Conscious Life

Can the Universe exist apart from conscious life?

Can the universe exist apart from conscious life?

In an earlier essay, Sensing the Universe, I asked the question, What, exactly, is the Universe?  I showed that our brains process the input of our senses to create a useful but completely false view—an hallucination, really—of reality. I pointed out, for example, how the sensation in our minds of the color yellow imparts to us no knowledge whatsoever of the electromagnetic radiation that triggered our experience. I explained that the color yellow does not exist in the physical universe at all. It is an illusion our brains conjure up to help us make certain choices—to enhance our chances of survival, probably.

I hope people will consider revisiting my earlier article as soon as they can to better help them understand this new article, which is going to take us a few steps farther.

In this essay, we will ask: Can the universe exist apart from conscious life? Can it exist apart from consciousness, itself? And we explore some of the consequences for humans should the answer turn out to be no.

conscious life Hologram

How can this be?

The terms conscious life and consciousness deserve to be defined. I won’t define the term conscious life right now except to say: if you’re reading this article and believe you are understanding it, you are conscious life.  

Consciousness, on the other hand, doesn’t require life, as we usually define it. The simplest definition of consciousness might be awareness. Most scientists and engineers, including myself, believe machines can achieve awareness, if they are built right. But in this piece, we go a bit further. We say that neither a machine nor a biological life-form are required for awareness or consciousness to exist. 

Consciousness, many have saidis a fundamental and basic property of reality. It is, in fact, the most fundamental and basic property of the universe. And that’s all I’m going to say about it, until we get further into my essay.

conscious life 4

Can something  bubble forth from nothing?

These lead-off questions are important. Why? Imagine if it were demonstrated, either by direct experiment or mathematical deduction, that apart from consciousness, the universe could not exist.

This possibility is not unreasonable. Kurt Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem—widely heralded and accepted by mathematicians since 1931—was interpreted by Douglas R. Hofstadter in a recent (1999) preface to his 1979 Pulitzer Prize winning book Gödel’, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid  to imply that any formal system based on mathematics, as the universe seems to be, “..must spew forth truths—inadvertently but inexorably—about its own properties, and…become “self-aware…”  What might be some of the implications?

Well, to begin, it might be necessary for consciousness to exist first, before the universe can get going; or, at the very least, to exist at the same time as the physical universe to give it meaning.

What else might be implied? Well, again, if consciousness existed first (or concurrently), it would be required to have always existed. Otherwise, we would conclude that consciousness can bubble forth out of nothing. Logic says that something cannot bubble forth from nothing.

Said another way, if something cannot exist apart from a conscious observer, then consciousness is required to have existed forever, even if it turns out the material universe does not have this quality. Consciousness may have the mysterious and as yet not understood quality of being both eternal and fundamental. And it might not be confined to simple awareness. If consciousness precedes a physical universe, it might have other attributes related to causation.

Erwin Schrodinger, the famous quantum physicist, believed that consciousness existed independent of human beings. Consciousness, in his view, had a singular quality about it. No matter how divided the mind; no matter how schizophrenic the individual or how many personalities they might have, consciousness was always singular, Schrodinger wrote. It never occurred in pairs or sets or multiples.

conscious life Erwin Schrodinger

Subatomic particles are imaginary constructs invented by scientists to explain the results of their experiments.  We don’t know what they really are or what they “look” like.  No one does.  Even today, scientists don’t know what the underlying nature of reality is or even how life began and evolved to consciousness. These questions are yet to be definitively answered.

And consciousness always had the same familiar aura as in childhood. Even as an individual transformed and grew, learned new skills, gathered knowledge and was reborn a dozen times—both physically and psychologically in life’s many stages of metamorphosis and regeneration—consciousness felt the same. It didn’t change.

To Schrodinger, consciousness seemed to be unique, singular, stable, unchanging and consistent from one human being to another and over any one individual’s lifetime. The quality of consciousness had an invariance about it that seemed atypical of a biologically driven attribute.

Consciousness, to Schrodinger, was something people shared, even plugged into, much like we plug our televisions into a cable outlet.

Consciousness, to Schrodinger, was something people shared, even plugged into, much like people today plug their televisions into a cable outlet.

