The Universe as Informavore
Even if the universe has some kind of mentality, it need not be conscious.
Posted October 25, 2019 | Reviewed by Jessica Schrader
In our last post, we talked about why bacteria and plants might have some kind of rationality and intelligence as "informavores" that are able to consume information. This includes having some basic types of attention, and perhaps even conscious awareness—albeit of a primitive kind (although this last possibility is more controversial). The prospect of studying bacterial or floral informavores has not been very popular and it’s certainly not mainstream, but we mentioned recent arguments that make this possibility a lot more plausible.
There is something interesting about going even lower in the scale of existence. Are plants and bacteria the “minimal” substrate for conscious awareness? Or do we go even lower and attribute that to their cells or even molecules? Could molecules be conscious? How about atoms? What if atoms are conscious, even if minimally so? And if so, should we leave electrons out? Not that electrons have feelings but perhaps they contain, in their essences, the building blocks of awareness.
Paradoxically, by attributing consciousness to the most minute constituents of the world, you end up (based on what is a standard interpretation of physics) attributing the possibility of conscious awareness to the entire universe. Assuming that the universe is composed of known building blocks, and that at the subatomic level, there is nothing smaller than them, then we can argue that all quarks and so on are conscious. This claim would characterize the entire material universe. And that is as big as it gets.
It seems preposterous to think that if the smallest things are conscious then the biggest thing (the entire universe) is conscious. Even if the universe cannot be described as having awareness, it still may be an informavore after all (i.e., it processes and consumes information). If so, the fact that the universe is an informavore would be less preposterous because it would consume information without the qualitative and subjective character of experience we attribute to only living creatures (and not to all of them, at least based on our day-to-day dealings concerning the consumption of animals and plants). This option, given the dissociation between consciousness and attention, presents new possibilities. Namely that the universe could consume information systematically, even intelligently and elegantly, without having a phenomenally conscious mind (some contributions to de Barros and Montemayor  defend this possibility, in the context of interpretations of quantum mechanics).
There is a lot to say about how the universe consumes information which need not require conscious awareness—of the type we enjoy when we taste chocolate ice-cream. For instance, the universe is very finely tuned, and it seems that such extremely delicate fine-tuning cannot be just a matter of luck or accident. Without endorsing an anthropic explanation that we are the cause for such elegant orchestration, it is fair to say that the universe is a mighty complicated informational structure. Information in the universe is always preserved—information never gets lost or becomes unaccounted for. Information accumulates and obeys the linearity of entropy (even if the second law of thermodynamics is a strictly statistical law, rather than a norm concerning the linearity of time).
In terms of information consumption, this is very intriguing indeed. For all the ferocious energy of black holes and star formation, the universe is a stable, well-behaved, mathematically intelligible informational structure. It is striking that from the very basic level governed by the probabilities of quantum mechanics to the colossal display of forces at the cosmic level (with all the glorious things in between such as life on earth), the universe could be the most complex and most massive informavore. This is because it consumes, stores, and exchanges information in extremely precise and subtle ways. It’s not too much of a stretch to conceive of this informavore as having some kind of mentality—although of course, there are good reasons to believe that this is simply a projection, even of a religious or spiritual kind, of our own minds.
We have written several entries in this forum about the difference between consciousness and attention. Most theories of consciousness assume that consciousness and attention are not the same thing, and many scientific findings suggest that they are actually quite distinct cognitive processes. Here we are trying to argue that the difference between consciousness and attention may have important consequences for panpsychism, the view that “mentality is fundamental and ubiquitous in the natural world” (Goff, et al., 2015).
The important point to remember is that a claim of a universe with mentality does not entail that it is conscious. For example, the universe could be “attentive” to how information is selectively consumed, in a way that cannot be captured by any equation or description (it would be an intrinsic feature of the universe how it keeps track or pays attention to finely balance information processing). And given the dissociation between consciousness and attention, the universe could be attentive without being phenomenally conscious.
What would this possibly mean in terms of information processing that is essentially conscious? Perhaps phenomenally conscious information may depend exclusively on biological organisms with a complex nervous system, sufficient to have abilities that are accompanied with a perspective on the world—a perspective that only originates as a visceral response to the immediate and urgent pressures of a constantly challenging environment. These are the pleasures and pains of being a living finite creature. The “mental cosmos” would lack such a perspective. We are “lucky” (or unlucky) enough to be phenomenally conscious. But it is through our intelligence, and not the qualitative character of our subjective experiences, that we understand how the universe consumes information. This might be a hint about the simpler kind of mentality the universe has, if any.
de Barros, J. A. and Montemayor, C. (2019). Quanta and Mind: Essays on the Connection between Quantum Mechanics and Consciousness. Synthese Library.
Goff, P., Seager, W. and Allen-Hermanson, S. "Panpsychism", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2017 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2017/entries/panpsychism/>.