The Conscious Universe

[Original post dated 28 September, 2007]

In my past segments on “The Quantum Veil,” I have relied heavily on Roger Penrose’s ideas about quantum physics and consciousness.  I have done this because I think he has seen the most helpful path through the complexities of these topics.  But he is not the only person who sees a connection between quantum physics and consciousness.  In 1990, Springer-Verlag published a book by Menas Kafatos, a physicist, and Robert Nadeau titled The Conscious Universe.  This book was motivated by the results of a particular experiment which confirmed the predictions of quantum physics against an hypothesis put forward by Albert Einstein, Boris Podolsky and Nathan Rosen in 1935.

The hypothesis put forward by Einstein, Podolsky and Rosen, named the EPR hypothesis, attempts to show that quantum physics either violates relativity by requiring faster than light communication or is incomplete because it does not account for the dependency resulting from quantum entanglement is a realistic way.  One example of quantum entanglement is the simultaneous emission of two photons by an atom whose electron has lost energy and changed its orbit.  Conservation of momentum requires that states of the two photons be mirror images of each other.  This means that the measurement of the state of one photon will instantaneously require the other photon to take on the opposite state.  Einstein called this instantaneous action, “spooky action at a distance.”

The EPR hypothesis proved impossible to test until John Bell, a particle physicist at the European Center for Nuclear Research, devised an experiment to test the predictions of quantum theory against the EPR hypothesis.  The technical requirements of Bell’s experiment could not be accomplished until 1982 when Alain Aspect of the University of Orsay in France performed the test that confirmed, indeed, there is an instantaneous synchronization of quantum states when a measurement is made on one of the photons.  This instantaneous action means that quantum physics exhibits ‘non-local’ attributes.  It is non-local in the sense that one photon cannot be treated independently of the other and the dependency is beyond our ability to understand realistically.  The two photons seem to be part of an undivided whole.

Kafatos and Nadeau draw two conclusions from this development in physics.  The first is that this undivided whole is a property of the entire universe by virtue of the presumption that all phenomenon in the universe is taking place at the quantum level and that quantum entanglement is the presumed normal situation:

“What this means, in short, is that non-locality can be assumed to be a fundamental property of the entire universe.”  (The Conscious Universe, p 9.)

“And yet we will also make the case that the discovery that non-locality is a new fact of nature allows us to ‘infer,’ although certainly not to ‘prove,’ that the universe can be viewed as a conscious system.”  (The Conscious Universe, p 3.)

The second conclusion is that this undivided whole cannot, even in principle, be the proper subject of scientific inquiry:

“Whether one chooses to regard this indivisible whole as having an ontological dimension is, of course, a matter of personal belief or conviction.  And yet it seems clear that any ontological or metaphysical questions that we might choose to raise regarding this indivisible whole, or what we have chosen to call reality-in-itself, cannot be legislated over by the truths of science for the reason we have already noted – this reality cannot ‘in principle’ be disclosed or described by scientific theory or experiment.”  (The Conscious Universe, p 10.)

It is my opinion that Roger Penrose does a better job of showing the conscious nature of the universe by proposing the actual biological means that life uses to tap into this universal consciousness.  But Kafatos and Nadeau have raised the metaphysical question directly where Penrose prefers to stop short.  The implication of Kafatos and Nadeau’s conclusions is that if one chooses to attribute this universal consciousness to God, a God who cares about our destiny, and if one views quantum physics as the hand of God, such views are reasonable metaphysical interpretations of our universe.

Some view this attempt to connect God to physics with discomfort.  Lawrence Fagg a physicist at Catholic University fears this type of discussion leads to a god-of-the-gaps, or a god that is limited or perhaps too well defined for his taste  (see “Divine Action and God of the Gaps” by Lawrence Fagg.)  That is a warning worth listening to and one I have tried to honor by insisting that faith must come first and that one’s sense of God’s presence and intent come through faith and not physics.  But a small group of writers about religion have raised the question of whether faith is necessarily delusional or at least a palliative activity to help us feel more at home in a universe that is indifferent to our fate.  That question, once raised, must be answered or one must accept that faith is not a primary reality in life.

It is also worth repeating at this point that all of the above discussion and argument is speculative.  No one can say with certainty what lies behind the quantum veil, but reason can be a guide in finding a way through the maze of science to arrive at a possible reconciliation between science and religion.  To those who might want to read more into what I am saying, be very careful:  abandoning reason might lead to delusion.  All of our choices about the nature of life and the universe need to be vetted.

