The Nature of Consciousness

Piero Scaruffi

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These are excerpts and elaborations from my book "The Nature of Consciousness"

Quantizing the Mind

The pioneer of “quantum consciousness” theories was the Ukrainian chemist Alfred Lotka, who in 1924, when Quantum Theory was still in its infancy, proposed that the mind controls the brain by modulating the quantum jumps that would otherwise lead to a completely random existence.

The first detailed quantum model of consciousness was probably the US physicist Evan Walker's synaptic tunneling model (“The Nature of Consciousness”, 1970), in which electrons can "tunnel" between adjacent neurons, thereby creating a virtual neural network overlapping the real one. It is, Walker claims, this virtual nervous system that, according to Walker, produces consciousness and that can direct the behavior of the real nervous system.

Walker views consciousness as a different domain of discourse from matter, but, at the same time, recognizes that it is affected by matter: therefore,  there must be a way that consciousness and the material world can interact. In particular, the nature of consciousness must be such that it is directly related to events in the brain. Walker based his theory on two postulates: 1.  Consciousness is real and nonphysical; and 2. Physical reality is connected to consciousness by a physically fundamental quantity. Walker believes that the quantum tunneling effect satisfies both postulates. He can even write the equation for consciousness (the number of electrons that, thanks to the tunneling effect, manage to connect two active synapses). As a result, the observer of Quantum Physics turns out to be a quantum system herself.

Consciousness is the set of potentialities created by the tunneling effect across the brain. But only a portion of that set becomes reality, as only some potentialities are realized when the wave function collapses at the synapsis. Walker uses that subset to define another mental quantity: "will". Our will is distinct from our consciousness in that our consciousness contains all the possibilities, whereas our will is only what actually happens (what the body actually does).

Following the Hungarian physicist Eugene Wigner, Walker proposes to add a term to Schroedinger’s equation that would make it nonlinear and that would explain what causes the collapse of the wave: a measurement of information. This term, that basically expresses the transfer of information that takes place with the wave's collapse, would disappear once the measurement is performed. Basically, this term would signal the presence of the observer. By introducing the same “information term” in Dirac’s  equation, Walker derives another possible interpretation: reality is consciousness observing itself. Dirac’s equation becomes simply the equation of  an observer observing.

The “real” nervous system operates by means of synaptic messages. The virtual one operates by means of the quantum effect of tunneling (particles passing through an energy barrier that classically they should not be able to climb). The real one is driven by classical laws; the virtual one by quantum laws. Consciousness is, therefore, driven by quantum laws, even though the brain's behavior can be described by classical laws.

Walker interprets Einstein's four-dimensional space-time as time plus an ordering of events that were probable but did not happen (something that we call "space"). The only thing that exists, ultimately, is the observer, who consciously experiences her complement. The sequence of conscious experiences is time, and the set of possible events is space. The universe is the observer observing.

Later theories share with Walker’s the view that the brain "instantiates" not one but two systems: a classical one and a quantum one; the second one being responsible for the properties of mental life (such as consciousness) that are not easily reduced to the properties of the classical brain.

The British neurologist John Eccles speculated that synapses in the cortex respond in a probabilistic manner to neural excitation (“Do Mental Events Cause Neural Events Analogously To The Probability Fields Of Quantum Mechanics?”, 1986). That probability might well be governed by quantum uncertainty given the extremely small size of the synapsis' microscopic organ that emits the neurotransmitter. Eccles speculates that an immaterial mind (in the form of "psychons") controls the quantum "jumps" and turns them into voluntary excitations of the neurons that account for body motion.

Drawing from Quantum Mechanics and from Bertrand Russell's idea that consciousness provides a kind of "window" onto the brain, the philosopher Michael Lockwood advanced a theory of consciousness as a process of perception of brain states. First he noted that Special Relativity implies that mental states must be physical states (mental states must be in space given that they are in time). Then Lockwood interpreted the role of the observer in Quantum Mechanics as the role of consciousness in the physical world (as opposed to a simple interference with the system being observed). Lockwood argued that sensations must be intrinsic attributes of physical states of the brain: in quantum lingo, each observable attribute (e.g., each sensation) corresponds to an observable of the brain. Consciousness scans the brain to look for sensations. It does not create them: it just seeks them.

There are also models of consciousness that invoke other dimensions.  The unification theories that attempt at unifying General Relativity (i.e. gravitation) and Quantum Theory (i.e., the weak, electrical and strong forces) typically add new dimensions to the four ones we experience. These dimensions differ from space in that they are bound (actually, rolled up in tiny tubes) and in that they only exist for changes to occur in particle properties.  The hyperspace of the US physicist Saul-Paul Sirag, for example ("Consciousness - A Hyperspace View", 1993), contains many physical dimensions and many “mental” dimensions (time is one of the dimensions that they have in common).


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