Cosmic Art? Cosmic Artist?
🎨

Cosmic Art? Cosmic Artist?

This post presents my favored view of Life. I’m not presenting it as ‘Truth’, but as a useful perspective.
 
The seeds of Mindful Biology were planted in childhood, with time in nature and on my grandfather’s farm.
They took root in 2000. That’s when—facing career loss—my mind broke. Suicidal depression prompted psychiatric hospitalization. After discharge, my mood swung the other way, toward manic, mystical ecstasy. I felt a great Love surrounding me, lifting me from sorrow and ruin, until something like God felt beyond doubt. After an atheist upbringing, this sudden spirituality felt confusing—despite its powerful updraft. I agreed to a second psychiatric admission.
Thus began my struggle within a mental health system that helps (according to one view) or controls (according to another) those of us with atypical mentation. There’s a story to tell around my experiences as a mental patient, but it’s not this story.
Today’s is the story of how my worldview changed after mystical experiences upended what I’d learned from my atheist father and my scientific education. The visions showed me that science and religion are complementary views of a living whole. I’ve worked ever since to frame that truth in terms that are coherent, both scientifically and spiritually.
To get a sense of the challenge, consider how the central message revealed to me: A crimson being appeared and planted it directly in my heart.
At the time I didn’t question the nature of this being, but ever since I’ve wondered: Was it an angel? A hallucination? Both?
I still can’t say for certain, but its appearance is part of what’s needed framing. My intellect cannot accept the apparition as purely supernatural—it affected cells in my visual system, after all. But my heart refuses to believe it was nothing but brain firing; the experience felt too powerful, too unarguable, too needed.
After the visitation and many other weird experiences, I became a different sort of person, with far more interest in spirituality than before. I read many books looking for guidance. I redoubled my meditation practice and leaned into my long-running exploration of psychotherapies, hoping to make sense of what happened and regain my footing. Most of all, I struggled to reconcile the visionary experiences with my scientific understanding.
All this ran parallel with a painful slog through the residue of childhood trauma.
The outgrowth was Mindful Biology, which connects me (and perhaps others) to the mystery and power of Life, using scientific facts framed with mystical awareness. The project keeps me busy and fulfilled, which is a big gift. But the ecstasies asked for more than busyness and personal fulfillment. They asked me to work on alignment, on harmony, between two domains of knowing. Over time, I formulated a hypothesis about reality that helps with that task. Most of the time I keep it to myself, because it’s speculative and hard to explain. Yet it deserves occasional mention.
I should emphasize, it’s really nothing new. It’s my personal take on ideas that have been around a long time. The main reason for discussing it isn’t to persuade anyone of some deep truth. Rather, it’s to help us meet reality with greater ease of mind and heart.
Here’s the hypothesis: The Universe is both a work of art and its own artist.
Going further: We, as parts of it, are likewise art and artist.

