Thursday, August 28, 2003

Strange Physics of the Mind? (精神地奇妙物理現象?)

Strange Physics of the Mind? (精神地奇妙物理現象?)
[創意組織 ]

Strange Physics of the Mind?

WHY are some physicists suddenly so interested in the human mind? Is mind as real as matter? A few have even begun wondering whether mind may be the "real reality" and matter a deceptive illusion. What is it about mental activities that causes such smart people to offer such wild speculations? Part of the reason is the weird implications of two fundamental theories that have changed forever our sense of reality: quantum mechanics, which injects uncertainty into the subatomic scale, and relativity, which unifies space and time on the large-scale structure of the universe. But can theories of physics explain mechanisms of the mind? Can the behavior of atoms determine the behavior of people? Can the structure of the universe describe how we think, feel, and know? We assembled an impressive group of physics-friendly guests to guide us through some remarkable territory.


Dr. Gregory Benford is a professor of physics at the University of California at Irvine where he specializes in plasma and astrophysics. Greg is also a well-known writer of science fiction, in which he has used quantum mechanics to create a whole new universe.

Dr. David Chalmers is a professor of philosophy and co-director of the Center for Consciousness Studies at the University of Arizona. Dave believes that the mind cannot be explained by brain alone.

Dr. John Searle is a leading philosopher of mind at the University of California, Berkeley. John asserts that the mind comes only from processes in the brain and there is no special need to invoke quantum physics.

Dr. James Trefil is a professor of physics at George Mason University and a prolific science writer. Jim claims not to be bothered by the "quantum weirdness" of the subatomic world.

Dr. Fred Alan Wolf is a theoretical physicist and author of books on the relationship between quantum physics and consciousness. Fred says some extraordinary things about reality.

ROBERT: Fred, your books, such as Taking the Quantum Leap and Parallel Universes, have all discussed how quantum mechanics might radically reform our understanding of reality. Do you really believe that mind is more fundamental than matter, or are you just having fun with us?

FRED: Maybe a little bit of both. I'm interested in being a kind of gadfly to stir up materialists--those people who believe that only the physical is real--so that they begin to rethink this fundamental problem once again. But I do believe that mind plays a far more important role in the way the universe is constructed than has previously been thought in any mechanical model.

ROBERT: Jim, as a physicist, you've written many broad-based books on science, among them Science Matters: Achieving Scientific Literacy. Do you think that what Fred [Wolf] says is literate?

JIM: It's very articulate, of course; Fred is a very articulate guy. Many physicists get uncomfortable, though, when people take physical theories like quantum mechanics and then draw conclusions from them that aren't supported by the theory itself. And most physicists would say that the idea of observers affecting the universe and other such ideas having this wide a context aren't really supported by our views of quantum mechanics.

ROBERT: Greg, you're a practicing physicist and a science fiction writer, whose recent novel, Cosm, describes the accidental creation of another universe, where time is speeded up. How seriously should we take your fiction as a description of reality?

GREG: I would hope you'd take it somewhat seriously, because one writes novels in order to make points. But I always try--and I think every scientist always tries--to convey the attitude that science has toward what constitutes proof. We should be sensitive to the style with which we offer our conclusions, because there's a culture of science--

ROBERT: That process of building on past knowledge, rigorously assessing data, logically analyzing hypotheses, requiring repeatability and independent replication--

GREG: Yes. There's a culture of science and we should always keep it in mind.

ROBERT: John, as the renowned author of numerous books on the mind, such as your recent Mind, Language, and Society, are you pleased or dismayed to watch strange physics perhaps remystifying the mind?

JOHN: I don't think anybody has succeeded in remystifying the mind. Physicists are as capable of talking nonsense as anyone else. And more nonsense today is talked about quantum mechanics than almost any other subject, except maybe computers. But I'm not dismayed, no.

ROBERT: Dave, reviewers of your book The Conscious Mind claim that you see consciousness almost everywhere you look in the universe. Do you take that as a criticism or compliment?

DAVE: I don't know about panpsychism, but I think it's good to open up the idea--at least, after a few drinks late at night. The serious point here is that we don't understand the mind.

ROBERT: Panpsychism is the theory that consciousness or "psychic stuff" is to be found literally everywhere, including in the lowest forms of single-celled life and even in ordinary inanimate matter. Is this what you would advise us mortals to consider?

DAVE: I don't know whether the mind is everywhere. But here are two problems to consider. Problem one: we don't understand the mind; we don't understand the mind's place in physical reality. Problem two: we don't understand the intrinsic nature of physical reality. So there can seem to be an attractive notion--some of the time--that we might try to solve these two problems at once. Maybe there's mind right at the very basis of physical reality. I don't know whether that's the case.

