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Can a Materialist Consciousness Theory Survive Quantum Mechanics?

Quantum mechanics requires that the observer be part of the measurement; thus quantum measurements must include consciousness

In Walter Bradley Center director Robert J. Marks’s second podcast with philosopher Angus Menuge, where the big topic is the perennial “Hard Problem of consciousness, one of the questions was whether quantum mechanics can help decipher consciousness. But that leads to another question: Can any materialist view of consciousness survive quantum mechanics?

This portion begins at 22:35 min. A partial transcript, Show Notes, and Additional Resources follow.

Robert J. Marks: Is quantum consciousness rooted in materialism? Can you look at quantum consciousness and say, this is materialistic?

Angus Menuge: That’s a tricky question. For most materialists, their paradigm is really set by older 19th-century views of physical science. By definition, this goes beyond that.

However, if one defines materialism in terms of the latest theories of physical science, then you could say that, well, if physical science starts to allow a role for consciousness, then I can embrace it.

But notice what it does: … if we allow that consciousness is something in itself… it’s analogous, in the history of physics, to when they thought that electromagnetic radiation required the medium of the ether. And then the Michelson–Morley experiment that showed that, no, it doesn’t require that, it’s its own thing. And we no longer regard electromagnetism as somehow reducible to something that’s mechanical.

Note: “The aether was the invisible material thought to permeate all the empty space in the universe, used by famous thinkers from Aristotle to Isaac Newton to explain the mysteries of the natural world. The much-heralded Michelson-Morley experiment, as the 1887 event would go down in history, sought to detect the existence of this undetectable substance. Instead, it found nothing.” – “The Eternal Quest for Aether, the Cosmic Stuff That Never Was,” Popular Mechanics, Feb 10, 2021.

The experiment was hardly a failure in the usual sense: It “led to the idea of the universal speed of light, inspired Einstein’s breakthroughs in relativity, and opened the door to much of modern physics.” “The Eternal Quest for Aether, the Cosmic Stuff That Never Was,” Popular Mechanics, Feb 10, 2021.

Angus Menuge: Well, likewise, what if physics will conclude finally that we can’t reduce consciousness to any ordinary physical phenomena? We just recognize it as its own kind of thing. And in fact, we need it in order to have a complete physics. After all, if you want the theory of everything that Stephen Hawking wants, in the end, as Thomas Nagel said, the theory of everything has to include the scientist as well as the world the scientist observes.

If I am going to have an account that fully explains what’s going on when a scientist measures a system in quantum physics and deals with entanglement and all these other things, what if it turns out that that account must appeal to consciousness? Does consciousness then become part of physics?

If it does, then — in a way — the debate between physicalists and dualists dissipates because the physical has just absorbed consciousness.

But the dualists would have won in the sense that consciousness doesn’t reduce to any of these other things. That is what they’ve been claiming for a few centuries…

Next: Can we apply tests for consciousness to artificial intelligence?


Here are the earlier discussions in this podcast:

Part 1: Angus Menuge explains why “red” is such a problem in philosophy. “Red” is an example of qualia, concepts we can experience that have no physical existence otherwise. Materialism would be easy if it weren’t for concepts like “red” which are quite real but abstracted from physical reality.

Angus Menuge

Part 2: Panpsychism is, in Angus Menuge’s view, a desperate move. But he thinks it is worth keeping an eye on as an understandable reaction to materialism. Menuge argues that one problem for panpsychism is that consciousness is unitary; it does not seem composed of innumerable tiny proto-conscious elements.

Part 3: Can quantum mechanics help decipher consciousness? Free will? Nobel laureate Roger Penrose, among others, looked to the quantum world for models. Angus Menuge thinks that physicists John von Neumann’s and Henry Stapp’s models of quantum mechanics provide some directions.

Show Notes

  • 00:26 | Introducing Dr. Angus Menuge
  • 01:01 | Phenomenal consciousness and qualia
  • 07:25 | Experiencing vision and color
  • 10:35 | Problems for panpsychism
  • 12:48 | Integrated information theory
  • 18:22 | Quantum consciousness
  • 25:33 | Testing consciousness in artificial intelligence

Additional Resources

Podcast Transcript Download


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Can a Materialist Consciousness Theory Survive Quantum Mechanics?