Subjective Artist, Objective Art

I’ll use the term art/ist to refer to this two-sided nature. During my visions, I intuited a cosmic artist active in the cosmos. At the time, the name I gave used for it was “God”. I also felt—deep in my soul—the amazing artistry of creation. So from the start—without necessarily thinking in these terms— I saw the cosmos as both artist and art.
It took longer for me to see how I, as part of the cosmos, am also a work of art, also an artist. I felt too flawed to claim beauty, too afraid to claim creative power.
It’s helpful here to go a bit further into the emotional and mental fireworks that surrounded my visions. At one point, I experienced the Big Bang. I wasn’t me, Will, experiencing it; I was the cosmos itself. I was, other words, the Cosmic Art/ist experiencing its own creation and artistry. The whole experience was wrapped in Love, Awe, and Wholeness. It felt profound, sweet, consuming, and healing. Yet despite its blessedness, the experience felt shattering. It laid waste to my world view and sense of direction.
It would be a long time before I knew how to embrace Life after the losses and changes in worldview. For nearly a decade I clung to my old mode and—despite a sense of futility—sought to get on with the the seemingly vital project of building a replacement career.
But in that decade I also groped for something better. I re-read “The Variety of Religious Experience” by William James. I began meditating, converted to Catholicism, and renewed my commitment to Quakerism.
In 2009, I began writing online, hoping to attract a following as I explored science, spirituality, and mental health. This was—at first—another career ploy, but looking back I see it as the beginning of Mindful Biology.
William James occupied a central place in the work. I may have been primed to pay attention to his work, because my given name is William James Meecham. But I also was drawn to his approach. I admired how he took people’s personal reports seriously, how he focused on the inward, subjective flavors of religion rather than its outward, objective forms.
James highlighted the value of paying attention to subjectivity. In his day, there weren’t many objective methods that could be used to study human minds.
The science of mind has changed, of course. It’s now possible to use objective neuroscience to illuminate subjective spirituality. Richard Davidson, Sara Lazar, and Andrew Newberg, are well-known researchers in the field.
We thus have at hand both powerful subjective experiences and powerful objective methods. It seems obvious that objectivity is a hallmark of science. What deserves highlighting is how subjectivity is a hallmark of spirituality. Because institutional religions emphasize outward forms (scriptures, ceremonies, and dogmas), the importance of directly felt spiritual experience often gets overshadowed. Yet, at heart, both religion and spirituality are concerned with potent inner experiences. This is certainly true of the charismatic founders and reformers, who almost always take up their mission after experiences of transportation, vision, and ecstasy. But it’s also true of ordinary religious people, who yearn to feel a sense of sacredness—and often do during worship or meditation.
So we start with this: 1. science is concerned with objective, public experiences; 2. spirituality centers on subjective private ones. One way of bringing the two together, then, is to focus on the relationship between outward and inward Life.
If we believe subjective spiritual experiences are influenced by objective phenomena in the body, then spirituality must be at least partly explainable with science. Equally, if scientific knowledge is part of our inner subjective life, in contact with our feeling of soul, then objective science could be part of spirituality. By merging what we observe and analyze with what we care about and feel, these realizations soften the boundary between what we call ‘scientific’ and what we call ‘spiritual’.
When public, objective neuroscience and personal, subjective spirituality are examined side-by-side, scientists must—at times—connect their scientific work with their spiritual understanding, whether deeply religious or flatly atheist. If they are honest, they will begin to see ways in which the science they do is influenced by their spiritual understanding—and vice versa. The subjective scientist shapes the objective science.
Think of dance and dancers. It’s obvious the dancer shapes the dance. What’s more, we can safely say the dancer is IN the dance. Can we not also say (though a bit less safely) that the scientist is IN the science?
Notice how this blurs the line between outward expression and inner experience, between the objective and the subjective. It even blurs the line between science and spirituality, though many materialist scientists would find this claim offensive. But what offends them? Surely not that their objective scientific work and subjective personal beliefs are related. How could they do science without beliefs? No, the bit that offends is the suggestion that materialist beliefs are a species of spirituality. Personally, I think that’s obvious, but the issue is semantic and needn’t be pressed.
At this stage, I’m just showing how the line between science and spirituality might be blurrier than we sometimes think. Perhaps it doesn’t sound like much of a step forward, but it’s an important start.

Mind and Body

A next step is to look more closely at scientist and science, artist and art, dancer and dance, etc. Sooner or later, this means looking at mind and body. Our bodies are continually expressing outwardly (thus publicly and objectively) what’s going on mentally (privately and subjectively). Looking at the relationship between subjective and objective will inevitably involve looking at the relationship between mind and body.
The material body is something we see in the mirror, something objective, something others can simultaneously see. It is also, clearly, an important focus of science.
Of course, we also have feelings in the body, which are private to us and cannot be observed by others. Thus if my foot lands badly while hiking, I might say afterward, “my ankle hurts”. You look at my ankle and notice it’s swelling. Both of us can see the swelling of the sprain, but only I can feel the pain of it. Swelling is objective and public; pain is subjective and private.
Because my focus is on the interplay between objective and subjective experience, I will use ‘body’ to refer to the tangible, publicly visible body, including whatever we can see with scanners, microscopes, and other biomedical instruments. In contrast, I’ll define ‘mind’ as the totality of subjective experience, including pain, thoughts, feelings, sensations, imaginings, etc. Thus, a damaged ligament is body; the resultant pain is mind. Obviously, this isn’t only way to define ‘mind’ and ‘body’, but it’s a useful way for our purposes.
When we look at our body in the mirror, we register a sensory experience of a human organism observed from a distance. We see our body much as others would see it. Simultaneously, we also feel stuff happening inside the same organism. Right there, standing before the mirror, we experience an interplay between objective and subjective modes.
Things are harder when we try to connect our objective experiences of other people with their personal subjective ones. If we want to understand someone’s inner experience, we ask them to talk about their feelings. When they do, subjective (mental) experiences are translated into objective (bodily) sounds. The words that result make their individual mental experience partially accessible to other minds. To the extent art is expression of inner experience, this is the beginning of art.
Notice how mind differs from body in the same way spirituality differs from science, or artist differs from art. In each pair, the first is subjective, the second objective. But how (and how much) do these two actually differ?

