A Living Universe: notes and comments

Sometime back in the late 1980s, at the suggestion of a friend, I read a book called “The Dancing Wu Li Masters,” which got me started reading popular books on the science of physics. I followed that up by reading “The Tao of Physics.” Over the years I kept up the pace and continued to read books on quantum physics, most recently “Reality Is Not What It Seems” and “Anxiety and the Equation.” (Also Stephen Hawking, etc.)

One of the things that all those books have in common (or so it seemed to me) is that they don’t necessarily set out to dispel the mysteries of the universe — they attempt to set some boundaries around what the mystery is in the first place. All of those books held a bit of magic for me.

I approached them the same way I would approach a novel: with a sense of wonder, a hopeful heart and an open mind, anticipating a great adventure.  If that’s a bit too much romance for you, then let’s just say I had (and still have, I suppose) an interest in what might be called “new age mysticism.”

Anyway I can’t say I really understand the physics, and certainly not the math, but I do think I grasped some of the basic ideas. 

A few years back I read a book called “The Cosmic Serpent.”  Which isn’t about physics, it’s actually about DNA and anthropology, but it did raise an interesting point about the possibility that intelligence is actually an elemental feature of the cosmos.

Recently I discovered a publication called Nautilus Magazine, which provides quite a number of articles that carry on the tradition of blending science and philosophy.

Most recently, there was an article called Electrons May Very Well Be Conscious by Tam Hunt.  The article explores the idea that electrons do not simply decay or move from one quantum state to another by chance, but rather by choice. 

This idea can be reframed as a question of animate vs. inanimate.  That concept may seem cut and dried when one is just walking around trying to find an address on a busy street and not bump into light posts, but it’s not so easy when you actually ask “what is life” and it turns out there isn’t a strict answer — it’s the length of an amino acid. Fifty pairs or so and it’s alive, otherwise it’s just a virus, which is just some stuff floating around until it meets a host. And it becomes alive. Or at least I think it does. Well I’m not quite sure.

If the idea of an electron being “conscious” seems too much to contemplate, one might ask this instead: how much consciousness do individual neurons have? What makes a person a conscious entity? If one were to look at a cross-section of a human brain and see neurons out of context, would it be obvious that the thing in question (the brain) was conscious?

And now we’re back around to the question at hand: what if electrons are like neurons, and the universe is one big conscious entity?

Another question that one might consider is if the electron is conscious does that make it sentient? In other words is it just a little calculation machine, like a bit, and if you combine enough of them you get a byte, and you can perform useful work, but the thing it’s organized into isn’t sentient.  People are sentient, computers are not (at least not yet.)

How then do we get there — from a little particle that chooses a quantum state to a fully sentient being? Is it just a question of what level of organizational coherence is present — in other words on a small scale it’s just an abacus, on a large scale it’s self-aware? But then what laws govern that process? Is the process itself intelligent?

What if the universe is conscious? Does it sleep? Does it dream? Does it have desires of one sort or another?

And the really big, big question, the biggest one of all: does the universe have a sense of humor? 

I hope so. 🙂





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