What is life and what is conciousness? These are questions that have long been debated and pondered for centuries, and which even our modern day scientists do not have the answers to. We are only barely beginning to try and define these things, and much of it still lands solely in the domain of philosophy and thought experiments. One intriguing question that has come up in recent times is whether life and conciousness could extend beyond our perceptions of it now, as a purely biological phenomenon, to encompass even non-biological systems, and this has been ramped up to the idea that our planet, perhaps even the universe itself is a living, thinking entity. It may seem like science fiction, but some of the world's most renowned scientists are questioning whether the cosmos has an inner life similar to our own, so let's go down the rabbit hole.
The idea that our universe may actually be alive and conscious has its basic roots in a philosophical concept known as “Panpsychism,” or basically the idea that all things have a mind or a mind-like quality, and that mind or a mind-like aspect is a fundamental and ubiquitous feature of reality which exists throughout the universe. With regards to the universe being alive and having a consciousness, it is speculated that every system of objects that transmits energy to each other possesses some mind-like quality, and that consciousness will emerge when information moves between the subsystems of an overall integrated system.You can think about it by looking at the human brain. What is it but a system of cells and countless neurons exchanging information to make us who we are? The idea is that the universe, with its stars, planets, and other astronomical features, may form a similar system sort of like the cells and neurons in our brain, and that this may extend a sort of proto-consciousness field through all of space.
To follow this notion, it is first necessary to wrap one’s head around the idea that the universe might be alive. It may sound absurd, but proponents point out that who are we to say what does and does not constitute life? Science can’t even agree on what exactly makes up life, and there has never established a precise and universally accepted definition of life, only a long list of its qualities. If life is a highly organized structure, with daily rhythms, and that it consumes and restores and transforms energy, then doesn’t the universe fit those criteria? There are even theories that universes reproduce, spawning new universes to create the multiverse, passing on their characteristics to their offspring, and that each of these child universes may have slight differences and permutations from the parent one, such as slightly different laws of physics, and that only the fittest of these universes survive, meaning they also procreate and evolve, so why shouldn’t we think of the universe as alive? After all, what are we but a complex system of cells working in tandem to make us more than the sum of our parts? If you take it even further, if it is alive might it then not be conscious to some degree? Ph.D. astrophysicist, author, and science communicator Ethan Siegel says of the idea:
You've seen the analogies before: how atoms are like solar systems, how the large-scale structure of the Universe is like neurons in a human brain, and how there's the interesting coincidence that the number of stars in a galaxy, galaxies in the Universe, atoms in a cell, and cells in a living being are all approximately the same large (10^11 to 10^14) number. It makes one wonder. Are we all just brain cells in a larger creature, on a planetary scale, that has yet to become self-aware? How would we know? How could we test this? Believe it or not, this idea that the sum total of everything in the Universe is itself a sentient creature has been out there for a very long time.
This might all sound like a bunch of philosophical and metaphysical mumbo jumbo, but the idea that the universe could be conscious has been pondered and considered by some of the top scientists in their fields. In 2006, German physicist Bernard Haisch proposed that consciousness could be transmitted by the quantum fields that permeate all of empty space, and that consciousness has the possibility of emerging in any sufficiently complex system with energy flowing through it, a definition that the universe certainly fits. This would fit in with the research of British physicist and specialist in black holes, Sir Roger Penrose, who came up with the controversial theory that human consciousness is non-algorithmic and a product of quantum effects, and that there is a connection between the brain's biomolecular processes and the basic structure of the universe. This would allow the quantum fields, or “quantum vacuum” of the universe to similarly produce consciousness as it does in the human brain. More recently is the work of.Gregory Matloff, a veteran physicist at New York City College of Technology who believes that not only is the universe conscious, but that it is possible to actually test this hypothesis and potentially prove it. Corey S. Powell explains of Matloff’s experiment for NBC News:
One of the hallmarks of life is its ability to adjust its behavior in response to stimulus. Matloff began searching for astronomical objects that unexpectedly exhibit this behavior. Recently, he zeroed in on a little-studied anomaly in stellar motion known as Paranego’s Discontinuity. On average, cooler stars orbit our galaxy more quickly than do hotter ones. Most astronomers attribute the effect to interactions between stars and gas clouds throughout the galaxy. Matloff considered a different explanation. He noted that the anomaly appears in stars that are cool enough to have molecules in their atmospheres, which greatly increases their chemical complexity. Matloff noted further that some stars appear to emit jets that point in only one direction, an unbalanced process that could cause a star to alter its motion. He wondered: Could this actually be a willful process? Is there any way to tell? If Paranego’s Discontinuity is caused by specific conditions within the galaxy, it should vary from location to location. But if it is something intrinsic to the stars — as consciousness would be — it should be the same everywhere. Data from existing stellar catalogs seems to support the latter view, Matloff claims.