ROBERT: Does this mean that you can envision mind as being more causative of physical reality than physical reality is causative of mind?

DAVE: Mind might well be more fundamental to the universe than is commonly believed. We already know from physics that the world is a weird place. We already know from philosophy that the mind is a weird place. Who knows about a world of mind?

ROBERT: Fred, you focus on dreams. Your book The Dreaming Universe takes a fresh look at envisioning reality. Though many people take dreams as an incidental part of life, not much related to anything, you imagine dreams to provide some rather original insights into the structure of reality. Tell us about your theory of dreams.

FRED: The basic idea is that in a dreaming brain there are superpositions--that is, overlapping aspects of our world picture coming together and forming new pictures or new visions. This reminds me of--or is a metaphor for--what happens in quantum physics when we look at overlapping possibilities forming new possibilities. Such superpositioning seems to be how the universe may be constructed, based on a quantum mechanics model. So it seems that dreaming could be a natural place to look at where the mind and quantum mechanics interact and affect the physical world--in terms of how we make pictures of that physical world. My model basically uses dreams as the prism to look at different kinds of pictures--what might be called archetypal pictures, which form at the deepest level of our subconsciousness, even before we become aware of them.

ROBERT: "Archetypal" meaning some fundamental, structural thought or image that pervades the mental activity of numerous people, perhaps all humanity; archetypes are usually subconscious and always transpersonal.

FRED: Yes, there are universal archetypes that seem to be present among the myths and images of virtually all peoples and cultures, according to certain models of psychology. Carl Jung is the main proponent of this point of view. These archetypes are formed in sleep, during deep sleep, during this form of sleep we call dreaming. And there seems to be clear indications that we dream in order to form structure of the world, to give form to our understanding of our surroundings. For example, it's known that the fetus, from the time when the brain begins to develop in the womb, spends something like eighteen hours a day-dreaming. This is measured by the rapid eye movement that research has shown accompanies dreaming.

ROBERT: Jim, do you think that Fred is dreaming here?

JIM: I have problems with the metaphor. The theory of dreams is as it may be. We don't know much about dreams or why they function--but the idea of two independent thing coming together to form a radically new third thing....Yes, [superposition] is part of quantum mechanics. It's also part of waves in your bathtub, and no one says that the universe is a bathtub. This way of speculating bothers me, though I know Fred is very much aware of these distinctions. But when these ways of speculative thinking get propagated, I suddenly have students telling me that quantum mechanics means the world has to be a certain way. If this were ten years ago, they'd be saying that quantum mechanics proves that we shouldn't live in a patriarchal society. I've heard the quantum mechanics/dreaming argument, among others, before. I agree with John [Searle] that you get a lot of nonsense being talked about quantum mechanics.

ROBERT: Does quantum mechanics generate consciousness? Can the way the world works at the subatomic level--uncertainty, superpositioning, duality, and the like--be directly causative of the way self-awareness works at the organism level, which to our knowledge is associated only with brains? This is the general view of, among others, Roger Penrose, the English mathematician and physicist, who speculates that quantum mechanical effects deep inside neurons (i.e., brain cells) might engender the kind of baffling first-person experience we call consciousness. But can what goes on in the microstructure of the universe be responsible for creating all the unique characteristics of human mental life?

FRED: There's a new model of quantum physics indicating that there might be a way to generate self-reference from a quantum system. The system not only has to observe something outside of itself, it also has to observe itself observing outside of itself. And that forms a quantum state in what is called the parallel-worlds model, or the many-worlds hypothesis, of quantum physics. It's a very interesting idea, because it allows one to feed back, in a linear way--which physicists never thought was possible [and most still don't].

ROBERT: There are indeed mainstream theoretical physicists--if such an animal as a mainstream theoretical physicist exists anymore--who do contemplate parallel universes, but strictly in a physical sense. The consensus view is that even if parallel worlds do exist in some way, there would still be no congress possible between them.

JIM: Quantum mechanics is the science that deals with what goes on at the level of the atom and inside it. When you look at quantum mechanics, it is, as David [Chalmers] said, weird. I mean, it's just weird.

ROBERT: Weirdness like observer-created reality, wave-particle duality [an electron or other "quantum" exhibiting the characteristics of both a wave and a particle], the uncertainty principle [the impossibility of determining the exact position and velocity of a particle simultaneously], time flowing backward as well as forward [at least as a theoretical construct], and other such counterintuitive notions.