To Schrodinger, consciousness had to be a phenomenon that lay outside the brain, not inside, as so many of his contemporaries insisted. People were simply guessing wrong about consciousness, he said. It wasn’t the first time. Ancient people once thought the center of consciousness lived inside the heart, until the surgeons of the Spanish Inquisition discovered it didn’t.

Consciousness, to Schrodinger, was something people shared, even plugged into, much like we might today plug our televisions into a cable outlet. He attributed his insight to passages he read from the Upanishads of ancient India.  Erwin believed that consciousness was an absolute and fundamental feature of the universe; something basic and simple; simpler even than the proton or quark, for example. It could not be accounted for in terms of anything else, he said; certainly not in physical terms, anyway. I mention this view now, to let readers know that ideas that could seem strange to some are coming, if they have the courage to read on.

Now might be a good time to mention that many animals behave as if they are conscious. I would suggest that self-awareness, as measured by recognizing oneself in a mirror, may not necessarily be a reliable test of consciousness in animals. It might, rather, be a test of intelligence—something completely different.

conscious life celula-memoria

Most scientists today seem to believe consciousness is a property of our brains, not the universe itself.

Anyway, the prevailing view of science in the twenty-first century is to take a physical view of the universe and conclude that conscious life arises from physical processes on Earth, certainly, and perhaps many other places in the cosmos, as yet undiscovered. Since conscious life is assumed to be complex—more complex, even, than particles and forces—consciousness must have developed after the physical universe, not before, it is reasoned.

Science takes the view that complexity evolves from simplicity; it has a direction similar to the arrow of time, for example. Consciousness—invisible; never observed; undiscoverable; lacking any physical attribute that can be measured; indescribable; unknowable except to the individual who experiences it—is assumed to have evolved from and been created by physical objects and forces that can be observed and measured, discovered and manipulated.

Gray742-emphasizing-claustrum

The legendary scientist, Francis Crick, who described the DNA molecule, suggested that the Claustrum might be the structure that brings the brain into the state called “consciousness.”  No one knows if he was right.

Consciousness is like a ghost who inhabits complex life forms on the earth; the holistic result of a grand evolution in the complexity of physical brains. Consciousness is a feature of the brain itself, scientists say; it lies inside the brain, though it cannot be found there.

Some scientists have suggested that the structure known as the claustrum may play a role. It is an assemblage of mostly identical neurons (looking very much, to my mind at least, like a potato-chip) embedded in the brains of some animals, including humans. From it run connections to many important structures in the brain. But the function of the claustrum remains a mystery. It might orchestrate the firing of neurons to give rise to consciousness. Then again, it might not. No one knows what it does for sure.

Another possible candidate for the fabrication of consciousness is the micro-scaffolding referred to as micro-tubules, which support the internal structure of many kinds of living cells. They permeate the interiors of soma cells and the root-like structures of brain neurons called dendrites. 

Both Stuart Hammerhoff—a working physician in anesthesiology—and Sir Roger Penrose (the famous physicist/mathematician and one-time collaborator of Stephen Hawking) are currently promoting the notion that the quantum properties of micro-tubules located inside nerve cells—some of which reside in organs other than the brain, like the heart, for example—are responsible in some mysterious way for the macro-electrical dynamics of the nervous-systems of humans and other organisms. These quantum level structures enable even the simplest one-celled organisms—which lack neurons altogether but are saturated by micro-tubules—to perform the functions of life.

These accomplished men are making the claim that the putative quantum behavior of micro-tubules—orders of magnitude smaller than the nerve cells in which they reside—might indeed be the mechanism that helps create the subjective feeling of awareness and control that all conscious beings seem to share. 

Some have argued (like Schrödinger—see my essay What is Life?) that some kind of structure (perhaps it is these micro-tubules) must exist and function like a quantum sensor to detect and interact with a theorized foundational proto-consciousness, which is itself quantum and intrinsic to the physical nature of the universe.

Some respected scientists have stepped forward to label as absurd any notion that consciousness is an intrinsic property of the universe, and a few have ridiculed Dr. Stuart Hammerhoff and his collaborator, Sir Roger Penrose, for aiding and abetting what seems to them to be quackery. But not all.

Erwin Schrodinger may have believed consciousness was a fundamental property of the Universe.

Erwin Schrodinger believed consciousness was a fundamental property of the universe.

