Cory Novis investigates the curious philosophy behind our consciousness, and asks if it may extend beyond ourselves.
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 merely the dream of a powerful god, whilst many Neo-pagans believe that the earth has a conscious spirit they call “Gaia”.
But the theory isn’t necessarily dated, as there are some very convincing modern arguments for panpsychisim as well. Whether you are religious or not, chances are at least one of these five arguments will make you think twice about how you view the world around you.
- 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 regarding quantifying consciousness is that it’s impossible to explain it from first principles or, to put it another way, it’s just not conducive to the reductive process of modern science. There is nothing special about the neurons or even atoms forming the brain which, when added together, allow for the generation of consciousness. So, instead of working from the ground up, neurologist Giulio Tononi proposed a top down approach.
Tononi proposed the ‘Integrated Information Theory’, which states that we can classify consciousness in terms of the common factors shared by all the things we know to have consciousness. For example, all conscious beings collect and integrate information. 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 dictating 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, but it also includes machines. This means, at least in theory, that 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 scientists, including neuroscientist Christof Koch, subscribe to the notion that Integrated Information Theory provides a solid scientific grounding for panpsychism.
- Quantum consciousness
Some theorists have made strong 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 which works via this “monitor” definition.
Consider the quantum property called ‘entanglement’, in which two photons may be observed to have correlating polarisations. When we alter the polarisation of one, it effects the other, no matter how far apart, meaning that, in a very real sense, each photon is ‘monitoring’ the other. It follows 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.
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 because it isn’t necessarily unprecedented in the history of science. Many material properties, like magnetism or the law of conservation of mass, 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.
Perhaps 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 that we find in the entire system itself: consciousness.
It may be helpful to think about this argument by taking a quick trip backwards 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 brains. What about at the emergence of vertebrates? This also seems unlikely given the exceptional intelligence of many molluscs like squid and octopuses. In fact, even single cell organisms carry out their own input-output processes while storing and processing 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’s 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.
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