Can Quantum Physics Explain Consciousness? A Report on the Quantum Mind Conference

By Novin, Wade | Skeptic (Altadena, CA), Spring 2004 | Go to article overview

Can Quantum Physics Explain Consciousness? A Report on the Quantum Mind Conference


Novin, Wade, Skeptic (Altadena, CA)


THE SCIENCE STUDY OF consciousness has attracted recent attention from notable academics across many disciplines. The relevance of modern physics to the study of the mind was discussed at a conference in Tucson dubbed Quantum Mind 2003. Speakers included notable neuroscientist Karl Pribram, brilliant physicist Roger Penrose, Nobel laureate Brian Josephson, and consciousness philosopher David Chalmers. There was some good science, Dad science, and pseudoscience. However, for anyone interested in consciousness studies it had a lot to offer.

The conference was organized by Chalmers and Professor Stuart Hameroff, through the Center for Consciousness Studies at the University of Arizona. Hameroff is an Associate Director and has a personal interest in consciousness from his background in anesthesiology and psychology. Formed in 1998, the (]enter has sponsored previous events exploring scientific approaches to studying consciousness.

The format of the conference included plenary sessions in the morning and smaller concurrent sessions in the afternoon. The topics ranged from our perception of time to the inner workings of cells. Speakers had the opportunity to showcase their experiments and field questions from participants. One of the stated goals of the conference was to explore how modern physics might explain consciousness.

Consciousness is a unique problem for the sciences and until recently was not considered worthy of much study. It is still unclear how the brain creates what we all know as our private inner awareness, referred to as "qualia." Cognitive science has made headway in unraveling structures that process sensory input, form memories and coordinate bodily functions. But little is known about consciousness. Some researchers like Steven Pinker at MIT view consciousness as an ineffable mystery forever beyond our grasp. Evolution selected for large conscious brains, but why? Currently it is very difficult to explain the need for conscious organisms in the natural world.

Henry Stapp, a physicist at the University of California at Berkeley, explored this question in his presentation. He asserts that classical physics cannot adequately account for the complexity or presence of consciousness. It seems unnecessary in a universe of atoms and energy governed by deterministic laws. He makes the point that consciousness is added in as a phenomenon only because we know it exists, not because any scientific theory predicts or explains its emergence. He stressed that quantum physics naturally incorporates active conscious agents in the creation of reality. Surprisingly, interpretations of real experiments in physics do not necessarily contradict this viewpoint. Stapp's theory is a "top-down" view of mind, which he sees as more adequate than the traditional "bottom-up" view.

Chalmers, who chairs the Center of Consciousness Studies, sees consciousness as the truly "hard problem," while other brain functions like memory and visual perception were "easy" by comparison. His interest in consciousness comes from "a desire to develop fundamental theories where none presently exist." Consciousness is poorly understood and current research agendas concentrate more on how the brain processes information than on how it creates our inner awareness.

Some philosophers of mind, like Daniel Dennett and Patricia Churchland, deny that consciousness exists at all, reducing it to a constant sensory data stream and complex brain states. For them there is nothing really to it. Similar views hold that consciousness is nothing more than an epiphenomenon of a sufficently large brain. But these views leave unanswered how all the sensory data is unified into the whole of inner experience and just how complex a system must be to attain consciousness. Creating a singular impression of the world around you while inundated with sensory data is a remarkable feat.

The complexity of the brain can hardly be overstated. …

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