Is Consciousness Connected to the Fine Structure of the Universe?
On March 27th I interviewed Dr. Stuart Hameroff of the Center for Consciousness Studies of the University of Arizona. Here is an edited transcript of that interview.
DEEPAK, It’s my pleasure today to interview Dr. Stuart Hameroff who is a Professor Emeritus at the Department of Anesthesiology and Psychology and the Director of the Center for Consciousness Studies at the University of Arizona. Dr. Hameroff is best known for his research on quantum consciousness, an alternative to the accepted view that consciousness emerges from complex computation. Dr. Hameroff in conjunction with noted Oxford physicist Sir Roger Penrose, who was Stephen Hawking’s thesis advisor, has proposed that consciousness arises at the quantum level with infrastructures inside neurons known as microtubules. It is a great pleasure to interview you, Dr. Hameroff.
STUART: Thank you Deepak for this interview. It's a pleasure to be here. I must say I have admired your work for many years also. So this is great that I have a chance to talk with you.
DEEPAK: You're an anesthesiologist as well as an expert in consciousness. Here’s my question: Our brain inside our skull has no experience of the external world. The brain only responds to internal states like, pH, electrolytes, hormones, ionic exchanges across cell membranes and electrical impulses. So, how does the brain see an external world?
STUART: Well that question goes back at least thousands of years, and the Greeks said that the world outside is nothing but a representation in our head. Then of course Descartes recognized the same thing. That the only thing of which he could be sure was that he is, that he is conscious. I think therefore I am. So, we're not really sure the outside world is as we perceive it. Some people would say it’s a construction, an illusion, some people would say it’s an accurate representation. It's kind of a mix of views. And then when you add quantum properties to it, it's really uncertain if the world we perceive is the actual world out there.
DEEPAK: So, Dr. Hameroff lets just take an example. I'm looking at a rose, my retinal cells are not actually looking at the rose they're responding to photons aren't they?
STUART: Yes. It's also possible that quantum information is transduced in the retina in the cilia between the inner and outer segments before the photon even gets to the rhodopsin in the very back of the eye. So it’s possible that there's additional quantum information being extracted from photons as they enter your eye through the retina. They might somehow more directly convey the actual essential quality or properties of the rose and the redness of the rose. And of course this gets right to the hard problem of conscious experience: that we have an actual quality of redness, pain, grief, sorrow, joy, happiness--all feelings which are conscious awareness. And for most people, the conventional understanding would be that the retina acts like a camera and transmits that image to some other place in the brain computer. And then you have the problem of who is actually looking at the picture.
STUART: And I think that’s incomplete. In addition to the neural signals, I think that the essential property of the rose, the redness, the smell, its other attributes, what philosophers call ‘qualia’ are actually particular fluctuations of the very fundamental level of the universe, in spacetime geometry.
STUART: Since the structure of spacetime geometry – what emptiness is made of - is kind of holographic, by quantum processes our retina and brain are able to access and connect to the essential qualities of the rose so that we have it in our head. By quantum processes we have the experience of redness, we have the smell, and we have the essential qualities. Because spacetime is sort of holographic, we're able to access it via quantum processes inside our brain.
DEEPAK: So we are experiencing these qualia in our consciousness in all shapes and forms. You mentioned qualities like love, and goodness, and truth, and beauty in one of your videos that I was watching. Also something like the taste of red wine, or the color blue, or red, even sounds, these are qualia that we experience in consciousness. Are we interpreting the qualia in consciousness as the external world?
STUART: The nature of qualia depends on which approach you take. The conventional materialistic approach is that the qualia are created in the brain as an emergent property of computation among neurons. I don't believe that's true. I think computation among neurons takes care of non-conscious auto-pilot processing and behavior, but qualia and consciousness are something else – attached to neuronal computation but not quite the same. I think the extra feature is a quantum connection to spacetime geometry. Maybe we should back up a little bit, because this is really Roger Penrose's idea. Consider what the universe is made of, smaller than atoms, between atoms – emptiness, nothingness. If you go down in scale, much much smaller than atoms, below the level of matter, as things get smaller and smaller, everything would be sort of smooth and featureless, until twenty five orders of magnitude smaller than atoms you get to the very bottom level called the Planck scale, where there's some kind of patterns, coarseness, geometry, information.
