Is consciousness a quantum mystery?

“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.” | “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

[This article was republished by IEET]

  • Jeremy O. Turner

    I agree with you on every point, Giulio :-)Thanks for commenting on this…

  • René Milan

    I’m glad to see Hameroff’s work, which i find intriguing to say the least, being presented here.
    “Blunt” is about the right characterisation of Kent’s critique, i would add sloppy as well. He’s attacking the age old dualistic stance without paying proper attention to what researchers like Hameroff actually say. I’m not sure what Penrose’s role in this is, and it seems clear some of their conclusions are speculative, but if nothing else, the work throws a serious spanner into the dreams of uploaders who think they can “transfer” consciousness by precisely recreating states of neuronal patterns without paying attention to intracellular information.
    Of course it will be exciting, should that happen, to find confirmation that “consciousness” is an integral part of the nature of this universe and it would confirm age old insights presented by “esoteric” traditions.

  • Giulio Prisco

    @Rene’ – Not paying attention to what others actually say is a common attitude of those who argue from a “religious” perspective (yes, fundamentalist atheism is a religion just like fundamentalist faith).

    Re uploading, a confirmation of the quantum nature of consciousness may invalidate some of the proposed _technical approaches_ to uploading, but not the concept itself. If the brain behaves like a quantum computer (as opposed to a classical one), then a quantum computer is what we need to reproduce the behavior of the wet brain in-silicon (or whatever) and achieve uploading. Just screws and bolts.

  • James McLean Ledford

    There is a layer of the possible in which it seems a militant atheist is afraid to go. It is the divine or, the platonic realm that Sir Roger Penrose proposes for the underlying source of consciousness. It is a perennial philosophy that isn’t going to be killed by that angry atheist fundamentalist. Instead it is very possible that life keeps on finding ways to survive and keeps on evolving by transcending its environment. He is proof that the Universe became conscious of itself and can take on creative powers. What is the limit to this profound progress? Does life suddenly completely die out or is it possible that through convergent evolution it takes on self sustaining creative powers that we toddlers can only dimly imagine? The question separates those that are essentially pro-life from the anti-life stance of atheists.

  • Giulio Prisco

    James, I think many “militant atheists” are good people who were badly hurt by forced religious indoctrination when they were very young, and then again found it difficult and painful to abandon the religion that had been forced in them.

    So they will never accept anything that “sounds like” religion, because they are too afraid of falling back into the religion that they escaped with effort and pain.

    This attitude is, of course, psychologically understandable. But scientists should try to search without preconceptions, and accept what they find.

  • René Milan

    @Giulio 5:55 pm – depends on how you define “militant atheist”. I consider myself a fairly hard-core atheist but i never experienced any pressure for or against religion. The worst they did was to bore me during the 55-min per week treatment of religious topics in elementary school, which didn’t attempt to indoctrinate but to discuss (Hamburg is a very liberal place). I would be careful with assumptions about people’s motivations. I became an increasingly militant anti-religionist the more i learned about the political roles religions assumed throughout history (and it’s not getting any better).

    @Giulio 0:01 am – “fundamentalist atheism is a religion” by a definition of religion i’m not familiar with – could you elaborate ?
    “not the concept itself” – true. But if we ignore the majority of data contributing to the emergence of “consciousness”, the best we can hope for is a very low resolution image.

  • Giulio Prisco

    @Rene’ re ““fundamentalist atheism is a religion” by a definition of religion i’m not familiar with – could you elaborate ?”

    Well, one definition of fundamentalist religion is intolerance to the private behavior and even thoughts of others. Once I heard a militant atheist calling for forced mental therapy for believers, which for me is enough to categorize militant atheism as a form of authoritarian fundamentalism. Actually, a form of fascist fundamentalism.

    re “if we ignore the majority of data contributing to the emergence of “consciousness”, the best we can hope for is a very low resolution image.”

    Of course, but this is not what I am saying. If consciousness depends on quantum data, then we must acquire enough quantum data.

  • René Milan

    Giulio – I can accept this definition of militant atheism, and definitely your characterisation of the presented attitude as fascist. But i still fail to see how how this could be described as a religion.

  • Giulio Prisco

    @Rene’ – THEY describe religion as fascist and intolerant thought-policing, so they fit perfectly their own definition of religion.

    A great man once said, “let he who is without sin, cast the first stone,” and “First take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.”

  • René Milan

    well, why would anyone accept “their” definitions of anything in educated discourse (even though “their” definition as presented by you accurately describe widespread activities undertaken in the name of religion).

  • Giulio Prisco

    @Rene’, as you say, the definition “fascist and intolerant thought-policing” accurately describes widespread activities undertaken in the name of religion.

    But I think fascist and intolerant thought policing does not come from the philosophical / theological convictions of scholars, or from the sincere faith of believers, but rather from the greed for power and money of high ranking members of the religious establishment.

    A proof is provided by the militant atheist themselves, who, despite having (or claiming to have) very different philosophical convictions, reproduce exactly the same behavior.

    Books don’t oppress or kill, people do.

