Wisdom website explains:

Prior to the creation of the universe, Lord Vishnu lies asleep on the ocean of all causes. He rests upon a serpent bed with thousands of cobra-like hoods. While asleep, a lotus sprouts from His navel. Upon this lotus is born Brahma the creator of the universe. Lord Brahma lives for a hundred years and then dies, while Lord Vishnu remains. One year of Brahma consists of three hundred and sixty days. At the beginning of each day Brahma creates the living beings that reside in the universe and at the end of each day the living beings are absorbed into Brahma while he sleeps on the lotus.

FYI, the calculation for Brahma's 100 year lifetime in divine terms is 311,040,000,000,000 years.

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  1. Is this an implicit caution to anyone who throws out “Occam’s Razor” anytime a scientific theory is questioned? I think Occam’s razor is quite useful, but it is the not a determinative factor in any metaphysical debate.

  2. Also an implicit caution against remembering anything you ever thought about on an acid trip.

    So I am told.

  3. wow. Im gonna go get high and read this again.

  4. And so these fragments – in particular the brains – would appear far more frequently than real full-fledged universes, or than us. Or they might be us.

    I told all y’all this in a previous thread. This is why I’m not atheist. I look at the universe and think that it has no business existing.

  5. Nature tends to do what is easiest, from the standpoint of energy and probability.

    So do I. So, I guess I’ll stop trying to figure out the cosmological meaning of it all.

  6. Fragmented, endlessly cyclical, disorderly, semi-coherent patterns of wasted energy…

    It may not define the universe but it sure explains the LP.

  7. Beep-beep-beep SOMEBOY TURN beep-beep-beep OFF THEIR beep-beep-beep DAMNED B/S DETECTOR!!! beep-beep-beep-beep-beep-beep-beep-beep-beep-beep-beep-beep…

  8. Calling Thoreau. Where is the staff physicists when we need him?

  9. except…if i’m a brain floating in space, then this ‘discovery’ is not real, because these cosmologists don’t really exist except in my mind. 🙂

  10. One hundred Quatloos on the disembodied brain hypothesis!

  11. FOOLS! THERE IS NOTHING BUT THE URKOBOLD. WAIT, WHY IS THE URKOBOLD TALKING TO HIMSELF? MUST REFINE SOLIPSISTIC THEORY.

  12. But evolution is a fact! It’s science, darnit. I can prove it to you in my moldy tennis shoes. And I’ve been telling all my Intelligent Design friends how right I am and how wrong they are!

  13. Nobody in the field believes that this is the way things really work, however.

    That is just what they want us to think.

  14. Am I paleo or cosmopolitan, racist collectivist or libertarian? Did I evolve or just float around?

  15. Nobody in the field believes that this is the way things really work, however.

    “Believes”? Believes?! Fuck believes. The difference between intelligent design and positivistic materialistic evolution is that you could PROVE and they couldn’t. You’re all fakes. Cosmopolitan fakes.

  16. I am, therefore I’m the outcome of a recent series of calculations that take some of the bedrock theories and discoveries of modern cosmology to the limit.

  17. This is what happens when the theorists race too far beyond what the experimenters can check out. It’s just so much gobbledy gook.

  18. Ditto.

    This is theology with mathematics, not science.

  19. Unbridled speculation.

  20. One year of Brahma consists of three hundred and sixty days. At the beginning of each day Brahma creates the living beings that reside in the universe and at the end of each day the living beings are absorbed into Brahma while he sleeps on the lotus.

    FYI, the calculation for Brahma’s 100 year lifetime in divine terms is 311,040,000,000,000 years.

    I don’t get this. If one year of Brahma is 360 days, how can 100 years equal 3.1X10^14 years? It might be me, I was never good at either math or hindu cosmology in grade school.

  21. I believe that real universe cloned veal will be tastier than imagined universe real veal. Perhaps it is just faith.

  22. If you are the figments of my floating space brain’s imagination, I am really, really fucked up.

  23. Curious: Take a look at the Hindu Wisdom site to which I linked. It’s all explained there.

  24. Warren,

    This is what happens when the theorists race too far beyond what the experimenters can check out.

    Theory is always right. Sometimes reality is wrong.

  25. Theory is always right. Sometimes reality is wrong.

    Take it to a global warming thread, robc.

  26. I don’t get this. If one year of Brahma is 360 days, how can 100 years equal 3.1X10^14 years? It might be me, I was never good at either math or hindu cosmology in grade school.

    man don’t even get me started on the jains.

    besides we are all products of the trollish maya of urkobold.

