Sunday, May 10, 2020

Is Sir Roger Penrose's Science of Consciousness Spooky?


medium |  Thus could Roger Penrose’s position be entirely motivated by scientific anti-reductionism? Doctor Susan Blackmore certainly thinks that this is an important motivation. Or at least the programme maker in the following quote does. She writes:
“Finally they got to consciousness. With clever computer graphics and Horizonesque hype they explained that brave scientists, going against the reductionist grain, can now explain the power of the mind to transcend death. It all comes down to quantum coherence in the microtubules. And to make sure the viewer knows that this is ‘real science’ the ponderous voice-over declared ‘Their theory is based on a well established field of science; the laws of general relativity, as discovered by Einstein.’…”
Sure, Blackmore’s talking here about “near-death experiences” (NDEs). Yet those who believe in this — or at least some of them — have found succor in “quantum coherence in the microtubules”. Now don’t those things sound very scientific? Of course we’ll now need to know what quantum coherence is. (Or is it really a case of needing to know whether or not the believers in NDEs actually have any idea of what quantum coherence is?)

Of course Penrose and Stuart Hameroff can’t personally be blamed for spook-lovers quoting their work. However, a psychologist or philosopher may tell us that these two fellows — both scientists — are motivated by very similar things. After all, Hameroff himself has talked about NDEs.

Specifically, Hameroff has said that when the brain dies (or stops functioning), the information within that brain’s microtubules remains alive (as it were) or intact. Moreover, the information of the microtubules leaks out into the world (or, well, into the universe). Not only that: this microtubular information remains intact and bound together because of the power of quantum coherence.

Hameroff goes even further. He’s stated that this phenomenon explains why the subject can experience — see? — himself hovering over his own body. That is, Hameroff seems to endorse near-death experiences. Yet even if “information” (P.M.S. Hacker would have a field day with this word — see here) did leak out into the universe, how would that make it the case that the body which hovers above also has a body and sensory experiences? Microtubular information in the air doesn’t a physical person make. And without a physical body, there are no sensory experiences or anything else for that matter. Thus this is like claiming that if you turn the computer off and then smash it up so violently that its material structure shatters into dust, then the “information” inside would still be intact and would simply float in the air above it. In other words, the soul of the computer would still exist. Unless Hameroff is simply telling us about what he thinks people imagine (or hallucinate) when they’re having a NDE. Though if that’s the case, why all this stuff about microtubular information leaking into the air or even into the universe?

This spooky anti-reductionist motivation is further explained by the philosopher and materialist Patricia Churchland and also the philosopher Rick Grush. According to Blackmore,
“they suggest, it is because some people find the idea of explaining consciousness by neuronal activity somehow degrading or scary, whereas ‘explaining’ it by quantum effects retains some of the mystery”.
Churchland is even more dismissive when she says (as quoted by Blackmore):
“Quantum coherence in the microtubules is about as explanatorily powerful as pixie dust in the synapses.”
To put it more philosophically and simply, Penrose and Hameroff’s position appears to be a defence of traditional dualism. Or, at the very least, the belief in NDEs certainly backs up traditional dualism. And, as we’ve just seen, Hameroff has defended NDEs.

Dualism, Intuition and Free Will
Traditional philosophical dualism has just been mentioned. Here again we can tie Hameroff and Penrose to the concerns (or obsessions) of traditional philosophy. That is, Hameroff hints that his and Penrose’s positions may solve the traditional problems of free will, “the unitary sense of self” and the source and nature of intuition/insight. More specifically, all these philosophical conundrums can be explained by quantum coherence in the microtubules. In terms of simply-put examples, free will is down to quantum indeterminacy; non-locality is responsible for “the unity of consciousness”; and non-algorithmic processing is the baby of “quantum superposition”.

In the technical terms of mind-brain interaction, and as a result of accepting mind-body dualism, the brain and mind can be mutually involved in quantum “entanglement” which is “non-local”. Thus, put simply, we can have mind-to-brain causation. Though this would of course depend on seeing the mind as not being the brain or not even being physical (in a strict or even a non-strict sense). This would put both the mind and brain in the same holistic package and that would help all of us explain…. just about everything!