Consciousness in the Universe

The Universe May Be Conscious, Prominent Scientists State

Article Image
Net of Being. Alex Grey.

What consciousness is and where it emanates from has stymied great minds in societies across the globe since the dawn of speculation. In today’s world, it’s a realm tackled more and more by physicists, cognitive scientists, and neuroscientists. There are a few prevailing theories. The first is materialism. This is the notion that consciousness emanates from matter, in our case, by the firing of neurons inside the brain.

Take the brain out of the equation and consciousness doesn’t exist at all. Traditionally, scientists have been stalwart materialists. But doing so has caused them to slam up against the limitations of materialism. Consider the chasm between relativity and quantum mechanics, or Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, and you quickly start to recognize these incongruities.

The second theory is mind-body dualism. This is perhaps more often recognized in religion or spirituality. Here, consciousness is separate from matter. It is a part of another aspect of the individual, which in religious terms we might call the soul. Then there’s a third option which is gaining ground in some scientific circles, panpsychism. In this view, the entire universe is inhabited by consciousness.

A handful of scientists are starting to warm to this theory, but it’s still a matter of great debate. Truth be told, panpsychism sounds very much like what the Hindus and Buddhists call the Brahman, the tremendous universal Godhead of which we are all a part. In Buddhism for instance, consciousness is the only thing that exists.

Such is the focus of the famous Zen koan, “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” One must come to the realization that everything we experience is filtered through and interpreted by our mind. Without it, the universe doesn’t exist at all or at least, not without some sort of consciousness observing it. In some physics circles, the prevailing theory is some kind of proto-consciousness field.

Is consciousness derived from an invisible field that inhabits our universe? Getty Images.

In quantum mechanics, particles don’t have a definite shape or specific location, until they are observed or measured. Is this a form of proto-consciousness at play? According to the late scientist and philosopher, John Archibald Wheeler, it might. He’s famous for coining the term, “black hole.” In his view, every piece of matter contains a bit of consciousness, which it absorbs from this proto-consciousness field.

He called his theory the “participatory anthropic principle,” which posits that a human observer is key to the process. Of this Wheeler said, “We are participators in bringing into being not only the near and here but the far away and long ago.” In his view, much like the Buddhist one, nothing exists unless there is a consciousness to apprehend it.

Neuroscientist Christof Koch of the Allen Institute for Brain Science, is another supporter of panpsychism. Koch says that the only theory we have to date about consciousness is, it’s a level of awareness about one’s self and the world. Biological organisms are conscious because when they approach a new situation, they can change their behavior in order to navigate it, in this view. Dr. Koch is attempting to see if he can measure the level of consciousness an organism contains.

He’ll be running some animal experiments. In one, he plans to wire the brains of two mice together. Will information eventually flow between the two? Will their consciousness at some point become one fused, integrated system? If these experiments are successful, he may wire up the brains of two humans.

UK physicist Sir Roger Penrose is yet another supporter of panpsychism. Penrose in the 80’s proposed that consciousness is present at the quantum level and resides in the synapses of the brain. He is famous for linking consciousness with some of the goings on in quantum mechanics.

Dr. Penrose doesn’t go so far as to call himself a panpsychist. In his view, “The laws of physics produce complex systems, and these complex systems lead to consciousness, which then produces mathematics, which can then encode in a succinct and inspiring way the very underlying laws of physics that gave rise to it.”

In Buddhism consciousness emanates from the brain. Neuroscientists agree. Getty Images.

Veteran physicist Gregory Matloff of the New York City College of Technology, says he has some preliminary evidence showing that, at the very least, panpsychism isn’t impossible. Hey, it’s a start. Dr. Matloff told NBC News, “It’s all very speculative, but it’s something we can check and either validate or falsify.”

Theoretical physicist Bernard Haisch, in 2006, suggested that consciousness is produced and transmitted through the quantum vacuum, or empty space. Any system that has sufficient complexity and creates a certain level of energy, could generate or broadcast consciousness. Dr. Matloff got in touch with the unorthodox, German physicist and proposed an observational study, to test it.

What they examined was Parenago’s Discontinuity. This is the observation that cooler stars, like our own sun, revolve around the center of the Milky Way faster than hotter ones. Some scientists attribute this to interactions with gas clouds. Matloff took a different view. He elaborated in a recently published piece, in the Journal of Consciousness Exploration and Research.

Unlike their hotter sisters, cooler stars may move faster due to “the emission of a uni-directional jet.” Such stars emit a jet early on in their creation. Matloff suggests that this could be an instance of the star consciously manipulating itself, in order to gain speed.

Observational data shows a reliable pattern anywhere Parenago’s Discontinuity is witnessed. If it were a matter of interacting with gas clouds, as is the current theory, each cloud should have a different chemical makeup, and so cause the star to operate differently. So why do all of them act in exactly the same way?

Jets out of cooler stars may be a conscious act. Wikipedia Commons.

Though it isn’t much to go on, the unveiling of the European Space Agency’s Gaia space telescope, whose mission it is to map stars, may provide more data to further support or weaken this view. On another front, Dr. Matloff posits that the presence of a proto-consciousness field could serve as a replacement for dark matter.

Dark matter supposedly makes up around 95% of the universe, although, scientists can’t seem to find any. So, for the sake of argument, if consciousness is a property that arises on the subatomic level with a confluence of particles, how do these tiny little bits of consciousness coalesce?

