Could the Universe be conscious? This might seem like one of those Interesting Questions To Which The Answer Is ‘No’ that so often provide arresting headlines in the popular press. Since the Universe contains everything, what would it be conscious of? What would it think about? Thinking about itself – thinking about any real thing – would be bizarre, analogous to us thinking about the activity of the  neurons that were doing the thinking. But I suppose it could think about imaginary stuff. Perhaps even the cosmos can dream; perhaps it thinks it’s Cleopatra or Napoleon.

Actually, so far as I can see no-one is actually suggesting the Universe as a whole, as an entity, is conscious. Instead this highly original paper by Gregory L. Matloff starts with panpsychism, a belief that there is some sort of universal field of proto-consciousness permeating the cosmos. That is a not unpopular outlook these days. What’s startling is Matloff’s suggestion that some stars might be able to do roughly what our brains are supposed by panpsychists to do; recruit the field and use it to generate their own consciousness, exerting some degree of voluntary control over their own movements.

He relies for evidence on a phenomenon called Parenago’s discontinuity; cooler, less massive stars seem to circle the galaxy a bit faster than the others. Dismissing a couple of rival explanations, he suggests that these cooler stars might be the ones capable of hosting consciousness, and might be capable of shooting jets from their interior in a consistent direction so as to exert an influence over their own motion. This might be a testable hypothesis, bringing panpsychism in from the debatable realms of philosophy to the rigorous science of astrophysics (unkind people might suggest that the latter field is actually about as speculative as the former; I couldn’t possibly comment).

In discussing panpsychism it is good to draw a distinction between types of consciousness. There is a certain practical decision-making capacity in human consciousness that is relatively well rooted in science in several ways. We can see roughly how it emerged from biological evolution and why it is useful, and we have at least some idea of how neurons might do it, together with a lot of evidence that in fact, they do do it.  Then there is the much mistier business of subjective experience, what being conscious is actually like. We know little about that and it raises severe problems. I think it would be true to claim that most panpsychists think the kind of awareness that suffuses the world is of the latter kind; it is a dim general awareness, not a capacity to make snappy decisions. It is, in my view, one of the big disadvantages of panpsychism that it does not help much with explaining the practical, working kind of consciousness and in fact arguably leaves us with more to account for  than we had on our plate to start with.

Anyway, if Matloff’s theory is to be plausible, he needs to explain how stars could possibly build the decision-making kind of consciousness, and how the universal field would help. To his credit he recognises this – stars surely don’t have neurons – and offers at least some hints about how it might work. If I’ve got it right, the suggestion is that the universal field of consciousness might be identified with vacuum fluctuation pressures, which on the one hand might influence the molecules present in regions of the cooler stars under consideration, and on the other have effects within neurons more or less on Penrose/Hameroff lines. This is at best an outline, and raises immediate and difficult questions; why would vacuum fluctuation have anything to do with subjective experience? If a bunch of molecules in cool suns is enough for conscious volition, why doesn’t the sea have a mind of its own? And so on. For me the deadliest questions are the simplest. If cool stars have conscious control of their movements, why are they all using it the same way – to speed up their circulation a bit? You’d think if they were conscious they would be steering around in different ways according to their own choices. Then again, why would they choose to do anything? As animals we need consciousness to help us pursue food, shelter, reproduction, and so on. Why would stars care which way they went?

I want to be fair to Matloff, because we shouldn’t mock ideas merely for being unconventional. But I see one awful possibility looming. His theory somewhat recalls medieval ideas about angels moving the stars in perfect harmony. They acted in a co-ordinated way because although the angels had wills of their own, they subjected them to God’s. Now, why are the cool stars apparently all using their wills in a similarly co-ordinated way? Are they bound together through the vacuum fluctuations; have we finally found out there the physical manifestation of God? Please, please, nobody go in that direction!


  1. 1. SelfAwarePatterns says:

    When talking about panpsychism, I think it helps to make a distinction between two varieties, what I called “naturalistic panpsychism” and “pandualism” in a recent blog post.

