What if the universe is self-aware? Is there a cosmic superconsciousness? Could it be a giant brain? Is the universe a conscious mind?
There is a short but lazy answer, and there is longer but more intriguing answer. The lazy answer is: We humans are made of pieces of the universe. We are conscious, so the universe is conscious through us.
This is the standard short answer to the question of a conscious universe. But could the universe have a consciousness separate from us or any other conscious being? Could it be a kind of super consciousness? This concept has a name. It is called panpsychism.
The concept of Panpsychism has been around for thousands of years. It is an essential aspect of many religions, from the Old Testament's omnipresent God to the Brahman of Hinduism and Buddhism. In fact, in Buddhism, nothing exists except consciousness.
Theoretical physicist Freeman Dyson, the man who conceived of the Dyson sphere, embraced panpsychism and said that the universe not only operates through our consciousness but a consciousness of its own.
Could this be true?
First we have to establish what consciousness is. Neuroscientist and psychiatrist Giulio Tononi, at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, has proposed a way to measure how conscious a thing is. He proposes that consciousness has to do with how much control a being has over itself or things around it. He even invented a measurement unit called phi to label how conscious something is.
This theory separates intelligence from consciousness, which are two different things. Super computers for example, which are highly intelligent, can routinely out-think humans and beat them at chess and Jeopardy, but they don’t have a will of their own. The programmer controls it. So intelligence and consciousness are two different things.
Based on this line of thinking we can say that a tree is more conscious than a rock. A worm is more conscious than a tree. A cat is more conscious than a worm. A human is more conscious than a cat. And the ultimate consciousness could be the universe itself.
If this is the way consciousness works, then the complexity of an organism’s brain has something to do with its level of consciousness. And scientists do have good evidence that the seat consciousness resides in brains. If we are more conscious than all the other animals, as we appear to be, it surely is no coincidence that we also have the most complex brain.
Consciousness seems to be an emergent property of highly interconnected and communicating systems like the brain which is an interconnected network of neurons that can fire chemical and electronic signals. Consciousness is not a property of individual neurons but results from the interactions of many neurons.
And what are neurons? They are triggered by certain stimuli and can send signals to each other. And large complex networks of these neurons seem to emerge into consciousness. The more complex the network, the more conscious something appears to be.
So is there some kind of network such that a “communication” of sorts might be happening at the quantum level between entangled pairs of particles. There is a humongous network of galaxies in the universe, many hundreds of billions of galaxies. This is not dissimilar from the network of the billions of interconnected neurons in our brain. The difference appears to be that each of our brain cells can communicate or at least fire a signal to other brain cells. Do the galaxies have such a communication mechanism between them?
It doesn’t appear so, but you have to remember that at the center of almost all galaxies, there is a black hole. It’s like the nucleus of a brain cell. What’s happening inside a black hole? We have no idea…because all our physics equations break down at the event horizon of a black hole – this is the point where time and space cease to exist and Einstein’s equations don’t work.
Is it possible that something is happening here that we just don’t know about? The black hole could only be analogous to a brain cell if somehow they were connected to each other and could send signals to each other.
If that was the case, a vast network of communicating trillion black holes would act like a gigantic information processor, and indeed be intelligent and possibly conscious. This would truly be a kind of super consciousness that could theoretically control not only our universe, but perhaps time and space itself.
But I think I’m getting way too excited about a completely speculative possibility. Practically, we have to ask, does the universe need to be conscious in order to arrive at its present state. In other words, does what we see around us need a consciousness to direct the events that lead up to what we observe, that lead to life? Would what we see right now be any different if the universe was utterly without consciousness? See the answer in the video above.
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