Quantum mechanics, consciousness & the self

Chris Clarke

Faculty of Mathematical Studies, University of Southampton

Chis Clarke’s paper discusses qualia and free will. Clarke defines the irreducible aspect of qualia and also free will as the essence of human consciousness. He thinks that qualia arise from an ‘entanglement’ between a person and the perceived object. Free will is suggested to arise from the use of self-reflection to change the reference frame within which decisions are taken. This change in the reference frame is likened to the change between quantum wave and particle. Clarke does not think that these characteristics can be derived by just summing up the microscopic events found in quantum theory.

In discussing qualia, Clarke remarks that consciousness is a unity and some aspects of this are qualia such as colour. However, the totality of consciousness is more than just the total of various qualia. Clarke takes the view that in looking at, for instance a tree, we perceive a variety of qualia, but that there is no tree quale. Clarke also distinguishes between internal experience, such as anger etc, and the perception of external objects. Clarke argues, in line with Heidegger, that the primal qualia is the internal experience, with infants gradually learning to split off the perceived external world from their internal experience. The last has been confirmed by studies of child development.

The present scientific orthodoxy is seen as going only half way to describe qualia. The perceptual world and its qualia are seen as only a model of external reality. There are one-to-one correspondences between external things and perceptions, but they are not at all the same thing. Thus a particular frequency of oscillation of photons corresponds to the quale of the colour red, but in contrast to the external behaviour of the photon, the physical nature of the redness quale is completely unknown, and it is not apparent how it would be discovered by a conventional scientific approach.

Clarke, in line with Max Velmans, wants to stand the traditional scientific view on its head. Instead of our perceptions being a model of external reality, external reality is modelled by our perceptions, with the qualia being out there in the external world, and apparently being the product of entanglement between the two systems.

In discussing free will, Clarke looks at our process of decision taking where we envisage the possible outcome of actions and evaluate our emotional response to these. This approach is often effective in reaching a decision, but on some occasions we are still left without a decision. Clarke suggests that free will or something like it cuts in at this point, and changes the frame of reference so that we might suddenly bring in the thought, what would X have done or thought in this situation, thus moving the decision making process into a new frame of reference.

Chris Clarke claims that the stories that society tells itself about the physical nature of the world really matter because this affects the values of the society, and reinforces or undermines its power structures. The current mainstream paradigm derives from Newton, with subsequent additions from 19th century physics and 20th century molecular biology, and is now entrenched in the modern educational and medical systems. In earlier centuries, western thinking was dualistic. Clarke traces this back to ancient Greek philosophy, with humans comprised of two distinct substances, body and spirit. This idea was inherited by Christianity, and then given a more definite form by Descartes in the 17th century.

In the subsequent centuries, there was a gradual squeezing out of the spirit from this initially dualist view. This resulted from the ability of science to give a physical explanation to more and more things that had previously seemed to be the role of the spirit. The invention of computers, as a form of mechanical brain, seemed to round off this world view. The world is viewed as a system of isolated atoms and ideas such as meaning and purpose are deemed to be an illusion. At the same time, physics seems to leave out consciousness and the possibly related concepts of meaning and creativity. Further, the mainstream idea of phenomena, referring to mental experience appears to presuppose the idea of perceptions being mere mental appearances produced by an external reality.

Clarke is particularly critical of the current mainstream approach to consciousness. He criticises writers who replace the basic experience of the subjective with something at once more restricted and more complicated, such as self-consciousness, reasoning or problem solving. These writers appear not to notice the basic substratum of the subjective, thus rendering most of their discussion irrelevant.

Dennett, who is pre-eminent amongst mainstream thinkers on consciousness and taken as sole guide by some popular writers, is particularly criticised for looking at the problem from only a third person point of view, when the very concept of the third person assumes the existence of the first person.

Newtonian physics had in principle the ability to specify the position and velocity of every particle in the universe, and all properties of the universe could be specified in these terms. However, this approach is undermined by quantum mechanics. With respect to quantum mechanics, Clarke stresses two concepts, complementarity and non-locality.

Complimentarity does not allow us to specify all the properties of a physical system. Observation by an observer on the macroscopic world can determine which properties of a quantum system can be given values such as position or momentum. Clarke interprets this to mean that reality does not run from the quantum to the macroscopic, but constitutes an interplay between the two. This is related to Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, where two values such as position and momentum cannot be specified at the same time, but only two approximations, with the product of these uncertainties being equal to or greater than Planck’s constant. Clarke also argues that the majority of physicists who ignore quantum effects at the macroscopic or classical level are wrong, because with something like a living organism that has intermeshed interactions at many different scales, quantum unpredictability could manifest at the macroscopic level.

Clarke further discusses the problem of non-locality. A field, such as the electromagnetic field is regarded as local. At each point in spacetime the field takes a particular value. The field changes in time as a result of the value of the field at neighbouring points and never as a function of the values of distant points.

However, quantum states can be non-local. The Alain Aspect experiment showed that there could be a correlation between distant quantum particles that could not be a function of any of the particles that were local to the particles concerned. This suggests to Clarke that the particles are integrated into a larger system by underlying non-local connections. There is no possibility of communication between these particles, and this hard to explain characteristic leads Clarke to claim that existing physics, including quantum mechanics, is incomplete.

Clarke puts interpretations of quantum mechanics into two groups. Firstly, there are those that envisage the collapse of the wave function as a real physical event, while in the other camp views such as the Copenhagen interpretation regard the quantum states as mere abstractions necessary to predict and understand the outcome of experiments.

Clarke builds on the latter approach at the same time as saying that physics needs to be extended in order to provide a complete theory. First, he proposes a version known as histories of interpretation of quantum theory. Here the basic fact about a quantum state is the history that created the particular state, and a calculation of a probability of any particular history. An admitted problem here is the vast number of possible histories that could account for a state. There has to be a way of paring these down, and consciousness is suggested as the way of doing this.

Clarke describes the conscious ‘I’ as on the one hand linked with the various subsystems of the body but on the other hand, through quantum locality, including within it aspects of the people and things that it perceives. This represents a distinct view of quantum consciousness based mainly on non-locality.

It is disappointing that Clarke does not at least speculate on the practicalities of his proposal. For instance, non-locality does not allow the transmission of matter or energy, or of normal information, which is instantiated in matter or energy, but only of quantum properties, such as the spin of a particle. This obviously creates a problem for the efficacy of quantum entanglement in producing perception or subjective experience, which it would be interesting to have discussed. Similarly, the proposal seems to assume some presently unknown structure in the brain, presumably involving quantum coherence. This lays the idea open to sort of attacks that have assailed the Penrose/Hameroff model, and therefore require some explanation of how coherence would be sustained in the conditions of the brain.

This leads on to Clarke’s take with respect to free will, where his stance is somewhat confusing. In the first place, he suggests that decisions are based on a mixture of deterministic problem solving and randomness, the latter presumably quantum related. However, the mind is allowed to move into new frameworks of meaning, when consciousness changes the way in which it selects from different quantum histories. This could do with a lot more discussion. It is not really clear what triggers these changes of framework or how important they are in the overall workings of the mind, nor why it is the selection of histories rather than futures that is important.

Altogether, Clarke puts forward an interesting concept, but one that needs much more development.

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