06/17/2014 02:49 pm ET Updated Aug 17, 2014

Quantum Dualism? -- The Making of a Thriller, Part IV

We closed Part III of this blog on a glimmer of hope that consciousness might in fact be a real thing, in some way separate and apart from the physical universe in which it finds itself. By the same token, this threatened to land us back in the same old mind/body perplex -- namely, how can an immaterial entity (such as the mind is purported to be) interact with material reality?

So, on the one hand, we'd like to believe our conscious experiences are in some sense real, if not the only real things to which we have direct experiential access. On the other hand, we'd like to believe that the thoughts arising from our consciousness can in some sense influence our actions in the external world.

We seem to be stuck in a quandary.

Quantum Dual-Aspectivism?

Fortunately, we need not be stuck. There may be a way out, in the form of a "third force" in the philosophical interpretation of quantum physics. Bernard d'Espagnat, one of the leading proponents of this third alternative, calls it "veiled reality" (see his 1995 book Veiled Reality: An Analysis of Present-Day Quantum Mechanical Concepts).

The basic concept is that mind and matter are indeed different, but only insofar as they are each different faces of, or projections from, an underlying but unknowable quantum reality. At the same time, precisely because they project from a more fundamental reality, both mind and matter can be influenced by that "really real reality" and, through it, can be coordinated with one another.

(Sidebar: Whatever goes around comes around: Over two hundred years ago Immanuel Kant proposed that we don't actually experience the world as it is, that all we see -- all we can see -- are the surface phenomena. The bedrock realities, the noumena as Kant called them, remain forever inaccessible to us. "Veiled," if you will.)

Thought Experiment

It was something like this that I had Jon Knox trying to put across to Nietzsche with his "NIT-picking" thought experiment. For those of you who haven't had a chance to read it in situ, let me rehearse the argument here. Knox, Dualism's antihero, has been engaged in a running debate on this very mind/body issue with an artificial intelligence who styles himself after the late German nihilist philosopher -- a debate which Knox must win to convince Nietzsche of his seriousness and secure the AI's cooperation.

Knox is slowly but surely losing the war of words. Until, that is, he encounters Nietzsche in a full-body immersion virtual environment. As to what happens then...

'So, I was thinking,' Knox said, 'about Ray Kurzweil's ideas for how to make virtual reality indistinguishable from the real thing. All you'd need to do, according to him, is to inject microscopic electrodes into the brain itself and let them cruise around feeding simulated stimuli directly into the sensory-motor inputs of the cerebral cortex.'

Nietzsche hesitated a long moment before saying, 'A plausible enough extrapolation from present-day capabilities. What of it?'

'Stay with me now: Say we used that neural-implant technology -- call the things NITs for short -- say we used those NITs to create a simulated world like this one, except this time we took the trouble to make things, ourselves included, look really real, less like refugees from a graphic novel. ... It could be done, no?'

Nietzsche nodded reluctantly.

'... So, okay, given all that, here's the question: Could any of those experiments detect the NITs themselves?'

'Detect the neural implant technology that is causing your brain to have its simulated experiences? Certainly, assuming the simulation is designed to represent them.'

'Say it's isn't. Say that's the one part we left out.'

'Then, no, of course not. If an entity is not part of the world being simulated, then, to an observer within that world, it does not exist.'

'And, by the same token, once you're inside the sim there's no way to prove anything exists outside of it, right? I mean, even with current technology, as far as you and I are concerned, right now this here --' Knox stomped his foot on the ground and was mildly surprised to hear an entirely satisfactory thump. '-- could be the whole universe.'

'I fail to see your point.'

'My point is coming right up' Knox said. 'Let's go back to what you were saying before -- about how mind-body dualism contradicts basic physics because there's no conceivable way a non-physical mind could influence the operations of a physical brain, much less anything else.'


'Well, then, how is this different?'

'I beg your pardon?'

Knox sighed.'Look, there's no question that there is an outside world, right? In fact, appearances to the contrary, that's actually where I am right now. And Kurzweil's NIT-based virtual reality would be way more seamless, to the point where I might forget anything outside it existed at all. Regardless of how perfect the sim might be, though, that external world would still be there, hidden behind a full-sensory hallucination. Still with me?'

'I am still unsure where this is leading.'

'Just here: Think of the external me -- the real me back in the outside world -- as the mind behind the body I appear to be inhabiting in the simulation. Now, isn't that a possible analogue of the mind-body connection?'

