Consciousness across the Cosmos

By-Suhani Sharma

(10 min read)

Oxford dictionary defines consciousness as the state of being aware of and responsive to one’s surroundings;a person’s awareness and perception of something. But does this explanation hold true based on current studies? It does not.

Let me break it down to you by asking a question. What is the common between the thrill of paragliding, taste of a freshly baked pizza, a day at an amusement park?

It is that all of them are experiences. All are subjective states, and all are consciously felt. For some within the scientific or philosophical community, defining consciousness is not possible,but to some it is quite straightforward: Consciousness is experience. Period.

Feelings and/or awareness however mundane or exalted are consciousness. But who is conscious apart from humans? How widespread is consciousness in the cosmos at large?

One line of argument takes the principles of Integrated Information Theory (IIT) to their logical conclusion. According to this theory some level of experience can be found in all organisms, including those of the microcosmos(microorganisms). IIT aims to precisely define both the quality and the quantity of any one conscious experience. 

In addition, it makes a pleasing and parsimonious conclusion about the makeup of the universe: experience may not even be restricted to biological entities but might extend to non-evolved physical systems previously assumed to be mindless.

How widespread is consciousness in the tree of life?

Given the similarities at the behavioural, physiological, anatomical, developmental, and genetic levels between Homo sapiens and other mammals, There is no reason to doubt that all of us experience the sounds and sights, the pains and pleasures of life, albeit not necessarily as richly as we do. All of us strive to eat and drink, to procreate, to avoid injury and death; we bask in the sun’s warming rays, we seek the company of conspecifics, we fear predators, we sleep, and we dream.

Honey bees can recognize faces, communicate the location and quality of food sources and navigate complex mazes with the help of cues they store in short-term memory. They are shown to have collective decision making skills as well as associative memory.Bumble bees can even learn to use a new tool after watching other bees use them.

Consciousness is lived reality. It is the feeling of life itself.

Charles Darwin, in an 1881 book on earthworms, wanted “to learn how far the worms acted consciously and how much mental power they displayed.” Studying their feeding behaviours, Darwin concluded that there was no absolute threshold between complex and simple animals that assigned higher mental powers to one but not to the other.No one has discovered a Rubicon that separates sentient from non-sentient creatures.

We assume that the richness and diversity of consciousness will decrease as their nervous systems become simpler. But does consciousness even require a nervous system? Well just like your first love story, it’s complicated.

You see, plants are being shown to communicate among themselves in intriguing ways. They can adapt and learn. But of course, all of that can happen without experience. So the evidence is intriguing but preliminary. 

Consciousness in the universe

IIT offers a different chain of reasoning. The theory predicts whether that system is conscious, to what degree it is conscious, and what particular experience it is having. According to IIT, a system’s consciousness is determined by it’s causal properties and is therefore an intrinsic, fundamental property of any physical system. The intrinsic causal property is considered a Whole.

The theory doesn’t stipulate that there is some magical threshold for experience to switch on. The degree of consciousness is instead measured with Φ, or phi. If phi is zero, then the system doesn’t exist for itself; anything with Φmax greater than zero exists for itself, has an inner view, and has some degree of irreducibility — the larger this number, the more conscious it is. And that means there are a lot of Wholes out there.

Integrated information is not about input–output processing, function or cognition, but about intrinsic cause-effect power. Having liberated itself from the myth that consciousness is intimately related to intelligence, the theory is free to discard the shackles of nervous systems and to locate intrinsic causal power in mechanisms that do not compute in any conventional sense.” explains Christof Koch in the MIT press release.

To explain this further he says that, “The average temperature of the universe is determined by the afterglow left over from the Big Bang, the cosmic microwave background radiation. It evenly pervades space at an effective temperature of 2.73° above absolute zero. This is utterly frigid, hundreds of degrees colder than any temperature terrestrial organisms can survive. But the fact that the temperature is non-zero implies a corresponding tiny amount of heat in deep space. This of course implies a corresponding tiny amount of experience.

Intrinsic causal power does away with the challenge of how mind emerges from matter. IIT stipulates that it is there all along.

IIT’s prediction that the mental is much more widespread than traditionally assumed resonates with an ancient school of thought: panpsychism.


The term ,coined by Italian philosopher Francesco Patrizi, states that all things have a mind or a mind-like quality. That any physical mechanism either is conscious, is made out of conscious parts, or forms part of a greater conscious whole.

This theory was favoured by many of the influential minds throughout history including Plato, Giodano Bruno and even Erwin Schrödinger but was lost in translation with the advent of the 21st century. It is only recently coming back to life with the aid of mathematicians,astrophysicists and psycho-physicists alike.

Panpsychism is unitary. There is only one substance, not two. This elegantly eliminates the need to explain how the mental emerges out of the physical and vice versa. Both coexist.

But according to Koch,its beauty is barren. It fails to describe the relationship between the two.Where is the experiential difference between one lone atom zipping around in interstellar space, the hundred trillion trillion making up a human brain, and the uncountable atoms making up a sandy beach? Panpsychism is silent on such questions.

IIT shares many insights with panpsychism, starting with the fundamental premise that consciousness is an intrinsic, fundamental aspect of reality. Both approaches argue that consciousness is present across the animal kingdom to varying degrees.

John Searle wrote: “Consciousness cannot spread over the universe like a thin veneer of jam; there has to be a point where my consciousness ends and yours begins.

Panpsychism has not provided a satisfactory answer as to why this should be so. But IIT,being a scientific theory,does.

The Exclusion Principle

Koch explains this through an experiment: “Consider you are looking at your dog and have a particular visual experience, a maximally irreducible cause-effect structure. It is constituted by the underlying physical substrate, the Whole, here a particular neural correlate of consciousness within the hot zone in my posterior cortex. But the experience is not identical to the Whole. Your experience is not your brain.”

This Whole has definite borders; a particular neuron is either part of it or not. There is only one mind, your mind, constituted by the Whole in your brain. Other Wholes may exist in your brain,or body, but they remain stable by not sharing their elements amongst themselves. This is called the Exclusion Principle.

The exclusion principle also explains why consciousness ceases during slow sleep or dictates whether or not an aggregate of conscious entities exist as consciousness.

Experience is in unexpected places, including in all animals, large and small, and perhaps even in brute matter itself. So, to assess the central role of feeling to a lived one, specially since the advent of Artificial Intelligence, is something to debate about.

References- 1.




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