David Christopher Lane, Ph.D.
Professor of Philosophy, Mt. San Antonio College Lecturer in Religious Studies, California State University, Long Beach Author of Exposing Cults: When the Skeptical Mind Confronts the Mystical (New York and London: Garland Publishers, 1994) and The Radhasoami Tradition: A Critical History of Guru Succession (New York and London: Garland Publishers, 1992).
Brandon Gillett is focused on conducting research on harnessing the power of quantum computing for enhancing the capabilities of machine learning systems. He has been doing computer programming since he was sixteen years old and taking courses in machine learning and quantum computing. He is currently in the Honors Program at Mt. San Antonio College.
THE QUANTUM MIND
Closing the Gap between
Concrete Reality and Subjective Experience
Brandon Gillett and David Lane in Dialogue
Subjectivity manifests itself as randomness in the objective world.
Brandon Gillett: In order to approach the question of consciousness, we need to understand what challenges it presents for any theories seeking to explain it.
The first and most intriguing problem of consciousness is how to reconcile objectivity with subjectivity. Clearly the two realms must interact with each other on some level, otherwise we would have no ability to respond to our subjective sensations with concrete action in the physical world, and likewise we would have no definite environment around us to stimulate our consciousness into having an experience. But the gap between how to translate from one to the other remains mysterious.
Secondly, it seems clear to me that consciousness only arises within systems that house sufficient complexity. Any good theory of consciousness must provide a reason for this and an explanation for what level of complexity is considered sufficient. I don't think that ramping up the processing power of a brain is enough to create consciousness. I think sufficient complexity means that the system is now capable of executing a fundamentally different strategy.
The third problem I see is how the boundaries are drawn between that which is conscious and that which is not. It is clear that our conscious experiences are intrinsically linked to our bodies somehow. As far as we know, there is no strong evidence to suggest any form of disembodied consciousness, but where in the body does consciousness actually exist? Buddhists refer to "anatta," or the concept of no-self. Essentially what they are saying is that a consciousness cannot be pinned down to any one point in your body. If you were to lose an arm, or a leg, or anything else for that matter, your consciousness would still remain. Many western thinkers will quickly point to the brain and say that your brain houses consciousness. But people have lost whole sections of their brain and still retained conscious experience. So again, where in the brain is consciousness actually produced? Which part of the brain is consciousness housed in? Neuroscience can easily tell us the sections of the brain used for thinking about food, or for breathing, or for remembering our past, but they still have not been able to point to a specific region which houses our consciousness. It is also worth mentioning that science has shown us that the brain is necessary for consciousness, but we have never been able to show that it is sufficient to produce consciousness. There could still be other necessary elements.
Finally, consciousness is always unified within itself. There is no way to split a conscious experience into smaller components with individual functions. If consciousness where created by purely physical processes, it should be divisible into parts. What would happen, for example, if we separated a consciousness into its components and only allowed a single element to function at a time, suspending all the others until their turn? Could we then create a conscious system which has discrete units of progression, moving one step at a time through its experiences? What would a single incremental step of consciousness even look like? Or what if we added more elements to a conscious system? Could we create a being that simultaneously housed multiple conjoined “awarenesses”? This strikes me as absurd because as soon as one awareness shares a direct experience with the other, they become a single unified experience. It seems likely that you can increase or decrease the capacity of a single consciousness, but you cannot divide it into separate components.
I believe that all four of these properties can be explained by the theory of quantum consciousness, first developed by Roger Penrose. Essentially, this theory says that consciousness is not created by chemical and electrical discharge flowing through a network of neurons, but rather, by the entanglement, disengagement, and manipulation of a set of quantum mechanical units. The essential building block of consciousness then, is a purely informational property.
This theory relies on a unique interpretation of a well-documented phenomenon, quantum randomness. It is possible that randomness plays a bigger role in the production of consciousness than we have yet realized. Uncertainty, as far as I can tell, is the heart of free will. As long as a system includes true randomness, there can be no absolute determinism. If we reinterpret these random events as "choices," we can see that quantum mechanics provides a strong argument for the existence of free will. Penrose describes the situation, "Say it's a speck of dust that you put into two locations at once. Now, in a small fraction of a second, it will become one or the other. Which does it become? Well, that's a choice. Is it a choice made by the universe? Does the speck of dust make this choice? Maybe it's a free choice. I have no idea." These isolated random events that are so common in quantum systems will be funneled through our neurological network in order to convert their pure randomness into functional decisions. This is similar to flipping a coin to determine whether to go left or right when you are met with a fork in the road; Except in this case, the decision is truly random. I am suggesting that there is something essentially subjective which drives the randomness in quantum systems. Subjectivity manifests itself as randomness in the objective world. If this is true, we will have bridged the gap between subjectivity and objectivity.