Neuroscientist and psychiatrist Giulio Tononi, at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, proposes a slightly different take on panpsychism, called integrated information theory. Here, consciousness is a manifestation with a real, physical location, somewhere in the universe. We just haven’t found it yet. Perhaps this heavenly body radiates out consciousness as our sun radiates light and heat.

Dr. Tononi has actually puts forth a metric for measuring how much consciousness a thing has. The unit is called phi. This translates into how much control a being can enact over itself or objects around it. The theory separates intelligence from consciousness, which some people assume are one in the same.

Take AI for example. It can already beat humans in all kinds of tasks. But it has no will of its own. A supercomputer which can enact change in the world outside of a programmer’s commands, would therefore be conscious. Many futurists from Ray Kurzweil to Elon Musk believe that day is coming, perhaps in the next decade or so, and that we should prepare.


Consciousness as Quantum Effect

Could Quantum Brain Effects Explain Consciousness?

By Tanya Lewis, Staff Writer
Date: 27 June 2013
conceptual brain
 A controversial theory suggests the brain acts like a quantum computer.
CREDIT: Ase | Shutterstock

NEW YORK — The idea that consciousness arises from quantum mechanical phenomena in the brain is intriguing, yet lacks evidence, scientists say.

Physicist Roger Penrose, of the University of Oxford, and anesthesiologist Stuart Hameroff, of the University of Arizona, propose that the brain acts as a quantum computer — a computational machine that makes use of quantum mechanical phenomena (like the ability of particles to be in two places at once) to perform complex calculations. In the brain, fibers inside neurons could form the basic units of quantum computation, Penrose and Hameroff explained at the Global Future 2045 International Congress, a futuristic conference held here June 15-16.

The idea is appealing, because neuroscience, so far, has no satisfactory explanation for consciousness — the state of being self-aware and having sensory experiences and thoughts. But many scientists are skeptical, citing a lack of experimental evidence for the idea.

The Orch OR model

Penrose and Hameroff developed their ideas independently, but collaborated in the early 1990s to develop what they call the Orchestrated Objective Reduction (Orch OR) model.

Penrose’s work rests on an interpretation of the mathematician Kurt Godel’s incompleteness theorem, which states that certain results cannot be proven by a computer algorithm. Penrose argues that human mathematicians are capable of proving so-called “Godel-unprovable” results, and therefore human brains cannot be described as typical computers. Instead, he says, to achieve these higher abilities, brain processes must rely on quantum mechanics.

But Penrose’s theory didn’t explain how this quantum computing occurred inside actual brains, just that the phenomenon would be needed to solve certain mathematical equations. Hameroff read Penrose’s work and suggested small fibrous structures that give cells their structural support — known as microtubules — might be capable of carrying out quantum computations.

Microtubules are made up of units of the protein tubulin, which contains regions where electrons are swirling around very close to each other. Hameroff proposed that these electrons could become “quantum entangled,” a state in which two particles retain a connection, and an action performed on one affects the other, even when the two are separated by a distance.

In the Orch OR model, the mathematical probabilities that describe the quantum states of these entangled electrons in microtubules become unstable in space-time. These mathematical probabilities are called wave functions, and in this scenario they collapse, moving from a state of probability to a specific actuality. In this state, the microtubules in one neuron could be linked to those in other neurons via electrical connections known as gap junctions. These junctions would allow the electrons to “tunnel” to other regions of the brain, resulting in waves of neural activity that are perceived as conscious experience.

“Penrose had a mechanism for consciousness, and I had a structure,” Hameroff told LiveScience.

Problems with the model

Interesting as it sounds, the Orch OR model has not been tested experimentally, and many scientists reject it.

Quantum computers — computers that take advantage of quantum mechanical effects to achieve extremely speedy calculations — have been theorized, but only one (built by the company D-Wave) is commercially available, and whether it’s a true quantum computer is debated. Such computers would be extremely sensitive to perturbations in a system, which scientists refer to as “noise.” In order to minimize noise, it’s important to isolate the system and keep it very cold (because heat causes particles to speed up and generate noise).

Building quantum computers is challenging even under carefully controlled conditions. “This paints a desolate picture for quantum computation inside the wet and warm brain,” Christof Koch and Klaus Hepp, of the University of Zurich, Switzerland, wrote in an essay published in 2006 in the journal Nature.

Another problem with the model has to do with the timescales involved in the quantum computation. MIT physicist Max Tegmark has done calculations of quantum effects in the brain, finding that quantum states in the brain last far too short a time to lead to meaningful brain processing. Tegmark called the Orch OR model vague, saying the only numbers he’s seen for more concrete models are way off.

“Many people seem to feel that consciousness is a mystery and quantum mechanics is a mystery, so they must be related,” Tegmark told LiveScience.

The Orch OR model draws criticism from neuroscientists as well. The model holds that quantum fluctuations inside microtubules produce consciousness. But microtubules are also found in plant cells, said theoretical neuroscientist Bernard Baars, CEO of the nonprofit Society for Mind-Brain Sciences in Falls Church, VA., who added, “plants, to the best of our knowledge, are not conscious.”

These criticisms do not rule out quantum consciousness in principle, but without experimental evidence, many scientists remain unconvinced.

“If somebody comes up with just one single experiment,” to demonstrate quantum consciousness, Baars said, “I will drop all my skepticism.”

Editor’s Note: This article was updated on June 27, 2013 to amend the statement that “no quantum computers… have been realized.” The company D-Wave claims to have created one, though some have questioned whether it really performs as a quantum computer.