February 26, 2024
SF Gate

The Riddle of a Conscious Universe.


When your mind and heart are truly open abundance will flow to you effortlessly and easily.

By Deepak Chopra, MD, FACP, FRCP

One of the strangest theories currently being tossed around is the notion that we live in a conscious universe. The typical label for this hypothesis is panpsychism, an ancient belief that there is sentience in everything in creation. I asked AI for the origins of panpsychism and got this answer from Google Gemini.

The idea of panpsychism, that all things have some form of mind, has roots in ancient philosophy, even before Socrates! Early Greek thinkers like Thales and Aristotle hinted at it. The term itself was coined much later, in the 16th century, by the Italian philosopher Francesco Patrizi.

Modern physics is the last place you’d expect a notion from ancient philosophy to show up, given that there is no physical data to support it, no empirical measurement or experiment to prove or disprove it, and little credibility behind rocks, trees, and clouds having a mind.

In essence, physics—and more particularly, cosmology—has been backed into a corner in hopes that panpsychism will come to the rescue. Cosmology is responsible for giving us the origins story of the universe. Until quite recently, leaving mind or consciousness out of the story suited almost everyone. As humans, we know we have a mind, and the brain takes care of that bit of biology, so there was no need to drag in a conscious universe.

Yet for some reason, a number of the greatest quantum pioneers disagreed, among them Max Planck, Werner Heisenberg, and Erwin Schrödinger, who each in his own way felt that consciousness was inherent in creation. Such an eccentric idea was dismissed as a personal quirk that had nothing to do with the business of doing physics from day to day.

And there matters might have stood, even though some striking quotes linger around the whole issue.  Sir James Jeans, the noted English astronomer-physicist, wrote, “The universe begins to look more like a great thought than like a great machine. Mind no longer appears to be an accidental intruder into the realm of matter … we ought rather to hail it as the creator and governor of the realm of matter.”

If time travel dropped this quote into the laps of the ancient Vedic rishis, or seers, of India, they would have instantly agreed. Jeans’s insight wasn’t that we live in a conscious universe but that mind/consciousness is “the creator and governor” of the physical world.  Suddenly the topic becomes personal because your brain is a physical object, and what Jeans declares is the opposite of what neuroscience believes. Neuroscience believes that matter creates and controls mind; most brain researchers would even claim that brain = mind.

Jeans, echoing not just Vedic philosophy but Planck, Heisenberg, and Schrödinger, is saying that your brain doesn’t create your mind; nor do brain cells think, feel, or have experiences. Consciousness does all of that, with the brain responding as a physical instrument the way a piano responds when a musician sits down to play. No one would claim that a piano knows music, and since brain cells are made of organic chemicals the same as the wood in a piano is made of organic chemicals, there’s no logical reason to suppose that rearranging organic chemicals in a super-complex way inside the human brain gave them the gift of mind. As one wit put it, to say that we have a mind because our brains are so complex is like saying that if you add more cards to a deck of playing cards, it will know how to play poker.

A contingent of physicists, largely in the younger generation, realized that leaving consciousness out of the cosmic origins story doesn’t work. It seems as if millions or even billions of planets outside the solar system might contain life, and life leads to speculations about advanced life forms that can think. Even leaving that aside, physics is rational, and a rational explanation for where consciousness originated is necessary.

Now we come to the part about being backed into a corner. No one to date has been able to show when or where atoms and molecules learned to think. As obvious as it seems that each of us has a mind, you cannot simply use sleight of hand to claim that atoms and molecules gained special dispensation to think inside the human brain. (The discovery of language systems among birds, whales, porpoises, and other higher life forms has already demoted the uniqueness of our brain.)

Panpsychism arose as a kind of back-and-fill operation. By ascribing consciousness or perhaps proto-consciousness (a beginning stage of mind) to the universe, you can point to atoms and molecules possessing consciousness as a property like mass, charge, and energy states. The solution seems quick, simple, even elegant. And it has the benefit that your worldview can still be materialist/physicalist. You are shoring up the notion that, after all is said and done, the human brain is thinking and experiencing the world at the level of neurons.

Except that the whole thing doesn’t wash, because cause-and-effect is ruined. No one in physics wants to abandon the notion that physical laws create and control the cosmos at every level, allowing random events in the quantum field to build more and more complex structures until you arrive at the single most complex structure known to science, human DNA. The laws of chemistry and physics are mindless. Therefore, they can’t be responsible for how our minds do the incredible things they do. The other alternative in panpsychism is that consciousness overrides the randomness of physical interactions—why else do we have a mind if not to create civilization and everything that goes with it? It’s not plausible that gravity and electromagnetism, along with a few friends, got together to paint the Mona Lisa and compose Bach fugues.

Once you let consciousness into the game, it is logically inescapable that Jeans was right. Only consciousness is conscious. Mind must create and govern the operation of the physical world. No other cause makes sense. Panpsychism doesn’t work, because it delivers control back to atoms and molecules, which in turn delivers control back to the mindless laws of nature. You are stuck with the same fallacy that materialism/physicalism begins with, the fallacy that everything must have a physical explanation.

There’s a lot more to say about the mystery of consciousness, but getting unworkable ideas out of the way is a good start. A worldview based on consciousness as the source of creation is around the corner if you start to look at the only origins story that actually works. Inevitably, it will send shock waves through the current paradigm of science.

DEEPAK CHOPRA MD, FACP, FRCP, founder of The Chopra Foundation, a non-profit entity for research on well-being and humanitarianism, and Chopra Global, a whole health company at the intersection of science and spirituality, is a world-renowned pioneer in integrative medicine and personal transformation.  Chopra is a Clinical Professor of Family Medicine and Public Health at the University of California, San Diego, and serves as a senior scientist with Gallup Organization. He is the author of over 90 books translated into over forty-three languages, including numerous New York Times bestsellers. Chopra has been at the forefront of the meditation revolution for the last thirty years. He is author of the forthcoming book, Digital Dharma: How to Use AI to Raise Your Spiritual Intelligence and Personal Well-Being. TIME magazine has described Dr. Chopra as “one of the top 100 heroes and icons of the century.”  www.deepakchopra.com

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