Scientists have often wondered how science and consciousness mingle and if the entire universe is simply a cosmic-level human brain – and the theories are intriguing, to say the least.
This article covers what science has to say about consciousness, the universe, the human mind, and the collective and universal consciousness.
But What’s ‘Consciousness’?
Before we get into the details of whether the universe is conscious or not, we first need to understand what ‘consciousness’ is.
According to the Oxford Dictionary of Psychology, ‘consciousness’ includes the following:
- waking state of human beings
- awareness of the external world
The more you think about this definition, the less sense it makes. Firstly, it assumes that only human beings are capable of a ‘consciousness’. Secondly, it assumes that consciousness has existed only in highly-evolved organisms – who have only existed for a very minuscule period in the cosmic timeline.
Arguably, animals have consciousness too – we see them interact with one another andhumans, we see their tails wag in excitement, their ears perk up when they’re alert, and even know that their brain activity changes when they’re socializing.
However, do rocks ‘react’? Does the ocean ‘wake up’ when the tides are higher? Does the sky have ‘moods’ and ‘feelings’? As humans, it’s hard for us to understand that inanimate objects might have ‘consciousness’ too; as far as the human eye is concerned, a rock doesn’t have ‘reflexes’ and the ocean can’t ‘feel’.
Furthermore, life on the planet Earth has only existed for a couple of thousand years – while the age of the universe is billions of years and it has arguably hosted infinite life-sustaining planets. It’s unlikely that ‘consciousness’ only exists for human beings on the planet Earth for a few seconds in the cosmic timeline, as argued by some philosophers.
And the theory of Consciousness Universe argues exactly that – that inanimate objects in the universe have a consciousness as well. This theory is called Conscious Universe Theory or Panpsychism.
Panpsychism or the Conscious Universe Theory
Panpsychism is the belief that everything has consciousness – and that includes plants, animals, stones, stars, atoms, and even quarks. The theory goes even a step further to suggest that the universe itself is conscious – a concept called cosmopsychism.
Human beings have a very complex experience compared to simpler life forms like cats, insects, and even pathogens. The more we level down, the simpler the experiences get – and the simpler the ‘consciousness’ is. Panpsychism questions what ‘consciousness’ would look like when living organisms are stripped down to the last atom.
Science is still to find the answers – but not for the lack of trying.
Scientific Views About Consciousness
Science still grapples with the idea of ‘consciousness’. Despite our immense progress and advancements, we still don’t know just how our brain sends signals and fills our world with rich sounds, textures, smells, colors, and tastes.
Some scientists argue that we’re looking at consciousness from the wrong scientific angle – right from the get-go. During the beginning of the scientific revolution, when Galileo declared mathematics to be the new scientific language, he also acknowledged that ‘consciousness’ lies outside the realms of physical science. This fact often seems to slip past modern scientists, who – by no fault of their own – have a more practical and physical approach to analyzing unfamiliar concepts.
The dilemma of ‘consciousness’ can’t be solved by conventional approaches to science – physical science deals with quantities not qualities; and ‘consciousness’ is a question of quality. Physical sciences are a great tool if you want to describe the matter from the outside’; but they’re not of much use if you want to explain the intrinsic nature (like ‘consciousness’) of an object.
Despite all the debates however, there are two significant scientific views about consciousness:
- Materialism – which argues that consciousness emerges from the physical brain
- Dualism – which argues that consciousness is separate from matter and doesn’t necessarily come from a physical brain
Neither of these views fully answer the question. If consciousness comes from a physical brain, how does that brain produce consciousness? Alternatively, if consciousness is separate from a physical body, how do the both interact with one another?
The answers seem to lie with Panpsychism.
Is the Universe Conscious?
Philosophers and physicists have both tried to answer this question in their own ways.
According to philosophers, consciousness is inherent to even the smallest particles of matter – and that each and every building block that makes up the universe has a conscious reality.
Physicists build upon this idea and study ‘consciousness’ as a quantum effect – that is to say, they break down the human idea of ‘consciousness’ into micro-scale quantum physics events, and then apply the same idea to inanimate objects. If consciousness to the human mind is a tiny-level chain of quantum events, then what would a tiny-level chain of quantum events in an inanimate object be? And could that be called ‘consciousness’ in that inanimate object?
According to some physicists, consciousness is everywhere because quantum effects are everywhere. According to some others, only the fundamental particles of reality – the atoms and quarks – have fairly simplistic consciousness; like a single-celled organism.
However, all of these statements are hypotheses at best – because we’re still grappling with the concept of ‘consciousness’. For example, we can observe an atom, but we can’t go inside it and hear its thoughts. And although neuroscientists can scan to see what part of your brain lights up when you’re hungry or in pain, they don’t exactly know how or why.
And so it seems that we’re unable to truly answer the question: is the universe conscious or not? We don’t know yet – but we do know that science alone won’t solve this dilemma.
