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Is consciousness a quantum mystery?

Giulio Prisco

Turing Church

November 21, 2012

“According to Hameroff, our souls are built of something much more fundamental than neurons,” says Morgan Freeman introducing Hameroff’s quantum consciousness theory in a recent episode of Through the Wormhole. “They are constructed from the very fabric of the universe.” Dr. Hameroff claims, “I believe that consciousness, or its immediate precursor proto-consciousness, has been in the universe all along, perhaps from the Big Bang.”


Complete entry


Posted by Kris Notaro  on  11/21  at  01:43 PM

I am not sure about Stuart Hameroff’s comment that consciousness can float away from the microtubules, then back again… However I do agree with the statement in this article that “This is a question to be answered in by science, in the laboratory.”

Hameroff’s microtubule quantum consciousness has been ridiculed by the AI and Technological Singularity community for quite some time now - however we still have yet to see AI become conscious or a Technological Singularity.

The main reason people want to bash Hameroff’s theory is because it makes “consciousness” that much more complicated - pushing back our transhuman goals of mind uploading, etc and philosophy and science’s goal of understanding consciousness by 10-20 years.

Posted by Otto Krog  on  11/21  at  02:56 PM

I think that consciousness will be much easier to understand when Penroses and Hameroffs ideas get mainstream.

I have been a fan of Sir Roger Penrose for many years. He was the first scientist to say that consciousness should be found in the quantum field rather than in the brain. I am so much a fan, that I made my own theory out of the idea that consciousness might be explained through a better understanding of antimatter and parallel universes.

My idea is that antimatter is the mirror of this universe, and that antimatter might be where memory is located.

I think that the subconscious mind and consciousness are located in parallel universes in the form of antimatter. That makes the spirit and maybe even God all physical, so basically I could be said to be an atheist, even though I consider myself spiritual.

If you would like to know more, then you can watch a full videopresentation of my theory on my blog:

Posted by CygnusX1  on  11/21  at  04:55 PM

Let’s not forget that philosophy and philosophical contemplation precedes any scientific exploration? And that meta-physics “encapsulates” any physical scientific models in general circulation at this point in time and space? That scientific endeavour is driven as reactive process to curiosity and philosophical questions? That creativity and imagination and personal philosophy drives technological enterprise?

It may well turn out that the Higgs field is the “Holy grail” and that “awareness” at the quantum/particle level is as natural as the nose on your face? That Consciousness is in fact, no more and no less than “natural phenomenon”? > that’ll do for me!

Self-reflexivity = consciousness of Consciousness. Yet you need “mind” to reconcile this phenomenon, question it, and develop your “philosophy” of everything, (PoE)?

Posted by David Cooper  on  11/21  at  05:26 PM

If consciousness is real (and it certainly feels that way), then it has to be more complicated than science currently admits. We are not simply data that can be uploaded into a virtual reality, unless of course we are actually just zombies and consciousness is an entirely fake phenomenon. If there really is an “I” in the machine, it is not our memories, but something which can feel: it is something that experiences qualia.

It is not good enough to say that consciousness just emerges out of the complexity of advanced data systems and that we know it’s real because it feels real: if a feeling such as pain is really experienced, that not only needs to be translated into data documenting that experience of pain by some kind of data system, but the data system also has to be able to judge the data that it’s generating in order to assess whether that data is actually true rather than a mere fiction which the system is designed to generate.

An input from a sensor can lead to a value being loaded into a register in a CPU, and then that value can be used to help calculate the address of a string which can be printed to a screen to say “Ouch!”, but no pain is felt at any stage of that process, and this can be demonstrated by running the program on paper with a pencil (or by the Chinese Room). Anything a neural computer does can be simulated in full on a standard machine, so there is no aspect of neural computers that can make any difference here. When we analyse the program to see how it generates data making claims about feelings, we can (in principle, though it’s hard to do with neural computers) trace them back to points where that data was generated and see how the program put it together and how it checked its facts. In every case with any kind of computational system known to science, it will be shown to be a complete fabrication and that no feeling was involved.

