The universe may be conscious, say prominent scientists

The universe may be conscious, say prominent scientists

A proto-consciousness field theory could replace the theory of dark matter, one physicist states.

Since the dawn of speculation, great minds around the world have struggled to understand what consciousness is and where it comes from. In today’s world, physicists, cognitive scientists, and neuroscientists are increasingly tackling it. There are a few dominant theories. The first of these is materialism. This is the notion that consciousness emanates from matter, in our case, by the firing of neurons inside the brain.

Take the brain out of the equation and consciousness doesn’t exist at all. Scientists have traditionally been stalwart materialists. However, doing so has brought them up against materialism’s limitations. Consider the gap between relativity and quantum mechanics, or Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, and you’ll instantly notice these contradictions.

The mind-body dualism theory is the second. This is perhaps more widely recognized in religion or spirituality. Here, consciousness is separate from matter. It is a component of another aspect of the individual known as the soul in religious language. Then there’s a third option which is gaining ground in some scientific circles, panpsychism. According to this viewpoint, consciousness dominates the entire universe.

A few scientists are beginning to warm to this theory, but it is still widely debated. To be honest, panpsychism sounds a lot like what Hindus and Buddhists refer to as the Brahman, the vast universal Godhead of which we are all a part. For example, in Buddhism, consciousness is the only thing that exists.

Such is the focus of the famous Zen koan, “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” One must recognize that everything we experience is filtered and interpreted by our mind. The universe does not exist without it, or at least not without some form of consciousness viewing it. The dominant theory in some physics circles is some form of proto-consciousness field.

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Is consciousness created by an invisible field that exists in our universe? Getty Images.

Particles in quantum mechanics do not have a distinct shape or location until they are viewed or measured. Is this some kind of proto-consciousness at work? It could, according to the late scientist and philosopher John Archibald Wheeler. He is most known for coining the term “black hole.” In his view, every piece of matter contains a bit of consciousness, which it absorbs from this proto-consciousness field.

His hypothesis is known as the “participatory anthropic principle,” and it holds that a human observer is essential to the process. Of this Wheeler said, “We are participators in bringing into being not only the near and here but the far away and long ago.” In his view, much like the Buddhist one, nothing exists unless there is a consciousness to apprehend it.

Christof Koch, a neuroscientist at the Allen Institute for Brain Science, is another supporter of panpsychism. According to Koch, the only theory we have regarding consciousness is that it is a level of knowledge about oneself and the world. In this view, biological organisms are conscious because when they approach a new situation, they can adjust their behavior to navigate it. Dr. Koch is attempting to see if he can measure the level of consciousness an organism contains.

He’ll be conducting animal experiments. In one, he plans to wire the brains of two mice together. Will information eventually be exchanged between the two? Will their consciousness at some point become one fused, integrated system? If his experiments are successful, he may connect the brains of two people.

Sir Roger Penrose, a British physicist, is another supporter of panpsychism. In the 1980s, Penrose hypothesized that consciousness exists at the quantum level and is stored in the synapses of the brain. He is well-known for connecting consciousness to some of the events in quantum mechanics.

Dr. Penrose does not consider himself a panpsychist. In his view, “The laws of physics produce complex systems, and these complex systems lead to consciousness, which then produces mathematics, which can then encode in a succinct and inspiring way the very underlying laws of physics that gave rise to it.”

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Getty Images.

Veteran physicist Gregory Matloff of the New York City College of Technology claims to have early proof that panpsychism isn’t impossible. It’s a start, after all. Dr. Matloff told NBC News, “It’s all very speculative, but it’s something we can check and either validate or falsify.”

Bernard Haisch, a theoretical physicist, proposed in 2006 that consciousness is created and transmitted via the quantum vacuum, or empty space. Any system with a sufficient level of complexity and energy might generate or broadcast awareness. Dr. Matloff approached the unconventional German physicist and proposed an observational research to test it.

They investigated Parenago’s Discontinuity. This is the discovery that cooler stars, such as our sun, revolve faster about the center of the Milky Way than hotter stars. Some experts believe this is due to interactions with gas clouds. Matloff had a different point of view. He elaborated on this in a recent article published in the Journal of Consciousness Exploration and Research.

Unlike their hotter sisters, cooler stars may move faster due to “the emission of a uni-directional jet.” Early in their formation, those stars emit a jet. According to Matloff, this could be an example of the star consciously manipulating itself in order to acquire speed.

Observational data shows a reliable pattern anywhere Parenago’s Discontinuity is witnessed. If it were simply a matter of interacting with gas clouds, as currently proposed, each cloud should have a varied chemical makeup, causing the star to behave differently. So why do they all behave in the same way?

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Jets out of cooler stars may be a conscious act. Wikipedia Commons.

Though there isn’t much to go on, the unveiling of the European Space Agency’s Gaia space telescope, whose aim is to map stars, may provide further data to support or undermine this viewpoint. Dr. Matloff also believes that the presence of a proto-consciousness field could serve as a replacement for dark matter.

Scientists have yet to discover dark matter, which is thought to account for approximately 95 percent of the universe. So, for the sake of argument, if awareness is a quality that arises from a confluence of particles at the subatomic level, how do these tiny little bits of consciousness coalesce?

Giulio Tononi, a neuroscientist and psychiatrist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, proposes integrated information theory, a slightly different take on panpsychism. In this context, consciousness is a physical manifestation that exists somewhere in the cosmos. We just haven’t discovered it yet. Perhaps this heavenly thing radiates consciousness in the same way that our sun emits light and heat.

Dr. Tononi has proposed a metric for determining how much consciousness a thing has. The unit is known as phi. This translates into how much control a being has over itself or its environment. The theory separates intelligence from consciousness, which some people assume are one in the same.

Take AI for example. It can already outperform humans in a variety of tasks. But it has no will of its own. A supercomputer which can enact change in the world outside of a programmer’s commands, would therefore be conscious. Many futurists, like Ray Kurzweil and Elon Musk, feel that day is approaching, possibly within the next decade or two, and that we should prepare.

To learn more about Sir. Roger Penrose’s views on panpsychism, go here:

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