May 22, 2009
From V.V. Raman, emeritus professor of physics and humanities at the Rochester Institute of Technology:
The question by itself is incomplete, for it is important to specify: fundamental to what, and in what sense.
The word “fundamental” pertains to that which is at the basis of something and is essential for its existence. Thus, carbon is fundamental to life, love and relationships are fundamental to sanity, and nuclear fusion is fundamental to stars. So it is important to state for what something is fundamental.
From all that we know about our universe in the framework of current physics, consciousness is not fundamental to the existence of the physical universe. That is to say, the physical universe was there, is there, and will be there whether or not it incorporates consciousness in it. There can be rocks and pure water, sand and nitrogen, and cosmic dust: The universe at large will exist without any consciousness.
On the other hand, in the framework of religion, consciousness (humankind) is what the universe was created for. God made man in his image in the Judeo-Christian framework, and Purusha (consciousness) was primary in Hindu cosmogony. Many venerate and worship a Cosmic Consciousness, variously named and described.
This is an important difference between science and religion: For science, consciousness is an epiphenomenon associated with some brains that happen to have evolved in an insignificant niche in the universe during the past couple of million years—in an indifferent universe whose history stretches back to well over 10 billion years. For most religions, consciousness is supremely central to the universe, the heart of the universe, as it were.
It is important in this context to recognize that, as conscious beings, our experiences are rich and unique: We taste and smell, feel softness, enjoy music, and perceive color. These, as far as we know, are not explicit in the physical universe, but emerge from the interaction of physical processes and entities with the extraordinarily complex human brain (itself, as far as we can tell, a purely physical entity). Furthermore, we also love and hate, engage in ideas and values, speak of truth and commitment, are involved with mathematics and science, and enthralled by beauty. None of this would be possible without consciousness. It is therefore fair to say that consciousness is fundamental to the experience of a good many intangible aspects of the universe.
One may ask: Can there be an inverse square law in mathematical terms without consciousness? Are the numbers e and pi in the universe, or are they merely in the human mind? Can the elliptic orbits of planets ever be recognized as such without consciousness? Whether these are mere creations of the human mind or are aspects of the universe that become manifest only through consciousness is a valid question.
If the latter is the case, then it is fair to say that consciousness is fundamental to the full expression of the physical universe, just as an audience is fundamental to an enacted play. If the world is a sonnet that happened by chance, consciousness is the reader without whom that sonnet would forever remain in a dark abysmal depth. In this sense, the emergence of consciousness was as important an event in cosmic history as its natal big bang.
V.V. Raman appears with David Chalmers, John Searle, Marilyn Schlitz, Paul Davies, and Andrei Linde in “Is Consciousness Fundamental?” the 37th episode in the Closer to Truth: Cosmos, Consciousness, God TV series. The series airs on PBS World (often Thursdays, twice) and many other PBS and noncommercial stations. Every Friday, participants discuss a recent episode.