There appears to be a fundamental barrier to the translation of feelings to knowledge about feelings, and I’ve set this out in an argument at (which is easier to follow if you read the conclusions at the end first). It is also available at Zero State in a form which allows discussion, though that’s hidden behind passwords - I can show the way into that if anyone expresses a desire to follow this up.

Posted by Kris Notaro  on  11/21  at  06:04 PM


Your right. However our noses came from evolution to detect certain chemicals.

If the claim by panpsychists is that consciousness / awareness is innate to the universe like one of the four forces of nature that are currently known, then it was evolution, again, that detected it. (for example evolution created the utricle,  saccule, - otolith - to detect gravity)

This would eliminate any kind of emergentist views on consciousness in the philosophical realm. That would be a HUGE discovery. The only unfortunate consequence – again – of the type of panpsychist claim that microtubule quantum consciousness is true, is that if they are right, it makes consciousness so much more complicated then let’s say, a neural network based off of the macro structure (in this case) of the neurons, their connections and firing patterns.

So if Hammeroff is right, then we have a long way to go before developing consciousness inside a computer, etc.

One then has to make up thier mind whether or not they consider the four forces innate to a physical universe, without mystery, and adapt the same thinking to consciousness - physicalism / materialism - for in the end it seems like we are all part of the pure energy singularity big bang anyway.

Posted by sburgess  on  11/21  at  10:32 PM

Giluio, I love your essay.

I wanted to point out that definitions of “mystery” include “a hidden or secret thing” - or (banal) - “a detective story”

But, for my money the detective story is really a big part of what science is all about.

Kent seems to be afraid. Afraid that irrational people can hang an argument on valid statements, therefore the statements are not valid. I see this all the time in the “scientific” and in the pro-atheist circles (here the Venn diagram has a large intersection). I call these people Scienceologists, who are:

a: threatened by the possibility that science will be besmirched by the unitiiated nonbelievers and

b: claim to not believe anything that is not already proven and claim that it is NOT cognitive dissonance to believe something completely different tomorrow based on tomorrow’s public announcements of scientific discoveries.

What pap.
Creationists and anti-climatologists can be handily shot down with references to scientific studies. It’s the best means we currently have, but may not (or may) be so forever. If the Luddites & Know-Nothings cannot be convinced, it’s really no skin off the brow of seekers of truth. Unless those seekers think that truth is static (“Truth”). Or absolute - until it changes.

Most of what there is, is not known. One of the beauties of science is that it raises more questions than it lays to rest. What a wonder! But it also means that it is likely that the more we know, the more that is unknown. I love how you express this: “ fractal depths of unexplained phenomena…”

What could be better than that kind of job security.
Oh, I know - Mystery security!

Posted by SHaGGGz  on  11/22  at  06:39 AM

Panpsychism seems to be a lazy and poorly-thought-out solution to the problem of emergence, or Sorites paradox: how can we draw a definitive border between conscious and unconscious, between grain of sand and pile? Simple, there is no line! Ends A and B on the spectrum are illusory, therefore A=B! This is obviously a useless copout. Yes, the boundaries we impose on categories are arbitrary, but without them we have no categories and therefore useful discussion is impossible.

The rejection of the microtubules theory is not indicative of some sort of deep-seated fear of the scientific establishment; it’s just a silly theory. Calling it “bullshit” may offend some sensibilities, but the degree of its silliness, where wild new conceptual frontiers and entities are conjured into existence in a “god of the gaps” type fashion to bestow no more explanatory power than conventional theories, in my mind justifies such derogation.

@sburgess: Kent’s derogation is not indicative of fear, but a well-placed aversion to that shares more in common with religion/mysticism than science/empiricism. Science is not besmirched, nor are its practitioners threatened, by poorly-constructed theories. There is no cognitive dissonance in the understanding that our best currently available models will likely be overturned in the future.

@Otto Krog: Awesome name.

