Dear Ask-the-Rabbi Rabbi,

I don’t know if this bothers other people at some point in life, but I’m a college freshman and it’s really starting to get to me. It’s like I’m inside this gigantic machine that’s rolling its gears, firing up its stoves, shoveling its gunk around—and all totally oblivious of my existence within it.

I’m the conscious being, the one observing this universe, yet I’m completely passive and insignificant. Nobody asks me whether the sun should shine today or the wind should blow. Whole galaxies are being formed at this very moment, and I don’t even know about them. This entire planet swarms with life whether I wake up in the morning or decide to sleep in—and who knows what’s going on elsewhere?

And get this: At any point, some tectonic plate could slip a few centimeters, sending a tsunami in my direction, wiping out my life into oblivion. So I need to know: Is the universe really as cold and indifferent as it appears to be?

—Nobo D.

Dear Nobo,

No, you’re not alone. It’s a quirk in the system. There’s just something about human consciousness that induces us into a state of absurd loneliness. The more you ponder your consciousness of yourself, the lonelier you feel.

But let’s get real: It really is the height of human audacity to assume that we are fantastic instances of consciousness that have somehow emerged out of a dumb universe—much like the teenager who can’t understand how such a bright guy like me came from parents who have no brains.

Let’s take this step by step:

1. Consciousness is Lonely

It’s absurdly lonely. After all, you can’t see it, you can’t touch it, you can’t measure it, you can’t replicate it, and you can’t even tell me what it is. But you’re stuck inside it. So you don’t really know if anyone is conscious other than yourself.

Remember, we’re not talking about intelligence. Or perception. We have definitions of those (hundreds of them, depending on which expert you ask), and we measure them, too. Consciousness is . . . well, we don’t know what it is. But we all say that we experience it.

Yet what is more real to us than our consciousness of our own selves?What is more real to us than our consciousness of our own selves? We know we aren’t just human beings—we know what it’s like to be a human being.1 We experience (sorry, we don’t know what that is either) that “I am, and I am observing this world about me.” It’s an experience that seems entirely unnecessary for survival, certainly not a tangible entity and not even some sort of mechanism. Just this sense of being me, and this me is dealing with that stuff out there. Weird.

Creates a lot of problems, too. First of all, if I see something, I can say to you, “Hey, do you see what I see?” and if you say, “Sure do!” then we’re not alone. You can even share ideas, or talk about how you feel.

But I guarantee I’m not going to ask you, “Have you seen my consciousness lying around anywhere?” Lonely.

So how do I know that anyone is conscious besides myself? I don’t. I just assume that since they act somewhat as I do, they must be conscious like I am. But a tree or a rock, well, they’re not my kind of company.

In fact, back in the days of the “Age of Reason,” and all the way into the 20th century, animals were considered to be automatons with no real feelings or consciousness. Descartes and his buddies found their entertainment tying torches to the tails of dogs and watching them attempt to chase after them—with the intellectual consolation that all the yelping and crying was no more than “a mechanical response.”

So no wonder a person who ponders his own consciousness of self is going to end up feeling like a foreign being plopped into a cold universe.

Fortunately, however, consciousness comes bundled with intelligence. Let’s use some and see if it shows us our way out:

2. Consciousness Doesn’t Appear Out of Nowhere

Where does your consciousness come from? A basic principle of science is that ex nihilo nihil fit—nothing comes out of nothing. Okay, the universe is created out of nothing. But since then, even miracles work with what’s already there.

So what does consciousness appear out of? Philosophers, neuroscientists, psychiatrists, etc., and anyone else who cares enough to think about it have come up with only two possibilities. Everything else is just a variation on a theme:

  1. Consciousness emerges out of biochemistry, just like biochemistry emerges out of chemistry and chemistry emerges out of physics. (I’m simplifying the process. Please don’t report this to your prof.)

    This is one of those super-strange things about our universe: There are surprises at every turn. If you study quantum physics alone, you will never predict the world of chemistry that emerges from it. And if you study chemistry, you will never deduce from it the principles of quantum physics.This is one of those super-strange things about our universe: There are surprises at every turn. It goes on and on like that at every level of scientific inquiry.2

    Nevertheless, a bright guy named Niels Bohr, who had an idea of how both nuclear physics and chemistry work, figured out the mechanics of how one emerges from the other. Something similar occurred with figuring out how biochemistry emerges out of chemistry. The same with many other disciplines, piled up in a hierarchy one above the other.

    That’s why many believe that one day we will figure out how consciousness emerges out of biochemistry. Science has done so darned well until now, who knows what it will come up with next?

    Yet from the earliest years of modern science, even the most hardened materialists have had trouble chewing that one down. Thomas Huxley, Darwin’s foremost protagonist and the man who contributed the word “agnostic” to our lexicon, put it like this:

    . . . how it is that anything so remarkable as a state of consciousness comes about as the result of irritating nervous tissue, is just as unaccountable as the appearance of the Djinn when Aladdin rubbed his lamp.3

    David Chalmers, today’s most vocal exponent of consciousness studies, explained what he coined as “the hard problem of consciousness” in simple terms:4 You need some sort of mechanism to explain how some new function emerges from a cluster of other functions. For instance, how the properties laid out in the table of elements emerge from the functions of electrons and protons. Or how a gene that transmits hereditary information emerges from the functions of a string of nucleotides. And guess what, we actually figured a lot of that out.