    The first merely defines consciousness in such a way (usually as interaction with the environment) that everything is conscious. I personally don’t find that a satisfying definition nor the resulting outlook productive, but admittedly it’s a matter of perspective.

    The second (pandualism) is substance dualism but spread over the entire universe, which sounds like the variety Matloff has adopted. I think it inherits all the problems of substance dualism except that it explains the lack of evidence for it by saying it’s everywhere, and therefore we shouldn’t expect to be able to detect its presence or absence.

    On the universe overall being conscious in any unified manner, it seems like the speed of light limitation and expanding universe effectively rule that out, unless of course the universal field isn’t bound by those physical laws, but then it seems like we’re just fantasizing.

    I have nothing to add to your critique of the conscious star idea, except to note that I doubt Olaf Stapledon (whose ideas this paper was exploring) would have put forth that proposition today in light of modern science.

  2. 2. Jesus Olmo says:

    Star Consciousness: An Alternative to Dark Matter:

  3. 3. Jesus Olmo says:

    “C-Rex?” asks Karl.
    “Yeah, C-Rex, consciousness is king, as opposed to U-Rex, universe is king, which is the reigning paradigm we all know and love.”
    Karl reads through my notes. He takes his time.
    “No,” he says, “I don’t think so.”
    We discuss it for a few minutes.
    “The difference between U-Rex and C-Rex is simple,” I explain to him. “Imagine a sheet of white paper and put a dot somewhere in the middle of it. The white page is infinite, it goes on forever in all directions. Okay?’
    “Yes, okay.”
    “Now, label the infinite sheet of paper Universe, and label the dot Consciousness. Okay?”
    “That’s what I’m calling U-Rex, our shared paradigm of reality. Regardless of any other consideration, that’s how everyone understands their reality. I am conscious, and my consciousness is one small thing in a great big universe. Agree?”
    “Certainly,” he says.
    “And that universe is just as we know it. It has time and space, energy and matter, everything we all experience all the time. It’s full of people and planets and stars, incomprehensible vastness and complexity, everything we mean by universe, right?”
    “Fine, yes.”
    “That’s the reigning paradigm of reality. Universe is king, U-Rex. Your consciousness is a dot, one small thing in an infinite universe.”
    “Got that piece of paper in mind?”
    “Yes.” He smiles indulgently, but his eyes are bright with intelligence. “So how do we arrive at this other paradigm of yours?”
    “Just switch the labels.”

    -Jed McKenna, ‘Theory of Everything’.

  4. 4. Ben Tesch says:

    I think the first link in your article should be
    instead of

  5. 5. Peter says:

    Thanks, Ben!

  6. 6. arnold says:

    Yes, consciousness-awareness implies dependence on entities for an existence, but if we are wondering about the phenomenon of a universe then independence in coexistence would be more towards the phenomenon of observation…

    Today psychology, science and most people consider observation to be an attribute of consciousness-awareness…
    …another question in this field is, dose evolution attract phenomenal influences…

  7. 7. Disagreeable Me says:

    Hi Peter,

    I agree with your analysis, but I would perhaps put it more strongly. This is not panpsychism (at least as I understand it). Panpsychism is the idea that the hard problem of consciousness is best explained by assuming that primordial consciousness is a fundamental part of nature.

    But if we’re trying to explain the behaviour of stars, we’re not looking at the hard problem of consciousness any more. Behavioural problems are “easy”. Anything which has third-party observable effects is orthogonal to panpsychism. Even if we buy the outlandish ideas that stars are intelligently guiding their own behaviour, we need not necessarily suppose that they are conscious. Whatever it might be that they are tapping into, we have no reason to suppose that it is the panpsychist consciousness field, which is supposed to account for phenomenal consciousness but not behaviour (which can be accounted for by neurons etc).

  8. 8. Jayarava says:

    If we start from an axiom, our logical deductions will eventually reproduce that axiom. So, if we start with the axiom “the universe is conscious” and proceed logically, we will eventually produce a logical argument for Panpsychism. But all this tells us is that we believe in panpsychism, which we knew at the outset. It’s not a very interesting game once one understands how deduction works. Identifying and destroying unspoken axioms still holds some interest, but even than won’t change the mind of a true believer so loses its savour.