  27. Scientists have come to doubt that the universe even exists, but anyone who doubts the theory of evolution is a moron.

    Ah, Enlightenment.

  28. typo:

    This kind of thing can make Plato’s Theory of the Forms look reaonable.

    should be reasonable not reaonable.

  29. I still subscribe to the sun being a grain of salt on URKOBOLD’s pretzel theory, dude…

  30. a naked brain floating in space

    I think that was in an episode of Futurama.

  31. FYI, the calculation for Brahma’s 100 year lifetime in divine terms is 311,040,000,000,000 years.

    What about dog years?

  32. GD: Thanks. It’s fixed.

  33. Anyone know where the wormhole is to Carl Sagan’s B&B? I could use a shower and a bagel.

  34. Im still pretty sure it’s turtles all the way down.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Turtles_all_the_way_down

  35. Today a young man on acid realized that all matter is merely energy condensed to a slow vibration, that we are all one consciousness experiencing itself subjectively, there is no such thing as death, life is only a dream, and we are the imagination of ourselves. Now here’s Tom with the weather…

  36. Take a look at the Hindu Wisdom site to which I linked. It’s all explained there.

    Aw, that’s super.

  37. sorta like entropy, but with the polarity reversed

  38. I call shenanigans.

    Shouldn’t all this talk of momentarily formed ‘branes be spelled ‘branes? As in shortened from “membranes”? As in the things that strings are supposed to be attached to in M-theory, which is the higher trim-package of the string theory model line?

    I believe that we’d be talking about ‘branes floating in the void. But brains floating in space is a much different question.

  39. According to artificial intelligence theory, a brain cannot exist in a vat (or any other place without external inputs, such as floating around in space). Without a way to interact and a way to receive feedback, a neural net cannot form.

    Or maybe I don’t understand because I’ve never taken acid or shrooms.

  40. Except Bill O’Reilly, who’s a spleen floating in space.

  41. *Warning – speculation about theoretical physics from a physical chemistry background follows.*

    It make sense overall if the math does work out they way the hypothesis assumes, but it doesn’t seem that meaningful.

    First off, there are some states that aren’t just improbable, but impossible – the need for internal mathematical consistency within the fluctuations probably clears out a lot of the potential weirdness. The minimum internally consistent system necessary to create a brain may be much more complicated than the brain itself.

    Second, for every Boltzmann brain, there’s going to be massive quantities of much less interesting Boltzmann junk created – clouds of hydrogen, random photons, etc not to mention incomplete or malformed “brains” or brains with incoherent memories. Our little pocket of the universe has a much higher brain density. A stable state, while unlikely itself, would enjoy a kind of economy of scale in brain production.

    Finally, the probability of a brain being structurally stable enough for to function decreases rapidly with time. A brain formed in a small fluctuation would be like pieces of shrapnel that spell out a sentence in mid-flight during an explosion. “Thinking” requires biological functions like membrane depolarization that occur in the millisecond range, so the vast majority of Boltzmann brains could be argued to lack conciousness. Big fluctuations may host more stable brains than small ones.

  42. And the reason why I bring up artificial intelligence theory is that if you start talking about neurology, psychology, or just brains in general, you’re just making up un-falsifiable bullshit, unless you can actually test out your theories. I can simulate a neural net on my computer. Can you simulate a brain floating around in space in an alternate dimension? No? Well STFU.

  43. My dear imp,

    To me, at least, it is not that those who doubt evolution are stupid for act of doubting, but rather that they are stupid for the reason why they are doubting.

  44. Today a young man on acid realized that all matter is merely energy condensed to a slow vibration, that we are all one consciousness experiencing itself subjectively, there is no such thing as death, life is only a dream, and we are the imagination of ourselves. Now here’s Tom with the weather…

    Throughout human history, as our species has faced the frightening, terrorizing fact that we do not know who we are, or where we are going in this ocean of chaos, it has been the authorities, the political, the religious, the educational authorities who attempted to comfort us by giving us order, rules, regulations, informing, forming in our minds their view of reality. To think for yourself you must question authority and learn how to put yourself in a state of vulnerable, open-mindedness; chaotic, confused, vulnerability to inform yourself.

    God I love Tool.

  45. I dare any of you to prove anything.

    You can’t do it, can you?

    Proving your beliefs is even harder.

  46. “Your memories and the world you think you see around you are illusions.”

