Consciousness and Cosmology

by Ross Ulbricht

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During my years in prison, I have had many hours to read, think and meditate. Many ideas have germinated and grown in my mind during this time. I’d like to share one with you here that builds on my background in physics. It is based on two ideas that sound far fetched but are in fact accepted by many of the leading physicists, neuroscientists and philosophers of our day, and are supported by a long record of observation. I will lay them out here up front and then explain what I mean below.

The first idea is that every conscious moment of your life (including the one you are having now) is a discrete unit, unattached to the moments before or after it. The second idea is that our observable universe is just a small piece of a much larger multiverse throughout which there are many such conscious “observer moments.” So, because each observer moment is discreet, and there are — as we will see — many observer moments throughout the multiverse that are identical to the one you are having, there is no way to know which one you are.

The science behind these ideas is deep and fascinating, touching on the frontiers of consciousness research and cosmology. I will propose at the end of this essay an experiment that anyone, even you, can conduct to test these ideas. But first, let’s talk about the multiverse.

The Multiverse Hypothesis

As our ability to observe and understand our universe has grown over the past century, scientists have uncovered some inconvenient information that is forcing us to expand our conception of our place in the cosmos. There appears to be a number of parameters that describe the fundamental nature of our universe that are fine-tuned for our existence. For example, if electrons were much lighter, there would be no stable stars (including our sun), and if there were much heavier, ordered molecules like DNA would not form. Parameters affecting dark matter and energy, electromagnetism, the masses of the fundamental particles and more, all must be fine-tuned (sometimes to within 30 decimal places!) for life as we know it to exist.

Did we just get lucky? Did God set things up just so? Or is there another explanation?

Take a parameter unique not to our universe, but our solar system: the mass of the Sun. The bigger a star’s mass, the brighter it shines, and the Sun is no different. If the Sun was 20% heavier or lighter, Earth would be hotter than Venus or colder than Mars and thus uninhabitable. But the masses of stars in general can vary 1000-fold. The Sun’s mass appears to be fine-tuned for life on Earth, just like the universal parameters mentioned above.

Now that we have telescopes strong enough to see them, we know there are a multitude of planets around vast numbers of stars that are clustered into galaxies billions of lightyears out in every direction. Even if most of these planets are uninhabited because their solar systems aren’t just right, is it any surprise that we live on a planet in a solar system that is? If we didn’t…well we wouldn’t be around to ask such questions, would we?

It seems possible at least, if not likely, that our universal parameters appear fine-tuned for the same reason. We live in a universe fine-tuned for life among a vast sea of universes with different settings. Even if life is impossible in most of them, is it any surprise we find ourselves in a universe where it is? This vast sea of universes is the multiverse, and the evidence for it is all around us, including our own existence.

In his book, “Our Mathematical Universe,” Max Tegmark gives a convincing argument for four different levels, or ways, our universe could be part of a multiverse. The first, based on standard cosmology, says that our universe is infinite in scope. In every direction we look, galaxy clusters are uniform at the largest scales. There is no apparent edge or center. It just goes on forever. So, the region we are in and could have any hope of interacting with is just one of infinitely many. In that unbounded set of regions, anything that can happen is happening.

The second level is based on inflation theory, which is a widely accepted explanation for our Big Bang, the geometry of space, and the uniformity of galaxy clusters. Tegmark argues that, to accept inflation theory, one must accept that our universe is just one of many where inflation has collapsed, creating a bubble universe where random values for the universal parameters have been set. Again, just because the parameters in our particular bubble universe were set randomly, yet turned out perfectly for life, doesn’t mean luck or intelligent design are necessarily at play. If the dials are spun a huge number of times, eventually they will land this way. It shouldn’t be surprising we are in one of the few bubbles that can support life given that we are in fact alive.

The third and fourth levels are even more mind-bending. They involve branching universes for every possible outcome of quantum events and a completely abstract set of all possible mathematical objects of which the other levels are just one.

Regardless of which scenarios are true, there is good reason to believe that our universe is not the only one. Just as we discovered that Earth is not the only planet, the Sun is but one of many stars, and the Milky Way is not the only galaxy, our universe is not the only one either. Maybe we will have time to name it some day to distinguish it from others?