  • René Milan

    “from the greed for power and money of high ranking members of the religious establishment” – who then are those high ranking members of an atheist “establishment” ? Lenin ? Hu Jintao ? Eddie Izzard ? Or are we dealing with agents provocateurs controlled by opus dei ?

    “Books don’t oppress or kill, people do” – well, Mein Kampf helped considerably. Greater culpability lies with the authors of inciting texts that justify, encourage and demand killing than with the individual dimwits falling for it.

  • Giulio Prisco

    Well, these guys mentioned here seem high ranking and atheist enough. Maybe they are controlled by opus dei, but I think opus dei can find enough thugs in their own camp. In summary, some people go to the left, some people go to the right, but assholes go everwhere.

    Re books, what I mean is that the _ideas_ (philosophical, political, religious…) in books don’t kill. People kill, including those who write books exhorting to kill. At the same time, we must draw a line somewhere (otherwise we can lock everyone in jail and throw the keys away). I draw the line at actual harm done to others (sticks and stones can break my bones, but thoughts and words cannot hurt me).

  • René Milan

    Interesting WP article, but without much relevance to the question at hand, as most of these people and systems are gone.

    “opus dei can find enough thugs in their own camp” – yes and if acting as agents provocateurs they of course are in their camp, masquerading as atheists to denigrate that movement.

    Let me rephrase the question: How is the above mentioned “militant atheist calling for forced mental therapy” benefiting financially andor politically from his statement ? Or who are his paymasters and how do they benefit ? I find it more likely that it’s an expression of disgust with the record of religions, resulting either on a personal level from “forced religious indoctrination” as you surmised above, or from looking at the historical record as in my case.

    My main point is that while large religions with the support of billions acquired largely through trickery and violence are indeed politically and economically powerful enough to habitually engage in “fascist and intolerant thought policing”, atheists have no such support and organization. In their mission to disseminate their ideas they are only slightly ahead of transhumanists. At present, definitely since the demise of the soviet union and the conversion of china to capitalism, the idea of militant atheism directed and financed by powerful grey eminences is a fiction. Militant atheists do exist but they are politically irrelevant and they do not constitute a religion.

    “I draw the line” – so do i, but the line depends on circumstance as much as on principle. For instance i fully understand the desire expressed in suppressive legislation in the young frg to eradicate national socialism. Justice & Reconciliation Committees may be preferable to the Nürnberg trials, but there is no one-size-fits-all solution.

    “some people go to the left, some people go to the right, but assholes go everwhere” – i love this statement, and with your permission will add it to my ‘favourite quotes’ collection.

  • Giulio Prisco

    “Let me rephrase the question: How is the above mentioned “militant atheist calling for forced mental therapy” benefiting financially andor politically from his statement ? Or who are his paymasters and how do they benefit ?”

    And how are right wing militant believers benefiting financially and/or politically from their witch hunts? Most of them don’t benefit individually, apart from the advantages that come to good members of their community.

    Of course, their paymasters benefit a lot. If you control the minds of the people, the secular power and the money will come. The Church has played this game very well for 2000 years, and caused a lot of suffering. What I reproach to militant atheists is imitating the authoritarian thought policing of their enemy. If we want to build a better world without oppressors and oppressed, live-and-let-live is the only way.

    “Militant atheists do exist but they are politically irrelevant and they do not constitute a religion.”

    Not yet, but they try to become one. In the countries mentioned in the WP article, believers have spend years in gulags (or worse) for the sole crime of going to church. I don’t want to see this in our society.

    “i fully understand the desire expressed in suppressive legislation in the young frg to eradicate national socialism.”

    I understand it too, but I am afraid the net result of suppressive legislation is pushing the young toward what it wants to suppress. The young tend to reject authority (and thank God for that).

  • René Milan

    “their paymasters benefit” – that’s why i asked if your example militant atheist has any, and who they are. ?

    “world without oppressors” is a nice idea, but living and letting them live is what keeps them in power.

    “they try to become one” – please show me how, who, when and where – at present.

    “pushing the young” – that’s debatable. Of course forbidden things become more interesting (a feature of curiosity which can lead to rebellion). But are there proportionally more nazis in west germany than in the u.s. ? I doubt it. (The old east is not comparable because of their special circumstances.)

    “thank God for that” – no, i thank evolution.

  • Giulio Prisco

    The paymasters of the soviet state atheists who sent believers to gulags were the top politicians and bureaucrats of the soviet terror regime.

    There is no equivalent that I can see in the western world at this moment. But (re “they try to become one”) if the attitude that I mentioned (calling for forced mental therapy for believers) is encouraged, sooner or later there will be.

    Re ““world without oppressors” is a nice idea, but living and letting them live is what keeps them in power.”

    On the contrary, live and let live is the only attitude that may create a world without oppressors.

    Of course, this is philosophy, and the real world is more complex than a book, so there are lines to be drawn. If somebody wants to go and shoot people in the street at random, I would certainly not recommend to let them live.

    But regulations and force must be a last resort, and they must be seen as a necessary evil to be tolerated only in extreme cases. I draw the line at actual harm done to real people. That includes explicit exhortation to violence, but does not include philosophical convictions, even those that I personally find repulsive.