On Life, the Universe, and Everything

I’m not a religious person. I haven’t even thought of myself as a particularly spiritual person for most of my life. In fact, most of my life since briefly dabbling in Christianity before very quickly realising that it really wasn’t for me has been spent in opposition of any sort of pseudoscience, paranormality or other non-scientifically-verifiable claims. It’s a strange mindset in many ways, because a lot of my study of philosophy through my degree has led me to conclude academically that dogmatic empiricism isn’t always the best approach, yet I still tend to reject anything that I see as being any sort of ante-scientific as total hokum.

Recently, however, I’ve been having some thoughts about the universe which, if expressed too enthusiastically, might sound like generic New Age alternative Westernised Zen nonsense. As an aside, I use all these terms not to be dismissive of all the ideas that they have been associated with, more to express that part of the zeitgeist is a trend towards pseudoreligion and superficial appropriation of (particularly Eastern) spiritual concepts and practices without  concerning oneself with the actual teachings of the underlying traditions. Homeopathy and other alternative medicines are good examples. Anyway, I hesitate to come across as too… hippy-ish, for want of a better term. Some of the stuff I expect I’m about to come out with will probably seem a little bit out there, but I hope to be able to express that I’m not making any empirical claims. What I want to explain is a spiritual, philosophical or abstract idea, of which I don’t claim to have any evidence of the concreteness. I don’t think that being able to prove that these things are literally true is particularly important, in actual fact. I don’t even think that one has to believe that something is literally, physically, naturally or empirically the case in order to think that it can be true in a very real sense. Metaphor gets a bad rep: this world is so conditioned to think that the only truths are the literal ones, but I’m not so sure that’s how we ought to look at things.

Let’s start by thinking about the universe. We all know it; we all live in it. I mean, we all know only a tiny part of it. In fact, if the universe is truly infinite, then humans (being finite) take up an infinitely small percentage of the universe. That means that to write out the percentage of the universe occupied by humans, you’d need an infinite number of zeroes and an infinite amount of paper, which presumably would fill the entire universe. Some infinities are bigger than others, I suppose – although I interpret this to mean that anything that is truly infinite must be both infinitely larger and infinitely smaller than everything else which is truly infinite.

Anyway, the universe is made, broadly speaking, of stuff. Stuff, things, whatnots and other such bitsy bobs make up all of the thingummies that there are. That’s science, ladies and gentlemen. Even we people are made of stuff. In fact, every bit of stuff that there is came into existence at the beginning of the universe (assuming such terms as ‘came into existence’ and ‘beginning of the universe’ are meaningful at all) and then was burned, melted and forged by the heat caused by the friction of all the bits of stuff slamming together and against each other thanks to gravity, that good old thing. Every element that exists, and every atom of it, has been built in an enormous cosmic engine. As Carl Sagan beautifully put it, ‘the cosmos is within us; we’re made of star stuff; we are a way for the cosmos to know itself’.

Think about that for a minute.

As a being that exists within the universe, was created by the universe and is capable of learning about the universe, you are effectively a knowledge-gathering device. I like this little conceit, because it makes learning valuable for its own sake. It also makes every field of knowledge a kind of reflective psychology: we can only learn about the mind by using the mind, and equally we can only learn about the universe by using a mind which is part of that universe.

Is the mind really part of the universe? That’s a question that’s been haunting philosophers since the beginning of modern philosophy; everyone since Descartes has something to say about whether mind and body exist separately or not. My own thinking on the subject is that consciousness is a very, very strange thing. In fact, it’s completely unlike anything else that we know to exist. There is nothing which is even remotely comparable to the phenomenon of sentience. I don’t think we’ll ever know for sure what the mind, in and of itself, actually is. It might be something that exists in a wholly different dimension, realm or plane of existence to the physical world; it might be that the mind is just an illusion of sorts and really the physical brain is all there is to it. I tend to lean towards the idea that the mind is a sort of emergent property of the peculiar arrangement of the brain.

Emergence is a concept in philosophy and other disciplines which is to do with the way in which interactions between small parts of a larger entity can cause the whole to have properties that the parts just don’t. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts in the most literal sense; it becomes Gestalt. A good example can be found in the natural world, in the fractal patterns of snowflakes. Complicated symmetrical shapes emerge as formations from smaller particles which are not, in and of themselves, patterned or shaped like a snowflake. I like to think of the mind in a similar way: the interaction of particles, electrical charges and systems in the physical brain gives rise to this thing that we call consciousness, that strangest of phenomena that is the only reason we are able to understand that we exist in the first place. The brain isn’t the mind, or at least it’s not identical with the mind. It’s like Chopin. A piano, on its own, doesn’t make a sound, but the way that the player’s fingers interact with the keys, which cause movement through the hammers and vibrations in the strings… suddenly you’ve got something beautiful.

Back to the relationship between the mind and the universe, which I suppose is to say ‘everything else’.  I don’t know that being an entity capable of learning about things implies that we necessarily are beholden to, or that it’s morally wrong not to. As Hume says, we can’t infer an ought from an is. But I do think that it means that discovering something about the reality we inhabit is an inherently valuable activity.

One starts to wonder whether we might have arisen out of something more than mere accident. I’m not talking about Biblical creationism, nor any kind of deity taking an active and conscious role in making life happen. Nevertheless, if something as unique as the mind could emerge from the interaction of the physical stuff that makes up the brain, who’s to say that something similar can’t happen from the interaction of the stuff that makes up the universe as a whole? Some sort of mind or consciousness could arise in the universe as a whole. Probably not the same sort of mind, of course: it would probably be as different from our own experience of consciousness as that is from anything else that exists. I don’t want to give the impression of the universe as literally being sentient and thinking in the same way that we do… but still, one wonders whether reality might have tried to shape something within itself into something capable of understanding it. I mean, being the universe and having nothing that could appreciate how astonishingly beautiful you are must be a little bit annoying.

If we’re going to start thinking about the universe as being conscious, if in a metaphorical sense rather than an entirely literal one, why not start breaking it down further? Why not start thinking that each object has, as an emergent property of its physical makeup, some sense of its own being? That each individual atom could contain the potential for some sort of will (in the sense that Nietzsche or Schopenhauer used the word when coining ‘will to power’ or ‘will to life’)? Maybe a lamp has a major desire to be the best possible lamp. Maybe each atom has the will within itself to form something with as much power, whether physical or otherwise, as possible. That’s not even that far-fetched, since we know from the double-slit experiment (among others) that subatomic particles can change their behaviour. If they can do so based on whether they’re being observed, why not do so in a more general sense?

This all leads to a rather beautiful sense of the possibility of living in true harmony with the intent of the universe as a whole. This is a broad idea espoused by several religions and traditions: follow along with what the universe wants, and you’ll get what you want too. (Replace ‘the universe’ with ‘God’ and you get a sense of where else this becomes applicable.) I don’t think that it needs to be a religious conception, though: an imagining of all the matter and energy in the universe existing with some kind of interconnectedness to it, giving rise to a whole in which it’s possible to be congruent with the intention of reality. Or discord, I suppose.

One last point: since the universe is infinite and all, and we can’t ever observe its boundaries, which means we can never know what shape it is, how do we know it’s not shaped just like an infinite enormous brain? That might make the prospect of it having some kind of mind a little more palatable. Or perhaps our universe is shaped like a left hemisphere and it’s connected by some cosmic corpus callosum to another universe forming the right hemisphere. Then again, it’s just as likely that it would be shaped like a proof to Fermat’s last theorem, or a dick and balls, so make of that what you will.

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