Consciousness in the Cosmos: Part II – The Evidence of Consciousness in the Cosmos


(By Ervin Laszlo)

This article first appeared in Watkins Mind Body Spirit – Issue 40 (Autumn 2014).


This article first appeared in Watkins Mind Body Spirit – Issue 40 (Autumn 2014)

In the first of this mini-series on consciousness in the cosmos, I suggested that there is a newer and more adequate concept of consciousness than the standard “turbine theory” (which claims that consciousness is generated by the brain) and even than the more advanced “cloud” theory (where our individual consciousness is said to be linked to a cloud-computing information system in nature that “saves” and integrates its principal elements). The more adequate third concept is that our individual consciousness is part of the consciousness that pervades the cosmos.[1] The question I take up here is whether we can find credible traces of the presence of consciousness in the world. This is basically the same question as that regarding the manifest existence of God, Brahman, or whatever spirit or intelligence we envisage in the world. It can be re-considered today in light of scientific evidence—evidence that was not available until recently.

What would be credible traces of consciousness in the cosmos? I suggest that these would concern the order that characterizes the structure and the evolution of the universe, the largest entity science can discover in the cosmos. If the observed universe is “in-formed” by a mind, spirit or consciousness, the kind of order it discloses is not random and transient. It is an embracing order exhibited both in the way the universe is, and in the way it becomes. This kind of order would be evidence that the universe is not a casual assembly of its diverse elements but has features we associate with conscious will and purpose.

Order in the Universe

It is prima facie evident that the universe is not a random assembly of things and processes. But it is not clear how embracing is the order that characterizes it. We are aware of a great variety of processes, but many of them could be temporary, transient, and local. This kind of order would not furnish evidence that the universe is in-formed by anything we could consider a consciousness. The significant kind of order would be one where the things that exist have non-random, enduring, and embracing relations to each other.

When things have non-random, enduring, and embracing relations to each other they are parts of a larger whole: a system of multiple parts. If such a system exists and persists, it possesses some degree of coherence. It has minimal coherence when the relation among the parts is partly random and the system has elements of chaos. It is fully coherent, when all the parts are systematically and enduringly related to all other parts. Then what happens to one part happens to the other parts and hence to the whole system. And conversely, whatever happens to the whole system happens to each of its parts.[2]

It is highly improbable that the universe would be a fully coherent system. Yet elements of order may underlie even apparent disorder. Coherence could be the basic orientation: the dominant “attractor.” This would be an indication that the universe is affected by some kind of will and purpose—it is not the prey of chance.

Coherence in the physical universe

There is clear and meaningful evidence that the order that characterizes the structure of the universe is non-random, enduring and embracing. This kind of order appears in two principal forms. It appears as numerical coincidences among the basic parameters of the universe; and as the harmonization or fine-tuning of its physical constants.

Ervin Laszlo

Ervin Laszlo

— Numerical coincidences. The mass of elementary particles, the number of particles, and the forces that exist between them exhibit recurrent ratios. Already in the 1930s Arthur Eddington and Paul Dirac remarked that the ratio of the electric force to the gravitational force is approximately 1040, and the ratio of the observable size of the universe to the size of elementary particles is likewise about 1040. This is surprising, since the ratio of the electric force to the gravitational force should be unchanging (these forces are assumed to be constant), whereas the ratio of the size of the universe to the size of elementary particles should be changing (since the universe is expanding). In his “large number hypothesis,” Dirac speculated that the agreement of these ratios, the one variable, the other not, is more than a coincidence and is not temporary. But if the coincidence is not temporary, either the universe is not expanding or the force of gravitation varies proportionately to its expansion.

Additional coincidences concern the ratio of elementary particles to the Planck-length (which is 1020) and the number of nucleons in the universe (“Eddington’s number” which is estimated at 2 x 1079). These are very large numbers, yet harmonic numbers can be constructed from them. Eddington’s number, for example, is close to the square of 1040.

There are further numerical coincidences. Observations indicate that the cosmic microwave background radiation is dominated by a large peak followed by smaller harmonic peaks. The series ends at the longest wavelength, which Smolins termed R. When R is divided by the speed of light we obtain a measure of time that agrees with the age of the universe. When the speed of light is divided by R, we get a frequency that equates to one cycle over the age of the universe. And when we square and divide the speed of light by R (c2/R) we get a measure of acceleration in the expansion of the galaxies that corresponds to the actually observed value.