Posted by Giulio Prisco  on  11/22  at  10:13 AM

@Kris, I am delighted that you post my writings here, but perhaps you could indicate the source?

re “pushing back our transhuman goals of mind uploading, etc”

A confirmation of the quantum nature of consciousness may invalidate some of the proposed _technical approaches_ to uploading, but not the concept itself. If the brain behaves like a quantum computer (as opposed to a classical one), then a quantum computer is what we need to reproduce the behavior of the wet brain in-silicon (or whatever) and achieve uploading. Just screws and bolts.

@SHaGGGz re “The rejection of the microtubules theory is not indicative of some sort of deep-seated fear of the scientific establishment; it’s just a silly theory.”

There are many theories that I consider silly, but “bullshit” is not one of the terms that I prefer to use to discuss scientific problems, even when I want to strongly criticize theories that I consider silly. There are other much better terms and much more constructive ways to criticize scientific works, for example “your theory doesn’t seem to be validated by current experimental evidence.”

Note that, as I say in the text, I tend NOT to agree with Hameroff’s theory. But the strong emotional reactions and the rude language that some people use to criticize his theory, e.g. “bullshit,” makes me think that psychological factors must be influencing scientific judgment.

Posted by CygnusX1  on  11/22  at  12:21 PM

@ Kris..

Well I do believe quite strongly that “mind” is an emergent property within the Universe which “appears” to us to be evolving, (because we are evolving technologically, thus reasoning so too the Universe as a whole - such is interconnectedness and non-exclusive Unity). Yet even this is arguable and open to philosophical debate, especially from a theist or even within a Buddhist interpretation concerning transcendence and as to where your mind, (spirit/ego/Self) may in fact actually reside?

Are Quantum states and “information” preserved within a dimensional level outside of space-time, (timeless), existing as both omniscient and omnipresent. Maybe? Penrose has ideas on even this? However, this still does not explain the phenomenon of “mind”, because fundamentally “mind” is a tool, and an aggregate of processes, (Buddhism - Anatta), emerging within a complex biological brain and despite of any existing, Universally preserved, (Quantum), information?

I really do not see any downside to discovering that Consciousness or “awareness” resides as natural phenomenon between all material entities, and expressed as inclusive in interactions between photons, Higgs, and especially with other bosons. The existence of Gravitons for example, are not yet proven, this is linked to a dilemma that perplexed Issac Newton, where there seems to be information exchange between mass objects and entities such as stars and planets, this information exchange travelling faster than even light, and which forms basis for attraction and orbits at great distances. How when gravity itself is so weak? At the Quantum level, there is no space to traverse, thus time is irrelevant, an entity may be “available” for interaction at any place in space-time throughout the Universe, (including any Quantum information)?

(and why do we still attempt to resolve all materialism in the form of particles, when we already know so much about the wave nature of physical phenomena - string theory has yet to come of age?)

I agree that Hameroff’s hypothesis is complex, yet worth contemplating. Science is already proving that Bose Einstein condensates exist and can be manipulated. This seems to be the heavy criticism against Hameroff/Penrose Orch-OR and decoherence within their system.

“A Bose–Einstein condensate (BEC) is a state of matter of a dilute gas of bosons cooled to temperatures very near absolute zero (0 K or −273.15 °C). Under such conditions, a large fraction of the bosons occupy the lowest quantum state, at which point quantum effects become apparent on a macroscopic scale. These effects are called macroscopic quantum phenomena.”–Einstein_condensate

“Many physicists believed it could not be done, but now a team in Germany has created a Bose–Einstein condensate (BEC) from photons. BECs are formed when identical bosons – particles with integer spin – are cooled until all particles are in the same quantum state. This means that a BEC comprising tens of thousands of particles behaves as a single quantum particle.”