Consciousness is not, in the contemporary consensus, a phenomenon that lies outside the brain (like light), which can be experienced by a life-form once it achieves a certain level of physical development.  Eyes, for example, once they evolve, can detect electromagnetic radiation, which—though pervasive within the universe—is unknowable to life-forms without a sensing organ like the eyes.

The consensus of modern science seems to be that consciousness is not an intrinsic phenomenon of the universe that can be detected (or imbibed, to use a better word) by physical organisms once they achieve a certain level of biological complexity. 

Most scientists would argue, I think, that a physical universe can teem with activity unobserved for billions of years. The universe may not exist for conscious life to observe until conscious life is one day created by it through a long process of evolution.   

At the point the universe creates conscious life, it acquires for itself a history and a definition determined by the life it brought forth and which now observes it. This point of view seems reasonable, until one considers that some of the most brilliant philosophers on earth, many fluent in mathematics and the sciences, disagree. One popular example is Australian, David Chalmers, who argues that consciousness is a fundamental requirement for a physical universe like our own; it predates life-forms such as humans.

Even a hard-headed scientist like Erwin Schrödinger, who gave us the mathematics of the quantum wave function, believed that if quantum structures exist in the brain, they serve only to connect (or entangle) living organisms to a universal consciousness that exists outside the brain, where consciousness operates in its role as a fundamental, intrinsic, and foundational property of reality itself. 

The smartest people who have ever lived on the earth have their disagreements about the nature of conscious-life.

Matter and anti-matter are, in theory, produced in a one-to-one ratio, which should ensure their mutual destruction. But if matter and anti-matter are produced within a spherical volume, then their ratio must depend on the irrational number, π. The graininess of space determines in which decimal-place π rounds off, which determines whether the ratio results in a little more or a little less matter than anti-matter. In our own universe, the ratio may have gone slightly positive and stayed that way for a long time. SOURCE: The Billy Lee Conjecture. To balance positive-matter and keep the universe in a zero-sum configuration, negative energies (like gravity) emerged. Remember: energy and matter are equivalent per Einstein’s famous equation, E=mc^2. Energy and massless particles (like photons of light) are also equivalent (based on the concept of their frequencies); Einstein referred to this astounding feature of the universe in his less familiar but expanded equation E=\sqrt{m^2c^4+(hf)^2} . These equivalencies are mysterious clues that in a correct, properly-configured nutshell might help to explain how we happen to be living in the particular universe we find ourselves. 

It might be worthwhile to pause a moment to examine another phenomenon physicists are in actual agreement about. If we take a more wide-angled view of the universe, it might make conscious-life easier to think about and understand.

Because, when we think about it—really think about it—what could be more unlikely than something dead—like a singularity that goes bang—bringing forth something that is not only alive, but also conscious?

Anyway…

It seems that particles appear and disappear spontaneously in a vacuum. This phenomenon, observed by physicists whenever they look anywhere at sub-atomic scales, gives the impression, at least temporarily and on the shortest time intervals, that something is being created out of nothing.  

One popular explanation is that of science writer, Timothy Ferris, who wrote in a recent National Geographic article, “Space looks empty when the fields languish near their minimum energy levels.  But when the fields are excited, space comes alive with visible matter and energy.”  In other words, the apparent vacuum of space is an illusion that misleads us about an underlying and hidden reality of pervasive fields of energy that permeate all space.

The positive and negative values of matter, energies, and forces of the entire universe sum to zero, theoretical physicist, Stephen Hawking, has said. But we know that quantum uncertainties at every Planck-sized point in space oscillate about zero between positive and negative values. At this very moment countless fluctuations across the vast expanse of space are skewing the balance—perhaps temporarily—into the structure of space and time, matter and forces, scientists observe.  

My question is this: what is it that skews the balance of quantum fluctuations into a universe we can live in and observe? What has brought the universe, with its array of unlikely settings and its many arbitrary but exquisitely fine-tuned constants, into the precise configuration required for the emergence of conscious life?  

Stephen Hawking, British Director of Research at the Centre for Theoretical Cosmology within the University of Cambridge; born January 8, 1942.

As Stephen Hawking made plain to non-scientists in his book, The Grand Design, there’s really nothing here. Not when it’s added up. The values of matter and energy add-up to zero. And, he said, the odds against a universe configured like ours could be as high as ten followed by five-hundred zeroes to one.

