Will Quantum Mechanics Be Able to Explain Consciousness?

March 20, 2018; revised March 12, 2021; April 19, 2022

Quantum Mechanics and Consciousness Are Both “Mysterious”

1. Quantum mechanics (QM) has some features (quantum entanglement, Heisenberg uncertainty principle, etc.) that make it appear “mysterious” compared to classical physics, where the predictions are intuitive and transparently deterministic.

  • The “hard problem in consciousness” (discussed in philosophy) is also mysterious, just like quantum phenomena: the question of how consciousness can arise in a brain made of inert matter.
  • When quantum mechanics emerged in the early 1900s, many people started tying the two together, speculating that the newfound quantum theory would explain how consciousness arises in the brain.
Attempts to “Explain” the Origin of Consciousness With Quantum Mechanics

2. There have been several such QM-based theories proposed to explain consciousness.

  • Several popular books recently published emphasize the possible role of QM in generating human consciousness (Walker, 2000; Penrose et al., 2011; Rosenblum and Kuttner, 2011; Stapp, H., 2011).
  • A recent review paper is: “Neural correlates of consciousness- Koch et al- 2016“.
  • Another proposed approach, for example, is based on consciousness originating in microtubules in neurons:  “Consciousness in the universe – Hameroff and Penrose-2014“.
  • However, those are just unverified “theories.” They will NEVER be proven to be correct. The Buddha explained that the mind is the precursor to everything in this world. Nothing in the brain can give rise to consciousness. See “Origin of Life.”
Philosophers Are Starting to Realize

3. Other than such activities in science, a hot topic in current philosophy is “how consciousness arises in a material brain.” Most philosophers are physicalists and believe that a physical (matter) basis can explain all phenomena. For a collection of discussions with several philosophers, see (Blackmore, 2005).

  • As David Chalmers pointed out in 1994 at the first Tucson conference on consciousness: “The hard problem…is the question of how physical processes in the brain give rise to subjective experience” (Chalmers, 1995).
  • The problem in philosophy (and in science) then is to figure out how the “subjective” consciousness arises from “objective” matter. That is an impossibility.

4. This critical bottleneck was also emphasized by Thomas Nagel (Nagel, 1974) even earlier in his famous essay, “What Is It Like to Be a Bat- Nagel- 1974”. As he pointed out at the end of the paper, “…it seems unlikely that any physical theory of mind can be contemplated until more thought has been given to the general problem of subjective and objective. Otherwise, we cannot even pose the mind-body problem without sidestepping it”.

  • The difference between “subjective” and “objective” is becoming clear with the neuroscience research done, especially in the past decade. We will discuss those new developments below. Subjectivity plays a vital role in cognition (consciousness), and the question is how that can arise from an “objective” material base.
Subjective versus Objective: Difference between Mind and Matter

5. To clearly state the issue we intend to address, we need to clarify the distinction between “objective” and “subjective.”

  • Objective means one’s personal opinions and biases do not come into play.  It is easy to be objective about the physical properties of matter: We all agree on what the length, weight, density, color, etc., of a given object, is. We have developed standard procedures for measuring them. Therefore, the same answer will result, no matter who makes the measurement.
  • Thus we all agree (unless one is color blind) that a particular rose is red; that is also objective.
What Is Subjective?

6. Then, what is subjective? Those are personal opinions that can vary from person to person.

  • For example, if you ask the opinion about politician X, some will love him, some will hate him, and others will be somewhere in between.
  • The same is true about politics, religions, foods, smells, books, movies, etc. All those are subjective.
  • In Buddha Dhamma, those subjective opinions arise because different people have different “gati“; see, “The Law of Attraction, Habits, Character (Gati), and Cravings (Āsavas).”
Science Is Based on Objective Assessments

7. We have a thriving science and technology field because we deal objectively (and thus rationally) with inert matter in such cases. Therefore, we can lay out an experiment in detail and then carry it out anywhere by any team of competent scientists who design and carry out experiments objectively. They will get the same result (within experimental uncertainties.)

  • Science and technology would not flourish if such experiments did not produce consistent and repeatable results.

8. Science is focused on “material phenomena” involving inert matter. Scientists can send a rocket to the Moon. That only involves the motion of objects that strictly follow the laws of motion. Therefore, it is clear that objective assessments are much more straightforward than subjective assessments.

  • By definition, we cannot agree on something subjective.  We place different values on things and have different opinions based on our value systems.
  • One would think it should be easy for science to figure out how objective assessments can occur in our brains. But that is not where it happens. Thinking occurs in the manomaya kāya (gandhabba) and not in the physical brain. See “Mental Body – Gandhabba.”
The Mystery of Consciousness

9. For example, neuroscience cannot explain how our brains even discern a rose as “red,” i.e., how inert neurons can give rise to an “experience” even if it is objective. Explaining subjective experiences is much more challenging.

  • This root problem, even in handling such essential aspects of “qualia,” has been pointed out by several philosophers and scientists over the years; see, for example, Noe and Thompson (2004), Bitbol (2008), Miller (2014), Aru and Bachmann (2015), and references therein.
  • As these authors point out, currently, efforts are focused on investigating just neural correlations of consciousness. But finding a neural constitution of consciousness (how consciousness arises) appears impossible (and it is!).
  • It is impossible because consciousness is not in the physical body. It is in the mental body (gandhabba); see several posts starting with “Human Life – A Mental Base (Gandhabba) and a Material Base (Cell)” in the series “Origin of Life.”
How Does Consciousness Arise?