Hameroff and Penrose Orch-OR

“Orch-OR (Orchestrated Objective Reduction) is a theory of consciousness, which is the joint work of theoretical physicist Sir Roger Penrose and anesthesiologist Stuart Hameroff. Mainstream theories assume that consciousness emerges from the brain, and focus particularly on complex computation at synapses that allow communication between neurons. Orch-OR combines approaches to the problem of consciousness from the radically different angles of mathematics, physics and anesthesia.”

Posted by Kris Notaro  on  11/23  at  03:50 PM

Out of curiosity, do you consider yourelf a materialist-functionalist who believes in multiple realizability?

Posted by Giulio Prisco  on  11/24  at  01:16 AM

@Kris re “do you consider yourelf a materialist-functionalist who believes in multiple realizability?”

As far as I understand what you mean, yes, sort of.

Posted by Peter Kinnon  on  11/27  at  03:26 AM

The Hameroff-Penrose metaphysical “theory of consciousness”  has absolutely no evidential basis and is a speculation which can fairly be described as a mere exercise in pseudoscience.

Having said that, there is absolutely no doubt that quantum effects underlie all chemical systems, including the subset represented by biology. That, however does not make them agents of consciousness.

This phenomenon,  is very easily accounted for within the macroscopic world of well established science.

There is really now no mystery about consciousness whatsoever.

The mystical notions that have arisen in the past ( and, as we see, often still do!) are purely illusory, an inevitable result of approaching the question by introspection.  This, of course, was the only option available to earlier philosophers and many still have trouble escaping from that trap with its inevitable recursive loops.

Today, although the details of nervous system function of ourselves or other animals is very far from complete, we have sufficient information to have a rough idea of the gross workings of these systems.

From evolutionary considerations we can also now see how the essentially navigational function we like to call “consciousness”, “self-awareness” “sense of agency” and so forth is bound to arise.
Most, if not all organisms must, in principle, have some degree of consciousness (self-awareness). Even if only as the locus of its sensory and effector interactions with the external world.

This, of course, includes such creatures as bacteria and plants. Here’s why:

From our understanding of biological evolution by natural selection it becomes quite clear that provision of a navigational feature that involves some degree of self awareness is required for an organism to interact optimally with its environment.

It is a measure of its fitness for the prevailing environment and subject to selection pressure accordingly.

Furthermore, from a quite different discipline, we now have an excellent understanding of functionally analogous computational systems.  And the composite that we call the Internet has, even now, comparable processing power to the human mins and is rapidly becoming endowed with the semantic linkages required of our particular kind of consciousness.

With these new tools at our disposal we can now view the phenomenon in a truly objective way. And then the hocus-pocus surrounding this issue vanishes!

This topic is part of the broad evolutionary model very informally outlined in “The Goldilocks Effect: What Has Serendipity Ever Done For Us?” (free download in e-book formats from the “Unusual Perspectives” website)

Posted by CygnusX1  on  11/27  at  02:16 PM

@ Peter..

I agree with you that Self-reflexivity may have evolved as a result of locus in a complex neural net, and together with the emergence of “mind” and it’s need to reconcile a “centre of intellect” to reinforce positional reference to all other “objects”?

I also agree that there is no mystery to Consciousness phenomenon.

However, you overlook the fact that Self-reflexivity is not itself Consciousness but relies upon it? We all use the term with varied meaning and depth, some believe it is the spark of life even. Yet if we replace “Consciousness” with the term “awareness”, then Self-reflexivity becomes merely “awareness of awareness”, negative feedback loop processing?

How far down does this “natural phenomenon of awareness” affect? I would say all the way down to Quantum interactions, and the “dual slit experiment” and wave function collapse proves this?

Posted by CygnusX1  on  11/27  at  03:02 PM

As a further note, cells and bacterium are indeed aware and interact, therefore plants and ants must also possess awareness or be “Conscious” of their environments?

We may speculate that an electron interacts within it’s environment according to it’s inherent physical nature, and that this may describe what we loosely attribute as “awareness” for interaction? Yet for this we must first question if an electron is unchanging and forever bound in it’s nature and properties? We know this is not the case, and that an electron comprises quarks and gluons as with other fundamental particles, being transformed as “natural” consequence. So awareness between entities is apparent even inside an electron?