STUART: We don't really know what to call it, at this most basic level of quantum gravity. But somehow, Planck scale geometry gives rise to irreducible features in physics, like mass, spin and charge. And also qualia, we think. The precursors of consciousness, or consciousness itself, may be actually embedded in Planck scale geometry, just like spin, mass, and charge that give rise to the material world. In other words, the essential features of consciousness are built into the universe at its most basic level, and repeat in scale holographically, so qualia become accessible to quantum biology in the brain.
DEEPAK: As preparation for this conversation today I watched a number of your videos on YouTube, I read your work, and then while I was doing that somebody actually sent me an essay that was published in Nature in 2005 by Richard Conn Henry, Professor of Physics and Astrophysics and Astronomy at Johns Hopkins. In a quote from that essay he says: “The only reality is mind and observations. But observations are not of things, to see the universe as it really is, we must abandon our tendency to conceptualize observations as things”.
DEEPAK: So you know when I'm actually looking at a rose, what is happening is a spacetime event in consciousness.
STUART: Yes, and it also relates to Alfred North Whitehead, who said that the universe isn't made of things, it’s made of processes, of events. Everything is events, and some of those events are conscious events. He called them occasions, occasions of experience. It was the philosopher Abner Shimony in the early 1990s who said, Whitehead's occasions of experience are actually very much like quantum state reductions. That made a connection between Whitehead’s philosophy, which also relates to Eastern philosophies of various sorts, and to modern physics and quantum physics in particular.
DEEPAK: You know there's an ancient text called the Yoga Vasistha and it's probably the most important text in Vedanta, and the history is that Rama, who is the incarnation of God, goes to the great seer to get instruction. And as is the custom in India, Rama touches the rishi Vasistha’s feet. And the seer says, “Hey stop it! You're God why are you doing this?” So Rama says, “ I have forgotten. You have to remind me that I am God.” Vasistha then gives him the first lesson. You're not in the world, the world is in you. You're not in the body, the body is in you. You're not even in the mind, the mind is in you. As you curve back within your own consciousness, you manifest the mind, body, and the world.
I thought that's pretty close to what you're saying.
STUART: Yes, and that's a beautiful, beautiful passage. Or the Beatles’ “your inside is out and your outside is in”.
DEEPAK: That’s right.
DEEPAK: So I was at this debate with Michael Shermer and Sam Harris at Caltech and the hall was full of techies unsympathetic to the concept that consciousness is primary and matter is secondary. Whenever I brought up the idea that consciousness is fundamental to the universe, they dismissed it and me, as “woo-woo”. It was such a cop-out that anytime I brought quantum consciousness even into the discussion, it was dismissed as not having anything to do with the macro-world.
STUART: I was at a conference with Shermer and Harris several years ago in San Diego called “Beyond Belief” which was basically, almost exclusively atheists and materialists. And they invited me as kind of a token, opposing view. And I sat there all day, listening to them bash religion, and the concept of spirituality. Finally I got up and my point was, I don't necessarily ascribe to any particular religion, but I think through quantum physics, three essential components of spirituality can have a plausible scientific explanation. Namely, these are first, interconnectedness among living beings via quantum entanglement. Second is guidance by Platonic wisdom. Penrose also embedded Platonic values in spacetime geometry which can guide our actions, and be viewed as following the way of the Tao, or divine guidance, or whatever you want to call it. And finally, even conceivably the possibility of afterlife or consciousness outside of the body. Because if consciousness is happening in the spacetime geometry, normally in the brain, then when the blood, oxygen and metabolic energy stop driving the classical auto-pilot activity, the quantum information extending to spacetime isn't destroyed, but can perhaps leak out or dissipate in a more holographic distribution, but remained entangled. So it’s possible that a soul could exist afterwards in Planck scale geometry. There could be reincarnation. I don't have any proof, and I'm not saying this necessarily happens, but if it does, here is a plausible scientific explanation.
