by Corlett Novis
June 12, 2018
from Medium Website


Nebulae or Neurons?

Panpsychism, the theory that the entire universe is conscious, is by no means a new idea.


It has existed in one form or another across the centuries and in many different cultural and religious settings.


The ancient philosopher Plato believed in what he called the "World-Soul", some Hindus believed that the universe was a living illusion from a powerful god and many neopagans believe that the earth has a conscious spirit they call "Gaia". Even christian thought evokes the idea of a pervasive "holy spirit".

But panpsychism isn't necessarily dated or even mystical as there are many modern, secular and even scientific arguments have been made for it as well.


Whether you are religious or not, chances are at least one of these four arguments will make you think twice about how you view the world around you.



1. Integrated Information Theory

There's probably only one thing everyone can agree on when it comes to consciousness:

it's a very strange 'phenomenon.'

One particular difficulty scientists have with consciousness is that it's impossible to get to it from first principles or, to put it another way, it's just not conducive to the reductive process of modern science.


There's nothing about the fundamental parts of the brain (be they neurons or atoms depending on the level of analysis) which, when added together, ought to generate the phenomenal experience of consciousness.


So instead of working from the ground up, neurologist Giulio Tononi proposed a top-down approach.


Tononi proposed Integrated Information Theory (IIT) which says that we can classify consciousness in terms of the common factors shared by all the things we know have consciousness.


Out of those, Tononi points out that they all share certain properties, for example, they collect information and they integrate it. In this way, Tononi's theory proposes a definition of consciousness as the integration of information.


Using this theory, any complex system can be assigned a number that tells you how integrated that system is. That number then gives you an information-theoretical measure of consciousness. Any system assigned a number greater than 0 has consciousness.

This is where things get a little bit strange.


Obviously, this definition includes animals and humans with brains, so far so good, but it also includes machines as well-meaning, at least in theory, things like the internet itself could be conscious.


Stranger still, there is a much larger system we know about which collects and integrates information:

the universe itself.

At any given time countless amounts of "data" are being integrated all around the universe from atomic collisions to complex, large-scale chemical reactions all of which would require tremendously powerful supercomputers to replicate.

Many thinkers and scientist including Neuroscientist Christof Koch subscribe to the notion that Integrated Information Theory provides a solid scientific grounding for panpsychism.



2. Quantum consciousness

Some theorists have made strong analogical attempts to argue for panpsychism with regards to the strange phenomena observed in quantum physics.


The American philosopher William Lycan once made this statement while proposing how consciousness may emerge:

"one little monitor does make for a little bit of consciousness. More monitors and better integration and control make for more and fuller consciousness".

In this case, Lycan regards "monitoring" as a basic component of consciousness. There are many ways of framing the quantum-panpsychist argument, one of them works of this "monitor" definition.

Consider the quantum property called "entanglement" in which two photons may be observed to have correlating polarizations.


The polarization of one photon has an effect on the other, no matter how far apart, meaning that, in a very real sense, each photon is "monitoring" the other.


It follows then that the "little bit of consciousness" described by Lycan may, in fact, exist at the quantum level where we find monitoring occurring on a very small scale everywhere in the universe.



3. Non-Emergentism

Non-emergentism, as the name suggests, is an argument based on the idea that emergent properties do not exist.


What this means is that complex systems do not exhibit traits which cannot be reduced to their most fundamental components.


In other words, nothing comes of nothing and consciousness must be found not only in entire systems but in their most basic components as well:

particles of matter.

This theory posits consciousness as a universal property of matter and, as a result, must mean consciousness is present in the entire material universe.


This is compelling for many reasons, not least of all because it isn't necessarily unprecedented in the history of science. In this case, we would be regarding consciousness as a property of matter and many material properties, like magnetism, are also universal.


Like magnetism, it may be the case that some materials have greater or lesser conscious properties in the same way that some elements have greater or lesser magnetic properties.



4. Evolution

Perhaps one of the most intriguing arguments comes from a mix of non-emergentism and evolution.


Many theorists, including English Mathematician and Philosopher William Kingdon Clifford, have argued that evolution is a process which creates complicated systems out of simpler ones, but which does not generate "entirely novel" properties such as consciousness.


Naturally, this means that the simple components of biological systems must contain the same properties as we find in the entire system itself:


It may be helpful to think about this argument by taking a quick trip backward through our own hereditary timeline.

  • At what point did our ancestors develop consciousness?


  • With the emergence of our species?

This is unlikely given that our ancestors also had intricate brains and nervous systems.


What about at the emergence of vertebrates? This also seems unlikely given the exceptional intelligence of many mollusks like squid and octopi.


In fact, even single cell organisms carry out their own input-output processes while storing, processing and integrating data which, as indicated by Integrated Information Theory, could very well be equivalent to a form of consciousness.




Although these theories are not perfect and, at the very least, are not conclusive, they do point towards some compelling possibilities.


So, is the universe conscious? At this stage, it is still 'unclear'...


Whether science will live up to the test and prove the nature of consciousness once and for all remains to be seen, in the meantime, it's worth considering all the strange possibilities that wait in store for future research and study.

Please note, this is not a technical or in-depth scientific article, it is intended only as a brief introduction to the problems and possibilities of panpsychism...