Cosmologist Menas Kafatos showed that many of the coincidences can be interpreted on the one hand in terms of the relationship between the masses of elementary particles and the total number of nucleons in the universe, and on the other in terms of the relationship between the gravitational constant, the charge of the electron, Planck’s constant, and the speed of light. Scale-invariant relationships appear. The physical parameters of the universe turn out to be proportional to its overall dimensions.[3]

—The fine-tuning of the universal constants. The universe proves to be surprisingly coherent also in regard to the constants that define its physical processes. This coherence involves more than thirty factors and it is of staggering precision. If, for example, the expansion rate of the early universe had been one-billionth less than it was, the universe would have re-collapsed almost immediately; if it had been one-billionth more, it would have flown apart so fast that it could produce only dilute, cold gases. A similarly minute difference in the strength of the electromagnetic field relative to the gravitational field would have prevented the existence of hot and stable stars like the Sun, and hence the evolution of life on planets that can physically support life. If the difference between the mass of the neutron and the proton were not precisely twice the mass of the electron, no substantial chemical reactions could take place, and if the electric charge of electrons and protons did not balance precisely, all configurations of matter would be unstable and the universe would consist merely of radiation and a nearly uniform mixture of gases.

That the universe is such as we find it—and it is such that living beings like us can exist in it—is owing also to another series of “coincidences.” The existence of particles we can call “matter” is due to a remarkable, and on first sight unlikely condition known as “CP violation” (where C is “charge conjugation” and P is “parity inversion”—the kind of inversion produced by reflection in a mirror). Given that the universe was born in a cosmic explosion and subsequent inflation, it should contain equal numbers of particles and antiparticles: matter and antimatter. But if that would have been the case, the particles and antiparticles would have annihilated each other and space would be empty—at any rate free of anything we could call matter. But because there has not been parity between the particles of matter and anti-matter that survived the initial chaos, there is a surplus of matter in the universe. This surplus forms the atoms of the elements that then condensed into stars, stellar systems, and galaxies. It now also forms the substance of our bodies.

The above “coincidences” have no explanation in cosmological physics, the natural science of the universe.

Coherence in the domains of life

The universe proves to be astonishingly coherent, with laws and processes precisely tuned to favor the emergence of the complex systems we call living. We now look at the coherence that characterizes these systems themselves.

We know that the domain of the smallest observable entities that persist in space and time—the domain of the quantum—is highly, indeed quasi totally, coherent. Every particle is connected with, and responds to, every other particle. This phenomenon is called entanglement. It was believed that it only exists at the microscale at very low temperatures: higher levels of size and temperature create decoherence. However, this is not the case. Complex molecules, cells, and even living organisms exhibit quantum-type processes. This was first demonstrated by physicists Eric Cornell, Wolfgang Ketterle, and Carl E. Wieman who received the 1995 Nobel Prize for their discovery. They showed that under certain conditions particles and atoms—they tested rubidium and sodium atoms—interpenetrate as waves.

In 1999 the atoms of a heavy isotope of carbon (“buckminsterfullerene”) were shown to be capable of entanglement: these atoms exhibit wave in addition to corpuscular properties. By 2005 also complex organic molecules could be entangled, and in 2007 biophysicists Gregory Engel and collaborators reported that quantum-type coherence is present in green sulphur bacteria: it acts as an energy “wire” that connects the light-harvesting chromosome to the bacterial reaction center. This allows living organisms to evolve through photosynthesis, converting the energy of the Sun to counterbalance the tendency of biophysical systems to tend toward thermal and chemical equilibrium.

Complex organisms could not have evolved on this planet and could not persist in the absence of a quantum-type of order. The human body, for example, consists of 1014 cells, and each cell produces 10,000 bio-electro-chemical reactions every second. For a human organism to maintain itself in its environment these reactions must be constantly and precisely correlated. A viable organism is extraordinarily coherent, with all its molecules, cells and organs multidimensionally, dynamically, and in some cases instantly correlated with all its other parts. Such coherence could only have come about, and could only be maintained, through the intrinsic, quasi-instant correlations we find in the quantum domain.

The coherence created by quantum-level correlations in organisms is not limited to the organisms themselves: it obtains also among organisms. A multi-species ecology is a complex system of which the coherence is assured by multidimensional and multiscale correlations among its elements. Each element is constantly “tuned” to all the other elements and jointly maintains the system in its physical and ecological environment. Without this kind of constant and active interconnection between the domains of coherence in the organism and the domain of coherence in the biosphere life would not be possible, and neither organic nor multiorganic systems could exist on the planet.

The evolution of complex forms of life in the biosphere is a clear indication of the coherence of living species with their environment. The genetic makeup of even a relatively simple organism is so complex, and its “fit” to the milieu so delicate, that in the absence of a significant level of coherence between the genetic and epigenetic system that defines and governs the structure of the organism and the information that defines and governs its environment no organism could sustain itself, and if threatened with extinction none could mutate into a viable system. Random mutations would not be enough: the search-space of possible mutations is so high that the probability that viable species would result from a random re-arrangement of the gene pool of a species is insignificant. Mathematical physicist Fred Hoyle remarked that this probability is about the same as that of a working airplane being assembled by a hurricane that blows through a scrapyard.

