A conscious universe would have to arise out of what is real and existent, and we would want to base this on what is perceivable as real or existing empirically. If we want to propose a mental universe, it would have to be imminent in the physical stuff of reality, not relying on anything imagined or not deriving from the laws of physics.
We can start with an objection to the panpsychist notion that mentality is somehow a particle or a property belonging to things. Rather, we should start with the premise that mentality is situated in the relationships between things. At the most crude level, objects in motion hit other objects causing them to move. One can then trace this object’s new position or velocity back to the initial object in motion that caused it to move. Therefore, we can say that this system has memory, has stored information. This practice of analyzing physical signs for the memory of interactions can be called forensics. Every tree carries information about weather patterns and droughts, and how trees fall in the forest records wind direction, soil consistency, and animal activity. The built environment records political, economic, and material conditions.
Many physical systems in the universe also involve some variety of feedback loop which helps to maintain homeostasis or systemic equilibrium. This recursiveness is a fundamental characteristic of mind and may in fact underlie much of consciousness, if neural net models—interacting layers of records with different periodicity—are to be believed.
Within each layer of complexity in the universal system—ranging from the network of forces within a subatomic particle up to the gravitational pull objects exert on each other from opposite sides of the universe—this status quo maintenance is a type of institutionalization of relations. And while some in political economy argue that institutions are epiphenomena arising out of competing interests of individuals, another group argues that institutional forms in themselves can determine outcomes as well as the interests of individuals in the first place. If a certain scenario repeats, say in an election cycle, budgetary cycle, a certain periodicity of forest fires in a particular ecosystem, the relationships between objects in one cycle determine its outputs and these then become the inputs into the next cycle. Institutional forms are a hardening of relations into an equilibrium. The United States Constitution determines why Congressional bills are so long (dual control over the bureaucracy by Congress and the president motivates Congress to more specifically define the terms of funding); the connection of the parasympathetic nervous system to the lungs determines why diaphragm breathing reduces anxiety; the ability of an ecosystem to support salmon determines the ability of an ecosystem to support bears; etc. Institutional forms are analogous to computer programs.
In Gregory Bateson’s essay/lecture/chapter “Form, Substance, and Difference” the mental nature of the relationships between things in the universe mobilizes a plea to rethink the boundaries of the self—the site of one’s selfhood is not bounded by skin but rather by environment and everything sensed or influenced.
Bateson offers two examples: a man, a tree and an ax, as well as a blind person with a walking stick. A man cutting down a tree locates his next strike by observing the cuts already made in the tree trunk and the ax then transmits this next strike back to the tree, which then informs the man about his next strike. A blind person senses difference in the pavement using a walking stick: where is the boundary of the mental system? It must include the street, the person, and the stick. All these systems overlap: the stick participates in other systems at other times, as does the tree. At some point, all component systems of the universe participate in various larger order systems with more complex mental effects. The universe may not be “conscious” or a living being or agent, but it is a mind, just as a city is a mind and a forest is a mind.
This may mean that death is not as selfhood-annihilating as many fear...but more on that later.