Why does the universe need mind?

Table of contents: The Kazakh-American Free University Academic Journal №6 - 2014

Author: Mareyev Sergey, Modern Academy for Humanities, Moscow, Russia

“Cosmology of mind” is an attempt to outline the objective role of thinking matter in the system of world interaction (philosophical-poetic phantasmagoria, based on the principles of dialectical materialism)” [1]. The title is typical of Ilyenkov’s self-irony, which does not mean that it was just a mystification. Actually, it was a result of meditations concerning an important problem: if and why the Universe is in need of mind. Every genuine philosopher frames the question in a certain way; if he or she fails to ask this question, this is evidence of the deficiency of his or her philosophy.

Ilyenkov’s statement was inspired by some considerations in the late writings of Engels concerning the so-called “main forms of motion” as attributes of matter. In Engels’ classification of the forms of motion, the highest and the most complicated form is the social form or, in other words, the mind. Engels was convinced that matter does not develop beyond this form. At least in the space to human perception there is no form more complex than mind.

According to Engels, this highest form of matter’s motion continues the line of development that runs from mechanical physical, chemical, and biological forms. Each occupies its particular place in the world interaction. No higher form can exist without the lower, e.g. the physical form is impossible without the mechanical, the chemical without the physical, the biological without the chemical, and without biology human beings, possessing our social organization and mind, could not exist. Each of these forms, as we see, performs its purpose. However, in this line of thinking, the highest form is as it were “suspended” since it is just the consequence and the aim of the preceding forms. But what is the aim of mind? What is its purpose?

If there exists no higher form for which we should be a necessary condition as a “building block,” then the only solution is to join “the end” to “the beginning,” and then the aim of the mind appears to be to maintain the entire line, thus consolidating the whole system of interaction in the world. This is what Ilyenkov claimed in his “Cosmology of mind.” He thought that by understanding the mind’s role, the mind becomes a necessary and not an accidental phenomenon in the Universe.

Ilyenkov proceeded from the idea that something can have its purpose within some whole or system only. Correspondingly, the life of a human being has sense only so long as he or she is striving for something. Schopenhauer was right to think that the Universe is meaningless if it is but a congestion of mechanical bodies. However, if the Universe is not a mechanical aggregation only, then each main form of its being must have its purpose, an aim.

Why the Universe needs mind and why in turn it needs life – these two problems are similar in some ways. After all, living matter must have a purpose. First of all, it cannot be simply that without life there is no thought, but that life must repay a “debt” to those forms which generated it – to the chemical and physical ones. Herein lies the crux of the matter where the question of life connects to the concept of the Universe’s “Thermal Death.” Life is the sole form of matter preceding the social form which possesses anti-entropic properties, since living organisms are capable of accumulating the wasted energy of solar radiation and converting it to the active form of their own functioning. Animals provide the best example. They lead an active life, but the energy of their activity is, in the long run, the radiant energy of the Sun.

Concerning the essence of life, Soviet science mostly adhered to Engels’s definition: life is the mode of being of protein bodies. But there still remains a crucial question: for what purpose did life originate? This teleological statement of the question was provoked by the entire cosmological tradition of the 20th century, first introduced by Vernadsky’s idea of “noosphere” [2] and by the space biology of Chizhevsky – a disciple and follower of Tsiolkovsky. Nikolay Fedorov’s fantasies belong to this tradition as well. This strange Russian philosopher of the 19th century dreamed of reviving “decayed worlds” (zagnivaiushchie miry). Fedorov treated life not only as an earthly phenomenon, but also as a cosmic one. So what does life mean in view of endless Space?

Thanks to Ilia Prigogine’s research it has been discovered that different physico-chemical structures are capable of self-regulation. However, only life can absorb radiant energy, accumulate and transform it into an active form. Thus only life demonstrates the circular, and not linear, character of world interaction. Only life “turns round” the process of degradation from the highest to the lowest, bringing it back again to the higher and more complex forms of matters’ organization.