The evolution of complex species is due to the fact that, contrary to the classical Darwinian tenet, the genome of a species—the information expressed in the living organism—is not isolated from its phenome—the living organism itself. Genome and phenome constitute an integral system that is coherent with its milieu. Thus genetic mutations are not random: they are tuned to conditions in the system’s environment. That there are humans on Earth and not just bacteria and blue-green algae is due in the final count to an embracing and ongoing “dance” between genes, species, populations, and the web of life on the planet.

Order in Evolution

The universe, we have seen, the same as the domain of life, is astonishingly coherent. This coherence applies to the structure of the universe the way it is. Does it also apply to the way the universe becomes?

Ever since the 1920s, when the Friedman equations that decode the dynamic structure of the universe proved unstable, cosmologists realized that the universe changes over time. It evolves from the initial explosion known as the Big Bang to the state we observe today. And it will most likely continue to evolve, either expanding infinitely in cosmic space, or reversing in finite time to its initial quantum-state. Following this Big Crunch it could give birth to another universe, with explosive birthing followed by inflation and expansion issuing in contraction. This process could repeat, perhaps infinitely.

We are not concerned here with the evolution of the macrostructures of the universe, only with the evolution of the order in these macrostructures. If we find an order underlying the processes of evolution on our planet, we would have an indication that whatever intelligence creates order in the universe, also creates order in its evolution.

We have seen that order in the way the universe is, is mind-boggling. Things and events are part of a network of coherent relationships that extends from one end of the universe to the other, from the domain of quantum particles to the highest reaches of biological evolution. The question is, whether—at least on this planet—order extends also to the way these relationships unfold over time.

There are myriad processes under way each and every second throughout space and time, and they include everything from interaction between protons and electrons in hydrogen atoms to the collapse of superdense stars and their “evaporation” in black holes. Is there a discernible trend disclosed in these processes? Let us consider the order represented by the emergence of life on our home planet.

The evolution of life is a major novelty in the universe. It is not clear, however, whether it constitutes a universal trend or is a local and accidental development. We know that the evolution of life in the universe is highly improbable. Physical processes tend to run downwards toward entropy and not upwards, toward structures that conserve and process energy. Could it be that the evolution of life on Earth is just an instance of stupendous serendipity?

Until the dawn of the 21st century this was the prevalent view. Life is an anomaly in the universe, a chance occurrence due to an improbable coincidence of the thermal and chemical conditions required for it. Because for life to appear not only the basic constants and parameters of the universe need to be finely tuned, also a further set of conditions must be on hand. There must be a planet with the correct mass at the right distance from a main sequence G2 dwarf star; the planet needs to occupy a nearly circular orbit; it must have an oxygen/nitrogen rich atmosphere, a large moon and a moderate rate of rotation. It must be at the right distance from the center of the galaxy and have liquid water on its surface, and must have a correct ratio between water and land-mass. Last but not least, the planet must be protected from asteroids by giant gas planets in the local solar system.

The latest findings suggest that the emergence of life is not entirely dependent on the statistically improbable confluence of these conditions. It seems that life evolves in the universe wherever conditions permit, and these conditions are not as rare as it was thought. More and more planets with life-sustaining properties similar to Earth have been found in our part of the galaxy, and we have no reason to assume that they would not be present in other parts and in other galaxies as well. Moreover there is observational evidence that molecular structures essential for life come about not only on planets with a rare combination of thermal and chemical conditions, but under a much wider range of conditions. Organic macromolecules have been discovered even in the vicinity of active stars.

That complex molecules could be synthesized near active stars was considered not only improbable but impossible. This was contradicted by the finding of a team of astrophysicists headed by Sun Kwok and Yong Zhang at the University of Hong Kong in 2011.[2] They found some 130 organic macromolecules in the vicinity of active stars, including glycine, an amino acid, and ethylene glycol, the compound associated with the formation of the sugar molecules necessary for life. It appears that these compounds are produced in processes of stellar evolution. If so, life is not an improbable and rare event in the universe, but part of the physical-chemical evolution of stars, its prevalent macrostructures.

On first sight life appears to be radically different from the physical and physical-chemical systems that are its foundation, yet on a closer look there is continuity in this evolution. We have noted that quanta have a distinct and high level of coherence: they are precisely and universally interconnected. In living systems this connectivity is more articulate than in physical and physical-chemical systems. In general, the more complex the system, the higher is the coherence among its parts, and hence the more precise and sensitive is their interconnection.

