Is Consciousness Part of the Fabric of the Universe?

Physicists and philosophers recently met to debate a theory of consciousness called panpsychism. By Dan Falk on September 25, 2023

Is Consciousness Part of the Fabric of the Universe? - Scientific American

Nothing indicates that it is. By which I mean it is not demonstrably so.

Unless we are very plastic about what we mean by responsive. As in this definition of consciousness : the state of being aware of and responsive to one’s surroundings.

In which case a rock that rolls down a hill is being responsive to its environment. We can also say that some exchange of information is being relayed between the rock and its environment. This could be defined (and sometimes is) as a form of proto-consciousness - but quite unlike mammalian or primate forms of consciousness.

We all don’t bump into things for the most part. And we are possessive. Is the main difference between us and the apes and such that we have a much more refined and articulated (if misguided) sense of ‘me and mine’? Not to mention our languages!

But the main difference between us and all the rest is that we can become aware of this ‘no-division’? In a world where to the senses everything appears to be divided. I think that is what K was getting at with: “you are nothing (not-a-thing) and “you are the world”. Our potential to “participate in the Immensity”. And……how the ‘death’ of the body is a “triviality”.

The notion that there exists some form of consciousness “all the way up and all the way down” just makes all sorts of sense to me, thought- and feeling-wise. But, ya know, sense making is not my strong suit. :wink:

Blavatsky, a founder of theosophy, taught that minerals have consciousness. After 20 years of disciplined meditation and soma induced “initiations” to the universal mind, K emerged out of theosophy to become the teacher he was.

One might ask, “Is the universe part of the fabric of consciousness?”


The universe that I am aware of is necessarily a part of my consciousness, and my experience of it is a pure fabrication of my brain - that seems clear enough.

As for the universe that I am not aware of, or the universe as a whole, and whatever else we do not understand, is it reasonable to make dramatic knowledge proclamations about them?

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When I look at a person or an object, the moon or the stars, natural landscapes or inner-city slums, when I hear a sound of rain or the cry of a child, when I touch something that is hot or cold, when I smell a rose or food that has gone bad, when I do these and many other things, what is it that I become conscious of if it is not of the fact that I am a living creature? I wonder, what could a stone become conscious of?

The eyes of a mantis shrimp have up to 16 photoreceptors (humans have 3 : blue, green & red) and can detect UV, visible and polarised light. In fact, they are the only animals known to detect circularly polarised light (don’t ask me what that means).

However their brain is tiny, more like a bundle of nerve endings. Which probably means that they have no experience - are not consciously conscious of detecting all these amazing parts of the visible spectrum - their brain is not programmed to provide mental images of the wonderful world that their eyes are detecting - it most probably just causes an instinctive reaction (escape or predation - including their world famous punch) without any subjective mental narrative or perspective or opinion.

There is probably no subjective feeling/narrative/experience of what it is like to be a mantis shrimp. Is this part of what we mean by consciousness?

Thinking that starts from a theory will end up confusing and misleading therefore useless.

Hi Douglas - long time no speak!

I think one of the basic misconceptions you may be having about consciousness is that it concerns higher level thought processes - such as self-conscious introspection, or a narrative sense of self (based on memory and its imaginative projection into the future) - which are associated with the neocortex function of the brain. And of course not all animals possess a neocortex.

However, a simpler way of approaching consciousness is that it is simply ‘like something’ to be that thing. That is, it is ‘like something’ to see green or taste sugar. So, for practical purposes, I take simple sentience - the susceptibility to sensation - as the grounds for ordinary consciousness. There may be other grounds for consciousness than sentience (for example when we are talking about rocks being conscious or cosmic consciousness!), but practically and ethically speaking, sentience is the most basic and pressing fact we have to deal with.

That is to say, ethically speaking, it is whether or not something can feel pain that is the most practical and pressing ground for assessing its possession of consciousness. And by pain I simply mean physical pain (not higher level emotional distress states that we are perhaps more familiar with when we talk about feelings).

So turning to your Mantis Shrimp example, there is strong evidence that crustaceans - crabs, lobsters, shrimp, etc - are capable of sensing (and so experiencing) physical pain. This is because they possess both nociceptors (sensory neurons that detect pain or damage), as well as the means of processing the reception of pain (i.e. a rudimentary integrated brain system).

So when shrimp, for example, (and other crustacea) are exposed to noxious stimuli, they respond with a mixture of behavioural, chemical, hormonal and opioid responses (analgesics) to resolve the immediate threat. These responses closely parallel that which takes place in more sophisticated nervous systems (such as those of mammals and birds) where there is much greater evidence of subjective experience.

This is why there is already preventative harm legislation in Austria, Switzerland, Norway and the UK which implicitly or explicitly recognises the sentience of shrimp (in the UK where I live the Animal Welfare Act, passed in 2022, explicitly recognises the sentience of cephalopod molluscs and decapod crustaceans - which includes shrimp).

Hey! James! Your brain and your energy has been sorely missed - good to see you.

Let me just say that, rather than pushing my own misconceptions, I’m just trying to encourage inquiry into what we mean by what we say.

