The Evidence from Physics and Cosmology (Part 3)

Quantum Uncertainty

So far in my discussion of the scientific evidence for a rational power at work in the universe, I have relied heavily on the orderliness inherent in the mathematical laws of physics that model nature’s governance of the world.  I have written about the orderly application of the laws of atomic physics during the creation of the universe.  I have written about the remarkable correlation between the abstractly ordered mathematical world of theoretical physics and the empirical world of observation.  I have presented the randomness that we observe as a form of incomplete knowledge.  Though I didn’t emphasize it, that incomplete knowledge is one of the fundamental laws.  It is called the Heisenberg uncertainty principle and was itemized as Leonard Susskind’s third universal laws in my previous post.

But there was also another kind of uncertainty.  This second kind of uncertainty is based on nature’s involvement in every transfer of energy that takes place in the universe.  Quantum physics is one of Roger Penrose’s ‘SUPURB’ theories and it calls for the orderly evolution of quantum states until some final measurable state is chosen by the universe.  The mathematics is complicated, but precise.  The theory has mathematically confirmed the measured magnetic moment of the electron to about one part in one billion.  The magnetic moment measures the reaction of an electron’s magnetic field (caused by its spin) to an external magnetic field.  This effect will cause the electron’s spin to precess, like a spinning toy top.  The precision of the correspondence between theory and experiment is like measuring the distance from New York to Los Angeles to the width of a human hair!

Even though quantum theory is based on superposed quantum states (the idea that a particle can be multiple places at once, for example), we have good reason to believe that these superposed states never rise to the level of large objects (for example, Schrödinger’s cat).  This implies that some decision process is taking place in what has been traditionally called “the collapse of the wave function:” the superposed states suddenly jump to a state that conforms to the desired measurement but is based on the probabilities associated with the superposed states. And this happens even if there is no measurement being made in the scientific sense.  In the Schrödinger’s cat example, the very hypothetical superposed states of alive-cat and dead-cat carried with them each a 50% probability.  The question that I will explore in this part is to what extent that decision process can be considered random and to what extent can it be considered coherent.

First of all, we can dispense with one kind of randomness quickly.  This is the randomness due to incomplete knowledge and, as mentioned above, all of our knowledge is incomplete due to the uncertainty principle.  There will be, in any experimental situation, quantum states in the environment that the calculations cannot consider, either because they are too numerous or because we are theoretically limited in what states can be measured accurately.  I see no power in this type of randomness to create the kind of order that we observe in the universe.

One might think that this would be the end of the discussion, but there are natural quantum processes that demonstrate coherence and order.  We are aware of these powerful natural processes because of two scientific discoveries.  Let’s see if those discoveries will give us some clue as to how to proceed.

One of the surprising discoveries of the twentieth century based on quantum physics was the laser.  Today, lasers are used in many everyday applications.  They are used to record and playback compact discs of various types; they are used to read bar codes on products purchased at retail stores; they are used to measure distance and speed; they are used as pointing devices, surgical instruments and even as potential military weapons.

The surprising property of lasers on which I want to focus is that they produce coherent light; that is, light of a single color or frequency with all light particles (photons) in synchronization with each other.  This is highly ordered light, with entropy near zero.  The ability of lasers to produce highly coherent light is due to a special quantum physics property that only bosons possess.  Light particles are one of a number of elementary particles called bosons.  You may have heard of the Higgs boson for which evidence has recently been discovered at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) near Geneva, Switzerland.  All other ordinary matter – matter that makes up virtually all of the stuff necessary for life, for example electrons, protons and neutrons – are fermions.

Aside from the major distinction between light and matter, there is another very important difference between bosons and fermions.  The distinction is related to another fundamental law of physics called the Pauli Exclusion Principle.  This principle states that two fermions cannot share the same quantum state.  Without this law, ordinary chemistry would not be possible; life would not be possible.  The Pauli Exclusion Principle is the explanation for why electrons exist in different orbits in atoms. Because electrons are in different orbits, the elements have different chemical properties, mostly due to the electrons that are in the outermost orbit.  This is why 2 atoms of hydrogen combine with one atom of oxygen to form water.  Hydrogen has one electron and one open slot in its outer orbit whereas oxygen has two open slots available in its outer orbit.  The two electrons from the two hydrogen atoms exactly satisfy the one oxygen atom’s tendency to fill up the outer orbit.  Water is highly stable with both hydrogen and oxygen sharing electrons to fill each other’s open slots for electrons.