With the emergence of life on Earth a further stage has been reached in the unfolding of the trend toward sensitive interconnection. The new stage can be defined as marking the emergence of what we can consider a form of perception. We shall use the term put forward by Alfred North Whitehead: “prehension.” Whitehead said that all things—all “actual entities”—“prehend” all other actual entities. Interconnection among parts in a system constitutes a form of reciprocal “prehension” among them. It does not call for sensory organs and a nervous system: it is an expression of the coherence of parts within a system.

Coherent interconnection within and among systems has been growing throughout the time and scale of evolution. Even bacteria show “irritability” in regard to stimuli reaching them in their environment, and progressively more complex species articulate this elemental sensitivity to higher and higher levels. We know that organisms with a nervous system have a highly differentiated and articulate sensitivity to the world around them. It appears that the basic form of this sensitivity—the prehension of parts within systems, and of systems within higher level systems—does not require sense organs and a nervous system.

“Primary perception,” a basic form of prehension, surfaces throughout the realms of life. As noted in my previous article (The Third Concept of Consciousness) it is manifested already in plants. Because it exists in organisms with a nervous system, complex organisms have not one but two modes of prehending the world: one is through their nervous system, and the other through the coherence created by the resonance of their quantum-level structures with quantum fields. The latter is not the sixth but the first sense: it is the expression of the prehension—the basic perception—that appears throughout the range of evolution.

Perception beyond the range of the senses was known to and used by traditional peoples. Anthropologist Robert Lawlor noted that the aborigines of Australia enter the state of consciousness they call “Dreaming” and in that state they are in touch with their ancestors as well as with fellow tribespeople. In Africa entire clans are known to remain in touch even when roaming far from their homestead. Such “extrasensory perception” is available also to modern people: this has been demonstrated in numerous experiments following the pioneering work of Russell Targ and Harold Puthoff in the 1970s.[3]

Carl Jung was fascinated with this seemingly esoteric aspect of the human mind. He compared unconscious processes in individuals with the myths, legends and folktales of a variety of cultures and found that the recollection of individuals and the collective material contain common elements. These, he said, make up humankind’s “collective unconscious.”

The Immortal Mind

THE IMMORTAL MIND: Science and the Continuity of Consciousness beyond the Brain by Ervin Laszlo with Anthony Peake, published by Inner Traditions, Paperback (224 pages).

It is time to come to the bottom line. There is a consistent and continuous trend unfolding in the universe. It began with the birth of the universe some 13.8 billion years ago and continues to this day. Astrophysics and evolutionary cosmology tell us that in the history of the universe its macrostructures have evolved from swirls of gases to proto-stars and nebulae, to galaxies and the metagalaxy. The life sciences find that on Earth the molecules that make up the matter-content of the forms of life that emerged in primeval seas four billion years ago evolved in time into more and more complex systems. The capacity for the basic kind of perception we call prehension has been growing throughout evolution. Despite temporary fallbacks and reversals and periods of seeming stasis, relations among the parts of the systems as well as relations among the systems themselves became more and more fine-tuned. First entanglement, then basic irritability, then primary perception, and then articulate perception appear. The trend is toward more sensitive and coherent connection within parts in coherent systems, and within the systems themselves. On Earth it has lead from entangled quantum-reactivity to biological irritability, to primary perception, to articulate perception, and then to the complex and differentiated partly conscious and partly subconscious perception that appears in human beings.

Order in the world is not random and transient: it is embracing and enduring. There is coherence and connection in the physical domain of the universe as well as in its living domain. A trend toward coherence and connection is evident in both. The trend culminates on Earth in the articulated and differentiated perception manifested in our species.

The meaning of this trend for our life is the subject of the next article. Here I conclude that there are credible traces of the presence of conciousness in the cosmos. Order in the way the universe is, and in the way it becomes, is evidence that the world is not random and meaningless. It has traces that indicate the presence of will and purpose: of a cosmic logos, mind, or consciousness.

Meet the Author: Ervin Laszlo is a systems scientist, integral theorist, and classical pianist. Twice nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, he has authored more than 75 books and published over 400 articles and research papers. He is the founder and president of the international think tank the Club of Budapest as well as of the Ervin Laszlo Center for Advanced Study. He lives in Tuscany. www.ervinlaszlo.com

This is the second part of a three-part series. Here you can read Part I.


[1] The Third Concept of Consciousness. Watkins Mind Body Spirit magazine, vol. 39 (August 2014).

[2] In physics, coherence in a system is described as the harmonization of the phase of the oscillations that characterize its parts. In a fully coherent system the oscillations of all the parts are in phase.

[3] Kafatos, Menas, The Nonlocal Universe: the New Physics and Matters of the Mind. Oxford University Press, 2001.

[4] Kwok, Sun, Organic Matter in the Universe. Wiley, 2011.

[5] Targ, Russell & Puthoff, Harold, Mind-Reach: Positive Proof that ESP Exists. Paladin, 1978.

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