As science and philosophy continue to expand, so to do ideas about the universe, and relatedly, the nature of the universe.
One recent theory includes the idea that the universe itself may actually be conscious.
Among the many recent theories proposed about the nature of the universe (including Elon Musk’s favorite simulation argument, time crystals, and more) is the theory of “panpsychism” – which purports that because the mind is a fundamental property of the physical universe, it is consequently imbued in all states of matter. As a result, the universe itself is conscious.
Though panpsychism was first introduced by physicist Sir Roger Penrose thirty years ago, a new paper by physicist Gregory Matloff has brought the idea back into prominence. Matloff, in addition to saying he could “validate or falsify” this theory of a unique “proto-consciousness field,” also posited the notion that stars may be volitional – meaning they can choose for themselves their own galactic paths.
This builds on Penrose’s theory that consciousness is founded in quantum entanglement, courtesy his (and co-author Stuart Hameroff’s) Orchestrated Objective Reduction (Orch-OR) hypothesis – which states consciousness comes from microtubules’ quantum vibrations.
And Matloff and Penrose aren’t alone. German physicist Bernard Haisch proposed in 2006 that consciousness develops in a “quantum vacuum” whenever energy flows through a sufficiently advanced system. Similarly, neuroscientist Christof Koch says integrated information theory proves consciousness must not be unique to biological organisms.
“The only dominant theory we have of consciousness says that it is associated with complexity — with a system’s ability to act upon its own state and determine its own fate. Theory states that it could go down to very simple systems. In principle, some purely physical systems that are not biological or organic may also be conscious.”
For Matloff and the others, the next step is moving their collection of hypotheses to experiments. Matloff, for instance, plans to study why some stars emit jets of energy in particular directions, an anomally known as Parenego’s Discontinuity. He believes that his findings, combined with results from a 2018 star-mapping project, could help prove the anomaly is a willful stellar action.
Koch, meanwhile, plans to compare brain-impaired patients with mice to test his theory of merging minds into a larger information system.
As Keith Frankish notes in his critique of panpsychism for The Atlantic, titled “Why Panpsychism Is Probably Wrong”
“Panpsychism gives consciousness a curious status. It places it at the very heart of every physical entity yet threatens to render it explanatorily idle. For the behavior of subatomic particles and the systems they constitute promises to be fully explained by physics and the other physical sciences. Panpsychism offers no distinctive predictions or explanations. It finds a place for consciousness in the physical world, but that place is a sort of limbo.”
And clearly Frankish isn’t alone; many scientists suspect the theory vastly oversimplifies the idea of consciousness and the complexity of the universe. Still, panpsychism proponents push on – and the boundaries of scientific exploration continue to expand with them.