A Critique of the “Quantum Consciousness” Hypothesis (Part 1 of 2)

Posted on 2012/02/03


Feature Image - A Critique of the “Quantum Consciousness” Hypothesis

[I was recently asked some questions about 'psi' (psychic abilities) when I replied to a post about my recent Brian Cox article that appeared on http://www.mind-energy.net. I replied to the post and it started up an interesting discussion. Here is my first reply]


If you didn’t know anything about this topic, it would be tempting to suppose that people are lead to the conclusion by way of the following syllogism:

I don’t understand quantum theory
I don’t understand how consciousness can be described with physics
Consciousness must be described by quantum theory

Now, it does seem that the great majority of the proponents of this so-called ‘quantum consciousness’ hypothesis have a very modest comprehension of quantum mechanics. This is made all the more obvious when they encounter an quantum physicist, such as the unexpected encounter between Deepak Chopra and Leonard Mlodinow that led to a joint book on the subject.[1]

However, it would be wrong to ridicule all the proponents with this rather cheap parody. I think the logic is closer to the following:

(A1) Quantum Theory is non-deterministic
(A2) Free will cannot be explained by deterministic physics
(C1) Consciousness must be described by Quantum Theory

Let’s analyze this simplified set of assumptions and inferences.

The Logic

Assuming (A2) suggests that if we are to explain consciousness with physics, it needs to be non-deterministic physics (more about what that means below). Yet this does not commit us to accepting that the solution lies somewhere in the present understanding of quantum physics.

It does indeed seem that the universe is non-determinate on the small scale and deceptively determinate on the human scale. The indeterminacies on the quantum scale seem to aggregate so our world approximates very well to causal patterns patterns (such as Newtonian Physics).

Regardless of this, any further improvements to quantum theory will likely retain a non-determinism in its description of the cosmos.

Yet, we should be cautious to suppose that quantum theory has the answer, just because it is the only game in town.

The Assumptions

“(A1) Quantum Theory is non-deterministic”

It appears that certain phenomena are intrinsically random. Rather than the above assumption, which fixes our attention of the theory, it might be clearer to say ‘it appears that the universe is non-deterministic’.

For more information, read my article: What is Strange About Quantum Physics? [Part 1: Random]

“(A2) Free will cannot be explained by deterministic physics”

I think the following narrative highlights the thought beneath this assumption.

We appear to have a choice, an ability to act in one of many possible way. We assume we have a will.

Separately, the aim of physics is to find patterns to describe the world. These patterns, that we guess and improve, give us predictive power over the cosmos and allow control our environment. We use the patterns to make decision that benefit us.

Despite the obvious value of physics, it seem to conflict with our assumptions about ourselves. If we assume the cosmos follows rules, then it is curious that we seem able to make decisions.

Descartes, one of the first modern physicists, thought he had resolved the issue by claiming ‘mind’ was distinct from the physical world, yet had influence over parts of it. Specifically, he thought the mind interacted with the world through the pineal gland in the brain.[2] Popular opinion of this type of ‘dualism’ is less specific and assumes that the whole brain is influenced by the mind.

On closer inspection, this is an inadequate physical answer because it displaces the problem out of the universe, placing the decision-making in some other realm. Once a decision has been made, the mind then interacts with the brain.

In this respect, a dualistic view of the mind and body interaction is rather like how some religious people view the God and world interaction. Where our influence is localized and limited to brains, God’s is supposed to be unrestricted. Where our decisions and agency seem to be proof our minds, miracles are purported to be evidence of the mind of God. [For more about this idea and the idea of miracles, see my article "C. S. Lewis’ Miraculous Error".]

Thus, this solution is not scientific because it’s not falsifiable. There is no experiment to test if the theory is false. So, we might say Cartesian Dualism is a theory, but it’s not a scientific theory.

It seems that we either must settle for a pseudo-explanation, or no explanation at all.

And it is at this point that non-deterministic quantum theory becomes so appealing, and a potential avenue for investigation into consciousness.

Challenging (A2)

The Causal Assumption

Implicit in (A2) is the assumption that our decision-making has to either break laws of nature (if the world is deterministic) or decides some undetermined events in the physical world (if the world is non-deterministic). This is implicit in the idea that in making in decisions – we affect the world with our thoughts.

For example, when you decide to do something, it is assumed that this decision affects the brain so to trigger other parts of the body, and we exert our influence on the cosmos.

What if this picture is wrong?

Recent research has suggested that ‘the intention to act, follows brain activity rather than preceding it’.[3] That is to say, the supposition that our brains are controlled by our will (whatever that may mean) is causally flawed.

Indeed, it seems that the stimuli our brains receive affect the thoughts that arise in our consciousness, not the other way around. As Sam Harris puts it:

Our belief in free will arises from our moment-to-moment ignorance of specific prior causes. The phrase “free will” describes what it feels like to be identified with the content of each thought as it arises in our consciousness. Trains of thought like, “What should I get my daughter for her birthday? I know, I’ll take her to a pet store and have her pick out some tropical fish,” convey the apparent reality of choices, freely made. But from a deeper perspective (speaking both subjectively and objectively), thoughts simply arise (what else could they do?) unauthored and yet authored to our actions.[4]

How do these thoughts arise? It seems to be depend on what our brains are like, and how our brains interact with information. This information can come from ‘the external world, from internal states of the body, and, increasingly, from a sphere of meaning – which includes spoken and written language, social cues, cultural norms, rituals of interaction, assumptions about the rationality of others, judgements of taste and style, etc.’