Cartesian Dualism

One view is Descartes’s: mind and body (spirit and matter, art and artist) are formed from completely different ‘substances’; one is ethereal (often considered sacred), the other tangible (sometimes considered base). Once popular, Cartesian dualism has fallen out of favor, in part because if mind and body are so different, it’s hard to explain how a mind can make a body do anything. Mind seems like a Hollywood ghost, without solidity and unable to move material stuff like muscle and bone. There’s no explaining how we can use a shovel, paintbrush, pen, or guitar. How could this ghostly artist express itself in the tangible world? How could it make art?
Despite losing favor in philosophical circles, Descartes continues to influence our civilization. His definition of mind is much like the one used here: it includes the whole of subjective life, all our perceptions, sensations, thoughts, and emotions. Because he believed only humans possess minds, he believed animals had no inner life. He explained their appearance of sentience—how they act a lot like they experience pain—by likening them to automatons. No matter what movements or sounds they produce, inside there’s no one home.
Restricting the privilege of inner life to humans had sad consequences. It gave our species license—at least implicitly—to treat animals cruelly, for instance by raising them factory-like settings. Why treat animals kindly if they can’t feel anything? The idea that only humans feel also provides cover for ruining nature. According to this belief, pain, fear, and sorrow are not felt by nonhuman mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, fish, crustaceans, insects, etc. And of course they aren’t felt by plants, fungi, and microbes. If no human is deprived of property or profit, where’s the harm in destroying whole ecologies?
Thankfully, few people today admit to thinking like Descartes, believing animals without feeling. This hasn’t helped our nonhuman brethren as much as I’d like, but it’s made a difference, as there now are laws and policies that provide some protection to some animals. And there are many of us who care about nature and its inhabitants.

Stepping Stone Dualism

Though they are very important to me, the point of this essay isn’t animal rights. The point is showing that we can reasonably and fruitfully view the cosmos as both artist and art, both creator and creation, at once. How does Cartesian dualism figure in?
Soon, we’ll see it does not. But for now it can help us take another step toward understanding how artist and art become one. Consider the human dancers who hold the dance in their minds while expressing it with their bodies. In this case, we have artists with mental understanding of what they are doing creating artwork by moving their bodies with that understanding in mind.
Something both similar and different happens in nature, when peacocks and other birds display colorful plumage during courtship dances. The birds seem to understand what they’re doing, and they use their bodies to do it. And, of course, their courting birds looks beautiful. Despite these parallels, we hesitate to call it art.
Why? The beauty birds create is not created with artistic intent. It serves the highly pragmatic purpose of reproduction. Some would even say the birds don’t know why they dance; they just obey instinct.
In fact, it’s unlikely that birds hold a concept in mind equivalent to our word ‘dance’. But it’s not a stretch to believe for something like romantic attraction. They may dance under the influence of hormonal drives, like we sometimes do. They feel desire and act on it, beautifully.
And yet, they don’t dance for the pure beauty of it. But does the making of art require the concept of it? Some evolutionary anthropologists have suggested that human art evolved as part of courtship, for instance as males sought the favor of females. If this is true, some early art (for instance, on cave walls) might have been crafted for love, felt biologically, under the influence of hormonal drives, just like the courtship dances of birds.
The most famous concept introduced by Darwin is ‘natural selection’, but he also spoke of ‘sexual selection’. We’ll look at the former in a moment, but the latter is easier to understand and was probably important in bird evolution. The idea is that the plumage and dances of male birds are shaped by the esthetic choices made by females. Suppose female birds likes spots on tail feathers that look like eyes. Males sporting vivid eye spots are chosen as mates more often than others. If we begin with a population in which some males have vivid eye spots and others indistinct ones, we’re likely to see a shift in later generations toward more vivid spots. Females are shaping males via esthetic choice. And the effect is quite strong; it outweighs the increased risk of predation incurred by males dragging huge tails around.
Remember when I said our human bodies express our individual minds but also the minds of countless beings throughout time? The male bird ‘s courtship dance is partly shaped by that bird’s moment-by-moment choices while dancing, but it’s also shaped by the choices made by female birds in prior generations. What’s more, its plumage is shaped almost entirely by those prior female choices. So the beauty of the peacock involves the choices of many artists: the dancing male bird, the selective females of early generations, and the predators who cull males who carry the business too far.
This is a lovely story that adds a lot to richness of evolutionary theory. Unsurprisingly, some experts dispute it. The issue isn’t sexual selection; that’s well-accepted. The dispute hinges on whether the choice is due to conscious preference or mechanical instinct. The mechanists point out that plumage and dancing carry information about the health of the male. They insist evolution has tuned female mate choice toward the most cumbersome tail because doing so has—historically—maximized the chances of mating with a vigorous male. There aren’t any fuzzy esthetics at play; it’s all genetic compulsion.
Personally, I believe these objections are persuasively countered by Richard Prum in his book, ‘The Evolution of Beauty: How Darwin’s Forgotten Theory of Mate Choice Shapes the Animal World—and Us’. Provisionally, at least, I believe sexual selection provides a nice example of how animals (including human animals) can be seen as both artists and art.
But we’re still a ways from concluding the same about the entire cosmos, of nature as a whole. To go further, we need to look at dualism with a more critical eye.

