Consciousness (Part 2)

Conclusion

Within the framework of a universe whose total entropy is always increasing, there is the surprising fact that the laws of physics allow for temporary decreases in entropy.  This direction of decreasing entropy is counter to the overall increase in total entropy and yet does not violate any physical law.  Processes that temporarily decrease entropy are essential to life and they are also present in such well-understood phenomenon as lasers and superconductivity where the process is traceable to quantum physics.  I think it is a reasonable position that all such processes of decreasing entropy are traceable to quantum physics and to decoherence in particular.   Quantum computation is a real process, though it is not yet practical on a large scale.  Quantum computation happens during entangled states of coherence and the results are reported by decoherence.  The most direct evidence that this is happening in biological organisms is from photosynthesis.  During photosynthesis, extended quantum coherence takes place during the transport of photons from the light-harvesting chlorophyll molecules to the reaction center where food production begins.   This results in the near 100% efficiency with which light energy is transported.

Quantum physics is the most fundamental of the physical sciences.  It accurately describes all interactions at the level of fundamental particles, whether they be matter particles such as protons, neutrons or electrons or whether they be energy particles such as photons (light).  If one takes the position that quantum states are real (though they are not directly measurable), then it is reasonable to conclude that the universe must decide where and when such states collapse into a single measurable quantity: the universe must make a decision for every single transfer of energy.  That is the fundamental decisionality underlying all physical activity.

I think it is a reasonable to extend the quantum role in photosynthesis to biology in general.  The protein folding problem in particular has significant similarities with photosynthesis in that an energy landscape must be navigated.  In photosynthesis, the energy landscape funnels a photon to the plant cell’s reaction center where food production begins.  In the protein folding problem the protein folds by navigating an energy funnel to a conformal state which has a lower overall energy level.  The shape into which proteins fold is crucial to their function in the cell and undetected misfolded proteins are implicated in some disease processes.  Recent research supports the view that quantum physics plays a role in protein folding (cf. Lou and Lu, 2011).

It is reasonable to extend the role of quantum computation to the operation of all biological molecules.  They are certainly small enough to be affected by quantum effects.  It fits the overall model that the cell is an information processing marvel.  DNA contains information about the sequence of amino acids in proteins in a coded form (three nucleotides per amino acid).  RNA and ribosomes decode the sequence to produce proteins.  Proteins work together to form complex molecular machines that assist the cell in keeping entropy low despite the constant loss of entropy to the environment.  There is an amazing real-time cooperation, an unbelievable choreography among different cell functions that would be impossible to fully explain through any other mechanism.  A reasonable position is that quantum decisionality is active throughout all biological organisms and the most basic unit of processing is the biological molecule as Professor James A. Shapiro has suggested.  Recent research supports the view that quantum entanglement is active in the DNA molecule (cf. Reiper, Anders and Vedral, 2011).

Although the exact path to creation of the earliest forms of life remains hidden from us, it is reasonable to think that the laws of physics and chemistry favored a path to life.  The alternatives to such a conclusion are either that life happened by blind chance or there was some supernatural intervention in the creation process that bypassed the laws of physics.  A reasonable thought process must rule out both of these options as highly improbable.   Since it is reasonable to think that quantum processes play a significant part in modern biological cells, it is a reasonable extension to think that quantum processes played a part in the creation of life.  It is the quantum computations that provide the necessary bias toward life.

(For those readers who have a theistic view of the universe, as I do, let me pose the question about supernatural intervention this way:  Why would the Creator of the universe put in place laws of nature that He or She would need to bypass?  I view the laws of nature as a kind of covenant with the universe.  The rules of quantum physics allow all the needed degrees of freedom for God’s intervention in history.)