The number is so large it might as well be infinite. It’s not possible for most people to say a number this big using only the words billion or trillion. They would have to say a billion times a billion fifty-six times in a row without losing track—probably impossible. They would have to say a trillion times a trillion forty-two times; not much easier.  

It turns out that the only sure way to create a universe with life by pure chance is to start with a multi-verse populated by a number of universes equal to ten followed by four-hundred zeroes multiplied by the entire number of protons and neutrons that exist in the one universe we know about—our own.  Take a deep breath.

According to Stephen Hawking, developing a reasonable chance for a universe with life like our own may require a multi-verse containing a large number of other universes. Using Hawking's number, I determined that it is equal to the number of protons and neutrons in our own universe multiplied by ten followed by 400 zeroes.

According to Stephen Hawking, developing a reasonable chance for a universe with life like our own may require a multi-verse containing a large number of other universes. Hawking’s estimate says that it is equal to the number of protons and neutrons in our own universe multiplied by ten followed by 400 zeroes. (As a practical matter, this number is equivalent to an infinity.) Some theorize that a multi-verse might resemble a vast ocean of foam with each bubble being a unique universe with its own fundamental constants, number of dimensions and physical laws.

As we mentioned before, everything we observe in our universe, apparently, is the result of quantum uncertainties which hover around and sum to zero, both on small scales and large. Can uncertainties around a zero-sum reality give rise to consciousness?  Is it really uncountable trillions upon uncountable trillions of universes in an unimaginably large multi-verse that makes the existence of conscious human beings inevitable?  Or is there some other mechanism which has drawn a single universe suitable for life out of the quantum fires of non-existence? 

It’s a simple question. If the concept of a multi-verse turns out to be fantasy, then what is left?  One solution we might consider is that some form of conscious-life, fundamental and eternal, skewed the numbers and imagined us into existence.

What else could it be? Think about it. Without an unimaginably large number of universes, it’s not really possible for the physical laws we know to configure themselves by chance into a universe with conscious life. It’s not realistic. Stephen Hawking said the odds are overwhelmingly against it; the chance might as well be zero, he said. Take another breath.

stephen wolfram

Stephen Wolfram, British computer scientist and physicist, born August 29, 1959.

Stephen Wolfram in his book, A New Kind of Science, argues that a simple sequence of iterative quantum events which repeat and branch out according to a simple set of rules could, given enough time, generate a universe as complex as ours. Discovering what these simple rules might be has so far proven to be daunting. Presumably the rules and events for such a sequence would have a natural origin and would create a variety of universes based on the quantum uncertainties present in a natural set of initial boundary conditions. 

Who knows? One thing is certain. If it is ever proved that we do not live within a multi-verse—if it is demonstrated that the only universe is our own—then the argument for a conscious-life which has imagined our universe into existence is strengthened. But it can’t be confirmed, unless scientists establish that the so-called big bounce does not happen. If they show that the universe is, in fact, a one time non-repeatable event, then the case for a universe-generating conscious-life will become compelling, if for no other reason than that the odds against a spontaneous one-time creation of a universe with our unique and unlikely parameters are so great.

Sean Carroll picture

Sean M. Carroll, Cosmologist, California Institute of Technology, born October 5, 1966.

One cosmologist who has gone on record against the possibility of a big-bounce scenario is the popular Sean Carroll of Caltech. He believes there is enough dark energy to drive an infinite expansion of our universe, until it settles into a kind of entropic death. His assertion, if proven true, would seem to strengthen the argument for a conscious-life, except that he also said that we probably live in a multi-verse populated by the births of trillions upon trillions of Big Bang events—which weakens the argument. It seems to me that a definitive answer to the question of whether we live in a multi-verse (or not) might be a key indicator for or against the presence of a fundamental and foundational consciousness in nature.

Paul_J__Steinhardt, by Sleepy Geek - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Commons

Paul J. Steinhardt of Princeton University, born December 25, 1952.

In 2013 a new theory was proposed that, in fact, argues against a multiverse. It was proposed by Paul Steinhardt, the Albert Einstein Professor of Science at Princeton University. His team’s idea is based on data gathered by the state-of-the-art Planck Satellite launched in 2003 to map the infrared Cosmic Background Radiation. 

