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from Moments of mental randomness by Marcus M. McGrew

Copyright © 2019–2020 Marcus M. McGrew

It's over Universe

Is The Universe Conscious?


Panpsychism, the theory that the entire universe is conscious, is by no means a new idea. It has existed in one form or another across the centuries and in many different cultural and religious settings. The ancient philosopher Plato believed in what he called the “World-Soul”, some Hindus believed that the universe was a living illusion from a powerful god and many neopagans believe that the earth has a conscious spirit they call “Gaia”. Even Christian thought evokes the idea of a pervasive “Holy Spirit”.

But panpsychism isn’t necessarily dated or even mystical as there are many modern, secular and even scientific arguments that have been made for it as well. Whether you are religious or not, chances are at least one of these three arguments will make you think twice about how you view the world around you.

1. Integrated Information Theory

There’s probably only one thing everyone can agree on when it comes to consciousness: it’s a very strange phenomenon. One particular difficulty scientists have with consciousness is that it’s impossible to get to it from first principles or, to put it another way, it’s just not conducive to the reductive process of modern science. There’s nothing about the fundamental parts of the brain (be they neurons or atoms depending on the level of analysis) which, when added together, ought to generate the phenomenological experience of consciousness such as the experience of the colour red, or the subjective feeling of joy. These are things which philosophers refer to as “qualia” and this has been called the “hard problem of consciousness”. So instead of working from the ground up, neurologist Giulio Tononi proposed a top-down approach. This approach, known as Integrated Information Theory, says that we can classify consciousness in terms of the common factors shared by all the things we know have consciousness. Out of those, Tononi points out that they all share certain properties: they collect information and they integrate it. In this way, Tononi’s theory proposes a definition of consciousness as the integration of information. Using this theory, any complex system can be assigned a number that tells you how integrated that system is. That number then gives you an information-theoretical measure of consciousness. Any system assigned a number greater than 0 has some degree of consciousness.

This is where things get a little bit strange. Obviously, this definition includes animals and humans with brains, so far so good, but it also includes machines as well meaning that, at least in theory, things like the internet itself could be conscious. Stranger still, there is a much larger system we know about which collects and integrates information: the universe itself. At any given time countless amounts of “data” are being integrated all around the universe from atomic collisions to complex, large-scale chemical reactions all of which would require tremendously powerful supercomputers to replicate.

Many thinkers and scientist including Neuroscientist Christof Koch subscribe to the notion that Integrated Information Theory provides a solid scientific grounding for panpsychism.

2. Quantum consciousness

Some theorists have made strong analogical attempts to argue for panpsychism with regards to the strange phenomena observed in quantum physics. The American philosopher William Lycan once made this statement while proposing how consciousness may emerge: “one little monitor does make for a little bit of consciousness. More monitors and better integration and control make for more and fuller consciousness”. In this case, Lycan regards “monitoring” and “integration” as a basic components of consciousness in a very similar fashion to Tononi. There are many ways of framing the quantum-panpsychist argument, one of them works of this “monitoring” and “integrating” definition.

Consider the quantum property called “entanglement” in which two photons may be observed to have correlating polarizations. The polarisation of one photon has an effect on the other, no matter how far apart, meaning that, in a very real sense, each photon is “monitoring” the other. It follows then that the “little bit of consciousness” described by Lycan may, in fact, exist at the quantum level where we find monitoring occurring on a very small scale everywhere in the universe. What is, perhaps, less clear then is how this monitoring would spread out into an integrated network like the ones discussed in Integrated Information Theory, this is a problem which panpsycists may need to explore in further research.

3. Non-Emergentism

The last two arguments have asserted that consciousness might emerge from integrated informational systems, but another interesting theory works with the idea that consciousness may not be emergent at all. Non-emergentism, as the name suggests, is an argument based on the idea that emergent properties do not exist. What this means is that the basic properties of complex systems can be reduced to the simplest components of those systems as well. In other words, nothing comes of nothing and consciousness must be found not only in entire systems but in their most basic components as well: particles of matter. This theory posits consciousness as a universal property of matter and, as a result, must mean consciousness is present in the entire material universe.

Perhaps one of the most intriguing arguments comes from a mix of non-emergentism and evolution. Many theorists, including English Mathematician and Philosopher William Kingdon Clifford, have argued that evolution is a process which creates complicated systems out of simpler ones, but which does not generate “entirely novel” properties such as consciousness. Naturally, this means that the simple components of biological systems must contain the same properties as we find in the entire system itself: consciousness.