Quantum computation is a real process, but is still in the research and development phase.  Some very simple calculations have been demonstrated such as factoring small numbers.  Factoring is one application that has garnered much interest because factoring can be done much faster on quantum computers than on ordinary computers.  If factoring can be done quickly on large numbers then some public key cryptographic systems would become obsolete.    For example, the RSA scheme relies on the impracticality of factoring large numbers, typically 617 digits long.  Public key cryptography is used to support the security infrastructure that enables shoppers to connect securely to a web site when they provide payment information.  The largest number factored by conventional methods during the RSA factoring challenge, which ended in 2009, was 232 digits and Microsoft has recently blocked any keys with less than 309 digits.  The largest number currently factored by quantum computer using the well-understood Shor’s algorithm is the 2 digit number 21.

However there is another quantum factoring algorithm that has demonstrated factoring of the 3 digit number 143.  Very interestingly, this algorithm finds the factors by arranging the quantum hardware (qubits) in a pattern where the answer can be read when the qubits settle in their lowest energy state, possibly using a quantum process similar to the one proposed for photosynthesis, that is, traversing an energy landscape toward the lowest overall energy level.  However, there is no reason to think this new algorithm can be scaled up for very large numbers.  (Within the past few weeks, there has been another report of quantum computation that works by traversing an energy landscape.  That claim comes from D-Wave Systems which hopes to produce the first commercial quantum computer.)

But it would be a mistake to assume that natural quantum computations of the type that take place during photosynthesis are implementations of any known mathematics.  The analysis that was done on the photosynthesis data led researchers to conclude that the quantum computation was not an ordinary search algorithm of the type that would have been implemented by a human programmer.  If quantum decisionality is the physical process underlying consciousness as Roger Penrose and Stuart Hameroff propose, then it is unlikely that the full spectrum of quantum computations could be implemented on any ordinary computer.  The quantum computations would be both non-deterministic and, ironically, non-computational in Penrose’s analysis.

In a recent paper, Physicist Roger Penrose and Anesthesiologist Stuart Hameroff have summarized their proposal and answered critics.  The paper is titled, “Consciousness in the Universe: Neuroscience, Quantum Space-Time Geometry and Orch OR Theory” (Journal of Cosmology, 2011, Vol. 14).  The Penrose-Hameroff proposal for quantum consciousness calls for quantum coherence within the very numerous microtubules that support brain cell structure.  Microtubules are very small hollow tubes in the neurons, about 25 nanometers in diameter, which would appear ideal for isolating quantum coherence from the environment.  Unlike the microtubules in other cells that form and break apart as needed, the microtubules in neurons are stabilized by another protein, called the tau protein.  Mature Nerve cells don’t divide, so microtubules do not need to become spontaneously active during nerve cell mitosis.  Neuronal microtubules will break apart if the tau protein becomes compromised, and a malfunctioning tau protein is one possible cause of Alzheimer’s disease.  Penrose and Hameroff end their summary paragraph with a surprising admission: “We conclude that consciousness plays an intrinsic role in the universe.”  That is the first time I recall hearing such a statement from Penrose and Hameroff.

While the Penrose-Hameroff hypothesis for quantum consciousness has not been experimentally verified, it does fit my overall paradigm of quantum coherence and decisionality being the primary mover of life.  I have been following the developments in quantum consciousness for over 20 years, since Roger Penrose’s first book on the subject, The Emperor’s New Mind, in 1989.  I am sufficiently comfortable with the theory to think that quantum coherence is the phenomenon behind our amazing consciousness.  The details will almost certainly be different than Penrose and Hameroff propose, but the direction is solid, and I am confident that an intelligent, decisional consciousness does indeed play an intrinsic role in the universe.

I have also emphasized that one cannot immediately conclude that such a consciousness is God.  The question of God is a theological question about oneself and one’s relationship to some power.  The power that I have elucidated over my several postings on science is the decisional, conscious ordering power of the universe.  It is a power that comes to us free of cost; it transcends time and space by its amazing non-local properties of entangled particles; it does not require any energy, and is the primary power causing a bias in the laws of physics supporting life, supporting entropy lowering processes.  I emphasize, once again, that entropy lowering processes are temporary and localized so that the total entropy in the universe increases.    For readers wanting a less theistic view, I recommend “the Information Philosopher” (Bob Doyle).  He also sees order in the universe emerging through the action of quantum physics, but he applies this concept to philosophy rather than metaphysics.  He points out that even though the total entropy in the universe is increasing, so is the available entropy: there is always more available ordering power as time increases.  His web site is http://www.informationphilosopher.com/.

