I’ve always thought Carl Sagan was a bit of a blowhard, a smart and appealing individual, but one rather full of himself, and one who never fully utilized his talent and knowledge as a research astronomer. OK, neither did I, but I have an excuse, I was either too lazy or too dumb or both to do so myself. But, in my opinion, he pissed away his talent. He was a great popularizer of science, and a great communicator on scientific issues and philosophy; and in that manner he made an important contribution to many of us, myself included. But he wasn’t really much of a scientist. There is very little he contributed to our actual knowledge and understanding of the Cosmos.
But Carl did understand science, and he had a way of explaining scientific issues and attitudes that was very thought-provoking, and I believe, very valuable. And there is one thing he said that did stick with me, and affected me deeply. He remarked (and I paraphrase, of course), that the human brain was the tool which the Cosmos created in order to contemplate itself. Its not that much of a profound insight, but I had never heard it expressed so elegantly and succintly. Its one of those things that when you hear it, you know it must be right.
Without resorting to religion or metaphysics or parasychology or superstition he outlined how the soul exists in a random and chaotic universe, and why. As far as I know, no one else had ever arrived at that realization, and the moment you hear it you realize, of course, that MUST be it. The universe needed to invent consciouness (in humans, and perhaps in other life forms as well) in order to understand itself. It is a natural consequence of the evolution of the universe. The forest needed to create a listener that would hear the tree falling, or the whole idea of falling trees and even forests would be meaningless. If a phenomenon cannot be measured, if it cannot be perceived, can it really be said to exist at all? Somehow, it seems to be tied in with Uncertainty Principle.
Relativity tells us the relationship between observer and observed determines the nature of the observation. Quantum theory tells us the very act of observing affects the observed phenomenon. Thermodynamics is imbued with the idea of entropy, the amount of disorder, the quantification of complexity. All these concepts,are essentially psychological concepts, as if mind ahd perhaps even consciousness plays a profound and fundamental role in the structure of reality itself. And most important, mathematics, the man-made universe, seems to play a vital role in helping us understand the universe. Think about that, something that exists solely in our minds is the only way we can describe, understand and predict that which is “out there”– the external world that supposedly exists whether we do or not. Consciousness seems to play some sort of role in the Universe. It does not simply arise at some point in the evolution of complexity. Perhaps it exists as a gradient, all the way from subatomic particles to the primate nervous system, or in the complex social systems some primates have created. Perhaps consciousness is a property of matter itself, an unavoidable consequence of the space-time continuum, or even of the quantum foam.
If you expose matter to heat, it gets hot, and it responds by emitting heat back to the Cosmos in an effort to reach equilibrium. The matter “observes” its surroundings and then it responds appropriately to them, affecting them in turn. Matter knows what to do. More complex systems do this in ever more complex fashion. All complex systems do it, and often in astonishingly elaborate ways. Plants do this, animals do this. When a human being perceives his surroundings he also responds to them. We may react more subtly than simpler systems do, but there is no hard and fast dividing line between the conscious and the unconscious. Everything in the universe exhibits consciousness of some form or another. Plants, for example, react in highly complicated and meaningful ways with their surroundings without the aid of the specialized data processing equipment, (nervous systems) that animals use.
In the film Ex Machina, a meditation on Artificial Intelligence, the issue is examined on how do we determine if an AI has a consciousness, or if it only simulates having one. A computer can be programmed to win at chess but does it know what chess is? And if we cannot devise an experiment to determine that, does that question even make any sense? We have a subjective experience we call “consciousness” but we cannot reproduce it, communicate it, or describe it. Perhaps it is just an illusion, and our responses to external stimuli are no different than a plant’s ability to grow towards light or moisture. We may be different in degree from microbes, but not in kind. I once watched a jellyfish swim into a spot of motor oil floating on the surface of the sea. The moment it came into contact with the oil sheen it recoiled, changed direction and swam the other way. It detected the poison and then dealt with it. Was it conscious of what it was doing?
Understanding the nature of consciousness is vital to understanding how the universe works. There is an intimate connection with the human soul and with nature itself. From the quarks to the galaxies, Mind is involved.