These causes of our thoughts are complicated and by no means well understood. Yet, when we inspect the idea of ‘free will’, it evaporates both under the scrutiny of philosophical considerations and physical experiments. ‘In this sense, each of us is like a phenomenological glockenspiel played by an unseen hand. From the perspective of your conscious mind, your are no more responsibe for the next thing you think (and therefore do) than you are for the fact that you were born into this world.’[5]

Hegel/Marx Analogy

To provide an analogy, we might compare the philosophy of Hegel with that of Marx. Hegel thought our decision-making was determined by ‘dialectic idealism’ (don’t worry too much about the names). What this meant was that ‘any idea comes into constant conflict with other ideas. And the result of this conflict is new ideas, and new conflict, and so on.’ Our actions are a consequence of a temporary resolve between competing ideas.

Marx thought this picture was wrong way around and proposed ‘dialectic materialistic’. ‘It’s not the ideas in our heads that determines the lives we lead, but the lives we lead that determines the ideas in our heads.’[6]

In essence, Marx was proposing a political philosophy that rejects ideas as the cause of events’ but events as the cause of ideas. To this day, many left-wing/right-wing are arguments about the nature of free will and responsibility.


Sam Harris, who I have quote previously, offers an interesting alternative to the usual philosophical discussion concerning free will:

‘It is generally argued that our sense of free will presents a compelling mystery… However, I think that this mystery is itself f a symptom of our confusion. It is not that free will is simply an illusion: our experience is not merely delivering a distorted view of reality; rather, we are mistaken about the nature of our experience. We do not feel as free as we think we feel… The illusion of free will is itself an illusion.’[7]

That our free will seems to be a consequence of quantum processes is no more mysterious that if the universe were deterministic. Assigning non-deterministic causes to our thoughts adds nothing to the argument about which way around the process occurs.

If the quantum ’decisions’ are there, they are not decided by our will.

To suppose that our minds influence these seemingly random processes, somehow ‘choosing’ which one to actualize,  makes the Cartesian abstraction and causal mistake.

Quantum Consciousness, ESP, Mystic Healing?

You might accuse me of wandering from the point by attacking a straw-man argument of ‘quantum free will’ rather than ‘quantum consciousness’. However, it seems to me that a great deal of proponents of ‘quantum consciousness’ mean to explain free will instead.

Believers of ESP or Mystic Healing, to provide two examples, often suppose that there is something special about our brains – something quantum –  that allows us these special powers. And when we want to use them, we utilize our free will and engage special abilities in the brain.

However, we see few experiments that wander towards anything that is statistically significant with regard to the abilities of ESP or Mystic Healing. Nor do neurobiologists find anything special about the brain that suggests it has extraordinary quantum abilities.

Brains are indeed complicated, but they seem to be made of regular material. The suggestion that they are in some way ‘special’ echos old Jewish idea that the body requires an indestructible bone to carry to soul beyond death.[8]


As for consciousness, a quantum explanation seems to be little more than speculation. Attempts of documentaries such as ‘What the Bleep Do We Know’, designed to test the patience of someone used to more rigorous analysis.[9] Physicists are prone to dismissing presentations such as these, although it is cheap to do so.

I think there is a more subtle dismissal that does not require one to pour over the research.

In short, for physics to be able to say something about consciousness, we’d need some predictions from a theory. And there would have to be a logical possiblity that these predictions turn out to be false.

Until then, we can’t pretend we’ve got a ‘physical theory of consciousness’, even if the notion is philosophically tenable at all.





Their first meeting was here:

This lead to their book: Chopra, D & Mlodinow, S (6 Oct 2011) War of the Worldviews Rider

Recorded debates from their book-tour:


Huffington Post:

[2] Descartes, R (1649) ‘Les passions de l’âme‘ Amsterdam. (In French.)

Reprinted in: Cottingham, J & Stoothoff, R & Murdoch, D (1984) ‘The Philosophical Writings of Descartes‘ 2 vols., Cambridge [Vol. 1, 'The Passions of the Soul']

[3] Fisher, C M (2001) ‘If there wre no free will’ Med Hypotheses 56(3), 364-366

[4] Harris, S (2010) ‘The Moral Landscape’ Bantam Press p 105

[5] Ibid. p 102, 10

[6] Mark Steel, the standup comedian, wrote an excellent set of introductory lectures to various prominent intellection figures. His presentation on Marx was one of his best and can be viewed here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ByOKZmQ72m4 [The Mark Steel Lectures: Karl Marx (11 November 2003)]

[7] Harris, S (2010) ‘The Moral Landscape’ Bantam Press pp 111-112

[8] The ‘Luz Bone’ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Luz_(bone)

[9] (2006) ‘What the Bleep Do We Know