What we interpret as the mystery of Self-reflexivity and “Consciousness” is but layers of evolved complexity in macroscopic systems?

The “Global Brain” is also a measure of this evolving complexity and is also an evolving “Conscious” entity/system because it comprises Human minds as nodes?

Posted by Kris Notaro  on  11/27  at  11:36 PM


I agree with most of what you have said. However I am a bit skeptical about materialism / physicalism which proposes multiple realizability. The reason is, is because of the neural algorithm approach to AI, and the simulation of the brain in studies like the blue brain project… Where is the “multiple realizability”? If multiple realizability simply means that brains can be replaced slowly with fake neurons made of such and such, but keeping the overall patterns of the biological brain, not much has changed - in fact its just about the same thing, thus giving the illusion of multiple realizability of consciousness.

Posted by CygnusX1  on  11/28  at  12:11 PM

But Kris..

this is a problem concerning “Mind”, not Consciousness, which really is not a problem at all… me thinks? It really depends on what status and celebrity you give to this term Consciousness?

An Ant is a conscious entity, and it’s mind is hardly complex?

Ultimately, even the materialist/physicalist is still faced with the mind/body duality dilemma.. and especially pro-uploaders. Mind is the mystery, qualia is the hard problem. Yet when I taste an apple, I can really only sense sugar and salt via taste buds, the illusion of bitter sweetness seems to be in my mind only?

A default algorithm for Apple sweetness would hardly be something to groan about if offered a chance at longevity of “mind”? And it would be progressive towards true unity and also for the communication between substrate independent minds?



Posted by Giulio Prisco  on  11/28  at  01:01 PM

@Peter re “The Hameroff-Penrose metaphysical “theory of consciousness”  has absolutely no evidential basis and is a speculation which can fairly be described as a mere exercise in pseudoscience.”

So did Einstein’s general relativity before Eddington found experimental evidence. And so did [I could write a long list].

This does not mean that I find Hameroff/Penrose’s arguments in support of their theory of consciousness persuasive (actually, I don’t), but dismissing new scientific theories as “pseudoscience” is far too cheap.

Posted by Kris Notaro  on  11/28  at  01:02 PM

Yes, perhaps I am concerned with qualia and the “hard problem” of consciousness.

An ant has about 250,000 neurons = roughly or around 1,750,000,000 synaptic connections. Ants also communicate via chemicals like cells in our bodies do. “what it is like” to be an ant may be very complex actually. Do these connections somehow give rise to some kind of consciousness? I would say so, but of course as of right now we have no “what it is like” to be an ant. Are there enough connections to give rise to, or utilize qualia? is qualia needed? Does qualia even exist as we define it and theorize about it? Are ants just biological zombies?

Imagine if Hammeroff is correct - these 250,000 neurons would have countless of possibilities on top of the amount of synaptic connections! How conscious would the ant be then?

Ants, like us, have neurons in their brains… so if it is the case that Hammeroff and Chalmers is wrong, and that all we need is some algorithms and/or replacement of neurons to create consciousness in a computer and/or robot body and brain… then there is no question that minimal multiple realizability and hardcore materialism / physicalism is correct?

However we are not there yet apparently, since its 2012 and we are still dealing with claims of microtubule quantum consciousness! smile

Posted by CygnusX1  on  11/28  at  03:08 PM


taking your last paragraph first, I would say we need to agree on “what you actually want” to fully deduce progress? I’m sure you have already seen this..

“Artificial Intelligent game bots pass Turing test”

So there is great progress with AI algorithms which can “emulate” Human behaviour quite convincingly? Yet this is not what you want?

If there is possibility to upload all our “foggy” memories of folks and Apples eaten, and add this to the above “unpredictable” bot algorithm, would this suffice? Not yet eh? So ask your Self “what do I want?”

multiple appearances of your memories will not precisely be you, or the “you” that you “want” it to be? Yet both will still be conscious and hopefully creative, yet restricted still by volition and determinism - such as with the ant?