Even for readers with a theistic view of the universe, I would not recommend a direct correlation between the consciousness inherent in the laws of physics and God.  It may be impossible to completely distinguish the deterministic aspects of quantum computation from its non-deterministic aspects.  Therefore, I analogize the consciousness inherent in nature as the “hand of God,” although not in any anthropomorphic sense.  It is the vehicle through which God interacts with history.

Nevertheless, these developments in physics, biology and in the very new science of consciousness have the potential of sending a shock wave through theology and religion.  Throughout history, religion has responded poorly to or reacted against the best scientific evidence.  From Galileo to Newton, religious dogma has been confronted with scientific truth and has struggled to respond appropriately.  During the enlightenment, as people of faith came to terms with Newton’s mechanistic universe, God was deemed to have withdrawn from the world and Deism was the result.  The modern secular imagination has no place for religions that demand God’s supernatural intervention in history or for a three story universe.  The scriptural worldview is woefully outdated.  Yet, theology holds that God is real and that God acts in history.  So theology must answer the question about how God acts in history if supernatural explanations are no longer appropriate.  The best answer that I know of today is something called “process theology.”

Process theology is a type of panentheism.  A panentheistic view holds that God is present in all aspects of matter and energy, but that God is not limited to or identical with all matter and energy.  Process theology is based on the process-relational philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead and Charles Hartshorne and emphasizes changeable relationships rather than permanent entities as the basis for truth.  For process theologians, God’s power is exercised through acts of consciousness, through persuasion rather than coercion, and therefore requires a robust theology of free will.  And because free will is an essential property of humankind, God is therefore not the immutable, changeless God of traditional theology.  God interacts with history and is changed by history.  Since God is in all things, process theology also reconfigures the concepts of good and evil to avoid a reductionist form of Manichaeism; that is, there is no need for a devil or Satan role to account for evil.

Process theology emphasizes God’s imminence in the world, but also acknowledges God’s transcendence of the world.  Within Process Theology, evolution is guided by God, but not in a deterministic sense.  God represents the creative aspect of evolution.  According to several sources, process theology has influenced both Christian and Jewish writers such as Harold Kushner, Abraham Joshua Heschel, William E. Kaufman, W. Norman Pittenger, John B. Cobb, Thomas Berry and Marjorie Suchocki.  Marjorie Suchocki’s pamphlet, “What is Process Theology,” is a good place to begin learning.

I found it interesting to read a review of Hartshorne’s discussion about the proof of God.  From his 1970 book, Creative Synthesis and Philosophic Method, he identifies four possible philosophical options relating to cosmic order and God:

(A1) There is no cosmic order.
(A2) There is cosmic order, but no cosmic ordering power.
(A3) There is cosmic order and ordering power, but the power is not divine.
(T)    There is cosmic order and divine power.

Hartshorne holds the fourth position identified as (T), but insists that he does not arrive there by “proof.”   I have not read Hartshorne’s book, so I don’t know to what extent he uses empirical evidence for cosmic order, but I think that empirical evidence is very helpful in giving more weight to option (A3) compared to (A1) and (A2).  In my view, reason can be very helpful in arriving at a conclusion that there is a cosmic ordering power, but that faith is necessary to conclude that such a power is an expression of divine action.   If the evidence from physics, chemistry and biology is all we have, then a “leap of faith” is required to get from position (A3) to (T).  However, there is more evidence, but exploring that evidence will require delving into the social sciences, particularly psychology, to elicit reasonable conclusions about the structure of experience and selfhood.

In this context, faith is a decision one makes when reason based on empirical evidence does not apply or cannot guide our logic.  But there are other kinds of evidence and that brings me back to consciousness and the role of empirical evidence in understanding consciousness. 

