Science & Technology

This Scientist Says We Might All Be the Universe's Alter Egos

Far be it from us to knock physics as an effective way to learn about the universe, but it does have that pesky requirement of being experimentally verifiable. Sometimes the questions you're wondering about are so big, you need to call in the philosophers for an opinion. They have no qualms about wild speculation. Take consciousness, for example. Once we told you about how it doesn't exist, another time about how it not only exists but is literally everywhere, and now we're back with more exciting news: Consciousness might be a result of the universe's disassociative identity disorder.

Out of the Frying Pan, Into the Cosmos

To understand why someone would say the universe has a mental disorder, you first have to understand a concept known as panpsychism. Panpsychism is the belief that every bit of physical matter has an element of consciousness, or what might be called "proto-consciousness," to it. Basically, it's a philosophical theory that's meant to explain what's known as the "hard problem" of consciousness: the apparent gap between physical reality and reality as we experience it.

In Thomas Nagel's famous paper, "What Is It Like to Be a Bat?", the philosopher explains the problem in a pretty straightforward analogy. The world's greatest chiropterologist could have read every book there is to read about the biology of the bat — they might have even written all those books. But it doesn't matter how much they know about how bat brains, wings, senses, and everything else work. They'll never know what it's actually like to be a bat. In other words, this person knows literally everything about the physical form of the bat, but there is something about the bat they don't know. Therefore, consciousness (the "what is it like") exists outside of physical reality.

But if consciousness is something non-physical, then how does it arise out of physical systems, and how does it interact with them? Panpsychism attempts to answer the first question by suggesting that there is a low-level background consciousness to the entire universe. When physical atoms become organized into a system like a brain, their consciousnesses combine into one ... somehow. Yeah, the problem with philosophy is that most of the time, you end up throwing up your hands and saying, "I'm sure this is possible, but I have no idea how."

One last note on panpsychism that might seem like splitting hairs, but will actually turn out to be quite significant. The official stance of panpsychism is that individual particles each have their own unique consciousness field. But another, similar view, called cosmopsychism, suggests instead that the proto-consciousness exists as a sort of background field in all of physical reality, like the fabric of spacetime. If you think of brain-like structures as making lumps on that fabric, it helps to explain how each of our individual brains form singular units. Unfortunately, it also suggests that we are all connected via the same consciousness field — and that suggests ESP exists. You'd be hard-pressed to find a modern scientist who takes the prospect of ESP seriously.

Me, Myself, and Universe

Now, a new paper by scientist, computer engineer, and philosophy writer Bernardo Kastrup suggests a mechanism by which our unique, unified consciousnesses could have arisen from a unified field of proto-consciousness. His inspiration came from an unexpected place: a paper about a patient with disassociative identity disorder (DID) — once called multiple personality disorder, or simply a split personality.

In 2015, German doctors examined a patient with several different identities, or "alters," in an EEG machine. In her case, some of these alters were blind, and when they were in control, the woman couldn't see. Inside the machine, the neurologists saw that her visual processing centers shut down entirely for blind alters, and began functioning as normal when a sighted alter returned. Writing in Scientific American with Adam Crabtree and Edward F. Kelly, Kastrup explained how this and other cases of DID might help explain the fundamental question of modern consciousness theory.

"We know empirically from DID that consciousness can give rise to many operationally distinct centers of concurrent experience, each with its own personality and sense of identity. Therefore, if something analogous to DID happens at a universal level, the one universal consciousness could, as a result, give rise to many alters with private inner lives like yours and ours." In other words, we might all have distinct personalities because each of us is one of the universe's distinct personalities, separate and concurrent.

What's more, those different personalities can be said to look a certain way. A doctor with the proper equipment can identify when one personality or another is in control by reading a chart. Thus, DID might also point to the way that conscious personalities rely on physical systems — whether that's the way a brain is organized or the existence of a brain at all.

Thomas Nagel has done a lot more than wonder about what bats do with their time. Dip your toes in the study of metaphysics with his book, "What Does It All Mean? A Very Short Introduction to Philosophy." We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase through that link, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Correction 7/13/2018: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the woman with several blind alters was examined in an fMRI machine, not an EEG. Additionally, it incorrectly implied that Kastrup's solution addressed panpsychism as opposed to cosmopsychism. We apologize for these errors.

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Written by Reuben Westmaas July 12, 2018

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