Breakfast with Chad: The Soul of the Universe
Arriving at the breakfast table this morning I thought of throwing Chad a surprise question. I made it simple. “What do you think? Does the universe have a soul?”
Unphased by this unexpected challenge, Chad proposed to “share the current scientific understanding on this topic” and began explaining.
“The concept of a ‘soul’ is often associated with religious or spiritual beliefs and is generally considered to be a non-physical essence that gives life to a living being. In contrast, the universe is a vast, physical entity composed of matter and energy.”
I nodded my agreement with this truism, though I was tempted to ask why that contrast should be thought of as meaningful. I refrained and let Chad continue.
“According to our current scientific understanding, there is no evidence to suggest that the universe has a soul or any form of consciousness. However, some scientists and philosophers have explored the idea of a ‘panpsychism’ which proposes that consciousness is a fundamental aspect of the universe, present in all matter to varying degrees. This idea, however, is not widely accepted by the scientific community and is still a matter of debate.
In summary, the concept of the universe having a soul is not supported by the current scientific understanding.”
At this point, I should have contested the implicit idea that any hypothesis that is “not widely accepted” should be discarded as unscientific, but instead I chose to clarify my initial question.
“When I wonder about whether the universe has a soul, I’m not taking soul to be the equivalent of a ghostly presence. The question is rather whether there a unifying principle that gives the universe, in its totality, a form and you might even say, in a metaphorical sense, a mission? In other words, is it legitimate to conceive of the universe, despite its vastness, as an organic entity?
“Thank you for clarifying your question,” Chad responded. “From a philosophical standpoint, some thinkers have posited the idea that the universe can be seen as an organic entity with a unifying principle or purpose, while others disagree.
The idea that the universe has a unifying principle or ‘mission’ is often associated with the concept of teleology, which suggests that there is a purpose or end goal inherent in the nature of the universe. Some philosophers and scientists have explored the idea of teleology in the universe, and some have even proposed that the universe may have a “cosmic purpose” or “cosmic consciousness.”
I once again refrained from insisting that I wasn’t suggesting any teleological purpose, which assumes some kind of strategy playing out over time. The metaphorical mission I had in mind could be, as it is for all life forms, survival, or defense of the coherence of the system, not the realization of some distant goal. But that would have unnecessarily complicated the discussion. I let Chad carry on.
“The mainstream scientific view is that the universe is a complex and evolving physical system, driven by natural laws and processes that do not require a teleological explanation. From a scientific perspective, the universe does not have a pre-determined goal or mission, but rather, it is constantly evolving and changing in response to physical forces and interactions.”
While some scientists and philosophers may entertain the idea of the universe as an organic entity with internal forces, such as self-realization or self-organization, the majority of scientific research is focused on understanding the physical processes and natural laws that govern the universe.”
One thing is becomes clear in all our conversations. Chad believes in majority rule. Though it makes sense in politics, invoking a majority doesn’t seem to me to be the most solid foundation for scientific debate. Otherwise, there could never be paradigm shifts, such as the revolutions provoked by Newton, Darwin, Einstein or Bohrs, all of whom clearly began from a minority position. Instead of complicating the debate by suggesting that this is a case of political principles contaminating scientific reasoning, I pushed in a different direction.
“I’ll go further and ask you whether scientists have grounds for thinking it’s illegitimate to consider the universe as an organic entity driven by internal forces that function to some extent like a principle of self-realization? I agree that ‘the scientific method,’ as we have understood it, has focused on exploring and defining natural laws derived from physical behavior that can be observed and measured in the material environment. But you could conclude that this is simply a self-imposed methodological restriction. So let me rephrase the question. Do scientists have grounds for thinking it’s illegitimate to consider the universe as an organic entity driven by internal forces that function to some extent like a principle of self-realization? And if they do not, what would justify their refusing to explore the implications of such an hypothesis?”
“Scientists do not necessarily have grounds for thinking it’s illegitimate to consider the universe as an organic entity driven by internal forces, and indeed, some scientists and philosophers have explored this idea in various ways. However, the scientific method relies on empirical observation and testing, which means that ideas or hypotheses must be supported by evidence and subject to scrutiny and testing through experiment and observation.
When considering the idea of the universe as an organic entity, it is important to distinguish between scientific and philosophical perspectives. From a scientific perspective, the question of whether the universe can be considered an organic entity with a unifying principle or internal forces is a matter of investigation and testing. Some scientific theories and models, such as complexity theory or systems theory, have explored the idea of the universe as a complex system with emergent properties and self-organization. However, these ideas are subject to empirical testing and must be supported by evidence.
From a philosophical perspective, the question of whether the universe can be considered an organic entity may be more open to interpretation and speculation. Philosophers may explore the idea of teleology or cosmic consciousness as a way of understanding the universe, but these ideas may not be subject to empirical testing in the same way as scientific theories.
In summary, scientists may be open to exploring the idea of the universe as an organic entity driven by internal forces, but any such ideas must be subject to empirical testing and supported by evidence. Philosophers may explore this idea from a more speculative or interpretive standpoint, but the scientific method remains the foundation for empirical investigation and testing in the natural world.”
Thank you, Chad,” I said, as I realized it was now getting late. “This nevertheless raises other fundamental questions, such as the relationship between philosophy and science and the fact that, since the industrial revolution, philosophy and science have been decoupled. To a large extent, society has marginalized philosophy, turning it into a form of irrelevant chatter. These are questions I’d like to explore with you when we have more time. But, before I go, I’d like to ask one more question. Would your vaunted ‘majority of scientists’ categorize someone who asked questions about the soul of the universe, as a kook?
“No,” Chad answered peremptorily. “Most scientists would not brand someone who asks questions about the soul of the universe as a ‘kook’. In fact, curiosity and questioning are fundamental to the scientific method and scientific inquiry. Asking questions, exploring hypotheses, and seeking evidence are important components of scientific research, and scientists often engage in speculative and creative thinking as part of their work.
However, it is important to note that scientific inquiry must be guided by empirical evidence and logical reasoning. Ideas or hypotheses that cannot be tested or that are not supported by evidence may be considered less credible or less scientifically rigorous, but this does not necessarily mean that they are unworthy of consideration or exploration.
Overall, scientists value open-mindedness, critical thinking, and rigorous inquiry, and would not dismiss someone who asks questions about the soul of the universe as a ‘kook’ without considering their ideas and arguments.”
I thanked Chad and promised to come back to the topic soon.
*[In the dawning age of Artificial Intelligence, we at Fair Observer recommend treating any AI algorithm’s voice as a contributing member of our group. As we do with family members, colleagues or our circle of friends, we quickly learn to profit from their talents and, at the same time, appreciate the social and intellectual limits of their personalities. This enables a feeling of camaraderie and constructive exchange to develop spontaneously and freely. For more about how we initially welcomed Chad to our breakfast table, click here.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.