A Conscious Cosmos
The doctrine that the world is a living being, rational, animate and intelligent, is laid down by Chrysippus in the first book of his treatise On Providence, by Apollodorus in his Physics, and by Posidonius… And it is endowed with soul, as is clear from our several souls being each a fragment of it. (DL 7.142-3)
Some people think the idea of a conscious cosmos is an antiquated relic of the ancient Stoics that must be abandoned to modernize Stoicism. However, numerous modern scientists and philosophers describe the nature of the cosmos in ways which are quite compatible with the intuitions of the ancient Stoics. Many now suggest consciousness must be a fundamental aspect of the cosmos; some refer to a mind-like background in the universe; a few boldly claim the universe is conscious, just as the Stoic did more than two thousand years ago.
Traditional Stoics, consider the traditionally held theory of a conscious cosmos a necessary element of the holistic Stoic system. They do so for good reasons. First, despite the objections offered by those who adhere to the metaphysical assumptions of the current scientific orthodoxy, there is no objective scientific reason to abandon the conscious cosmos of Stoicism. More importantly, Stoic practice relies on the interrelated nature of physics and ethics. Chrysippus, the third head of the Stoa, argued that universal nature is the source of our knowledge of virtue, good and evil, and happiness. Further, according to Plutarch, Chrysippus asserted, “physical theory turns out to be ‘at once before and behind’ ethics.” As I have written before, the conscious and providential cosmos is the soul of the Stoic philosophical system.
Unfortunately, many people tend to recoil, almost reflexively, from the concept of a conscious cosmos because it entails some form of intelligence that preexists human consciousness. They mistakenly assume such a concept necessarily invokes a supernatural divinity akin to those of traditional monotheistic religions. Likewise, many people are simply unaware of the increasing number of scientists and thinkers who are breaking out of the pre-twentieth-century, materialist, reductionist box and arguing that consciousness is a fundamental aspect of reality. I will point out a few of those below.
Consciousness was ignored by the mainstream hard sciences and psychology at the beginning to the twentieth century. Science could not explain consciousness via reductionist biology and mechanistic physics; therefore, they either ignored it or explained it away as an illusion or epiphenomenon. They promoted the simplistic notion that the mind is what the brain does. Quantum theory challenged that paradigm at its very foundation by asserting that consciousness cannot be ignored while investigating matter because it interacts with matter. As a result, during the twentieth century, an ever-increasing number of scientists and thinkers began to give due consideration to the nature and role of consciousness. Many have suggested that consciousness, in some form, must be a fundamental aspect of reality. Interestingly, some are beginning to make assertions about the nature of the cosmos that sound remarkably like the intuitions of ancient thinkers such as Plato and the Stoics. Lothar Schafer, a physical chemist, points out several modern thinkers who think it is reasonable to infer consciousness to the cosmos. Here is an extended quote from his recent book:
However you look at the matter, it seems reasonable to think that the human mind isn’t self-contained or self-sustained, but connected with a mindlike wholeness. “We can ‘infer’” Menas Kafatos and Robert Nadeau suggest, “that human consciousness ‘partakes’ or ‘participates in’ the conscious universe.”
As I have made sure to emphasize, science can’t prove that the universe is conscious. At the same time, the numerous suggestions by serious scientists, including Bohm, Dürr, Eddington, Fischbeck, Jeans, Kafatos, Lipton, Nadeau, and me, that a cosmic spirit exists can’t all be shrugged off as signs of dementia in these authors. It makes more sense to conclude, as psychiatrist Brian Lancaster has done, that “consciousness amounts to a fundamental property, irreducible to other features of the universe such as energy or matter.
Likewise, philosopher Thomas Nagel provoked a heated debate on the topic of consciousness in 2012 when he challenged the core of the “neo-Darwinian conception of nature” in his book Mind & Cosmos. In one passage Nagel speculated about the connection between human nature and the cosmos as a whole. His position is akin to the Stoic conception of that relationship. He wrote:
We ourselves are large-scale, complex instances of something both objectively physical from outside and subjectively mental from inside. Perhaps the basis for this identity pervades the world.
According to the Stoics, the cosmos and everything in it is comprised of two principles: passive matter and the active principle, called pneuma. The rational psyche of a human is comprised of a particular configuration of pnuema, which enables us to understand the cosmos we are a part of. The Stoics would agree with Nagel. For them, pneuma is the basis for our identity as humans and it does pervade the world. Arthur Eddington, an astrophysicist, was a little more direct in the 1930s when he wrote:
To put the conclusion crudely—the stuff of the world is mind-stuff… The mind-stuff of the world is, of course, something more general than our individual conscious minds; but we may think of its nature as not altogether foreign to the feelings in our consciousness… Consciousness is not sharply defined, but fades into subconsciousness; and beyond that we must postulate something indefinite but yet continuous with our mental nature. This I take to be the world-stuff.
Eddington admits, “It is difficult for the matter-of-fact physicist to accept the view that the substratum of everything is of mental character.” Nevertheless, as he points out, “no one can deny that mind is the first and most direct thing in our experience, and all else is remote inference—inference either intuitive or deliberate.” Furthermore, he asserts.
The cyclic scheme of physics presupposes a background outside the scope of its investigations. In this background we must find, first, our own personality, and then perhaps a greater personality. The idea of a universal Mind or Logos would be, I think, a fairly plausible inference from the present state of scientific theory; at least it is in harmony with it.