So what is Roger Penrose’s proposal for biological systems?  Stuart Hameroff, M.D., Department of Anesthesiology, Arizona Health Sciences Center, first put forth, in the 1980’s, the actual proposal that Penrose describes.  I described the tubulin protein in the previous segment.  It consists of two parts named alpha-tubulin and beta-tubulin.  The physical shape of the combined protein can be controlled by the position of a few electrons or, perhaps, only a single electron located between the two parts.  These tubulin molecules are usually organized into long filaments called microtubules.  Microtubules are hollow cylindrical tubes with a 25 nm (nm: nanometer or one billionth of a meter) outside diameter and a 14 nm inside diameter.  Multiple microtubules are sometimes found twisted together to form larger structures.

Microtubules play a crucial role in the life of the cell.  They are formally part of the cytoskeleton, which gives the cell physical structure.  They exist in all cells of almost any kind of living cell, plant or animal, the only exceptions being blue-green algae, bacteria and viruses.  For example, Microtubules form the cilia of paramecium, a one-celled animal.  Microtubules play a critical role in cell division by physically separating the nucleus into two parts.  Microtubules also form the protein highways that guide proteins as they travel between the cell wall and the interior of the cell.  In the brain, microtubules carry the neurotransmitter molecules back and forth as needed by the cell.  They play a role in the strengthening of connections between neurons.

Penrose contends that the shape of the microtubules, basically a hollow tube, is ideal for making use of quantum coherence.  Quantum coherence is the phenomenon responsible for lasers and superconductivity, among other things.  Superconductivity is the ability of electricity to flow without resistance through a medium under the right conditions.  Penrose and Hameroff propose that quantum coherence in the microtubules of the brain lasts long enough for meaningful decision-making to take place.  It is essential that the coherence be isolated from the environment so that the coherence does not collapse too quickly due to the random influences of the surrounding tissue.  Hence, the shape of the microtubules is ideal for such isolation.  The microtubules act like miniature receivers tuned in to the universe.   Penrose is insistent:  whatever process that is taking place inside microtubules, it must be non-computational and non-deterministic for consciousness to take place.  For the person of faith, that leaves the door open for belief in a God who will, if we acquiesce, participate with us in the decisions that affect our destiny.

What evidence is there that microtubules and their sensitive quantum components, tubulin, are responsible for consciousness?  Penrose and Hameroff consider the case where consciousness is absent.  Unconsciousness can be induced by anesthesia in the right concentration.  There are numerous anesthetic agents that have little in common with each other in terms of chemical composition.  For example nitrous oxide is N(2)O and chloroform is CHCl(3).  Even the chemically inert gas xenon can act as an anesthetic agent!  Although the pathway through which anesthetics act to induce unconsciousness is poorly understood, Hameroff and others have proposed that there are subtle electrical forces within the tubulin molecule that are nullified by anesthetic agents.  Penrose summarizes:

“It is a strong possibility that the relevant proteins are the tubulin dimmers in neuronal microtubules – and that it is the consequent interruption of the functioning microtubules that result in the loss of consciousness.” (Penrose, Shadows of the Mind, p. 370.)

It is no accident that the English words ‘consciousness’ and ‘conscience’ are derived from the same root.  Conscience is the awareness (consciousness) of moral choices and the preference for choosing right over wrong.  Both words come from the Latin, scire, to know, discern, to separate one thing from another (to choose).  The prefix ‘con’ means ‘together with.’  So to have a conscience or to have consciousness both relate to being ‘with knowledge’.  The English word ‘science’ also comes from the same Latin root, scire.  Religion has been shaping our understanding of right and wrong for thousands of years and science has been shaping our understanding of the universe for almost as long.  Given the relatively recent antagonism between science and religion, it is intriguing to contemplate that both types of understanding might come from beyond the quantum veil.

If I do take on the task of writing about faith, it would be interesting to approach the subject through the phenomenon of consciousness.  But, it is self-consciousness that really interests me and there is anecdotal evidence that self-consciousness is the first to go when one goes under a general anesthetic, and the last to be revived when one comes back out.  Sometimes patients will tell well-protected secrets to complete strangers when they are being awakened from anesthesia after a surgical procedure.   The common name for nitrous oxide is ‘laughing gas’ because it causes a mild euphoria.  Ethanol, the alcohol found in alcoholic beverages, is also thought to lower self-consciousness and ethanol is chemically similar to ether, another anesthesia.  George Bernard Shaw is said to have quipped, “Alcohol is the anesthesia by which we endure the operation of life.”

And so it is fascinating to me to think that the part of consciousness called self-consciousness, which we sometimes find painful enough to administer an anesthetic called alcohol, might be the pathway to another way of dealing with life.  Faith is ultimately a decision we make about how we see ourselves related to life itself, to the universe, to our fellow beings and to our own self.  And we just might need some extra help in making that decision.

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