In the “Cosmology of mind” Ilyenkov wrote: The circular character of infinity corresponds only to the dialectical world-view. The alternative to this understanding could only be a notion that included the idea of the “beginning” and the “end” of world development, “the first push,” “the state that is equal to itself,” and so forth [3]. In the most general form this idea of circularity can be found in Heraclitus, who considered the world to be a fire that periodically flared up and died out. But that was not much more than a metaphor. How this process takes place, concretely, is unclear. Even Engels had no idea, although he not only posed question, but also had certain scientific prerequisites in mind for its solution. The entire question focuses on the point, how and where the beginning and the end of the Big Cycle are joined.

In a certain sense life has already closed the circle. However, there is every reason to consider life as a cosmic phenomenon; life is not capable, evidently, to withstand the force of world entropy because life can transfer just as much energy as it has received into active forms. Neither the Earth, even were it completely covered with vegetation, which is able to absorb and accumulate energy, nor billions of other planets could have been able to absorb all the energy; an enormous part of radiant energy is dissipated irretrievably in cosmic space. Sooner or later life on Earth, which owes its existence to the energy and heat of the Sun, must fade away...

The point is that organic life is not the highest form of the development of world matter. Its highest form is the mind. According to Ilyenkov, at this level, the closure of the Big Circle occurs. The hypothesis Ilyenkov tries to substantiate in his “Cosmology of mind” is that not only organic life, but the mind as well has a cosmic purpose, which must be realized sooner or later. Ilyenkov proceeds from the belief that matter does not exist without the thinking mind, just as there is no thinking without matter.

The idea that the human mind is the apex of development is present in the history of thought no less than the idea of human being as the “peak of creation” in the conception of man as a microcosm. The ideas centering on the existence of a reality higher to human being have always been of a religious nature. However, as Feuerbach showed, if a religion is but the doubling of the human world, then it follows that any world of an order higher than the human one is a fantastic world.

Ilyenkov concluded that matter must not only have an “upper” boundary, but a “lower” one, too. This was discovered in the natural sciences long ago as the state of the simplest mechanical properties. A form of matter’s motion simpler than mechanical motion has not been found yet. It is impossible to imagine such a form, because outside mechanics, as the lowest threshold, interaction of any kind ceases to exist. Therefore, even if there is something “there,” it is beyond discovery. After all, any disclosure is the result of our interaction with something that we find, discover, and cognize. In other words here science stops and mysticism begins.

However, the lower boundary is discovered not as something beyond which we are unable to move. It is discovered as the nonlinear characteristic of movement. In other words, there is neither absolute regress of matter nor absolute progress. As soon as we pass the “lower” limit and start to split the simplest unit of matter with only mechanical properties, new, more complicated properties are discovered – for instance quanta and waves. The so called “microworld” turns out to be something akin to the macroworld. Modern physics arrives at something that the greatest natural philosophers of the past were not able to hit upon: reality turns out to be more interesting and fanciful than the most subtle fantasies.

The sameness of the microworld and the macroworld becomes apparent not only at the level of physical properties. Quite comparable energetic potentials are also revealed: the energy of one atom’s substance is comparable to the energy that is contained in any macrosystem. As for the specific features of vital human activity, they differ essentially from animals’ activity by their energetic potential. An animal basically uses the energy of its own organic body in its life activity, whilst people, in their labour activity, use tools. Therefore a human being exploits the objects of nature as the conductors of his own impact on other objects of nature, while he applies matter and the energy of nature with the same purpose. The energetic potential of human technology by far surpasses the potential of the organic body, not to mention the obvious exponential growth of the former. So there is a boundary “above” and a boundary “below.” These are the two prerequisites on which Ilyenkov founds his hypothesis.

“The third philosophical-theoretical prerequisite of the hypothesis, – Ilyenkov continues – is the indisputable statement that “everything that exists is worthy of destruction,” that any “finite” form of existence has its beginning and its end. This statement is applicable to both the present solar-planet system and mankind that dwells upon it” [4].

Nowadays it is unlikely that someone would disagree with this assumption. Still, the question is, how will the mind perish in our solar system? Should it die and leave nothing behind then the mind remains a purely accidental fact in the history of the universe.

