Hackery/Quackery in Scientific American
An essay in the January 2005 Scientific American by professional skeptic Michael Shermer criticizes the surprise hit film
What the #$*! Do We Know? ("Whatthebleep?") and the scientific underpinnings of quantum consicousness, namely the Penrose-Hameroff model. I wrote a reply but thus far at least Scientific American has turned a deaf ear. Here are Shermer's piece and my response.
Scientific American 292(1):234 2005
A surprise-hit film has renewed interest in applying quantum mechanics to consciousness, spirituality and human potential
In spring 2004 I appeared on KATU TV's AM Northwest in Portland, Ore.., with the producers of an improbably named film, What the #$*! Do We Know?! Artfully edited and featuring actress Marlee Matlin as a dreamy-eyed photographer trying to make sense of an apparently senseless universe, the film's central tenet is that we create our own reality through consciousness and quantum mechanics. I never imagined that such a film would succeed, but it has grossed millions.
The film's avatars are New Age scientists whose jargonladen sound bites amount to little more than what California Institute of Technology physicist and Nobel laureate Murray Gell-Mann once described as "quantum flapdoodle." University of Oregon quantum physicist Amit Goswami, for example, says in the film: "The material world around us is nothing but possible movements of consciousness. I am choosing moment by moment my experience. Heisenberg said atoms are not things, only tendencies." Okay, Amit, I challenge you to leap out of a 20-story building and consciously choose the experience of passing safely through the ground's tendencies.
The work of Japanese researcher Masaru Emoto, author of The Hidden Messages in Water, is featured to show how thoughts change the structure of ice crystals--beautiful crystals form in a glass of water with the word "love" taped to it, whereas playing: Elvis's "Heartbreak Hotel" causes other crystals to split in two. Would his "Burnin' Love" boil water?
The film's nadir is an interview with "Ramtha," a 35,000 year-old spirit channeled by a woman named JZ Knight. I wondered where humans spoke English with an Indian accent 35,000 years ago. Many of the films' participants are members of Ramtha's "School of Enlightenment," where New Age pabulum is dispensed in costly weekend retreats.
The attempt to link the weirdness of the quantum world to mysteries of the macro world (such as consciousness) is not new. The best candidate to connect the two comes from University of Oxford physicist Roger Penrose and physician Stuart Hameroff of the Arizona Health Sciences Center, whose theory of quantum consciousness has generated much heat but little light. Inside our neurons are tiny hollow microtubules that act like structural scaffolding. Their conjecture (and that's all it is) is that something inside the microtubules may initiate a wave-function collapse that results in the quantum coherence of atoms. The quantum coherence causes neurotransmitters to be released into the synapses between neurons, thus triggering them to fire in a uniform pattern that creates thought and consciousness. Because a wave-function collapse can come about only when an atom is "observed" (that is, affected in any way by something else), the late neuroscientist Sir John Eccles, another proponent of the idea, even suggested that "mind" may be the observer in a recursive loop from atoms to molecules to neurons to thought to consciousness to mind to atoms…
In reality, the gap between subatomic quantum effects and large-scale macro systems is too large to bridge. In his book The Unconscious Quantum (Prometheus Books, 1995), University of Colorado physicist Victor Stenger demonstrates that for a system to be described quantum-mechanically, its typical mass (m), speed (v) and distance (d) must be on the order of Planck's constant (h). "If mvd is much greater than h, then the system probably can be treated classically." Stenger computes that the mass of neural transmitter molecules and their speed across the distance of the synapse are about two orders of magnitude too large for quantum effects to be influential. There is no micro-macro connection. Then what the #$*! is going on here?
Physics envy. The lure of reducing complex problems to basic physical principles has dominated the philosophy of science since Descartes's failed attempt some four centuries ago to explain cognition by the actions of swirling vortices of atoms dancing their way to consciousness. Such Cartesian dreams provide a sense of certainty, but they quickly fade in the face of the complexities of biology. We should be exploring consciousness at the neural level and higher, where the arrow of causal analysis points up toward such principles as emergence and self-organization. Biology envy.
Stuart Hameroff M.D.
Professor, Departments of Anesthesiology and Psychology
Director, Center for Consciousness Studies
The University of Arizona, Tucson, Arizona
I read with interest Michael Shermer’s skeptical criticism of the surprise hit film What the #$*! Do We Know? (Whatthebleep? to its fans) in which I appear.1 The film attempts to link consciousness with the weirdness of quantum mechanics. As the best candidate for such a connection, Shermer cites (then attempts to refute) a theory put forth a decade ago by British physicist Sir Roger Penrose and me.