DEEPAK: I mentioned Roger Penrose in the debate as having said that the brain being a physical organ cannot process real creativity as per Gödel's Theorem, which you have also mentioned in your work. I said the brain cannot process true creativity or even have free will. They were totally dismissive that quantum physics had anything to do with consciousness. They kept bringing up the Copenhagen interpretation as being irrelevant. I don't think there's any interpretation of quantum physics that can do away with the non-material, non-local consciousness. Or is there?
STUART: Well, the Copenhagen interpretation which they dismissed is basically the idea that consciousness causes collapse of the wave function. It’s one of several possible interpretations of what’s called the measurement problem in quantum mechanics. So, let’s just talk about this for a second. The wave function implies a quantum state of something. Which means that particles can be in superposition, can be in multiple states or locations at the same time. At some point, the wave function collapses and each possibility chooses one definite reality.
In the early days of quantum mechanics, Danish physicist Niels Bohr was experimenting with quantum systems which seemed to remain in superposition until the moment they were measured or observed, and then collapse to one possible state or the other. In order to proceed with experiments, Bohr just said that the conscious observer caused collapse – the ‘Copenhagen interpretation’. Schrodinger doubted this and designed his famous thought experiment. The fate of a cat depends on a quantum superposition. According to Copenhagen, the cat is both dead and alive at the same time until somebody opens the box and has a look. And only then does it become either dead or alive.
STUART: Bohr adopted the Copenhagen view as a very pragmatic way to get rid of the measurement problem so he could do his quantum experiments which were very accurate and very important. But, it put consciousness outside science. And materialists don’t like it because it says consciousness has some kind of causal effect.
There are other interpretations of the measurement problem – which is really the question of how large a quantum superposition can persist and become. The multiple worlds view says if you have a quantum system, a superposition of two possibilities existing simultaneously, each possibility evolves to form its own whole new universe. The universe separates at a basic level, and we have this infinite number of overlapping universes. Then there’s decoherence, the notion that any interaction of a quantum system with a classical environment destroys the quantum state – that quantum superpositions must be somehow isolated. And Bohm said quantum pilot waves guided classical paths.
STUART: Now the Penrose idea is sort of the flip side of Copenhagen, with a dash of multiple worlds. He says that consciousness is collapse, a particular type of self-collapse. But he started with superposition, “What does that mean? How can something be in two places or states at the same time?” If you go back to the multiple worlds idea, it’s that the universe itself, spacetime geometry, separates and evolves off to form two universes. Penrose also takes superpositions as spacetime separations, and that instead of branching off and forming new universes, the separations were unstable, and would reduce, or self-collapse to particular states at a given time due to an objective threshold – this is called objective reduction, or OR. For other reasons related to Goedel’s theorem Penrose said the choices were influenced by Platonic values embedded in Planck scale geometry, and that a moment of consciousness occurred.
STUART: The self-collapse occurs, given by a very simple equation, E=h/t related to the indeterminacy principle which defines a spectrum of conscious events. When this event occurs, a quantum moment of consciousness occurs.
DEEPAK: You know, it's very interesting. I recently interviewed Hans Peter Duerr who was a colleague and student of Werner Heisenberg and actually they worked together for 20 years. The other day I asked him, “What is matter?” And he said “It doesn't exist”. He said “there are happs”, happenings in consciousness, that are interpreted as matter. So I said, what really exists? And then he said, that the wrong question, it's like asking (laughs), what’s the color of a circle? And you know, he confused me a lot, but now with what you're saying—that moments of consciousness are a result of self-collapse. And these are discontinuities, but they happen so fast that they give us an experience of continuity.
STUART: Precisely. Actually, roughly forty times a second.
DEEPAK: All right, I see.
STUART: At least in our model they coincide with gamma synchrony EEG which is the best measure of consciousness. But it doesn't have to be forty, and in fact the Dalai Lama selected some Tibetan monk meditators and sent them to Wisconsin, where Davidson's Lab studied them during meditation. They found that their synchrony wasn't at forty, but it was between 80 and 100 per second. So they were having more conscious moments per time than the rest of us in their meditative state and actually before they meditated, implying that chronic meditation actually changed the brain. So, I think that these “happses” as your colleague said or conscious moments or quanta of consciousness are pretty much like photons in the electromagnetic spectrum where you can have high energy, fast, high frequency photons like ultraviolet's for example or slower, longer wavelengths like infrared. There is a spectrum of conscious events.