JIM: Quantum mechanics doesn't correspond with our intuition. But our intuition is based on the macro world in which we live. And the idea that when you descend to the world of the atom, that somehow it should be the same as the world we're used to, is in itself weird. Why should the micro world work the same way as the macro world? They don't have to work the same way, any more than when you go to another country the natives all have to speak English. So when we get inside the atom and find that it doesn't behave as we might expect--and we can't describe it in terms of colliding baseballs--that doesn't mean that therefore we have to give up all our other ideas about the universe. The strangeness of the subatomic world just tells us that when we go to this other realm, the rules are different. If you want to play the quantum game, you have to play by the quantum rules.

DAVE: There are some particularly strange things about quantum mechanics. For example, quantum mechanics tells us that an electron can be in two places at once. Now, that's not a problem; that's just a little bit weird. But what happens when someone makes an observation? If an observer comes in, with a conscious mind, then that electron can only be in one place at one time. That's the thing that's hard to understand.

JIM: It's the interaction with the--

DAVE: Put it this way: if people want to find a role for mind in physical reality, if they already have a bias to do so, quantum mechanics would be exactly the place to look.

JIM: Because it's a place where our intuition breaks down.

FRED: Jim [Trefil] just made a very important point. "It's the interaction," he said. I totally disagree with that. It's not the interaction that does it, because interactions fit within the framework of quantum mechanics, and they lead to more weirdness. In order to get from that pool of weirdness to a single actual observation, something has to change radically and suddenly. It's not the interaction that does it. It's the observation that does it. And [Werner] Heisenberg made that point a long time ago when he said that it's the observation that creates the path of an arrow.

JIM: But what I'm saying is, the problems you run into are always from mixing metaphors--from imposing our classical [macroscopic] ideas on the atomic world, where they don't belong. If you look at the atomic world, it's an interactional place; that's what it is.

ROBERT: John, are physicists trying to take over what traditionally has been philosophers' sphere of influence?

JOHN: I don't think this is a case of physicists trying to take over from philosophers. Neurobiology is a focal point, and although we know a great deal about how the brain works, we're still at a stage where we welcome all speculations. But the idea that we're going to find consciousness at the level of the wave function in quantum mechanics is, so far, without any experimental support whatever. There's a real difficulty with this idea. As far as we know, consciousness exists only in human and animal brains. And they have a very specific kind of anatomy: they have neurons. The problem with quantum mechanics is that it's everywhere, absolutely everywhere. So if you're going to find consciousness in the collapse of the wave function, let's say, or in superpositioning, then you're going to have to conclude that the universe is in every place "conscious."

ROBERT: The collapse of the wave function is how we get from the micro world of all this weirdness (i.e., quantum indeterminacy) to the macro world where everything is in its place. When we measure, or observe, something, we collapse its wave function.

FRED: There's something very interesting here. The classical world is a clearly defined world, in which causality seems to be the rule. The quantum world is probabilistic in nature, and causality is not clear. The question is, "How do we get from the quantum to the classical?". If you look at the parallel-worlds model that I mentioned earlier and discussed in The Dreaming Universe, you find that in many self-referencing systems, classical physics reappears. A system can have knowledge of simultaneous things that, according to the laws of quantum mechanics, it shouldn't be able to know. It can know things in violation of the uncertainty principle, provided that it doesn't put that information out into the outside world. I take that to be a metaphor for how we make up stories about ourselves. We can know things about ourselves that we can never know about somebody else. That's trivial, but the things that we know are personal stories about how we got from A to B, whereas for somebody else the blanks have to be filled in.

ROBERT: Dave, you've postulated that information--I assume in some pure, idealistic form--may be the underlying essence of reality. Could you tell us about that?

DAVE: Let's think about the way physics really works. Basically, physics tells us about relationships between things. For example, there are two different states that an electron might have, and it might have this or that effect on another particle. Physics doesn't tell us what these electrons are in themselves; it tells us only about the relations between the differences here which make a difference elsewhere. Physics is silent about the intrinsic nature of reality. Basically, it tells us about bits. Zeros and ones, if you like--on or off, this state or that state. Whenever you have information, though, it deals with intrinsic nature--descriptions or categories. Is something red or is it blue, opaque or transparent, and so on. What we're really looking for, down deep, is the intrinsic nature of physical reality. And I might speculate that the intrinsic nature of physical reality could have something to do with the intrinsic nature of mind.

ROBERT: Greg [Benford], when you sketched first thoughts about your book Cosm and made parallel universes its core concept, what was going on in your head? Was quantum mechanics involved in your mental creativity?

