This story is by Malcolm Stenersen and was part of our 2020 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
David Morgan entered, placed his laptop on the desk and plugged in a cable that connected it to the room’s facilities.
“Good morning everyone,” David said. He looked about the lecture theatre, students’ faces looking expectantly back at him.
“Today I want to start with a discussion of some of the concepts that underlie theories of the philosophy of mind and consciousness and some of the quantum chemistry ideas that my colleague, Dr Klishenkov, and I have been developing.” He pressed a button on his computer and screens around the room lit up with a presentation slide.
He gazed up at the faces staring back at him. “Ok,” he looked back towards his colleague, “we’re starting with this one: who can give me a definition of panpsychism?” He pressed the computer button again, and the words appeared on the screens.
The students shuffled in their seats before several of them near the front hesitantly raised their hands.
“Yes,” David said, pointing to one of them, “you, Ms …,” he glanced at a paper in front of him, “Wright. Tell us please.”
The woman looked slightly taken aback at being selected. “Um, well. Panpsychism; it’s the idea that consciousness is a fundamental property of everything, right down to the level of particles,” she responded.
“Yes, precisely,” David replied, and she looked relieved at getting the answer correct. “It’s a very old theory, thought to originate with the ancient Greek philosophers. Today we put a modern spin on it by combining it with the ideas that underlie quantum mechanics. The argument is that every subatomic particle has a quantum of consciousness associated with it as a fundamental property, in the same way that other particles, like electrons, have charge. At some level of complexity, a state that we recognise as ‘consciousness’ emerges. Here is a question for you all – if every particle has a degree of consciousness and these accumulate to create an emergent conscious mind, why are rocks unable to talk to us? A hint: the answer is not, ‘because they don’t have mouths.’” The students laughed.
“Be ready to discuss this next lecture. We’ll be exploring these ideas further, including some of the maths and physics.”
Some students groaned, and David smiled. “For now, though, who has a competing theory they can tell us?”
“It is still not working,” Arvon Klishenkov said to David. “I do not understand. Your math tells us this is the right direction. My equipment is designed to find what your math indicates. What is missing?”
The men stood in a laboratory full of equipment. Cables hung from a large rack to the complex of machinery on the long bench next to them.
“Everything looks fine to me. I don’t understand what is wrong.”
“I’ve been thinking about it,” David looked up at Arvon. “The physics is right; the mathematics is right. Your equipment is right,” he said slowly. “What about the target?”
“What about it?” said Klishenkov.
“Well, it’s mouse brain tissue.”
“Yes. It is what we planned and agreed.”
“I know. But what I mean is, perhaps we need a conscious target to give us the level of response we need to be able to measure it. Do you see?”
“A living sample, you mean? This is a possibility I had not considered,” Arvon said.
“Axions pass through almost everything. We know they are nearly as slippery as neutrinos. What if we put a live sample, an actual living being, in there? Would the axion stream kill it? Or the pi electrons?”
“No. This they could not do. Axions cannot touch the tissue, or any normal matter, other than exciting the stream of pi electrons. Those are created within the cellular microtubules anyway; if they would do damage, then they would damage any living cell already. This is a good idea, we should try it.”
“I am still not happy that you try this, David,” Klishenkov said. They had been arguing for hours. Going back and forth around David’s suggestion, and he felt worn down by the other’s insistence. “It feels like Frankenstein.”
“We both agreed there’s no physical risk, Arvon,” David said. He was already sitting in the place where the detector had pointed to earlier. “Trillions of axions go through us all every second of every day; what’s a few billion more? This is by far the easiest, simplest way forward, and we do not have to bother with the ethics committee; I’ve given my full consent. Let’s do this. Now.”
Arvon sighed. “Alright. You are ready?” David nodded and Arvon pressed the switch.
Almost immediately the screen showed a graph displaying a tall, narrow peak.
“Oh, wow,” David said, looking at the display.
“It worked,” said Arvon. “I admit I did not really think it would. How do you feel? You are ok?”
“My brain feels warm,” he said. “I know that doesn’t make sense. It’s what I feel though.” The slight warmth in his head might have been his imagination, he thought. Otherwise he had no sensation of the stream of billions of particles passing invisibly through him.
“Oh. Oh God. I can feel it, Arvon.”
“Everything. I can feel your consciousness. The longer it runs, the more I can feel the consciousness around me.” He closed his eyes.
He felt the concrete of the lab. Moments later he felt the stones on the gravel walkway outside. He heard the plants in the garden. He trembled; the sea a hundred kilometres away whispered at him.
Arvon turned off the axion stream but it was too late, David realised. They could not stop it now if they tried. And he didn’t want to try.
David felt his mind expand with the knowledge of being one with all about him. He spoke to the planet beneath him, the sun, the galaxy, and they responded. As his consciousness gained an understanding that he was part of everything, and everything was part of him, he knew he could also contact every other conscious thing; contact them, change them, control them.
The universe shouted at him with its consciousness and David smiled as his mind shouted silently back to it.