UPDATE: Some of the numinous-o-philia might be explained, as reader Michael noted in the comments, by Gleiser’s possession of two Templeton grants worth a total of $3,7 million.
The Republicans are calling for National Public Radio (NPR) to be de-funded because of its liberal bent. Well, perhaps it has one, but—with the exception of Krista Tippett, who is so unctuous that her words could grease a skillet—I enjoy its programming and news analysis. If it’s to be chastised, it’s not for liberalism, but for its penchant for woo. NPR hasn’t seen anything numinous that it doesn’t like—ergo Ms. Tippett and “On Being.”
I’ve posted about panpsychism before, and said this:
Panpsychism has a long history in philosophy, and is defined by the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy as “the doctrine that mind is a fundamental feature of the world which exists throughout the universe.” In other words, everything has a mind, with some philosophers, like Philip Goff, claiming that objects like electrons and rocks have “an inner life”. . “feelings, sensations, and experiences.”
Goff, an associate professor of philosophy at Central European University in Budapest, puts forth his arguments for panpsychism in a new piece in Aeonmagazine, “Panpsychism is crazy, but it’s also most probably true.”
In that post I dissected and criticized Goff’s piece, and I needn’t reiterate the arguments against panpsychism here. But the whole concept of universal consciousness, which seems to be based more on wish-thinking than evidence, has reappeared in an NPR cosmos & culture essay called “Is the universe conscious?” by Marcelo Gleiser. Curiously, Gleiser is a professor of physics and astronomy at Dartmouth College, so I’m puzzled by his desire to even discuss this stuff numinous. And the answer to his title question seems to be “I dunno.” Yet he speaks approvingly of panpsychism:
Is this coherence [the fact that the laws of physics apply everywhere in the Universe] an accident or the product of something deeper, perhaps some kind of proto-consciousness that permeates the universe and gives it purpose? This is the question many physicists, cognitive scientists and philosophers have been asking lately, leading to a sort of reawakening of panpsychism. [JAC: They’re all wasting their time!] Panpsychism is an ancient belief that has been an essential aspect of many religions, from the Old Testament’s omniscience and omnipresence God to the Brahman of Hinduism, “the single binding unity behind the diversity in all that exists in the universe” (see Page 122 of An Illustrated Encyclopedia of Hinduism.) In a nutshell, panpsychism states that mind (psyche) is everywhere (pan). Cognitive scientist Christof Koch has written a poignant defense of panpsychism as a possible explanation for subjective experience.
What has pushed Gleiser towards entertaining a nonmaterialistic, teleological view of the universe (he cites Tom Nagel and David Chalmers as saying that there’s some teleogical “purpose” in the Universe) and thinking that there’s something more to our cosmos than the laws of physics? Well, this is above my pay grade, but Gleiser says you can at least test that idea in this way:
But how could one test such an unorthodox idea? Recently, New York City College of Technology physicist Gregory Matloff published a paper offering a potential empirical test. He argued that cool stars (like the sun) circle the center of our galaxy in a sort of fast volitional motion propelled by interactions between their molecules (they have a few) and the vacuum energy fluctuations that permeate the universe. This motion, he suggests, could explain the effects that astrophysicists currently attribute to dark matter, a hypothetical type of matter that only interacts with ordinary matter (like us and planets) through the gravitational force. For Matloff’s out-there idea to be viable, cool stars would need to have this unidirectional jet not just near the center of the galaxy, but everywhere, something he hopes the European Space Agency Gaia satellite will be able to clarify as it finishes measuring the positions of about 1 billion stars by 2018. Matloff hopes that future observations will show that the jets are not happening only in our galaxy, but in all galaxies that have dark matter. This actually seems plausible due to the coherence effect we mentioned above. There’s nothing special about the Milky Way, given that the same laws of physics apply everywhere within the known universe.
The key question here, of course, is why should one correlate unidirectional jets of stars with some kind of proto-consciousness at the galactic level? Couldn’t there be a more mundane explanation for the effect? The fact that there isn’t a good explanation now doesn’t mean one should invoke something as far-fetched as a galactic consciousness. The same logic applies to UFO sightings, more easily attributed to odd atmospheric phenomena or experimental flying machines than to visiting intelligent aliens from another stellar system.
Now I haven’t read that paper, and I’m gonna ask our Official Website Physicist™, Sean Carroll, what this is about, but I’m dubious that any directed motion would be “volitional”, and, as Gleiser points out himself, what we don’t understand doesn’t mean there’s some purpose behind the Universe, much less some kind of Universe-permeating consciousness. Gleiser then discusses the weird concept of quantum entanglement, which people like me can sort of understand but not on the level that physicists do. He says that doesn’t suggest panpsychism. No, up to this point Gleiser isn’t fully on board with panpsychism. But wait! There’s more! For then he dives into the Woo Pool:
To me, what’s fascinating is that consciousness is what makes the universe exist. Just think that before humans came to be, and discounting other potentially smart creatures out there, the universe was just doing its thing, expanding, stars being born and dying, entropy increasing overall. But as matter organized itself into living things in our planet, it eventually reached a level of complexity that allowed for self-awareness, the ability to know that thyself is a self.
This emergent picture of animal consciousness is the one that is meaningful to us, as it places humans back in the driver’s seat of existence. We will never know all things about the universe, but we have the amazing capacity to always learn more. If the cosmos had us as a plan, it surely hasn’t told anyone so far. But now that we are here, everything is different because we are able to figure things out on our own. This surely makes my day.
This is a mess, coming close to Deepak Chopra’s insistence that the Moon doesn’t exist when you’re not looking at it. What does it mean, exactly, to say that “consciousness is what makes the universe exist”? The Universe existed before there was any consciousness on our planet, and so perhaps Gleiser means that “we’re conscious of the Universe because we have consciousness, and that consciousness gives us a map of the Universe in our brains.” Well, that’s true, but it’s trivial. And it doesn’t deny the objective, human-independent existence of the Universe, much less say that our consciousness extends to rocks and planets.
Further, “matter doesn’t organize itself”, it just obeys those pesky laws of physics. And those laws allowed evolution, and eventually the evolution of consciousness. Surely that’s not teleological, and has nothing to do with panpsychism. Nor does the fact that some species on Earth (and probably elsewhere) evolved consciousness. And how does that “place humans back in the driver’s seat of existence”? Nothing has changed about the Universe since we evolved the ability to understand it, except perhaps that we’ll destroy the one planet we inhabit.
Looking over the piece, with its provocative but unanswered question, it comes down to a farrago of seemingly profound statements that add up to the simple conclusion that “Hey! We understand the universe! Isn’t that cool?”
It’s a writer’s responsibility, when posing a question like Gleiser’s to answer it, and give a coherent case supporting his answer. He does neither. The piece is a woo-ish dog’s breakfast, and even I could have done better—but my text would have contained but a single word: “No!”