What is the Universe, Really?

Nebula photo

Since the beginning of time, humankind has been making up stories to relate to divinity and the cosmos. With each new age, new theories and explanations have been proposed to explain the universe and our place within it. As technology has shifted, we have come up with new and innovative ways to relate to the universe. So, what is the universe really?

The Universe as an Ocean

The people of Mesopotamia were limited in technology and travel. Crossing the oceans was dangerous, so life consisted of being on a piece of land surrounded by water. It’s no surprise then that their idea of space was that the Earth was a big piece of flat land surrounded by a cosmic ocean.

The Universe as a Watch

Pocket watches were created in the mid 1700s. After their invention, Jean-Jacques Rousseau came up with the theory of a watchmaker God.

Rousseau wrote the following in his 1762 book, Emile:

I am like a man who sees the works of a watch for the first time; he is never weary of admiring the mechanism, though he does not know the use of the instrument and has never seen its face. I do not know what this is for, says he, but I see that each part of it is fitted to the rest, I admire the workman in the details of his work, and I am quite certain that all these wheels only work together in this fashion for some common end which I cannot perceive. Let us compare the special ends, the means, the ordered relations of every kind, then let us listen to the inner voice of feeling; what healthy mind can reject its evidence? Unless the eyes are blinded by prejudices, can they fail to see that the visible order of the universe proclaims a supreme intelligence? What sophisms must be brought together before we fail to understand the harmony of existence and the wonderful co-operation of every part for the maintenance of the rest?

This idea of intelligent design brought a scientific approach to universal understanding while still balancing it with a state of wonder. Rousseau proved his ideological view by dwelling on the complexity of the world around us and comparing it to a complex machine of human creation.

The Universe as a Physical Machine

As technology developed, more philosophers and thinkers took ideas from the technological aspects of society to prove their theories. As the industrial revolution began to happen, more and more people moved to the cities to trade their time for work. Assembly lines were also invented and the obsession with productivity was assimilated into society.

Isaac Newton developed his scientific principles around this time. This mechanistic understanding of the world and cosmos was fed by and fed into the functioning of the world as a whole. It is here that scientific understanding truly gained a lot of ground with the general public and it was popular in the 1800s to have discourses on religion and science.

Again, the technological breakthroughs of society helped shape cosmological world views for many people. The dependability of the physical universe and the idea that certain laws govern it, either on Earth, or in space led to the creation of many social ideas as truth. Labor as one’s value, assembly line shops, and many modern conveniences were created under this thinking.

(As technology developed and integrated into people’s lives, new ideas were spread through television shows. The Twilight Zone was an influential and mind-expanding TV show about cosmology and universal potentials. In this case we used our technology to directly expand our minds about many different universal potentials. The moralistic framework for The Twilight Zone gives punishment to the wicked and reward to the loving and patient. Movies and shows persistently told specific narratives that shaped the way that people interacted with one another and viewed the world around them.)

The Universe as a Dream

How do you really know that you are awake and not dreaming? Nobody knows, nor have they ever known, thus the argument that the universe is just a big dream was established. In  Dzogchen Buddhism, the internalization of information is not trusted and is regarded as a big dream. So, if all of our senses are internalizing the external world in a dream-like state, then what else is the universe, but our dream?

The Universe as a Video Game

As we learn how to capture more data on our day-to-day tasks, our lives have become increasingly gamified. Fitbits show us a wilting flower when we haven’t gotten enough steps and learning apps like Duolingo feature XP points and a little owl that occasionally says encouraging things.

People like Oliver Emberton and Jane McGonigal have found ways to compare our entire lives to video games. Meanwhile, NASA scientist Rich Terrile discusses how game maps don’t load until you’re in them and says, “The universe behaves in the exact same way. In quantum mechanics, particles do not have a definite state unless they're being observed. Many theorists have spent a lot of time trying to figure out how you explain this. One explanation is that we're living within a simulation, seeing what we need to see when we need to see it.”

So is the universe a video game? Or is it a more complex technology?

The Universe as a Super Computer

Next up we had the internet. The internet is a series of connections between computers that runs on fiberoptic or copper cables. Based on the availability of this technology in different regions, you would think the development of the internet would be random and unrelated to our biology. But in fact, the neurology of our brain works in a very similar way.

Developments in neuroscience and astrophysics led to the realization that our brains, the internet and the universe have profound similarities. It turns out that complex networks tend to form with the same principles. The idea of the universe as a network was first identified in the Upanishads as the idea of Indra’s Net, a interconnected net of jewels of consciousness that reflected the other jewels around it.

Because of these similarities, comparisons to the universe as a giant super computer circulated and gained popularity. It turns out, the shape of complex networks mimic the shape of space.

So does that mean that we naturally created a microcosm example of the universal macrocosm, or does it mean that we are living in a computer? Really, no one knows.

The Universe as Virtual Reality

As our computing powers increase and avatars become more and more realistic, the idea that we could be actually living in a simulated reality has seemed more and more possible. Movies like The Matrix and Inception have shown the reality within reality that we may be experiencing. The sneaking suspicion that this reality isn’t all that it seems has existed for a lot longer than that.

In one of my favorite images which was created in 1888, a traveler puts their head through the firmament to see beyond the veil into the true nature of reality. The traveler sees beyond the stars and beyond the sun to a land of wonderful shapes, and for some reason, two wagon wheels turning together. Indeed, the best part of the picture is the border of beasts and columns, indicating that even the reality beyond ours has its boundaries that may lead to realities beyond even that.flammarion engraving

In 2003 Nick Bostrom posed the theory that it is very likely that we are living in a simulation reality and Elon Musk believes the odds are billions to one, with the billions being that we are definitely living in a simulation.

The Universe as a Hologram

2Pac may or may not have died in 1996, but one thing is for certain, he has lived on as a hologram. 2Pac’s hologram performed in 2012 as a computer-generated, 3-D looking projection and scientists think there’s a chance that maybe we’re all holograms too. In 2017 a “study revealed substantial evidence of a holographic universe.” A hologram is a 3-D projection from a 2-D space. This includes time. So, our entire understanding of the third and fourth dimensions are basically made up fantasies being projected from a 2-D plane. Abbot’s Flatland is suddenly super relevant.

My point is, that looking only at technological or physical proof limits us in our ability to understand the universe. Is the universe like our old technology? Is the universe like our current techology? Or is the universe a complex and unknowable mystery to those of us trapped in our limited perceptions?

When we blindly follow the trend of simply comparing and using modern technology to understand the systems at work and our role within them, we are limiting ourselves. The universe can be anything we imagine. So what can we imagine? What ideas would help us become better people and gain more satisfaction from our lives?

We are limiting our universal understandings to current technology, so the question arises: when will we be technologically or mentally prepared enough to break free from these limitations? How much technology will we need to invent before we can truly understand the universe? And if we do, will we then create a new universe?

I urge humankind to move away from this limited thinking and rise up into a more intuitive approach. Each person can have their own understanding and relationship to the divine universe in whatever way benefits them. You don’t need to be limited by our technology or current understandings to have a relationship with the universe. So what do you think the universe is? What is the best thing that you can imagine? Embrace it, because you might be right.