False Premises in “Is the Universe a Conscious Mind?”


Image source: NASA

“The universe is not fine-tuned to us; we are fine-tuned to our particular universe.”
Victor J. Stenger


Aeon Magazine often publishes interesting and thought-provoking essays. But recently I had the distinct displeasure of stumbling upon a real stinker: “Is the Universe a Conscious Mind?” This essay by Philip Goff, an associate professor in philosophy at the Central European University, is subtitled “Cosmopsychism might seem crazy, but it provides a robust explanatory model for how the Universe became fine-tuned for life.” It was published in Aeon Magazine on February 8th, 2018.


Professor Goff’s hypothesis of “cosmopsychism” is too vague for me to adequately criticize. Instead of arguing against his main thesis, I want to address the many misconceptions about science, and particularly physics, presented in his essay.


Goff: “It turns out that, for life to be possible, the numbers in basic physics – for example, the strength of gravity, or the mass of the electron – must have values falling in a certain range. And that range is an incredibly narrow slice of all the possible values those numbers can have.”

This is false. The parameters of which he speaks can have a wide range and still be acceptable for life as we know it. As for life as we don’t know it, we don’t know what range of parameters would be acceptable. Furthermore, life is not the reason physicists worry about fine-tuning. In the context of physics, fine-tuning means that certain parameters are not deducible from (predicted by) theory (the Standard Model, in this case). In other words, it is not that the Cosmos is fine-tuned for life, but that scientists fine-tune their model with parameters they obtain from experiment. The specific examples of fine-tuning he gives are actually wrong, and I will not dive into the technical details here, but I shall give some suggestions for further reading below.


Goff:Both of these theories [the god hypothesis and the ‘multiverse’ hypothesis]  are able to explain the fine-tuning.”

This is exactly wrong. First, if the Cosmos were fine-tuned in the sense he claims, it would be evidence against the god hypothesis, since God, in its omnipotence, could have life in any type of cosmos it wanted (unless you re-define god to relax the omnipotence requirement). Secondly, the multiverse idea is itself a prediction which results from certain cosmological models. The multiverse model (in the sense of multiple extant cosmoi) is not a source of prediction, as I mention below.


Goff: “The problem is that, on the face of it, they also make false predictions.”

The god hypothesis does, depending on its form, but the multiverse model does not. It actually can predict any possible observation, which is why it is not useful as a theory.


Goff: “However, both of these moves feel ad hoc, fiddling to try to save the theory rather than accepting that, on its most natural interpretation, the theory is falsified.”

That is not what falsification means. They have not been falsified, they are merely useless hypotheses. There is much empirical evidence against the god hypothesis in the form he presented (more than the single reason he gave), but it is not falsified because it cannot be–the hypothesis is infinitely adjustable with ad hoc justifications, as he puts it. For the multiverse model, Goff makes the mistake of bringing up Boltzmann Brains as some kind of problem. First, Boltzmann Brains (ephemeral statistical fluctuations in a thermal equilibrium resulting in sentient entities) are not predictions in realistic models. Second, the whole issue of Boltzmann Brains is irrelevant to this discussion. There is no evidence against the multiverse model because there can never be any evidence against it, which is why it is not falsifiable.


Goff: “But it is standardly assumed that one day these challenges will be overcome and physicists will proudly present an eager public with the Grand Unified Theory of everything: a complete story of the fundamental nature of the Universe.”

First, this is not assumed; we don’t know if it is possible. Second, the public is not eager; most of them do not understand these issues and do not care anyway; people like us are a tiny minority. Third, Goff is confusing a GUT with a TOE. Grand Unification Theory (GUT) is the hypothesis that all the fundamental interactions are aspects of the same interaction on a certain energy scale–it may or may not be a component of a Theory of Everything (TOE). A property of TOE is that all of its components are consistent with each other. It would not be a complete story, because a TOE is a necessary, not a sufficient condition for understanding nature.


Goff (After displaying Newton’s Law of Gravity): Notice that this equation doesn’t provide us with definitions of what ‘mass’, ‘force’ and ‘distance’ are.”

Why would it? They are defined elsewhere.

Goff: “And this is not something peculiar to Newton’s law.”

Right, but it is peculiar to a certain class of theories.

Goff: “The subject matter of physics are the basic properties of the physics world: mass, charge, spin, distance, force. But the equations of physics do not explain what these properties are.”