The concept of “what it is like to be” was a big part of why I brought up the mantis shrimp, its amazing eyes and the probability that its brain is not actually producing images (but instead immediate action/behaviour) with the data detected by those eyes.

Another interesting case (on this topic) is when a human’s visual cortex is damaged. Although they are what we would call : blind; people with visual cortex damage (they say that they cannot see) are able to “guess” the shape and position of objects correctly (to their own surprise).

This is apparently due to their use of of a more ancient visual pathway (to a more froggy & fishy part of the brain) that allows them to detect (and react to) visual data, but does not produce the images for them to experience.

There is nothng “like what it is like” for them to see the object they are detecting with their eyes (?)

I’m hesitant to be drawn too much into the weeds with this, as this doesn’t feel like the appropriate venue to resolve these questions - but I take your statement (or question) to be relevant both to the Mantis Shrimp and to the person lacking conventional sight (with blindsight).

Yet there is no reason ipso facto why there oughtn’t be ‘something it is like’ to experience image-less vision (in the case of the Mantis Shrimp) or blindsight (in the case of the person with a damaged visual cortex), seeing as in both cases such experiences do occur and are utilised (by the organism) for purposes of survival.

Even generally speaking, the fact that not all sensory experience is (or remains) conscious does not mean that such apparently unconscious (or fleetingly conscious) perceptual experience is not experienced at all (at least by the part of the organism that processes it) - especially if it can be recalled at a later date and utilised by the organism for its own purposes.

In the case of the person with a damaged visual cortex they are - as you yourself said - actually utilising a more primitive means of visual perception, which helps them orient themselves in their environment.

While in the case of Mantis Shrimp they clearly learn through their ‘imageless’ visual experience all kinds of behavioural data that they make use of in complex social interactions and strategies of predation.

Nevertheless, as was suggested above, the sensation of pain (in both human and nonhuman animals) is a more practical (and ethically pressing) litmus test for sentience. This is because while the experience of physical pain in crustaceans may be at the opposite end of the spectrum of pain experienced by human beings (or cats and dogs), it is nevertheless on the same spectrum: the principle of sensation (of pain) is fundamentally related. This is because - to repeat what was said before - human and (at least most) nonhuman animals (including crustaceans)

This chemico-sensory apparatus for pain sensation applies across multiple human and nonhuman animal domains, and can be reasonably assumed to be on the same continuum - despite vastly different evolutionary outcomes and developments. This is the point I was making.

Is consciousness part of the fabric of the universe?

I’m going back to a wider angle frame of reference Douglas - Now, I don’t know why you say this?

Obviously consciousness is part of the fabric of the universe, because it exists. Everything that exists is part of the universe. Of course, this doesn’t mean that we understand what consciousness is.

I think this is a good start. Consciousness, according to wiki, “at its simplest, is awareness of internal and external existence.”

It may be more than this, or less than this, but awareness of some sort seems to be a close synonym for what most people mean by consciousness (I am putting aside for the time being the specific meaning Krishnamurti gave that word consciousness - one can take it that we are talking about awareness rather than consciousness in K’s sense).

Now it’s true that K - like Blavatsky (as Ceklata said) - sometimes implied and even stated outright that minerals and rocks have some kind of consciousness. But as you said originally this is a very different kind of consciousness than the one we usually mean when talking about such things:

As I already wrote in my previous posts, I think there is a very strong case for grounding ordinary definitions of consciousness in simple animal sentience - i.e. the susceptibility to sensation - which covers most human and nonhuman animals. But it doesn’t cover (at least as sentience is usually understood) plants, fungi and sponges for instance; even though plants, fungi and sponges - as well as bacteria and even single celled organisms - can act intelligently in relation to their environment.

So I think or feel that there is something broader to consciousness than even sentience (as it is ordinarily understood), because - like Krishnamurti and others - my sense is that plants are part of the movement of consciousness too; as are sponges, bacteria, and even, in some vague sense, minerals (this may sound crazy to you!).

So I agree with Rick where he says that

and I also feel that Ceklata’s question is apt:

However I don’t know how to answer this question - it’s just an intuition.

This intuition that awareness is a spectrum seems to mirror the conceptual lineage we hold thanks to the ideas we share regarding cosmology. Big bang theory, abiogenisis and evolutionary theory all paint physics as the ancestor of the psyche (ie physics>chemistry>biology>psychology) -
This history of the universe, together with the notion that energy/matter is not created only transformed, I think comforts us somewhat that some sort of proto consciousness was always there from the start.

But I think its important to point out that a) we don’t know what we mean by what we say -ie. that fundamental Ur consciousness is beyond our ken and might not be recognisably what we would recognise or even call consciousness &
b) that despite our direct conceptual lineage to the big bang it does not necessarily follow that bits of proto awareness were actually present at the “start”. I’m pointing at the idea of “emergent properties”. Was Thought somehow present at the beginning? Was Art and Culture?

I’m glad you brought it back here - I resolve the question thanks to my “soft” idealistic world view - namely that our only interface with reality is a mental one.

