“Is it possible to introduce a “space of elements of consciousness,” and investigate a possibility that consciousness may exist by itself, even in the absence of matter, just like gravitational waves, excitations of space, may exist in the absence of protons and electrons? Will it not turn out, with the further development of science, that the study of the universe and the study of consciousness will be inseparably linked, and that ultimate progress in the one will be impossible without progress in the other?”
“The universe and the observer exist as a pair. I cannot imagine a consistent theory of the universe that ignores consciousness.”
This the great question –perhaps the central unsolved mystery of the 21st Century– asked by Andrei Linde, Russian-American theoretical physicist and the Harald Trap Friis Professor of Physics at Stanford University. Linde is one of the world’s leading proponents of the inflationary universe theory. The paragraphs below from Linde’s essay Universe, Life, Consciousness brilliantly examines this great question and attempt an answer.
According to standard materialistic doctrine, consciousness, like space-time before the invention of general relativity, plays a secondary, subservient role, being considered just a function of matter and a tool for the description of the truly existing material world. But let us remember that our knowledge of the world begins not with matter but with perceptions. I know for sure that my pain exists, my “green” exists, and my “sweet” exists. I do not need any proof of their existence, because these events are a part of me; everything else is a theory.
Later we find out that our perceptions obey some laws, which can be most conveniently formulated if we assume that there is some underlying reality beyond our perceptions. This model of material world obeying laws of physics is so successful that soon we forget about our starting point and say that matter is the only reality, and perceptions are only helpful for its description.
This assumption is almost as natural (and maybe as false) as our previous assumption that space is only a mathematical tool for the description of matter. But in fact we are substituting reality of our feelings by a successfully working theory of an independently existing material world. And the theory is so successful that we almost never think about its limitations until we must address some really deep issues, which do not fit into our model of reality.
It is certainly possible that nothing similar to the modification and generalization of the concept of space-time will occur with the concept of consciousness in the coming decades. But the thrust of research in quantum cosmology has taught us that the mere statement of a problem which might at first glance seem entirely metaphysical can sometimes, upon further reflection, take on real meaning and become highly significant for the further development of science. We would like to take a certain risk and formulate several questions to which we do not yet have the
Is it not possible that consciousness, like space-time, has its own intrinsic degrees of freedom, and that neglecting these will lead to a description of the universe that is fundamentally incomplete? What if our perceptions are as real (or maybe, in a certain sense, are even more real) than material objects? What if my red, my blue, my pain, are really existing objects, not merely reflections of the really existing material world?
After the development of a unified geometrical description of the weak, strong, electromagnetic, and gravitational
interactions, will the next important step not be the development of a unified approach to our entire world, including the world of consciousness?
All of these questions might seem somewhat naive, but it becomes increasingly difficult to investigate quantum cosmology without making an attempt to answer them. Few years ago it seemed equally naive to ask why there are so many different things in the universe, why nobody has ever seen parallel lines intersect, why the universe is almost homogeneous and looks approximately the same at different locations, why space-time is four-dimensional, and so on.
Now, when inflationary cosmology provided a possible answer to these questions, one can only be surprised that prior to the 1980’s, it was sometimes taken to be bad form even to discuss them. It would probably be best then not to repeat old mistakes, but instead to forthrightly acknowledge that the problem of consciousness and the related problem of human life and death are not only unsolved, but at a fundamental level they are virtually completely unexamined.
It is tempting to seek connections and analogies of some kind, even if they are shallow and superficial ones at first, in studying one more great problem – that of the birth, life, and death of the universe. It may conceivably become clear at some future time that these two problems are not so disparate as they might seem.
The Daily Galaxy via Andrei Linde, Universe, Life, Consciousness
Image credit top of page with thanks to Videoblocks
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