Tuesday, March 18, 2014

The Conscious Universe

This was written in response to a Facebook post about the universe being explainable -- as it is, at least in its physical aspect -- in terms of forces.  That post expressed bewilderment as to why theists do not accept this.  Without wishing to get into that debate with the theists -- and also with the proselytizing atheists -- I offered instead, for whatever they are worth, these personal viewpoints, found over the years.

The Conscious Universe

I studied, worked in and taught physics, in the past, for  thirty three years, and so had my fill of learning about, working with and teaching about forces of all kinds.  After a while, I realized, however, that instead of just thinking of objects exerting forces on one another, we can also think of different parts of the universe (from electrons to galaxies) talking to one another -- in languages of their own.

Of course, they rarely use Spanish or Swahili.  At the fundamental levels, the parts of the universe use, instead, the languages that we call fields or interactions -- gravitational, electromagnetic, weak and strong nuclear.

When I speak to an English-speaking student in my class to say, "Jie Wen, please come here." and she complies, or ask another, "Rafael, could you take this to the attendance office?" and he does that, then I could describe their actions, crudely, in terms of forces of attraction and repulsion. And in human interactions, we do have elements of compulsion.

But we could also describe this, perhaps more accurately, as I have done, as communication and considered response.

So also, when I push on a board eraser and it moves, I could describe this in terms of (electromagnetic) forces that I exert on the eraser, causing it to press and slide across the board -- or I could visualize electrons on the surface of my hand "speaking to" their counterparts on the surface of the eraser and saying, "Sisters, could you move along? We are coming through."

This is not as far-fetched as it sounds, because each electron is, in fact, communicating with other electrons (and protons, etc.) via photons, which carry information back and forth, and there is a processing of this information going on in each cell of space-time.

In addition to this information-processing ability of the physical universe, there seems to be also an aspect of the universe that is not physical -- not measurable. The universe, as we experience it, has not only quantities, like wavelengths, but also qualities, like colors. These exist in a mental dimension or sphere that parallels, to some extent, physical phenomena, but is distinct from these.

I do not think, personally, that consciousness "evolved" and is accessible only to humans and "higher animals". It seems more reasonable to think of it, as we do of the measurable or physical aspects of the universe (such as space-time, information, mass, energy, electric charge, etc.), as elemental, already present.

This consciousness manifests itself in our mental processes (which again need our bodies to appear, but are distinct from them).

To give an analogy, one needs to buy or build a radio or TV set to hear or view broadcasts, but no one would claim that the radio or TV set is producing these -- they were already there, in the form of electromagnetic waves that spread out from the station.  In our case, there is no separate station out there -- no heavenly broadcaster, I don't think.  The universe itself is alive and conscious.  We are part of that. 

At the "lowest" level, we are nodes or routers in the network.  But we, along with atoms and octopi, may be more than that.

-- Arjun

 2014 March 19th, Wed.
Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, NY


  1. If elctrons do 'talk to each other' then they are in a coherent state
    which, in a macroscopic world, means that interactions are happening in an ordered state. In fact evolution has decoupled interactions from the unified regime into separate interactions being dominant at different stages of evolution or at different energy scales. Thus the old idea of all electrons being coherently coupled and models of multiverses which exchange information with each other seems to need serious reworking.

  2. Dear Partha, Thanks for your intriguing comment. I do not remember (or know) enough physics to understand exactly what you are describing. Of course, I do recall that the spontaneous breaking of symmetry that gave rise to the distinction between say, electromagnetic and weak interactions was not significant when temperatures were so high (and spatial separations so small) that the masses of the weak bosons were insignificant. But even in a chaotic system, there are still interactions between, say, electrons, that effectively provide them with some degree of information about one another. This information in turn may be thought of as being processed to determine the future trajectories of the electrons, albeit in a fuzzy manner, which may be thought of as resulting from the imprecision of the information or the local limits on processing power of the universe. That is all I meant when I referred, loosely, to electrons "talking to one another". I know nothing about multiverses and how they were postulated to exchange information, so I will not venture into that. But thanks for the perspective and for drawing attention to these aspects.