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Are Stars Conscious?
probably not but maybe
Let’s begin with some more down-to-earth science before turning to the question of stellar consciousness. Mike Wong writes about how he began his astrobiology course at Caltech by asking his students to define life. Their conclusion surprised him:
Initially, I was surprised that “stars” satisfied most of my students’ definitions of life. This unexpected twist suggested two possibilities: Either my students were insane, or—far more likely—they were touching upon something profound. What could make stars seem alive? After all, they are not “life” by any conventional use of the word. We all agreed on that…yet, as some of my students argued:
Stars fuse hydrogen into heavier elements to keep themselves going (a form of nuclear metabolism, if you will). They also maintain a balance, or homeostasis, between gravity and pressure for millions to billions of years. And they even reproduce; through violent explosions at the ends of their lives, they recycle their “star stuff” back into the cosmos, sowing the nebular seeds for the next generation of stars.
Dr. Wong goes on to describe his work with Dr. Stuart Bartlett in which they make the case for “lyfe”, an alternative paradigm for origins-of-life research that allows for a broader definition of life-like phenomenon.
What distinguishes life from non-life are the things that it does, not the material from which it is made. So, what are Stuart’s “four pillars” of “lyfe”?
First, dissipation: employing useful forms of energy to do beneficial work. On the human scale, wind turbines, for example, convert kinetic energy into electricity. At the nanoscale, life uses a molecular turbine that runs not off of wind but a flow of protons. This turbine, called ATP synthase, converts that flow of protons into molecules of ATP, the so-called “energy currency of life.”
Second, autocatalysis: the idea that life begets more life, enabling the indefinite growth of some representative metric of the system under ideal circumstances. One observes this pillar in population growth, DNA replication, or in the way the products of biochemical reactions often include ingredients required to run those reactions again.
Third, homeostasis: the act of maintaining the correct internal conditions to thrive. For instance, if you step out into the brutal southern California summer, your body will fight to keep your internal temperature stable by sweating. Other processes regulate blood pressure, ion concentrations, acidity, etc.
Finally, learning: recording information about one’s environment and processing that information in a beneficial way. Life on Earth learns in myriad ways, from storing evolutionary memories in genetic polymers, like DNA and RNA, to storing lived experiences in neurological structures, like the brain.
So perhaps stars are alive in some vague, non-biological sense. There are others want to go much, much further than that, asserting that stars have a form of consciousness and carry out willful actions. Daniel Pinchbeck writes:
For fun, here is a basic outline of a quasi-scientific/quasi-mystical hypothesis: The Sun is a vast living intelligence that intentionally evolves consciousness on Earth through solar radiation and solar flares, which unleash massive amounts of plasma into the Earth’s atmosphere, accelerating the development of organic life. Gregor Sams explored the theory that the Sun is a vast super-consciousness in his book, Sun of gOd: Discover the Self-Organizing Consciousness that Underlies Everything. According to Sams, ancient cultures worshipped the Sun because they had an innate, accurate understanding of this.
Abstract: The recent panpsychist turn in philosophy opens the possibility that self-organizing systems at all levels of complexity, including stars and galaxies, might have experience, awareness, or consciousness. The organismic or holistic philosophy of nature points in the same direction. Meanwhile, field theories of consciousness propose that some electromagnetic fields actually are conscious, and that these fields are by their very nature integrative. When applied to the sun, such field theories suggest a possible physical basis for the solar mind, both within the body of the sun itself and also throughout the solar system. If the sun is conscious, it may be concerned with the regulation of its own body and the entire solar system through its electromagnetic activity, including solar flares and coronal mass ejections. It may also communicate with other star systems within the galaxy
In the paper, Sheldrake discusses the volitional star hypothesis (see: “Stellar Consciousness: Can Panpsychism Emerge as an Observational Science?”) and the stellivore hypothesis.
In his volitional star hypothesis, Matloff suggests that stars adjust their positions within galaxies by firing off electromagnetically powered jets more in one direction than another, steering themselves into their appropriate positions. ‘Stellar volition in a galaxy might be analogous to the tendency of cells in a living organism to self-organize into organs’ (Matloff, 2015, p. 146). He points out that this hypothesis makes several testable predictions. One is that the number of directional jets should increase as the stars’ distance from the galaxy’s centre increases. Another is that the direction of the jets should be aligned opposite to a young star’s galactic trajectory.
The volitional star hypothesis is minimalist, in the sense that moving into the right place in relation to other stars would not necessarily require a high degree of consciousness, perhaps no greater than that of cells within an embryo. On the other hand, volitional movements may be only one manifestation of a much higher degree of consciousness. Humans, for example, make volitional movements in relation to other humans, like forming queues, but there is more to human consciousness than lining-up behaviour.
The philosopher Clément Vidal has proposed a very different view of volitional stars in his stellivore hypothesis. Vidal suggests that some stars may be predators that seek out victims, from which they suck out matter to fuel themselves. They do so in binary star systems in which one of the stars in the pair, the stellivore, accretes matter from the other (Vidal, 2016).
If stars can be alive and conscious, why not black holes? The hypothesis of cosmological natural selection doesn’t exactly say as much, but it’s certainly amenable to the idea:
Cosmological natural selection, also called the fecund universes, is a hypothesis proposed by Lee Smolin intended as a scientific alternative to the anthropic principle. It addresses the problem of complexity in our universe, which is largely unexplained. The hypothesis suggests that a process analogous to biological natural selection applies at the grandest of scales. Smolin published the idea in 1992 and summarized it in a book aimed at a lay audience called The Life of the Cosmos.
Black holes have a role in natural selection. In fecund theory, a collapsing black hole causes the emergence of a new universe on the "other side", whose fundamental constant parameters (masses of elementary particles, Planck constant, elementary charge, and so forth) may differ slightly from those of the universe where the black hole collapsed. Each universe thus gives rise to as many new universes as it has black holes. The theory contains the evolutionary ideas of "reproduction" and "mutation" of universes, and so is formally analogous to models of population biology.