Is the Universe Conscious?

Is everything at least a little conscious? It may sound crazy, but this idea, known as panpsychism, has a long and reputable history. Panpsychism was pretty much dismissed by 20th Century science, but it’s making something of a comeback. Some of the most respected names in philosophy were panpsychists: Spinoza (1632–77), Leibniz (1646–1716), Schopenhauer (1788–1860) and Whitehead (1861–1947) for example. William James (1842–1910), sometimes called the “Father of American psychology”, also supported panpsychism.

Tam Hunt’s recent post about panpsychism on the Scientific American blog (5/12/18) quickly promoted a critique. Joshua Tan points out that while Hunt’s theory is fascinating, it’s not science (11/12/18). Tan is right of course: Hunt’s ideas are simply speculation and there’s no evidence for panpsychism. So why have generations of thinkers bothered with it?

Philosophy and neuroscience continue to struggle with the so-called “hard problem” of consciousness: “The really hard problem of consciousness is the problem of experience. When we think and perceive there is a whir of information processing, but there is also a subjective aspect” (Chalmers). The hard problem rests on the assumption that consciousness emerges in some mysterious way from matter. This position is sometimes called the ‘discontinuity theory’: At some point in evolution consciousness comes into existence out of nowhere. Assuming for a moment that God didn’t create consciousness, how could this possibly happen?

A map of neural circuits in the human brain.

A map of neural circuits in the human brain. © Human Connectome Project

While conventional approaches haven’t made much progress with the hard problem, some neuroscientists, (notably Christof Koch), suggest that panpsychism offers an elegant and simple solution. Continuity theory proposes that consciousness exits everywhere but only becomes recognized as such when it reaches an advanced stage of development. On this model, a kind of primitive, distributed consciousness has existed since the Big Bang, but until carbon-based life developed sensory systems it wasn’t apparent. Consciousness is like gravity: Every atom has a very small amount, so it’s effectively undetectable, but on larger scales it becomes increasingly apparent. As creatures evolved the ability to represent aspects of the world, conscious of things appeared. Sometime later self-awareness emerged and eventually we began to wonder about the hard problem of consciousness.

Neither the continuity nor the discontinuity theories are scientific. Given that neither of them can be proved or disproved, what is the rational stance to take on this question? Max Velmans, Emeritus Professor of Psychology at the University of London, concludes that the continuity theory is “more elegant” (2013) and is sympathetic to panpsychism. I suggest we apply one of the sharpest tools of reason to this question: Occam’s razor, sometimes called the law of economy, states that “plurality should not be posited without necessity”. Occam recommends that if we are given two equally plausible explanations, we should choose the simpler alternative. Panpsychism may not be scientific, but nether is the alternative theory. Arguably a reasonable person will prefer the simple elegance of panpsychism to the suggestion that consciousness mysteriously pops out of nowhere.

If panpsychism is true, there are significant implications for the kind of New Animism proposed by, amongst others, Graham Harvey, David Abram and myself; but that’s a discussion for another blog post!

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4 Responses to Is the Universe Conscious?

  1. This reminds me of Thich nhat Hanh:

    ‘We are so used to thinking of ‘knowing’ in terms of feelings and perceptions that we label inorganic objects ‘inanimate, insensitive, devoid of intelligence.’ But these things are only inanimate from our point of view. A rock is composed of countless molecules, which are in turn composed of countless atomic and subatomic particles, all held together by electro-magnetic and nuclear forces. Atoms are not lifeless bits of solid, inert matter. They are vast empty spaces in which infinitely small particles are in perpetual movement at enormous speeds. The poet Lamartine once asked, ‘Inanimate objects, do you have a soul?’ If we define soul according to our ideas and beliefs, no doubt they haven’t, or at least, they do not manifest it. But in the sense of a dynamic, living reality, they surely do! ‘

    • Thanks for sharing this! I love Thich nhat Hanh’s work and it’s good to hear that he shares this vision. Interesting to note how both science and spirituality have the potential to broaden our understanding, shaking us out of habitual thinking.

  2. Excellent response Tam! Thanks for letting me know about it. Re-reading my post, I can see I was rather dismissive of your work, describing it as “simply speculation”. I can see it’s much more than that and look forward to seeing the forthcoming follow up paper.

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