A smart person once told me while I was looking up at some stars, to “please be aware that you are seeing.”
I’ve heard that and said it a few times since, and the initial reaction to that remark is typically something like, “Well, no shit.” It was mine, for a moment.
But it is really something profound, if you stick with that thought longer than a moment.
We are aware, to some degree, almost all the time. Awareness isn’t just a big part of life, it comprises life as we know it. So it rarely occurs to us that it needn’t necessarily be this way.
Yet we are aware. If we know nothing else, we know that is true. I mean, if there’s anything we take for granted, it’s this astonishing fact that we are aware of stuff. And it’s the coolest, most empowering fact of all.
If you can look down and see your legs, then I guess you could say you’re aware of yourself. Again, duh. But which part of you is aware of your legs? You’d probably say your brain, and while I’m not convinced that’s entirely correct, let’s say it is. Already we have something interesting happening. One part of something is aware of its other aspects.
Or at least some of its other aspects. I doubt anybody would be aware they had a liver if nobody told them, or if they did not deduce it somehow by becoming aware of other livers in other people. So your self-awareness is not complete, meaning you’re not aware of every single thing going on in your body. But we don’t need to have every possible bit of information about ourselves in order to be aware of ourselves or to know ourselves.
You are a part of the universe, I’m going to presume. So when you’re out late on a long weekend, leaning back on the hood of a ’76 Vista Cruiser looking up at the stars from some campsite here on earth, one part of the universe is suddenly acutely aware of another part of it.
It’s fair to say then, that at least in that moment, the universe is conscious of itself.
Well wait a minute… not quite, right? Something in the universe is aware of something else in it.
But is that really different from the way in which you’re aware of yourself? A chunk of matter in your head is aware of (among other things) some other lengths of matter sprouting from your torso. Is this not a body being aware of itself?
So if a part of something is aware (to some degree, anyway) of the rest of that thing, then you can say that thing is self-aware. Is that not true for the universe?
And these “parts”… how do you really define something as truly distinct from something else? The boundary between my body and the environment surrounding it is not so definite, if you look closely. I exchange matter with the “outside world” as a matter of course, in my breathing, eating, sweating and bathroom activities. Bits of my skin dry up and float away, maybe landing in your drink. Then are they me or you? Seriously.
A less silly example. We think of the sun as being “over there” and we see it from here. But when you’re seeing the sun, what’s really happening? Photons, little bits of the sun, are shooting 93 million miles through space into the backs of your eyeballs, setting off an electrical reaction with which your brain creates a genuinely brilliant experience.
It’s not a You over here and a Sun over there, with one of those separate things aware of the other separate thing. It’s a seamless interaction between the universe and itself. But it cannot be denied that an experience is occurring — that awareness is present. You can argue all day about “whose” experience it is.
Those distinctions that we so casually make — between the soil and the grass, or the breeze and the palm trees — are really only conceptual boundaries we impose on our experience to aid communication and understanding. Where does one end and the other begin? They are only definite as a matter of thinking — which is a function of consciousness. So these boundaries couldn’t exist without awareness. “We are all one” is not just a flaky hippie notion.
Help me out here. Am I missing something? Because no matter how I dice it, it seems to me that if I’m self-aware, then the universe clearly is too.
Now, I don’t know quite when this began. I don’t remember the moment when my awareness “switched on”. But since I do remember being bitten by a duck at Wisconsin Dells when I was three years old, I suppose I can be confident it was somewhere between age three and age negative nine months.
But the point is it did turn on somewhere during the proceedings.
It’s worth pointing out that there really is no question about that. I can deny all sorts of things. I can deny that the sky is blue, I can deny that the world is round, I can deny that Elvis is dead, I just can’t deny that I am aware. I think, therefore I am, someone once said. (Elvis?)
It’s even tougher to reckon exactly when the universe’s self-awareness turned on during its proceedings, but clearly it did, if you’re looking at this screen.
To the best of our understanding, thirteen-some billion years ago, something (nothing?) exploded, flinging unfathomable amounts of matter and energy outward.
By way of gravitation, nuclear forces and other apparent rules of the game all that stuff began to combine and interact, and settle out to form chemicals, dust, asteroids, planets and galaxies.
But all that combining and interacting didn’t stop at boring lumps of rock and fire. If you were to zoom in on one of those lumps, you’d see even more interesting things forming. Earthquakes, volcanoes, atmospheres, storms, clouds, lightning. Rivers. Tides. Sand.
Somewhere along the way, in certain corners of the universe, a phenomenon arose that we regard as very special. Certain arrangements of matter developed the ability reproduce themselves, maintain themselves and eventually propel themselves around. They grew more complex, developing the ability to sense the surrounding environment and respond to it.
I won’t speculate on why, but these forms eventually gained the ability to experience. Again, this is undeniable, unless you want to try to deny that you’re reading this, but I bet you are.
And what do these interesting little corners of the universe experience? The universe. The dirt, the grass, the stars. Maybe a slurpee.
The universe, through its own nature, has become aware of itself. It is experiencing itself. And its awareness is expanding. I think the chances are pretty remote that the universe is only aware of itself through what’s happening here on earth.
It’s too bad that the notion of a conscious universe is typically rejected as New Agey feel-good drivel. That’s a pretty limiting way of thinking. It’s a shame, because at the moment, we have at our disposal evolution’s coolest trick so far: matter getting its own sense of just what the hell it is.
Of course the universe is conscious. What else could be?
Photo by David Cain