“Thinking turns into an absolutely futile episode which might just as well not have happened at all without any detriment to everything else,” writes Ilyenkov. In this case thought would not be an “attribute,” but “something like a mold on the planet as it cools, or like a senile disease of matter and not the true flourishing of the universe, not the highest product of world’s development” [5].

This problem relates not only to the purposes of the human being and the mind. It is also connected to the law of the conservation of energy, which holds only on the condition that there is a transition from one qualitative form of the motion of matter to another. So far science does not know, how the dissipated energy will return to the initial state of incandescent gas, or proceed from the state of “caloric death” to the plasmic state from which Nature can start the new Big Cycle of its development.

It is here that Ilyenkov advanced his hypothesis which in its magnitude surpasses the conceptions of the greatest natural philosophers of the past as well as all phantasizing moralists. He linked the problem of the purpose of human being and the problem of “heat death” into one and the same essential problem that can be solved only in one single manner. Why not assume, Ilyenkov writes, that “thinking is exactly that qualitatively highest form in which the accumulation and fruitful utilization of the energy, radiated by suns, is realised?” [6].

Organic life “resists” the growth of entropy. According to one felicitous comparison, life is like a sailor who climbs the mast of a ship that is sinking. The mast is finite, so the “sailor,” i.e. life, will die sooner or later and change into an inorganic dreg, into a mineral. If life, at the cost of its death, will not change to any higher form, then its existence is completely senseless. Thus the sense of life is to give birth to a rational being – that very human being which lives by way of the death of animals and plants.

The human mind alone is able not only to “oppose” the growth of entropy, but to return, at the expense of its life, ever more tepid matter to its initial fiery state. How is this to happen? Ilyenkov writes:

“In reality it can be conceived as follows: at some very high point of their development thinking beings, doing their cosmological duty and sacrificing themselves, consciously produce the world catastrophe causing the process to reverse into the “caloric death” of cosmic matter, thus initiating the process that leads to the revival of dying worlds in the form of a cosmic cloud of incandescent gas and steam” [7].

The world catastrophe caused by the mind might be similar to a nuclear explosion, the “mechanism” of which is based on a so called “chain reaction.” From the mere physical point of view there is nothing implausible about this scenario. The general rule here is that the “simpler” the structure under destruction is, the more energy it produces. Obviously, the “simple” structure is more difficult to destroy, though the energy, created by this destruction, is enormously larger than that spent on destruction itself.

“And the prospect”, – Ilyenkov concludes, – “is theoretically as follows: if it were possible to destroy an infinitely small structural unit of substance, then a proportionally equivalent infinite amount of created energy would be produced, the amount of which would be enough to destroy and to transform into incandescent steam an infinitely large mass with cold matter” [8].

This then is the cosmologic hypothesis of Evald Ilyenkov. It might seem to many people to be sci-fi in nature, like a flight to the Moon from a canon. We have to remind ourselves that Ilyenkov himself called it “philosophical-poetic phantasmagoria.”

It seems, however, that it is difficult to refute what he himself wrote: “Apparently no other hypothesis can attribute such meaning to man and make as much sense of his death” [9].

The pathos of searching for truth and the highest mission of man to serve Mother Nature are combined into one. Ilyenkov tries to unite Heaven and Earth, Science and Religion, the physical and the lyrical. He thought that in that highest synthesis religion should be discarded in its form and saved in its earthly content. Following Feuerbach and Marx, Ilyenkov considered habitual religion to be a false (“distorted”) form of a very serious – utterly serious – content: to solve the question of the essence of man and his place in the universe. The question itself, Ilyenkov believed, was by no means senseless.


1. Published for the first time in E.V. Ilyenkov, Filosofija i kul’tura [Philosophy and culture], Moskva, Politizdat 1991.

2. A term coined by Vernadsky to express the sphere of mind’s (in Greek, nous) activity.

3. E.V. Ilyenkov, Filosofiia i kul’tura, p. 419.

4. E.V. Ilyenkov, Filosofiia i kul’tura, p. 421.

5. Ibid., pp. 431–432.

6. Ibid., pp. 432.

7. Ibid., p. 433.

8. Ibid., pp. 433–434.

9. Ibid., p. 435.

Table of contents: The Kazakh-American Free University Academic Journal №6 - 2014

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