Bronze-level articleQuantum consciousness

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Quantum consciousness (sometimes called quantum mind) is all too often a ham-fisted attempt to prove free will and/or god and/or magical pixies by jamming quantum physics into neuroscience.

Whether or not quantum effects influence thought is a valid topic for scientific investigation, but simply stating "quantum effects cause consciousness" explains nothing unless scientists can come up with some suggestion about how quantum effects could possibly cause consciousness. The argument goes:

  1. I don't understand consciousness.
  2. I don't understand quantum physics.
  3. Therefore, consciousness must be a function of quantum physics.

It's god of the gaps with "quantum" as the all-purpose gap filler.[1]

Contents

[edit] Quanta and consciousness

Not all quantum mechanical interpretations assume quantum collapse happens, but if it does, one of many competing theories about how it happens is that consciousness causes collapse. Since these consciousness-based theories were developed, people who want to believe that consciousness is in some way special have been attracted to that type of quantum physics. Some adherents to mystical consciousness-based quantum physics have been woo-meisters and pseudoscientists proposing often expensive solutions to problems. Despite this respected scientists like Eugene Wigner were also attracted to quantum consciousness, a view Wigner later repudiated.[2] At the present level of knowledge it is difficult for lay people to see how far quantum consciousness is a reasonable theory and how much it is wishful thinking. It should be noted however that unless substance dualism is true, which most scientists doubt, that conscious minds should be able to collapse wave-functions just as much as unconscious photodetectors can. If this were not so, it would mean that conscious minds are made of some non-physical substance that unconscious photodetectors are not made of.

[edit] Different theorists

It's necessary to distinguish between the Deepak Chopra-brand quantum woo version of quantum consciousness, non-materialist neuroscience and the more materialist version.

[edit] Deepak Chopra

In the Chopra-brand, everything is in some vague superposition, Schroedinger's cat style, until it is observed. Therefore, the universe requires an observer. Therefore, one or more god(s) exists.

According to Chopra, "consciousness is nonlocal" and consciousness is "a field, a superposition of possibilities."[3] It is a bit hard to see what Chopra means by this, it seems that a whole lot of different, perhaps incompatible possibilities (like the possibility that Schrödinger's cat is alive and the simultaneous possibility that the cat is dead) form a field and by some unexplained mechanism consciousness derives from this field of possibilities.

Other New Age nonsense often attempts to tie this in to idealism and other wishful thinking akin to The Secret.

[edit] Mario Beauregard

Mario Beauregard's brand of quantum theory is explained in-depth at the non-materialist neuroscience page. The crux of the quantum-related part of his argument is that the ion channels in neurons are small enough to be subject to quantum effects. This is similar to the materialist version of quantum consciousness. Other scientists reject many of Beargard's postulates.

[edit] Roger Penrose

The most famous proponent of this theory is Roger Penrose, a renowned mathematician who has collaborated frequently with Stephen Hawking — that is, he differs from other quantum consciousness proponents in actually understanding something about quantum physics. You might recognize his name from the Penrose triangle or the Penrose tiling.

Penrose's argument starts off based on Godel's incompleteness theorem, stating that the existence of the theorem demonstrated that the mind had the capability of thinking outside of an algorithmic fashion, i.e. that consciousness is non-computable. Quantum physics then gives him the out to argue that neurons, and thus the brain as a whole, operate in a probabilistic fashion.[4] Somehow probablistic fashions lead to consciousness. Max Tegmark claims that the brain is simply too hot for quantum states to be influential, but naturally other scientists disagree.[5]

[edit] Penrose and Hameroff

Penrose then teamed up with Stuart Hameroff, who developed a similar theory about quantum claptrap independently, to further this idea. They developed something called the Orchestrated Objective Reduction (Orch-OR) model. Most of it is dependent on Hameroff's assertion that the micro-tubules in neurons could have quantum effects on neuronal behavior, thus allowing the brain to behave as a quantum computer. Max Tegmark then actually did the math and found that any quantum effects within micro-tubules would be subject to decoherence and thus not affect brain activity.[6] Further falsifications of the Orch-OR model have been performed.[7][8] Penrose is an atheist and his arguments are usually used to support free will without invoking spirits, making this something like materialist woo.

