Is the Universe Conscious?
Why the phenomenon of consciousness may extend beyond ourselves
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.
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.
Please note, this is not a technical or in-depth scientific article, it is intended only as a brief introduction to the possibilities of panpsychism.
For more on the evolutionary and quantum arguments check out sections 4.1 and 4.2 of this entry from the Stanford Encyclopaedia.