The theory is ekpyrotic, or cyclic, and asserts that the universe beats like a heart, expanding and contracting in cycles, with each cycle lasting perhaps a trillion years and repeating, on and on, forever. Steinhardt was once a major advocate for the Big Bang theory and the mechanism of hyper-inflation. He had been a prominent proponent of the inevitable multi-verse that most versions of the Big Bang theory permit. He is now proposing an alternative scenario.

His new theory has the advantage that it makes certain predictions, which can be tested, unlike the mechanism of inflation required by the Big Bang theory, which can’t. In this new theory, every bounce of the universe resembles every other bounce and presumably generates similar constants, laws, and physics. If conscious-life is rare, most bounces will spawn a sterile universe.

If the theory is correct, the fine tuning of our universe would have to be the natural result of some underlying feature of reality not yet understood. In this model, consciousness can emerge, certainly, but is not necessarily fundamental, causative, shared, or even inevitable.

To my mind, this is the model the universe that is the most mysterious, the most incomprehensible, the most mind-blowing. Unlike all the other theories, this one implies that the universe has no beginning and no end. It doesn’t change. It’s eternal. It beats with a familiar rhythm, the rhythm of our own hearts, and it will never stop.

Most frustrating to me, the ekpyrotic model doesn’t add insight into the question about conscious-life posed by my essay: is consciousness a fundamental and necessary feature of physical reality? Or is it a rare accidental event that occurs inside a long path of infinite oscillations in a universe whose reason for being we humans will never understand?

Editor’s Note: As of July 2017, studies of the cosmic background radiation have not revealed the presence of primordial B-mode gravity waves—a discovery which, if made, would undermine the theory. The search continues.

But let’s veer back to our previous discussion about matter and antimatter, for a moment. It seems that each precipitates equally out of the energy enriched three dimensional fields of space (out to some very small decimal place of uncertainty) so that matter and antimatter, in an ideal universe, should self-annihilate and sum to zero, we’re told. (Please read my reference to the Billy Lee Conjecture in a prior illustration.)  

A universe whose space is smooth and continuous will not self-generate anything at all from such a process. It is the geometry of a spherical space within a pixelated space-time fabric that forces a surplus in the production of either matter or anti-matter.

The choice between the two is completely determined by the size of the pixels that make up the fabric of space-time, because pixelization forces the irrational ratio (of the surface area of a sphere to its diameter) to collapse to a rational number, which necessarily warps the symmetry of the sphere. If matter is generated inside three-dimensional bubbles, any reduction to rationality that compels spherical symmetries to fail will force an excess production of one of the two possible states of matter. It can’t be any other way.

Some physicists believe the space in our universe is pixilated at the scale of the Planck constant.  Experiments are underway to find out if this idea is true. For now, scientists observe the evidence for mysterious particles coming into and out of existence everywhere all the time. And it is matter particles which seem to completely dominate anti-matter.

To counter-balance this preponderance of positive matter, a counter-balancing negative energy must emerge, which scientists like Isaac Newton called gravity. (Einstein showed us that matter and energy are equivalent; they are two sides of the same coin. He treated gravitational energy as a deformation in a mathematical fabric he referred to as space-time. The frequency of massless phenomenon like light is also a deformation and equivalent to energy in exactly the same way.

quantum_fluctuation_by_magneto_elastic_coupling_by_don64738-d5lt6a2

We don’t understand why quantum fluctuations occur.

We know that this phenomenon of spontaneous creation of positive matter (or frequency) and negative energy is occurring, because conscious minds (our own scientists) have indirectly observed its effects in laboratories around the world.  We don’t understand the mechanism of these quantum fluctuations well enough to rule out the possibility, it seems to me, that our own minds, in collusion with the instruments we have invented and built, somehow create the impression, a kind of illusion, really, of phenomena that can and does occur only in the presence of a conscious mind.

Is it possible, for example, that inside the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), scientists are creating the particles they want to see to confirm their notions about the universe within which they believe they live?  They seem to be using their conscious minds and the machines they have designed to fabricate new worlds so remote and so tiny that they will never be observed, not by any human, not even by themselves, except in their imaginations as they read through scientific publications of the results of their experiments.