GREG: Gee, I hope not. It's an interesting question, though: Where does creativity come from? I tend to believe that we are mostly builders of analogies. All the time, we ask ourselves, "Does this thing look like that thing--or does it look like that other thing?" If it looks more like that other thing, go there; follow it; build on it. Building analogies and following trails of thought are the most common form of creativity, and that's what I did in this novel. I thought about the calculations that have arisen in the last ten years about being able to create a whole universe in a laboratory, and I wondered what might happen if this could actually be true. And then I wondered, What if someone were to do it by accident? The mechanism for universe creation has been shown to be a quantum mechanical event that began as a microscopic event in the real world.

ROBERT: In the real world?

GREG: Yes, in the real world. The creative leap was to suppose that a quantum mechanical event could appear in the real world on a large scale. This isn't as farfetched as it may initially seem, since our current universe was once a quantum mechanical object. That was a long time ago, of course, and we weren't there.

ROBERT: Fred was there.

GREG: Of course, Fred [Wolf] may have been there--he looks a lot like Jehovah. If our entire universe emerged out of a quantum mechanical event far smaller than an atomic particle, why couldn't such a thing happen again? But this doesn't mean that I want to imply that quantum mechanics is often operating on the macroscopic levels of our common, classical world. Look at it this way: Cosm is a novel that uses a colossal metaphor like the creation of the cosmos and then imagines all the dust that flies: what happens to society when it turns out that ordinary untenured faculty members can actually create universes.

ROBERT: Do they get tenure for that?

GREG: It looks like she's going to get tenure; it's amazing what you have to do to get tenure these days. But there's a danger here in these quantum mechanical musings. Let's put it another way: I had a lot of fun painting a French impressionist portrait of a cow--but don't try to get milk out of it. Similarly, don't try to squeeze everything out of quantum mechanics, because quantum mechanics doesn't work well as a metaphor in the large-scale world. John [Searle] is always saying this, and I quite agree. And just in case you may not be following all that we're saying here, don't think that you alone don't understand quantum mechanics, because we physicists don't understand much of quantum mechanics either.

ROBERT: Let's take a specific, strange aspect of quantum mechanics called nonlocality. What is nonlocality in quantum mechanics, and does it help explain some of the more mystical traditions of humanity? Fred, I'm wandering into your territory.

FRED: Nonlocality means that something that happens over here occurs because something happened over there, when there is seemingly no physical means by which the something-over-there could effect the something-over-here. So, how did the something-over-here become what it is when the something-over-there did what it did, since there's no possible physical connection between the two? That's what we call nonlocality.

ROBERT: It's also called "spooky action at a distance." It might have been called pseudoscience, because it would seem to be impossible, but in quantum mechanics we learn that what seems impossible may be quite ordinary.

FRED: Nonlocality is possible because the original objects--the one over here and the one over there--interacted before they separated, and they formed what is called a single state. And even though they are now separate, they still behave as a single state.

JIM: This phenomenon is called quantum entanglement. You start with two particles that are near each other and have some interaction, and when they separate they retain--if you like to think about it in this way--a "memory" of the original interaction. This is one of the more surprising predictions of quantum mechanics, and it was verified experimentally in the 1960s. It's the only case I know of in science where you had a theory that everyone believed was true, made a prediction based on that theory, conducted the experiment, verified the prediction--and everybody was upset. Because what it confirmed was that you can never visualize what is going on in the quantum world. And we're primates; we deal in visual systems. We all think of these elementary particles as baseballs flying about or billiard balls bumping into each other--I do, I don't deny it. We think of things that way, and then we get into these paradoxes, and we find things that don't make any sense, nonlocality being one good example. Actually, nonlocality, if you describe it correctly--and it's a long argument, beyond our scope here--isn't a paradox. It's just impossible to visualize; it's something that doesn't fit the classical view.

ROBERT: Fred, help us with nonlocality. What's an example that we can relate to?

FRED: Pretend you're looking at a pair of dice, seemingly ordinary dice. But notice that you can't see any spots on them. Yet if I pick up one of them--this act is called "observation"--it can suddenly change: look, now it has white spots on it! Well, that's interesting. Observation is affecting the reality of the die. That's the metaphor here. It gets even more interesting when I take two dice, let them interact, and then pull them apart. Now, when I observe the die over here, making its spots appear, then spots also appear on the second die, over there. And if I make an observation again and the one over here changes and has black spots on it, so does the second die, over there--now it, too, has black spots. In other words, my observation of one immediately affects the other.