It may be helpful to think about this argument by taking a quick trip backwards through our own hereditary timeline. At what point did our ancestors develop consciousness? With the emergence of our species? This is unlikely given that our ancestors also had intricate brains and nervous systems. What about at the emergence of vertebrates? This also seems unlikely given the exceptional intelligence of many molluscs like squid and octopi. Even with regards to Integrated Information Theory, single-cell organisms carry out their own input-output processes while storing, processing and integrating data which could very well be equivalent to a form of consciousness.

Although these theories are not perfect and, at the very least, are not conclusive, they do point towards some compelling possibilities. So, is the universe conscious? At this stage, it is still unclear. Whether science will live up to the test and prove the nature of consciousness once and for all remains to be seen, in the meantime it’s worth considering all the strange possibilities that wait in store for future research and study.

n the past 40 or so years, a strange fact about our Universe gradually made itself known to scientists: the laws of physics, and the initial conditions of our Universe, are fine-tuned for the possibility of life. 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. It is therefore incredibly unlikely that a universe like ours would have the kind of numbers compatible with the existence of life. But, against all the odds, our Universe does.

Here are a few of examples of this fine-tuning for life: 

 The strong nuclear force (the force that binds together the elements in the nucleus of an atom) has a value of 0.007. If that value had been 0.006 or less, the Universe would have contained nothing but hydrogen. If it had been 0.008 or higher, the hydrogen would have fused to make heavier elements. In either case, any kind of chemical complexity would have been physically impossible. And without chemical complexity there can be no life. The physical possibility of chemical complexity is also dependent on the masses of the basic components of matter: electrons and quarks. If the mass of a down quark had been greater by a factor of 3, the Universe would have contained only hydrogen. If the mass of an electron had been greater by a factor of 2.5, the Universe would have contained only neutrons: no atoms at all, and certainly no chemical reactions. Gravity seems a momentous force but it is actually much weaker than the other forces that affect atoms, by about 1036. If gravity had been only slightly stronger, stars would have formed from smaller amounts of material, and consequently would have been smaller, with much shorter lives. A typical sun would have lasted around 10,000 years rather than 10 billion years, not allowing enough time for the evolutionary processes that produce complex life. Conversely, if gravity had been only slightly weaker, stars would have been much colder and hence would not have exploded into supernovae. This also would have rendered life impossible, as supernovae are the main source of many of the heavy elements that form the ingredients of life.

Some take the fine-tuning to be simply a basic fact about our Universe: fortunate perhaps, but not something requiring explanation. But like many scientists and philosophers, I find this implausible. In The Life of the Cosmos (1999), the physicist Lee Smolin has estimated that, taking into account all of the fine-tuning examples considered, the chance of life existing in the Universe is 1 in 10229, from which he concludes: 

In my opinion, a probability this tiny is not something we can let go unexplained. Luck will certainly not do here; we need some rational explanation of how something this unlikely turned out to be the case.

The two standard explanations of the fine-tuning are theism and the multiverse hypothesis. Theists postulate an all-powerful and perfectly good supernatural creator of the Universe, and then explain the fine-tuning in terms of the good intentions of this creator. Life is something of great objective value; God in Her goodness wanted to bring about this great value, and hence created laws with constants compatible with its physical possibility. The multiverse hypothesis postulates an enormous, perhaps infinite, number of physical universes other than our own, in which many different values of the constants are realised. Given a sufficient number of universes realising a sufficient range of the constants, it is not so improbable that there will be at least one universe with fine-tuned laws.

Both of these theories are able to explain the fine-tuning. The problem is that, on the face of it, they also make false predictions. For the theist, the false prediction arises from the problem of evil. If one were told that a given universe was created by an all-loving, all-knowing and all-powerful being, one would not expect that universe to contain enormous amounts of gratuitous suffering. One might not be surprised to find it contained intelligent life, but one would be surprised to learn that life had come about through the gruesome process of natural selection. Why would a loving God who could do absolutely anything choose to create life that way? Prima facie theism predicts a universe that is much better than our own and, because of this, the flaws of our Universe count strongly against the existence of God.

Turning to the multiverse hypothesis, the false prediction arises from the so-called Boltzmann brain problem, named after the 19th-century Austrian physicist Ludwig Boltzmann who first formulated the paradox of the observed universe. Assuming there is a multiverse, you would expect our Universe to be a fairly typical member of the universe ensemble, or at least a fairly typical member of the universes containing observers (since we couldn’t find ourselves in a universe in which observers are impossible). However, in The Road to Reality (2004), the physicist and mathematicia...

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