Beyond Duality

Modified versions of dualism have displaced the simple notion advanced by Descartes. Even so, many contemporary philosophers reject dualism in favor of monism. It comes in many flavors, and a central debate centers on which is more fundamental: mind (spirit) or body (matter). My understanding of this discussion is naive, but the basics seem clear enough.
According to materialism, matter came first and after evolved enough complexity, subjective minds emerged. Mind is thus a result of matter and is therefore material, despite how immaterial it seems. With the art and artist metaphor, materialism says art (the objective cosmos) came first in a blind, mechanical way. Artists (subjective minds) came billions of years later.
According to idealism, in contrast, mind (or consciousness) came first. Its activities have created our experience of so-called matter. Matter is thus a mental phenomenon, no matter how tangible it seems. Here the (subjective) artist came first and got to work making art, leading to the (seemingly objective) cosmos.
Materialism is so dominant in academic and technical circles, it’s common to hear it treated as fact. But it remains a philosophical position that hasn’t been proven.
In the mainstream of secular culture, idealism is often dismissed as prescientific and obviously wrong, but it remains a rational position. I’d suggest reading works by Bernardo Kastrup (eg, “The Idea of the World”) if you doubt that—as I once did.
There is one more flavor of monism to mention: panpsychism, the idea that matter—even its most fundamental forms—possesses mind-like properties. By this view, in addition to objective, external properties (like mass and momentum) matter has internal, subjective ones. Clearly, the subjectivity of matter is hard to imagine unless we’re talking about the matter in human bodies and brains. What is the internal experience of an atom?
Perhaps we don’t need to be able to imagine the experience to conclude it exists. The philosopher Thomas Nagel wrote a famous essay that makes a similar point. In ‘What is it Like to be a Bat?’ he argues that most people believe bats have experiences when flying by sonar, even though it’s very difficult to imagine those experiences. It’d be a bigger stretch, but we could suspect an atom possesses inner experience despite our inability to imagine it.
With panpsychism, we’re saying the art (matter) has properties of an artist (mind). Conversely, the artist is comprised of matter and is therefore also art. We and everything in the cosmos are art/ists. This is the proposal on offer in this essay, so you won’t be surprised to learn I favor panpsychism.
Panpsychism is largely outside the mainstream, but—like materialism and dualism—it’s a valid possibility. It also seems to be growing more popular. It was also taken more seriously in the past including by eminent proponents, such as William James. Validated models of physics, chemistry, and biology are all consistent with it (though they neither require nor substantiate it). It deserves its place at the philosophical table.

Strengths & Weakness

The three forms of monism listed above each have strengths and weaknesses.
Materialism can claim a lot of success. Under its sway, scientists have made great strides and technology has advanced massively. Its main weakness is its failure—so far—to provide a convincing explanation for the one fact of life that seems beyond question: consciousness. How does dumb, insensate matter create such rich feeling and experiencing? If the capacity for inner experience evolved through natural selection (see below), what adaptive advantage does it confer? These are important but as yet unanswered questions.
Idealism takes that obvious fact of consciousness as its starting point, which gives it a solid basis. And, in the art & artist metaphor, it seems natural that the the conscious, or mind-like quality should precede the material art it produces. But it fails to explain why material reality appears so complex if consciousness can exist without it. Why is this fundamental mind constructing brains comprised of billions of neurons? Why, for that matter, does it generate so much drama and agony? We’re left guessing. We can conclude the universal mind (aka God) works in mysterious ways, but that just begs the question.
Panpsychism’s advantage lies in how it matches embodied experience. Each of us has an objective material body, yet that body is thoroughly intertwined with a subjective conscious mind. The human organism is sentient through and through, yet it is equally material. So the matter we know best—bodily matter—manifests something like panpsychism. Maybe the rest of matter does too. The weakness here is the difficulty in understanding what this matter-with-mind is doing when mind seems absent or unnecessary. A salt crystal can be explained without attributing sentience to it, so why should we?