ROBERT: A nice illustration of non-locality, but it hardly proves that reality is a dream. So what does this tell me about the nature of things?

FRED: Nonlocality tells you that there's an order in the universe that may complement and supersede the simple mechanical order we've been conditioned to accept.

ROBERT: Can quantum mechanics be involved in any of the strange occurrences that some claim are supernatural? Consider synchronicity--coincidences; the seemingly nonrational association of events; the juxtaposition of events for no obvious physical reason--which was popularized by the mystical psychoanalyst Carl Jung. Recently, certain physicists and people involved in parapsychology have wondered whether quantum mechanics might be the underlying cause of these kinds of synchronicities....John [Searle], you're laughing at me.

JOHN: We have two mysteries for one again. The problem is that these kinds of bizarre coincidences that you get in real life are distinctly odd statistically, whereas quantum mechanics is pervasive and distinctly predictable statistically. The kind of mystical phenomenon you're talking about is, for example, a mother suddenly imagining her son in a car accident, and--my God!--she finds out an hour later that he was in fact in a car accident at that very there must be some explanation. Now, here's the explanation as to why these seemingly odd occurrences should be quite normal and expected. Given that all of us have billions of conscious states in the course of our lives, it's not at all surprising that you occasionally get these odd correlations. But the idea that these strange events are connected somehow with quantum mechanics is not correct. They aren't remotely like quantum mechanics. Quantum mechanics is absolutely a pervasive feature of the world at the most micro and fundamental level. So I don't see the connection between quantum mechanics and these occurrences; I've never seen anybody make the connection work.

FRED: I think, to be fair to John, that one does have to stretch the implications of quantum mechanics to apply it here. I agree with you all on this. Quantum mechanics is not the end of the story here, but it's important to wonder what quantum mechanics is telling us. Quantum mechanics is exhibiting some features that look a lot like synchronicity and other features that look a lot like nonlocality. Now go back to these experiences that human beings have, that seemed totally unexplainable before quantum mechanics. What I and others are saying is that maybe quantum mechanics has something to contribute. But maybe we need a new theory; maybe we need something bigger than just quantum mechanics. I think synchronicity is another ordering parameter of the universe.

ROBERT: What is your description of synchronicity?

FRED: Synchronicity is when two events take place, in which a clear meaning is associated with the juxtaposition, but it's a coincidence that cannot be explained causally--that is, by one event's effecting, or causing, the other. So synchronicity can be defined as a meaningful but noncausal relationship between two or more events.

JOHN: Do you assign this meaning after the events take place?

FRED: I presume you do.

JOHN: That's very important to me. Because how can you assign meaning to things or events if you don't know that they're going to occur. You have no way of predicting them. For example, there's a famous tale about a woman who was discussing her creativity, and was having visions of a scarab or something like a gold bug, and suddenly a similarly colored beetle flew into the screen of a window where Carl Jung was working with a patient. This is what he would call a synchronicity. When I hear psychologists tell stories, they're always filled with remarkable synchronicities.

ROBERT: I agree. The balancing question is how many of the innumerable synchronicity-type events that could have conceivably occurred did not occur? And when the ultra-rare synchronous-type events do occur, are their appearances really anything more than random coincidences amidst the overwhelming number of similar events that did not occur?

JIM: Isn't this what my old statistics instructor used to call the "golf ball on the fairway" fallacy? You hit a golf ball onto the fairway, and ask, "What's the chance that my golf ball will hit any particular blade of grass?" That chance is basically zero. But the ball must land on some blade of grass, of course. So you go over to the ball afterward and say, "Look at this! The odds that my ball would land on this specific blade of grass are astronomical!" But in fact the ball has to land somewhere.

ROBERT: Another problem is the "expectation bias": Do synchronize-type events occur more to those people who believe in them? If so, we should be suspicious, though I suppose that one could always argue that "believers" can generate or attract more synchronous-type events than can "non believers."

FRED: The universe is an interesting place; and so is the mind.

ROBERT: Jim, what evidence could convince you that Fred's worldview has legitimacy?

JIM: Let's talk some more about synchronicity. A good-sized sample of people would have to faithfully write down all the visions they have, and then independent analysts would assess how many of them were clearly and meaningfully coincident. But you have to define in advance what "clearly and meaningfully coincident" means--this is what John [Searle] was saying. Assigning meaning in advance is a very important part of this test. Only then can you determine whether the result is greater than chance. If you have a million visions and only one of them is clearly meaningful, that hardly seems more than coin-flipping chance.