'Not at all. In the real world there is no physical mechanism linking your hypothetical immaterial mind with your material body. In your so-called thought experiment, on the other hand, that linkage would be supplied by these 'NITs' you posit.'

'That's just my point: there wouldn't be any NITs as far as the simulation was concerned. We already agreed we weren't going to model them, remember? So the only place they'd exist would be in the outside world -- on the other side of the mind/body divide, by analogy. And, if that's the case, then that outside world not only encompasses both my real self and the virtual reality I'm currently stuck in, it also encompasses the means by which the one interacts with the other.'

'Ah, this is a species of what is known as dual-aspectivism -- the theory that both mind and matter are merely aspects of some third, ultimately unknowable reality. But such assumptions are themselves superfluous. We have no need of them to explain the world as it is.'

'That'd be the same as saying that my continued existence back there in the real world isn't needed to explain my presence here in virtual reality, having this conversation with you. And yet, somehow I've got a really, really strong suspicion that it is.'

Did that do it? Was Nietzsche stumped for once? Certainly he was taking an inordinately long time to answer.

And was it Knox's imagination, or was there a hint of resignation in Nietzsche's voice when he spoke at last?

'Please stand by a moment, Jonathan. I will attempt to reconstruct the sequence of thermal footprints, as you requested.'

Quantum Mindedness

But, if consciousness is in some sense a manifestation of an underlying quantum reality, wouldn't that imply that the mind itself is a quantum phenomenon? Well, speaking as the author of Dualism, I certainly have to hope so, since without some grounding for a quantum-entangled collective consciousness, there's no MERGE, and without MERGE, my quest for a MacGuffin, as chronicled way back in Part I of this blog, would have come up empty!

But aside from that, how plausible is it really?

Perhaps a bit more so than you might suspect. Arguments for some sort of linkage between mind and (quantum) matter have been around ever since the mid-1920s, when Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg formulated their Copenhagen Interpretation of quantum mechanics, positing that it takes an act of measurement by a conscious observer to collapse a probabilistic quantum wave-function into a hard-and-fast classical reality.

With the advent of decoherence theories, Copenhagenism no longer commands the uncritical allegiance of the physics community the way it once did. Still the suspicion that there's some sort of relationship between consciousness and quantum reality has continued to simmer over the years, as exemplified by Michael Lockwood's 1989 Mind, Brain, and the Quantum: The Compound 'I'.

Then in 1996, British mathematical physicist (and colleague of Stephen Hawking) Roger Penrose teamed up with American anesthesiologist Stuart Hameroff to reignite the controversy. (Anesthesiology may seem an odd pairing with theoretical physics but, then, who better qualified to explore the mysteries of consciousness than one whose stock-in-trade it is taking it away?)

In any case, Penrose and Hameroff issued a 1996 manifesto in the journal Mathematics and Computers in Simulation entitled "Orchestrated reduction of quantum coherence in brain microtubules: A model for consciousness." According to this "Orch-OR" theory, the tiny microtubular structures which make up the scaffolding for the brain's neurons were in fact the long-sought locus of quantum interactions between the mental and the physical.

Max Tegmark, who by his own admission has come up with some wild and crazy theories himself, didn't like this one. As he recounts in his new book Our Mathematical Universe: My Quest for the Ultimate Nature of Reality, the nub of his objection was that the pristine conditions required for coherent quantum effects to manifest could not long survive in the warm, wet, noisy confines of the human brain.

But that was based on work Max had done back in 1993. Since then, as I had Mycroft point out to Knox, quantum entanglement has been observed in such warm, wet, noisy contexts as green, growing plants and birds' brains, where it figures in phenomena like photosynthesis and avian navigation.

And, just this past year, in a Physics of Life Reviews article entitled "Consciousness in the Universe: a review of the 'Orch-OR' theory," Hameroff and Penrose reported on new experimental results appearing to corroborate their earlier claims by providing evidence of quantum vibrations in microtubules.

Even if Orch-OR is vindicated, though, that will far from settle the mind/body debate, as Hameroff and Penrose themselves maintain their theory is agnostic between consciousness as immaterial and consciousness as simply requiring new physics.

The End... of the Beginning

If there's one thing writing Dualism has taught me, it's that the field of consciousness studies is, now more than ever, an area of active research. With new technologies coming on line in dizzying succession, and new theories to test against them keeping pace, the coming years are likely to unveil new insights into this most central of questions.

I hope that, in some small way, Dualism will stir your interest in, and enhance your preparedness for, following this ongoing exploration into what makes us who we are.

In a sense, that's really what the making of this particular thriller was all about.