NPR logo Is The Universe Conscious?

Is The Universe Conscious?

This image of the Orion Nebula star-formation region was obtained by multiple exposures using the HAWK-I infrared camera on ESO's Very Large Telescope in Chile. H. Drass et al./ESO hide caption

toggle caption
H. Drass et al./ESO

This image of the Orion Nebula star-formation region was obtained by multiple exposures using the HAWK-I infrared camera on ESO's Very Large Telescope in Chile.

H. Drass et al./ESO

The history of science — in particular the physical sciences, like physics and astronomy — can be told as the incremental realization that there is large-scale coherence in the universe.

By large-scale coherence, I mean that some of the same physical laws hold at scales as diverse as the atom and the galaxy, and even the universe as a whole. In a sense, the universe speaks one language and scientists act as the interpreters, translating this language in terms that humans can understand and relate to.

For example, physicists base many of their theories on the law of energy conservation, that energy is always transformed but not created or destroyed — or on fancier ones, such as electric-charge conservation, which states that the total amount of electric charge is the same before and after subatomic particles such as electrons and protons interact: The particles before and after the interactions may change, but not the total amount of electric charge. That these laws hold not only in a controlled laboratory environment but also in the Earth's or Jupiter's atmospheres, in the core of stars, and even near the Big Bang itself is nothing short of amazing.

Is this coherence an accident or the product of something deeper, perhaps some kind of proto-consciousness that permeates the universe and gives it purpose? This is the question many physicists, cognitive scientists and philosophers have been asking lately, leading to a sort of reawakening of panpsychism. Panpsychism is an ancient belief that has been an essential aspect of many religions, from the Old Testament's omniscience and omnipresence God to the Brahman of Hinduism, "the single binding unity behind the diversity in all that exists in the universe" (see Page 122 of An Illustrated Encyclopedia of Hinduism.) In a nutshell, panpsychism states that mind (psyche) is everywhere (pan). Cognitive scientist Christof Koch has written a poignant defense of panpsychism as a possible explanation for subjective experience.

The possibility of a conscious universe seems to fly in the face of our deep-seated materialist worldview, whereby everything that exists is due to material particles and their mutual interactions, the very successful reductionist view of physics. Philosophers such as Thomas Nagel and David Chalmers have criticized such strict position, beginning with the difficulties we have in understanding our subjective experience of reality from an "it's all about neurons and synapses" mechanistic approach.

In his book Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False, Nagel suggests that the laws of physics are not enough. He argues that there is some kind of "teleological naturalism," a sort of overarching purpose in the universe that the usual reductionist approach cannot capture. Essentially, Nagel defends that the laws of physics cannot be a mere accident, given that they lead from particles to stars to people to minds. It's not that we need to look beyond the natural world, but Nagel believes that we do need to look beyond the laws of physics, as Sean Carroll pointed out in a blog post when Nagel's book came out in 2013.

But how could one test such an unorthodox idea? Recently, New York City College of Technology physicist Gregory Matloff published a paper offering a potential empirical test. He argued that cool stars (like the sun) circle the center of our galaxy in a sort of fast volitional motion propelled by interactions between their molecules (they have a few) and the vacuum energy fluctuations that permeate the universe. This motion, he suggests, could explain the effects that astrophysicists currently attribute to dark matter, a hypothetical type of matter that only interacts with ordinary matter (like us and planets) through the gravitational force. For Matloff's out-there idea to be viable, cool stars would need to have this unidirectional jet not just near the center of the galaxy, but everywhere, something he hopes the European Space Agency Gaia satellite will be able to clarify as it finishes measuring the positions of about 1 billion stars by 2018. Matloff hopes that future observations will show that the jets are not happening only in our galaxy, but in all galaxies that have dark matter. This actually seems plausible due to the coherence effect we mentioned above. There's nothing special about the Milky Way, given that the same laws of physics apply everywhere within the known universe.

The key question here, of course, is why should one correlate unidirectional jets of stars with some kind of proto-consciousness at the galactic level? Couldn't there be a more mundane explanation for the effect? The fact that there isn't a good explanation now doesn't mean one should invoke something as far-fetched as a galactic consciousness. The same logic applies to UFO sightings, more easily attributed to odd atmospheric phenomena or experimental flying machines than to visiting intelligent aliens from another stellar system.

Panpsychism enthusiasts also like to invoke bizarre effects from quantum physics. Chief among them is nonlocality, what Albert Einstein called "spooky action at a distance," where a particle seems to "know" what another one is doing even if separated by very large distances. Current experiments have convincingly confirmed quantum nonlocality, establishing that such correlations happen faster than the speed of light. Could such effects be the substrate whereupon the cosmic mind is acting?

Although we still know very little about quantum nonlocality, it's hard to believe it has something to do with a cosmic-wide mind. As far as we know, nonlocal quantum effects don't show any sort of purpose, satisfying instead well-known physical laws such as the conservation of total rotation in a pair of particles (or spin). One could even say that quantum nonlocality is nature's way of preserving such conservation laws at the level of elementary particles, hardly a sign of some deeper volition. Indeed, a defender of panpsychism would be hard-pressed to explain how quantum nonlocality would act as the "messenger" for some kind of cosmic purpose. Or, even harder, to propose a test or mechanism for such.

To me, what's fascinating is that consciousness is what makes the universe exist. Just think that before humans came to be, and discounting other potentially smart creatures out there, the universe was just doing its thing, expanding, stars being born and dying, entropy increasing overall. But as matter organized itself into living things in our planet, it eventually reached a level of complexity that allowed for self-awareness, the ability to know that thyself is a self.

This emergent picture of animal consciousness is the one that is meaningful to us, as it places humans back in the driver's seat of existence. We will never know all things about the universe, but we have the amazing capacity to always learn more. If the cosmos had us as a plan, it surely hasn't told anyone so far. But now that we are here, everything is different because we are able to figure things out on our own. This surely makes my day.

Marcelo Gleiser is a theoretical physicist and writer — and a professor of natural philosophy, physics and astronomy at Dartmouth College. He is the director of the Institute for Cross-Disciplinary Engagement at Dartmouth, co-founder of 13.7 and an active promoter of science to the general public. His latest book is The Simple Beauty of the Unexpected: A Natural Philosopher's Quest for Trout and the Meaning of Everything. You can keep up with Marcelo on Facebook and Twitter: @mgleiser