If this is the case, then in order to combine these discrete, subjective elements into a fully functioning consciousness, the system would require a certain level of complexity. Perhaps over the course of evolution, organisms developed the ability to interact with quantum mechanical units in an advantageous way. Maybe the electromagnetic field generated by the firing of their neurons was affected by interactions with quantum states in their environment. Maybe the organism was able to capture this interaction in the form of uncertainty, and the ability to make a truly random decision provided it with an evolutionarily advantageous level of unpredictability which gave it the edge over its competitors. Perhaps over time these organisms were able to interact more consistently with quantum mechanical systems, and gained a stronger ability to manipulate these systems and utilize more advantages associated with quantum information processing. This would explain why consciousness only seems to arise at a certain level of complexity while avoiding the type of thinking that says "if you just keep adding neurons, eventually it will be complex enough to develop consciousness." It takes a certain level of complexity to manipulate quantum mechanical systems, but it isn't complexity alone that does the trick; you also have to execute the right strategy.
This brings us to anatta, the third property of consciousness. The absolutely incredible thing about quantum mechanical units is that they can be entangled with one another. At this point, it doesn't quite seem to matter where in the brain these particles are being entangled together or processed. As long as the body can provide protection from decoherence within the quantum system, consciousness will remain intact. It is not tied to any one set of neurons or any particular location. Anatta is preserved.
Finally, entanglement provides justification for why consciousness is always unified within itself. It doesn't matter how many parts of the system there are, as long as they are entangled, they will behave as a single, uniform system. This explains why a conscious experience cannot be separated into distinct elements. Because as soon as two particles are entangled together, they become a single system. There is no option to run a single incremental step of a conscious process at a time, because the nature of entanglement makes this impossible.
As a final added bonus to the pursuit of validating this theory, it is entirely falsifiable. If we are unable to find any evidence of quantum information processing within the brain, the whole theory falls apart. Currently, Penrose and Stuart Hameroff are looking for evidence of quantum computation within microtubules, a substructure of the neuron. If they do find strong evidence of this, a deeper understanding of what it means to be conscious will finally be within our grasp.
David Christopher Lane: This is certainly a very intriguing stab at the secret of consciousness, even if I may be skeptical about whether it is true or not. Let's unwind several of the points you make, starting first with the idea of subsystems (when an integrated form of awareness is broken apart). You argue that “There is no way to split a conscious experience into smaller components with individual functions.” Not entirely certain exactly what you mean, however, since some split brain studies suggest that there can be a form of “dual” consciousness where “a person may develop two separate conscious entities within their one brain after undergoing a corpus callosotomy.” The research in this area is still preliminary and quite controversial, but it is tantalizing for what it implies about “unitive” awareness.
Second, I think the term “free will” is a confused one, besides being experientially oxymoronic. We may have the experience of latitude when confronted with several options, but it appears that the very impulse that drives those choices is itself not free. In any case, it is not clear to me why quantum uncertainty or randomness indicates freedom. Chance is unpredictable and that in itself doesn't then translate as “free,” especially since what occurs at the quantum level has precious little do with what happens when I make a choice between a veggie taco and a vegan burger. Even if we concede that my moment to moment choice is unpredictable, it doesn't then mean by extension that I—as the selector—possess free will. Actually, it implies the opposite: that quantum uncertainty (for which I have no control over) is randomly generating my choice but apparently giving me the illusory feeling of freedom while doing so.
“Based on a calculation of neural decoherence rates, we argue that that the degrees of freedom of the human brain that relate to cognitive processes should be thought of as a classical rather than quantum system, i.e., that there is nothing fundamentally wrong with the current classical approach to neural network simulations. We find that the decoherence timescales (~10-13–10-20 seconds) are typically much shorter than the relevant dynamical timescales (~10-3–10-1 seconds), both for regular neuron firing and for kink-like polarization excitations in microtubules. This conclusion disagrees with suggestions by Penrose and others that the brain acts as a quantum computer, and that quantum coherence is related to consciousness in a fundamental way.”