Light particles (photons), like all bosons, do not obey the Pauli Exclusion Principle and they can share the same quantum state.  And that is why lasers are possible.  Lasers work because photons actually prefer to be in the same quantum state as other photons.  It is very important that the photons are produced synchronously. If photons are produced by heat, for example in an incandescent light bulb, they are produced at different energy levels.  Different energy levels mean different colors and different frequencies – hence incoherent light.  Lasers work because they use partially silvered mirrors to reflect light photons back and forth across a suitable material until all the emitted photons are synchronized.  The mirrors allow time for synchronization to happen.

If energy transmitted by light particles can be synchronized, what about energy transmitted through matter?  Since fermions are prohibited from being in a synchronized state, they cannot transmit coherent energy.  Or can they?  Consider the phenomenon of superconductivity.  Superconductivity does not yet have a household application, but it is very useful in certain areas where very strong and concentrated magnetic fields are needed.  Superconductivity is the free flow of electricity through a conductor which is usually cooled to a very low temperature.  Electricity flow is accomplished by electrons (fermions).  So how do low temperatures produce coherent electron flow?

The beginning of the answer is that electrons have a property called spin.  Spin is the property responsible for magnetism in permanent magnets.  Iron has three filled orbits of electrons with the outer orbit containing two electrons.  Those two electrons in the outer orbit are allowed to have the same spin.  The spin of the electrons in the inner orbits will cancel each other, leaving the total spin effect to the outer orbit electrons.  If iron is placed in a magnetic field, the spin of all the outer orbit electrons will align and the whole iron atom will have a net magnetic field.  Iron will retain the magnetism because of its crystalline structure.  Heating will generally cause iron to lose its magnetism through the strong molecular vibration caused by heat energy.

It is one of those strange quantum physics rules that measured spin has only two values.  Let’s say we want to measure electron spin in the “up” direction.  The answer will always be either yes or no.  That is, the spin will always be up or down.  This will be true no matter what actual direction we call “up.”  If we first measure spin in the up-down direction and separate all spin up electrons from all spin down electrons, we can perform another measurement on, say, the spin up electrons.  If we measure them again for spin up then the answer will always be up.  100% of the time the second measurement will agree with the first.  But if we measure the spin in the left-right direction, then we find that half will have spin left and half will have spin right.   This strange property of spin is shared by all fermions.

Bosons, on the other hand, do not share this spin property.  Fermions have what is called “half spin” and bosons have “integer spin.”  The measured spin of fermions is stated in units of one-half whereas the boson spin is stated in units of integers.  Photons, in particular, have spin one.  They do not divide into spin up and spin down.  Light can be polarized, but that is another story for another time.  So perhaps a way to cause electrons (fermions) to behave like bosons (light) is to cancel out their spin property.

That is in fact what happens in the phenomenon called superconductivity.  In the right material and at very cold temperatures, electrons can pair up so that one spin-up electron associates with a spin-down electron giving an overall spin of zero.  The electron pair can act like a boson and flow coherently and without resistance through a conductor.  The conductor must remain cold enough to prevent thermal molecular motion from splitting up the electron pair.  These pairs of electrons are called “Cooper pairs.”

As long as I’m writing about coherent light and electrons, I should mention one other interesting phenomenon: lasers can be used to cool atoms to a very low temperature.  Thus, the low entropy of the laser can be used to reduce the entropy of matter.  This does not violate any laws of thermodynamics since entropy must be increased elsewhere in order to decrease entropy in a specific location.  However, the ability for a process to decrease entropy at a particular location is very important to life.  Both the efficient concentration of energy for fuel and the remarkable ordering of the genome are key factors in the evolution of life.

Therefore, in the example of lasers, superconductivity and laser cooling, nature has given us a hint of where to look for processes that are essential for life.  The place to begin looking involves light interacting with matter.  Particularly, we should be looking for evidence that coherence in the light / living matter interaction will result in some concentration of energy or increase in order beyond what we might expect for inert matter.  Not surprisingly, that points us to photosynthesis.

For comparison, we should consider what happens when sunlight interacts with ordinary inert matter.  Consider a particle of light, a photon, traveling from the sun to earth.  That trip takes about 8 minutes.  The peak energy emission from the sun is propagated by photons in the green color range with a wavelength about .5 micrometers.  For comparison, the width of a human hair is about 25 micrometers or 50 times larger.