    But what sort of mechanism can explain how the experience of observing things emerges out of the things it observes? Atoms, molecules, cells, organisms—these are “hard” tangible things that perform identifiable functions. Consciousness is a qualia (I didn’t make that up—that’s what they call it). There is no identifiable function—and even if there were, that’s not what we’re talking about. We’re talking about this experience of being. Just like an infinite string of words describing the moon landing can’t add up to the experience of being there, so all the functions of observable matter you can describe can’t add up to the experience of observing.

    So there’s another idea:

  2. Consciousness is everywhere, just like time and space. It doesn’t suddenly emerge at any point, it just becomes more pronounced.

    This is sometimes called panpsychism, and it’s actually a very ancient way of thinking. You’ll find it echoed throughout the Psalms, as the trees, the hills, the sun and the stars sing their praises to their Creator. The ancient, cryptic and mystical Sefer Yetzirah (Book of Formation) describes the universe as made of “space, time and soul.”Not long ago, anywhere you went in the world, people assumed that they were surrounded by consciousness. Indeed, not long ago, anywhere you went in the world, people assumed that they were surrounded by consciousness.

    But the idea fell out of focus as Galileo, Newton, et al proved highly successful at figuring things out by measuring them. After all, if you can’t measure it, why bother with it? And if you don’t bother with it, eventually you start to believe it doesn’t exist. So as people got smarter, the universe about them seemed dumber.

    Nevertheless, panpsychism wouldn’t go away. It continued resurfacing in different forms. In fact, it’s had some darn prestigious names behind it: Baruch Spinoza and Gottfried Leibniz, two of the major figures who set the groundwork for the Age of the Enlightenment; the highly influential German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer; the father of American psychology, William James; and the 20th-century British logician Alfred North Whitehead.

    Some have held that consciousness is a basic quality of all life. Others have gone further to say it is a basic quality of all matter. There have even been those who have crowned consciousness as the fundamental substance of the entire universe—everything else is a sort of epiphenomenon of a single grand consciousness.

    But then there are also those who say, “Look, physicists have done a pretty good job explaining the universe without consciousness in the equation. So let’s just say that it’s another element of the universe that allows the universe to observe itself.”

    That “another element” idea is called the dualist approach, while the “basic quality of existence” idea—with its many variations—is called the monist approach.

3. But Some Things Are More Conscious Than Others

To be up front, I’m with the monist panpsychists. Actually, it’s a very Chabad kind of thing. The founder of Chabad, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, taught a radical form of monism. He wrote that matter itself is nothing more than a sustained articulation of Divine consciousness. (More on that in How Real Is Stuff? Part II.) Besides, quantum physics, according to the understanding of some of the greatest geniuses of modern science, does take consciousness into the equation.

But, instead of talking about the differences between these ideas, let’s talk about what they have in common. They both uncover a very neat problem. Neat, because it leads us to real information about consciousness:

On the one hand, if consciousness is universal, then why isn’t it equally everywhere, like time and space?If consciousness is universal, then why isn’t it equally everywhere, like time and space? On the other hand, if it’s an “emergent quality,” what does it need in order to emerge?

So here’s a really neat answer for that neat problem from a contemporary psychiatrist and neuroscientist, Giulio Tononi of the University of Wisconsin—Madison. It’s called IIT—integrated information theory.

IIT says that consciousness appears wherever there’s information. But not just any information. Integrated information. Meaning, wherever information works together to form a single entity.

So you can have a tiny piece of matter with an integrated information level just above zero, and there’s going to be some sort of consciousness there. But if you are a single, integrated entity with a large repertoire of highly differentiated states, you’re going to have a lot more consciousness.

Tononi’s idea has caused quite a stir in certain enclaves—especially because it provides a foundation to really study consciousness, by aligning it with information states. But even without embracing it lock, stock and barrel, it seems clear to all of us that consciousness has some sort of alignment with complex, integrated systems that generate information. Like us.

Which carries us back to our question, now on much firmer ground:

4. Is the Universe Conscious?

Let’s take a look. There’s a lot of information out there. It all works together—in awesome precision.

Everywhere we look, whether under the sea, under a rock, up in the sky or in a galaxy far away, the same rules and the same constants apply. And if one of those dimensionless constants would be just a little bit off—if the gravitational constant would be just a smidgen more or less, or if the combination of the electron charge, the speed of light and Planck’s constant would be just a little off—there would be no hope for any integrated information at all. No life. No observer. Zero consciousness.

So is there any reason why the universe as a whole should not be considered conscious?

Okay, I can hear you saying, “That’s not proof that the universe is conscious. It’s just evidence.” But then, as I pointed out earlier, nobody has proof that anyone is conscious other than himself. Just evidence.