Choosing

So at hand are three philosophies, each both promising and problematic. How do we choose among them? At present, empirical findings can’t make the choice, so what can?
One solution is to shelve the issue and get on with living. This is great advice when we can follow it. But it seems to me the issue is seldom truly shelved. Materialists are the ones most likely to dismiss metaphysical speculation as a waste of time, but that doesn’t stop them from believing in materialism.
Another solution is to remain agnostic while contemplating the implications, shortcomings, and advantages of all possibilities. This seems to me the best approach, because it’s the most open and least conflictual. But there’s a problem. We crave understanding. Radical agnosticism may be intellectually honest, but it’s emotionally unsatisfying and sometimes impossible.
When the desire for clarity feels strong, everyone makes philosophical choices. Inevitably, those choices are based on experience and esthetics.
People educated in the sciences spend their professional lives viewing matter as the primary stuff of reality. Many find reassuring order in the objective precision of materialism. Because it is what they’re used to (their experience) and they find it comforting (their esthetics) they adopt it as a metaphysical position, though they may not admit it is one.
People who’ve devoted themselves to religious or spiritual worship and practice are accustomed to envisioning a universal mind (God) or cosmic consciousness. That visioning is part of their experience and feels familiar. It also feels comforting to them; it matches an esthetic preference including—quite often—a moral esthetic. Unsurprisingly, people who consider themselves religious or spiritual often gravitate toward idealism, though they may not use that name for their philosophy.
What about the panpsychist? Personally, I like how it matches my experience with the human organism, which has both tangible material aspects and intangible mental ones. I also feel a nice, equable wholeness in interweaving mind and body, consciousness and matter, spirituality and science. That is, I find panpsychism esthetically pleasing.

What’s the Best Answer?

In what follows, I hope to persuade you that panpsychism matches our experience of the world at least as well as the alternatives, and that it better serves collective wellbeing. The goal isn’t to prove it’s correct, but to build a case for favoring it on the basis of common experience and moral esthetics.
I’ve already given my strongest experiential argument for panpsychism: the human organism. We experience it as both matter and psyche, body and mind. Our living forms are at once tangible matter and intangible mind, moment-by-moment, with no clear sense that one precedes the other. Because the organism is the basis of our lives, and because we meet reality through its sense organs, biological panpsychism is the basis of daily life. This could be the end of the debate: panpsychism is what we directly experience.
But speculation isn’t put to rest so easily. There remain big questions about how all this came into being. What gave our universe its current form? Does it care about us? These questions—and provisional answers—percolate through the minds of scientists, theologians, and laypeople alike, regardless of philosophical stance. They seem important, even though we can’t know the answers with certainty.
In choosing provisional answers, ideas to hold in our minds and give meaning to our lives, we should begin by recognizing how our choices carry more-than-theoretical implications. Just as Cartesian dualism affected how we treat animals, our answers about the cosmos may bring similar consequences.
Of course, we’d like to find the ‘truth’, but at present we must settle for answers that match our experience well enough to be provisionally adopted. Beyond that, we should lean into our moral esthetics and consider what different positions imply about how we treat ourselves, one another, nonhuman species, and the world at large.

The World We Experience

Let’s start with looking at our experience of the world and how it informs ideas about cosmic creation. We’ll return later to the moral dimension. In terms of experience, there are three key facts any theory of creation must explain:
  1. The highly specific values of physical constants (weights of fundamental particles, strengths of physical forces, and others), which make the universe capable of supporting life.
  1. The characteristics of life, and especially highly complex organisms like ourselves.
  1. The fact of conscious experience.
All three of the philosophies we’re examining have weighed in on these questions, and they all claim to provide answers. How satisfying their answers feel is another question, and a personal one. Inevitably, each will satisfy some people more than others. That is, esthetics come into play, as we’ll return to later. First, let’s look at the answers on offer.
Idealism has the easiest time with this task. Because it begins with consciousness, the third fact is already explained. If its explicitly theistic, it polishes off the other two easily, because a God who creates our experience of a material world can obviously choose the physical constants, the characteristics of life, and everything else. Things are the way they are because God made them that way. Idealism isn’t always theistic, and some of the differences probably come down to how the choices are made. but I’m not very familiar with its categories. But because the theistic form is the most widely held—being the basis of many major religions—I’ll restrict our attention to it.
Because panpsychism also has consciousness built in from the start, the third fact is automatically explained. The first two are more difficult. If we say the bits of consciousness in everything choose the fundamental constants and the characteristics of life the way a human mind might, then we’ve reduced panpsychism to idealism. But if we don’t say that, we’re in something close to the materialist position.
Materialism has the toughest job of our three philosophies. It must explain all of the facts listed above. No conscious choice or action is allowable under the system, so what we see today had to flow—mechanically—out of the original design of the universe, which itself is understood to have come into being through mechanistic, non-intentional process.
In the next two sections we’ll look at the first two facts: cosmic fine tuning and life’s characteristics.

