Quantum Consciousness

Posted on 5 August 2005

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What (if anything) does quantum physics have to do with consciousness? Does quantum physics provide a connection between mind and matter, or a mechanism for the mind to affect the physical world?

These are very controversial questions, and there is no consensus about the role of quantum physics in the relationship between mind and matter. Many physicists simply “shut up and calculate” (as Richard Feynman put it) and ignore the philosophical problems. But quantum physics does challenge our way of understanding reality.

The central problem is this: According to quantum physics, an unobserved physical system has various entangled properties, but when the system is observed only one of these properties is seen. This fundamental difference between observed systems and unobserved systems is at the heart of the measurement problem in quantum physics. What is the nature of this transformation (called the “collapse of the wavefunction”) from an unobserved combination of multiple possible properties to a single observed property? What causes it? How does it happen? When does it happen? Does it really happen at all?

There are two approaches to answering these questions about measurement. The first approach assumes that collapse is a real physical event, and then provides some explanation for what causes it, when it happens, and how it happens. For example, some people have argued that consciousness is somehow involved in collapse. Others have taken this argument a step further and proposed that individual conscious volition can select how the collapse takes place. Such control, however, would constitute a violation of the laws of quantum physics as they are now understood. Thus, our present understanding of quantum physics does not provide a mechanism for the mind to influence matter, or for us to “create our own reality” as some have put it.

The second approach to the measurement problem assumes that collapse is not a real physical event, and then provides some explanation for why it nevertheless still appears to happen. The proponents of this approach point out that there appears to be no particular time or place where collapse can be experimentally established to have taken place. For example, quantum eraser and delayed choice experiments suggest that collapse is not a physical event tied to a particular time or place. Moreover, it was proved (by John von Neumann) that the place where we consider collapse to have taken place can be shifted arbitrarily without changing the results of the measurement. In other words, it is unobservable. But perhaps the most convincing argument against collapse is the fact that it is in blatant violation of the laws of quantum physics. It is quite unscientific to assume the existence of some physical process that is both unobservable and violates the laws of physics.

So, if collapse is not a physical event, what is it? And why does it appear to happen? Here is one way to understand it. Just as the earth appears to be flat on small areas where its curvature is negligible, so quantum systems appear to have collapsed on macroscopic scales where entanglement is negligible. The process of collapse is analogous to approximating a small area of the earth’s surface using plane geometry. Although it is convenient and quite accurate to view a small area of the round earth as if it were flat, approximating that small area with a flat earth model is not a physical event or process. So, thinking that collapse is a real event is like thinking that the earth somehow really becomes flat when we look at small areas of it and can’t see the curvature. Just because we ignore something doesn’t mean it no longer exists. The laws of physics tell us that the quantum entanglements continue to exist, even when they become so subtle that we can’t observe them.

In a sense, collapse is something that consciousness does. But it is not doing something to the physical world. It is a shift in our view of the physical world. More precisely, collapse corresponds to ignoring certain subtle aspects of the world (i.e., entanglements between quantum possibilities) and approximating the world with a classical model. Collapse is not a physical event, but a collapse in our vision from a more complete and expansive reality to a limited approximation. This approximation becomes an illusion if we forget that we have ignored something and mistake our limited view for all of reality.

If we could develop sufficiently subtle instruments of observation so that we could become conscious of the quantum entanglements that are not normally observable on the macroscale, we would become aware of a more complete reality rather than being limited to the thin slice that remains after we ignore all the subtleties. We would not “create our own reality” but simply free ourselves from a limited view of reality that we had created for ourselves. Thus, we don’t create our own reality, we create our own illusion. Through ignorance we create illusion, and we free ourselves from illusion not by creating reality, but by ceasing to ignore it.

(To read more on this subject, see my articles Questioning the Scientific Worldview and The Illusion of Materialism.)

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Posted in: Philosophy, Science