Joined: April 2007
Please excuse my brief absence. I had some non-blog reading and correspondence to catch up on.
My daughter is well on her way to earning her PhD. She briefly mentioned my wild ideas to her mentor. He asked for more information. What follows is the letter I am sending to him. I am interested in hearing his reaction.
Dr. [name withheld],
[My daughter] tells me that you are interested in hearing about the subject of my internet debates concerning the timing and source of consciousness. If you want to simply jump into the deep-end of the pool take a look at www.hameroff.com and start reading Dr. Hameroff’s numerous publications. However, if you want a less abrupt introduction, I will attempt to give you the benefit of my general understanding.
Dr. Hameroff is a sixty year old Professor Emeritus at the University of Arizona where he is the Director for the Center of Consciousness Studies. Dr. Hameroff indicates he has always been interested in the study of consciousness and that was the main reason he studied Anesthesiology. He figured the best way to understand consciousness was to study the details of what causes unconsciousness. It was this line of investigation that led him to suspect that the microtubules in neurons had a key role in consciousness.
In 1982 Stuart Hameroff, along with R.C. Watt, presented a paper titled Information Processing in Microtubules where they laid out how the tubulin dimers that make up microtubules can act like on/off bits in a computer. This wasn’t exactly a new idea, other people had considered the possibility that a cell’s cytoskeleton (which is made up of microtubules and actin filaments) might act as a kind of nervous system for the cell. However, Hameroff was going beyond that to suggest that not only does anesthesia disrupt the tubulin processing but that the processing is quantum, not classical. Bluntly put, Hameroff is suggesting that each neuron contain multiple quantum computers working in concert to give rise to consciousness.
Hameroff has an anesthesiologist background; Watt came from the department of Electrical Engineering. These are hardly the credentials needed to be taken seriously in the field of Quantum Mechanics. Besides, all they were saying at this point was that the brain has significantly more processing power than generally thought. Instead of a processing bit per neuron, Hameroff was suggesting a processing bit per tubulin.
Enter Sir Roger Penrose.
Roger Penrose worked with Stephen Hawking (the guy in the wheelchair) in mathematically modeling Black Holes. Penrose and Hawking are peers from different schools of thought that trace their roots back to Bohr and Einstein. Penrose and Hawking have jointly written at least one book and held a debate in 1994 which was hyped as the modern equivalent of the old Bohr/Einstein debates. The debate was generally about what are fundamentally real foundations verses what are simply observations yet to be understood.
In Quantum Mechanics several things show a dual nature. For example, light can be thought of as both photons and light waves. There are many more startling examples of this, including a single particle being in two places at one time. There are mathematical models that explain this and modern physicists no longer hesitate of talk about superposition (two or more quantum states existing simultaneously) and Qbits (quantum bits that are both “1” and “0”).
Bohr, Penrose and most adherents to the Copenhagen School generally consider the superposition nature to be fundamentally real. The term “waveform collapse” is used to describe the event of multiple states resulting in a single observed state. The general thought was that the collapse was caused by the observation and that the final state was random (constrained by permissible states). Einstein and Schrödinger were on the opposite side of the debate. It was in this context that Einstein exclaimed “God doesn’t play dice.” Einstein was convinced that, like Newtonian Physics, Quantum Physics had to be deterministic. The general argument was that a more complete quantum theory would be figured out someday and it would provide a logical explanation for the observations. Schrödinger posed a thought experiment for the purpose of challenging the Copenhagen School. If a cat’s life was directly tied to a quantum effect in superposition, would the cat be both alive and dead at the same time? Schrödinger eventually regretted posing this intractable puzzle since it plagued physicists on both sides. Schrödinger’s Cat was very much a relevant topic in the 1994 Penrose/Hawking debate (although Hawking tried to downplay its significance).
Penrose has developed a Copenhagen like hypothesis he calls Objective Reduction. However, rather than multiple waveforms collapsing he suggests that the universe is one large wavefunction in four dimensional space-time and quantum states are exposed parts of this single wavefunction.
By now, you might be asking what all of this has to do with consciousness.
While Penrose worked out quite a bit including gravity and general quantum theory, there was still the “measurement problem” of Quantum Mechanics. This plays into the Schrödinger’s Cat thought experiment. Penrose had an answer to why large things don’t appear in superposition (the more the mass, the faster to Objective Reduction (OR) due to gravitational energy), but he didn’t have a ready answer for why observations caused OR. What interconnects observations to Quantum Mechanics? Could it be the consciousness of the observer?