When the photon strikes a surface and is absorbed, it will cause the molecules to vibrate slightly faster resulting in heat.  Over the course of a day, the direct sunlight will heat up materials significantly.  But at night, the heated material will cool by emitting infrared photons.  If the heated material is about 70 degrees Fahrenheit, the emitted radiation will have a wavelength of approximately 10 micrometers.  The emitted wavelength is about 20 times longer than the sunlight arriving from the sun, so it will require about 20 times as many photons to dissipate the same energy as was absorbed.  The increased number of photons required to dissipate the sun’s energy results in an increase in entropy.

Now, what happens when a photon of sunlight is absorbed by the chlorophyll in a plant?  First of all, some of the highest energy photons are reflected because chlorophyll is green and therefore reflects green light.  Chlorophyll does not absorb green light, but strongly absorbs blue and red light.  The real surprise is that the transport of the blue or red photon through the Chlorophyll molecules is done with near 100% efficiency.  Virtually no energy is lost as heat.  I wrote about this capability in a previous post (see https://quantumveil.wordpress.com/2012/03/06/quantum-coherence-in-photosynthesis/).  I overstated the efficiency in that post since I included food production, but the essential point is that the transport of the photon’s energy from initial point of contact in the chloroplast to a molecular structure called the “reaction center” is accomplished without heat loss.  The reaction center is where the process of using sunlight energy to convert water and carbon dioxide into food begins.

The experiments that have been done to confirm this photosynthetic process also show that the efficient conduction of sunlight to the reaction center is associated with quantum coherence.  The strong implication is that quantum coherence assists the lossless transfer of energy to the right location for food production.  Without such effects, the normal expectation would be for some of the sunlight energy to escape as heat energy.  By keeping the chlorophyll as cool as possible, the chlorophyll is able to efficiently convert sun energy into food.  That keeps entropy low.  There are other processes that aid in cooling as well, but the evidence for quantum coherence in this process is a significant fact.

Because quantum coherence is involved in the transport of sunlight energy in photosynthesis, it is not out of the question that it is involved in other life processes.  All biochemical reactions involve both photons and electrons, the key components of quantum process.  The overall conversion of sunlight into food involves a local decrease of entropy.  Water is split apart to form hydrogen and oxygen and the hydrogen combines with the carbon from the carbon dioxide to make carbohydrates for food.  This is a concentration of energy and an increase in order that can be described as negative entropy.  It does not violate the law of increasing entropy because entropy rises elsewhere to compensate.  But the local decrease in entropy means a great deal to life processes.  Without the sugars and oxygen that plants produce, life on earth as we know it would not be possible.  We should all thank a plant for its miracle of negative entropy.

Analysts of the photosynthesis / quantum coherence experiments have described the phenomenon as a kind of quantum calculation.  Continuing with the computer analogy, any calculation, if it is to be useful, requires the result to be reported.  In the case of photosynthesis, the “report” is an actual decision on the path the photon should take to its destination.  I have generalized this understanding: any transfer of energy requires a decision by the universe.  That decision process is not random.  Energy must be conserved.  Momentum must be conserved.  Charge must be conserved.  Even quantum states must be preserved if the same state is measured again.  In the case of photosynthesis, there may be multiple paths to the reaction center, but it would not matter which path is chosen as long as the chosen path did not result in heat loss.  This is what I mean by “not random.”  There is uncertainty but not randomness.  Pure randomness results in increased entropy and all living organisms rely on an inherent ability to reduce or conserve entropy, or minimize entropy increase.

The best current theory is that quantum coherence enables calculations regarding the energy landscape of the molecules involved.  In photosynthesis, the thinking is that quantum coherence allows the photon to follow a “downhill” energy path to the reaction center.  This would strongly imply that quantum coherence makes calculations about the laws of physics.  We shall see more evidence of this type when we cover the phenomenon called “protein folding” where biological proteins fold into a shape that minimizes their energy.  I am using computer terminology because this is possibly the best way for people to think about the power of rational agency.  But, like any analogy, it can be stretched too far.