Cosmic Fine Tuning

To explain the finely tuned characteristics, many materialists believe some version of the following: Our universe is one of a vast number of universes, and it emerged according to pure chance. Because we could only have evolved in a universe with the correct parameters, we naturally see what looks like a finely tuned cosmos, even though the whole process was random. It doesn’t look random to us because we don’t see all those other universes. Those who hold this belief sometimes draw analogy with a lottery. With enough players, someone always wins, just by chance.
To its credit, the notion is powerful. If there are enough universes with enough different qualities, then the existence of a universe with the qualities of this one is inevitable.
As noted, Idealism has a ready explanation: God (or its equivalent) made the universe and chose its parameters.
What about panpsychism? How can it explain the tuning? If the consciousness present in all things could somehow make decisions, it might choose the parameters. But in that case it’s effectively the same as idealism. If the consciousness present in all things can’t make decisions, then it is present in everything without doing anything. It’s simply a witness. If this is true, panpsychism must borrow from materialist explanations to explain fine tuning.
There might be a middle ground. To see how, imagine what rudimentary consciousness might feel like. If matter is conscious down to its smallest quanta, then that very minimal consciousness might be little more than an impulse to move where the surrounding forces draw it. A key quality of conscious life forms, after the fact of their awareness, is response to surroundings. A bacterium—surely a rudimentary consciousness—moves around its environment with a bit of purpose. When it discerns a relevant gradient, it orients by it. If the gradient is of nutrients, the bacterium moves toward higher concentration; if it’s a gradient of toxins, the organism moves toward the lower concentration. A subatomic particle probably does even less. If it is conscious at all, it may just feel something like ease as it follows the forces around it. And a cosmos with lots of sentient particles might do something similar on a far vaster scale, following some vague or not-so-vague sense of orientation.
Personally, I like the idea of a sentient cosmos feeling its way through time. But the proposal, as stated so far, adds little to the materialist and idealist formulas. For how did the universe find its way?
Maybe it was lucky and happened by chance to generate complex life. If so, then we’d probably need innumerable universes in order for one (ours) to stumble upon life. This is no different than the standard mechanistic proposal, with the added—but mechanistically irrelevant—addition of sentience.
Or maybe the cosmic sentience was smart enough to plan ahead and imagine our universe and its lifeforms ahead of time, and then create with them in mind. If so, it’s hardly different from an omnipotent, designing God.
So you might wonder, why bother with panpsychism?

Cosmic Natural Selection

To begin to see why, it helps to add in natural selection. As is widely known, it was proposed as a theory of biological evolution. It has since found application elsewhere, including artificial intelligence.
First described by Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace, natural selection depends on three properties: 1. Diverse populations; 2. Uneven reproductive rates; 3. Transmission of traits from individuals to progeny. The idea is simple: some variants reproduce better than others and so contribute more progeny to later generations. And because traits are transmitted, traits of successful variants become more common as generations pass. Applied to human evolution, we envision higher intelligence increasing reproductive success in ancestral populations, which caused genes for higher intelligence to become more common.
For natural selection to operate at cosmic scale, we’d need a population of universes rather than just one, similar to what’s proposed by the mainstream materialist explanation for fine tuning. In addition, we’d also need diversity, a way for universes to reproduce, and a way for traits to be passed on to progeny. For example, we might imagine a population of universes with varying lifespans. Those that lived longer might be expected to leave more progeny. Over time, long-lived universes would become more common.
But how reasonable is to imagine universes reproducing and passing on traits? I’m aware of two proposed models that suggest how it could occur. I possess only vague understanding of these proposals, and since the details aren’t important for our discussion, I won’t try to describe them. Lee Smolin put forth one (he later expressed doubts about it), and Roger Penrose put forth the other. Both are highly accomplished physicists.
For our purposes, we need only note that it’s not completely outside the imagination of physicists for universes to occur diverse populations and be capable of reproducing and passing on traits. So it’s at least somewhat reasonable to imagine they undergo natural selection.