    Thank you Morpheus. Now let’s go kick Agent Smith’s ass. I need guns, lots of guns….

  47. All I know is that the data I’m able to examine makes it look like my brain is contained in a body, and this body walks around on a planet. Maybe I’m imagining it all (why the hell did I imagine interacting with you guys instead of becoming Nicholas Sarkozy and vacationing with Carla Bruni, BTW?), but it sure as hell looks like the world exists and obeys physical laws, so that’s what I go with. It’s all I’ve got, so I use it.

    FWIW, most of theoretical physics isn’t like this. I’m doing calculations on molecules around tumors, working on algorithms to analyze microscope images, and trying to simulate some weird photochemistry that might be useful in manufacturing circuits. The cosmologists are a bunch of weirdos, the rest of us are analyzing important shit.

  48. “Except Bill O’Reilly, who’s a spleen floating in space.”

    or an anal sphincter.

  49. de stijl,
    Got the Simpsons reference.
    *golf clap*

  50. “(why the hell did I imagine interacting with you guys instead of becoming Nicholas Sarkozy and vacationing with Carla Bruni, BTW?)”

    No joke.

  51. the rest of us are analyzing important shit.

    thoreau, just make me immortal, OK? Jeez.

  52. If you are interested in this sort of thing, it is imperative that you read Greg Egan, especially Permutation City and his short story collections. Sometimes a little didactic, but when he’s in form he’s nothing short of brilliant.

  53. The cosmologists are a bunch of weirdos, the rest of us are analyzing important shit.

    Unless they’re right about this. Then you’re doing something less than useless.

    Have a nice day!

  54. de stijl,
    Got the Simpsons reference.

    My other favorite line from that episode is:

    “And what if we picked the wrong religion? Every week, we’re just making God madder and madder!”

  55. It’s much easier to make fragments of one, like planets,
    However, the galactic economy isn’t nearly rich enough to support this trade, so the Planet Magrathea is temporarily closed for business. We look forward to your custom in future lives.

  56. The article references “brains” — plural. There’s no justification for that in principle of the argument. Earlier, they put it this way: “Nature tends to do what is easiest, from the standpoint of energy and probability.”

    Surely the easiest and cheapest is just one brain (that would be mine; call me the Solipsist Piper). If I’m going to imagine a whole universe, then it’s child’s play for me to imagine you figments.

    So, why am I writing to a bunch of figments? Because I don’t believe any part of this junk. Occam’s Razor has NOT been called upon in the article nor applied correctly in these comments. Assuming that something resembling String Theory works out, the universe is made of just one kind of stuff and there is one law to govern its behavior. (Even if not, there’s few dozen.) All the complexity around you is the result of symmetry breaking. Compare that simplicity with the idea that a fully functioning brain, complete with illusory external universe, that arises from … from … errr, uh, the article seems to be admirably silent on that point.

    Occam’s Razor says to make Your Theory simple, not to conserve the energy or space required. Nature is notably spendthrift about enery and space, which is why we’re 93 million miles from a sun that wastes 99.999% of its energy, instead of some much more economical arrangement.

    Besides that — suppose the Theory of the Floating Brain is really true… then, exactly what am I supposed to DO about it? Useful theories have some sort of consequence.

  57. Oh, you think my razor is funny, do you?

    Maybe you’d like to see it up close – real close.

    Try it, punks.

  58. My name is Occam, and I get respect
    Deference to my philosophy is what I expect
    Never dis me, ’cause it won’t be nice
    I’ll take out my razor and I’ll slice and dice.

  59. If true, it would mean that you yourself reading this article are more likely to be some momentary fluctuation in a field of matter and energy out in space than a person with a real past born through billions of years of evolution in an orderly star-spangled cosmos. Your memories and the world you think you see around you are illusions.

    Apart from the ‘illusion’ thing, why does it have to be either/or?

  60. Personally, I use Ockham’s Laser.

  61. R C Dean | January 15, 2008, 12:36pm | #
    Theory is always right. Sometimes reality is wrong.

    Take it to a global warming thread, robc.

    RC, that was Einstein’s position on the relationship between the existing data and his theories….
    Also see Murray Gell-Mann
    http://www.ted.com/talks/view/id/194

  62. fwiw, that Gell-Mann talk is “Beauty and truth in physics.”

  63. A naked brain floating in space would not have any time to dream. Temperatures hovering around absolute zero in a near-vacuum are kinda hard on tissues.