What kind of power could be responsible for this type of activity?  I think the evidence points to a rational power that transcends time and space.    I describe it as transcending space and time because quantum phenomenon is non-local:  it instantly affects widely disbursed particles.  The non-local properties of quantum theory have been established by several tests.  One such experiment was Alain Aspect’s 1981 test of Einstein’s EPR paradox in which Einstein attempted to show that quantum theory was incomplete.  He described the phenomenon, which he clearly thought was impossible, as “spooky action at a distance.”  Another recent test confirmed John Archibald Wheeler’s delayed choice experiment.  This 2007 test was also performed by a French team that included Alain Aspect.  The tests performed by the French teams were done using polarized light photons, but the results have been confirmed by additional experiments.

Since both the quantum phenomenon and the tests are complicated, perhaps the best way for me to describe the results is through analogy.  Let’s recall the ability of electricity to flow without resistance through a wire that has been cooled to near absolute zero.  Recall that under these special conditions, two electrons with opposite spin associate with each other and form a composite particle that has boson-like properties.  The composite particle, called a Cooper pair, can act like a boson in sense that that the pairs of electrons prefer to be in the same state as other Cooper pairs.  That means that the Cooper pair of electrons can be in a coherent state with other pairs and can move synchronously through the conductor.  The two electrons in a Cooper pair are called “entangled.”

Now, imagine that we can separate the entangled pair of electrons without disturbing their entangled state.  Progress has been made on actually performing this trick.  One of the quantum rules is that the spins must be in opposite direction, even after separation.  Suppose that a measurement of spin is done on one of the two electrons.  That measurement will cause the other electron to immediately jump to the opposite spin direction.  That will always happen, no matter what direction is chosen.  According to quantum theory, this will happen no matter how far the electrons are separated, though in the experiments with photons, the photons are generally only separated by a few meters.

This quantum trick is like a magician who puts three colored balls into one box and three balls of a different color into a second box.  Let’s say he puts a red, green and white ball into box one and he puts a blue, yellow and black ball into box two.  The boxes are separated; maybe even placed in different rooms, or even at great distance from each other.  A ball is drawn at random from box one and a ball is drawn at random from box two.  In every case, if a red ball is drawn from box one then a blue ball is drawn from box two; if a green ball is chosen from box one then the yellow ball comes out of box two; similarly for the white and black ball.  Every time the trick is performed, the ball drawn from box one appears to cause a particular ball to be drawn from box two.  Imagine the same trick with 100 balls or 1000 balls; that is the power of quantum entanglement.

Entangled particles have the power to instantly communicate a change in state to other particles.  This communication can cover great distances and occurs instantaneously.  This has led some to claim that the instantaneous communication violates the spirit of relativity.  While there is some truth to that claim, it is nevertheless impossible to use this quantum ability to instantaneously communicate to actually send a coded message.  Causality is not violated.  This appears to be another situation where the universe has an apparent ability to bypass causality, but we are prevented from using that ability to alter history.

Nor can we claim that entanglement is a rare event.  It is the norm.  This has led some to say that the entire universe is entangled.  I don’t know if that can ever be confirmed, but if entanglement can affect particles a few meters apart, then it can certainly affect biological molecules at much closer range.

This is why I think that scientific evidence supports a conclusion that a decisional, rational power is at work in the universe, a power that is conducive to life.  That power is at work in every transfer of energy because a decision must be made as to which of the quantum possibilities will be chosen.  That decision is not random; it follows certain well established rules that are the foundation of physics.  The best characterization of the decision process is that it is a quantum calculation.  It appears random to us because we do not and cannot know all the variables that affect any given particle.  In particular, we cannot know all the quantum entanglements by which any given particle is constrained.  I think this is the best explanation as to how life and consciousness can develop from ordinary matter: protons, neutrons, electrons and photons.  There is no alternative explanation as to how the forces of electromagnetism, the strong and weak forces, and gravity can accomplish the amazing reduction in entropy that exists in living organisms.

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Quantum Coherence in Photosynthesis

Human beings are profoundly affected by quantum physics.  I have asserted this in my previous post and have used this as evidence for God who is an intelligent power behind the Quantum Veil.  So, what is the actual scientific evidence that such quantum effects occur in living organisms?  The most striking evidence to date comes from analysis of plant photosynthesis.  The amazing thing about plant photosynthesis is that it converts sunlight into food with almost 100% efficiency.  The theoretical limit for currently designed solar panels is about 40% efficiency. The solar panels that you can buy and put on your roof do no better than 15% efficiency.  In this case, learning how nature does this remarkable conversion of sunlight could help us solve our energy problem.  Go outside on a hot summer day and feel a leaf from a typical tree.  It will feel cool to the touch when other things in direct sunlight such as concrete, metal, and wood planks will feel hot.

