Henry Stapp:

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(Copyright © 1999 Piero Scaruffi | Legal restrictions - Termini d'uso )

This book collects several essays in which the American physicist Henry Stapp tackles the mind-body problem from the viewpoint of Quantum Theory. In accord with Whitehead and Von Neumann, and Heisenberg's event-based interpretation of Quantum Theory, Stapp's thesis is that reality is created by consciousness, as consciousness causes the collapse of the wave function that in turn causes reality to "occur".
Stapp's quest is for the primal stuff from which both mind and matter originated, or a "quantum theory of consciousness". Classical Physics cannot explain consciousness because it cannot explain how the whole can be more than the parts. Stapp's theory of consciousness is therefore based on Quantum Mechanics. He believes in Heisenberg's ontology: only waves and events really exist. Reality is a sequence of collapses of wave functions, i.e. of quantum discontinuities. He even draws parallels with William James's view of the mental life as "experienced sense objects". The universe is represented by one huge wave function. The collapse of any part of it gives rise to an event. The collapse of a part of the wave function for the brain is the formation of an idea. Mental life is made of events in the brain.
An updated view is presented in his lectures, as follows.
Stapp's "quantum theory of consciousness" is based on Heisenberg's interpretation of Quantum Mechanics (that reality is a sequence of collapses of wave functions, i.e. of quantum discontinuities). He observes that this view is similar to William James's view of the mental life as "experienced sense objects".
His view harks back to the heydays of Quantum Theory, when it was clear to its founders that "science is what we know". Science specifies rules that connect bits of knowledge. Each of us is a "knower" and our joint knowledge of the universe is the subject of Science. According to this "pragmatic" view, Quantum Theory was therefore a "knowledge-based" discipline.
Von Neumann introduced an "ontological" approach to this knowledge-based discipline. Stapp describes Von Neumann's view of Quantum Theory through a simple definition: "the state of the universe is an objective compendium of subjective knowings". This statement describes the fact that the state of the universe is represented by a wave function which is a compendium of all the wave functions that each of us can cause to collapse with her or his observations. That is why it is a collection of subjective acts, although an objective one.
Stapp follows the logical consequences of this approach and achieves a new form of idealism: all that exists is that subjective knowledge, therefore the universe is now about matter, it is about subjective experience. Quantum Theory does not talk about matter, it talks about our perceiving matter. Stapp rediscovers George Berkeley's idealism: we only know our perceptions (observations).
Stapp's model of consciousness is tripartite. Reality is a sequence of discrete events in the brain. Each event is an increase of knowledge. That knowledge comes from observing "systems". Each event is driven by three processes that operate together:
  • The "Schroedinger process" is a mechanical, deterministic, process that predicts the state of the system (in a fashion similar to Newton's Physics: given its state at a given time, we can use equations to calculate its state at a different time). The only difference is that Schroedinger's equations describe the state of a system as a set of possibilities, rather than just one certainty.
  • The "Heisenberg process" is a conscious choice that we make: the formalism of Quantum Theory implies that we can know something only when we ask Nature a question. This implies, in turn, that we have a degree of control over Nature. Depending on which question we ask, we can affect the state of the universe. Stapp mentions the Quantum Zeno effect, as a well known process in which we can alter the course of the universe by asking questions (it is the phenomenon by which a system is "freezed" if we keep observing the same observable very rapidly). We have to make a conscious decision about which question to ask Nature (which observable to observe). Otherwise nothing is going to happen.
  • The "Dirac process" gives the answer to our question. Nature replies, and, as far as we can tell, the answer is totally random. Once Nature has replied, we have learned something: we have increased our knowledge. This is a change in the state of the universe, which directly corresponds to a change in the state of our brain. Technically, there occurs a reduction of the wave function compatible with the fact that has been learned.
Stapp's interpretation of Quantum Theory is that there are many knowers. Each knower's act of knowledge (each individual increment of knowledge) results in a new state of the universe. One person's increment of knowledge changes the state of the entire universe, and, of course, it changes it for everybody else. Quantum Theory is not about the behavior of matter, but about our knowledge of such behavior.
"Thinking" is a sequence of events of knowing, driven by those three processes.
Instead of dualism or materialism, one is faced with a sort of interactive "triality", all aspects of which are actually mind-like:
The physical aspect of Nature (the Schroedinger equation) is a compendium of subjective knowledge. The conscious act of asking a question is what drives the actual transition from one state to another, i.e. the evolution of the universe. And then there is a choice from the outside, the reply of Nature, which, as far as we can tell, is random.
Stapp's conclusions somehow mirror the ideas of the American psychiatrist Jeffrey Schwarz, who is opposed to the mechanistic approach of Psychiatry and emphasizes the power of consciousness to control the brain.

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