10. Can an inert brain identify a color? How can a brain feel pain? Those are critical issues to address.

  • Furthermore, “the actual problem of consciousness” is much more complex because the feeling that arises upon seeing a red-color object can be different for different people; some like red clothes to wear, for example, and some don’t.
  • Thus, those feelings and perceptions arise due to a sensory experience that is truly subjective. Material phenomena are, by definition, objective.
  • Until recently, neuroscience did not even acknowledge the existence of mental attributes such as emotions, feelings, and perceptions. Precision neuro-imaging methods have enabled an explosion of activity in those areas within the past decade; see, for example (Lindquist and Barrett, 2012; Bird and Viding, 2014; Klasen et al., 2014; Lamm and Majdandzic, 2015). However, these studies can point out only neural correlates (not neural constitution) of these mental qualities.
Subjective Experiences Are Impossible to Explain With Modern Science

11. Therefore, even if we solve the “hard problem” associated with discerning fundamental aspects of “qualia” (such as experiencing the “redness of a rose”), that will still not solve the problem of the “subjective experience.” The neurons in each person’s brain must have their own unique “characteristics” to provide the “subjective experience.” Yet, neurons are neurons. How can person X’s neurons be different from those of person Y?

  • Thus the difference between mind and matter is much deeper than just “qualia” (redness of a rose). Emotions that arise in mind (happiness, sadness, greediness, hatefulness, jealousy, etc.) are complex and personal. The mind is complex.
  • The problem in trying to explain the mind phenomena with inert neurons in the brain has its root in trying to explain complex “subjective mental phenomena” with an ontologically different “objective” material base (neurons).
  • The Buddha has explained that those feelings arise not in the physical body but in the mental body (gandhabba).; see “Mental Body – Gandhabba.”

12. In any case, we are focusing on even a narrower aspect in this paper, i.e., the role of quantum mechanics.

  • There is no evidence for a correlation between the mind and quantum phenomena, let alone a causal connection.
  • Results of QM experiments do not depend on the “subjectivity” of the person conducting those experiments simply because truly subjective decisions are not involved in such experiments.

13. Subjective decisions are very personalized, like voting liberal versus conservative, buying versus selling a given stock, OR liking versus disliking a given food—zillions of such choices are truly subjective.

  • Quantum mechanical experiments do not involve such subjective decisions, and the outcome is the same regardless of the experimenter. In science, the reproducibility of experimental results is the final arbiter. Quantum mechanical measurements are reproducible.
  • That is the key to realizing that quantum phenomena have nothing to do with the mind. Quantum phenomena may differ from “classical phenomena,” but they are reproducible.
Both Classical and Quantum Phenomena Are Objective and Deterministic

14. Transparently, “deterministic” classical physics (Newtonian mechanics) did not come even close to explaining the “subjective” consciousness. But the emergence of QM with its “unusual aspects” immediately led many to infer that it may be able to explain the equally “mysterious” consciousness.

  • Since the 1920s, attempts have been made to rationalize the “unusual” nature of QM, and ideas emerged from the physics community itself that conscious observations could affect the outcomes of an experiment (e.g., the “observer effect”); see “The ‘Observer Effect’ in Quantum Mechanics.” Recently, such ideas have been adopted to explain the origin of consciousness itself.
  • We will summarize the existing experimental results in future posts to show that there is no evidence to suggest that quantum mechanical phenomena are even related to consciousness, let alone explain consciousness.

15. Quantum phenomena have characteristics that differ from classical phenomena (described by Newtonian mechanics). Still, both quantum and classical phenomena are objective. There is no evidence of quantum phenomena having anything to do with subjective consciousness.

  • The phrase “non-deterministic”  (or “indeterminacy”) for quantum phenomena is a misleading one. It gives the impression that the results of QM experiments cannot be pre-determined. That is false.
  • Even though many “classical experiments” have just one outcome, that is not true in all cases. For example, in chaos theory, one can calculate only probabilities.
  • Similarly, in QM experiments, one can calculate only probabilities, but those predictions are ALWAYS consistent with experimental measurements. Therefore, it is misleading to label QM phenomena as “non-deterministic.”
All QM Experiments Are Objective

16. All QM experiments conducted have been objective. Subjective consciousness does not play any role in those experiments. A given QM experiment may yield different results based on the experimental conditions.

  • Due to the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, there is no “intrinsic subjectivity” in those experiments other than the possibility of a range of outcomes (with known probabilities).
  • An experiment under the same conditions will yield the same result regardless of the experimenter—no connection to the observer’s consciousness. Many try to use the famous double-slit experiment to show such a connection, but that is incorrect. See “The Double Slit Experiment – Correlation between Mind and Matter?
  • We will continue this discussion in the next post, “The Observer Effect in Quantum Mechanics.”
QM Cannot Play a Role if the Brain Is Not Necessary for Conscious Experience

17. The possibility of QM playing a role is completely negated if it is verified that conscious experience can be without any brain activity. That is indeed the case reported by many people worldwide in their Near-Death Experiences (NDE).


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Klassen, M., et al., (2014), Neural processing of emotion in multimodal settings, Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, vol. 8, pp. 1-4.

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