Saturday, September 14, 2013

George Dvorsky - Does Consciousness Arise from Quantum Processes in the Brain?

Stuart Hameroff pretty much lost ALL credibility with anyone in the science world when he was featured so prominently in the horrible pseudo-documentary, What the Bleep Do We Know!? (my original review of the film and a brief comment on the "extended director's cut").

Here is a critique of that film (including, indirectly, refutation of Hameroff's [lack of] understanding of physics) from the Rational Wiki:
One of the key misrepresentations of quantum theory in the film is the line "quantum theory is the science of possibility", directly implying that the discovery and development of quantum mechanics somehow allows anything to happen, such as walking on water. More accurately, quantum theory is the science of probability; although the distinction is subtle to some, it is very important. Quantum phenomena, at least in the Copenhagen Interpretation, are all about the probability that a sub-atomic particle will be found at a particular position - crucially, this is only applicable in reality at the sub-atomic level.

The basic facts of neurology and quantum mechanics presented in the film are correct. Facts such as the uncertainty principle, where an object cannot have its exact position and momentum measured simultaneously (sometimes explained as the quantum effect that observing something fundamentally changes what is observed) is also real with real implications. However, the main mistake in the film is that it attempts to extrapolate these effects, which are only observed with atoms and electrons, to the macroscopic world. Thus, when the main character turns away from a basketball, the film depicts that it is now impossible to know its position because you're not observing it, such as in the Schrodinger's cat thought experiment. Of course, in reality, the ground is observing the ball every time it collides with it (there's nothing special about human eyes when it comes to observation in this sense), and the sound waves generated also let a person with their back turned know fairly precisely where it is (although the main character is deaf...).

Such extrapolations of very real quantum phenomena into unrealistic conclusions are often the cornerstone of the modern New Age movement which seeks to prove itself with science. These effects are certainly not observed in the macroscopic world. Other points raised in the film and presented as fact include that water molecules are influenced by thought, or that the brain cannot distinguish between fantasy and reality. All these points are either based on very unsound or fraudulent evidence, or distortions of real research.[3]
Anyway . . . I share all of this to inform you that what you are about to read should held lightly and with considerable skepticism.

It's not clear as of now whether Hameroff and Penrose are on to something, since there is no way at this time to test their hypotheses. However, it is clear that Hameroff engages in some seriously muddled thinking and does so under the authority of his degree and position at the University of Arizona.

[How fitting that this shows up the same day I receive the announcement for the 2014 Toward a Science of Consciousness Conference, which Hameroff co-founder and co-organizes each year.]

Does consciousness arise from quantum processes in the brain?

George Dvorsky

Stuart Hameroff is a Professor of Anesthesiology and Psychology at the University of Arizona — but he's a pariah as far as most neuroscientists are concerned. The reason? Consciousness, he dares say, is far more than just a computational process — it's actually quantum.

Along with the esteemed mathematician Sir Roger Penrose, Hameroff is the co-author of the highly controversial Orch OR model of consciousness (Orchestrated Objective Reduction) — the suggestion that quantum phenomenon, rather than classical mechanics, can explain conscious awareness.

The theory presents a new kind of wave function collapse that occurs in isolation, called objective reduction. This wave function collapse, they argue, is the only possible non-physical thing that can account for a non-computable process, namely consciousness. They speculate that this could happen inside the brain's microtubules.

Recently, Nikola Danaylov of the Singularity 1 on 1 podcast caught up with Hameroff to learn more. The result is a fascinating one hour interview in which the two discuss a number of topics, including various theories of mind, how anesthesia can inform the debate, the Orch OR model, and why the vast majority of scientists are disdainful of it.

In addition, they get into some weird territory and discuss quantum souls, the afterlife, reincarnation, and Hinduism and Buddhism. They even hit some futurist topics like the Singularity, cryonics, and chemical brain preservation, and also discuss Hameroff's upcoming paper (together with Roger Penrose) where they will review and present new evidence in support of their theory. 


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Image: Sebastian Kaulitzki/Shutterstock.
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