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

Posted on 2012/02/04


Feature Image - A Critique of the “Quantum Consciousness” Hypothesis Part 2

[I was recently asked some questions about 'psi' 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 second reply. The first can be found here]

Summary of Part 1

In the first part of this critique, I advocated that there is nothing in either physical data, nor our philosophical introspection to suppose ‘free will’ is anything more than an illusion.

Firstly, there is physical data that suggests ‘the intention to act, follows brain activity rather than preceding it’. Even though we think we are puppet masters pulling the strings of our brains, it appears to be the reverse.[1]

If physical observation has anything to tell us about free will, it seems to say that our thoughts arrive as a consequence of the brain’s interaction with information. If these interactions are quantum mechanical in nature, so be it – but it would still imply that our thoughts are delivered to us by these physical processes, not that we control the physics with our free will.

Secondly, as Sam Harris put it, free will is not only an illusion, but the illusion itself is an illusion. We do not have to resolve a seemingly determinate world with the fact that we author our own thoughts. Rather, if we notice more carefully, our thoughts just seem to arrive. The very idea that we have free will is an illusion.

And so, we do not require a non-determinate description that accounts for how our metaphysical selves light up our brains. There simply is no problem if we view ‘free will’ from either a physical or philosophical perspective. That the world appears to be non-determinate is interesting, but it need not be the key to understanding consciousness.

Psi Research & Free Will

There are still some who think that ‘quantum consciousness’ has something to say about free will, or vice versa.

One popular example of some-such person is Stuart R. Hameroff, the anesthesiologist and one-time collaborator with physicist Roger Penrose.

When confronted with the physical research just described, he replies:

…the role and function of consciousness is perhaps the most important question we face. Because evoked potentials and other measurable brain electrical activity correlating with conscious perceptions occur after subjects have responded to those perceptions neurocomputationalists conclude that consciousness is epiphenomenal and illusory. The party line in cognitive neuroscience is that we react unconsciously, after which (1/3 sec behind reality) we construct and falsely remember being and acting in the here and now. “We are merely helpless spectators,” as T. H. Huxley put it. … Maybe so, but evidence suggests backward time effects occur in the brain (e.g., Libet, Wright, Feinstein, & Pearl, 1979). Quantum entanglement apparently depends on seemingly backward time effects which, as unconscious quantum information, can potentially rescue consciousness from the unfortunate position of illusory epiphenomenon.[2]

Backward through time effects? Really? And advocates of ‘psi’ wonder why the physicists do not take this sort of thing seriously.

Modern physics does not utilize ‘retrocausality’ in any testable calculations, but there are a few speculative ideas concerning particles moving backwards through time. For instance, Richard Feynman interpreted the position (the anti-particle of the electron) could be the electron traveling backward through time.[3] It is an interesting interoperation that plays on the symmetry of the physics. It has no descriptive or predictive ability – but is a neat piece of mathematics nevertheless.

As yet, retrocausality is not employed in any theory of physics that makes falsifiable testable predictions, so Hameroff’s speculations are pseudo-scientific.

Considering these statement philosophically, it is not clear whether ‘consciousness’ is to mean ‘awareness‘ or ‘free will‘. His insistence on ‘backward time effects’ seems to suggest that he means ‘free will’, so to preserve the presumed causality from agency to brain activity.

There need not be a causal link from conscious awareness to brain function – this could well be, and seems to be, brain activity first and awareness second.


Other researchers also insist that our ‘free will‘ can affect the results of probabilistic quantum mechanical experiments, and sometimes invoking these backward time effects:

  • Helmut Schmidt has claimed that experiments have demonstrated the human ability to manipulate radioactive decay through retrocausal psychokinesis.[4]
  • Dean Radin is in the process of claiming that ‘factors associated with consciousness, such as meditation experience, electrocortical markers of focused attention, and psychological factors including openness and absorption significantly correlated in predicted ways with perturbations in the double-slit interference pattern.’[5]
  • Radin has also previously claimed that people are able to ‘observe’ a quantum experiment (an Michelson interferometer) from afar. Advocating a form of ESP he suggest that some participants were able to ‘perturb the photons’ quantum wave-functions and change the pattern of light produced by the interferometer’ (which was beyond their direct observation).[6]

None of these experiments have been shown to be statistically significant. And, as discussed above, they make some unfounded presumptions about the will.

Yet, even if the observations were statically significant, and if we found philosophical and physical insight to think free will were more than an illusion, the quantum mechanics presented is incorrect.
There is nothing in any present-day quantum theory that suggests observers can decide which of the quantum mechanical state are observed. As far as we know, the states are undetermined.

A Entangled Interlude

Other research interests of those interested in the ‘quantum mind’ include the suggestion that ‘quantum entanglement‘ can account for so-called psychic abilities (‘reading minds’).

