I recently came across an article that prompted me in several ways. The name of the article is “Is the Universe a conscious mind?” by Phillip Goff. The article, and the author’s book by extension, proposes a concept called “cosmopsychism”, which is a new twist on the idea that the Universe is living, conscious entity. True to its title, the article asks whether the Universe is fine tuned for life, and I saw that several of the propositions for establishing this concept as true have been addressed through Buddhist principles for quite some time. Please consider that I’m not attempting to refute or rebut what the article says. What I hope to establish, with my limited experience of Buddhism, is to fill in some gaps and perhaps extend the edges of understanding that the article admittedly contains.
The article attempts to explain our world by employing two diametrically opposed views, Theism and Multiverse, with the inherent problems of evil, self limitation, etc. I have found these to be virtual “rabbit holes” that one can debate ad infinitum with no tangible and helpful conclusion. As admitted, physics & science are descriptions, not explanations, of our life on earth. Indeed philosophy as we know it has the inherent limitation of not addressing, or not being able to address, the simple fact that we are. All these tools seek to say that we are something, or we came from somewhere, or that we are going somewhere else. However, we seem to not be able to rest with the simple concept that we are. Yes, it is as difficult as it is simple.
The article lists several statistical probabilities for the odds of life as we experience it to be nearly impossible. While the chances for assembling a balance in Nature as we know it today are admittedly minuscule, who is to deny that it is so? With all the knowledge, strength, and justification afforded to science, can it be that we are ready to consider that the miracle of life is a gift, a miracle that is in and of itself its own reason and cause for existing?
Buddhism, at its very core, revolves around three basic concepts. These were the first realizations of Buddha some 2500 years ago, and being in touch with these fundamental realities beyond making them mental concepts, dogma, or creed is the life and blood of true Buddhism. The first of these is that of interconnection, or that everything is connected. One of the ways I have heard Buddha’s original enlightenment described is that he realized “Life without exception is Life without limit“. What this comes down to is that the fundamental nature of every simple or complex aspect of our physical Universe is guided and driven by the same underlying Force or Spirit, whatever one should wish to call it. Yes, as the article states “It’s silly to say that atoms are entirely removed from mentality, then wonder where mentality comes from.” In order for these to exist and function as they do, they manifest with interconnection – not compartmentalization.
This is a difficult concept to grasp for westerners, with our dependence upon logical thought, the scientific process, and all that goes with it. However, for the person who pursues a reconciliation of life at large, particularly through meditative means, the thought process itself becomes a tool and not a container. Eventually, the seasoned practitioner of meditation must address not only the content of the thought process, but the mechanical fact of the thought process as well, grind as it may. The question will eventually turn to whether the thought process is a tool owned by the individual, or whether the individual is owned by their thoughts.
The article makes another statement that brings us directly to the door of another core Buddhist concept, dependent arising. As stated: “According to holism, the table in front of you does not derive its existence from the sub-atomic particles that compose it; rather, those sub-atomic particles derive their existence from the table. Ultimately, everything that exists derives its existence from the ultimate complex system: the Universe as a whole.”
Dependent arising means that any entity or action in the Universe is not without an accompanying entity or action. In order for anything to exist in our world of sense and perception, there must be an accompanying “something” by which to see, feel, touch, and perceive it. It’s an extension of interconnection, often manifest in opposites, that creates the rich web of life that we experience. It is not about Newtonian Physics, physical force and counter-force. It’s about the fact that nothing in our Universe can exist solely, distinctly, or alone by and of itself.
I’m wondering if, according to the article, we’re just figuring this out? Or are we just now acknowledging it? My point is that the concept has been around for quite some time. Just because science is finally coming to a realization of this universal principle doesn’t make it new or novel. Indeed, science & religion as we know them are western logical constructs, and will never reconcile by the same “wheel of rationalization” that creates them.
So, that brings us back to another of the central core Buddhist tenets. The second is that everything is in a constant state of change. No one can deny this. Physics defines it in terms of entropy. Incredibly, it’s a “one way trip”, and the course is irreversible. Yes, statistically speaking, the chances of the Universe assembling the present conditions for life on Earth are very, very small. And, inevitably, that will change. The real question is what are we going to do with it now, while we have it as it is? Hence, the third core Buddhist tenet:
Pay attention in the present moment. Watch the flow of life closely and carefully. One can see in the never ceasing flow of change that it is interconnected. There is a Universal, underlying Consciousness. And we don’t need to wait for acknowledgment from the limited facilities of science and religion to experience it.
I’ll close this post with a final thought, one called the Pale Blue Dot. If you look closely at this image, just to the right of and slightly below the center, in the light pink band, you’ll see a very small speck. That’s our planet, Earth, as photographed from the edge of our solar system. That’s our position in the grand scheme of the Universe. Here’s a quote from Carl Sagan, the man responsible for having the photo taken:
“We succeeded in taking that picture [from deep space], and, if you look at it, you see a dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever lived, lived out their lives. The aggregate of all our joys and sufferings, thousands of confident religions, ideologies and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilizations, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every hopeful child, every mother and father, every inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every superstar, every supreme leader, every saint and sinner in the history of our species, lived there on a mote of dust, suspended in a sunbeam.
“The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and in triumph they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of the dot on scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner of the dot. How frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light.
“Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity – in all this vastness – there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves. It is up to us. It’s been said that astronomy is a humbling, and I might add, a character-building experience. To my mind, there is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly and compassionately with one another and to preserve and cherish that pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”
— Carl Sagan, speech at Cornell University, October 13, 1994