Monday, July 13, 2009

Putting quantum conciousness to sleep

A video and book that has received a lot of attention in popular culture over the past few years is What the bleep do we know?
The protagonist, Amanda, played by Marlee Matlin, finds herself in a fantastic Alice in Wonderland experience when her daily, uninspired life literally begins to unravel, revealing the uncertain world of the quantum field hidden behind what we consider to be our normal, waking reality.
The video contains a strange mix of quantum physics, pop psychology, and new Age mysticism. A main thesis of the video is that there is a connection between quantum physics and how we think. Indeed, by thinking quantum thoughts we can create our own quantum reality and control our destiny. Since I am interested in science and theology several people had recommended it to me. A teacher at my daughter's school was enthralled with it, and encouraged students to watch it. When I finally watched the video I was alarmed. It completely mis-understands and mis-represents quantum physics. None of the scientists interviewed in the movie is actually a bona fide quantum physicist (i.e., someone who regularly publishes research papers in international refereed journals).

So what do we know? There are many things we don't understand. Quantum physics and consciousness are both strange and poorly understood. However, that does not mean they are related. There is a reality which is independent of what I think about it. How I think can have a significant effect on my perception of that reality, but it won't change that reality. This is psychology, but has nothing to do with quantum physics.

Stuart Hameroff, a Professor of Anesthesiology at the University of Arizona is featured in the video. He is a vocal proponent of "quantum consciousness" and has co-authored papers on the subject with Sir Roger Penrose FRS, a distinguished mathematical physicist.

Recently, Jeff Reimers, Laura McKemmish, Noel Hush, Alan Mark, and I published a detailed scientific critique of key ideas of Hameroff and Penrose in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (USA). You can read Hameroff's response here. The paper also stimulated some debate on the Nature network. I will leave you to draw your own conclusions about whether Hameroff's reponse is convincing.

My experience with this enterprise confirms Kauzmann's warnings.

1 comment:

  1. Part of the problem with quantum conciousness is that "quantum" is better understood than "conciousness".

    There is a growing body of experimental psychology that indicates that "conciousness" means a lot less than is normally ascribed to it. It's chief purpose may actually be to explain our own actions to ourselves post facto.

    The analogy is of a monkey riding a tiger's back, explaining where the tiger goes without actually being able to control the tiger in any meaningful way.

    I think that any formulation of quantum conciousness will have to await a more rigorous analysis of the nature of conciousness.

    I expect that once this is done, the similarity may be obvious, but also uninteresting (I expect it may end up being algebraic, and depend merely on the fact that the state of a quantum system and the state of specific classes of neural network can both be represented by density matrices).