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Yesterday I was browsing the book Science and Ultimate Reality: Quantum Theory, Cosmology and Complexity, edited by John Barrow, Paul Davies, and Charles Harper Jr, and came across this interesting passage in the article “Inflation, quantum cosmology, and the anthropic principle” by Andrei Linde (yes, the usual light Tuesday reading for me). There are some really nice insights in there, so it deserves a careful reading – I’ve highlighted a few sections to point them out explicitly:

[W]e cannot rule out the possibility that carefully avoiding the concept of consciousness in quantum cosmology may lead to an artificial narrowing of our outlook.

Let us remember an example from the history of science that may be rather instructive in this respect. Prior to the invention of the general theory of relativity, space, time, and matter seemed to be three fundamentally different entities…. The general theory of relativity brought with it a decisive change in this point of view. Spacetime and matter were found to be interdependent, and there was no longer any question which one of the two is more fundamental…

Now let us turn to consciousness. The standard assumption is that consciousness, just like spacetime before the invention of general relativity, plays a secondary, subservient role, being 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 a 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 nothing but a useful tool for the description of matter. 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. We are substituting reality of our feelings by the successfully working theory of an independently existing material world. And the theory is so successful that we almost never think about its possible limitations.

Is it possible that consciousness, like spacetime, has its own intrinsic degrees of freedom, and that neglecting these will lead to a description of the universe that is fundamentally incomplete? …Is it possible to…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?

Could it be that consciousness is an equally important part of the consistent picture of our world, despite the fact that so far one could safely ignore it in the description of the well-studied physical processes? Will it not turn out, with the further development of science, that the study of the universe and the study of consciousness are inseparably linked, and that ultimate progress in the one will be impossible without progress in the other?

I’ve said for quite a while that modern, physicalist science has come to self-define reality by saying that reality consists of those things that we can measure and study objectively through science. And yet I have elsewhere come across similar speculation and suggestions about consciousness from very respected physicists. Paul Davies maintains that mind and culture “will turn out to be of fundamental significance in the grand story of the cosmos”:

Somehow, the universe has engineered not only its own self-awareness, but its own self-comprehension. It is hard to see this astonishing property of (at least some) living organisms as an accidental and incidental by-product of physics, a lucky fluke of biological evolution. Rather, the fact that mind is linked into the deep workings of the cosmos in this manner suggests that there is something truly fundamental and literally cosmic in the emergence of sentience

Freeman Dyson also says that “the tendency of mind to infiltrate and control matter is a law of nature.”

Sadly, just as Linde’s article was getting juicy, this is what followed:

Instead of discussing these issues here any further, we will return to a more solid ground…”

Aww, where’s the fun in standing on solid ground!