Atlas particle detector at CERN

Atlas “particle” detector at CERN. Notice tiny human worker at lower center for scale.

Are theses scientists, in fact, creating particles in worlds that lie deep within the subterranean matrix of exotic materials and forces they have built—deep within their assembled labyrinth of super-computers—which exist only in their imaginations, but which they confirm by employing thousands of researchers around the world to pour over hundreds-of-thousands of pages of machine and sensor-generated gibberish, from which they are gleaning the unlikely patterns they describe and marvel-over in their peer-reviewed scientific publications?  Are these human beings, these scientists, in the first stages of using pure consciousness to create universes—albeit tiny ones—in the mammoth laboratories of CERN?  

Maybe not. It seems preposterous. But, it is an interesting thought I couldn’t resist including in my article. Sean Carroll, in his recent book about CERN, The Particle at the End of the Universe, describes in the chapter-six sub-sections—Information Overload and Sharing Data—the data-handling and sampling processes that could, in my view, enable just such self-fulfilling validations to occur absent careful and conscientious oversight.

There may be another reason why experiments always seem to confirm the Standard Model of quantum physics and never contradict it. A strange symbiosis between the standard model of sub-atomic reality—as measured by synchrotrons, accelerators, colliders, etc.—and mathematics may actually exist in nature. 

If true, we need not despair that the resources to build larger colliders and other instruments to confirm the finer points of the theory are not available. Theoretical physicists can simply do the math to discover new truths and trust that, if an experiment were ever able to be done in some unimaginably resource-rich future, their math-based predictions will most certainly be confirmed, as was the prediction of the Higgs boson.

Nima Arkani-Hamed

Nima Arkani-Hamed, American theoretical physicist, born April 5, 1972.

Absent larger colliders, the path forward according to theoretical physicist Nima Arkani-Hamed is to keep our work of discovery inside the experimental constraints imposed by the knowledge we already have gathered, as we labor to develop new theories. These constraints are already so restrictive and so reduce the number of paths to truth that it’s possible we might find a route to understanding which is unique, sufficient and exclusive. If so, we could have confidence in our new theories, even though experimental verification may lie beyond our technology.

Anyway, we live in a universe that shouldn’t exist, it seems, except we can imagine—under the influence of the uncertainty in the remote decimal place we described earlier—tiny differences in the ratio of matter to antimatter emerging in the past to create an imbalance—temporarily, perhaps, but continuing for billions of years—which piled up to become enormous. As matter continued to pile up, so did the negative forces, like gravity, which counterbalanced it.  

One day, gravity (and perhaps other forces like the mysterious and long sought-for dark energy) might pull all the positive matter back into a little pile; pull it back behind the event-horizon of what Stephen Hawking calls a black-hole; pull it back into the unfathomable uncertainties of a blinking and unstable quantum singularity aching to explode. Explode into what?  Perhaps the next quantum eruption will spiral out into a new and completely strange universe of different-valued fundamental constants and a bizarre number of dimensions—a universe almost certainly unsuitable, this time around, for life.

Is it possible that such a process—driven by tiny uncertainties (or tolerances) in the natural quantum ratio of matter to antimatter within a rare configuration of fundamental constants and number of dimensions—could give rise to not just any universe but to one with an emergent conscious life, as well? Stephen Hawking has speculated that it can, but cautions that the odds against life are huge. He has speculated that an infinite number of universes—a multi-verse—is required to get a reasonable chance that a universe as unique and unusual as ours will appear.

conscious life 6

Some believe the large scale structure of the universe resembles a collection of neurons, much like a human brain.

Modern science agrees with Hawking and has decided that this universe—the one we live in now—is probably only one of an infinite number of universes within a multi-verse.  Our unique and unusual universe has, over billions of years, fabricated a transient conscious life which is, at this very moment, observing it. This fleeting conscious life is discovering that our universe hovers in a state which (from a matter/antimatter perspective) could—if a preponderance of antimatter were produced (perhaps in an adjacent universe, if not our own)—sum to zero someday like a popping soap bubble and cease to exist. When the observing conscious life is extinguished during this possible zero-sum resolution in our distant future, the result will be no universe, no life, no memory, nothing.

