Sir Roger Penrose, whom I had the privilege to meet at the Institut Henri Poincaré, in Paris, in October 2015, is an English mathematical physicist, cosmologist, philosopher of science, and theorist of quantum consciousness. He is highly respected for his significant contributions to general relativity and cosmology and for his bold investigations of the foundational issues of science and the nature of consciousness. He has written many books, among them The Emperor’s New Mind, Shadows of the Mind, The Road to Reality, and, most recently, Cycles of Time : An Extraordinary New View of the Universe.
Here Sir Roger participates in a Q&A on the subject of consciousness.
Ion Soteropoulos. The ancient battle between materialists and idealists (rationalists) concerning the origin of consciousness has reemerged in the contemporary study of consciousness. Materialists claim that consciousness arises from the brain’s neural networks; idealists claim that consciousness – this sum total of internal (subjective) phenomena – is a fundamental entity that we experience immediately and with certainty and that the neural brain is the neural effect of our subjective consciousness.
What is your stance on this conflict ?
Roger Penrose. I don’t think my position comes under either heading you provide. If “materialist” means that consciousness comes about simply through some kind of computation performed by neural circuits, then I certainly don’t agree with that, although I do believe that consciousness is an effect of the physical processes that are involved. With regard to the idealist’s/rationalist’s position you refer to, I don’t think I understand it, and my position would appear to be rather different from either view stated. I think that it’s best that I leave my actual position to the end of all these questions, so you can tie it in in a way you think is most appropriate.
I.S. If you take the idealist or rationalist view and believe that consciousness is a fundamental entity in itself—one whose origin is not the neural brain but instead consciousness itself—would you then say that consciousness is similar to the physical universe: that is, a self-referential entity obeying the principle of self-origination or self-order (reflexive order, free order), which is essentially a principle of infinity and freedom ?
R.P. You may regard my view as “rationalist” in some sense, but I certainly see no resemblance to the description given here.
I.S. If consciousness is a fundamental entity of physical reality, and of vibrating atoms as well, would you conclude, with Ionian atomism (Thales, Democritus, Leucippus, for example), that consciousness is an immanent property of vibrating atoms? And conversely, does consciousness possess a mass? In other words, can we claim that matter and consciousness are two fundamental but equivalent entities of the self-originating physical universe made of vibrating atoms? If this is so, can we claim that the physical universe and any of its constituent parts have consciousness: that is, the awareness via thoughts and sensations of its own existence ?
R.P. Likewise, you might regard my view as having some resonance with the description you give, but I don’t in fact see any resemblance between this description and my own position.
I.S. We can have a computational model of our neuronal brain. Can we have a computational model of our consciousness ?
R.P. One of the key points of my own views is that whatever consciousness is, it is NOT a computation in any strict sense of the word.
I.S. What can consciousness do that the neural brain can’t ?
R.P. With regard to this question, I refer you to my descriptions at the end. If, for example, the “neural brain” is taken to be a computing machine, then it could not possess the quality of “understanding,” which is one manifestation of consciousness.
I.S. For some physicists, there is an absolute separation between our consciousness, which is a quantum phenomenon of our physical reality, and our neural brain, which is a neural phenomenon of our biological reality. For example, a fundamental property of atoms and photons is that of being in superposition of opposite states a and a’ (not-a). The philosophical principle behind quantum superposition is the synthetic principle of unity of opposites (coincidentia oppositorum), which stipulates that everything is both a and a¢ (not-a) similar to the spherical whole with its correlative opposite poles. This synthetic principle, which the ancient Greek Ionian philosopher Heraclitus called Physical Logos, governs the unifying activity of consciousness and infinite Nature. It is the basis for bringing unity into the diversity of phenomena, which we call conceptions and rules, and at the highest level for bringing unity into the diversity of conceptions and rules, which we call ideas and principles. Calculations made by physicists, however, demonstrate that quantum superposition is rapidly destroyed after about 10-19 of a second. This means that our neural brain operating at a time scale far greater than 10-19 s has no chance to experience superposition: the synthetic unity of opposites. In fact, what our neural brain experiences is decoherence: the impossibility of superposition and unity of opposites and the constraint to choose one of the alternative states, either a or a’, in conformity with the analytic principle of the excluded third.
Is there any way to bridge the separation between quantum physical consciousness and the neural brain? Can our neural brain directly experience and not merely think through consciousness the quantum complex superposition of opposites – of being both a and a’, here and there at once, and thus communicate instantaneously, universally, and spherically with any distant point in the universe at infinite and zero speeds ?
R.P. With regard to this question, my own view certainly requires the persistence of quantum effects at a much greater level much often argued by people who take the view that environmental decoherence will almost instantly destroy quantum-coherent effects in the brain. These calculations are always based on assumptions that are not relevant to the highly organized structures in many biological systems. For example, it is now known that photosynthesis does depend on quantum entanglements that would previously have been regarded as impossible by such arguments. With regard to the later parts of this question, I don’t see any need to invoke “thus communicate instantaneously, universally, and spherically with any distant point in the universe at infinite and zero speeds.”
As you can see from the above, I don’t see that my position on the production of consciousness in a living creature has much connection with the issues you raise in your questions. For a detailed description of the views I hold, developed in collaboration with my Arizona colleague, Stuart Hameroff, see S. Hameroff and R. Penrose (2014). “Consciousness in the universe: A review of the ‘Orch OR’ theory,” in Physics of Life Reviews (Elsevier) 11 (1), 39–78.
Because this is a long article, let me just give a short summary of our essential viewpoint. The argument is that consciousness arises through a certain physical process that is not currently part of a detailed physical theory and goes somewhat beyond our understanding of quantum mechanics. Current quantum mechanics is not a fully consistent theory because it involves twoprocedures that are mutually incompatible. One of these is the evolution of the quantum state according to the Schroedinger equation (unitary evolution) and the other is what is referred to as the measurement process.
I believe a strong case can be made that the measurement process is something that requires an extension of unitary evolution, which I refer to as OR (which stands for objective reduction of the quantum state). This OR process would be taking place all the time and occurs physically in a random way and is what is needed for the picture of a classical universe to come about, even though quantum processes are taking place all the time and involve superpositions of large numbers of alternatives. The OR process enables a single classical outcome to arise from a morass of quantum-superposed alternatives. We take OR to be the building block out of which consciousness is constructed and comes about when the OR ingredients are organized (we say orchestrated) in an appropriate way. The organization of the brain would be something that is able to orchestrate OR events (which would otherwise have been purely random) into the cognitive processes we refer to as conscious acts.
I.S. I would like to thank Sir Roger for taking the time to answer my questions, and hope we will be able to discuss more extensively the issue of measurement, or, more generally, the relationship between our finite analytic observation process and the real physical world.
© Apeiron Centre, January 2016