Matloff’s ideas might be wild and controversial, even scoffed at by some, but the idea of a conscious universe has gained a surprising amount of traction among such esteemed scientists as Australian philosopher and cognitive scientist David Chalmers, Christof Koch of the Allen Institute for Brain Science, and British physicist and specialist in black holes, Sir Roger Penrose. Christof Koch has had his thoughts on the matter, noting that being a biological entity is not necessarily a requirement for consciousness. He explains::
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. We are more complex, we have more self-awareness — well, some of us do — but other systems have awareness, too. We may share this property of experience, and that is what consciousness is: the ability to experience anything, from the most mundane to the most refined religious experience.
The key, according to Koch, is complexity, so is the universe complex enough to emulate consciousness and self-awareness? Seigel believes that the complexity is there, but that there are certain hurdles to accepting it could form consciousness in the way we understand it. He has his thoughts on this, explaining:
If we want self-awareness, the best comparison we have is the human brain, which has around 100 billion (10^11) neurons with at least 100 trillion (10^14) neural connections, with each neuron firing roughly 200 times per second. Given that the average human lives for around 2-3 billion seconds, that's a lot of signals over a lifetime! It would take a network of trillions of stars confined within a volume under a million light years across and existing for 10^15 years just in order to have something comparable to the number of neurons, neural connections and number of transmitted signals in a human brain. In other words, these total numbers -- for a human brain and for a large, fully-formed end-state galaxy -- are actually comparable to one another. But the big difference is that neurons within a brain have a connected, defined structure, while stars within a bound galaxy or group rapidly move closer-and-farther from one another, under the influence of all the other stars and masses within a galaxy.
We think that this type of randomization of sources and orientations prevents any sort of coherent signal-structure from forming, but that may or may not be necessary. I'd say that based on what we know of how awareness emerges (and of brains in particular), there's simply not enough coherent information going back-and-forth between various entities for this to be a possibility. But the number of total signals that can be exchanged on a galactic scale over the timescales that stars will exist is compelling and interesting, and seems to hold the potential for the amount of information exchanged to be comparable to the one thing we know to be self-aware. Still, it's important to note that even if that were all it took, our galaxy would presently be the equivalent of a 6-hour old baby: not too bright. If there is a larger consciousness, it hasn't emerged yet.
Another key ingredient is that in order to have consciousness, an entity has to be single and integrated and must possess a property called "phi," meaning that the subsystems of an overall system interact in a specific way that allows information to flow between them in a certain way. If a subsystem exists on its own and there is no exchange with other subsystems, there is no phi and therefore no consciousness. Called the Integrated Information Theory, it posits that the greater the interdependency between subsystems, the more conscious something will be, so not all complex systems can have consciousness, just those that are integrated enough, have phi, and exchange information in a specific way. Johannes Kleiner, a mathematician and theoretical physicist at the Munich Center For Mathematical Philosophy, Germany, has explained of it:
Integrated information is an abstract quantity which you can calculate if you have a good detailed description of the system. A mathematical theory can be applied to many different systems, not just brains. If you develop a mathematical model of consciousness based on data obtained from brains, you can apply the model to other systems. The theory consists of a very complicated algorithm that, when applied to a detailed mathematical description of a physical system provides information about whether the system is conscious or not, and what it is conscious of, The mathematics is such that if something is conscious according to the theory, then the components which make up that system can't have conscious experiences on their own. Only the whole has conscious experience, not the parts. Applied to your brain, it means that some of your cortex might be conscious but the particles that make up the cortex are not themselves conscious. If there is an isolated pair of particles floating around somewhere in space, they will have some rudimentary form of consciousness if they interact in the correct way.
The idea of the universe being alive and even conscious has all proven to be a rather controversial and oft-debated topic in science. There has been plenty of skepticism aimed at it and it is far from an accepted idea, even labelled as some as fringe. However, the basic concept seems to make sense, and Matloff believes that these new and spectacular hypotheses can actually be tested, as he has shown. He believes that with more testing and serious investigation into the idea of a conscious universe, we may get some actual answers to what is now more or less pure theorizing, confined to the realm of thought experiments. He has lamented the lack of any real drive from the scientific community to test out these ideas, saying:
It’s all very speculative, but it’s something we can check and either validate or falsify. Shouldn’t we at least be checking? Maybe we can move panpsychism from philosophy to observational astrophysics.
In the end, at the moment we simply don't know. There are a lot of ideas and hypotheses and some of them even seem to have some spooky evidence, but for now the question of whether we live in a living, concious universe remains unanswered. Is it possible? Maybe. Is it true? Who knows? It is all certainly pretty mind-bending and fun to think about nonetheless.