Where There’s ‘Consciousness’, There’s a ‘Collective Consciousness’
Remember the Oxford Dictionary of Psychology’s definition of a collective consciousness? To recall, every organism that can feel, think, and make decisions has a consciousness. But what happens when there’s more than one person – how do their consciousness’ intermingle?
Well, the social sciences have an answer for that, too – and it’s called the ‘collective consciousness’.
The Sociological Idea of a Collective Conscious
Collective consciousness is the idea that every member of a certain unit – a group, a society, a family, an organization, a nation, and even a region – shares a set of ideas, moral attitudes, and beliefs amongst each other.
In the modern world, even something like memes and dance party rituals can be considered as ‘collective consciousness’.
Naturally, one of the many perks of the group mind is that it acts as a unifying force within that unit – and unity truly becomes power. On the flip side, the group mind can lead to really extreme behaviors as well – think cults, international armed groups, and Hitler.
Basically, multiple consciousnesses will interact with one another and create a collective consciousness. And the social sciences have a lot of things to say about that.
The Sociological Theories on the Collective Consciousness
Before we apply what we know about the collective consciousness to a universal level, it might be useful to understand its historical context.
Durkheim’s Theory on the Collective Consciousness
According to Emile Durkheim – one of the fathers of modern sociology – the collective consciousness was integral to the functioning of clans and tribes. He concluded that a ‘society’ exists only because individuals express solidarity with one another.
In the old days, this ‘solidarity’ was expressed merely in the form of religious symbols, family units, and cultural rituals. However, in the modern day the same ‘solidarity’ becomes what Durkenheim termed as ‘mechanical solidarity’ – where people rely on structures like the state and political institutes.
E.Durkheim went a step further to grimly suggest that people who aren’t part of a group with a collective consciousness might end up committing suicide. That is to say, that the member of the group who thinks differently than the rest ends up feeling like they don’t belong – and that disintegration from the other members might cause higher rates of suicide.
Gramsci’s Theory on the Collective Consciousness
Building upon Durkheim’s point of view, Gramsci suggested that multiple contrasting sub-units can exist within a single unit. For example, a country (a unit) can have people of multiple religions and ethnicities (multiple subunits) who have beliefs and ideas contrasting from one another
Gramsci further suggested that hegemony and oppression might come out of such co-existing but contrasting subunits – especially if one of them is able to dominate the others for long periods of time.
This perspective has some ties with the social struggles based on class, gender, race, ability, and sexual orientation. It also seems to suggest that the conflicts that civil society has with the state institutions are also a result of the multiple collective consciousness’ existing together in the same space.
But How Does the Sociological Theory of Collective Consciousness Apply to the Conscious Universe Theory?
Consider the following two premises:
- That living beings on Earth can form a collective consciousness
- That consciousness exists outside the human realm as well
With those two presumptions in mind, the next question that pops up in our heads is: can inanimate objects and non-humans form a collective consciousness, too?
Short answer: there’s a metaphysical theory about that, too! A concept called the Universal Mind or Universal Consciousness suggests that underneath all the essence of all the beings that have ever occurred in this universe, lies a common ‘Mind’.
This ties to the idea of Panpsychism: the belief that everything is connected – whether it’s a flower, or a heart, or a rock at the bottom of the ocean.
The Historical Context of the ‘Universal Mind’
While there are no recorded definitions of the Universal Mind, Ernest Holmes and Charles Haanel do seem to have a few things to say about it for the modern day context.
- According to Holmes, the Universal Mind is any knowledge
- According to Haanel, the Universal Mind is an unlimited and omnipresent resource
Long before these vague descriptions were presented, however, even Anaxagoras, Aristotle, and Plato had some similar things to say. From 480 BC to 857 CE, multiple propositions were given about the Universal Mind.
- Anaxagora posited The Doctrine of Nous (‘nous’ meaning ‘mind’ or ‘reason’ or ‘awareness’) which suggested that consciousness is more than just the human world – and worms, bacteria, and even raindrops can have ‘awareness’ if not ‘reason’
- Chu Ch’an posited The Huang Po Doctrine of Universal Mind which suggested that there’s a universal mind that is disconnected from the soul of a person.
So Does the Universe Have a ‘Collective’ Consciousness?
Due to the nature of this question – and the fact that we don’t yet know how to get inside a person or an inanimate object’s mind – we might not know for sure.
However, the answer might just be ‘yes’ according to the ancient philosophical and metaphysical teachings. We are all connected to one another, to nature, and to everything in the Universe.
So the idea of a Collective Consciousness or a Universal Mind might not be too far-fetched.
There isn’t enough evidence to prove or disprove whether the universe itself is a conscious being or not. But we can conclude that ‘consciousness’ is more than just the turning wheels of a physical brain in the human mind.
It might be in the very air we breathe and it could also be in the planets beyond our own. It might be before the existence of the human species or the Earth itself. And if Earth were to cease to exist, it might still live on long afterwards.
Guess we’ll find out someday!