    If you want to make a rational case for panpsychism, you have to start from the premise that panpsychism is not the case and show why this *must* be wrong. There must be some piece of evidence that *cannot* be explained any other way than by panpsychism being true (and Hume’s On Miracles applies).

    It is quite difficult to locate a discussion of this phenomenon which does not feature Matloff himself hawking his book on the subject (*alarm bells ring*) – he dominates the Google rankings. When one eventually does find a non-Matloff discussion, one sees that explanations are *all* a bit speculative, but some models give pretty accurate predictions of observations. So some startling new observation that did not fit the predictions of existing models, but was predicted by panpsychism would be required to decisively disprove them. And this observation doesn’t exist.

    In fact his evidence is weaker than this. Because what he is suggesting as evidence of “consciousness” (a meaningless term) is a regular phenomenon. We judge an object to be an agent when it disrupts our expectations of lawful behaviour. A bowling ball never spontaneously rolls upstairs (up the gravity well), whereas my cat goes up the stairs all the time. The bowling ball is not an agent. My cat is. But the behaviour of the stars, while difficult to explain, is still of the bowling ball type – all the stars in question are all doing exactly the same thing in exactly the same way (are we adding morphic fields to panpsychism?).

    There’s nothing in Parenago’s discontinuity which suggests agentive behaviour. It’s physical objects moving through curved spacetime, following patterns. And that does not require so-called “consciousness” (on any definition of that term).

    What Matloff needs is not a bunch of stars all going slightly faster than expected by exactly the same amount in a manner which is now entirely predictable, but a single star which is buzzing around like a fly, or swerving to avoid a collision. And he doesn’t have it. He’s just another crank with a PhD. Cranks with PhDs are now common enough that we could probably formulate a model to predict them…

    However, even if Matloff was correct in attributing agentive behaviour to these stars, this is *not* evidence of panpsychism. It’s evidence of agentive behaviour in stars. Can we call this astropsychism?

    The answer to the question “Could the Universe be conscious?” is still, “There is no evidence to suggest that it is.” When we look out into the universe we see lumps of stuff evolving over time according to definite patterns. So far, that’s it. As much as we want magic to be real, it isn’t. Which doesn’t mean that Harry Potter isn’t a good story, only that it is fiction.

  9. 9. Richard J.R.Miles says:

    Panpsychism is just a replacement fo Descartes Dualism.

  10. 10. arnold says:

    The question is still missed (Socrates “do not take notes” verses Plato took notes)…
    …in-this-is (Being) here now is more akin to ‘knowledge’ as a object for observation…

    The universe is made up of lot of things-to be what ever they are…So returning to the origins of philosophy (every day) is always a good starting point (with the question-Am I here now)…

  11. 11. John Davey says:

    How would a star know it’s a star to begin with ? why not a bustling community of hydrogen atoms, also presumably capable of invoking consciousness ? Why would a conscious star behave in an identical manner with conscious stars unless in fact they weren’t conscious but were blindly obeying (unknown) physical paths of predictability ?

    In a way there is an element of ‘panpsychism’ that must be true nonetheless : as a phenomena consciousness is not reducible to the physical so (in the western, physicalist, substance mentality ) it would appear to be in an in isolated ontological position.


  12. 12. arnold says:

    Peter moves from ‘be conscious’ to ‘conscious of’ and John D. ‘the way of conscious (panpsychism) is truth’…
    …”To be conscious of truth as a way”…

    Is consciousness an all interacting ontological position and direction for what ever is in front of us…

  13. 13. Howard B says:

    A plausible reason why the stars in question behave in stereotyped fashion may be that consciousness acts in behavior in organisms. Their physical behavior might be limited by the kind of organism or milieu their contained in. Unicellular organisms if they are conscious are rather constrained, aren’t they? Why not stars?

  14. 14. Universal Field of “Proto-Consciousness” | Psybertron Asks says:

    […] different versions of this idea […]

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