Monday, July 14, 2014

Quantum Consciousness

In 1929, Niels Bohr, in what he admitted was perhaps a rush of enthusiasm for the new science, speculated that perhaps the quantum understanding of physical reality might also apply to an understanding of the mind and consciousness. Maybe as analogy but perhaps, he suspected, as something more. In effect, Bohr suggested that any effort to apply thought to perception – of the subject apprehending the object – collapsed a continuous wave function. When we use language to describe something – whether it be internal or external – we were extracting some possibilities out of a number of ways to do so, indeed from a continuously variable flow. Recent investigations (as reported in Science News) into apparently illogical thought – decisions or judgements that flout the basic mathematical logic of if A=X and B=X, then A=B – suggest the possibility that quantum logic in which something can be both particle and wave at the same time may apply. The situations examined violated the “sure thing” rule.

One well-known example involved asking students whether they would buy a ticket for a Hawaii vacation in three different situations: They had passed a big test, they had failed the test, or they didn’t yet know whether they had passed or failed. More than half said they would buy the ticket if they had passed. Even more said they would buy the ticket if they failed. But 30 percent said they wouldn’t buy a ticket until they found out whether they had passed or failed.

It seems odd that people would decide to buy right away if they knew the outcome of the test, no matter what it was, but hesitated when the outcome was unknown. Such behavior violated a statistical maxim known as the “sure thing principle.” Basically, it says that if you prefer X if A is true, and you prefer X if A isn’t true, then you should prefer X whether A is true or not. So it shouldn’t matter whether you know if A is true. That seems logical, but it’s not always how people behave.

The researchers found that context is important and that quantum logic may better explain such behavior. We make decisions within a framework that allows possibilities that are logically the same to interfere with each other as quantum waves might. Uncertainty seems to leave us both particle and wave.

This is deep. But the essential bit seems to be that the conscious observer necessary to turn quantum reality into the classical reality we live in – by observing and thereby collapsing the wave function – also may operate in the same quantum/relativistic manner. If the brain is organically based and operates as a classical system, perhaps the mind – brain/nervous system plus consciousness – acts as a quantum system in which perceived reality is constructed through collapsing the wave functions apprehended from the perceptual flow. (Some of us “collapse” more readily than others: judgers vs perceivers?) Now, whether consciousness itself is a quantum-derived property of the physical brain – perhaps arising at the nano-level – or a “ghost in the machine” would remain a question. But the first possibility – that consciousness arises within and from a physical system that demands consciousness to operate – would seem to violate Gödel's incompleteness theorem.


Anonymous said...

Fascinating commentary. But I fail to understand how or why consciousness arising within and from a physical system that demands consciousness to operate appears to to violate Gödel's incompleteness theorem. Perhaps you could explain the reasoning there in a future essay.

Gerard Gallucci said...

According to the theorem, or maybe just riffing on it, no system can explain itself. Explanation always requires reference to a larger system containing the first. If consciousness is a property of the physical system containing both subject and object it cannot also define subject and object. That, anyway, is my first take on a response to your question. I'll ponder it further.