Panpsychism is the theory that there is a pervasive consciousness throughout the universe down to molecular and subatomic levels.
If you told a Zen Buddhist or Hindu devotee that you’ve discovered evidence of the possibility that the universe is conscious, they might thank you for pointing out the obvious. But for scientists, whose intractable studies are grounded in materialism and who often refuse to entertain the ethereal or intangible, finding potential evidence of such a concept would be groundbreaking.
There are, however, a handful of physicists who have developed theories positing that there is an all-pervasive field of consciousness throughout the universe. Our level of consciousness is obviously different from that of a dog or other animal, but could all matter be conscious? Could plants and trees be conscious? What about stars? Panpsychism may be the answer to those questions.
The Hard Problem of Consciousness
Panpsychism is the idea that everything that is material has a certain level of consciousness. Everything down to subatomic particles has a relative level that is different from the consciousness that we experience, but nonetheless consciousness.
Traditional science might find an idea like this to be implausible, but philosophical proponents like David Chalmers, point out that typically science will tell you how something acts, not how something is. The intrinsic nature or characteristics of matter are not of concern if they can describe their behavior.
And it is from this existential curiosity that Chalmers has formulated his view. He sees consciousness existing at two levels of experience, macro, and micro. We only have macro experience but the micro level is a building block for our macro experience.
This led Chalmers to formulate his theory of the hard problem of consciousness which is proof negating materialism. He sees the qualia or subjective nature of experience as conflicting with the materialist view. Essentially, he says that if there is a microphysical world devoid of consciousness, then the world involving consciousness would demand a separate set of properties, different than the laws of physics.
Why do stars on the outskirts of the Milky Way sometimes move faster than those closer to the center? Because they’re consciously doing so, says Gregory Matloff, a former NASA rocket propulsion scientist. For some reason, there are multiple instances of stars moving faster than they should and defying the predictions of physics like Kepler’s orbit.
Much like the idea that a field of pervasive energy exists in the quantum vacuum, there could be an infinite, pervasive field of consciousness. That energy from the quantum vacuum, or zero-point energy, could be hypothetically accessed with a machine that utilizes the Casimir effect, which relies on vacuum fluctuations to transfer energy.
Much like the quantum vacuum, Matloff says that there could be a universal field that transfers consciousness to matter through the Casimir effect’s vacuum fluctuations.
He refers to this field of consciousness as proto-consciousness. Our level of consciousness comes from factors of proto-consciousness, which is much like the micro experience being the building blocks to macro experience. Inanimate objects and organisms that we don’t consider to be conscious, could have these lower level, proto-conscious building blocks from the molecules and particles that they are made of. These elements are basic systems compared to us. In humans’ complex systems, our level of consciousness can be considered a standard feature.
So, stars are extracting sentience through some sort of osmotic process with a quantum field of consciousness? As abstract as it might sound, there is evidence that potentially hints at just that.
Matloff uncovered research from a Russian scientist named Pavel Paranego, who discovered that cooler, less massive stars circled the galaxy faster than their larger counterparts. Oddly, those stars on the outer rim of the galaxy that move faster than they should, are smaller stars with less energy.
One theory of stellar consciousness states that consciousness would likely be found in the upper layers of a star. It is in the upper sheath, or photosphere, of smaller, cooler stars where molecules can be found. Scientists call this a molecular stellar signature or molecular spectra. Larger stars are too hot to have molecules in their outer layers.
Does this mean the cool stars have a molecular layer of consciousness giving them stellar volition? Matloff says he believes so. And didn’t Carl Sagan say something about us being made of star-stuff?
A more sci-fi explanation that Matloff entertains is that these stars could be moving faster due to an advanced civilization controlling it. On the Kardashev scale, a type II, stellar civilization or higher would inevitably build a Dyson sphere around a star to harness its energy. At this point that civilization would be able to move the star or influence its movement. Matloff thinks this is unlikely, though.
It’s hard to say whether a universal consciousness exists, or whether we’ll ever be able to tell, but those who have conceived of it provide compelling theoretical and philosophical evidence. Apollo 14 astronaut Edgar Mitchell, the sixth man to walk on the moon, had the realization that we live in a “universe of consciousness.”
And other astronauts, upon returning from space, have experienced similar epiphanies of a feeling of ubiquitous connectivity due to consciousness. Certainly, the subjective nature of our perception and awareness is distinct and something to be explored. If there is such a field, how might we tap into it and could it be used to achieve higher levels of consciousness?