Penrose is very much the mathematician. Not only does he mathematically model Black Holes, he solves extremely difficult math puzzles in his spare time. In the 1960’s it was mathematically proven that you could tile a surface without having the pattern ever repeat. They called it non-periodic tiling and the race was on to figure out who could find the least number of tile shapes that could be used for non-periodic tiling. The number started out with over 20,000 tile shapes which was quickly reduced to 104. In 1974, Penrose had reduced it to six tile shapes. Shortly after that, he identified non-periodic tiling was possible with just two tile shapes.
Penrose maintains that his solution to non-periodic tiling could not have been found via an algorithmic process. Ergo, his brain is not an algorithmic computer. He formalized this by claiming strict algorithmic artificial intelligence (Strong AI) was impossible. Penrose wrote several books that revolved around this theme. He also generalized that the quantum wavefunction is not algorithmic. So even if “God doesn’t play dice” quantum effects are not deterministic, in the sense that it isn’t a lack of knowledge that is preventing us from being able to fully characterize them, quantum effects can’t be fully characterized, period.
Since Quantum Mechanics is the only known source of non-algorithmic information, Penrose suggested that consciousness must be directly linked to Quantum Mechanics. Penrose wrote The Emperor’s New Mind and Shadows of the Mind. These books caught the attention of Dr. Hameroff and in 1992, the two of them started collaborating on a model of consciousness based on Orchestrated Objective Reduction.
An interesting piece of evidence Penrose offers is that the timing of OR events is based on the gravitational energy inherent in mass. According to Penrose, it follows the equation of E=h/t where E is the gravitational energy and h is plank’s constant and t is the time of self OR collapse. It turns out that the mass of roughly 1011 tublins would result in OR event taking 25 ms. This would correspond to the gamma brain wave frequency of 40 Hz which Hameroff offers corresponds well with attention and consciousness.
This completed the circle. Conscious observations cause quantum OR because consciousness is directly connected with the orchestrated, interconnected quantum effects that occur in our universe.
Enter Benjamin Libet and his consciousness studies.
You may have heard of Libet since his experimental data has caused quite a bit of a shake up in your field. As far as I know, Libet was never directly involved with either Penrose or Hameroff. However, Hameroff has referenced Libet’s work quite a bit. If I understand correctly, Libet has shown there is up to a half a second of “readiness potential” prior to a conscious recognition of an event. I understand this was very unexpected to Libet and others in the field. The delay is significant enough to make it difficult to explain everyday activities like hitting a fast ball or playing professional tennis.
One explanation is to say that we fool ourselves into thinking we are making conscious decisions in these circumstances. Another is to argue that we can consciously veto automated responses. I won’t dwell on all the alternatives because I am sure you have better access to the appropriate information than I. Hameroff offers that the Orch OR model provides a simple answer. The “readiness potential” of consciousness is direct evidence of quantum processing in action. Orchestrated quantum effects are all in super position sorting out all the possibilities until that system collapses into the final state and a final conscious decision.
I recommend Hameroff’s paper Consciousness, neurobiology and quantum mechanics: The case for a connection. It provides a fairly readable explanation of all of this.
Arguments against Orch OR generally focus on Penrose’s timing calculations and the perceived difficulties of having quantum processing occurring in a warm, wet and noisy environment like a brain. Penrose’s timing explanation makes sense to me and most of the arguments against it are either simple incredulity or suggesting it isn’t universally accepted (which it isn’t). Penrose has indicated that while he may have doubts about microtubules, he is convinced that he is right on the basic physics. I am not in a position to effectively argue that Penrose doesn’t know what he is talking about. Dr. Hameroff provides his rebuttals of the warm, wet brain argument in the above paper and in other papers available on his web site.
As you can imagine, this sounds too close to mysticism for a lot of people. In fact, the route I took to come to understand occured while I was chasing down the details of the religiously motivation Intelligent Design Movement. If you didn’t hear about it, there was a trial in Dover Pennsylvania late in 2005. It centered on the actions of a religiously motivated school board and a book that was clearly about creation science relabeled as “Intelligent Design”. I found the trial interesting and was intrigued by hints of the possibility that a scientific argument could be made in support of Intelligent Design. Since I like a good argument and this had learning potential, I investigated further.
I ended up at a web site called www.TelicThoughts.com. While a lot of the blog’s participants are clearly religiously motivated the blog is above average in tolerating contrary, anti-religious opinions like mine. One of the blog’s moderators steered me to Hameroff’s web site.
If you go to dfcord.blogspot.com you will find this letter (with names removed) posted with links to the various web sites and other details I mentioned.
Feel free to leave anonymous comments or questions there. Alternatively, you can contact me at dfcord (at) hotmail.com.
Thank you for your interest, I hope this has been informative.