  64. Here’s a fun one:

    An exact atom-for-atom simulation of the universe would require a quantum computer the size of the universe. Its actually possible that the universe is a giant quantum computer computing itself.

  65. I really hope I don’t sound like an elitist. The purpose of this argument is to classify not to rank or declare any world-view “better” than an other.

    I think it’s helpful to consider usefulness in context. To the majority of the world’s population, it’s probably not important to consider metaphysics beyond the daily struggle for survival. Useful world-views are ones that help you find food, shelter and safety from the bad guys. Once you begin having substantial access to technology and/or leisure time, certain cosmologies become more useful. However, unless you are a scientist or an engineer, it’s probably enough to look at the universe as obeying Newtonian laws even if you don’t accept all of the premises of the scientific worldview, i.e., you should believe in at least enough “science” so you don’t go jumping off a cliff because you believe you can fly. If you can fly, please come show me so that I can adjust this argument.
    I think that scientists should accept the basic premises of “science” and this precludes ID and creationism (in other words, I don’t think ID or creationism is “scientific”). Otherwise, who cares if people believe in the flying spaghetti monster, Old Earth creation, or the Matrix (as long as they don’t use government or other force to impose their viewpoints on you). I recognize fundamentalist Christians do do this, so I have no problem with efforts to keep church and state separate. My point is that just because someone does accept the premises of science, this does not mean they are stupid. This is ultimately a self-serving argument, because I do not accept those premises (as an existentialist [more or less] I think it’s all very interesting, but don’t really care that much), and I don’t want to think of myself as stupid. Hey, at least I’m honest, right…

  66. Compare that simplicity with the idea that a fully functioning brain, complete with illusory external universe, that arises from … from … errr, uh, the article seems to be admirably silent on that point.

    To be fair, what the author is trying to say is that in a multiverse that can last for eternity, in which quantum mechanics dictates that there is always some chance that particles can coalesce into macro-level objects, then all possible objects must appear at some point, including brains that float in space. Or put more simply, in a universe that lives forever where random things can happen, then everything must happen at some point. Which is not really as sexy as the article makes it sound.

    But I’m definitely with you about the “useful theories” having consequences bit. This is the sort of speculation that’s very exciting to some scientists and a lot of lay people, but it’s not very useful. So what if I could appear fully embodied 1 trillion years in the future as the result of a random coalescing of particles? How does that even answer basic questions about the fate of the universe? You’ll note after reading that article that even after all this fancy metaphysical speculation, we still can’t answer questions like what is dark matter/energy and why is our universe comprised so much of it?

  67. All I know is that the data I’m able to examine makes it look like my brain is contained in a body, and this body walks around on a planet. Maybe I’m imagining it all (why the hell did I imagine interacting with you guys instead of becoming Nicholas Sarkozy and vacationing with Carla Bruni, BTW?), but it sure as hell looks like the world exists and obeys physical laws, so that’s what I go with. It’s all I’ve got, so I use it.

    FWIW, most of theoretical physics isn’t like this. I’m doing calculations on molecules around tumors, working on algorithms to analyze microscope images, and trying to simulate some weird photochemistry that might be useful in manufacturing circuits. The cosmologists are a bunch of weirdos, the rest of us are analyzing important shit.”

    Well said Throeau. If it is all a figment of my imagination, I sure have a crappy imagination and for being a figment that bus is sure going to hurt when it hits me.

  68. Anytime I read about a speculation to the effect that reality does not exist, or that our fundamental perceptions are nothing but illusion, I have to take it with a mountain of salt and basically dismiss it as Not Useful.

    I mean, suppose we had experimental proof of this. The headlines would read:

    There Is No Objective Reality and All Perceptions Are Illusions, Say Scientists Based on Their Inherently Unreliable Perceptions of the False Results of Nonexistent Experiments Conducted in a Reality That Isn’t There

    I mean, isn’t that like a double negative? At least?

  69. At this stage of human evolution of consciousness, either outcome is logically irrelevant, since this is but a philosophically meaningless ontological exploration. I could just as easily propose that we are light beams, floaty things or spaghetti monster particles that are all part of the same all-singing all dancing crap of the universe. It’s froofy nonsense. I could just as easily propose that existence is an illusion springing from the concept of nothingness, which itself relies on and is related to somethingness in a conceptually reflexive nonduality of everything/nothing. Therefore ‘being’ since there cannot ‘not be’. And in this context, our intelligence could just be static cling.

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