The Universe and Human Consciousness

Author: Raju Thomas

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‘The more I see, the less I know for sure’. This is a statement ascribed to John Lennon. This is very relevant today in an age of information explosion, with all kinds of information and knowledge about any subject one wishes to seek literally available at our fingertips on our phones and computers. But there are some areas where our knowledge is still incomplete, both in respect of our external and internal worlds- of the working of the universe and of the mind of a person. What do we really know about the universe, in which our earth is just a miniscule object? How vast is the universe? How many billions of galaxies exist in the universe? Is there any extra-terrestrial life? For all we know, there may be millions of earth like planets out there teeming with some forms of life. We really don’t know what all is going on at unimaginably distant corners of the universe, with distances being talked about in millions or billions of light years, a light year being the distance light covers at a speed of about 186,000 miles per second. Scientists have determined that the universe had its origin 13.7 billion years ago through a phenomenon known as Big Bang, and our earth came into existence about 4.6 billion years ago. Notwithstanding the various theories by which cosmologists explain the origin of the universe, it is beyond the comprehension of most people as to how something as infinitely big as the universe came out of nothingness. It has also been discovered that physical matter occupies less than 5% of the universe, the rest of the space being filled with what is called as dark matter and dark energy. Another question about the universe is whether it remains in a steady state condition or it is continuously expanding or changing its form in some manner.

Our concept of time and space also gets challenged when considering the working of the universe. Some of the perplexing questions for which there appears to be no simple answers are: What happened before the Big Bang? ; What is the expanding universe expanding into? It has also been discovered that there are a lot of ‘black holes’ in space which are swallowing up physical matter with their tremendous amounts of gravitational forces. Will these black holes one day swallow up the entire universe, and once again reduce the universe to nothingness? Such are the questions which continue to remain imponderable.

A quote ascribed to John Haldane (Possible Worlds) states that “The universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.” But it is not only the universe and our outer world which appears to be an enigma wrapped up in mysteries; our inner world of mental processes is no less mysterious. The reality that we perceive in our minds is a process that involves our consciousness. What do we really understand by consciousness or conscious awareness, and how is it related to the mind? And, how does the mind relate to the brain, a truly amazing device having about 96 billion neurons processing information in their neural circuits, much like an unsupervised, complex parallel processing computer. Is consciousness the result of the electro-chemical processes going at a molecular level in our brain cells? The thoughts and the decisions that we make are essentially the outcome of the mental processes going on mostly at a subconscious or unconscious level, and it is only after the decision is arrived at that we consciously become aware of it, within a fraction of a second, or even after a few seconds. In effect, as has been stated by somebody, we don’t actually make decisions, the decisions make us. This fact has also been scientifically established through brain mapping techniques, making it possible to actually see and bring to light unconscious cerebral processes in real time and with a high resolution. It is also possible, through these techniques, to read the thoughts, to some extent, of persons who are in an unconscious or a coma state.

The consciousness (arising out of cerebral processes?) is unique to each individual which makes the reality of the universe also a subjective experience. This is similar to what Quantum Theory says in respect of the state of a particle being subjective and observer dependent. While a lot of research goes on to understand the various mental processes at a conscious, subconscious, and unconscious levels, there has still been no clear understanding of the meaning of consciousness.

It is not only that the working of the universe and our mental processes remain mysterious, but they also seem to be related in some sense. Both space and time, which are the main attributes of the universe, and our consciousness are intangible entities. It has been shown by Quantum Theory that sub-atomic particles which are said to be ‘entangled’ can sense each other’s states instantly even if they are separated and located in different corners of the universe. Perhaps this sort of instant communication can take place between consciousness of individuals regardless of the distance separating them. As Physicist Andrei Linde of Stanford University says “The universe and the observer exist as a pair. I cannot imagine a consistent theory of the universe that ignores consciousness. I do not know any sense in which I could claim that the universe is here in the absence of observers.” It is only through our consciousness that we can try to unravel the secrets hidden in the universe. Perhaps this will forever remain a mystery. Socrates has very wisely said that “True knowledge exists in knowing that you know nothing“.

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