But maybe you could help me out here @James? Is there a way to get from the fact that consciousness is our only interface with reality, to the claim that consciousness is all that exists? or from the fact that consciousness is the foundation of our experience to the claim that it is the foundation of existence?
How does Kastrup make this argument for example (I still don’t get it)?

Can you help? (I’ve been wanting to ask you this for a while)

Hi Douglas - it’s been a while since I studied this area so I hope it’s alright not to say too much in detail.

But first of all I think it’s important to distinguish between thought and consciousness. When you ask

the answer is, obviously not. But I don’t believe that thought is synonymous with consciousness.

Thought is a material movement in the chemistry and physics of the brain. To the extent that chemistry has arisen out of physics, and biology from chemistry, it is clear that the ingredients of thought have been present from the earliest ancestry of our universe; but not thought itself (or art, culture, etc).

However, what I am referring to as consciousness or Mind (with a capital ‘M’) is not thought.

Defining consciousness (or Mind) is very difficult, but as was mentioned before, perhaps the word awareness is a good starting point, because we all have an intuitive grasp of what it means to be aware.

However, as you point out, if one then says that the universe is a part of consciousness (or Mind), then this definition seems to lose its intuitive meaning. Are electrons and protons aware? Are stars and galaxies aware? etc. This seems highly improbable, at least in the way we ordinarily understand the word ‘aware’.

Matter and sentience are obviously interrelated phenomena because the senses have arisen out of physics and chemistry. But consciousness itself doesn’t seem to be reducible to matter (this is the so-called “hard-problem” of consciousness).

So my own way of approaching this is to consider consciousness or Mind as an impersonal field - much like David Bohm’s implicate order - from which both matter and sentience arise.

Matter can then perhaps be thought of as unconscious Mind, while sentience in animals and humans might be thought of as (approximating) conscious Mind.

We might then even suggest that the (individual) mind of a person who is free from mental conditioning - i.e. someone fully awake, aware - is no longer separate from Mind (with a capital ‘M’). And perhaps for that person it may be a fact that Mind is not separate from the universe.

Why this cosmic Mind - as Kastrup says - dissociated itself in the first place (giving rise to unconscious matter and later animal sentience) remains a mystery. Why is there something rather than nothing? But I don’t think anyone has a clear answer to this.

What do you think?

Damn and blast!

I don’t know what to say. The question that comes up is why we have opinions at all about stuff we have no experieence of ever.

Why, as in what are the reasons behind my beliefs? (evidence & arguments) and why as in, for what purpose?

Putting aside the fact that we all experience what it is to be sentient - the reason why I originally jumped into the discussion was because you were opining that there is

I wanted to show you that there is in fact evidence of sentience in crustaceans, and that one oughtn’t be dismissive of consciousness in less sophisticated nonhuman animals.

In the field of environmental law and animal ethics there is a notion called The Precautionary Principle. This principle can be stated as follows:

“Where there are threats of serious, negative animal welfare outcomes, lack of full scientific certainty as to the sentience of the animals in question shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent those outcomes.”

While in the case of mammals and birds there is already very strong evidence of sentience, so much so that there exist robust laws in developed societies to mitigate their suffering caused by human beings, there has historically been much less research into the sentience of less sophisticated animals - such as crustaceans - meaning that they are exploited for profit with very few restrictions on how they are treated.

However, recent evidence suggests that they may indeed be sentient, as I shared with you, which means that societies can develop laws to mitigate any suffering they might experience.

It also means that sentience may run much deeper in the animal world than most people are prepared to accept.

Yes models are useful (eg.for comparison) tools in order to achieve some objective - one should always be aware of the play between the models, the objectives (compassion and wellbeing for sentient beings in your case) and the person realising those objectives. Everything is affected by everything.

Yes - the objective in this case being the consideration of how widely distributed sentience in the animal kingdom may be.

This was the point being discussed (both in relation to the OP - which is considering consciousness more broadly - and to the more limited question of whether or not Mantis Shrimp are merely physiological zombies).

As for ‘models’ with regards to sentience, the criteria are pretty straightforward:

The existence or otherwise (in the organism) of pain receptors, opioid management, an adequate nervous system; as well as observed behavioural responses, learning outcomes, and strategic avoidance of harm.

Where these elements exist, it is reasonable to infer sentience of some kind (sentience being the susceptibility to sensation).

That is, where (and if) sensation occurs, it is reasonable to assume that there must be some chemical or physiological basis for that sensation; and we can infer that there must be ‘something it is like’ to sense that sensation.

There are obviously ethical implications for the discovery of sentience in nonhuman animals; but apart from this it is also evidence of the degree to which sentience (or consciousness) is hard-wired into the fabric of the universe.

Something that comes to mind here is that our sensation of pain may be quite different than other thing’s pain? We have a sufferer / suffering duality that may not be present in most living things. We may be ‘anthrpomorphising’ it? They may not “mind what happens” in the same way we do? Not to say they don’t try to avoid, mitigate it etc but there may not be the ‘this shouldn’t happen to ME’ resistant element that we have?