It is fascinating to see a physicist use a phrase like universal Mind and the word logos. Bernard Haish, another astrophysicist, agrees. He wrote:
I am proposing that an equally likely—and perhaps even slightly more likely—explanation is that there is a conscious intelligence behind the universe, and that the purpose of the universe and of our human lives is very intimately involved with that intelligence.
These are not the ramblings of crackpot pseudo-scientists. As Paul Davies, another physicist, points out:
An increasing number of scientists and writers have come to realize that the ability of the physical world to organize itself constitutes a fundamental, and deeply mysterious, property of the universe. The fact that nature has creative power, and is able to produce a progressively richer variety of complex forms and structures, challenges the very foundation of contemporary science.
In his most recent book, The Goldilocks Enigma, Davies argues,
Intelligent design of the laws does not conflict with science because it accepts that the whole universe runs itself according to physical laws and that everything that happens in the universe has a natural explanation. There are no miracles other than the miracle of nature itself.
Later in the book Davies makes an argument for what he calls “The Self-Explaining Universe” and comes remarkably close to describing a conscious cosmos:
To invert the famous dictum “garbage in, garbage out,” I am claiming something like “meaning out, meaning in.” If the universe runs on an ingenious cosmic code, and if the existence of the code is attributed to a self-consistent, self-explanatory loop, then the state of the universe has to be, at some point in its evolution, equally as ingenious as the laws that underpin it. The universe clearly cannot be self-explanatory without containing the ability to explain itself! If there is to be a complete explanation for the universe as a loop, the universe has to know and understand the laws it is responsible for in order to bring those laws into being. How could it be otherwise?
Finally, the physicist Menas Kafatos, a pioneer in the attempt to converge science and philosophy and promote a rational spirituality, wrote:
Yet in discovering a new limit to our ability to fully comprehend physical reality, we are presented with a view of nature in which consciousness, or mind, can be properly defined as a phase in the process of the evolution of the cosmos implied in presupposing all other stages. If it manifests or emerges in the latter stages, and has been progressively unfolding from the beginning stages, then it would follow the universe is in some sense conscious.
Remarkably, Kafatos then posits the same relationship as the Stoics did between cosmic and human consciousness:
Rather than merely view acts of cognition in classical terms as representations or images of independently existing facts, the empirical foundation for these acts in the physical substrate of the human brain must now be viewed as intimately connected with the whole.
Does any of this ‘prove’ the cosmos is conscious as the Stoics asserted? Certainly not. Will these arguments convince committed atheists the conscious cosmos is not the equivalent of an imaginary flying spaghetti monster? No! However, that is not the point.
While the conscious cosmos cannot be ‘proven’ to the satisfaction of anyone who holds an alternative metaphysical view. It is, nonetheless, still a reasonable theory for moderns. Those who attempt to present the ancient Stoic worldview as unreasonable, irrational, unscientific, etc. are throwing stones from within their own metaphysical glass house. Often, they do so unknowingly because that is the spirit of our secular age. Nevertheless, there is room for rational, reasonable, and scientific-minded people to disagree on the nature of the cosmos while simultaneously respecting those with whom they disagree.
My argument is this: the cosmic worldview of the ancient Stoics is still a viable option for twenty-first-century practitioners of Stoicism. Certainly, some of the details of their cosmology need to be updated; however, the conscious cosmos remains viable for modern Stoics. Quantum theory opened the door previously thought closed by the Newtonian conception of a clockwork universe. Therefore, those who call for Stoic theory to be ‘modernized’ should not object when traditional Stoics look to the latest developments in quantum theory and consciousness studies and discover the necessary updates are not as extensive as some have argued.
Despite what many people, even some moderns who self-identify as Stoics, assert, the conscious cosmos of the Stoicism is not untenable as a result of our modern understanding of reality. Such assertions reveal an ignorance of the brilliant scientific minds of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries who, after examining the evidence, conclude that inert matter formed by nothing more than serendipitous chance does not provide an adequate explanation for the cosmos and human life as we know it.
We may never conclusively settle the age old battle between the Epicureans and the Stoics over the nature of the cosmos. The evidence, thus far, remains inconclusive. As a result, we see brilliant minds on both sides of the modern science vs. religion debate. More importantly, some open-minded scientists and thinkers are beginning to posit a new path forward—a rational form of spirituality based on the new understanding of the nature of reality provided by quantum theory. My argument is that Stoics do not need to throw the conscious cosmos (the baby) out the window with the pre-Enlightenment religious water. There is room in the open space between fundamentalist atheism and fundamentalist religion for the rational and spiritual practice of traditional Stoicism.
 Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers
 Plutarch, Stoic Self-Contradictions 1035c–d, tr. Cherniss
 Schäfer, L. (2013). Infinite potential: What quantum physics reveals about how we should live. New York: Random House, p. 157
 Nagel, T. (2012). Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False. New York: Oxford University Press, p. 42
 Eddington, A. (1930). Nature of the Physical World. New York: Cambridge University Press
 Haisch, B. (2010). The Purpose-Guided Universe: Believing In Einstein, Darwin, and God. Franklin Lakes, NJ: New Page books, p. 10
 Davies, P. C. (1988). The Cosmic Blueprint: New Discoveries in Nature’s Creative Ability to Order the Universe. West Conshohocken, PN: Templeton Press, p. 5
 Davies, Paul (2006). The Goldilocks Enigma: Why Is the Universe Just Right for Life? New York: Houghton Mifflin
 Kafatos, M., & Nadeau, R. (1990). The Conscious Universe: Part and whole in modern physical theory. New York: Springer-Verlag, p. 177