“According to Hameroff, our souls are built of something much more fundamental than neurons,” says Morgan Freeman introducing Hameroff’s quantum consciousness theory in a recent episode of Through the Wormhole. “They are constructed from the very fabric of the universe.” Dr. Hameroff claims, “I believe that consciousness, or its immediate precursor proto-consciousness, has been in the universe all along, perhaps from the Big Bang.”
Huffington Post | “What exactly is consciousness, where does it come from and can it be scientifically proven? Dr. Stuart Hameroff, MD, is Professor Emeritus at the Departments of Anesthesiology and Psychology and the Director of the Center of Consciousness Studies at the University of Arizona and much of his research over the past few decades has been in the field of quantum mechanics, dedicated to studying consciousness.”
News.com.au | “American Dr Stuart Hameroff and British physicist Sir Roger Penrose developed a quantum theory of consciousness asserting that our souls are contained inside structures called microtubules which live within our brain cells.
“Their idea stems from the notion of the brain as a biological computer, “with 100 billion neurons and their axonal firings and synaptic connections acting as information networks”.
“Dr Hameroff, Professor Emeritus at the Departments of Anesthesiology and Psychology and Director of the Centre of Consciousness Studies at the University of Arizona, and Sir Roger have been working on the theory since 1996.
They argue that our experience of consciousness is the result of quantum gravity effects inside these microtubules – a process they call orchestrated objective reduction (Orch-OR).”
RU Sirius’ acceler8or posted a blunt critique by James Kent: “As someone who writes regularly on aspects of the brain and consciousness, I have recently received a large amount of correspondence from people wondering what I think about a news article linking consciousness to quantum gravity in cellular microtubules, and how this model could offer “proof” of the soul’s ability to survive outside the body through some kind of nonlocal quantum hocus-pocus. Even though this theory is presented purely as an exercise in theoretical mathematics, because it was suggested by Roger Penrose, a lauded and respected mathematician and philosopher, many people have jumped to the conclusion that this theory is not only correct, but that it somehow “proves” that consciousness is eternal, immutable, and can travel in and out of the body like a soul. My personal take on the theory is that it is garbage disguised as science, and not only is it wrong, it perpetuates a myth of consciousness that philosophers have been using to mislead gullible believers for centuries…”
“So if any argument begins with the presumption that consciousness is ‘mysterious’ or that consciousness ‘has not been properly located or defined,’ then that is immediately a bullshit theory,” says Kent. “Any theory of consciousness that begins with the “mystery” assumption is not really looking for ‘consciousness’, it is looking for the invisible mind, or a God, or a soul, or is looking for a way to sell books to people who do not understand the brain. Philosophers would rather believe “consciousness” is a ‘mysterious animating force’ because it sounds cooler that way and it gives them something interesting to bullshit about.”
I think Kent’s critique is far too blunt and rests on a strawman argument. “Consciousness is mysterious” does not mean that consciousness will never be understood by science — it just means that perhaps consciousness is not entirely understood by current science, and our current understanding may be corrected by future science. Perhaps we don’t understand yet _everything_ about consciousness, which is not surprising given that we don’t even have a precise and consensual definition of what consciousness is. In the late 19th century many scientists thought that they understood almost everything about black body radiation, but one little thing that they were not able to understand resulted in the development of quantum physics and a big shift in our scientific worldview.
“Consciousness is a quantum phenomenon” is trivially true in the sense that everything in the universe seems to follow quantum physics, which is our most fundamental experimentally validated physical theory at this moment. The question is whether quantum effects in the brain play a key, fundamental role in generating whatever that is that we call consciousness. This is a question to be answered in by science, in the laboratory.
The current majority opinion seems to be that the neural physics and chemistry relevant to understanding consciousness is essentially macroscopic and can be well understood in terms of non-quantum physics. In absence of strong evidence of the contrary, I tend to side with the majority opinion. But I also like to keep an open mind and I don’t rule out the possibility that future theories and, especially, experimental evidence, may force us to conclude that consciousness is essentially a quantum phenomenon. The scientific method: let experiment decide.
What I don’t like in Kent’s critique is: one, the unnecessarily rude tone. I don’t think “bullshit” is a productive term in a scientific discussion. Two, the strawman. Hameroff and Penrose don’t say “Consciousness is a mysterious metaphysical force that animates matter.” They are just saying that perhaps consciousness, as a physical phenomenon, may turn out to depend strongly on quantum physics, and may be difficult to understand completely. Three, a certain ultra-rationalist and “militant atheist” bias. “[They are] looking for the invisible mind, or a God, or a soul” is not a scientific argument, but gossip. Science is about finding useful models of how the universe actually works, regardless of personal philosophical preferences.
Many mystics believe in supernatural phenomena beyond the reach of science. Many ultra-rationalists believe in a soon-to-be-found Theory of Everything to explain all that happens in the universe with a few elegant formulas. I think they are both wrong: nothing is beyond the reach of science, but Shakespeare’s “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy” may remain true forever.
You can count up to any number, and there will still be infinite numbers beyond. Similarly, our scientific understanding of the universe may grow without bonds, but always find new fractal depths of unexplained phenomena, to be explored by future scientists. Richard Feynman said: “If it turns out there is a simple ultimate law that explains everything so be it. That would be very nice discovery. If it turns out it’s like an onion with millions of layers and we just sick and tired of looking at the layers then that’s the way it is!” And perhaps the onion with millions of layers is really an onion with an infinite number of layers, and we will always find new things to explore and understand.
You can zoom in a fractal like the Mandelbrot set (picture) forever, and always find new structures unlike those before. The Mandelbrot set itself can be described as a whole with a simple mathematical formula, but imagine an infinitely complex fractal without any finite description, one that you can explore forever and always find something new, and you may have a good model of reality.
Is consciousness a quantum mystery? As usual it depend on what we mean by the terms we use. I don’t think anything is a mystery in the sense that in-principle it cannot be understood by science (I believe science can understand anything, given enough time and effort), but some things are mysterious in the sense that we don’t understand them yet, and perhaps consciousness is one of these mysterious things. Whether quantum effects play or not a fundamental role in consciousness, that is for unbiased science to decide.
The endless fractal complexity of the Mandelbrot set