STUART: I think when we meditate or are in altered states, we shift to a higher frequency, which is also higher intensity, higher experience. Kind of like going from red to ultraviolet, something like that. When that happens, the outside world can slow down in perspective. So people in car accidents for example, when the car is spinning, report that the world slows down, because they have gone from say 40 to 80 conscious moments per second. The perception of the outside world appears slower. Great athletes say that when they're playing well, the other team is in slow motion. Michael Jordan said that.
DEEPAK: Michael Jordan. Joe Namath once told me that when he was in a peak moment during the game, everything seemed to slow down and actually when he was scoring a touchdown, and there were literally thousands of people applauding, he saw everything in slow motion and total silence. There was no sound.
STUART: Fantastic. So, he might have gone from say 40 conscious moments per second to a 100 in that moment. So the outside slowed down or almost stopped even.
DEEPAK: And there was silence too. Because this raises the question. You said information is very fundamental in the universe. But were you implying that information is transcendent and non-local?
STUART: Entanglement certainly suggests that. But Planck Scale geometry and the makeup of the universe at that level is really unknown and controversial. String theory tries to explain it, as does loop quantum gravity and various forms of quantum geometry. Roger Penrose developed quantum geometry theories about it and is probably the expert along with Lee Smolin and others. Spin networks, twistors, the whole field of quantum gravity or quantum geometry. I think Platonic information embedded in non-local holographic spacetime geometry may be considered transcendent.
DEEPAK: Is it outside of spacetime or are you saying that it is fundamental to the spacetime geometry?
STUART: It is spacetime. I don't think you need to get out of, or can get outside of spacetime. When we get down to this fundamental level, this information is non-local and holographic. You don’t need to get outside. In fact, I just read a very interesting article about how this Planck scale information actually repeats holographically at larger and larger scales. I'll send you the link. They've gotten it up to very close to biological levels. I think that the biological system is even better tuned than any device that anybody has built yet. But the cosmic information is non-local, existing in multiple places, even across the universe. This is basically quantum entanglement.
STUART: We know that superpositioned particles that separate remain intimately connected This prediction came out of quantum mechanics. Einstein didn't like that idea and he called it spooky-action-at-a-distance.
DEEPAK: Yeah. If it is at this level, non-local and it’s entangled, then it cannot be destroyed.
STUART: You can say that, yes.
DEEPAK: When I do my meditation seminars I ask my audience simple questions. I'll pick on somebody and say, “So what did you have for dinner last night?” And they'll say “I had pasta and chicken” or something. I'll say, where was that information before I asked the question? If I went inside your brain would I find a location for pasta and dinner? Then I'll ask them, “Do you remember the house you lived in when you were a teenager?” They say, yes. They can see it in their consciousness, as that qualia or whatever you want to call it. I'll say “Where was that before I asked you the question?” And you know, Eastern wisdom and traditions say that memory as information resides in a non…, well they don't use the word non-local, but it’s in your soul, and that's what recycles. Every time we retrieve a memory, of course we have brain activity, but to store the memory there is no brain activity nor is there any energy consumed.
STUART: Well, I think memory is stored in the brain, but there's also memory, you know, in the universe. Perhaps a different kind, perhaps our memories are also stored there, but I think that memory can be stored in the microtubules for example through processes related to the neuronal synapses. But you're referring to memory that can be stored in the universe at large and I think that can exist also.
DEEPAK: I see. So, memory is not localized through the brain, it is actually stored in the brain?
STUART: Well it's stored in a distributed way. It's stored like a hologram and that's been known for decades.
DEEPAK: See because every time we retrieve a memory, isn't that a kind of a collapse of a superposition?
STUART: If we have a conscious memory of it, yes. How that happens is that the memory is stored in the cytoskeleton, in the microtubules for example. Through the hippocampus and gamma synchrony association you access the information and that causes it to go into a superposition and become part of the quantum state which then collapses giving a conscious memory.