While I do agree with you that quantum effects should be considered, I don't see how such an introduction resolves the subjective/objective conundrum, even if quantum entanglement is an elemental part of physics as we know it today. Simply put, how does Penrose's and Hameroff's Orchestrated Objective Reduction (Orch-OR) theory, as it is popularly known, give us our feeling of Qualia? Yes, I understand that microtubules in our brains may have a stream of quantum coherence which, in turn, may (or may not) influence neuronal processing, but how does defining that non-algorithmic mechanism move us from objectivity to subjectivity? Clearly, quantum events underline all physical interactions, and admitting such seems obvious. Yet, saying this doesn't seem to move the goal posts of understanding self-awareness any closer, since we still remain at the purely descriptive level. Essentially, this is no different than saying physics determines biology, or, more specifically in our case, quantum effects (which too are physical) is necessary for consciousness, even if it can be argued that something else (emergent complexity?) is also needed.
I once made a little movie on the quantum mechanical basis of photosynthesis entitled “The Magical Leaf” which has garnered a fair share of views (nearly 120,000 at the latest count). In that film I describe the pioneering work of researchers who discovered that one of the ways that plants convert sunlight into usable energy is by quantum superposition. Knowing this, however, doesn't then give me the interior qualia of a plant. Likewise, if we by chance (pun?) know all the ins and outs of microtubules how does such knowledge then provide us with subjectivity?
For sure, such knowledge would be elemental and very helpful to understand the machinations of how consciousness comes about, but to rephrase Thomas Nagel does that then provide the royal road to truly understand what it is to a bat or another human being?
Don't get me wrong, I am all for reverse engineering the brain and including quantum theory in our equations. I just don't see how it resolves the hard problem of consciousness, as spelled by David Chalmers in The Conscious Mind.?
Ah, your turn.
Brandon Gillett: Let me state my position more clearly to make sure we are on the same page about what I am suggesting. I believe that there are fundamentally non-physical aspects to the universe which cannot be determined mathematically. These non-physical phenomena are the building blocks of consciousness. It seems clear to me that the physical aspects of the universe and the non-physical aspects of the universe intersect at some level. Otherwise we could not act on our conscious experiences. My argument is that when our scientific models attempt to describe what is happening at this intersection point, the results seem random. Because these non-physical building blocks of consciousness are not bound by definite, mathematical laws, we will not get predictable, consistent results. Our results will be random. This is what I mean when I say that subjectivity manifests itself as randomness in the objective world. Subjectivity, in my view, is just as fundamental as objectivity. So how, then, does this help us with the hard problem of consciousness? It shifts the question. We are no longer asking, "How does subjectivity emerge from objectivity?" Now we are asking "Where do subjectivity and objectivity intersect?" And my answer is, "Wherever we find true randomness."
You claim that, "What occurs at the quantum level has precious little do with what happens when I make a choice between a veggie taco and a vegan burger." No conversation about quantum mechanics would be quite complete without an appearance by Schrödinger and his unfortunate cat. As you know, Schrödinger created a thought experiment in which he placed a cat in a box with a radioactive isotope having a 50% chance to decay. He rigged this isotope to a device which, upon detecting decay of the isotope, would release lethal gas into the box and kill his poor cat. Now, let's add to this experiment. Let's say that you and I make a bet as to whether or not the cat survives. We agree that the loser buys lunch for the winner. I, being a vegan, demand that if the cat dies, you will take us both out for vegan burgers; you on the other hand, are a vegetarian, and demand that I buy you veggie tacos if the cat survives (I know, quite the thing to be betting over for a couple of animal loving plant eaters). In this scenario, the result of a single random event down at the quantum scale, has been amplified through a series of physical processes to have far reaching consequences. This is the premise of the famous "butterfly effect". Minor variances within a system can produce staggering changes to the overall outcome. The brain would then function as a sort of randomness organizer. It would start with the result of a random measurement, and then make more complicated decisions stemming from that initial state, eventually culminating into a complex set of decisions which influence the overall behavior of the whole organism. I regularly use this technique to introduce unpredictability in the software that I write (of course, computers can only produce pseudo-random numbers right now). This effect of utilizing indeterminate states is the very thing that will make quantum computers so powerful. Why not a brain?
You continue on to say, "Even if we concede that my moment to moment choice is unpredictable ..., it doesn't then mean by extension that I—as the selector—possess free will." This argument, I think, is a matter of how we define the "self". If we consider ourselves to be nothing more than the physical body through which we act, I agree with you. We are nothing but puppets, intrinsically bound to the deterministic laws governing our every action with an ineradicable degree of precision. But, if we define ourselves as being the random elements of the system, then we are the ones in possession of freedom from the deterministic laws of physics. Thus, the parts of us that make the "choices" (also known as the collapse of super positioned states) is not the puppet, but the puppet master. We stay behind the scenes, imperceptibly tugging on the strings which control our bodies. If I am right and randomness is produced by consciousness, then we are randomness. We are consciousness. We just have bodies.