In any event, if antimatter doesn’t annihilate the universe, entropy might. (Entropy is the natural process of heat death, where all motion and information decay to zero over time.) Under this scenario, when the end comes, in the far distant future, it will be said (were there anyone around who could say it): the universe never happened.  It will become a vanishing blip on the screen of reality, because no one will remain to remember it.

Then again, the negative forces of gravity and dark energy might restore the zero balance required by quantum non-existence by eventually pulling all positive matter together into an uncertain quantum singularity called the Big Crunch. A new universe with new parameters and constants might then emerge after the singularity undergoes a quantum fluctuation.

Maybe the universe cycles endlessly, contracting and expanding like a beating heart, which some have characterized as a Big Bounce. During some expansions, rarely, conscious-life emerges; in most others, it does not.

Another theory of a possible catastrophic scenario has recently emerged after scientists determined the mass of the Higgs “particle” at CERN in March, 2013. It turns out its value may permit the Higgs field to someday (no one knows when) undergo a spontaneous phase transition

A phase transition would change the value of many of the fine-tuned constants and forces, which shape the chemistry and biology of our Cosmos. A phase transition in the Higgs field would certainly be catastrophic for life as we know it. It would be as if the universe was a block of ice for billions of years and in one short spasm turned to steam. 

In any event, a Higg’s field phase-transition would obliterate all knowledge of our universe. All history of the existence of a missing universe from the recent (or ancient) past will be lost—unable to be reconstructed, detected or proved. Our universe didn’t exist. It never existed. In fact, it could not have existed.

The consequence of zero-sum, under which matter and antimatter, like popping soap bubbles, add to nothing; or entropy, where all the material and information within the universe decline and decay by cooling and freezing to a motionless absolute zero; or the big crunch, where negative forces pull positive matter into a quantum singularity which then fluctuates into just one of an almost infinite number of new realities; or an endlessly repeating big bounce, where the universe contracts and expands like a beating heart that is driven by a set of fundamental constants that never really change even though the history of every bounce is erased by the bounce that follows; or an inevitable phase transition in the Higgs field which vaporizes the Cosmos into a state of virtual non-existence means, logically, and in the perfect hindsight of an imaginary observer billions (or, perhaps, trillions) of years from now, that the probability there ever was a universe of matter populated by conscious-life might actually be zero.

conscious life the-known-universe-now-in-3d-10681-1306940812-8

A long time from now, our universe may disappear, either from the natural process of entropy, or an increase in the generation of antimatter, or both. Then again, it could morph into something unrecognizable and hostile to life through the mechanism of the Big Crunch. It might endlessly regenerate copies of itself through a cycle called the Big Bounce where conscious-life almost never develops. Another possibility: a spontaneous Higg’s Field phase transition, which vaporizes the Cosmos.

Yes, scientists say, under every reasonable scenario they can imagine, the universe, as we know it, will cease to exist. Conscious-life will disappear. No one will be left to argue about it. All the evidence will point to a universe that never happened. Of course, no one will hear the evidence. In the universe that doesn’t exist, and even in an existing universe where conscious-life cannot or does not emerge, there is no reality, there is no evidence, no information, no history.

This view, as I understand it, is the current consensus in modern science about our universe and conscious-life. It does make sense. But it is a view reeking with futility and despair. And, despite its sensibility, it fails to answer a basic question: how can this be?  

conscious life 7 universe

This graphic shows what scientists think happened, not why or how.

How is it that random fluctuations in the aether (for lack of a better term) generate something on the scale and immensity of a universe; perhaps an infinity of universes; and give birth to conscious life? The mere existence of a universe (and its conscious life) emanating from uncertain and random fluctuations in the vast nothingness of nothing seems ludicrous on its face. We can’t make sense of it; not in any way that permits us to exhale, throw out our arms and say, ahhhh… so that’s how it works. We are missing a piece of the puzzle. It seems that modern science has led us into a tunnel that has no light at its end.

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Like the radiation that stimulates our brains to create the brilliant colors we see inside our heads, consciousness may pour into us from out there.

What are we to make of all this? On the one hand, we have a consensus among contemporary scientists who believe consciousness results from the way our brains are hard-wired. Throw in enough parallel electrical circuits to reach a threshold, add in sufficient hormonal feedback loops, and, voila!—consciousness. One problem, though: no one has done it; not yet.

