The Nature-Nurture-Nietzsche Blog

Exploring life at the intersection of biology, psychology, and philosophy.

Is the Universe Conscious?

Humans evolved and the universe woke up

-This post is excerpted, with changes, from the book Darwin, God and the Meaning of Life by Steve Stewart-Williams - available now from Amazon.com, Amazon.ca, and Amazon.uk.

Take out a piece of paper and draw a vertical line right down the middle. On one side of the page, make a list everything in the world that you're sure is conscious; on the other, make a list everything that you're sure is not. Unless you're one of those people who pretends that consciousness doesn't exist, it's a safe bet that you'll have human beings on the conscious side; probably you'll have at least some other animals there to keep them company too. Unless you're a New Ager or mentally unbalanced, it's a safe bet that you'll have things like rocks and potato peelers on the other side, the unconscious side.

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One thing you probably won't have on your list of conscious things is: the universe. To most people (myself included), the idea that the universe might be viewed as a conscious entity is outlandish in the extreme - the kind of view that most scientifically-minded people (myself included) would be unwilling to admit to, at least around their scientifically-minded friends and colleagues. But as outlandish as it might sound, it actually turns out to be a straightforward implication of evolutionary theory.

This is the case, at least, if we assume that not only the body but also the mind is a product of evolution. And this is a view that really everyone should hold today. We know that the mind is dependent on the activity of the brain, and we know that the brain is a product of evolution; thus, we know that the mind is a product of evolution. Furthermore, if you look at some of the core components of the human mind, they have clear links to survival and reproductive success: fear motivates the avoidance of danger; sexual desire motivates behaviours that lead to the production of babies; etc. The case that the mind is a product of evolution is strong.

As soon as we recognize that the mind is a product of evolutionary processes, our view of the mind and its place in nature is radically altered. A recurring idea in the belief systems of the world is the notion that human beings are composed of two separate and separable parts: a physical body and an immaterial mind or soul. Not everyone has held this view, but it's not (as commonly claimed) unique to the Western tradition. Many people have believed that the mind stands outside nature; it is a part of us that transcends the material world and our biology.

Evolutionary theory completely overthrows this view. From an evolutionary perspective, it is impossible to maintain that the mind stands outside nature. Instead, it is a tiny fragment of nature, valued only by those tiny fragments of nature that possess it. Mind is not something separate from matter; it is a process embodied in matter.

Now here's the point: When we fully digest that the mind is the activity of an evolved brain, it radically transforms our view of the mind's place in the universe - and our view of the universe itself. The physical universe ceases to be an unconscious object, observed and explored by conscious minds which somehow stand above or outside it. Conscious minds are part of the physical universe, as much as rocks and potato peelers. Our consciousness is not simply consciousness of the universe; our consciousness is a part of the universe, and thus the universe itself is partially conscious. When you contemplate the universe, part of the universe becomes conscious of itself.

Similarly, our knowledge of the universe is not something separate from the universe; it is a part of the universe. Thus, for humans to know the universe is for the universe to know itself. As Carl Sagan put it, ‘humans are the stuff of the cosmos examining itself'. And Darwin's theory of evolution explains how this could be so - how clumps of matter could come to be organized in such a way that they are able to contemplate themselves and the rest of the cosmos.

The history of the universe looks very different from this perspective. For billions and billions of years, the universe was here and no one knew about it. More to the point, for all that time, the universe itself had no idea that it existed. But then, around 13.82 billion years after the Big Bang, and almost four billion years since life first evolved, something strange began to happen: Tiny parts of the universe became conscious, and came to know something about themselves and the universe of which they are a part. Eventually, some of these tiny parts of the universe - the parts we call ‘scientists' and ‘scientifically-informed laypeople' - came to understand the Big Bang and the evolutionary process through which they had come to exist. After an eternity of unconsciousness, the universe now had some glimmering awareness that it existed and some understanding of where it had come from. This might sound like a strange thing for a universe to do, but perhaps it's not; perhaps many possible universes would become conscious of themselves given sufficient time.

So much for the history of the conscious universe; what about its destiny? There are many competing suggestions on this topic, some more optimistic than realistic. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, a French Jesuit palaeontologist, suggested that the universe will continue to expand into greater and greater degrees of awareness, finally coalescing into an integrated, universal consciousness, which he dubbed the Omega Point and identified with Christ. Modern cosmology indicates that such suggestions are more interesting than they are plausible. Although the universe is conscious of itself at present, the projected heat death of the universe makes it all but certain that the time will come when the lights go out and the universe slips back into unconsciousness.

For how long will it remain in its present semi-conscious state? The answer depends on how prolific the universe is at producing conscious life. If consciousness is widespread throughout the universe, then the odds are that at least some pockets of consciousness on some planets will survive for a reasonable length of time. For all we know, though, ours may be the only planet in the universe hosting mind and consciousness. If so, then our decisions and our conduct will determine whether the universe has a long future as a conscious entity or will soon lapse back into unconsciousness.

That said, one might wonder whether, in the grand scheme of things, it really matters. It may be pure anthropocentrism to assume that a universe with consciousness is better than one without. Conscious beings are often disgruntled and sometimes simply miserable, and maybe on balance an unconscious universe would be the more desirable. But although it's possible to entertain such thoughts in principle, it's hard in practice to duck the conclusion that it would be a terrible shame if the universe were not to remain conscious for as long as possible. Nonetheless, it may be the fate of the universe to spend an eternity in darkness, save one brief flash of self-awareness in the middle of nowhere.

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Steve Stewart-Williams is a lecturer at Swansea University and author of the book Darwin, God, and the Meaning of Life.

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