We can make a robot arm catch a moving ball - the machine is “conscious” (aware) of the ball - there is no hard problem to overcome?

Posted by Kris Notaro  on  11/28  at  04:46 PM


Perhaps your familiar with the Mary Problem a.k.a. The Knowledge Argument. If not:

Frank Jackson (1982) formulates the intuition underlying his Knowledge Argument in a much cited passage using his famous example of the neurophysiologist Mary:

  Mary is a brilliant scientist who is, for whatever reason, forced to investigate the world from a black and white room via a black and white television monitor. She specializes in the neurophysiology of vision and acquires, let us suppose, all the physical information there is to obtain about what goes on when we see ripe tomatoes, or the sky, and use terms like ‘red’, ‘blue’, and so on. She discovers, for example, just which wavelength combinations from the sky stimulate the retina, and exactly how this produces via the central nervous system the contraction of the vocal chords and expulsion of air from the lungs that results in the uttering of the sentence ‘The sky is blue’.… What will happen when Mary is released from her black and white room or is given a color television monitor? Will she learn anything or not? It seems just obvious that she will learn something about the world and our visual experience of it. But then is it inescapable that her previous knowledge was incomplete. But she had all the physical information. Ergo there is more to have than that, and Physicalism is false.

The argument contained in this passage may be put like this:

  (1) Mary has all the physical information concerning human color vision before her release.

  (2) But there is some information about human color vision that she does not have before her release.


(3) Not all information is physical information.

So, although an old argument, I would say that it is very important today – for human minds. See the human mind programs the AI algorithms, kind of like how Mary programs herself with all the information possible about the brain. But there is a difference between the AI and Mary, Mary is a human. Humans might be able to program AI to experience color…. but that is from their own experience. Now is the AI “conscious” of it?

I have no idea, but I am leaning a little to no, the AI might be able to recognize color **after** a person programs it in, or even programs in learning AI algorithms. However how close are these learning AI algorithms to neurons? Probably pretty close… therefore that brings up another problem…. If we have to emulate and simulate the brain pretty much the same way the brain works now aren’t you just creating the same thing? If it is the same thing just made of different stuff, then ya, maybe it can be conscious, that is, have consciousness? but that is still a long ways from now…

Posted by CygnusX1  on  11/28  at  04:50 PM

Concerning Qualia “the hard problem”

Morpheus: “What is real? How do you define real? If you’re talking about what you can feel, what you can smell, what you can taste and see, then real is simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain.”

Not to lower the debate, but is not this precisely true?

I’m glad you emphasized the complexity of the Ant, because this complexity defines the real “magic”, the real “miracle” that gives rise to the macroscopic “realisation” of “phenomenological” consciousness in Human brains? Complexity is the key to the emergence of “mind” within the brain. It is “mind” that reconciles Self-reflexivity and substantiates what or “who” you think you are?

I still think the fast-track to longevity is “Brains in vats” connected to VR?

Posted by Kris Notaro  on  11/28  at  04:58 PM


We both basically used the same argument, and agree on most of the issues.

“emergence of “mind” within the brain.”

perhaps emergence and complexity is the key, it does seem that way! Then panpsychism is a no show? I don’t know…

Posted by CygnusX1  on  11/28  at  05:20 PM

Yes, however I am not convinced by the premise of the argument which attempts to conflate “knowledge” with “experience”, so its a strawman? Better still, explain to “Mary the blind woman” what a Blue sky looks like?

I would say that physicalism is truth, yet we are back to Quantum mechanics again, to define energy-matter transformation/manifestation?

Here’s another thought experiment - if we could stimulate “Blind Mary’s” brain and our own uploaded mind with the same unique symbolism, without the “experience” then we can at least discuss/communicate “Blue sky” even without the experience, for want of need of social communication?

Or to put this another way, could two uploaded minds discuss the past knowledge of “Blue” without the experience, and still be satisfied?

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