Quantum consciousness

Piero Scaruffi


Piero Scaruffi takes the view that the more we come to know about the brain, the less easy it becomes to explain consciousness in terms of classical physics. This is the direct opposite of the mainstream view according to which greater knowledge of the brain will inevitably reveal an explanation that can be described in terms of classical physics.

Neurobiology is by implication criticised for being so dependent on Newtonian physics, despite this being known to be limited in its correctness. Neurobiologists have remained attached to classical physics, despite the fact that the objects and processes they are studying have become smaller, and therefore closer to needing a quantum interpretation. A further problem is that consciousness was from the beginning excluded from Newtonian theory.

The early part of Scaruffi’s paper provides an outline of the main theories of quantum consciousness. Quantum models of consciousness date back to the 1920’s and the birth of quantum theory itself. However, the earliest detailed model appears to have been produced by Evan Walker in 1970. This proposed that electrons could quantum tunnel between adjacent neurons to produce a virtual nervous system that direct the synapse-based system. The idea finds echoes in the later Penrose/Hameroff model, where Hameroff suggests that quantum states can extend across macroscopic areas of the brain, as a result of quantum tunnelling at gap junctions linking the dendrites of different neurons.

The physicist, Herbert Fröhlich, suggested that a quantum phenomenon called Bose-Einstein condensation could arise in biological matter. Living matter comprises mainly water and biomolecules, both of which are electrical dipoles. It is suggested that when such oscillators are maintained at a constant temperature, as they are in the thermal non-equilibrium of biological tissue, condensates can arise. These may also encode information and transmit signals. At a later date, the Penrose/Hameroff model also used condensates, which in conjunction with quantum tunnelling at gap junctions allowed quantum states to extend over macroscopic areas of the brain. In 1989, Ian Marshall also suggested that consciousness could arise from the excitation of condensates in the brain.

The philosopher, Michael Lockwood, approached quantum consciousness from a different angle. He argued that special relativity meant that mental states must be physical states. Mental states existed in time, and because space and time were part of the same thing, mental states must also exist in space. He viewed consciousness as having the role that the observer has in the orthodox Bohr view of quantum mechanics, but also because of his argument from special relativity argument, they have to be part of the physical state of the brain. Consciousness is put in the position of scanning the brain looking for sensations.

The physicist, Henry Stapp, produced a quantum theory of consciousness based on Heisenberg’s and von Neumann’s interpretation of quantum mechanics, which is close to Bohr’s. Stapp’s interpretation of this was that all that exists is subjective knowledge (i.e. the knowledge of an observer of a Bohr type quantum experiment). What is referred to as the ‘Heisenberg choice’ is the choice of what question will be asked of nature, and this choice is seen as altering the way in which the universe actually develops. The ‘Dirac process’ is the answer to the question provided by nature, which like all quantum answers is seen to be random. Scaruffi relates these views to the psychiatrist Jeffrey Schwarz, who is opposed to the mechanistic approach to psychiatry, and argues for the ability of consciousness to control brain processes.

The paper also discusses the position of Karl Pribram, who considers that brain processes have many of the properties of holograms. Sensory perception is seen as electromagnetic activation propagating through the brain. These sensory waves can interfere with memory also propagating as a wave to produce a holographic structure. Perceptions can be analysed into component frequencies, and therefore dealt with by Fourier analyse. Dirac’s least action principle constrains the trajectories of these waves.

The physicist, Kunio Yasue built on the earlier ideas of another physicist Hiroomo Umezawa to develop a set of ideas known as quantum brain dynamics. Yasue emphasises the role of the water molecules that make up much of the brain. He proposes that these can form an extensive quantum system that interacts with neuronal networks. He supports Fröhlich’s idea of condensates in the neuronal membrane providing macroscopic coherence. He thinks the microtubules inside neurons could also support coherence, and that they could be involved in cognition and memory. Consciousness is suggested to arise from the interaction between the electromagnetic field and the fields created by water and protein in the brain.

The Penrose/Hameroff model is also discussed. Penrose proposed that in addition to the normal random quantum wave reduction, there could be an additional objective reduction affecting waves that do not interact with the environment. Each superposition of the quantum wave is proposed to have its own spacetime geometry, and when the separation of these spacetimes reaches a critical level, the superpositions collapse to a single state. This latter reduction process is suggested to be non-computable. Non-computable processes are suggested to be encoded into networks that make up the fundamental geometry of spacetime. The brain is suggested to access this level via the wave function collapse of macroscopic quantum states existing in microtubules within the brain’s neurons. At a later point in Scaruffi’s paper, he states that Penrose is wrong in making consciousness appear by magic out of unconscious matter. However, this does not appear to be a correct interpretation of Penrose, even relative to Scaruffi’s own description. In the Penrose theory, consciousness arises from spacetime as a fundamental property of the universe.

The ideas of the philosopher, David Chalmer’s are discussed. Chalmers is critical of mainstream consciousness thinking, but does not see the solution in quantum theories of consciousness. Chalmers makes a distinction between the phenomenal concept of mind (the way it feels) and the psychological concept (what the mind does). Every mental property is considered to be either phenomenal or psychological or some combination of the two. Pain, often viewed as an example of the qualia, is experienced subjectively, but can also be analysed functionally. Chalmer’s proposed solution to the problem of consciousness is based on the concept of information. Information is seen as the link between the physical and the conscious. Information is pattern seen from the inside, and consciousness is seen as information about the pattern of the self.

A Darwinist theory of consciousness

The last part of Scaruffi’s paper seeks to develop his own view on the subject of consciousness. He rejects the notion that sensations or subjective experience can be reduced to particles. He suggests that we should analyse why consciousness is limited to the brain, or in another words, what is special about the brain that can’t be found elsewhere. The brain is described as being made by common and well-known constituents of matter, with no explanation as to why they produce consciousness, when configured as a brain, but not when configured as a foot. He does not think that any account of the brain, however detailed it may become, will ever be able to explain how the material components of the brain turn into consciousness.

Instead, consciousness itself must be a physical property, rather than something that is created by other physical components. He compares those neuroscientists who do not accept this, to a scientist that did not accept that electrical charge is a fundamental property, but tried to explain it in terms of some other property such as gravity. He takes the view that any paradigm that tries to manufacture consciousness out of something else is doomed to failure. In such a paradigm, consciousness will seem to appear by magic by putting neurons or similar components which have no sign of consciousness in their make up together. He says that his theory is neither dualist nor reductionist. Consciousness is seen as separate from physical science as described, but still a physical property.

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