Will Quantum Mechanics Be Able to Explain Consciousness?

March 20, 2018

1. Quantum mechanics (QM) has some features (quantum entanglement, Heisenberg uncertainty principle, etc), that makes 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 was emerging in the early 1900’s, many people started tying the two together, and speculating that the new found quantum theory would be able to explain how consciousness arises in the brain.

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

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 in the “causal closure of the physical domain”, i.e., all phenomena can be explained with a physical (matter) basis. For a collection of discussions with a number of 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. This is an impossible task.

4. This key 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 essay, “…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, and we will discuss those new developments below. Subjectivity plays an important 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

1. In order to clearly state the issue that we intend to address, we need to first clarify the distinction between “objective” and “subjective”.

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

2. 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 from many people, some will love him, some will hate him, and others will be somewhere in between.
  • Same is true about politics in general, 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 (Asavas)”.

3. Therefore, it is clear that while objective assessments are much easier to assess compared to subjective. By definition, we all cannot agree on something subjective.  That is because we place different values on things, and have different opinions based on our value systems.

  • But, one would think that it should be easy for science to figure out how objective assessments are made in our brains. But even that is more complex than we would think.

4. For example, neuroscience is not yet able to 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 harder.

  • This root problem even in handling such basic 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 correlates of consciousness; but finding 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, “Ghost in the Machine – Synonym for the Manomaya Kaya?“.

5. To emphasize; Even though the color of a rose is an objective property, we still do not know how that is identified in the brain. Still, the real subjective experience entails not only in identifying a rose as red, but also forming a feeling about that rose. And that is the really critical problem.

  • Therefore, “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 it is those feelings and perceptions that arise due to a sensory experience that are truly subjective.
  • Until recently, neuroscience had not been able to even recognize the existence of mental attributes such as emotions, feelings, and perceptions. The availability of precision neuro-imaging methods has enabled an explosion of activity in those areas basically 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 are able to point out only neural correlates (not neural constitution) of these mental qualities.

6. Therefore, even if we solve the “hard problem” associated with discerning basic aspects of “qualia” (such as experiencing “redness of a rose”), that will still not solve the problem of the “subjective experience”. For that the neurons in each person’s brain must have its own set of some special “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); it is those complex, very personal, feelings (happiness, sadness, greediness, hatefulness, jealousy, etc.). Because of that, our follow-up actions also become very personalized. Mind is much more complex than matter.
  • 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“.

7. We have a thriving science and technology field because we deal objectively (and thus rationally) with inert matter in such cases. Thus 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, and they will get the same result (within experimental uncertainties) which they all can agree on.

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

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

  • It is pointed out that there is no evidence for even 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.

9. Subjective decisions are very personalized, like voting liberal versus conservative, buying versus selling a given stock, liking versus disliking a given food, and zillions of such decisions that are truly subjective.

  • Quantum mechanical experiments do not involve any such subjective decisions, and the same result is obtained regardless of who does the experiment. Backbone of QM, as with any area in science, is the reproducibility of experimental results, and QM measurements are reproducible.
  • This is the key to realizing that quantum phenomena have nothing to do with the mind.
Both Classical and Quantum Phenomena Are Objective and Deterministic

1. 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 were 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 be able to explain consciousness.

2. It is true that quantum phenomena have characteristics that are very different from classical phenomena (described by Newtonian mechanics); but both quantum and classical phenomena are objective. There is no evidence of quantum phenomena having anything to do with the subjective consciousness of a human.

  • The use of the phrase “non-deterministic”  (or “indeterminacy”) for quantum phenomena is a misleading one. It gives the impression that 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”.

3. All QM experiments conducted up to date are totally objective in nature, and subjective consciousness does not play any role in these experiments. A given QM experiment may give different results based on the conditions under which the measurements are made; but if those conditions are fixed, then the results are the same regardless of who does the experiment or where it is done.

  • There is no “intrinsic subjectivity” in those experiments, other than the possibility of a range of outcomes (with known probability) due to the Heisenberg uncertainty principle.
  • If the same experiment is conducted under the same conditions, the same result is obtained regardless of who does the experiment; no connection to consciousness of the observer.
  • We will  continue this discussion in the next post, “The Observer Effect in Quantum Mechanics“. Later on, we will discuss different types of QM experiments, including the famous double-slit experiment.

Any questions on these QM posts can be discussed at the discussion forum: “Quantum Mechanics – A New Interpretation“.

References

Aru, J. and Bachmann, T. (2015), Still wanted – the mechanism of consciousness, Frontiers in Psychology, vol. 6, pp. 1-3.

Bird, G. and Viding, E. (2014), The self to other model of empathy: providing a new framework for understanding empathy impairments in psychotherapy, autism, and alexithymia, Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews, vol 47, pp. 520-532.

Bitbol, M. (2008), Consciousness, situations, and the measurement problem of quantum mechanics, Neuroquantology, vol. 6, pp. 203-213.

Blackmore, S. (2005), Conversations on Consciousness, Oxford University Press.

Chalmers, D. J. (1995) The puzzle of conscious experience, Scientific American, December 1995, pp. 62-68.

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

Lamm, C. and Majdandzic, J. (2015), The role of shared neural activations, mirror neurons, and morality in empathy, Neuroscience Research, vol 90, pp. 15-24.

Lindquist, K. A. and Barrett, L. F. (2012), A functional architecture of the human brain: emerging insights from the science of emotion, Trends in Cognitive Sciences, vol. 16, pp. 533-539.

Miller, S. M. (2014), Closing in on the constitution of consciousness, Frontiers in Psychology, vol. 5, pp. 1-18.

Nagel, T. (1974), What is it like to be a bat?, The Philosophical Review LXXXIII, (4), pp. 435-450.

Noe, A. and Thompson, E. (2004), Are there neural correlates of Consciousness?, Journal of Consciousness Studies, vol. 11, pp. 3-28.

Penrose, R., Kuttner, F., Rosenblum, B., Stapp, H., (2011), Quantum Physics of Consciousness, Cosmology Science Publishers.

Rosenblum, B. and Kuttner, F., (2011), Quantum Enigma: Physics Encounters Consciousness, Oxford University Press.

Stapp, H. (2011), Mindful Universe: Quantum Mechanics and the Participating Observer, Springer.

Walker, E. H. (2000), The Physics Of Consciousness: The Quantum Mind And The Meaning Of Life, Basic Books.

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