DEEPAK: I'm speaking to Dr. Stuart Hameroff. His website is www.quantumconsciousness.org. He's also holding a conference titled “Toward a Science of Consciousness” April 12th through 17th I think he and David Chalmers are co-hosting this conference, so check it out and we'll be posting the link also on deepakchopra.com.
DEEPAK:. Stuart Hameroff is also going to be doing a dialogue with Tibetan Lama ZaChoeje Rinpoche, who is designated as the reincarnate by the Dalai Lama. He'll be doing the dialogue next week in Tempe, Arizona. Before I get to your work Dr. Hameroff, I want to mention something. I met a physicist recently from the University of California in Orange County, one of the universities there. His name is Jeff Tollaksen, and he's working with another physicist called Aharonov of the Aharonov-Bohm theory. This month's Discover magazine has a cover story about both of them and they're describing something called time symmetric quantum mechanics. What they're saying is that they do these weak measurements, and I didn't fully understand the procedure, but what they're saying is that information from the future can leak into the present and when it does so, in their experiments, it resolves all the indeterminacies that one finds in all the paradoxes. Implying that quantum physics is teleological, that there's something in the future that's built into the laws of physics or mathematics that determines the present and that time doesn't really have to follow an arrow, it can go backwards and forwards.
STUART: Yes, that's Jeff Tollaksen. He's been to our conferences and he works with Yakir Aharonov, of the Aharonov-Bohm effect. The time symmetry is a very beautiful idea.
DEEPAK: I see.
STUART: As I understand it, every time there is a collapse, and this would include a Penrose-type collapse, there's information that goes into the future but also into the past. It's symmetric, so the information goes both ways. There's pretty good evidence that this happens in the brain. Ben Libet did studies years ago on neurosurgical patients whose brains were exposed but were awake. He found evidence that the brain sends conscious information backwards in time. We may actually rely routinely on information from the near future. This would explain the experiments by Dick Berman and Dean Radin over the years on pre-sentiment. They use a simple impedance device on the finger which measures blood flow changes due to emotional responses. They had subjects look at a sequence of images on a computer screen that are coming, not at a regular time, but at different times so they don't know when. And half of them were highly emotional and half of them were bland. They found a bigger response with the emotional images, as you might expect. But in all cases, particularly emotional images, the change in the impedance happens before the image comes up on the screen by a half second to two seconds. This could be exactly the type of time symmetry that Tollaksen and Aharonov are talking about where each collapse, each moment of consciousness sends information backwards in time. So each conscious moment can receive information from our brain in the next half a second or so.
DEEPAK: So how does this relate to our identity? Who we are? Are we a non-local, consciousness, a non-local being that localizes when we reincarnate? Do you have any theories on this?
STUART: I can't say for sure. I can say that I think that when we are alive in our bodies, our consciousness is pretty much confined to our brain. We can have quantum entanglement with other people in the universe, and maybe exist in some kind of non-local distribution in altered states. Perhaps when we die the quantum information that is normally in our microtubules inside the neurons of our brain can kind of exist at large in the universe, but remain as an entangled entity. In other words, we retain some kind of self-identity as who we are, a soul.
DEEPAK: Well you know, Eastern spiritual traditions say that when we die we return to the state of pure potentiality. Which is our pure consciousness. But, even there we retain memories as superpositions of possibilities. I'm now translating in modern language. They would say that reincarnation is actually the localization, once again of those possibility fields. That we are part of a larger possibility field. Which is called the Akashic field. It's transcendent, being transcendent its non-local, being non-local it cannot be destroyed. It's immortal.
STUART: I would agree with that. I think Laszlo has talked about the Akashic field in quantum field theory.
STUART: I think some connection to a kind of cosmic mind in Planck scale geometry is possible. I tend to focus on the biological end of it, on how consciousness occurs in the brain. You don't need a scientific explanation to believe in a cosmic mind, and be part of it. But that's my thing. I like to investigate science. I do think that our theory for example could explain consciousness as ripples in this fundamental level of the universe which could be the Akashic field, Bohm’s Implicate Order, Planck scale geometry. And many descriptions. I think they’re pretty much all the same thing.
DEEPAK: I want to really get specifically into your work with microtubules. What are microtubules?
