Saturday, November 27, 2010

Can Science Explain the Soul? 

Can Science Explain the Soul?

By Stuart Hameroff and Deepak Chopra
Source: San Francisco Gate

The soul has never lacked for believers, including around 90% of the American public, according to pollsters. But science has remained aloof, basically for two reasons. First, the soul has been assumed to be a matter of personal belief, not objective knowledge. Second, science deals in visible, concrete things using objective data. But since the era of quantum physics began over a century ago, invisible things and fleeting events have entered science, so subtle that the realm from which they emerge is almost a matter of faith.

Now some scientists are willing to venture into the once forbidden territory of the soul, attempting to extract a theory that will allow for its existence.

Redefined by the new field of quantum biology, the soul could be the link that connects individuals to the universe, a dynamic connection that could explain how consciousness came about, and why the cosmos itself seems to mirror our own intelligence and creativity. Below are components of an argument for a secular soul based on quantum physics and biology.

Consciousness and the Soul

The concept of life after death, or more specifically conscious awareness after bodily death, is generally referred to in the context of the 'soul'; it is a staple of many religions and innumerable anecdotes over thousands of years.

In addition, countless subjective reports of conscious awareness seemingly separated from the subject's brain and physical body occur in conjunction with so-called near death experiences (NDEs), whose phenomenology include a white light, being in a tunnel, life review and, in some cases, floating out of the body.

Somewhat similar experiences have been reported in various types of meditative and altered states. The drug ketamine, used as a 'dissociative' anesthetic, can produce subjective reports of conscious awareness outside the body, as can various other psychoactive drugs.

The same phenomenology has been reported in various cultures including medieval Tibet. And since every Eastern tradition is based upon pure consciousness as the ground of existence, there is nowhere to go when you die. Individual consciousness loses its boundaries and returns to the field of consciousness to be recycled. In Eastern traditions, the soul comes naturally.

There are literally thousands of other types of experiences that depend on the mind or its components existing outside the brain, from telepathy and clairvoyance to premonitions, synchronicity, and the perception of subtle domains of reality.

Unable to fathom a rational explanation for out-of-body and/or after-death consciousness, modern science ignores such reports. Short-sighted skeptics reinforce the assumption that they are either subjective folly, hallucinations, or outside the scope of scientific proof.

The central weakness here is that modern science can't explain normal, in-the-brain consciousness. Despite detailed understanding of neuronal firings and synaptic transmissions mediating non-conscious, 'auto-pilot' perception and behaviors, there is no accounting for conscious awareness, free will or 'qualia' — the essence of experienced perceptions, like the redness, texture and fragrance of a rose. Philosopher David Chalmers refers to this as the 'hard problem' — explaining qualia and the subjective nature of feelings, awareness, and phenomenal experience — our 'inner life'.

Unable to explain consciousness in the brain, it is easy to see why conventional science ignores out-of-body, or after-death consciousness, if they do indeed occur. However one controversial theory of in-the-brain consciousness can also in principle explain possible out-of-body and after-death consciousness. That is the Penrose-Hameroff 'Orch OR' theory of consciousness as sequences of quantum computations inside brain neurons.

Most approaches to brain function consider neuronal firings and synaptic transmissions as fundamental information states (e.g. 'bits') in computational networks of neurons. But neurons are complex, not simple on-off switches representing either 1 or 0.

For example the lowly single cell paramecium can swim around, avoid obstacles, find food and mates, learn and have sex -- all without a single synapse. Paramecium activities are organized by their microtubules, cylindrical polymers of the protein tubulin. In brain neurons, microtubules are the structural scaffolding, organizing movement, transport, neuronal growth and synaptic plasticity. Their lattice structure and seeming intelligent functions have prompted suggestions that microtubules are also the nervous system of each cell, capable of molecular-level computation and information processing. In each and every neuron, millions of tubulins coherently vibrate in the megahertz frequency range, providing potentially quadrillions of operations per second per neuron. That may be bad news for artificial intelligence prospects for brain equivalence anytime soon, but increased information capacity per se doesn't explain consciousness.

The Quantum Plunge

The Penrose-Hameroff Orch-OR theory ('orchestrated objective reduction') proposes that microtubules perform not just molecular-scale computation, but also, specifically related to consciousness, quantum computations.

Quantum means the smallest fundamental unit of energy and matter, usually considered at very small scales. But the laws governing the quantum world are bizarre and exotic, quite different from our everyday world of classical physics governed by Newton's laws and Maxwell's equations. For example in the quantum world, particles can exist in multiple locations or states simultaneously — quantum superposition. Another quantum feature is nonlocal entanglement — quantum particles separate but still remain mysteriously connected (what Einstein referred to as 'spooky action at a distance'). And multiple quantum particles can condense to a unified state — quantum coherence.

Quantum entanglement tells us that the universe is somehow nonlocal, that instantaneous hidden connections occur between spatially and temporally separated particles, objects and energies. Despite the complete lack of any explanatory mechanism, entanglement has been repeatedly demonstrated and, along with quantum superposition, used in new technologies including quantum cryptography, quantum teleportation and quantum computing.

In quantum computing, information may be represented not only as bits of either 1 or 0, but also as superpositioned quantum bits (qubits) of both 1 AND 0. Qubits interact with other qubits by nonlocal entanglement, and then collapse/reduce to specific output states as the solution to the quantum computation.
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But we don't see quantum superposition and entanglement in our everyday classical world. It seems there's an edge, or boundary between two phases of reality — the quantum and classical worlds, and that consciousness may have something to do with that edge, also known as 'quantum state reduction', or 'collapse of the quantum wave function'.

Quantum pioneer Niels Bohr found that measuring a quantum superposition caused it to reduce, or collapse to specific values. Because a conscious observer was required to complete the measurement, Bohr and colleagues proposed that consciousness caused collapse of the quantum wave function. This 'Copenhagen interpretation' (after Bohr's Danish origin) was pragmatic, but put consciousness outside science. Erwin Schrodinger thought it so bizarre he invented his famous thought experiment — a cat is both dead and alive until consciously observed.

Another view — the multiple worlds hypothesis — suggests that each and every superposition is a bifurcation of the fabric of reality, each branching off to form its own new universe, resulting in an infinite number of coexisting universes. There is no collapse, and no implicit consciousness.

Decoherence theory suggests any interaction with a classical environment degrades quantum superpositions. But isolated superpositions remain unexplained, as does the precise nature of quantum isolation.

There are other interpretations, e.g. Bohm, Cramer's Transactional, Stapp, weak measurement etc. And then there is Penrose 'objective reduction' (OR) which puts consciousness emphatically into the picture, precisely on the edge between the quantum and classical worlds.

Edited by: Lawyer Asad