Cosmic Consciousness

                                               

 

 

 

 

Cosmic Consciousness

 

There was a time when none of the matter of the universe was caught up in consciousness—the time at which not even animal life had evolved. There were no brains, no minds, and no consciousness–just insentient stuff. But now some quantity of matter is caught up in consciousness, because brains are made of matter. Let us say that this matter has a “conscious aspect”, so we can state that a certain percentage of the matter in the universe has a conscious aspect. No doubt this percentage is very small, considering that only a tiny amount of matter is found in brains (I am discounting the possibility of panpsychism, though I will return to the topic). We don’t know much, if anything, about how matter gives rise to consciousness, but apparently it does in certain circumstances. What we do know is that nearly all of matter is not part of conscious brains. The question I want to consider is whether the universe could develop into a state in which all (or nearly all) of its matter has a conscious aspect—that is, whether the universe could become completely conscious. Could it come to pass that hardly any matter lacks a conscious aspect? Is this a conceivable future?

            Consider a preliminary question: could all of the universe’s matter become animate? As things stand not much matter is animate, i.e. part of animal bodies, but could the animate come to take over all the matter there is? On planet Earth there was a time at which none of the matter composing the planet was animate—the time before any kind of life evolved. Then bacteria came along and some of the earth’s matter came to form bacteria bodies—though a small percentage. But isn’t it perfectly conceivable for a planet to be entirely made of bacteria? Suppose the bacteria consume more and more of the matter on this planet, until there is none left—it is all now part of a bacteria body. The entire planet is made of bacteria, with none of the matter existing apart from bacteria. What law of nature might rule this out? Isn’t it just contingent that Earth’s bacteria have only eaten part of its matter, leaving some in an inanimate state? Bacteria absorb matter and there is no logical limit on their capacity to do so; they just need to multiply. So there might be planets out there that have come to be composed wholly of bacteria, having once been inanimate.

            But if that is so, what is to prevent other life forms from evolving that eat bacteria? Suppose a worm evolves that eats bacteria: couldn’t it convert a lot of the bacterial planet into a worm planet? And what about a lizard that eats worms? Couldn’t we have a planet that was composed wholly of bacteria, worms, and lizards, with no matter left over? The planet is completely animate. And what if those life forms migrate to a nearby planet, consuming all of its matter? Apart from distance, what is to stop possible life forms from absorbing all the matter in the galaxy, creating a totally organic galaxy? The matter just needs to travel from outside organisms to inside them. Could this actually happen in our universe? Could life gradually engulf more and more of the matter in the universe, leaving only a few isolated pockets of inanimate matter, or none? Life evolves, absorbs, spreads, and finally monopolizes, until all matter is caught up life. Then the universe would be completely organic. All matter would be living matter. There seems nothing conceptually or even naturally impossible about this.  [1] Even if our universe could not evolve in this way for some reason, surely there are possible universes in which matter has this kind of history—from totally inanimate to totally animate in n billion years.

            Given that, isn’t it a small step to the possibility of cosmic consciousness, i.e. consciousness everywhere in everything? All that is necessary is that all the matter of the universe should take up residence in brains. More exactly, all matter will come to have a conscious aspect if it becomes part of brain tissue that is dedicated to consciousness. Suppose neurons of type X are the ones that generate consciousness; then all that is needed is for all the matter of the universe to be part of neurons of type X. If all the matter of the universe goes into making C-fibers, say, then the entire universe will be in pain, granted that C-fibers are sufficient for pain. We just need to combine supervenience with total absorption of matter into brain tissue. If the universe becomes an enormous brain, then all matter will have a conscious aspect (assuming that this brain generates consciousness in every part of it). You might reply that though this is logically possible—God could have distributed matter in this way—it is not nomologically possible, and not how things could realistically develop. For how could everything be brain—what about body? Animals have bodies as well as brains! But suppose that animal bodies had neurons distributed all through them, or were simply made of neurons. Then they might be conscious in every part of their body (the octopus has a distributed nervous system with groups of neurons in its tentacles). What law of physics or biology precludes the evolution of creatures made wholly of sentient tissue? But then, couldn’t such a species in principle take over and absorb all of matter into its sentient body? Couldn’t it consume all matter and use the energy to build sentient bodily organs? If so, all of matter could eventually come to have a conscious aspect. Clearly it is possible for some matter to have a conscious aspect, though this is currently a very small percentage of the total matter in the universe; so there seems no objection of principle to all of it becoming conscious. The universe could become 100% conscious. If there is some natural obstacle to this in our actual universe, such as sheer distance, then there is a possible universe in which such a scenario obtains. Maybe the natural end state of any universe roughly like ours is total takeover by consciousness—first by evolving life and then by selection for big brains. Any particle of matter could form part of a brain, so why not every particle of matter forming part of a brain?

            According to the above scenario, panpsychism might become true—but only by every particle taking up residence in a functioning brain. There was no consciousness in matter before brains evolved, but after they evolved material things came to have a conscious aspect (by what means we don’t know). Consciousness is an emergent property, currently found in relatively few concentrations of matter (actual brains), but it could come to exist in all concentrations of matter. If God decided to convert all matter into brain matter, he would increase the amount of consciousness in the world enormously, by putting all matter into the service of the engines of consciousness, viz. brains. We could then say that all matter has a conscious aspect, possibly down to elementary particles. God has made panpsychism true. Thus the universe has the potential to create vastly more consciousness than it has created hitherto, possibly converting all of it into a giant consciousness generator. Consciousness could come to penetrate every corner of the universe, becoming truly cosmic.

            And there is a further possibility: new types or levels of consciousness. This has happened already to some extent, with the different animal species; but there is also the possibility that consciousness itself is in the early stages of its evolution. We might be seeing only the tentative beginnings of consciousness; it might have a long way to go. It has come a long way already, and there is no reason to believe its journey is over. Maybe as it spreads and proliferates, colonizing more and more matter, it will change its character, take on new dimensions and levels, heretofore undreamt of. One direction in which it might progress is especially intriguing: it might come to reveal more of its own inner nature and origins. It might become better at penetrating the world, but it also might become better at penetrating itself—what it is, how it came to exist. As consciousness now exists, it is opaque to itself in the sense that nothing about it reveals the manner of its connection to the physical world; its relation to matter remains mysterious. But is this an essential feature of consciousness? Might there not be a form of consciousness that is more revealing about its place in the natural order? Could consciousness lucidly disclose its relation to the brain? Maybe this would require a new level of consciousness, not just a variation on what we have already—a sort of hyper-consciousness. Maybe it would permit a more unified conception of the natural world, with mind and matter falling naturally into place beside each other. So cosmic consciousness could be a fully intelligible form of consciousness, not the puzzle current consciousness is. Or not: maybe consciousness will always strike its possessor as puzzling, even if everything in the universe possesses it. The main point I have wanted to make here is that the highly local and limited pockets of consciousness we see today could be a contingent feature of the current phase of the universe. Maybe in time consciousness will conquer all matter.

 

  [1] Remember that not all possible forms of life need be like life on earth: life could evolve in all sorts of conditions, varying with those conditions—not all needing water, say.

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