Guest Blog: A Concious Universe?

Guest Blog: A Concious Universe?

Gerry Nordley

by G. David Nordley

In thinking about Stephen Friberg’s recent article on the compatibility of science and the existence of God, I asked myself, which came first, God or the “universe?”

The answer, of course, depends a great deal on what one means by “God” and to a somewhat lesser extent what one means by “the universe.”  The meaning of “first” could be discussed as well, but for this, I shall confine myself to a single space-time continuum and accept time as referring to a unidirectional progression of events.

I’ll note that if a sufficiently advanced intelligence could do time travel, they might be able to cause themselves; but that has too many other complicating implications for a short article! I’ll also note that Friberg wrote of “intelligence” (not God specifically) being fundamental to the universe, so I depart from that somewhat.

One can take the position that “God” is simply (!?) the set of physical laws and the space-time environment in which they operate. The beauty of that position is that one can say the U.S. Pledge of Allegiance, avoid arguments with true believers without being disingenuous, and not deal with labels like “atheist” or “agnostic”. This “God” is at least omnipotent and contains all knowledge, by simple application of set theory.

But when most people use the word “God,” they are envisioning a conscious being that interacts with us to some degree and has some conscious purpose which we should respect in some way. Most would assume this would be a “supernatural” being acting outside the limits of natural law and which is responsible for the existence of everything else; i.e., that an intelligent consciousness existed before the rest of the universe.

What I would like to point out here is that the universe and its laws may be able to evolve a conscious being, indistinguishable from what most people would call “God,” without a preexisting intelligence.

A strong case can, and has been, made for the high probability of intelligence developing from natural laws alone, given enough chances.  The argument for the natural evolution of intelligent life more than once has been made elsewhere. While certainty can be elusive, the universe is so large that “just once” becomes a very small probability.

Also, the conditions for the formation of habitable (by something) planets existed fairly early on in the history of the universe. The first round of supernovae crated plenty of the elements needed for worlds and in local concentrations that even exceed the average concentrations of such elements today; we have found worlds around a small percentage of stars nearly 14 billion years old with a concentration of such elements that is equal or greater than that of the Sun. Remember that, in the context of astronomical numbers, a small percentage is “billions and billions.”

We can then go to Carl Sagan’s view that we (and his “we” can refer to any species with the intelligence and inclination to study its surroundings) may be how the universe becomes conscious. Allowing for a few billion years of evolution, this may have happened as early as, say, ten billion years ago.

Add to that Clarke’s law about any sufficiently advanced technology being indistinguishable from magic—and with billions of years to play with, I think “sufficiently advanced” would apply—you can get civilizations with essentially Godlike abilities to manipulate the physical universe and plenty of time to spread through it at whatever density it thought would be appropriate.

One could call that a conscious universe.

Then, if one is worried about how lightspeed limitations affect the scope and reach of such a conscious universe, one can go to Ben Franklin’s 1726 essay (I’ve appended a copy below). Franklin was writing at a time in history not too long after the first crude measurements of the speed of light (Ole Roemer, 1676) and the distance to other stars (Huygens, 1698). While one might smile at language like the “Supremely Perfect,” remember the power of the religious right of his era, and his solution to the problem of distance with respect to a universal consciousness is a reasonable one.

Put this altogether and one can understand why, while not having had any personal communication with ETI (natural or otherwise), I do not call myself an atheist. I’m aware of possibilities.

Articles of Belief and Acts of Religion
by Benjamin Franklin

I believe that there is one supreme most perfect Being, author and father of the Gods themselves.  For I believe that man is not the most perfect being but one, rather that as there are many degrees of beings his inferiors so there are many degrees of being superior to him.

Also, when I stretch my imagination through and beyond our system of planets, beyond the visible fixed stars themselves into that space that is every way infinite, and conceive it filled with suns like ours, each with a chorus of worlds forever moving around him, then this little ball on which we move seems, even in my narrow imagination, to be almost nothing, and myself less than nothing and of no sort of consequence.

