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Can Quantum Mechanics Help Decipher Consciousness? Free Will?

Nobel laureate Roger Penrose, among others, looked to the quantum world for models

In Walter Bradley Center director Robert J. Marks’s second podcast with philosopher Angus Menuge, the big topic is the perennial “Hard Problem of consciousness and various proposed solutions. One of the questions that oftem\n comes up is quantum consciousness. Earlier, they had discussed Integrated Information Theory (IIT) and panpsychism. But now, what about recent Nobelist Roger Penrose’s approach: quantum consciousness?

This portion begins at 18:22 min. A partial transcript, Show Notes, and Additional Resources follow.

Robert J. Marks (pictured): Okay. Another model of consciousness of which I am aware is so-called quantum consciousness. I’m really interested in this because reading the works of Roger Penrose, he maintains that humans can do non-algorithmic things. And he looked around at the entire universe and he says, where do things happen in our universe that are not algorithmic?

And his conclusion was, only in quantum mechanics, when you have a collapse of a wave function to a specified outcome, do we have something which is non algorithmic… What’s going on in quantum consciousness?

Angus Menuge: The idea of quantum consciousness is that quantum phenomena don’t seem to develop in the same deterministic or algorithmic way as things in classical physics. And that this might explain human creativity and free will and other powers of the mind which seem to be incompatible with classical deterministic physics.

So, on one view in this area, Penrose’s work is rather speculative because he’s looking at quantum gravity. Those ideas have not really been sorted out and resolved to this point.

Note: Quantum gravity is the gravity that governs the universe’s smallest particles. “‘Quantum Gravity’ does not denote any existing theory: the field of quantum gravity is very much a ‘work in progress’. As you will see in this chapter, there are multiple lines of attack each with the same core goal: to find a theory that unifies, in some sense, general relativity (Einstein’s classical field theory of gravitation) and quantum field theory (the theoretical framework through which we understand the behaviour of particles in non-gravitational fields).” – Dean Rickles, Quantum Gravity: A Primer for Philosophers

But Henry Stapp, following a particular interpretation of quantum mechanics, takes the view that perhaps what’s going on is that the brain is a quantum system at the level of the ionic activity. And what that means is that there can be a superposition of possible states of the brain. Each one of them, for example, could represent a template for a different action.

Note: Mathematical physicist Henry Stapp “believes that classical physics cannot describe the brain, and thinks that a quantum framework is needed for a full explanation. He is sympathetic to the pre-quantum age ideas of William James, who suggested that consciousness was a ‘selecting agent’ present when choices have to be made.” – “Henry Stapp,” Quantum Mind

Angus Menuge: So you’re deciding, let’s say, which of five movies to go watch or watch at home. And there they all, these templates exist in superposition. They all have a certain probability of being selected, but no one of them has been selected. What is it that explains why in the end you watch one movie rather than the others? Well, going back to [John] von Neumann, Von Neumann had the idea that what’s remarkable about quantum physics is that it seems that the observer makes a difference to the evolution of the system. So you can have this system where you have all of these possible states and you’ve got this wave function. What is it that makes the wave function collapse? Why is it that one of these states actually becomes actual? Well, Von Neumann suggested that maybe it’s the act of measurement.

Note: John von Neumann (1903–1957, pictured) “Important work in set theory inaugurated a career that touched nearly every major branch of mathematics. Von Neumann’s gift for applied mathematics took his work in directions that influenced quantum theory, automata theory, economics, and defense planning. Von Neumann pioneered game theory and, along with Alan Turing and Claude Shannon, was one of the conceptual inventors of the stored-program digital computer.” – William Poundstone, “John vn Neumann,” Britannica. He seems to have been a pragmatic computing genius. For example, he said, “All stable processes we shall predict. All unstable processes we shall control.” Also “There probably is a God. Many things are easier to explain if there is than if there isn’t.” – “38 Great Quotes By John von Neumann That Will Spark Your Interest In Mathematics” The Famous People

Angus Menuge (pictured): Now he himself didn’t distinguish between a mental act of measurement or a machine doing the measurement, but Stapp does. Stapp speculates maybe the brain is a quantum system and what consciousness adds is selective attention.

So when you’re thinking of five things that you can do, the one that you end up focusing on and selecting is fixated. And then that ends up being the one that is realized and you end up actually doing. So, perhaps, as it were, your mind measures your brain and your consciousness causes this collapse of the wave function. And that goes on to explain the particular action that you do. And that would be compatible with a very strong view of free will called libertarian free will because no physical state of your brain determined what you were going to do next. It was just your conscious attention that really decided, in the end, which of those possible actions that you did— that you weren’t simply robotically forced to do it by states in your brain.

Note: The image of John von Neumann is courtesy Los Alamos National Laboratory.

Next: Can a materialist consciousness theory survive quantum mechanics?


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.

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.

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 Quantum Mechanics Help Decipher Consciousness? Free Will?