STUART: Ah, well. Microtubules are part of the cytoskeleton, the bone-like scaffolding inside the cell. We know about membranes, we know about the nucleus, DNA, but the rest of the cell, which is most of the cell, is often thought of as liquid, a minestrone soup of organelles floating around. Actually, it’s a highly structured system that has organized support made up of protein filaments that are normally thought of as purely girders in a building. But we think they are also the nervous system inside the cell. And mechanical transport. They do the job of separating chromosomes in mitosis when cells divide. They push forward axons, dendrites and synapses in neuronal development. They regulate synapses and participate in memory. And when they fall apart, you have Alzheimers.
Microtubules are hollow cylinders made up of single peanut-shaped proteins called tubulin which self-assemble to form the architecture and geometry of the cell. Cells that are most asymmetrical, that have long processes like neurons with dendrites and axons, have the most microtubules. When a neuron develops, the microtubules self-assemble and grow in a certain direction. It's kind of like the Indian Rope trick, where the Fakir guy throws a rope up and then climbs up. That’s pretty much what microtubules do to form the shape of cells, and then ultimately synapses. Once cells are formed, microtubules seem to process information and organize activities.
I first got interested in microtubules in cell division in the 1970s in medical school. Only then was it discovered that they were also in neurons. Because prior to that the fixative agent for electron microscopy had been dissolving microtubules, if you can believe that. Cell interiors looked like water. But, then they realized that there's this forest of structures in there. And at about the same time, x-ray crystallography showed the structure of microtubules to be cylindrical lattices, almost like crystals.
I was learning about computers at the time and to me, microtubules looked like a computer switching network where the state of each tubulin subunit could represent something like a bit, a one or a zero for example. If that were true, that would mean there was a lot of information processing going on inside cells. Most people think about the brain as 100 billion neurons, with each synapse among those neurons switching as a bit in milliseconds. Each neuron is a switch, a bit a 1 or a 0. But if you looked inside each neuron you see this faster, denser level of microtubule information processing.
DEEPAK: I read that you had said that microtubules performed like 10 to the power of 27 information processing events every second, is that true?
STUART: In the brain, yes. So, this is where I ran into trouble with the artificial intelligence people who were trying to build brain equivalence in computers because they were saying that each neuron, and there's like 100 billion neurons in the brain, switch a thousand times a second, so with so many synapses gives brain computational equivalence of 10 to the 15th operations per second. And based on Moore's Law and computers getting faster and components smaller, they project that in another ten or twenty years, computers will reach that level of brain equivalence. And of course, Ray Kurzweil and the Singularity have made a big deal about this. When that happens, then everything will change culturally.
DEEPAK: Spiritual machines.
STUART: But, that's assuming each neuron is a simple on-off switch, which is not the case, if you think about a paramecium. You know those single cell organisms.
STUART: They swim around, they find food, they find mates, they have sex, they learn, they can escape from capillary tubes faster each time. They don't have neurons, they don't have synapses, they do it all with their microtubules. So, if they can do it, then a neuron should be able to use its microtubules intelligently also. I calculated the amount of information processing in the microtubules in each neuron was something like 10 to the 15th operations per second. Which meant that what the A.I. people, Kurzweil, and so forth are saying now is the capacity for the brain is actually only the capacity of one neuron in the brain at the level of microtubule information processing. That means that the total capacity would be almost squared. Something like 10 to the 27th figure that you mentioned. So, I'm not very popular among A.I. people.
STUART: But more computation isn’t the answer either. One day about 20 years ago an A.I. guy said –‘lets say you’re right, that all this computation is happening in microtubules. How does that explain consciousness?’ I had to admit he was right. Fortunately he suggested I read Roger Penrose’s book ‘The emperor’s new mind’, which I did. Roger was proposing this quantum self-collapse, objective reduction, a process in fundamental spacetime geometry as a mechanism for consciousness. He needed a quantum computer in the brain. I thought, microtubules. He agreed. We developed our theory in which synaptic inputs ‘orchestrate’ quantum computing in microtubules which terminates by Penrose OR, hence ‘Orch OR’. It’s been heavily criticized but never refuted. A.I. groups fund research aimed to discredit it.