ROBERT: But what if the results of your experiment, designed in your way and assuming sufficient trials and repetition, demonstrated statistically significant, nonrandom occurrences of synchronicity?

JIM: I would accept that there was something going on that had to be explained, something beyond mere chance. And then I would start looking for explanations.

ROBERT: Let's reverse the results. Would a negative outcome of your experiment constitute a logical proof that there was no strange, synchronous connection to the one "clearly meaningful, non-causal event" even though it was statistically a random occurrence.

JIM: No.

ROBERT: The principles of logic and statistics can make causal connections unlikely but not impossible.

FRED: But the question is, "What does it mean to 'explain' something like synchronicity?". The problem today, in our scientific way of thinking, is that "explanation" means a cause-and-effect relationship. If we can't fit something into a cause-and-effect relationship, we surmise that we haven't explained it. This is the notion I'm challenging. Synchronicities, I'm saying, are another form of order, which is noncausal or acausal. Synchronicities don't fit the causal model, so we're unable to explain them in the same way we're accustomed to explaining normal things.

JIM: What I'm saying is that we haven't yet established that there's something to be explained.

ROBERT: Let's change direction. In the development of consciousness as a field of scientific study, how important is quantum mechanics?

DAVE: At this moment in our investigations of consciousness, we're concentrating on neuroscience. These are the early days, when we're linking the chemical and electrical processes in the brain with the mental and psychological processes we know and love in our conscious experience. It's like the early days of physics, when scientists were concentrating on processes at the macroscopic level. Similarly, once we come to understand these neuroprocesses in the brain [at the cellular and subcellular levels], then we can go farther and develop detailed speculations--maybe even explanations--for what underlies that level. Maybe fifty or a hundred years from now, there will be working theories describing how quantum mechanics or some other part of physics contributes to the fundamental theory of mind. For now, I think it's a little early.

ROBERT: I'm always skeptical when I hear of some special new brain locus, or focal point, where mind is said to emerge from brain. We know that electrical impulses, which carry information flows in the brain, are generated at the synapses between the billions of neurons. Fred [Wolf] wonders about the role of glial cells, which are the much more numerous non-neurons in the brain, involved in supporting the biochemical environment. And others, like Roger Penrose, speak about the tiny microtubules inside neurons and speculate about how quantum effects might take place there. At our present level of understanding, I think it's dangerous to assign the mind-brain interface, as it were, to any specific physical location.

JOHN: But it's a good idea to start with what we know for a fact. We know for a fact that our brains are conscious brains. We know, as far as we know anything, that this table is not conscious. But there's just as much quantum mechanics in this table as there is in our brains. So if you're going to look for consciousness at the level of quantum mechanics, you'd better start talking about the special features of brain anatomy--because as far as we know, the brain is the only place where consciousness actually occurs in the real world. Tables are not conscious.

ROBERT: Fred, you've spent your entire career talking about the relationship between quantum mechanics and mind. Why should we care about such an abstract subject?

FRED: For a very good reason. Today we live in a culture that has a particular view of how things work. And unfortunately--or fortunately, depending on your bias--we have a highly mechanical orientation. People who are born in a certain way, or who live in certain circumstances, may think of themselves as handicapped or victimized for the rest of their lives because, mechanically, that's the way they seem to be constructed. The quantum metaphor, the quantum story, changes all that. It says that observation affects, changes, alters reality. This means that by changing the way you observe things, you can possibly change yourself. So I think that everything can benefit from a quantum metaphor--ourselves, our families, our culture, our world, and possibly even our universe.

ROBERT: Can quantum mechanics affect free will?

GREG: I really don't think so. It actually sounds more useful for a therapist than a physicist. Trying to explain free will by reference to quantum mechanics is much like playing tennis with the net down. It looks interesting at first, but after a while it loses its zip. I don't think we make progress by compounding the levels of mystification. You have to get some kind of predictive value out of a scientific idea. This [speculation] just seems to be worsening the problem, not bettering it.

ROBERT: So you want to discard all the quantum mechanics discussions of the mind?

GREG: No, but you shouldn't ask quantum mechanics to solve philosophical problems, which it cannot do. A philosopher can tell you why.

DAVE: The relationship between quantum mechanics and mind is an important issue for us, because it relates to what we are as human beings. We want to know what we are. Are we souls, which live forever, or get passed from body to body, or to other creatures, down the generations? Are we just bags of neurons that rot when we die? Or does it turn out that our consciousness is actually composed of fundamental physical entities? Or maybe we're mental entities that were around at the time of the Big Bang. I think the answer would make a huge difference to our worldview. And if a quantum physics view of mind turns out to be right, that would force us to reconstruct the entire picture of ourselves. But just because a quantum mechanism would be extremely important for understanding mind, that doesn't mean it's right.

