Is the Universe Conscious?
What we know about the Universe seems to be dwarfed by what we don’t know. So, among the many possibilities that exist in the unknown why not the idea that the Universe is a conscious structure that is self-aware?
There’s an ancient theory that every material object has some sort of mind. This notion was given the name panpsychism in the 16th century by the Italian philosopher Francesco Patrizi, but it predates him by many centuries.
For example, the Greek philosopher Thales of Miletus (c. 620 BCE—c. 546 BCE) said magnets had a soul. This was demonstrable, he said, because magnets could move iron. If magnets had souls then so could all other objects.
Many religions have regarded inanimate articles as divine. To Hindus the Ganges River is a god and the Ancient Egyptians believed the Sun to be a god.
Offering prayers to a river or a star suggests a belief that the object of veneration has a mind and can act on the entreaties.
What is Consciousness?
If you want a mental exercise that will make your brain twist into multiple pretzels then look no further than explaining consciousness. (If you don’t want to cause your brain a whole world of hurt might I suggest Pinot Noir and Brie).
What is it that allows us to perceive the colour red or to laugh uproariously at a joke? These conscious experiences can’t be explained by a physical examination of the meat that is our brains, although philosophers and scientists generally agree that that is where consciousness resides.
Kristian Marlow, co-author of The Superhuman Mind, says the mystery of consciousness “may never be solved.” But, if consciousness cannot be explained it can be observed; we know the difference between consciousness and unconsciousness. It involves being aware of ones surroundings.
A Conscious Universe
In 2016, physicist Gregory Matloff published a paper in which he put forward the idea that the Universe might be conscious. It caused a bit of a stir. Words such as “crackpot,” “science fiction,” and some that are unprintable were heard. However, the hypothesis got a respectful hearing in some scientific circles.
So, let’s dip a metaphorical toe into Dr. Matloff’s suggestion, but, fair warning, it won’t make much sense if you are not an astrophysicist.
“A universal proto-consciousness field congruent with vacuum fluctuations could interact with molecular matter via the contribution of the Casimir Effect to molecular bonds.” Further along, there are references to “Parenago’s Discontinuity,” and “stellar temperature distribution where molecular spectral lines become apparent.” Hmmm. Where’s that Pinot Noir?
It would be splendid if the writer could explain this in terms as simple as a recipe for Rice Crispy squares, but he can’t. Sorry.
However, the learned professor does give us a clue by writing that “It is therefore not impossible that panpsychism can emerge from philosophy to become a subdivision of observational astrophysics.” This might lead to a finding that the entire Universe is conscious in some way. It might also prove that it is not.
Over at The Big Think, Philip Perry writes that “A handful of scientists are starting to warm to this theory, but it’s still a matter of great debate.” One of those who support the possibility of a conscious Universe is the distinguished British physicist Sir Roger Penrose.
Let’s go back to Parenago’s Discontinuity that was mentioned a little earlier and dismissed rather condescendingly. It is the observation that cooler stars, such as our Sun, circulate around the Milky Way faster than hotter ones.
Dr. Matloff suggests these cool stars step on the gas pedal to create “the emission of a uni-directional jet.” He says this could be an example of a star making a conscious decision and acting upon it.
Philip Perry comments that “Though it isn’t much to go on, the unveiling of the European Space Agency’s Gaia space telescope, whose mission it is to map stars, may provide more data to further support or weaken this view.”
The Sentient Molecule
We can agree that humans are self-aware; well, most of them. That state of mind exists through a combination of atoms that seem to be unconscious of their own existence. However, together, those apparently lifeless atoms form a conscious human. Suppose each of those inanimate atoms possess an undetectable amount of sentience that in conjunction with one another creates the self-aware animal.
In the same way, the Universe might be conscious through the accretion of all the atoms that make it up.
We can lean on the English astronomer Arthur Eddington for support in this. Here’s how philosophy professor Philip Goff sums up Eddington’s argument: “Given that we have no direct insight into the nature of atoms, it is rather ‘silly’, argued Eddington, to declare that atoms have a nature entirely removed from mentality, and then to wonder where mentality comes from.”
Is it possible that the Universe is a gigantic brain and that humans are simply neurons within it?
Here’s a bit of a Zen conundrum. If there were no conscious life forms, such as humans to observe it, would the Universe exist at all?
Theoretical physicists tell us that dark matter makes up 85 percent of the Universe, but scientists haven’t been able to find any. Dr. Gregory Matloff puts forward the idea that sub-atomic particles with a degree of consciousness might be what makes up dark matter.
Here’s another mind bender. Are we humans simply parts of a computer simulation created by some vast super-intelligence – the Universe perhaps?
- “Panpsychism.” David Skrbina, The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, undated.
- “Can Panpsychism Become an Observational Science?” Gregory L. Matloff, Journal of Consciousness Exploration & Research, Vol 7, No 7 (2016).
- “The Universe May Be Conscious, Say Prominent Scientists.” Philip Perry, Big Think, June 25, 2017.
- “Is the Universe a Conscious Mind? Philip Goff, Aeon, February 8, 2018.
© 2019 Rupert Taylor