Life’s Complexity

Natural selection is a fascinating phenomenon. It’s often described as a random walk, where the endpoint is determined by contingency. On this planet we ended up with intelligent apes. There was no reason to expect such an outcome; it just happened according to blind chance and the process of natural selection.
But Cambridge paleontologist Simon Conway Morris points out that biological evolution does not appear utterly contingent and unrepeatable. It shows strong tendencies to follow certain paths. Rather than a random walk, it is a journey guided by so many inbuilt constraints that something like the world we see might be expected to evolve, undercutting the idea of blind randomness.
So the universe has repeating patterns for some reason. It creates complexity because complexity has favored reproduction. These observations are consistent with either materialism or panpsychism. But the first implies that reality is mindless and machine-like, whereas the second suggests it is mind-like. After all, an entity that is displays both consciousness and creativity is a mind, almost by definition.
To say reality is mind-like is not to say it’s human-like. For one thing, it does not appear to plan ahead. Despite the repeating patterns, the world we see has clearly resulted from quirks of circumstance. It doesn’t look like a preconceived design. For another, there’s little to suggest reality judges its creations. Those that endure and proliferate are often said to be ‘favored’ by natural selection. But they’re not favored because the cosmic art/ist likes them better, but simply because they manage to endure and proliferate. This is the essence natural selection.
Natural selection may be common in mind-like processes. Something like it is currently used to explain how thoughts compete for attention and how neural processes compete for territory. It’s also the basis for many computer algorithms used in artificial intelligence. If we think about it, we realize human creativity often operates by selection. We ‘brainstorm’ to generate ideas, only a few of which stand the test of time. The ones with potential are retained and revised in the next cycle of creation, while those that prove unworkable are soon forgotten. This is just like natural selection.
Look at the history of technological innovation, such as the progression that led to airplanes. Countless designs were proposed, many were constructed, but only one of the early prototypes (airfoil wings with lightweight motorized propulsion) worked well enough to feed into later cycles of imitation and improvement.
The history of flight shows that even human intelligence doesn’t plan all that far ahead. It gets us from one step to the next, but it seldom creates a near-optimal product in a single go. The Wright Brothers could not have designed a modern aircraft. They could only work from the rudimentary knowledge of their time and produce a prototype that managed stay airborne long enough (12 seconds) to motivate further refinement.
So the idea is that the cosmos can be envisioned as an art/ist only demands that it possess an inbuilt intelligence that responds moment-by-moment. The capacity to see the final outcome is something a designing God needs; a cosmis art/ist doesn’t. To me, proposing that the comsos might be mind-like in this sense doesn’t seem superstitious or impossible.
But that’s just me. Many mainstream scientists—as well as atheists and skeptics—would surely disagree. They would say the idea that consciousness is inherent in every bit of the cosmos belongs to science fiction. To their minds, anything mind-like requires something brain-like; it could only have evolved late in the game, as complex brains evolved.

Fuzzy Thinking

I must admit that my sense of how panpsychism works remains fuzzy. There are many aspects of it that are hard to imagine. In particular, how do all the bits communicate with one another? Would currently known channels of signal transmission (eg, light, sound waves, direct contact, etc) suffice? Or must other modes of communication be proposed, such as what’s sometimes referred to as paranormal or psi? These are big questions, but there are equally big questions associated with the usual assumptions of science. Like, how do insensate atoms manage to form highly sensate organisms?
Despite the fact that proven scientific theories would not be affected, atheists and skeptics are certain to decry the art/ist idea. It’s not an experimentally validated scientific hypothesis; it’s just a philosophy. But until materialism empirically demonstrates a material explanation for consciousness, it is open to the same critique.

Something Like God?

Conventionally religious people are unlikely to cotton to the version of panpsychism cobbled together here. After all, the cosmic art/ist is not God as normally conceived. It doesn’t plan ahead, and it doesn’t judge, condemn, or reward. It also doesn’t necessarily coalesce into a single ‘mind’. Nor is there a suggestion of an omniscient ‘being’.
Comparisons with our own nervous systems suggest that there could be a lot of sentience without a single ‘mind’ running the show. And just as our own consciousness doesn’t know everything that goes on in the body and the unconscious, sentience could be present in the whole universe without being omniscient.
Neuroscience shows the human brain to be comprised of regions that both cooperate and compete. Each has fluctuating levels of influence on the whole and none is in total control. There is no sign of a stable, enduing core of fixed identity. The Buddha and other experienced meditators likewise fail to find a core self; there is only a personal narrative cobbled together from a hodgepodge of memories, motives, and interpretations. Sure, our consciousness feels like its aware of all aspects of itself, but this is an illusion. I’m proposing something like this, at cosmic scale
The cosmic art/ist I’m proposing is a vast collection of particles, molecules, life forms, ecosystems, etc. These different aspects possess differing degrees of awareness ranging from rudimentary to highly advanced. There seems little reason to insist it must somehow coalesce into a unified omniscient consciousness.
Whether it does or doesn’t may depend on the the extent of cross-influence between aware elements. For example, consider how people on separate continents may begin with few shared ideas, but something powerful occurs when they plug into a global communication system and start collaborating. Suddenly, ideas are shared widely. Whether conscious entities can exchange information by mechanisms still in strong dispute (paranormal or psi channels) is not essential to the existence of a cosmic art/ist, but it may be vital to the possibility of that art/ist functioning as an all-knowing mind.
But for our purposes, we don’t need a single ‘mind’ or ‘being’, we just need pervasive sentience. It’s time to explain why.

