Is the Universe Conscious?

Author: Corey S. Powell
Via NBC News| June 16, 2017

Some of the world’s most renowned scientists are questioning whether the cosmos has an inner life similar to our own.

For centuries, modern science has been shrinking the gap between humans and the rest of the universe, from Isaac Newton showing that one set of laws applies equally to falling apples and orbiting moons to Carl Sagan intoning that “we are made of star stuff” — that the atoms of our bodies were literally forged in the nuclear furnaces of other stars.

Even in that context, Gregory Matloff’s ideas are shocking. The veteran physicist at New York City College of Technology recently published a paper arguing that humans may be like the rest of the universe in substance and in spirit. A “proto-consciousness field” could extend through all of space, he argues. Stars may be thinking entities that deliberately control their paths. Put more bluntly, the entire cosmos may be self-aware.

The notion of a conscious universe sounds more like the stuff of late night TV than academic journals. Called by its formal academic name, though, “panpsychism” turns out to have prominent supporters in a variety of fields. New York University philosopher and cognitive scientist David Chalmers is a proponent. So too, in different ways, are neuroscientist Christof Koch of the Allen Institute for Brain Science, and British physicist Sir Roger Penrose, renowned for his work on gravity and black holes. The bottom line, Matloff argues, is that panpsychism is too important to ignore.

“It’s all very speculative, but it’s something we can check and either validate or falsify,” he says.

Three decades ago, Penrose introduced a key element of panpsychism with his theory that consciousness is rooted in the statistical rules of quantum physics as they apply in the microscopic spaces between neurons in the brain.

In 2006, German physicist Bernard Haisch, known both for his studies of active stars and his openness to unorthodox science, took Penrose’s idea a big step further. Haisch proposed that the quantum fields that permeate all of empty space (the so-called “quantum vacuum”) produce and transmit consciousness, which then emerges in any sufficiently complex system with energy flowing through it. And not just a brain, but potentially any physical structure. Intrigued, Matloff wondered if there was a way to take these squishy arguments and put them to an observational test.

One of the hallmarks of life is its ability to adjust its behavior in response to stimulus. Matloff began searching for astronomical objects that unexpectedly exhibit this behavior. Recently, he zeroed in on a little-studied anomaly in stellar motion known as Paranego’s Discontinuity. On average, cooler stars orbit our galaxy more quickly than do hotter ones. Most astronomers attribute the effect to interactions between stars and gas clouds throughout the galaxy. Matloff considered a different explanation. He noted that the anomaly appears in stars that are cool enough to have molecules in their atmospheres, which greatly increases their chemical complexity.

Matloff noted further that some stars appear to emit jets that point in only one direction, an unbalanced process that could cause a star to alter its motion. He wondered: Could this actually be a willful process? Is there any way to tell?

If Paranego’s Discontinuity is caused by specific conditions within the galaxy, it should vary from location to location. But if it is something intrinsic to the stars — as consciousness would be — it should be the same everywhere. Data from existing stellar catalogs seems to support the latter view, Matloff claims. Detailed results from the Gaia star-mapping space telescope, due in 2018, will provide a more stringent test.

Matloff is under no illusion that his colleagues will be convinced, but he remains upbeat: “Shouldn’t we at least be checking? Maybe we can move panpsychism from philosophy to observational astrophysics.”


While Matloff looks out to the stars to verify panpsychism, Christof Koch looks at humans. In his view, the existence of widespread, ubiquitous consciousness is strongly tied to scientists’ current understanding of the neurological origins of the mind.

“The only dominant theory we have of consciousness says that it is associated with complexity — with a system’s ability to act upon its own state and determine its own fate,” Koch says. “Theory states that it could go down to very simple systems. In principle, some purely physical systems that are not biological or organic may also be conscious.”

Koch is inspired by integrated information theory, a hot topic among modern neuroscientists, which holds that consciousness is defined by the ability of a system to be influenced by its previous state and to influence its next state.