The physics was first proposed by Einstein (and others) as a way of showing that there was something incorrect about quantum physics. The effect was later observed, and the ‘non-locality’ of quantum mechanics is now thought to be a genuine effect. The effect is very counter-intuitive. In short, the theory suggests that a quantum system can be ‘entangled’ so that two particles from that system will have complimentary values.

Let’s pretend there’s a particle that after a while decays into two other particles. The physics requires (by observed conservation laws) that one of them have a value (say, for simplicity) A, and the other have a value B. If one particles is observed to have the value ‘A‘, we know that the other one has to have value ‘B‘. [The actual values in the original idea correspond to something called 'spin'. Don't worry about it. Look it up if you're interested.]

One of the assumptions of quantum mechanics is that the values of the two particles aren’t determined until we observe one of the particles. In other words, it makes no sense to claim that from the moment it was created ‘this one was A all along’. ‘A-ness’ is only something that is measured – it makes no sense to speak of it outside observation.

The odd thing about it is that if we take the particles as far away from each other as we like (without looking), we can look at one – and say it comes out A – and instantly know the value of the other one!

The two particles were entangled, and we can know about the distant, unobserved particle – just by measuring the one we have. This seems to violate assumptions about Einstein’s General Relativity because the information of the other particle travels faster than light and seems to require no mechanism. As Einstein put it, it is a ‘spooky action at a distance’. For a more detailed description, I recommend David Lindley’s ‘Where Does The Weirdness Go?[7]

The effect has been observed, it suggest that relativity theory (in some way) needs to be modified.


Some researchers claim that ‘psychic abilities’ can be explained by this quantum entanglement.

For example, In 1965, T D Duane claimed to have observed that ‘alpha rhythms have been elicited in one of a pair of identical twins as a result of evoking these rhythms in a conventional manner solely in the other.’

Although he says in the paper ‘it appears unwise to draw any conclusion or to make any statements regarding these aspects of this investigation’ other authors have taken this ‘non-local’ interaction to be due to quantum entanglement between particles in the two brains of the twins.[8]

For example, Radin has said (fraudulently), ‘How long might we have to wait before this fanciful “bioentangled brains” experiment is conducted? The answer is no time at all. The proposed studies have been  performed at least a dozen times over the past 40 years. And they work. One of the first such experiments linking psi with entanglement was published in 1965 in Science.’[9]

It is also claimed that the experiments above, where our supposed wills can effect quantum experiments, might also be linked by entanglement.

Among those who know little about quantum physics, credibility for these studies seems to have increased with recent news that researchers at Oxford have been able to induce quantum entanglement in two small, yet macroscopic, diamonds (about 2mm in size). However, compared to what the psi advocates are claiming, the research at Oxford was far more humble.[10]

Attempts are also made to invoke entanglement arguments by suggesting that all particles were, in some way, entangled at the moment of the big bang. I’m not sure what this is supposed to mean, and, I think, neither do they.

Easy and Hard Problems

Leaving free will aside, let’s move to some of the suggestions that quantum physics can explain conscious awareness.

The Philosopher David Chalmers make a good distinction when he separates the problems of consciousness into the ‘easy problems’ and ‘hard problems’.

‘The easy problems of consciousness are those that seem directly susceptible to the standard methods of cognitive science, whereby a phenomenon is explained in terms of computational or neural mechanisms.’

‘The really hard problem of consciousness is the problem of experience. When we think and perceive, there is a whir of information-processing, but there is also a subjective aspect. As Nagel (1974) has put it, there issomething it is like to be a conscious organism. This subjective aspect is experience. When we see, for example, we experience visual sensations: the felt quality of redness, the experience of dark and light, the quality of depth in a visual field. Other experiences go along with perception in different modalities: the sound of a clarinet, the smell of mothballs. Then there are bodily sensations, from pains to orgasms; mental images that are conjured up internally; the felt quality of emotion, and the experience of a stream of conscious thought. What unites all of these states is that there is something it is like to be in them. All of them are states of experience.’[11]

I think this is a very important philosophical insight. No matter how we might describe how the brain correlates with our mental states (easy problems), we still haven’t accounted for the experience itself.

Brain Physics

This doesn’t stop people from trying. For example, Roger Penrose and Stewart Hameroff both claim to be able to ‘explain consciousness’ with quantum physics.

Penrose was initially motivated by an interpretation of theorem from mathematics. ‘Gödel’s First Incompleteness Theorem‘, which states that any axiomatic mathematics that can do arithmetic (so, most mathematics) is either incomplete, or inconsistent. That is to say that it is possible to show there are statements that are true consequences of the axioms, but that they are unprovebale by the axioms (the system is incomplete). Either that, or the axioms are self contradictory (the system is inconsistent).

Penrose and the philosopher J R Lukas got rather excited about the possible use of this theorem in consciousness.[12]

‘The inescapable conclusion seems to be: Mathematicians are not using a knowably sound calculation procedure in order to ascertain mathematical truth. We deduce that mathematical understanding – the means whereby mathematicians arrive at their conclusions with respect to mathematical truth – cannot be reduced to blind calculation!’[13]

However, their arguments have been shown to be flawed in many respects (I once spent a week as part of an undergraduate course trying to numerate the problems). Simply put, the statements that show the incompleteness of a system need to refer to the system itself. This is not the case in the Penrose/Lukas interpretation.[14]

Nevertheless, this was the motivation that lead Penrose to suppose that quantum computing is required to explain the function of the brain.