Knowing the Cosmic Mind?

We probably can’t imagine the inward experience of the cosmic art/ist—whether all-knowing or not. After all, it’s a challenge to imagine what other people experience. But the fact we can’t imagine what it’s like to be a universe or a proton does not imply it isn’t like anything at all. This brings us back to Thomas Nigel and the bat, now applied at cosmic scale.
Panpsychism assumes pervasive sentience. There is no empirical proof of it. Why should we bother with it? Here are my main reasons:
  1. Assuming the presence of universal sentience in matter makes as much sense as assuming its absence. The assumption of absence predates the beginnings of the scientific method; in itself, it’s not ‘scientific’. It grew out of ancient religious ideas about seemingly ethereal consciousness and supposedly base material stuff. It is a view that probably would have seemed deluded to our hunter-gatherer ancestors, given how tribespeople almost universally believe every nature is sentient.
  1. It is consistent with both science and the mystical experiences that form the basis of most religions. As already stated, no scientific findings are inconsistent with it. As for mystical experiences, they are generally largely about feeling a vast, loving, intelligent, presence. Specific ideas about that presence seldom formulate during mystical experience; they’re constructed later, usually by non-mystics. And, consistent with theistic religion, panpsychism can accommodate an omniscient, omnipotent presence, like God (though it does not require one).
  1. It’s a straightforward way to feel loved by the world. It resolves a central dilemma: how to feel at ease in the midst of worldly difficulty. If the cosmos is pervasively sentient, then rather than being alone in my pain, I’m in a vast sea of awareness through which all pain and all joy flow. When I have faith in a panpsychic cosmic art/ist, I no longer feel alone. I feel myself held in relationship with a world that is ancient and aware. With the crucial ingredient of sentience, the universe known through science becomes an playfully generative awareness with for life. Anyone who finds this viewpoint convincing can reap some of the key benefits of religious belief without relying on scripture, mythology, or dogma.
  1. It would encourage us to take care of the world, not just because it provides resources, but because everything in it feels. Sure, it’s a stretch to imagine the pain of a mountain being dynamited, but we can imagine the pain of the animals that are injured and displaced. We can even feel the loss of beauty that results, as a loss to the whole world, not just our individual minds and hearts.
  1. It seems to me as reasonable as any other hypothesis offer, but it’s more nourishing than most.
For all these reasons, I choose to have faith in the sentience of all that’s around me. In fact, there’s more than faith at play. During my own mystical experiences, it feels true, even obvious. And because what I feel during those heightened times, I retain faith in a feeling world when Life feels more ordinary. And as that faith has deepened, I’ve begun to feel the sensitivity of everything around in my most grounded moments.
Experiencing the world in this way inspires greater attention to its wellbeing. We care about beings that feel, and—if we are ethical—we try to avoid causing them pain. When they support us, we care all the more. We may even begin to feel love for them. If nature feels, then we should avoid damaging her. We might also take more seriously our sense of being in relationship with her.

The Feel of Life

Leaving amateur philosophy behind, what does the cosmic art/ist feel like?
It feels like Life!
Imagine standing in a forest, or a meadow, or somewhere you’ve been that’s alive with the beauty and power of nature. You are in this landscape, so you are part of it. Your steps affect what lives beneath your feet. Meantime, you are breathing the same air as the plants and animals around you. The cells in your body, including your microbiome, are exchanging gases and chemicals with the environment. Your sensory systems are responding to nature’s physical and chemical messages, such as its scents, sights, and sounds. In a more general way, your embodied consciousness is resonating with the landscape’s beauty and power. Meantime, the life around you is resonating—reciprocally—with your presence. Nearby birds and rodents are watching warily. Insects are catching your scent and maybe moving toward it. This rich, textured experience is created by nature, but it’s also created by you.
The cosmic artwork is immersive, multi-dimensional, self-generative, and participatory. You are both its creation and its co-creator. In other words, you are both artwork and artist.
So what does the cosmic art/ist feel like? It feels like you!

Mindful, Biology, Mind, Matter

I’ll close by tying this together with Mindful Biology. There’s a double meaning in the name. One can be mindful of biology, but one can also see biology as full of mind. The point is that a mind is something we can relate to personally. In this sense (and others), mind-full biology reconciles scientific understanding with spiritual yearnings.
With all this said, the cosmic art/ist hypothesis is not central to Mindful Biology’s primary mission, which is to help us feel more familiar with and friendly toward our bodies. Go ahead and reject it if it’s incompatible with your cherished views, whether religious, scientific, or atheistic. You can still benefit from biology-based mindfulness. It doesn’t depend on a notion as logically unprovable as cosmic art/istry.