Why Quantum Theory?

The question is often put as to why quantum theory should be involved in discussions of consciousness at all, and also as to why it should be treated as something special. In thinking about quantum theory, it is important not to be bullied into viewing it as something weird and peripheral that can be ignored. The theory has been something of a guilty secret in a scientific culture still dominated by the previous Newtonian ideas, and it is noticeably played down in science and general knowledge education. An adverse consequence of this is that ideas about the quantum world have gone underground, and reemerged in the form of quantum being attached to all sorts of unfounded concepts. Unfortunately, this allows the more superficial thinkers to dismiss all theories of quantum consciousness, by nothing more demanding than sticking derogatory adjectives in front of the names of the theories. This sort of practice has recently been criticised as ‘pseudoscepticism’, a parallel form to pseudoscience. Pseudoscience uses scientific terms to propose ideas that are neither supported by existing science, nor capable of being falsified by experiment or observation. Pseudoscepticism similarly uses denunciation in the name of science or scientific affiliation without citing any evidence or possible experimentation to establish this criticism.

The features of quantum theory that make it special and also possibly relevant to consciousness can be summarised as follows:

1.) Quantum theory describes the fundamental level of energy and matter. In contrast to higher levels, the quantum level has aspects, such as mass, charge and spin that are given properties of the universe, not capable of further reduction or explanation. In quantum theories of consciousness, it is suggested that consciousness is such a fundamental property existing at this level. Some theories are additionally linked to the structure of spacetime, which is nowadays seen as being interconnected with the nature of the quanta.

2.) The other fundamental aspect of the universe is spacetime, as described by the special and general theories of relativity. Although both relativity and quantum theory have both been tested to very high degrees of accuracy, they are nevertheless incompatible with one another. The gravitational force is the main problems, since the smooth continous curvature of space that describes gravity in general relativity is incompatible with the discreteness of particles/waves that is fundamental to quantum theory. String theory and loop quantum gravity have attempted to bridge this gap, but neither are yet regarded as giving a complete picture.

3.) In traditional versions of quantum theory, the wave form of the quanta is conceived as a superposition of the many possible positions of a quantum particle. When the wave function collapses the choice of a particular position for the particle is random. This choice of position is an effect without a cause. The property of randomness is not in itself particularly useful in theories of consciousness, but it does open a chink in the deterministic structure of the universe, which is exploited in particular by the Penrose/Hameroff model.

4.) Non-locality is the remaining special feature of quantum theory. Classical physics comprises only so-called billiard ball relationships, with bits of matter and energy bumping into one another. These relationships are local, in that they involve immediate contact. Such relationships are also normal in quantum physics. However, quantum physics also possesses non-local relationships. This applies where two particles have been in some close relationship, such as two electrons in the same orbital. In this case they can become correlated. For instance the spin on two particles may always be opposite, if one spins up, the other spins down. This is not a problem while the particles are in a wave form, as both will be in a superposition of up and down. However, if the wave function of one particles collapses, that particle chooses one or the other superposition. When that happens, the other particle will choose the opposite position. In experiment, this is shown to happen when the two particles are out of range of a signal travelling at the speed of light. No matter, energy or conventional information is transferred, and the experiment is not regarded as a violation of relativity, but it is demonstrated that quantum properties can correlate instantaneously over any distance.


The study of consciousness was a taboo in academic circles through much of the 20th century, at least in part due to the long reign of behaviourism. Even the study of emotion being largely proscribed, with brains conceived as being reasoning machines and nothing else. This started to lift in the late 1980s and at first this seemed to be a marvelous opportunity for the advances made in other areas of science to be applied to the neglected area of consciousness. What followed, however, can be seen as an overall negative in establishing orthodoxies which appear to have negligible chance of success in explaining consciousness, while discouraging explanations that relate to new areas of physics or neuroscience.

The traditional explanation for consciousness or the soul in more traditional language is known as dualism. This posits a separate spirit stuff and physical stuff, with the spirit stuff capable of acting on the physical stuff, as when the soul commands the body. The core argument against dualism was that for the spirit stuff to act on the physicsal stuff it would need to have some physically relevant quality and would therefore not be pure spirit stuffConsciousness. Vice versa looks to apply for physical stuff. The failure of dualism is one of the few points of agrrement between mainstream consciousness studies and those that identify consciousness with a fundamental of the universe.

Functionalism was at least in the 1990s the dominant explanation for consciousness, driven by the success of computers as problem solving and memory storage machines. The main proposal is that any system or machine that processes information in the same way as the brain will be conscious, regardless of what it is made of. The biological matter and structure of the human brain was deemed irrelevant. In reality, and despite its popularity, this appears as a pseudo-theory, kicking the problem of consciousness further down the road. It does not explain how consciousness arises in the brain and nor does it explain how consciousness might at some point arise in silicon or other matter. It seems, however, that functionalism has had a malign effect in making mainstream consciousness studies practitioners think it unneccesary to take any notice of modern developments in neurosciece or biology.

Identity theory may have been the next most popular theory after functionalism in the 1990s. This declared that consciousness ws identical to the brain or identical to its processing. However, it made little attempt to explain why it was identical to the brain, but not to any of the other physical structures in the universe. Nor did it attempt to define what it meant by the brain, despite the fact that our understanding of the physical processing of the brain was changing dramatically. It was further undermined by the discovery that much neural processing such as the dorsal stream governing spontaneous movement could be brought to completion outside of consciousness, which was seen to be more closely related to longer-term evaluations and planning.