It should be noted that a quantum computer is a real (theoretical) device that utilises the quantum properties of atoms and molecules for computing power.[9] A quantum computer harnesses the quantum superposition of atoms and can hold a single bit (known as "qubit") in a state of 1, 0 and both at the same time. Effectively this means that a single atom used to perform a calculation is on, off, and on and off at the same time. The quantum computer can maintain these states - potentially all possible states - simultaneously before coalescing around a single calculation almost instantaneously. In principle, this allows quantum computers to perform some operations exponentially faster than classical computers, though there is currently no sound evidence to suggest that the human brain (or any other natural phenomenon) is or acts like a quantum computer.

[edit] All these theories

In short, the various exercises in quantum "flapdoodle"[10] seem to demonstrate that many are uncomfortable with the facts that neurons operate on the all-or-nothing principle, i.e., a) they are either on or off, making them in effect similar to a computer's binary code;[11] b) that, as far as we can tell according to modern science, they are subject to physical law and classical mechanics; and c) we still don't have a full solution for the binding problem or an all-encompassing explanation for just why brains work the way they do. Of course not all of it is flapdoodle-this doesn't rule out the possibility of quantum effects, but no coherent mechanism able to be replicated by experiment has been proposed thus far.

As of late, it seems that Penrose and his followers have allowed their brand of quantum consciousness to bleed into Chopra's and that of other woo-meisters.[12] This is rather unfortunate due to the fact that while many predictions made by the Orch-OR model have been wrong, it might have eventually shown promise in a protoscientific sense, while Chopra's nonsense is mostly unfalsifiable and not even wrong.

[edit] The question of "quantum free will"

Even if quantum forces were discovered to exert influence over neuronal activity, this still doesn't necessarily prove free will, in great part because of the slippery definition of "free will." The probabilistic nature of quantum mechanics does not rule out determinism -- rather than a strict "A then B" view of causality, it simply creates a more complex picture of causality in which future possibilities and probabilities are naturally constrained and "calculated."[13] This might be thought of as rolling dice to determine your future action. It may be probabilistic, but it isn't freely chosen in the normal sense of the word.[14]

[edit] Victor Stenger

Victor Stenger gets the last word, from his definitive takedown of quantum nonsense:

The overwhelming weight of evidence, from seven decades of experimentation, shows not a hint of a violation of reductionist, local, discrete, nonsuperluminal, non-holistic relativity and quantum mechanics - with no fundamental involvement of human consciousness other than in our own subjective perception of whatever reality is out there. Of course our thinking processes have a strong influence on what we perceive. But to say that what we perceive therefore determines, or even controls, what is out there is without rational foundation. The world would be a far different place for all of us if it was just all in our heads - if we really could make our own reality as the New Agers believe. The fact that the world rarely is what we want it to be is the best evidence that we have little to say about it. The myth of quantum consciousness should take its place along with gods, unicorns, and dragons as yet another product of the fantasies of people unwilling to accept what science, reason, and their own eyes tell them about the world.[15]

'Nuff said.

[edit] See also

[edit] External links

[edit] Footnotes

  1. Note that this is the case even if, as with Penrose, you do know your quantum physics.
  2. "Wigner’s View of Physical Reality," Section 2.5 - Wigner’s later change of position
  3. What Quantum Physics Tells Us About Consciousness, Deepak Chopra
  4. This is Penrose's book The Emperor's New Mind and some of his later work condensed to a few sentences.
  5. Quantum biology, Nanoword
  6. Max Tegmark, "The Importance of Quantum Decoherence in Brain Processes," Phys. Rev. E 61 (2000) 4194-4206. Copy at arXiv. Further explanation and commentary can be found here
  7. Reimers et al. Weak, strong, and coherent regimes of Fröhlich condensation and their applications to terahertz medicine and quantum consciousness. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Online, Feb. 2009.
  8. Georgiev, Danko (2006). Falsifications of Hameroff-Penrose Orch OR Model of Consciousness and Novel Avenues for Development of Quantum Mind Theory. PhilSci Archive
  9. See the Wikipedia article on Quantum computer.
  10. To borrow a phrase from Murray Gell-Mann.
  11. Similar, but not identical. See Isaac White's GOFAI's Biological Assumption and Where It Leads for differences between boolean logic and neural activity.
  12. Hameroff has become a particularly bad offender, having gone on to be featured in What the Bleep Do We Know? and palling around with Chopra himself.
  13. This argument has been put forth by a number of physicists and philosophers, perhaps most recently in Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow's The Grand Design. pp. 72-73
  14. Although Luke Rhinehart would disagree.
  15. Victor J. Stenger. The Myth of Quantum Consciousness. The Humanist, May/June 1992, Vol. 53, Number 3, pp. 13-15.
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