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Is the Universe Conscious?

I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

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?

Panpsychism

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.

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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.

Self-Propelled Star

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.”

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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?

Bonus Factoids

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?

Sources

  • “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

Comments

gene on August 09, 2019:

There are different disciplines in science and they all have root beginnings and teachings as well as learned facts all science is considered factual in our space and real-time but in dimensional space-time its the understanding of quantum theories that we have yet to understand and even develope. Secular society attacks ancient beliefs as or the dynamics as spiritual traditions as fantasy yet secularism is very cold and harsh toward the notion that there is something greater or above our personal consciousness. In that respect, it is arrogant and myopic. This is why it brings society to chaos. Old axioms exist for a reason.

I believe the same applies to all levels of thinking or scientific disciplines and we constrain ourselves to think it's not possible when in reality of space-time it is and probably already exists just not in our myopic world of self-indulged hedonistic barbaric bloodthirsty rule and lust for power over others that think breathe and exemplify a million synapses that make thought possible. The junk DNA that makes us all unique not the same. Is that based upon thought and space-time at the time of cellular conception? To what comparison is the so-called perfect Genome or structure?

Take gravity its considered weak force. But what if rifts of dark matter lie all through our galaxy or dark energy and as we travel inward towards the black hole at the center of our galaxy we hit these steams or flows that cause reaction upon our natural little solar system or upset what we catastrophic events to us humans on this planet. Gravity waves and their existence I believe implies just that and the simple experiment of pulling a blanket tight and letting a basketball roll to the center is part of the proof. Imagine if each person holding the edges started shaking and moving the edges our whole solar system shifts as well as all the planets inside it. As we travel inward we will at some point exit the space in time that the last revolution in time was. like getting off a freeway changing lanes or going up or down a mountain.

Now when we see things our ancestors warned us about the people at the top well they have a funny way of reacting. Just like when Einstine told the scientifically established thinkers it only takes one of me to prove you all wrong. This doesn't take mathematics to see this reality or possible happening but are we the only ones no are we going to realize that we need to prepare for our future and I'm sure we are to some degree but I believe there are greater things to come in quantum physics and our known reality.

I believe in the Akashic record. I have almost died four or five times I've saved thousands of lives lived laughed cried felt fear pain joy happiness even did things I didn't like but had too.

Through it, all I still have my thoughts my dreams my visions of the earth in space when I was a boy, yes being human is easy to accept but so is indoctrination and fear of acceptance. we must learn that we are not alone or the first to face this and our destruction is up to us and our inability to understand we all face the same reality together and yet we are all alone singular individuals as well

Kesther on July 29, 2019:

I also want to say that I applaud people like Sam and Annaka Harris, Thomas Nagel, Steve Taylor, ( who was a hardline materialist due, to his education ) and many others who are unafraid to step beyond or question the hard materialistic worldview. Even at the expense of being accused of many things and labeled an 'unreliable scientist' or 'pseudoscientist', crank/quack, 'Chopra woo meister', 'veering into comforting fantasies and away from science and reality', etc.

Unfortunately, many former skeptic/materialists recieve a bunch of aggressive responses on a regular basis.

I'm agnostic and even I recieve vehement responses and labels on a regular basis, due to being open to the possibility of there being more to reality than just materialism and the physical.

If I had a dollar for every response, label, and accusation I've recieved, I'd be rich. Rich enough to travel to Asia. ( where I want to go and probably live )

Post materialism is not as fear-driven or blind faith-based as we had previously thought. Nor is it a 'smokescreen for woo and superstitious fantasies', or 'bringing us back into the dark ages'.

Keep up the good work.

Many people have been saying "start thinking for yourself"! Well, that's exactly what we're doing. Moving away from materialism is not moving away from, or abandoning science.

Kesther on July 29, 2019:

Science seems to be turning it’s attention away from the hard materialist view, and leaning a bit towards panpsychism. I think that’s a great start. I think it's time for science as a whole to move beyond materialism.

Even Annaka and Sam Harris now say that the hard materialistic view is silly.

Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on April 10, 2019:

Hi, I agreed. Thanks.

Tim Truzy from U.S.A. on April 10, 2019:

Although I cannot say whether our universe is conscious, I don't put anything pass the God of the Impossible. It may be; our time is linear. It may not be. But I do know we were created as an act of love, and this universe is a result of that love. Thanks for an interesting and thought provoking article. Respectfully, Tim

Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on April 04, 2019:

Very interesting Rubert. I hope we arew not a computer imulation. You wrote of a variety of views, and maybe we won't know what the truth is untilI we are gone. And, maybe we won't know then. I tend to believe in God and I just don't know what to think about these scientiest. Until we have some more evidence I will not be too concerned about theories.

Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on April 04, 2019:

Hello, Rupert, I agreed with you. Have a nice time and thanks.

Rupert Taylor (author) from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada on April 04, 2019:

Miebakagh - I have no idea whether the Universe is conscious or unconscious. I simply throw the story out as a conversation and thought starter.

Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on April 04, 2019:

Hello, Rupert, although there is consciousness felt by humans, animals, birds, plants and other lesser living things, the idea that the inanimate universe is consciousness is too absurd. If it is to be taken for a grant, does it means all the content of the universe include humanity? In this aspect, then consciousness seems real.

Scientists can veer over too much or little. And this at times leads to much confusion of the mind. It is a pity that highly thinking scientists are not times reliable.

Whether these are suggesting a theory or reality becomes hard to quest. My pleasure reading the story. Thanks for sharing.

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