Magazine article Skeptic (Altadena, CA)

Quantum Consciousness and Other Spooky Myths: Quantum Mechanics Is Mysterious. Consciousness Is Mysterious. the Thought That There May Be a Connection Has Led to a Lot of Quantum Biological Pseudoscience

Magazine article Skeptic (Altadena, CA)

Quantum Consciousness and Other Spooky Myths: Quantum Mechanics Is Mysterious. Consciousness Is Mysterious. the Thought That There May Be a Connection Has Led to a Lot of Quantum Biological Pseudoscience

Article excerpt

ABOUT A HUNDRED YEARS HAVE PASSED since quantum mechanics was first developed. Quantum mechanics proved very successful in describing what is happening on the atomic level. The emission of light by objects when they are heated up (e.g., a light bulb), spectral lines, and later things like superconductivity, superfluidity, and the laser could be well understood and described with quantum mechanics.

Quantum mechanics is not an approximation or an ad hoc trick to make the equations agree with reality and with each other. It is a fundamental theory that is supposed to describe what is really happening at the subatomic level. A wave function is the basis of the theory and Schrodinger's equation, named after the German physicist Erwin Schrodinger, explains the evolution of that wave function over time. The equation is linear and for many specific cases there is an exact solution or, at least, a good way to approximate the solution. However, a problem arises when you want to leave the math for a moment to try to understand what is happening when an observation is made on a system on the atomic level.

In quantum mechanics a particle--for instance an electron--is represented by the aforementioned wave function. The electron is then no longer a point particle, but a wave, or something like a rippling of the water in a pond; a rippling that is simultaneously present at more than one spot. Suppose you have a device that takes the outcome of an atomic level event, amplifies it, and makes it visible on a macroscopic level, such as a Geiger counter. What is supposed to happen when the observation is made is that the wave function collapses onto one of its coordinate axes. Such coordinate axes are not to be thought of as tangible geometrical objects with real directions in three dimensional space. They are part of a mathematical model in which there may be infinitely many such axes. There is no equation that describes the collapse. The numerical outcome of the observation depends on which of the coordinate axes the wave function collapses on. It is only probabilities that are associated with the different coordinate axes that can be derived from Schrodinger's equation.

"Observation" is a somewhat vague notion and many physicists have a problem with its central role in quantum mechanics. Furthermore, the element of randomness in the collapse of the wave function is troublesome, and led to Einstein's famous remark that "God does not play dice." Richard Feynman, in his 1967 book, The Character of Physical Law, noted: "I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics." (1) It is this spooky aspect of quantum mechanics that leads some to speculate wildly on possible connections to consciousness and other aspects of human psychology.

Our story begins with the Nobel Prize winning physicist Eugene Wigner, who stood somewhat alone in his conviction that consciousness is required to make the wave function collapse--that is, that human thought can act as an "observation" to trigger the collapse of the wave function in a quantum event. Wigner died in 1995. That was one year after the Queen of England knighted Roger Penrose, who basically inverted Wigner's idea. According to Penrose, consciousness is a consequence of the collapse of quantum mechanical wave functions.

Roger Penrose had built an impressive record in physics before he devoted himself at a later age to the quantum origins of life and consciousness. His 1997 book, The Large, the Small, and the Human Mind, contains a concise and very readable explanation of his quantum-biological theories. (2) Through many examples, Penrose argues that the human mind does not operate algorithmically. According to Penrose, the way in which we analyze a move in a chess game, for example, is more than just a sequence of procedures. There is something else going on, and that something else may be found, Penrose argues along with his colleague, the anesthesiologist Stuart Hameroff, in the cytoskeleton of neurons that, they believe, harbor the equivalent of a quantum computer. …

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