Debate Magazine

Quantum Consciousness Redux

By Cris

Those interested in spinning their brain bosons and fermions should head over to Physics of Life Reviews, which has published a series of open access articles on what is sometimes called “quantum consciousness.” The lead article is by Stuart Hameroff and Roger Penrose, who have reviewed and updated their controversial Orch-OR theory of consciousness. Here is the abstract:

The nature of consciousness, the mechanism by which it occurs in the brain, and its ultimate place in the universe are unknown. We proposed in the mid 1990ʼs that consciousness depends on biologically ‘orchestrated’ coherent quantum processes in collections of microtubules within brain neurons, that these quantum processes correlate with, and regulate, neuronal synaptic and membrane activity, and that the continuous Schrödinger evolution of each such process terminates in accordance with the specific Diósi–Penrose (DP) scheme of ‘objective reduction’ (‘OR’) of the quantum state. This orchestrated OR activity (‘Orch OR’) is taken to result in moments of conscious awareness and/or choice. The DP form of OR is related to the fundamentals of quantum mechanics and space–time geometry, so Orch OR suggests that there is a connection between the brainʼs biomolecular processes and the basic structure of the universe. Here we review Orch OR in light of criticisms and developments in quantum biology, neuroscience, physics and cosmology. We also introduce a novel suggestion of ‘beat frequencies’ of faster microtubule vibrations as a possible source of the observed electro-encephalographic (‘EEG’) correlates of consciousness. We conclude that consciousness plays an intrinsic role in the universe.

The first sentence is mostly true, the last sentence is enormously speculative, and the statements in between strike me as difficult to test. There are some interesting comments in the response articles. In his, John Lucas takes a swipe at determinism, which is a favorite construct of New Atheists:

Professors Stuart Hameroff and Roger Penrose have been led by two routes to take freedom seriously, considering it not only from the outside, but also from the point of view of those who decide what to do, the face they have in exercising it.

The low road to freedom is by quantum mechanics. Quantum mechanics has proved Laplacian determinism to be false. Throughout the physical world new things happen which could not have been predicted with certainty….The high road is by Gödelʼs theorem, which shows that minds cannot be explained by any computational system and must derive from some effect that cannot be characterized algorithmically.

Other authors have been led by the two routes to similar conclusions. What distinguishes Hameroffʼs and Penroseʼs approach is that they offer an account that integrates the two approaches into a single theory. Hameroff and Penrose locate their position by contrasting it with currently held ones. Theirs is anti-epiphenomenalist and anti-dualist.

Most scientists [see consciousness as epiphenomenal], shutting their eyes to crucial facts. Descartes and many religious thinkers are dualists, [an untestable position that improperly takes] consciousness outside the range of scientific enquiry. A scientific, non-reductive explanation is called for as the only one faithful to the facts and worthy of a scientist.

The response by Reimers and colleagues is less charitable. For a variety of arcane reasons, they contend that the Hameroff-Penrose theory is not “scientifically justifiable.” Here’s the gist:

For quantum information processing one must have quantum information storage units such as qubits. All aspects of the proposal need to be considered in terms of how they either influence or are influenced by the properties of these storage units…The specification of the quantum qubit should be the centrepiece of the proposal. All other aspects of the Orch OR proposal are only relevant in terms of how they affect the qubits.

Without a viable qubit specification there is no connection between the proposal and the observations of Bandyopadhyay and others. Without a qubit there is no connection to postulated effects of quantum gravity. Without a qubit there is no testable hypothesis linking together the phenomena of quantum gravity, elementary biochemical function, and consciousness, and no basis on which “Orch OR theory” can be considered as a proposal worthy of further consideration.

The next response is by Deepak Chopra. As might be expected, it is completely out of place in a scientific journal. It’s mostly gobbledygook, also known as woo:

Physics has never come closer to describing the quantum foundation of consciousness than in this article by Penrose and Hameroff. It begins with the brain as a testable locus of the mind, the standard materialist position. But by tracing brain activity to quantum events at the microtubule level, the Orch OR model positions itself at the halfway house between the physicalist perspective and the “spiritual” perspective most purely represented by Vedanta. Vedanta is non-dual (pace the Penrose–Hameroff claim that “spiritual” systems are dual). It posits that the cosmos is the play of consciousness, which undergoes transformations into what we perceive as matter and energy. By inserting Platonic values from mathematics, Orch OR, while still accepting the primacy of a world “out there,” opens up a choice.

The choice is between two non-dual explanations for how mind came into being. Vedanta says that mind is innate in creation. To be viable, this brand of monism must show how mind created matter and energy. The challenge from the Penrose–Hameroff side is to show how matter and energy created mind. Of the two, Vedanta, in my view, has the upper hand. Mind creates matter every time we have thoughts that generate unique electrochemical activity in the brain. But no one has credibly shown how molecules learned to think. This article is an optimistic step in a project that is paradoxical when viewed by Vedanta.

The paradox is that Vedanta rejects materialism as unsound while at the same time allowing any model to be valid on its own limited terms. Since all models are created in consciousness, and since consciousness creates reality, the scientific model is a creative use of consciousness – all models, including the religious and philosophical, are equal in this respect. Science isnʼt privileged, but neither is Buddhism or Theosophy or aboriginal animism. Vedanta can live with the paradox that all systems of thought are viable and inadequate at the same time. The only privileged thing is consciousness itself.

Orch OR provides a credible, testable model for how mental activity enters the physical world. I would take its optimism and turn it around: the mind-brain problem is indeed closer to being solved, not because quantum events give rise to mind but because these events indicate that an invisible agency (consciousness) is producing orderly, intelligent, information-infused activity at the very interface where spacetime emerges. The Platonic values of mathematics are undeniable, and once they are admitted into the picture, Vedanta would allow in every other Platonic value (truth, beauty, love). Then “nothing” – pure awareness without qualities – is the only viable explanation left standing for the origin of mind and reality itself.

If you are committed to Vedanta, this could conceivably make sense. If you are not so committed, it is pure nonsense.

There are several additional responses, some of them quite good. I encourage you to read them. I may provide additional snippets over the weekend, but the Chopra piece has my head spinning and it’s time for beer-induced clarity.


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