JOHN: We should care about these issues, because we want to know how the world works. And the most fundamental theory we have about how the world works is quantum mechanics. Now we're tempted to think, Well, quantum theory is going to explain a whole lot of other things, like consciousness and free will. I'm very skeptical about such attempted explanations. I don't think any of that is going to happen. But we would like to know how the world works, and we'd like to know how we work. If knowing how the world works at the most fundamental level will help us to explain how we work--great! If not, all the same, it's something we should know about as well.

JIM: I agree that there's a fundamental desire to know who we are. If the quantum mechanics metaphor helps people in their lives, as Fred was suggesting, then by all means use the metaphor--but don't try to pretend that it has anything to do with the quantum mechanics that's part of physics.

ROBERT: In advanced discussions of consciousness, some physicists are starting to talk about the nature of time as described by relativity theory. How do you see the relationship between time and consciousness?

DAVE: I don't know. You might try to make some link. Relativity says that time can flow at different speeds. Consciousness, we all know, does flow at different speeds--in some states of consciousness time flows faster and in other states slower. Personally, though, I think that's biologically explainable. I don't see a relationship between that and the physics of relativity. Some say otherwise, and I wish them well.

ROBERT: Greg, how important is a sense of time in our sense of ourselves?

GREG: Time is adjustable, as evolution has engineered it. If you're in the middle of an auto accident, time hasn't changed, though your perceptions of time, during and after, will be different from normal experience. But the fundamental nature of time is something that physics has not truly figured out yet. It may not be comprehensible. It may be that time is one of the fundamentals of the universe, behind which there is no other actor.

ROBERT: But when time is ultimately understood, do you think it will have some close relationship to the nature of consciousness?


FRED: I think it will. I think that our sense of self, even the nature of our soul, is that we are time-based creatures. Thought itself is time, and the relationship between thought and time is far more intimate than we can presently understand.

JOHN: But that's true of anything in the universe. Everything has a temporal dimension to it. There's nothing special about consciousness in terms of time. What's special about consciousness is that sometimes psychological time doesn't match real time. This is an interesting question, but seems more likely to be solved, as Dave [Chalmers] was suggesting, by understanding how psychology and the brain works.

ROBERT: So relativity has little impact on consciousness?

JOHN: I don't think it has any special connection. Here's our problem now: We don't understand consciousness, so we're thrashing around desperately, seeing whether we can lay our hands on something that will explain it. But I would go back to the brain. There we have a mechanism that we actually know something about, and we know that it's where consciousness is taking place. And of course, like everything else, brains exist in time. So do feet exist in time, but thinking about "feet in time" doesn't much help us to understand the nature of feet--or to understand consciousness.

DAVE: When it comes to the problem of time, maybe the key lies in the order of explanation. Time may be going the other way. Here's a problem about time. Time seems to pass. Time seems to flow--"flows like a river," people sometimes say. Physics can't make sense of this concept: "time flows like a river." So we're going to have to understand how we sense time in our consciousness.

ROBERT: Is time a fundamental aspect of the universe independent of consciousness, or must time be understood through consciousness?

DAVE: Maybe it could turn out that the very sense of time flowing doesn't correspond to something that's independent of mind. Maybe that sense is just a construct in our mind.

JIM: When physicists talk about time, they don't talk about what you're talking about--the essence of time. They talk about measuring it--measuring periodic events. So we can measure intervals of time but never define time. Physicists don't define space, either. We talk about how to measure distance, but we don't say what space is.

ROBERT: But could time be, in essence, a construct of the human mind? Could space and time be dependent on consciousness?

JOHN: The way we conceptualize time may be derived from characteristics of our own consciousness, rather than our own consciousness being derived from the way we understand time.

FRED: But there's something interesting going on in terms of how the brain operates in external, or physical, time. You can actually observe and map chemical and electrical events taking place in the cerebral cortex of the brain and compare these physiological markings with events that people say are happening to them at the same moment. And what we find is that "brain time" does not correspond precisely to "external time." In fact, time reversals can occur.

JIM: That's right.

FRED: This would indicate that we don't clearly understand time and consciousness as a one-to-one mapping of one onto the other. It may be that we need two physical events in order to have a single consciousness experience.

ROBERT: Are you hinting that there may be a more fundamental relationship in the universe combining consciousness and time?