Some equations are descriptive, some are explanatory. Crack open a physics textbook. It is the job of physics to find out what these ‘basic properties’ are! These terms are well-defined in the theories that define them, and the definitions are getting better the more physicists learn.

Goff: “They simply name them in order to assert equations between them. If physics is not telling us the nature of physical properties, what is it telling us? The truth is that physics is a tool for prediction.”

That’s not the truth, that’s a falsity. The goal of physics is explanation, not prediction. Predictions are a necessary component of a theory so that it can be tested. They are a means to an end, not the end themselves.

David Deutsch said it well: “Instrumentalism [is] the misconception that science cannot describe reality, only predict outcomes of observations. There is no such thing as an explanationless theory. One cannot make even the simplest prediction without invoking quite a sophisticated explanatory framework.

Goff: “Even if we don’t know what ‘mass’ and ‘force’ really are, we are able to recognise them in the world.”

We do know what they really are. In some theories they are defined; in others not. More and more precise theories give us better and better ideas of what these terms really mean.
Goff keeps wanting to know what something is in some ultimate, reductive sense, even though he seems to want to embrace holism (see below). We do have an answer in contemporary physics as to what exists fundamentally (but not ultimately): what exists are relativistic quantum fields permeating all of space. But this answer may change as we understand more. What is a field? We may find a clearer answer, but there is no reason to expect there to be some ultimate answer. As John D. Barrow astutely commented:

The process of discovery could continue indefinitely either because the complexity of Nature is truly bottomless or because we have chosen a particular way of describing Nature which, while being as accurate as we desire, is nonetheless at best always but an asymptotic approximation that only an infinite number of refinements could make correspond exactly to reality.”


Goff: “… they feel strongly inclined to think that the mathematical models of physics capture the whole of reality. But this is simply not the job of physics. Physics is in the business of predicting the behaviour of matter, not revealing its intrinsic nature.”

This is just an assertion, and it is manifestly false. You can look at what we have learned about nature in the last century and see for yourself. For example, we have learned that matter is a form of energy and we have learned what processes are responsible for its mass. The dubious word here is intrinsic. It is vague. The Cosmos consists of processes, not things. Things with properties are a high-level emergent description, yet he keeps asking for a reductive ontology. This falls into a broad class of fallacies which search for an ultimate being / ultimate beginning / ultimate explanation / ultimate cause / etc.


Goff: “… contemporary physics suggests that in fact we live in a ‘top-down’ – or ‘holist’ – Universe, in which complex wholes are more fundamental than their parts.”

Contemporary physics does not suggest holism; Goff’s statement is completely baseless. There is reductionism and there is emergentism. Some fundamental laws are reductive, some are emergent, but none are holistic. Most of what Goff had said up to this point can be found in some popular fake science online newspapers, but I really have no idea where he gets this claim of holism in physics. Certainly quantum entanglement, which is a type of statistical correlation, has nothing to do with it.


Professor Goff’s main concern in this essay is that we take his “cosmopsychism” idea seriously. I have not even addressed how his claims ignore what modern neuroscience has to say about consciousness (it is clear that consciousness is an activity of a complex network of communicating nodes, so that some level of network complexity is a necessary condition). It would help his case if he took his own research seriously and attempted to learn some basics before publishing grandiose philosophical theories based on false premises.

—- Ander Nesser, the 19th of February, 2018


Further reading:

Don’t take my word for any of this. The above article is not my opinion. Learn from the experts.

A good rudimentary physics textbook:

Goldstein, Poole, and Safko. Classical Mechanics, Third Edition. Addison Wesley, 2001.

Information about fine-tuning in physics:

Hossenfelder, Sabine. “Screams for Explanation: Finetuning and Naturalness in the Foundations of Physics.” https://arxiv.org/abs/1801.02176

Stenger, Victor J. The Fallacy of Fine-Tuning: Why the Universe Is Not Designed for Us. Prometheus Books, 2011.

About Boltzmann Brains:

Boddy, Carroll, and Pollack. “Why Boltzmann Brains Don’t Fluctuate Into Existence From the De Sitter Vacuum.” https://arxiv.org/abs/1505.02780

Carroll, Sean M. “What If Time Really Exists?” https://arxiv.org/abs/0811.3772

General discussions on theories of everything, reductionism, emergentism, the role of mathematics, theory structure, and related issues in modern science:

Barrow, John D. New Theories of Everything. Oxford University Press, 2007.

Deutsch, David. The Beginning of Infinity: Explanations That Transform the World. Viking, 2011.

Streaks and stripes

Image source: NASA