Cosmopsychism explains why the Universe is fine-tuned for life


EXCERPT: . . . It is therefore incredibly unlikely that a universe like ours would have the kind of numbers compatible with the existence of life. But, against all the odds, our Universe does. [...] Some take the fine-tuning to be simply a basic fact about our Universe: fortunate perhaps, but not something requiring explanation. But like many scientists and philosophers, I find this implausible. In *The Life of the Cosmos* (1999), the physicist Lee Smolin has estimated that, taking into account all of the fine-tuning examples considered, the chance of life existing in the Universe is 1 in 10^229, from which he concludes:

"In my opinion, a probability this tiny is not something we can let go unexplained. Luck will certainly not do here; we need some rational explanation of how something this unlikely turned out to be the case."

The two standard explanations of the fine-tuning are theism and the multiverse hypothesis. [...] Both of these theories are able to explain the fine-tuning. The problem is that, on the face of it, they also make false predictions. For the theist, the false prediction arises from the problem of evil. [...] Turning to the multiverse hypothesis, the false prediction arises from the so-called Boltzmann brain problem [...] Neither of these are knock-down arguments. [...]

In the public mind, physics is on its way to giving us a complete account of the nature of space, time and matter. [...] In fact, for all its virtues, physics tells us precisely nothing about the nature of the physical Universe. [...] The subject matter of physics are the basic properties of the physics world: mass, charge, spin, distance, force. But the equations of physics do not explain what these properties are. They simply name them in order to assert equations between them. If physics is not telling us the nature of physical properties, what is it telling us? The truth is that physics is a tool for prediction. [...] Physics is in the business of predicting the behaviour of matter, not revealing its intrinsic nature.

Given that physics tell us nothing of the nature of physical reality, is there anything we do know? [...] The English astronomer Arthur Eddington was the first scientist to confirm general relativity, and also to formulate the Boltzmann brain problem discussed above (albeit in a different context). Reflecting on the limitations of physics in *The Nature of the Physical World* (1928), Eddington argued that the only thing we really know about the nature of matter is that some of it has consciousness; we know this because we are directly aware of the consciousness of our own brains:

We are acquainted with an external world because its fibres run into our own consciousness; it is only our own ends of the fibres that we actually know; from those ends, we more or less successfully reconstruct the rest, as a palaeontologist reconstructs an extinct monster from its footprint.

We have no direct access to the nature of matter outside of brains. But the most reasonable speculation, according to Eddington, is that the nature of matter outside of brains is continuous with the nature of matter inside of brains. Given that we have no direct insight into the nature of atoms, it is rather ‘silly’, argued Eddington, to declare that atoms have a nature entirely removed from mentality, and then to wonder where mentality comes from. In my book *Consciousness and Fundamental Reality* (2017), I developed these considerations into an extensive argument for panpsychism: the view that all matter has a consciousness-involving nature.

There are two ways of developing the basic panpsychist position. One is micropsychism, the view that the smallest parts of the physical world have consciousness. Micropsychism is not to be equated with the absurd view that quarks have emotions or that electrons feel existential angst. In human beings, consciousness is a sophisticated thing, involving subtle and complex emotions, thoughts and sensory experiences. But there seems nothing incoherent with the idea that consciousness might exist in some extremely basic forms. We have good reason to think that the conscious experience of a horse is much less complex than that of a human being, and the experiences of a chicken less complex than those of a horse. As organisms become simpler, perhaps at some point the light of consciousness suddenly switches off, with simpler organisms having no experience at all. But it is also possible that the light of consciousness never switches off entirely, but rather fades as organic complexity reduces, through flies, insects, plants, amoeba and bacteria. For the micropsychist, this fading-while-never-turning-off continuum further extends into inorganic matter, with fundamental physical entities – perhaps electrons and quarks – possessing extremely rudimentary forms of consciousness, to reflect their extremely simple nature.

However, a number of scientists and philosophers of science have recently argued that this kind of ‘bottom-up’ picture of the Universe is outdated, and that contemporary physics suggests that in fact we live in a ‘top-down’ – or ‘holist’ – Universe, in which complex wholes are more fundamental than their parts. According to holism, the table in front of you does not derive its existence from the sub-atomic particles that compose it; rather, those sub-atomic particles derive their existence from the table. Ultimately, everything that exists derives its existence from the ultimate complex system: the Universe as a whole.

Holism has a somewhat mystical association, in its commitment to a single unified whole being the ultimate reality. But there are strong scientific arguments in its favour. The American philosopher Jonathan Schaffer argues that the phenomenon of quantum entanglement is good evidence for holism. Entangled particles behave as a whole, even if they are separated by such large distances that it is impossible for any kind of signal to travel between them. According to Schaffer, we can make sense of this only if, in general, we are in a Universe in which complex systems are more fundamental than their parts.

If we combine holism with panpsychism, we get cosmopsychism: the view that the Universe is conscious, and that the consciousness of humans and animals is derived not from the consciousness of fundamental particles, but from the consciousness of the Universe itself. This is the view I ultimately defend in Consciousness and Fundamental Reality.

The cosmopsychist need not think of the conscious Universe as having human-like mental features, such as thought and rationality. Indeed, in my book I suggested that we think of the cosmic consciousness as a kind of ‘mess’ devoid of intellect or reason. However, it now seems to me that reflection on the fine-tuning might give us grounds for thinking that the mental life of the Universe is just a little closer than I had previously thought to the mental life of a human being...


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