We attribute consciousness to quantum computation in structural proteins within the brain’s neurons called microtubules. Though Shermer correctly describes microtubules—part of the cell’s cytoskeleton—as scaffolding, they also actively organize intra-cellular movement, transport and neuronal synaptic plasticity (the apparent cornerstone of learning and memory). How are such activities organized? Pondering the amazing feats of unicellular protozoa which swim, avoid predators, learn, find food and mates and have sex—all without benefit of a single synapse—the famed neuroscientist Charles Sherrington surmised a half century ago “of nerve there is no trace, but the cytoskeleton might serve”. Indeed, cytoskeletal microtubules’ periodic lattice structure (resembling switching circuits in computers) seems ideally suited to molecular-scale computation.
The states of microtubule protein subunits (bits in a microtubule computer) are regulated by quantum mechanical (van der Waals London) forces in intra-protein non-polar pockets, suggesting that microtubule subunits could act not only like classical bits, but also like quantum bits (qubits) in quantum computers.
To debunk our theory Shermer cites an assertion in a book by Victor Stenger that the product of mass, velocity and distance of a quantum system cannot exceed Planck’s constant. I’ve not seen this proposal in a peer reviewed journal, nor listed anywhere as a serious interpretation of quantum mechanics. But in any case Stenger’s assertion is disproven by Anton Zeilinger’s experimental demonstration of quantum wave behavior in fullerenes and biological porphyrin proteins. (Skepticism should cut both ways, Mr. Shermer.) Nonetheless I agree with Stenger that synaptic chemical transmission between neurons is completely classical. The quantum computations we propose are isolated in microtubules within neurons. Classical neurotransmission provides inputs to, and outputs from, microtubule quantum computations mediating consciousness in neuronal dendrites.
But the brain seems far too warm for significant quantum states, apparently running into the problem of decoherence. (Shermer conflates the strong Copenhagen interpretation of the measurement problem—that conscious observation causes wave function collapse, with decoherence—in which any exchange of energy or information with the environment erodes a quantum system.) But recent evidence shows that quantum processes in biological molecules are actually enhanced at higher temperatures. Moreover biological mechanisms within neurons (actin gelation, laser-like metabolic pumping, plasma layer shielding and topological quantum error correction in/around microtubules) may preserve quantum states in microtubules for hundreds of milliseconds or longer at brain temperature.
Is there any evidence for the relevance of quantum states/processes to consciousness? Well, general anesthetic gases selectively erase consciousness while nonconscious brain activities continue (e.g. evoked potentials, control of autonomic function, EEG). The anesthetic gases act in the same intra-protein non-polar pockets in which quantum London forces control protein conformation. This occurs in a class of receptors, channels and other brain proteins including cytoskeletal structures. And the anesthetics do so by forming only quantum mechanical interactions, presumably interfering only with physiological quantum effects. It is logical to conclude that consciousness occurs in quantum pockets within proteins throughout the brain.
Shermer also conflates the Copenhagen interpretation with the dualist quantum mind proposal of Sir John Eccles. Suffice to say that in the Penrose-Hameroff model, consciousness does not cause collapse of the quantum wave function (a la Copenhagen). Rather, consciousness is collapse. More precisely, consciousness is a particular type of self-collapse proposed by Penrose involving quantum gravity (currently being tested). Pre-conscious (unconscious/subconscious) information exists as quantum superpositions—multiple coexisting possible actions or experiences—which, upon reaching a specified threshold at the moment of consciousness/self-collapse, choose a particular action or experience. Such conscious moments are calculated to occur roughly 40 times per second.
Shermer closes by advising researchers to look for emergence of consciousness at the neural level and higher. This has been precisely the tack taken by armies of scientists and philosophers for decades, and the result is nil. Consciousness is ever more elusive. The prevalent paradigm—that axonal action potentials and chemical synaptic transmissions are fundamental units of computation from which consciousness emerges at a higher-order network level—force-fits consciousness into an illusory, out-of-the-loop epiphenomenon. While this might be true, the prevalent paradigm is also incompatible with the best electrophysiological correlate of consciousness—synchronized gamma EEG (“coherent 40 Hz” oscillations). The latter, it turns out, is mediated by coherent activities of neuronal dendrites linked by electrotonic gap junctions, windows which link adjacent neurons (and glia) into large-scale syncytia, or “hyper-neurons”.
In 1998 I published a list of twenty testable predictions of our model (which, unlike prevalent emergence theories, is falsifiable). Several predictions have proven true (e.g. signaling and action of psychoactive drugs in microtubules). To explain the extension of quantum states among many neurons throughout the brain, I also predicted that neurons connected by gap junctions mediate consciousness, subsequently validated by gamma EEG studies. That doesn’t prove that quantum states extend among neurons (e.g. by tunneling through gap junctions), but it casts serious doubt on conventional approaches (which have yet to generate a testable prediction). Skeptics like Shermer should apply their craft to conventional dogma as well as to upstart hypotheses.
Regarding the film, I stand by my statements (Shermer didn’t criticize anything I said). But Whatthebleep? is entertainment. Lighten up! The early animations of Jules Verne’s moon landings were crude by later standards, but planted the seed of a wonderful idea in popular culture.
1. Shermer M (2005) Quantum Quackery, Scientific American 292(1):34.