The human brain is just an extreme example of that process, Koch explains: “We are more complex, we have more self-awareness — well, some of us do — but other systems have awareness, too. We may share this property of experience, and that is what consciousness is: the ability to experience anything, from the most mundane to the most refined religious experience.”

Like Matloff, Koch and his colleagues are actively engaged in experimental tests of these ideas. One approach is to study brain-impaired patients to see if their information responses align with biological measures of their consciousness. Another approach, further off, is to wire the brains of two mice together and see how the integrated consciousness of the animals changes as the amount of information flowing between them is increased. At some point, according to integrated information theory, the two should merge into a single, larger information system. Eventually, it should be possible to run such experiments with humans, wiring their brains together to see if a new type of consciousness emerges.

Despite their seeming similarities, Koch is dubious of Matloff’s volitional stars. What is distinctive about living things, according to his theory, is not that they are alive but that they are complex. Although the sun is vastly bigger than a bacterium, from a mathematical perspective it is also vastly simpler. Koch allows that a star may have an internal life that allows it to “feel,” but whatever that feeling is, it is much less than the feeling of being an E. coli.

On the other hand, “even systems that we don’t consider animate could have a little bit of consciousness,” Koch says. “It is part and parcel of the physical.” From this perspective, the universe may not exactly be thinking, but it still has an internal experience intimately tied to our own.


Which brings us to Roger Penrose and his theories linking consciousness and quantum mechanics. He does not overtly identify himself as a panpsychist, but his argument that self-awareness and free will begin with quantum events in the brain inevitably links our minds with the cosmos. Penrose sums up this connection beautifully in his opus “The Road to Reality”:

“The laws of physics produce complex systems, and these complex systems lead to consciousness, which then produces mathematics, which can then encode in a succinct and inspiring way the very underlying laws of physics that gave rise to it.”

Despite his towering stature as a physicist, Penrose has encountered resistance to his theory of consciousness. Oddly, his colleagues have been more accepting of the exotic, cosmic-consciousness implications of quantum mechanics. Ever since the 1920s, physicists have puzzled over the strangely privileged role of the observer in quantum theory. A particle exists in a fuzzy state of uncertainty…but only until it is observed. As soon as someone looks at it and takes its measurements, the particle seems to collapse into a definite location.

The late physicist John Wheeler concluded that the apparent oddity of quantum mechanics was built on an even grander and odder truth: that the universe as a whole festers in a state of uncertainty and snaps into clear, actual being when observed by a conscious being — that is, us.

“We are participators in bringing into being not only the near and here but the far away and long ago,” Wheeler said in 2006. He calls his interpretation the “participatory anthropic principle.” If he is correct, the universe is conscious, but in almost the opposite of the way that Matloff pictures it: Only through the acts of conscious minds does it truly exist at all.

It is hard to imagine how a scientist could put the participatory anthropic principle to an empirical test. There are no stars to monitor, and no brains to measure, to understand whether reality depends on the presence of consciousness. Even if it cannot be proven, the participatory anthropic principle extends the unifying agenda of modern science, powerfully evoking the sense of connectedness that Albert Einstein called the cosmic religious feeling.

“In my view, it is the most important function of art and science to awaken this feeling and keep it alive in those who are receptive to it,” Einstein wrote in a 1930 New York Times editorial. Explorers like Matloff are routinely dismissed as fringe thinkers, but it is hard to think of any greater expression of that feeling than continuing the quest to find out if our human minds are just tiny components of a much greater cosmic brain.

