In upcoming research, scientists will try to prove that the universe is conscious. Whether they can prove this to be true or not, their research will definitely teach us a lot about what it means to be conscious, and which objects around us have a mind of their own.
According to the Oxford Dictionary of Psychology, the definition of consciousness is: “the normal mental condition of the waking state of humans, characterized by the experience of perceptions, thoughts, feelings, awareness of the external world, and often in humans (but not necessarily in other animals) self-awareness.”
Still, scientists do not have one unified theory of where consciousness comes from or what it’s made out of.
However, one thing scientists can say for sure is that other organisms, and perhaps even inanimate objects, also have consciousness. We know that, for example, dogs and cats have some degree of consciousness due to their facial expressions and decision-making abilities.
On the other hand, objects such as rocks or the ocean do not have facial expressions or make decisions, so it is harder to prove that those things have a degree of consciousness.
That is where the philosophical phenomenon called panpsychism comes into play. All About Space’s David Crookes writes:
“This claims consciousness is inherent in even the tiniest pieces of matter — an idea that suggests the fundamental building blocks of reality have conscious experience. Crucially, it implies consciousness could be found throughout the universe.”
Physics also plays a role here. Some scientists suggest that the thing we think of as consciousness is actually made of micro-scale quantum physics events and other “spooky actions at a distance,” that somehow made their way inside our brains and generate conscious thoughts.
One of the leading minds in physics, 2020 Nobel laureate and black hole pioneer Roger Penrose, has extensively researched quantum mechanics as a possible vehicle of consciousness. In 1989, he wrote a book called The Emperor’s New Mind, in which he claimed “that human consciousness is non-algorithmic and a product of quantum effects.”
This begs the question: are our brains simply computing math-based processes that are pre-determined? Or do we truly think with free will and have the ability to make decisions that affect our lives?
Now let’s talk about today’s researchers: Johannes Kleiner, mathematician and theoretical physicist at the Munich Center For Mathematical Philosophy, and Sean Tull, mathematician at the University of Oxford.
Kleiner and Tull are following Penrose’s footsteps, in both his 1989 book and a 2014 paper where he detailed his belief that our brains’ microprocesses can be used to model things about the whole universe. The resulting theory is called integrated information theory (IIT).
In IIT, consciousness is everywhere. However, it accumulates in places where it’s needed to help link together different systems. For example, there are numerous parts of the human brain that link together to carry out functions.
So the theory here is that if your brain has countless interrelated systems, then the entire universe must have infinite ones. And if that’s where consciousness accumulates, then the universe must have a lot of it.
“The theory consists of a very complicated algorithm that, when applied to a detailed mathematical description of a physical system, provides information about whether the system is conscious or not, and what it is conscious of,” Kleiner told All About Space. “If there is an isolated pair of particles floating around somewhere in space, they will have some rudimentary form of consciousness if they interact in the correct way.”
Kleiner and Tull are working on turning IIT into this complex mathematical algorithm to create the standard that can be used to study how conscious things work.
The next step is to actually crunch the numbers. Philosophers are about to be really busy – and so are their calculators.