The evidence for quantum effects during photosynthesis was published in 2007 in the Journal Nature (“Evidence for wavelike energy transfer through quantum coherence in photosynthetic systems”, G. S. Engel, et. al., Vol. 446, page 782, 12 April, 2007).  This work was done by a team at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.  The reason that the efficiency is so high in living plants is that the entire process of transmitting sunlight energy inside the leaf takes place while that energy remains in a quantum state.  This is remarkable because there are many steps in the transmission of energy that had previously been thought to require an energy hopping scheme for transmission.  Quantum transmission is inherently more efficient than predicted by the energy hopping theory.

Photosynthesis takes place in two stages within Chloroplasts which are one part of some plant cells in the leaf.  Stage one is the light harvesting phase where sunlight energy is gathered by chlorophyll molecules.  Stage one takes place within Thylakoids inside the Chloroplasts and there are two main parts: the light harvesting antenna which gathers sunlight energy and a reaction center which initiates the chemical conversion of water and carbon dioxide into plant food.  Stage two is initiated by stage one and is the chemical production of plant sugars for food.  Stage two is fueled by energy in the form of free electrons from stage one and takes place in the body (Soma) of the Chloroplast.  Stage one is sometimes called the light phase and stage two, the dark phase.

Chlorophyll is the primary molecule used during stage one of photosynthesis.  This molecule has different types, each of which is sensitive to a broad spectrum of light color.  Overall, chlorophyll is more sensitive to the blue and red colors than to green and therefore green light is reflected, giving leaves their characteristic green color.  (An interesting side note is that when deciduous trees shed their leaves in the fall season, the color change is due to the absence of the green Chlorophyll which has been shielding the underlying colors during the growth season.  Leaves don’t really change color so much as reveal existing colors already present.)  Sunlight comes as a mixture of different colors, from low energy red to high energy violet; green is in the middle.

The light harvesting antenna inside the Thylakoids are densely packed Chlorophyll molecules embedded in protein scaffolding.  When a photon of sunlight energy is captured by the light harvesting antenna, it must be transported to the reaction center where it can initiate the conversion of water and carbon dioxide into plant food.  The main theory for the transport process prior to evidence for quantum coherence was based on Forster resonance energy transfer (FRET) theory.  The Forster-based theory proposed that the photon energy randomly hopped from chlorophyll molecule to chlorophyll molecule until it reached the reaction center.  This was a semi-classical description with few quantum effects because it had usually been supposed that quantum coherence could not last long enough in living systems for the complete transmission.

All that changed in 2006 when the Lawrence Berkeley team used advanced microscopy technology to capture data that unambiguously demonstrated long-lived quantum coherence in biological systems.  The actual experiments were performed on a popular target of research named the FMO (Fenna-Matthews-Olson) complex.  Although the initial experiments were done at cryogenic temperatures (77 degrees Kelvin), they were soon replicated, with little loss of quantum coherence, at room temperature (300 degrees Kelvin).  In these experiments, quantum coherence lasted up to 1 picosecond (one trillionth of a second), about 20 times longer than usually assumed for these biological systems.  (The original press release from the Lawrence-Berkeley Labs can be found here: http://www.lbl.gov/Science-Articles/Archive/PBD-quantum-secrets.html).

The demonstration of long-lived quantum coherence in plant photosynthesis proves it is possible for living system to make use of quantum effects.  It is still an active area of research how quantum effects lead to high efficiency of sunlight conversion.  But there is sufficient confidence in these findings that projects exploring artificial photosynthesis have been funded with the hope that one day we will have high efficiency solar power.

Plant life and animal life are the two main categories of life on earth.  Plants definitely use quantum effects to their evolutionary advantage when they convert sunlight into food.  It has been proposed that animal life also makes use of quantum effects through the ubiquitous microtubules.  While this has not been conclusively demonstrated, why wouldn’t evolution make use of every benefit at its disposal?

Quantum theory predicts some very remarkable characteristics such as entanglement, energy tunneling, and multiple state superposition.  These are all counter-intuitive properties.  Albert Einstein called quantum entanglement “spooky action at a distance”.  Energy tunneling allows particles to penetrate a so-called “impenetrable barrier.”   And quantum state superposition allows a particle to be in more than one place at a time. Superposition is the principle behind Schrodinger’s cat paradox, where Schrodinger’s pet cat is inside a box with a mechanism for dispensing poison that is triggered by a single particle.  Since it cannot be determined from outside the box whether the poison has been released, the cat is presumed to be in a superposition state of both alive and dead until the box is opened and the cat is actually observed.