FRED: Yes, but not according to the popular view--defining the sense of time as physical events happening one after another. It may be that several events are required to cause a consciousness experience, and that this consciousness occurs somewhere in between them.

JIM: I agree that the brain is not a very good clock.

JOHN: You need to make a distinction between the perception of time and the time of the perception. And what we've found, with all kinds of interesting experiments, is that you don't get an exact match. The runner thinks he began to run when he heard the starter's gun, but we have good evidence showing that he in fact started before he could have heard the sound, before the conscious mind could have registered the sound of the gun. This is a fascinating piece of experimental data. I don't know if it's right, but it's good stuff for philosophers, psychologists, and neurobiologists to work on. But I don't see problems of time and consciousness as suitable for relativity theory.

FRED: No, not relativity theory, but perhaps a quantum model might explain it.

ROBERT: I want a prediction. One hundred years from now, what will be the accepted relationship between modern physics and the human mind?

FRED: Physics and mind will both be seen as approximations of a deeper reality. The separation between mind and matter will be seen as an artifact that came about through an accident of history, and this will reflect a deeper unity.

GREG: A hundred years from now, I suspect we'll say that although physics can explain the working of the brain, it still can't make detailed predictions about what people are going to do. Probably never.

DAVE: It's possible that in the next hundred years something really surprising will happen that will make us look at the whole mind-brain problem in a new way. More likely, we'll have a bunch of detailed, speculative theories, more detailed than we have now, but still with no consensus.

JOHN: In a hundred years, we'll have finally gotten over our traditional vocabulary that says there's the mental and the physical and they're in two different realms. This distinction is already obsolete, just as it's obsolete to think that there's a distinction between machines and other kinds of physical systems. My guess about the future is that we'll come to accept quantum mechanics in the same way we now accept relativity theory. We'll just grow out of our obsession that everything has to behave like middle-size physical objects--why should it? We now know from relativity that space and time are not the way we thought they were, so why should subatomic particles be the way we thought they were? Regarding our understanding of the mind, I think we'll have a biological account of the brain and how it produces consciousness--and it will have about the same relation to quantum mechanics as does any other part of biology, such as disease or photosynthesis.

JIM: I think John's right. We'll understand the brain, in terms of neuroscience and in terms of complexity theory. And quantum mechanics will be what it is today; it's not going to change very much, and we're still not going to like it.


SO modern physics has persuaded a few scientists that quantum mechanics engenders mind, a few others that physical systems can never fully explain mental states so that mind cannot be built by matter alone, and still others that a spirit or a soul or even a dream is needed to explain consciousness. The theories are fascinating, even if not convincing. Is consciousness a fundamental essence of the universe, the real stuff of reality? The easy answer is: Nice, but no. But could matter and mind both be derived from the same fundamental stuff, whatever that may be? I think we'll be astonished by whatever sits as the ultimate building block of reality. We should be more astonished that human beings can even conceive of it. It's dreaming like this that transports us closer to truth.

Editor's Comments:

Whether quantum physics as such ever explains mind is not the issue. Orthodox champions of modern science must wake up to the fact that mind cannot be reduced to matter, specifically brain matter. Mind is not "merely the activity of the brain." What relationship mind ultimately has to matter, we have yet to fully fathom. We may discover one day that mind and matter, like energy and matter in Einstein's famous equation, are two sides of the same coin.

The key point is that energy is real. Energy exists in its own right. Energy cannot be dismissed as merely a "side effect of matter." Similarly, mind is real. Mind exists in its own right. Mind cannot be dismissed as merely an "epiphenomenon," i.e., "side effect" of matter.

Despite ritual lip service to "open-mindedness" don't expect many reductive materialists to change their minds. Despite protestations to the contrary, reductive materialists have formed a highly emotional, quasi-religious attachment to the reductive materialist Conventional Wisdom. Thomas Kuhn's landmark book, "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions" performed a valuable service. It disabused the general public of the comforting notion that modern scientists were ruthlessly objective about their own belief systems. It exposed modern scientists as every bit as partisan and irrational as the Catholic Church when confronted by Galileo's heresies.

-- Bevin Chu

Explanation: Strange Physics of the Mind?
Illustration(s): Barry Beyerstein, David Chalmers, John Searle, Marilyn Schlitz, Fred Alan Wolf, Robert Lawrence Kuhn
Author(s): Dr. Robert Lawrence Kuhn
Affiliation: CLOSER TO TRUTH (CTT)
Publication Date: N/A
Original Language: English
Editor: Bevin Chu, Registered Architect

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