Being the skunk at an atheist convention

 

Most scientists and philosophers assume consciousness emerges from complex computation among  brain neurons and synapses acting as indivisible bits, or information states. Penrose and I suggest that consciousness involves processes at deeper levels, specifically sequences of quantum computations (~40 per second) in structures called microtubules inside brain neurons. The quantum computations we propose link to neuronal-level activities, and are also ripples in fundamental spacetime geometry, the most basic level of the universe.  

 

One implication of our model relates to a possible scientific basis for secular spirituality (unrelated to any organized religious approach). I should say that Roger avoids discussion of such implications, but I’ve been willing to raise this possibility.

 

For me, spirituality implies:

 

Can these issues be accounted for scientifically? I believe they possibly can.

 

Interconnectedness – Conscious minds and unconscious processes may be quantum entangled.

 

Cosmic intelligence/Platonic values – Penrose suggested in his 1989 book The emperor’s new mind that Platonic values including mathematical truth, ethical values and beauty were embedded in the fine structure of the universe, specifically in fundamental spacetime geometry at the inifinitesimally tiny (and ubiquitous) Planck scale. In a 1996 paper, Penrose and I further suggested that the precursors of conscious experience were also embedded in Planck scale geometry. In our theory, conscious choices and perceptions are affected by this universal Platonic information which Penrose termed non-computable influence. I liken such proposed influence on conscious choices to “following the way of the Tao”, or “Divine guidance”. 

 

Conscious existence after death – In my view, consciousness occurs at the level of Planck scale geometry amplified to quantum coherence/computation in brain microtubules. When metabolic requirements for quantum coherence in brain microtubules are lost (e.g. death, near-death), quantum information pertaining to that individual may persist and remain entangled in Planck scale geometry.

 

Taken as a whole, these ideas may be considered a plausibility argument for scientific, secular spirituality.

 

In November 2006 I was invited to a meeting at the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California called “Beyond Belief” (http://beyondbelief2006.org/). Other speakers and attendees were predominantly atheists, and harshly critical of the notion of spirituality. They included Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Patricia Churchland, Steven Weinberg (the least venal), Neil deGrasse Tyson and others who collectively vilified creationists and religious warriors. But the speakers also ragged on the notion of any purpose or meaning to existence, heaped ridicule on the very possibility of a God-like entity (and those who believed in such an entity), declared that scientists and philosophers should set society’s moral and ethical standards, and called for a billion dollar public relations campaign to convince the public God does not exist. 

 

Near the end of the first day came my turn to speak. I began by saying that the conference to that point had been like the Spanish Inquisition in reverse -  the scientists were burning the believers. And while I had no particular interest in organized religion, I did believe there could be a scientific account for spirituality.

 

After pointing out faulty assumptions in conventional brain models for consciousness and summarizing the Penrose-Hameroff theory, I laid out my plausibility argument for scientific, secular spirituality, suggesting cosmic connections and influence in our conscious thoughts occurred via quantum interactions in microtubules. I closed with a slide of the DNA molecule which emphasized it’s internal core where quantum effects rule, suggesting a Penrose non-computable influence in genetic mutations and evolution (aimed at Dawkins in the form of a quantum-based intelligent design).

 

At the end a few people clapped loudly, but most sat in steely silence. The moderator and conference organizer Roger Bingham said I had enraged nearly everyone in the room. Indeed, I had raised a stink, and felt (happily) like the skunk at an atheist convention.

 

Comments from the audience were negative, but off base. Physicist Lawrence Krauss said my suggestion of backward time effects in the quantum unconscious (indicated by experiments, and required to rescue consciousness from its unfortunate characterization as epiphenomenal illusion) were impossible. He was apparently unaware of the verification of Wheeler’s delayed choice experiments which precisely prove such backward time effects. Krauss also questioned the possibility of biological quantum computation at brain temperature, but I pointed to evidence for warm quantum coherence in biological photosynthesis. Neuroscientist Terry Sejnowski attempted to criticize my view, but floundered, unable to explain how his conventional approach could explain 40 Hz gamma synchrony EEG (the best measurable correlate of consciousness) without quantum effects.

 

Our theory also chafes proponents of artificial intelligence (“AI”, including advocates of the so-called Singularity) who assume consciousness results from interactions among neurons with no consideration of deeper activities or quantum mechanisms. Along these lines I recently spoke at Google in Silicon Valley, my talk being titled A new marriage of brain and computer – Why the Singularity is bogus. That talk is at 

http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-2069501759514424839

 

I am not by nature confrontational, but am happy to debate scientists and philosophers who oppose our theory. Atheism does not hold the scientific high ground. Secular spirituality based on quantum biology and the physics of spacetime geometry is a viable and important idea. I am not offering or suggesting any proof, just a plausibility argument.