On the other hand, we hear the voice of one of the fathers of quantum physics, Erwin Schrodinger, calling from the shadows of recent history. He says, No!  Our brains are detectors, imbibers, of a consciousness that lives outside ourselves and is, in fact, a fundamental and foundational feature of reality. Like the mysterious electromagnetic radiation that pours into our skulls to excite our brains into conjuring up the brilliant colors we see inside our heads, consciousness pours into us from out there.

Like the unseen and as yet undiscovered dark matter and dark energy that many scientists believe together shape the universe and drive its expansion, consciousness remains elusive of attempts to discover it. Perhaps we aren’t looking hard enough or in the right places.

Then again, maybe dark matter doesn’t exist and will never be found, if alternative theories like MoND (modified Newtonian dynamics) prove true. What the universe is and how it really works is not yet understood by the scientists who line up for funding before governments and universities; not even close.

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What if we are connected in some way to a Conscious-Life who brought the physical universe we know into existence?

In any event, under the stimulation of consciousness, all of us seem to know on some level deep inside us that we are alive and aware and connected to each other, somehow. We feel a certain common awe when we look up into the night sky and observe the universe that birthed us; we seem to sense a Conscious-Life who stands behind it all; who knows us and cares about us; who, with us, shares the glorious experience of the universe. It’s the religious experience that every culture on the earth has in common.  

What if this experience is real?  What if we are connected in some way to a fundamental and eternal Conscious-Life who brought the physical universe we know into existence, perhaps through pure thought like we imagined earlier the scientists at CERN might be learning to do?

Is this a question worth exploring? Does consciousness come first or last? Is an answer within our grasp that will satisfy our yearning for truth and certainty? Or is it a dispute that will never be settled? 

Tobias Dantzig, the Latvian author of Number (one of Albert Einstein’s favorite books), once claimed,  …from the standpoint of logic either hypothesis is tenable, and from the standpoint of experience neither is demonstrable. Can he be right? Will the arguments between hard-headed scientists and stubborn philosophers last forever?

I don’t think so. Scoffers may say no, the dispute is already settled. Schrodinger was wrong. And if he wasn’t wrong, could anyone detect the difference? Does it make any difference at all if consciousness lives inside our heads, or if our brains draw consciousness in from the universe outside?

I believe the issue can be settled. And it is important. The stakes for humans are enormous. In religion, philosophy, politics and government; what we do, the way we live, our planning for the future; all the ways we choose to live out our lives and organize our societies; we seem to be grounding every decision, every action, every moral choice we make on an assumption that each of us creates inside ourselves a unique view of reality, which will die when we do. But what if we are wrong?

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What if we learned that consciousness never dies?

What if we learned that, though our bodies may someday die, consciousness never dies; the feature of our existence which imparted the sensation of awareness was something our bodies fed on during their brief lives to give them meaning?

What if our kids and grandkids, our friends and neighbors, even our enemies, and all those that came before us and will someday come after us imbibe alike from this same life-enhancing pool of awareness? What if all life-forms, sufficiently developed, drink from an ocean of Conscious-Life everywhere in the universe?

What if we learn it isn’t our bodies that make us feel alive? It is instead a fundamental and basic feature of the universe, a sea of consciousness from which we all drink while our bodies live. What happens if we learn that, though our bodies and brains may decay to dust, the awareness that makes us feel alive never does? What if we learn we are conscious-life and always will be?

Billy Lee

Sensing the universe 3Thanks to Erwin Schrodinger for his Mind and Matter lectures at Trinity College, Cambridge, Oct. 1956 for inspiring me to write this article;  see  Schrodinger, What is Life?  available at Amazon.com

Billy Lee

About Billy Lee

Billy Lee is a retired machine designer. His bona-fides include: raised a Navy brat; former anti-Vietnam War activist; Francophile; math lover; Egyptology enthusiast; MSU grad; likes Blues and Culver's fish sandwiches; father; grandfather; married to Bev, his best friend; Christian---but loves Obama, Hillary, and the gay people. Biggest problem facing civilization?---lack of CAPS on income, which permit the wealthy to loot corporations and public institutions. Possession by anyone of excessive wealth must be a felony enforced by international courts. The alternative is to continue the widespread poverty and human misery that have plagued civilization from before forever.
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