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Consciousness In The Cosmos: Perspective of Mind: Eric Chaisson

This posting will consider some of the ideas of Eric Chaisson, who is an astrophysicist currently on faculty at Tufts University. Previously he served as senior scientist and division head at the Space Telescope Science Institute of Johns Hopkins University and was also affiliated with the Harvard- Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory.

Over the past decade or more Chaisson has published several books that present his theories of cosmic evolution. He has broken down this cosmic evolution into "eras," such as the Energy and Matter Eras and, now, the present Life Era. It is within this Life Era that "Mind" has emerged.

For Chaisson this emergence of Mind is a central question. He wonders how the "neural network within human beings" has led to the founding of not only societies--but to the development of technologies, of cathedrals, of philosophies. For Chaisson, one has to return to the issue of thermodynamics.

Chaisson believes that the very expansion of the Universe generates *information.* But for information to occur, there has to rise an order out of chaos. In the very earliest moments of the Universe, it seemed chaos reigned. But within a few next moments equilibrium occured, allowing neutral atoms to move into a re-combination phase--a phase of some half-million years that allowed energy and matter to couple.

Earlier the state of disorder, chaos, in the Universe allowed for a maximum entropy and equilibrium was destroyed because of the then de-coupling of energy and matter. But eventually the very expansion of the Universe resulted in a transfer from the Energy Era into the Matter Era, a time when it became manifest in galaxies, stars, planets. Chaisson believes this cosmic evolution into the Matter Era was a result of information that "drives order from chaos."

Chaisson realizes that this information behind manifestation in the Universe has barely begun to be deciphered. But, he states that "we can now identify the essence of the development of natural macroscopic systems--ordered physical structures able to assimilate and maintain information by means of local reductions in entropy--in a Universe that was previously unstructured in the extreme." [Eric Chaisson, THE LIFE ERA: COSMIC SELECTION AND CONSCIOUS EVOLUTION, W.W. Norton Company, 1987, p. 167.]

Moving from a thermodynamic equilibrium towards an increasing "negentropy" (macroscopic information), the Universe began to give rise to complexity--albeit in a gross fashion during the Matter Era-- according to Chaisson. Now it is this negentropy (information) that led the way towards generating considerable amounts of order into the Life Era. For Chaisson this negentropy was necessary to "justify the emergence of structures as complex as a single cell, let alone the neural architecture of the human brain." [Ibid, p. 167.]

It is out of this new reign of the Life Era that Mind has emerged. Chaisson is not just considering Mind anthropocentrically, but rather that special ability that came forth through the evolutionary changes that produced "particles, galaxies, stars, planets, biochemicals, lives, and cultures."

Finally Mind has reached a level when, as Chaisson puts it, "we have become smart enough to reflect back upon the material contents that gave us life." Chaisson believes the future holds eventually the evolution of "globally conscious life forms." [Ibid, pp. 175, 201.]

For Chaisson, cosmic evolution has reached the point where life is contemplating life. Here we are with a "remarkable cluster of star-stuff" embodied in our human brain--and we have reached this point of life reflecting upon life. Chaisson believes that now as we probe our origins, we will also probe our destiny. For him, this eventually will result not only in our own further planetary exploration, but the continuation for the search of extraterrestrial life. And always, for Chaisson, the constant quest for new knowledge.

Eric Chaisson also has constructed a spiritual philosophy from his scientific work. Above all, he strongly believes that we must come to a mindset that stresses we are citizens of our planet. "Cosmic evolution" is his credo, because he believes it gives our lives meaning and significance. For him cosmic evolution is our *raison d'etre.* We (as Mind) are "to act as an animated conduit for the Universe's self-reflection." [Eric Chaisson, "Credo: Our Cosmic Heritage," ZYGON, vol. 23, no. 4, December 1988, p. 478.]

Drawing upon Paul Tillich's religious awe of the majestic ultimate, of the abyss (the Ground of Being), Chaisson thinks that we, too, the "children of the Universe" are "awesome, majestic, ultimate, indeed" as we continue to glean and prompt order out of the chaos. [Ibid, pp. 478-479]

Chaisson's ideas need some further commentary. First off, Chaisson puts considerable import on the deriving of order from chaos that makes cosmic evolution possible. In a sense, he is echoing Alfred North Whitehead's earlier observation that any creative advance "takes place only along the borders of chaos."

From the relatively new field of chaos theory, there is now a better understanding of cosmic order--particularly in non-linear dynamical systems, which are the explicate subsystems of the cosmos.

Now within these non-linear subsystems, chaos crouches in every detail--and it is non-linear reactions of chaos and interaction at critical junctures that produce spontaneous self-organizing forms. Let us look at a imaginary mirror of chaos. "On one side of the mirror, [an] orderly system falls victim to an attracting chaos; on the other, the chaotic system discovers the potentiality in its interactions for an attracting order." [John Briggs and F. David Peat, TURBULENT MIRROR, Harper Row, 1989. pp. 62, 127.]

What seems to happen is that a kind of order is discovered as feedback (iteration after iteration) goes on as chaos moves through a system's movement. Intermittency enters the picture, and out of chaos is discovered the very iterations for producing order.

"Chaos" theory is a misnomer--it's really about achieving order out from chaos. It shows, as Peat puts it, that essentially "a system's simple orders and its chaos [are] both features of one individible process." [Ibid, p. 74]

So it seems the potential for order or for chaos are built into the Cosmic System and all its subsystems--including us. That's hardly telling us anything new. :)

But what chaos theory does tell us is how the Cosmos and we *create.* Chaos is necessary for order! We go through periods or levels of chaos, and (if we are fortunate) we move away from that path and rise to a higher level of order. This is called "bifurcation" by the scientists. This cyclic process is ever continuing, with chaos forcing us to generate ever higher levels of order--hence the potential for cosmic (and even individual) evolution.

Of course there's always the opposite (or negative) side of a mirror. Sometimes chaos wins the day, a subsystem (or a person or society) succumbs to the turmoil and turbulence of chaos. History can attest to this. On the other hand, precious order can not be allowed to remain stagnant. We have to engage in that intermittency of chaos and order in order to evolve to higher levels of creativity and being. If we don't, we would be aiming towards total equilibrium--which, according to scientists, equates with death.

Now what does this have to do with the emergence of Mind? Everything, for Chaisson! By generating order from the chaos, cosmic evolution proceeds--"linking the evolution of primal energy into elementary particles, the evolution of those particles into atoms, in turn of those atoms into galaxies and stars, the evolution of stars into heavy elements, the evolution of those elements into the molecular building blocks of life, of those molecules into life itself, of advanced life forms into intelligence, and of intelligent life into the cultured and technological civilization that we now share." [Eric Chaisson, "Credo: Our Cosmic Heritage," ZYGON, vol. 23, no.4, December 1988, p. 472.]

Chaisson, himself, admits that his' is a pantheistic view based on the evolutionary process of Nature. But within this iterative process of order and chaos and order, he sees not only the origin, the maintenance, but the destiny of the Universe. For Chaisson that destiny is fantastic! For him, extended civilization will resemble a multicellular organism. The establishment of colonies, plus adaptation to foreign/alien environments, will ultimately result in civilization at a macroscopic scale.

Networks of extraterrestrial civilizations--with ever sophisticated capabilities for the storage and transfer of information--will begin to resemble neural architecture. Through the spread of cognitive civilization, the explicate order will have become a collective cosmic brain. And Mind will have prevailed.


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