David Christopher Lane: I readily confess that I enjoyed reading your latest rejoinder and I was particularly impressed with your almost poetic way of describing how randomness is our subjectivity to some measure (though measureless?). However, I think we are going off into Gumby Land—my phrase for unnecessary metaphysical injunctions—when we introduce “non-physical phenomena as the building blocks of consciousness.” First, we need to back up and define precisely what we mean by “non-physical” because otherwise it is opening Pandora's Box and out jumps Deepak Chopra, Shirley MacLaine, and Bubba Rum Raisin. I don't think we want to get overly gooey in la la land quite yet.
More seriously, how and why is randomness equivalent to “freedom”, much less free will? Yes, I acknowledge that Schrödinger's cat points the heart of indeterminacy—superposition and undefinable states until “chosen” which kills the cat or allows it to live. But chance isn't freedom, but its very opposite since it resides in a state of non-selection, non-determination, non-causality. Moreover, how do we emerge from a wave/particle function descriptor to radical subjectivity? I don't see how they compute.
Physics at its core is indeterminate; it is a roll of the dice as Einstein explained to his friend Max Born and which he deplored for the last thirty years of his life. Yet, if we stick with these kinds of gambling metaphors, freedom doesn't emerge in some magical way. Once the ball is spinning on the roulette wheel where it lands is completely out of our control. By making subjectivity non-physical and objectivity a property of physics you have introduced a not so subtle form of dualism. In order for this to work we need convincing evidence about what precisely do we mean by “non-physical.” Absent that definition, we are sinking in epistemological quicksand.
Brandon Gillett: You readily admit that, "Physics at its core is indeterminate." But you haven't taken this a step further and asked why? When posed with this question, our most brilliant scientific minds will throw their hands up in frustration and exclaim that we have no means of determining the cause of randomness. Physicists have all but admitted defeat on the unraveling of this mystery. As Richard Feynman states it, "I think it is safe to say that no one understands quantum mechanics. Do not keep saying to yourself, if you can possibly avoid it, ' But how can it be like that?' because you will go 'down the drain' into a blind alley from which nobody has yet escaped. Nobody knows how it can be like that."
You claim that my incorporation of metaphysics is "unnecessary", but I would then challenge you, when does metaphysics become necessary? Bell's theorem has conclusively proved that it is impossible to account for randomness in the state of a particle by any local deterministic means. My position, if correct, answers questions that cannot be answered by science. If ever there was a time to introduce metaphysics to our models of the universe, it would be now. As Nikola Tesla said, "The day science begins to study non-physical phenomena, it will make more progress in one decade than in all the previous centuries of its existence."
None of this means that I am willing to throw out scientific understanding all together. I have no intention of extending the implications of quantum physics beyond their natural limits. Indeed, I have no tolerance for it. I am no fan of Deepak Chopra or his kindred, with their reckless overextension of quantum mechanical effects into macroscopic realms. They seem to assume that just because science cannot explain everything, there are no rules to the interaction between the physical and metaphysical whatsoever. I reject this view. In my opinion, there are defined laws governing the interchange between the objective and the subjective aspects of reality. Consciousness and its effects are strictly limited to a specific place in our universe, but I do believe these effects must be included in our scientific models.
You do raise a very important problem that must be addressed, what exactly do I mean by "non-physical phenomenon"? This is a very challenging question to produce an answer for. It is akin to attempting to describe color to a blind man. No matter how hard you try, there is no mathematical representation precise enough to accomplish the task. No articulated word that can depart the knowledge of direct experience. No existing channel of communication will ever create an understanding for him. So instead of trying to define subjectivity itself, the best I can do is show you where the boundaries lie. My definition for non-physical phenomenon is anything which cannot, and could never, be explained with precision by symbolic representations. A lot like trying to peer into the inner mechanisms of a black hole, we can only really see the outer boundaries along with the effects it produces on the physical world. We cannot see its inner mechanisms. Does this mean that we should assert black holes have no place in science?
I think that science is fully capable of recognizing the existence of subjectivity without being undermined by it or extending its effects beyond their proper place. This, of course, does not mean that there is any good reason for science to do so. Not without evidence. That is where Orch-OR theory comes into play. If it turns out to be the case that consciousness is intrinsically linked with quantum information processing, then we have a valid reason to incorporate a notion of subjectivity into our scientific models.