The Observer Moment Hypothesis

Given a multiverse where — somewhere and somewhen — there is every combination of matter and energy possible, there must be other conscious observers out there aside from us here on Earth. Their experiences may be wildly different from our own. The full range of our conscious experiences — from seeing blue to feeling velvet, from falling in love to being enraged, our most exalted thoughts and our basest drives — may all be a tiny subset of what it is possible to experience.

Even a mundane moment, like being stuck in traffic, is rich with what psychologists and neuroscientists call “qualia”: the feel of the car seat on your legs, the warm steering wheel on your palm, the seatbelt pressing on your hips, the vibration of the engine, a horn honking, the traffic report on the radio, the sun reflecting off the hood of your car, frustration at being late, envy of people in nicer cars, mentally replaying a conversation, and on and on.

Each qualia is a mental object that makes up an observer moment. These moments are strung together like beads, each connected to the last by your memory. The moment after you hear the horn blare, that sound no longer exists for you except in your memory. We trust our memories to give us a good approximation of previous moments, but all we really have access to is what we are experiencing right now.

In the vast multiverse, there may be a simulation running somewhere of the exact observer moment you are having right now, complete with all the sights, sounds, thoughts, feelings and memories you have this instant. How do you know you are you and not that simulation? What is the difference between the two? You might say you are different from the hypothetical simulation because you actually have a past whereas the simulation has just the illusion of a past from its artificial memories. But what exactly is connecting the observer moments that make up your life?

Imagine you board a train in Paris bound for Berlin and quickly fall into a deep dreamless sleep. You are completely unconscious and have no observer moments until you wake up at the station in Berlin. After a moment’s disorientation, you know exactly who you are, where you are, where you were before you fell asleep and what your plans are in Berlin. The last observer moment you had was several hours prior and far away in another country. Yet, there is perfect continuity between it and your current experience.

So, it is not time or space that connects observer moments. It is the imprint each one has on the next via memory that gives them the illusion of being strung together.

But time itself isn’t an illusion, right? The jury is still out on that one. As our top physicists work out quantum gravity, our best understanding of time comes from Einstein and his famous theory of relativity. He showed us that, rather than time and space being fundamentally different dimensions in our universe (3 space dimensions and 1 for time), we in fact live in a universe with 4 of the same dimension called “space-time”, a so-called “block universe.” So, time is real but our experience is like a frame in a movie. Our experience is like hitting play, but the universe is the DVD itself. It just is.

If you’ve never encountered these ideas before, smoke might be coming out of your ears right about now. There are all sorts of bizarre implications that stem from the picture of reality modern physics is unveiling. Do a search for subjective immortality or Boltzmann brains for a taste. And let’s not even get started on what this all means for free will.

Instead, we will turn to an hypothesis of my own which, as promised, will lead us to a simple experiment that you can conduct to test these ideas. If this has already been proposed elsewhere, I apologize and give full credit where it is due, but I can’t easily do that kind of literature search from prison.

The Universal Consciousness Hypothesis

To understand this idea, let’s go back to that traffic jam, jam packed with qualia. The more qualia contained in that observer moment, the rarer we can expect identical observer moments in the multiverse to be. Let’s walk through this to see what I mean.

Imagine you are in the traffic jam and you close your eyes. All the sensory input (qualia) from your field of vision is now missing from this new moment. Anyone hearing, feeling, thinking, etc. the same things you are — without any visual qualia — anywhere in the multiverse, is now indistinguishable from you and you from them. You are like the same frame in the movie on the DVD of all existence.

Now turn off the radio. Shut off the engine. Undo your seatbelt. One by one you remove qualia, and the resulting observer moment becomes less and less rare because there is less and less to distinguish it from other observer moments. Conversely, if more unique qualia were to be added, such as getting into a car accident, the new observer moment would be rarer. If the multiverse isn’t truly infinite and just ridiculously huge, a moment like our traffic jam might even be unique.

One way to think of this is, as qualia are removed, there are more and more past moments that could seamlessly merge into this one. And there are more that could come after, each one with different qualia added back in. When you turn the radio back on, the sound it makes will be one from every possible observer moment that fits with the one you were just having. Of course your memory of the radio from before you turned it off will match what you hear in the new observer moment. There will still be continuity because you have memories from many prior observer moments, but for a moment, the set of all observer moments you were a part of was enlarged.

