I love doing these Sunday Science blogs. Ever since René Descartes proudly claimed “Cogito ergo sum!” (I think, therefore I am), mankind has realized that its ability to think is what truly separates us from the lower life forms. Sentience, by definition, means being not only capable of making a flint tool or using a stick as a weapon, any monkey can do that, but to be fully self aware. To know not just what you are at the moment, but to understand your past and be capable of planning for your future. To truly comprehend yourself and your place in the world. To understand that your ability to question your existence is proof of it. That’s a whole lot of meaning to pack into 3 little Latin words.
But where does it come from? Is consciousness a divine gift, a random gathering of neurons or something else?
Our old pal Ian O’Neill takes a look at that question and has an interesting alternative. What if quantum theory explained human sapience?
Consciousness: How do you go about explaining that? Indeed, many scientists are currently studying what happens in the brain and how the mind relates to the outside world, but quantifying what gives us consciousness is proving to be a rather tough nut to crack.
Is there some supernatural influence? Is it purely biological? Or is there something else, something more… physicsy?
In a fascinating column for New Statesman, writer Michael Brooks touches on this tricky subject, and it reminded me of a conversation I had with a friend not so long ago.
“Don’t you think our consciousness might be explained by the Large Hadron Collider?” my friend asked. (Full disclosure: There was gin and tonic involved, so this wasn’t an everyday discussion.)
“What do you mean?” I asked in reply.
“Well, the LHC is probing states of matter that existed immediately after the Big Bang, so it’s bound to throw up some new physics — don’t you reckon it might uncover some sort of particle, or energy, that might explain our connectivity with the Universe?”
(By “energy,” she wasn’t referring to energy in the physical sense, she was playfully baiting me with New Age philosophy.)
Possibly inspired by the crazy science butchered in the TV series FlashForward — in which everyone on the planet gets knocked out for 2 minutes and 17 seconds, having visions 6 months into the future, after an experiment apparently went awry in a particle accelerator — my friend was quick to point out that quantum physics, by its nature, is weird, and consciousness is, well, weird, so there must be some connection.
While this may be attractive — after all, quantum mechanics brought us Schrodinger’s-very-confused-dead-or-alive-(or both)-Cat — there is a fundamental flaw in this logic. And as Brooks mentions in his article, “strange quantum effects don’t fit in with our everyday experience of the world, they have been invoked to resolve myriad things we don’t yet understand, such as supernatural phenomena.”
Although consciousness is not a supernatural phenomenon, science has yet to explain it. In this world of high technology, where we seem to have an answer for everything, it seems odd that we don’t yet have an answer for what makes us, us. Why shouldn’t quantum theory explain consciousness?
Brooks mentions Deepak Chopra’s book “Quantum Healing,” in which Chopra jumped to the conclusion that quantum entanglement links everything in the Universe, and therefore it must create consciousness. However, even respected scientists aren’t immune to the pull of the mystery of quantum mechanics.
Roger Penrose, famous British physicist, recently argued “that we will need to invoke ‘new physics and exotic biological structures’: rewriting quantum theory to make sense of consciousness,” Brooks writes.
Although Brooks calls Penrose’s point of view “disappointing,” I don’t find it surprising as this is the same physicist that saw odd patterns in the cosmic microwave background radiation and jumped to the conclusion that it must be a gravitational wave signal from a previous universe. In the end, Penrose was making shapes out of random noise — akin to imagining bunny shapes in the clouds.
So why is there this apparent connection between consciousness and quantum theory? Brooks calls it the “conservation of mysteries,” where you have two separate mysteries, but for some reason, we think there must be causation (i.e. one mystery causes the other).
This is along the same lines as the logical fallacy cum hoc ergo propter hoc (“with this, therefore because of this”) and it applies to a whole host of scientific (and pseudo-scientific) reasoning. Just because quantum theory acts mysteriously, it doesn’t mean quantum theory explains the mystery of consciousness.
Of course, quantum theory might explain consciousness, but that can only be proved or disproved through scientific method rather than by simply making stuff up.
How can you not love a guy who loves trance music and drinks gin? If he didn’t already work at Discovery News he’d fit right in here.
But, love him or not, he’s 100% right. The belief that quantum theory can explain human consciousness doesn’t even rise to the level of a hypothesis at this point.
That being said, if true it opens up some interesting possibilities. In 2006 James Rollins wrote a book called Black Order. In it he cogitated about the idea of quantum consciousness and what it might really mean. He came to the conclusion – well the characters in his book did, I have no way of knowing what he thinks – that the development of the mind will eventually lead man to become what many believe already exists, God.
The idea being that God is not an abstract concept of beginnings but a goal for mankind to ultimately achieve. And that to achieve it we must first come to grips with the quantum nature of thought. That we must understand our minds are not simple computers but complex collections of neurons which are evolving even as I type. And that this evolution could lead us to a truly higher level of consciousness, one that would give mankind abilities currently only ascribed to the divine.
Of course in his book the scientists carry guns, survive explosions and outsmart Nazis, which isn’t the traditional methodology used for scientific discourse. Although it would garner a lot more headlines, and open some interesting debates, if it did.
On the other hand, we currently only use about 10% of our brains so we may not be as self aware as we think.
Listen to Bill McCormick on WBIG AM 1280, every Thursday morning around 9:10!