Images: NASA via Reuters

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Reflexiones Marginales

Reflexiones Marginales

Director: Alberto Constante / Facultad de Filosofía y Letras
Vía Reflexiones Marginales

Revista digital recomendada por Mariana Chávez Berrón, colaboradora de México para Replicación de Arttextum


Esta revista nace de una percepción: que la filosofía necesita dar respuesta a un conjunto de problemas que se dan alrededor de saberes de frontera y de saberes de y desde los márgenes, es decir, de saberes que quedan atravesados por dos o más conocimientos y que no se detienen en una especificidad sino que se entrecruzan, se subsumen, se yuxtaponen. Pero al mismo tiempo, de lo que se trata es de un procedimiento crítico que indaga sobre la constitución de las fronteras institucionales, sociales, económicas, políticas y universitarias que establecen la identidad y la diferencia de las distintas áreas del saber. La frontera no habla de ir más allá de esos límites, de esos cercos, de esa raya que es señalada por lo decible y lo visible de una época sino que trata de poner de manifiesto la presencia de un afuera que se sostiene con y por un adentro, es la articulación sostenida de relaciones de saber y poder como posibilidad de subjetivación y de libertad. La frontera en su enunciación no rompe lo divisorio, sino que es el lazo viable que se traza entre la afirmación misma de los límites.


Partiendo del hecho de que estas fronteras no son naturales, ni universales, sino que son construidas, y en consecuencia son el efecto de ciertas políticas del saber, se ha hecho necesario preguntarnos cómo, cuándo y dónde han tenido lugar los procesos de especialización y de división del trabajo científico, académico o de índole disciplinaria con los cuales se produce el conocimiento. Esta compleja tarea exige estar a la escucha de la diferencia; porque decir la verdad es una tarea plural, atravesada por el desacuerdo y el conflicto. En esta medida, los diversos saberes que conforman a las Humanidades se han enfrentado recientemente con un nuevo reto: la emergencia de la interdisciplinariedad, la cual surge no sólo como un objeto de la reflexión, inédito en nuestra historia hasta hace poco, sino como una instancia, por definición inapropiable, a partir de la cual es posible interrogarse de manera colectiva sobre la racionalización del trabajo que hacemos en las Humanidades.

Imagen de portada: Año 6. Número 37. Feb-Marzo 2017. Danza y fotografía (2a parte).

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Artist Uses Kintsugi to Mend Cracked Streets with Gold

Artist Uses Kintsugi to Mend Cracked Streets with Gold

Author: Jessica Stewart
Via My Modern Met | February 24, 2017

Article recommended by Mick Lorusso from the USA / Italy, collaborator of Arttextum’s Replicación


Contemporary artist Rachel Sussman is mending cracks in our urban environment with her series Sidewalk Kintsukuroi. Inspired by kintsugi—also known as kintsukuroi—the Japanese art of repairing broken pottery with gold, Sussman brings this philosophy to city pavements.

Sussman was already attracted to the Japanese aesthetic philosophy of wabi-sabi when an image of repaired broken pottery sparked her imagination. As chance would have it, she discovered the photograph of kintsugi around the time when her book The Oldest Living Things in the World was being published.

“Study for Sidewalk Kintsukuroi #01 (New Haven, Connecticut),” photograph with enamel paint and metallic dust
“Study for Sidewalk Kintsukuroi #01 (New Haven, Connecticut),” photograph with enamel paint and metallic dust

After spending 10 years photographing ancient organisms for that project, it was a natural next step to play with the idea of repairing what is broken. A new installation and studies from Sidewalk Kintsukuroi are currently part of the Alchemy: Transformations in Gold exhibition at the Des Moines Art Center.

Sussman repaired a crack in the center’s marble floor, an installation which is now part of the museum’s permanent collection. Also on display are study photographs, where the streets of New York City have their fissures filled with gold dust.

Study for Sidewalk Kintsukuroi #02 (MASS MoCA),” photograph with enamel paint and metallic dust
Study for Sidewalk Kintsukuroi #02 (MASS MoCA),” photograph with enamel paint and metallic dust

Whether permanent or theoretical, Sussman’s work falls in line with kintsugi philosophy.  “Cracks represent something in need of attention, and the surfaces we walk, bike, and drive over are usually overlooked until they’re in truly critical condition,” the artist explains. “By gilding them, it’s a way to see what’s around us with fresh eyes and to celebrate perseverance.”

All images: Rachel Sussman.

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