When I think thus, I imagine it great vanity in me to suppose that the Supremely Perfect does in the least regard such an inconsiderable nothing as man.  More, especially, since it is impossible for me to have a positive clear idea of that which is infinite and incomprehensible, I cannot conceive otherwise than that he, the Infinite Father, expects or requires no worship or praise from us, but that he is even infinitely above it.

But, since there is in all men something like a natural principle, which inclines them to devotion, or the worship of some unseen power;

And since men are endued with reason superior to all other animals that we are in our world acquainted with;

Therefore I think that it seems required of me, and my duty as a man, to pay divine regards to Something.

I conceive, then, that the Infinite has created many beings or Gods, vastly superior to man who can better conceive his perfections than we, and return him a more rational and glorious praise.

As, among men, the praise of the ignorant or of children is not regarded by the ingenious painter or architect, who is rather honored and pleased with the approbation of wise men and artists.

It may be that those created gods are immortal; or it may be that after many ages, they are changed and others supply their places.

Howbeit, I conceive that each of them is exceeding wise and good, and very powerful; and that each has made for himself one glorious sun, attended with a beautiful and admirable system of planets.

It is that particular wise and good God who is the author and owner of our system that I propose for the object of my praise and adoration.

For I conceive that he has in himself some of those passions he has planted in us and that, since he has given us reason whereby we are capable of observing his wisdom in the creation, he is not above caring for us, being please with our praise and offend when we slight him or neglect his glory.

I conceive for many reasons that he is a good Being; and as I should be happy to have so wise, good, and powerful a Being my friend, let me consider in what manner I shall make myself most acceptable to him.

Next to the praise resulting from and due to his wisdom, I believe he is pleased and delights in the happiness of those he has created; and since without virtue man can have no happiness in this world, I firmly believe he delights to see me virtuous, because he is pleased when he sees me happy.

And since he has created many things which seem purely designed for the delight of man, I believe he is not offended when he sees his children solace themselves in any manner of pleasant exercises and innocent delights; and I think no pleasure innocent that is to man hurtful.

I love him therefore for his goodness and adore him for his wisdom.

Let me then not fail to praise my God continually, for it is his due and it is all I can return for his many favors and great goodness to me; and let me resolve to be virtuous, that I may be happy, that I may please him, who is delighted to see me happy.  Amen!

(written 1728, published posthumously in 1818, this version found in:
A Treasury of American Literature Vol. I.,  Davis, Frederick and Mott, Spencer Press, Chicago 1948.)


Gerry Nordley is a science fiction writer frequently published in ANALOG. When he’s not writing, he consults in astronautical engineering, dabbles in real estate, sings in the choir of the Unitarian Universalist Church in Livermore and is the treasurer of CONTACT, Cultures of the Imagination, an interdisciplinary educational group concerned with issues related to the development of intelligent life–from raw planets to expansion into space. He is a fellow of the British Interplanetary Society; senior member of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, a signatory of the Invitation to ETI, and a life member of the Science Fiction Writers of America. He lives in Sunnyvale CA with his wife, Gayle Wiesner, a retired Apple Computer programmer.

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One thought on “Guest Blog: A Concious Universe?

  1. Garry, thanks very much for article!

    I think both of us see consciousness and intelligence as potentially there all along, “built-in” to the laws of nature. Their light “pops on” after an adequate development time.

    So the question, isn’t it, is a question of semantics. Is intelligence real from the time the laws of nature come into being, or is it real only from the time it that it manifests itself attached to a physically evolved brain?

    If we ask the question in the context of science, it looks as if the answer is that it is real, although there are caveats.

    For example, Einstein described the process of stimulated emission of photons in 1917 or 1918 (I forget which), meaning that anyone who understood the physics would know it was possible to build a laser.

    Was the existence of lasers then potential or real?

    Interestingly, we now have identified interstellar lasers, meaning that lasers existed long before we recognized their possibility. For this, and for the reason that a core component of science is its predictive value about what is possible, and because things like potential (potential energy, for instance) are core concepts in physics, essential to modern theory, I think we have to take “potentially exists” as equivalent to “ultimately exists”. In other words, given he laws of nature, and given suitable evolutionary processes, intelligence will “flash” on from a suitable material configuration.

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