What would happen if we kept removing qualia? What would there be if there were none left? Would we still be conscious? It turns out that people have been training their minds to be free of every kind of mental object for thousands of years. We call them Buddhist monks, and they have some very interesting things to say about empty observer moments.

John Yates is a neuroscientist who has been practicing and teaching meditation for more than 40 years. In his book, “The Mind Illuminated,” he tells us that an untrained mind is constantly jumping from one thing to another, never paying attention to one specific thing for more than a few moments. As soon as interest wanes — even a little — our minds supply us with a new object of attention from our peripheral awareness or from our unconscious.

During meditation, the practitioner sits still and focuses on the sensations of her breath. We live with these breath sensations our whole lives, and rarely do they hold any important for our conscious minds. They are about as boring and neutral as can be. So the mind (sometimes immediately) directs attention elsewhere. The practice of meditation is to redirect attention back to the breath over and over with the intention of sustaining attention there.

With enough deliberate and diligent practice, it is possible to train your mind to pay exclusive attention to a single object (such as breath sensations) for as long as you wish. It is difficult to describe the experience because it is so different from everyday states of consciousness, where our minds are constantly looking around for input to integrate into the ongoing narrative of our lives.

As one gets better at meditation, thoughts, feelings and sensations (qualia) that used to powerfully capture attention fail to do so and remain in peripheral awareness. Ignored long enough, they eventually recede from conscious awareness altogether. It is particularly odd when primary senses that have been ever-present in one’s whole life disappear, such as hearing, vision and proprioception (a sense of your own body).

Another interesting experience common among advanced practitioners is when enough layers of qualia have disappeared that individual observer moments can be distinguished from one another. Instead of experiencing the illusion of change over time (as when we hit play on a DVD), the individual frames are experienced independently of one another. Losing the subjective experience of time is a radical departure from everyday perception and leads to an experience congruent with our “block universe” understanding of reality, where there is no unique dimension for time.

Eventually, one can train to the point where entering and maintaining this state is effortless, so even the qualia resulting from that effort disappears. Along this journey of self-discovery and self-mastery, superficial aspects of your consciousness and the diversity of qualia that capture your attention fade away. What is left could be called empty consciousness or pure consciousness.

According to our discussion above, such a state should be universal to all empty conscious observer moments regardless of the particulars of their local physical surroundings.

It doesn’t matter if you are 6'2", missing an arm or full of food if you are not aware of your body. It doesn’t matter if you speak Chinese or Greek if you are not thinking. And it doesn’t matter which universe you are in if there are no qualia to distinguish you from any other observer moment void of qualia in any other universe. In a sense, one in a state of this “universal consciousness” has merged with the largest possible set of observer moments, a universal set from which countless histories and futures branch off.

What would you guess this experience is like? You might think it is empty and dull because there is nothing there to experience, but it is not. Adept practitioners throughout the ages describe immense pleasure and joy, peace, serenity and deep, intuitive understanding. They describe experiencing a sense of oneness and interconnection. They describe insight into impermanence, emptiness, the nature of suffering and the illusion of the self as separate from the rest of existence. And they all describe the same thing, just as we would expect them to if our ideas are correct.

Not only is there a test for the universal consciousness hypothesis (and thus the multiverse and observer moment hypotheses), but it has been run over and over in a huge variety of conditions with consistent results. Every person on Earth can test it out for themselves if they wish, even you dear reader. All you have to do is sit and focus. If you are truly interested in or already walking this path, I highly recommend reading “The Mind Illuminated” to benefit from the knowledge and guidance of those who have gone before us.

For myself, I have been practicing daily for over four years. I am not an adept. There is a ways to go before I can sustain exclusive attention effortlessly, but I have gained some skill and occasionally glimpse the rarified states and insights I read about. What I have described is just an hypothesis that fits what we already know about consciousness and cosmology. There could very well be another explanation for the common experience of adept meditators. But then again, it might be true. At some point, our understanding of these subjects may advance to where we can make testable predictions and prove them wrong or right. Until then, it’s fun to believe we are not alone when we sit and focus and find a moment of serenity. I’ll see you on the path.

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