There is a fascinating book on the strange and mysterious properties of quantum physics.  It is titled Quantum Enigma: Physics Encounters Consciousness, by Bruce Rosenblum and Fred Kuttner (Oxford University Press, 2006).  This book is written for the layperson and uses written narrative rather than mathematics to describe the strange quantum world.  Science cannot explain consciousness, but the study of quantum physics leads inexorably to an encounter with the nature of consciousness.  There are undoubtedly many surprises awaiting our discovery and we may find that the quantum world is the source of our remarkable experience of consciousness.

Transitions

In September of 2007, I published my review of the Penrose-Hameroff theory of consciousness that was based on quantum coherence in biological cells via microtubules.  At that time there was still significant controversy over the Penrose argument.  Roger Penrose had published numerous answers to challenges by critics and I realized at that time (2007) that there was controversy over how rigorously certain parts of the logic could be applied, particularly the Gödel-Turing argument.  I still think the Penrose-Hameroff approach is valid, but, like some other positions taken within the scientific community, it is based on some assumptions about the nature of the universe that may never be provable.

I am referring to an essay by Dr. Alan Lightman titled, “The Accidental Universe: Science’s Crisis of Faith” (Harper’s, December, 2011).  In this article, Dr. Lightman describes the multiverse model of creation and its allure.  The attraction of the multiverse model is based on the observation that many physical constants needed to describe the universe appear to be fine-tuned for the existence of life.  This situation has led some scientists, for example, Francis Collins, to see “the hands of a creator” in the existence of life.  Many scientists are uncomfortable with such statements.

The multiverse model of creation counters the fine-tuning argument by positing an infinite number of random universes, the vast majority of which have no life because the physical constants are not conducive to life.  This model also has some uncomfortable repercussions.  One issue is that there appears to be no way to prove that such a multiverse creation exists. Another issue is that the multiverse model absolutely devastates the current approach to theoretical physics by attributing the mathematical model for our universe to random chance.  There may be no grand unified theory because there is no necessity for coherence: “If the multiverse idea is correct, then the historic mission of physics to explain all the properties of our universe in terms of fundamental principles—to explain why the properties of our universe must necessarily be what they are—is futile, a beautiful philosophical dream that simply isn’t true.”  I stand with those who see the work of a creator in the design of our one universe.

The Penrose-Hameroff theory of consciousness may well require some worldview assumptions that are not provable.  One would be something like objective realism, where one takes the position that the collapse of the wave function in quantum physics is a real phenomenon.  That is Penrose’s position and his basis for the Objective Reduction theory (OR).  I don’t know whether OR will be proven, but it seems to me that something like it would be necessary for objective realism.  It is possible that the conditions for OR will remain hidden behind the Quantum Veil, and that we will need to assume objective realism as a premise in order to make sense of our universe.

For me, there are several interrelated questions of primary importance.  The first question concerns the nature and existence of a creator.  Another question concerns the direction of evolution.  The third question concerns whether consciousness in inherent in the universe or whether it emerges from complex information processing.  My background is software development and engineering.  I have spent 36 years designing, developing, testing and maintaining complex software systems.  Some of that work included research into design of AI (Artificial Intelligence) components.  All of my experience in software development tells me that consciousness will not emerge from programming techniques on traditional computers, and that is consistent with the Gödel-Turing argument put forth by Roger Penrose.  I will leave open for now the question of whether quantum computers can be conscious. (Some would view the brain as a complex quantum computer designed by evolution).  So, on the third question, I stand with those who think that the basis for consciousness is inherent in the universe, not something added on through complex information processing.