Finally, I would like to add that I am in quite good company when I assert that physical phenomenon must, on some level, interact directly with consciousness.
"To us … the only acceptable point of view appears to be the one that recognizes both sides of reality—the quantitative and the qualitative, the physical and the psychical—as compatible with each other, and can embrace them simultaneously … It would be most satisfactory of all if physis and psyche (i.e., matter and mind) could be seen as complementary aspects of the same reality." -Wolfgang Pauli
"We need a major revolution in our understanding of the physical world in order to accommodate consciousness."
"I regard consciousness as fundamental. I regard matter as derivative from consciousness. We cannot get behind consciousness. Everything that we talk about, everything that we regard as existing, postulates consciousness."
"When the province of physical theory was extended to encompass microscopic phenomena through the creation of quantum mechanics, the concept of consciousness came to the fore again. It was not possible to formulate the laws of quantum mechanics in a fully consistent way without reference to the consciousness."
"The doctrine that the world is made up of objects whose existence is independent of human consciousness turns out to be in conflict with quantum mechanics and with facts established by experiment."
David Christopher Lane: As much as I like your various quotes from eminent physicists and thinkers, they don't in themselves help our discussions but only obscure the knotty question at hand. We can talk about quantum mechanics until Einstein's moon disappears, but we still haven't solved the problem of how subjectivity (the internal Qualia we feel) arises from matter. Instead, we have portioned off what we know about the everyday world and introduced a QM Ghost into the machine, to bastardize Gilbert Ryle's pithy quote against Cartesian dualism.
Let's simplify our dilemma. We have consciousness and we have a body. They arise together somewhat seamlessly. Yet, the Consciousness First camp argues that physicality is a subset of awareness, not vice versa. Whereas the Physicalists group argues that consciousness is a product of physics, even if on a higher order. Now we could simply leave it at that and use Rudyard Kipling's phrase that “Consciousness is consciousness and Matter is matter and never shall the twain meet.”
Your argument appears to be Intersectional where something non-physical (not yet definable) interacts with matter and presto! here we are contemplating a world without and within.
I think science can indeed accept subjectivity, since it already has. It is called psychology. It just that this discipline is still in its infancy, akin perhaps to where physics was prior to Newton, and clearly before Einstein and Bohr, et. al.
I think it is premature to place angels (non-physical placeholder?) when we have yet to exhaust all the physical (in the here and now) permutations.
Again, one simple question: why is uncertainty equivalent to subjectivity?
Again, one simple question: why is uncertainty equivalent to subjectivity? Probability means that our brains will need environmental cues (and virtual meandering) to solve those problems that are not yet predictable. But this, I suggest, is a physical and technical issue first that needs to be exhausted.
In other words, Gumby Land thinking can wait a bit longer, particularly since you kindly notified me about the “Consciousness competition”.
Brandon Gillett: Of the two groups you identify, consciousness first and physicalists, I find myself squarely in the camp of consciousness first. I raised many of my objections against a purely physical interpretation of consciousness in our first conversation, "The Qualia Question." I do not see any possible way by which physics could give rise to consciousness, and so by exclusion, there must be a subjective aspect inherent to our universe.
You make the argument, "I think it is premature to place angels (non-physical placeholder?) when we have yet to exhaust all the physical (in the here and now) permutations." I do not see any good reason that we should focus only on physical explanations of reality in our search for truth. In my view, we should prioritize falsifiable theories, whether they are physical or not. We should look wherever it is most likely that we will find answers, to do otherwise would be dogmatic. Assuming that my criticisms of physicalist thinking are valid, it appears to me most likely that we will find answers outside of strict physical reductionism.
With this in mind, I am not attempting to address the question of, "Why does subjectivity exist"? I am proceeding with the assumption that physics cannot give rise to qualia and that subjectivity must be fundamental. To answer this question directly, “Why is uncertainty equivalent to subjectivity?” I am not arguing that all randomness stems from subjectivity, I am arguing that all subjectivity must manifest as randomness. How can it be otherwise? Anything which can be calculated cannot be qualitative. This reasoning, along with several other qualities shared exclusively between consciousness and quantum mechanics (Anatta, unification, and powerful information processing capabilities), makes QM an ideal place to continue our search for the origins of consciousness.
Finally, I want to say thank you for engaging with me about these ideas, it has been an absolute pleasure to explore the nuances involved in unraveling the mysteries of consciousness. Only time will tell which of our perspectives withstands experimental verification.