20 September 2013

Quantum Consciousness: The Ultimate Gap-filler

wanderer between the worlds
Image ©Cornelia Kopp
When Daniel Dennett coined the term ‘greedy reductionism’, in his book Darwin’s Dangerous Idea (1995), he may not have fully realised just how byzantinely gluttonous some ‘high tech’ forms of such reductionism could become.

Dennett was taking aim at the false type of reductionism; the kind that ‘gobbles up’ entire layers of complexity warranting scientific investigation in its haste to get to some imagined seed of perfect truth. I think he primarily had religion in mind, because of its obvious zeal to dig for gods at the slightest opportunity, and to brand everything unexplained as proofs of ‘intelligent design’. There is another kind of greedy reductionism, however, that is more of a closet bulimic than an out-and-out hog.

In my sights right now is the so-called orchestrated objective reduction (Orch-OR) hypothesis devised by mathematical physicist, Roger Penrose, and anaesthesiologist Stuart Hameroff. Here, the gods of consciousness are squeezed into such tiny gaps that the gaps aren’t really gaps at all, but quantum states.

Orch-OR holds that human consciousness depends on exotic quantum-mechanical phenomena such as Bose-Einstein condensates. When, in his book The Emperor’s New Mind (1989), Penrose posited the idea of consciousness as a quantum phenomenon, he lacked an explanatory framework for it. Penrose utilised the counter-intuitive mathematics of Kurt Gödel’s incompleteness theorem in claiming that thought must be non-computable, but he did not propose any substantive alternative to classical-physics theories of the ways that neurons and synapses work.

What is unusual about Orch-OR, compared with the various other ‘quantum soul’ notions, is that it has an ostensibly scientific basis; quantum superpositions, Bose-Einstein condensates, macroscopic quantum effects, quantum entanglement, and so on are all real phenomena. It seems, then, reasonable to look at an apparently very strange and inexplicable outcome of a biological substrate – consciousness – and explain it wholly in terms of quantum strangeness. So why are other scientists so keen to attack this hypothesis?

There is another ‘why?’ that we should first ask ourselves: why ignore all the other possible explanations that have still to be fully explored, and go straight for the quantum one? Investigation of nanoscale components of neurites in the brain, such as microtubules and neurofilaments, requires an electron microscope. The potential information-bearing capacity of these ‘components’ is unimaginably huge. And it is highly likely that they are capable of performing their role without the influence of quantum effects. Granted, as holistic reductionists we should not assume that, say, microtubules are bearers of discrete pieces of information, such as memories. But we should be prepared to accept that they contribute to the substrate of the brain, allowing – in highly-convolved combination with all the other levels of material processes – a kind of computation to happen in the system as a whole.

Now we’re getting down to it: computability versus non-computability. If we are going to insist that computation is ‘made’ of numbers, then we open ourselves up to attack by non-reductionists (and by so-called greedy reductionists). But, the way I like to think of it, computation isn’t made of numbers any more than money is made of paper. Computation can be represented in numerical form, and money can be represented in paper form; that doesn’t mean that those representations are what those things are.

Physicists such as Max Tegmark have rebutted Orch-OR, citing experiments indicating that the quantum states claimed for it by Hameroff would not arise and/or would not last long enough to play a role in consciousness. We should also bear in mind that Hameroff believes in ghosts. In an interview for the website of the Institute of Noetic Sciences, he stated: ‘I think consciousness is actually fundamental and intrinsic to the universe, that it’s built into the universe.’ This, of course, is animistic; Hameroff clearly believes in some type of ‘animating life force’ permeating the Universe. So his agenda is clear – he wants to find a way to scientise his belief in what really amounts to a ‘quantum soul’.

Our universe is quantum. It is probabilistic all the way up and all the way down. But if we allow non-reductionists masquerading as hungry reductionists to gobble up all the classical levels in between, we will have no classical matter left to interact with. We will be giving up on our place in the Universe, kicking back, shrugging our shoulders, munching on the junk food of bad science, and saying, ‘Wow, you know, it’s all like... energy, man.’ We will be making ourselves inexplicable, when there is absolutely no need to do so.

We are well used to hearing this kind of line from the religious. Now we also have to be constantly on our guard against plausible-sounding quantum hucksters (see Deepak Chopra, among others). We reductionists may cause you discomfort, by breaking you down into smaller and smaller parts. But these greedy reductionists and non-reductionists will swallow you whole as soon as look at you.

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