DEEPAK: Could an A.I. machine process ethics, values, morality, free will, creativity, or have the experience of qualia?
STUART: Well, I don't think so. They might claim they can because they trivialize those concepts. A.I. is entirely based on the materialist premise that the brain is a computer, no different from a silicon computer. They assert consciousness and love and everything that you just mentioned are emergent properties from complex computation. But there's no real evidence either way. For me, those things are accessed in the quantum world.
DEEPAK: But, isn't the essential nature of matter, that it’s not material?
STUART: That's right. Matter is related to something like curvature in spacetime geometry. So, to get to the fundamental level we have to go further down to the origins of matter, which are also the origins of consciousness.
DEEPAK: You see in Eastern wisdom traditions; consciousness is before the subject object split. You know. That consciousness is what you call proto-consciousness. I read your vocabulary. Is what Eastern wisdom traditions say that there is an underlying ground of being that splits into both subject and object. That you know reductionist science is based on this subject object split, which is artificial. After all, nature is one.
STUART: That's right. Some look at matter and mind as separate -dualism, some as your idealism where mind creates matter, some as materialism where matter creates mind, and some as panpsychism, where matter and mind are more or less the same. But I think that probably the most sensible way to approach mind and matter is more along the lines of what is called in the West neutral monism. Where you have this underlying something that gives rise on the one hand to matter and on the other hand to mind. In the Eastern traditions this is non-dualism.
STUART: If you look at the underlying being as the quantum superposition state connected to fundamental spacetime geometry, then depending on how the system collapses, you'll either get strictly matter, or you'll get matter along with mind – with a moment of consciousness if it happens by Penrose objective reduction. So, our approach is very consistent with this underlying ground of being in the context of neutral-monism in the West, or non-duality in the East.
DEEPAK: You know there was a physicist in the audience at Caltech and he said “How do you define consciousness?” And I said “It's a quantum superposition of possibilities”. And they all laughed. And it was like I had said something once again they call “woo-woo”.
STUART: Well, at least you have an explanation. They don't have an explanation. They would likely say that consciousness emerges from complex computation. But that’s just a hand-waving argument. And you know, they do a lot of bait and switching. You'll read a paper “Consciousness bla-bla-bla” and you read the paper and they are talking about attention, about memory, learning or behavior, but not at all about consciousness. Of course, Dan Dennett wrote his famous book “Consciousness Explained” which actually explained away the question. So, they're trivializing and baiting and switching. Fortunately, we have philosophers like David Chalmers who call their bluff and talk about the ‘hard problem’ of qualia and conscious experience.
DEEPAK: I also read your comments about the property we call “binding” in the brain. Is that a kind of quantum entanglement?
STUART: Well, I think so since I would say consciousness per se is a quantum process. Binding is the issue of how we tie together different attributes into one unified conscious perception. Even within one sensory mode like vision for example, you have color, motion, shape--all these properties are bound into a visual object. You see something moving through the sky, its shape, its color, its motion, and ultimately its meaning. Those different attributes: are processed in different parts of the brain, at slightly different times, and somehow are bound together into a conscious perception of a particular object – a bird, plane, kite or whatever. It is not a bunch of those features. Its one thing. That's called binding - how these things are tied together. You also have binding among different sensory modes, sound, sight touch and others sensory modes into one unitary conscious experience. How that occurs is the binding problem. Conventional science has a big problem with it. We know gamma synchrony seems to be involved in binding, but still doesn't explain it. So, if consciousness is quantum, those different attributes are bound and entangled in one quantum superposition which then self-collapses in a conscious moment unifying those attributes.
DEEPAK: Is anyone looking at non-locality and biological systems? I mean it seems to me that the process of morphogenesis and differentiation. You know when a single cell becomes a hundred trillion cells with 50 or so replications that there is a simultaneity involved. Also, just being alive there's a simultaneity. How does a human body think thoughts, play piano, kill germs, and remove toxins, and make a baby all at the same time? It has to be non-local entanglement.
STUART: It would be hard to do all those things at the same time, but it would be fun to watch somebody try. I think that life itself is a quantum coherent process. In fact, the replication and growth of cells is all accomplished by microtubules which can utilize quantum coherence and entanglement in mitosis and differentiation. Schrodinger first suggested life might be intrinsically quantum in nature.