Epiphenomenalism was and remains another popular idea. The theory proposes that consciousnness is a by-product of neural processing that has, however, no function. Despite its popularity this concept is beset by at least three major problems. It conflicts with evolutionary theory in that it is hard to see why evolution should select for something that had no function, particularly as neural processing is exceptionally energy-hungry. The theory also conflicts head on with physics in which there is no acausality, with every object or process having influences elsewhere. Finally, there is the problem that even granting the idea of a functionless by-product, there is still no physical evidence for what produces such a thing in the brain. Like functionalism it appears to be a pseudo-theory.

In the present century, there seems to have been a tacit recognition that functionalism and identity theory would have difficulty in becoming the consensus of a wider public. This appears to have given rise to two more theories that avoid treating consciousness as a fundamental. Consciousness resulting from embodiment has been possibly the most fashionable of these ideas. Initially embodiment ideas did represent a genuine step forward in both consciousness studies and psychology as a move away from the brain as a computer in a vat. It now accepted that mental events could influence the body and that visceral events could feed back on the brain. It also accepted that emotion is a relevant aspect of mental life. However, there was an over-reach in suggesting that the body somehow drove consciousness that the brain could not produce. This seemed to assume some kind of undefined special property in the body that was not present in the brain. More specifically it ignored the fact apart from the sense of touch, signals entered the brain directly from the environment and were consciously processed in the higher sensory and frontal cortex before being signalled to the viscera.

The attempt to classify consciousness as a form of information or information processing has also become fashionable in this century, and represents yet another attempt to squeeze consciousness into the realm of classical physics. The idea appears to face insurmountable problems. Firstly, there are innumerable examples of non-conscious information, especially when we look at modern technology, with no apparent specification as to how conscious information would differ from non-conscious information. At a more philosophical level, there is a core difference between information and reality, in that information embraces only what we happen to know rather the description of its behaviour and microscopic make up that  comprises reality. Thus the hunter-gatherer in ancient Africa, glancing up at the sun is only aware of its glare, heat and position in the sky. A fuller understanding of its reality has to wait for modern science.

Consciousness as an emergent property:  The idea of consciousness as an emergent property of classically described matter is superficially plausible, and as such can sometimes look like the best shot of modern consciousness studies. Emergence is a familiar process in physics. Thus liquidity is an emergent property of water. The individual component hydrogen and oxygen atoms do not have the property of liquidity. However, when they are bound together in a sufficiently large number of water molecules, the property of liquidity emerges.

The problem for this as an explanation of consciousness is that when emergent properties such as liquidity arise in nature, the emergence can be traced to the component particles and forces, such as the electromagnetic interactions between the water molecules. The macroscopic liquidity is an effect of the microscopic electrical charges and the resulting charge relationships. The problem for consciousness as an emergent property is no arrangement of such particles and forces has been identified that could produce consciousness. Many continue to furiously assert that this is possible, but the claim being made here is in fact the same as dualism, where two things that have no common property are required to act on one another. Anybody who thinks this is possible in physics could simplify their search for consciousness by accepting the idea of dualistic spirits.

In the last two decades, consciousness studies has gone off in a different direction from physics or neuroscience. Much of consciousness studies is dominated by philosophers and psychologists who have only a scant interest in what has been happening in brain science, let alone physics. In many cases, they see it as their duty up to prop a nineteenth century Newtonian world view, while dealing in abstractions that that take limited account of neurosceince or physics. Neuroscientists have meanwhile been pressured into treating consciousness as not part of their remit, deferring to philosophers when it was necessary to discuss consciousness, even when the philosophy was contradicted by the neuroscientists own discoveries. More fundamental approaches have fallen victim to black propaganda against them. It seems likely that mainstream consciousness studies, if it survives at all, will reach the end of the 21st century without having achieved consensus on a theory that has explanatory value.

Below is a suggested reading list:-

1.)  The Emperor’s New Mind  –  Roger Penrose

2.)  Shadow’s of the Mind  –  Roger Penrose

3.)  Three Roads to Quantum Gravity  –  Lee Smolin

4.)  Emotion Explained  – Edmund T. Rolls

5.)  Memory, Attention and Decision Making  –  Edmund T. Rolls

6.)  Neuroculture  – Edmund T. Rolls

7.)  Orbitofrontal Cortex  –  David H. Zald & Scott L. Rauch

8.)  The Anatomy of Bias: How neural circuits weight the options  –  Jan Lauwereyns

9.)   Subcortical Structures and Cognition  –  Leonard F. Kosiol & Deborah E. Budding

10.)   Dynamic Coordination in the Brain  –  Eds. Christoph von der Malsburg et al

11.)  New Horizons in the Neuroscience of Consciousness  –  Ed. Elaine Perry et al (see particularly chapter by Lucia Melloni & Wolf Singer)

12.)  The First Half Second  –  Eds. Ogmen & Breitmeyer

13.)  Sight Unseen  –  Melvyn Goodale & David Milner

14.)  Phi  –  Giulio Tononi

15.)  Are We Free?  –  Eds. John Baer et al


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