For centuries, modern science has been shrinking the gap between humans and the rest of the universe, from Isaac Newton showing that one set of laws applies equally to falling apples and orbiting moons to Carl Sagan intoning that “we are made of star stuff” — that the atoms of our bodies were literally forged in the nuclear furnaces of other stars.
Even in that context, Gregory Matloff’s ideas are shocking. The veteran physicist at New York City College of Technology recently published a paper arguing that humans may be like the rest of the universe in substance and in spirit. A “proto-consciousness field” could extend through all of space, he argues. Stars may be thinking entities that deliberately control their paths. Put more bluntly, the entire cosmos may be self-aware.
The notion of a conscious universe sounds more like the stuff of late night TV than academic journals. Called by its formal academic name, though, “panpsychism” turns out to have prominent supporters in a variety of fields. New York University philosopher and cognitive scientist David Chalmers is a proponent. So too, in different ways, are neuroscientist Christof Koch of the Allen Institute for Brain Science, and British physicist Sir Roger Penrose, renowned for his work on gravity and black holes. The bottom line, Matloff argues, is that panpsychism is too important to ignore.
“It’s all very speculative, but it’s something we can check and either validate or falsify,” he says.
Three decades ago, Penrose introduced a key element of panpsychism with his theory that consciousness is rooted in the statistical rules of quantum physics as they apply in the microscopic spaces between neurons in the brain.
In 2006, German physicist Bernard Haisch, known both for his studies of active stars and his openness to unorthodox science, took Penrose’s idea a big step further. Haisch proposed that the quantum fields that permeate all of empty space (the so-called "quantum vacuum") produce and transmit consciousness, which then emerges in any sufficiently complex system with energy flowing through it. And not just a brain, but potentially any physical structure. Intrigued, Matloff wondered if there was a way to take these squishy arguments and put them to an observational test.
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One of the hallmarks of life is its ability to adjust its behavior in response to stimulus. Matloff began searching for astronomical objects that unexpectedly exhibit this behavior. Recently, he zeroed in on a little-studied anomaly in stellar motion known as Paranego’s Discontinuity. On average, cooler stars orbit our galaxy more quickly than do hotter ones. Most astronomers attribute the effect to interactions between stars and gas clouds throughout the galaxy. Matloff considered a different explanation. He noted that the anomaly appears in stars that are cool enough to have molecules in their atmospheres, which greatly increases their chemical complexity.
Matloff noted further that some stars appear to emit jets that point in only one direction, an unbalanced process that could cause a star to alter its motion. He wondered: Could this actually be a willful process? Is there any way to tell?
If Paranego’s Discontinuity is caused by specific conditions within the galaxy, it should vary from location to location. But if it is something intrinsic to the stars — as consciousness would be — it should be the same everywhere. Data from existing stellar catalogs seems to support the latter view, Matloff claims. Detailed results from the Gaia star-mapping space telescope, due in 2018, will provide a more stringent test.
Matloff is under no illusion that his colleagues will be convinced, but he remains upbeat: “Shouldn’t we at least be checking? Maybe we can move panpsychism from philosophy to observational astrophysics.”