On the question of evolution’s direction, the evidence points toward the creation of beings of higher consciousness.  One view is that the direction towards higher consciousness is accidental but is based on the rules for natural selection.  This appears to be the view of Daniel Dennett.  It is interesting to me that Dennett holds the view that certain areas of intellectual activity could be transcendent.  Dennett is a cognitive scientist and an atheist, yet has said in an interview with Robert Wright that mathematics and even ethics may be areas subject to a platonic kind of transcendence.  I presume that the area of theoretical physics could be included as an area of transcendence.  If there are rigorous, explicit rules for natural selection, I presume they could be treated likewise.  So the deeper question about evolution and about physics is where do the rules come from?   If one accepts the multiverse model of creation, then the rules are a product of random chance and the apparent order or logic of the rules is a byproduct of the anthropic principle.  That is, because we are the product of our universe, our consciousness has evolved to ‘see’ the order and logic in the universe. I have already stated that I do not buy into the multiverse model, so it should be no surprise that I think that the platonic, transcendent areas are an expression of directionality for the universe and for evolution.  (By the way, the interview of Dennett can be found at http://link.brightcove.com/services/player/bcpid713544743?bctid=715977787).

When I look at all the relevant evidence, I see the work of the creator in the design and direction of the universe.  The evidence for me resides in the cumulative effect of these statements:  1) The assumption of one universe and an objective realism point of view; 2) The one universe has been designed for life by virtue of the finely-tuned physical constants which are conducive to life; 3) The one universe can be viewed as a conscious whole by virtue of quantum physics; 4) The universe itself is instrumental in the activity of life and consciousness through the action of quantum physics on biological molecules; 5) Evolution has direction by virtue of a conscious universe and a corollary is that history has direction and life has purpose; 6) Transcendent realms of knowledge and understanding such as mathematics, ethics, theoretical physics, and so forth are real and lead to real productive activities.  I also explicitly deny any portion of the logical positivist point of view which states that the only real entities are those that can be measured: consciousness is real; self-consciousness is real; God is real.  In summary, the one universe in which we have been created literally yearns for life and consciousness.

Yes, there are “leaps of faith” in the chain of reasoning that I use.  I think that such leaps are necessary in order to make sense of our world and our lives.  I understand that other people will view reality differently.  Others will look at the same data and see accidentalness where I see purpose.  If that accidentalness comes from the multiverse model, then I think that point of view does real harm to certain transcendent-linked activities like theoretical physics.  It remains to be addressed whether there might be any moral or personal repercussions from such points of view.  I hope to address those concerns in later writings.

I will also explicitly point out that the characteristics of such a creator as I have outlined above do not necessarily include any supernatural interventions in history.  The expression of God’s intervention in history is implicit in life and consciousness.  I would view the physical laws of the universe as a kind of covenant with all of life.  I would also point out that “life and consciousness” can be quite broadly defined.  For example, the Gaia hypothesis views the entire life ecosystem of earth as a kind of unified consciousness.  I am not prepared at this point to be any more specific about these definitions.  Furthermore, my view of God raises many questions that cannot be easily answered except through faith such as: is there an eternal soul?  At this point all I can say is that the quantum world is very strange and that it is not supernatural.

Now, let me turn to the second reason for this essay.  In late 2007 after struggling with these issues of creation and purpose in the universe, my life took a dramatic and unexpected turn.  My wife and I had been attending a Unitarian Universalist congregation and we had raised our children under the UU banner.  In the fall of 2007, we decided to explore the faith tradition of our youth.  This was not just an ordinary decision, but, as my wife put it, “it was an offer we couldn’t refuse!”  It was a decision that surprised both of us.  My wife had been raised within Judaism and I had been raised in a Christian non-denominational church.  I chose Methodism in my youth, so I began attending a local Methodist church.  We also decided to participate in each other’s faith tradition as much as practical.  I participated in Torah study and some Jewish worship services and my wife sometimes attended my Methodist Sunday school and worship service.  All this began in earnest in late 2007 although some exploration of these new activities had already transpired previously.

The real surprise and shock for both of us was how much anti-Judaism was still present in Christian worship and study.  Let me be clear: there was no overt racial antisemitism, but there were statements of negativity towards the Jews of antiquity.  What became painfully clear was that Christianity as it was being practiced in the 21st century still relied on the ancient tradition and polemic of anti-Judaism.  I could not recognize this at first because the traditional Christian narrative had become so ingrained in my consciousness. But my wife could recognize this dynamic and we discussed it between us and also with others and I began to see that the Christian narrative contained significant elements of anti-Judaism.  This conclusion was supported by many books and articles.  For the next four years we studied and explored this phenomenon as a faith and justice issue within Christianity.  For my part, I recognized no pattern of anti-Christianity within Judaism.

It is perhaps fortuitous or maybe even providential that I had arrived at some theological understanding that viewed God in general terms as opposed to a sectarian view which would have made interfaith dialog very difficult.

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.