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Are stars sentient? That Solaris-like idea isn’t just science fiction speculation – it’s one of the topics touched on in an upcoming book edited by David Skrbina, author of Panpsychism in the West (Amazon US and UK). The new book, Mind That Abides: Panpsychism in the New Millennium, will feature…

…15 dedicated chapters written by leading-edge thinkers of mind and consciousness. In each case the writer moves beyond a basic defense of panpsychism, and toward new positive theories as they relate to mind, consciousness, and reality. Writings are targeted at a broad audience, with minimal use of jargon, and yet penetrate deeply into the subject matter. Topics covered include mind-body interaction, the physical basis for consciousness, the ‘combination problem’ (on how lower-order minds can combine or merge into higher-order ones), the psychology and phenomenology of panpsychism, and process philosophy perspectives (as per Whitehead and Russell).

Now, I know I’m not the brightest light bulb in the house, but I have to argue a little bit about the “minimal use of jargon” – at least, going by Chapter 5 of the book “The Conscious Connection: A Psycho-physical Bridge between Brain and Pan-experiential Quantum Geometry“, which is available freely on the web. Written by one of our old buddies, quantum consciousness researcher Stu Hameroff, with Jonathan Powell, the chapter looks at the set of philosophical positions which see consciousness as a “foundational component of reality” (as opposed to the materialist view that consciousness is simply a by-product of the brain).

These positions (e.g. panpsychism, pan-experientialism, idealism) relate consciousness to irreducible (‘funda-mental’) components of reality, something akin to mass, spin or charge. These views take consciousness to be present in low level entities, in which—on some readings—they inherently contain a phenomenal nature or subjective experience (qualia). Consciousness or its ‘proto-conscious’ precursors are thus somehow built into the structure of the universe—a view that we might label pan-protopsychism.

Most of these views are monist in nature, in that they take reality to be, ultimately, a single entity or substance. At issue, then, are two key points: (1) the essential characteristic(s) of this monist substance, and (2) how it gives rise to apparently diverse entities like ‘mind’ and ‘matter.’ If the one reality is essentially mind-like, then we have a form of idealism—which may or may not entail panpsychism. If it is essentially physical or material, physicalism obtains.

Alternatively, the one reality can be seen as something other than mind or matter, in which case we have a form of neutral monism; Spinoza, James, and Russell are typically cited as holding this view. A contemporary form of neutral monism—one defended in this paper—defines the one reality in terms of quantum spacetime geometry, i.e. as a consequence of the fine-grained structure of the universe.

While the jargon is pretty heavy (at least for me), the underlying discussion is fascinating: the chapter goes as far as debating whether a rock could be conscious (“probably not”) – but doesn’t stop there. They bring up the observations and speculation of one of the greatest living mathematical physicists, Roger Penrose, on whether stars might be in some way sentient:

Penrose observed that interiors of neutron stars may have huge quantum superpositions which would reach OR with very large E, brief t and high intensity. By Orch OR criteria such events would indeed be conscious. But because the conditions are presumably random, such conscious moments would lack cognitive information processing: OR without Orch. Similarly, OR conscious moments without cognition may be occurring in various crystal-like, large scale quantum materials throughout the universe.

Astrophysicist Paola Zizzi has applied Penrose OR to the problem of inflation in the early universe. During the Big Bang, the universe expanded (inflated) rapidly—for about 10-33 seconds. But rapid inflation then stopped abruptly, and expansion has been slow ever since. Zizzi (2002) considered that during inflation the universe was in quantum superposition of multiple possible universes. Using E=h/t and setting E to the mass of the universe, Zizzi calculated that OR threshold would be met, surprisingly, at 10-33 seconds into the Big Bang, and conjectured that the end of inflation coincided with the universe undergoing a cosmic conscious moment (the ‘Big Wow’). She further suggested our individual consciousnesses are literal microcosms related to the initial cosmic conscious moment.

I remember some similar topics being discussed in a video chat between John Horgan and David Chalmers a while back, for those interested in pursuing the nature of consciousness down a very deep (and possibly sentient) rabbit hole.

Previously on TDG: The Quantum Mind of Stuart Hameroff