Then in collaboration with Hameroff, they made the following claims about the brain (excuse the dense vocabulary – I have liked Wikipedia pages to help):

  • Particular waves in the brain (gamma waves of 80Hz and above) seem to be correlated with conscious experience. This was found from in EEG experiments.
  • Not all brain computation requires gamma waves (we can do things without be conscious of it – for example driving a car).
  • These gamma wavs corresponds to gap (electrical) junctions between two dendrites of two neurons and do not occur with synapse (chemical) junctions between the axion of one neuron and the dendrite of another.
  • Inside the neurons are microtubules which seem to be linked to consciousness because alzheimer’s is due to a defective protein that knits these microtubules together, and an eventual symptom of alzheimer’s is loss of consciousness.
  • Each microtubule has sub-units on its surface that seem to be part of information process.

  • Attempts were made to treat them as cellular automata (either binary or quantum models).
  • A molecule CaMKII seems to do something with these tubules and memory.
  • When exposed to calcium, these molecules activate, change shape, and seem to be able to impress upon the surface of the microtubules.
  • It seems that these impressions of memory can be then be processed by the microtubules.[15]

Penrose and Hammeroff worked to trying to develop a theory with quantum computing on the microtubules (Called Orch-OR), involving entanglement as well.

Now, this is all very interesting. But neither do the quantum processing of the microtubules, or the gamma waves they produce, say anything at all about the hard problem of consciousness. It may well be true that quantum effects are involved in brain activity – we live in a quantum world, after all.

Yet all of this says nothing about the act of experience.

Yet, Hammeroff claims, ‘if experience is truly a component of fundamental space-time, Orch OR may begin to explain the “hard problem” of consciousness.’[16]


Chalmers also exhibits the same suspicions concerning the link between quantum theory and hard problem of consciousness that feature at the beginning of the critique: ‘The attractiveness of quantum theories of consciousness may stem from a Law of Minimization of Mystery: consciousness is mysterious and quantum mechanics is mysterious, so maybe the two mysteries have a common source.’

I do not think the hard problem of consciousness will, or can, be solved by physics.

How can physics, based on describing and predicting what we observe, possibly describe the experience of observation itself? It  is simply not what physics is for.



[1] Harris, S (2010) ‘The Moral Landscape’ Bantam Press p 216 (note 102)

[2] Hameroff, Stuart R. (2007) The Brain Is Both Neurocomputer and Quantum Computer Cognitive Science 31 1040

[3] Feynman, Richard (1965-12-11) ‘The Development of the Space-Time View of Quantum Electrodynamics (Speech) Nobel Lecture

[4] Schmidt, Helmut (June 1982) ‘Collapse of the state vector and psychokinetic effect’ Foundations of Physics 12

[5] Radin, Dean et al.(June 2012) ‘Entangled Minds: Consciousness and the double-slit interference pattern: Six experiments‘ [Physics Essays, in press. Scheduled print publication]

[6] Radin, Dean Testing nonlocal observation as a source of intuitive knowledge [Preprint: Accepted for publication in Explore: The Journal of Science and Healing'

[7] Lindley, David (1997) Where Does the Weirdness Go?: Why Quantum Mechanics is Strange, But Not as Strange as You Think Basic Books

[8] Duane TD, Behrendt T (15 October 1965) Extrasensory electroencephalographic induction between identical twins Science Vol. 150 no. 3694 p. 367

[9] Radin, Dean (Dec 2004 – Feb 2005)Minds Shift: At the Frontiers of Consciousness p 12

[10] Lee, K C et al (2012) ‘Macroscopic non-classical states and terahertz quantum processing in room-temperature diamond‘ Nature Photonics 6, 41–44 (2012)

[11] Chalmers, David (1995) ‘Facing Up to the Problem of Consciousness’ Journal of Consciousness Studies 2(3):200-19, 1995

[12] Lucas, J R (1961) Minds, Machines and Gödel‘ Philosophy, XXXVI, pp 112-127

[13] Penrose, Roger (1994) ‘Mathematical intelligence’ In Jean Khalfa, editor, What is Intelligence? Cambridge University Press, chapter 5, pp 107-136

[14] For one of the many criticisms, see: Hofstadter, Douglas (1979) ‘Gödel Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid’ pp 476–477

[15] Stuart Hameroff at Singularity Summit 2009 ‘Neural Substrates of Consciousness and the ‘Conscious Pilot’ Model

[16] Penrose, Roger & Hameroff, Stuart R (1996) ’Conscious Events As Orchestrated Space-Time Selections‘ Journal of Consciousness Studies, 3(1):36-53