David Chalmers has probably done more than any other philosopher towards putting the science of consciousness on sound footing.  But his most contentious position is that there are two paths for making progress in consciousness studies.  One path is the traditional and reliable reductionist path where complex mental processes are explained in terms of simpler, experimentally verified biological functions.  The reductionist path can explain how the brain works and therefore what brain functions are necessary for consciousness.  Chalmers calls this the “easy” question, and it is a long way from being answered.  The second path has the very difficult problem of dealing with the experience of consciousness and why the sensation of being conscious arises from brain function.  I have phrased this second question as the question about the ontology of selfhood: why is it that we have a self with which to experience life?

Chalmers insists that the second question cannot be answered from function alone and he posits a new category to deal with the “hard” question.  Taking a clue from historical scientific efforts to subject new phenomenon to reason, he favors creating a new fundamental category for subjective experience:

I suggest that a theory of consciousness should take experience as fundamental. We know that a theory of consciousness requires the addition of something fundamental to our ontology, as everything in physical theory is compatible with the absence of consciousness. We might add some entirely new nonphysical feature, from which experience can be derived, but it is hard to see what such a feature would be like. More likely, we will take experience itself as a fundamental feature of the world, alongside mass, charge, and space-time. If we take experience as fundamental, then we can go about the business of constructing a theory of experience.

Chalmers also proposes that a bridging theory can be constructed that will correlate subjective experience with brain function and this might take 100 years for meaningful progress to occur.  Others are not so sure.  Daniel Dennett does not think the hard problem is real.  For Dennett, consciousness is an epiphenomenon; it is an illusion generated by biological function.  He thinks that consciousness is adequately explained by a reductionist approach that explains brain function biologically, neurologically or computationally.  On the other hand, both Thomas Nagel and John Searle think that the hard problem of consciousness cannot be scientifically solved at all.   For them, consciousness is real but it must be explained philosophically.

Subjective experience may be the essential evidence necessary for consciousness science, but I think that it must be organized around a concept of self in order to be coherent and have an impact on our life.  We usually are not concerned with simply reporting individual and isolated experiences; we report and attempt to make sense of what these experiences mean for ourselves.  I think the fundamental entity is a sense of self; in other words, it is human self-consciousness that is the interesting phenomenon psychologically, philosophically and theologically.  And there already exists methods for dealing with experiential self-consciousness in the only universe we know about: developmental psychology, existentialism and process theology.

Developmental psychology has shown that there is a crucial point in the development process around 18 to 36 months where self-awareness appears.  If self-awareness can be equated with self-consciousness, then the structure of self-consciousness can be described through the analysis of psychological states arising at about the same time, namely empathy, embarrassment, shame and guilt.  But such an analysis must await another series.

Thomas Nagel once wrote a paper titled, “What is it Like to Be a Bat?”  The interesting question going forward is what is it like to be a self?  H. Richard Niebuhr’s contribution to this question has been formative for me, so I expect future expositions to be based on this seminal quotation from The Meaning of Revelation: “To be a self is to have a god; to have a god is to have history, that is, events connected in a meaningful pattern”.  And, according to Niebuhr, a “god” can be any power to which we intentionally relate ourselves.

I began this series in order to examine the role of reason for a person of faith.  I believe that a mature faith must resolve certain issues with respect to science and with respect to history.  This portion has dealt only with the physical sciences, and it has confronted the question of the kind of god that is compatible with science.  I have followed the best science that I know of, but I have also woven a narrative through the scientific evidence to elucidate something of the nature of the universe and its creator.  This narrative is not meant as proof; it is an exercise in metaphysics, but it demonstrates to me that faith is compatible with science and that science informs us about how God is likely to interact with us.  Not only does science not disprove the existence of God, it provides the essential evidence for a cosmic ordering power which is, if one choses, the hand of God.  I hope my future essays will explain possible motivations for making such an affirmation.

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2 thoughts on “Consciousness (Part 2)

  1. Pingback: Representing one terabit of information | cartesian product

  2. Pingback: Of a Quantum Mind | The Middle Pane

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