But critics say “Everybody knows the brain is too warm, wet, and noisy for delicate quantum effects”. That's because people trying to build quantum computers in laboratories have the problem of decoherence. When they have an ion or atom or photon in a superpositioned state, it's very sensitive to disturbance by the environment through a process called decoherence. So they freeze the system to avoid heat vibrations. Heat is the enemy. But in biology, mechanisms seem to have evolved to avoid decoherence and use heat to pump quantum coherence, something like a laser.
So, this theoretical argument has gone back and forth, but in the last three years there has been kind of an onslaught of evidence for quantum coherence in warm biology, starting in plants. It turns out that photosynthesis, which plants use to make chemical energy and is the source of all food, that photosynthesis uses quantum coherence at warm temperatures.
DEEPAK: By quantum coherence, you mean entanglement, non-locality?
STUART: Yes, I believe so, though only in a restricted area in this case. Photons are collected by chlorophyll and transported by electrons through a protein scaffolding to a site for conversion to chemical energy. The electrons occupy all possible pathways - quantum superposition.
DEEPAK: At normal temperatures?
STUART: Exactly. At warm temperatures.
DEEPAK: So then this whole thing about macro and micro is… many times people will point out that these principles only apply at the micro-quantum level and not at the macro level?
STUART: Well, we don't really know the boundary. But I would say consciousness is a process precisely on the edge between the micro-quantum and the macro-classical worlds.
DEEPAK: Thank you so much for this interview. If the anyone is interested in this topic, then please check out Dr. Hameroff's website: www.quantumconsciousness.org. It's been a great pleasure to do this interview. Dr. Hameroff has a conference coming up. Could you tell us the details?
STUART: The conference ‘Toward a Science of Consciousness’ is coming up April 12th to 17th in Tucson, Arizona. www.consciousness.arizona.edu. It's a weeklong festival. We have many types of sessions, serious, but all with a lot of fun. Thank you very much Deepak. It's good to talk to you. Hope to do it again.
Since the interview, the conversation with Dr. Hameroff has continued through email. Here is a selection of some of that exchange.
Deepak: Regarding quantum effect in living system: Since light harvesting is the basis of life and is a result of quantum entanglement, does that imply that the cosmic mind is an acausal non-local superposition of possibilities?
STUART: I would like to think so, but it’s actually just a very important step. The issue in quantum consciousness has been decoherence -the brain, and biology in general, are considered too warm for quantum effects. These findings at ambient temperature move in the right direction but the time for the quantum state in plants is still very short (400 femtoseconds). But that’s all that is needed in this situation - no evolutionary pressure in photosynthesis for longer. We would like to see quantum states for 25 milliseconds in microtubules - a long way off. But evidence from Japan is suggesting long-lived quantum states in microtubules. That work will be presented at the Tucson conference by Anirban
Bandyophadyay. See my page ‘Hot news in quantum biology’ where I list developments in this area. http://www.quantumconsciousness.org/qbupdate.htm
DEEPAK: I'm sure you've seen this-gravity as quantum information http://www.technologyreview.com/blog/arxiv/24975/
STUART: I hadn’t, thanks. But it’s not all that new. This is Roger Penrose turf, and he and Lee Smolin and others have been saying such stuff for decades, that information in Planck scale geometry is dynamic and non-random. I don’t understand how they say it derives Newton gravity but not Einstein’s, but then talk about black holes (which come from Einstein’s gravity). Paola Zizzi (she was mentioned in the Enlighten Next article) has been working on the Bekenstein bound and information at the edge of black holes. That’s where one can answer such questions about information loss, Hawking radiation and so forth. Roger once wondered whether consciousness creates information which ultimately gets sucked into black holes.
But the other issue is: - let’s say there IS Cosmic Mind information at the Planck scale. How does it relate to our macroscopic brain? - even via electrons in microtubules we are still far apart in size scale.
On this page http://www.quantumconsciousness.org/qbupdate.htm see “Is the world a hologram?” This says that the Cosmic Mind information at the Planck scale repeats at larger
and larger scales holographically. This is very good news for our side.