I would say you’re on stronger ground assuming that the whole universe is conscious than assuming that an individual is conscious.You’re on stronger ground assuming that the whole universe is conscious than assuming that an individual is conscious. Ask yourself: Which makes more sense—that conscious human beings gradually emerge over time out of the dynamics of dumb matter; or that a great consciousness articulates itself within particular instances of much smaller consciousnesses, and eventually that of us puny human beings?

And what makes more sense, a universe where everything just happens to follow the same rules, and no two particles dare be in the same state—even though they have no knowledge of what each other is doing, since they are just dumb particles—

—or a universe where a single consciousness holds everything in place, as an enormously diverse, thoroughly integrated set of information?

If that sounds just way too unscientific, I’ll throw in a quotation from one of the most significant physicists of the 20th century, without whom quantum physics might never have been imagined, Max Planck:

As a man who has devoted his whole life to the most clearheaded science, to the study of matter, I can tell you as a result of my research about atoms this much: There is no matter as such. All matter originates and exists only by virtue of a force which brings the particle of an atom to vibration and holds this most minute solar system of the atom together. We must assume behind this force the existence of a conscious and intelligent Mind. This Mind is the matrix of all matter.5

5. But Does It Care?

So is that G‑d? Depends. If you’re turned off by organized religion and never got along with your rabbi, we don’t have to call it G‑d. There are plenty of other worthwhile labels.

But if you do want to call it G‑d, I have no problem with that. It’s just that it’s a rather limited G‑d. It’s about as limiting as the way we define a person nowadays by “what do you do for a living?” Infinitely more so.

It makes more sense that this great consciousness is not limited to creating this particular universe as we know it.

After all, as far as we can tell, it’s a universe with limited time, space, matter and energy—as well as a limited set of rules. It’s a universe that screams out that it does not have to exist at all. It makes sense that beyond this temporal instance of being, there must be an absolute existence that has none of these limitations. It’s just that somehow that absolute being also expresses itself in terms of a limited universe.

So that’s a higher concept of G‑d. In terms of the Kabbalah, the first concept is called “the light that fills,” and the second, higher concept includes a concept of G‑d’s “encompassing light” or “infinite light.” In the rest of the world, the first concept is often referred to as pantheism, while the second, higher concept is sometimes called panentheism—that G‑d is both within and beyond.

Both these conceptions of G‑d are sensible. They don’t require faith, just a reasonable and objective look at what’s outside of ourselves.

I would go further and say that it is also reasonable to assume that this great mind acts purposefully and deliberately. As little as we understand about consciousness and the mind, deliberateness seems to be an integral element. A conscious being sees itself as an “I” because it chooses to act and how to act. So why shouldn’t the ultimate mind be the same? Which would mean that this existence of mine is not an accident, but has some sort of meaning.

And yet further: A grand consciousness, one would imagine, would be concerned with the details of all that emerges from it, down to every critter. Being unlimited and infinite, no job is too small, no critter too insignificant. A small mind can manage only the big things, but an infinite mind is found entirely in its every thought.A small mind can manage only the big things, but an infinite mind is found entirely in its every thought, as fractals of the whole.

G‑d, as one great architect used to say, is found in the details. Which means that nothing happens that is not a direct interaction between this little guy I call “me” and the ultimate “I,” the consciousness that brings all into being.

6. What Does It All Mean?

But what is that meaning? How on earth is a puny critter like me supposed to figure out what a mind that is capable of creating unlimited universes of unlimited parameters and forms wants from me? Yet, if it does want something of me, wouldn’t it at least speak up and give me some idea of what I am supposed to do?

All this is leading up to why Jewish belief is not blind dogma, but a very reasonable understanding of reality. It’s more a memory than a belief, the memory of a collective experience at Sinai where we were filled in on the basics of our mission, providing us an inkling of the meaning of all things.

It wouldn’t be fair if only the Jewish people were informed of their meaning. And sure enough, the Torah also tells that the first human being, Adam, was also provided instructions, as was Noah. And, further, that the mission of the Jewish people is to publicize those instructions. They are the seven mitzvahs of Noah, along with a general guideline that we are stewards of this world to care for it and improve it.

Going deeper, it seems that this great mind desires to be apparent within its work—much as an author strives to present more than a story, but rather the very essence of who he is, through the medium of the tug and pull, tension and resolution, the beauty of his work.6

The same with an artist or a composer—it’s not just beauty they strive to create; they yearn to uncover the reality of their own being within that beauty. Indeed, our stories, our songs, our creations of beauty are the only way we have to share our consciousness with other conscious beings.

And so too,The master consciousness is sharing the very core of its being through the unfolding drama of this world in general, and your life in particular. the master consciousness is sharing the very core of its being through the unfolding drama of this world in general, and your life in particular. Only that this drama can unfold only through your conscious participation. That’s left up to you.

So my advice to you, Nobo, is to acknowledge the existential angst (yes, they have a name for it), and then get past it. Get in tune with the higher consciousness that envelops you and all other consciousnesses. Feel the awe. And then find purpose. Rather than recoiling in horror at the loneliness, embrace the life of the universe and allow it to embrace you.

In practical terms, do something to leave the world better than you found it. You even have some pretty clear instructions that should give you some great ideas.

We are never alone, other than in our mind’s delusion. As long as there is meaning, we are never alone.