A ‘quantum consciousness’ absurdity at IIT Mandi

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As you go downward, inward, smaller and smaller, you get more vast conscious experience. This is the idea in Indian knowledge systems. At the bottom of it, or the very base of it, at the source, is Brahman. My point is that this is actually very consistent with what we’re learning about how consciousness may be produced in our brain due to quantum effects.

The person who made this statement is Stuart Hameroff, at the 10th convocation at IIT Mandi on December 5. Hameroff is a neuroscientist and anaesthesiologist. Since 1975, he has been at the University of Arizona, where, in 1999, he became professor in the department of anaesthesiology and psychology and the director for the Center for Consciousness Studies. He became an emeritus professor in 2003. He is famous for his part in the Orch-OR hypothesis of how consciousness originates in the brain. Hameroff and Roger Penrose (who won the Nobel Prize for physics in 2020 for unrelated work) collaborated on the idea and published a few papers detailing their assumptions and conclusions.

‘Orch-OR’ stands for ‘orchestrated objective reduction’. Broadly speaking, the hypothesis is that the states of microtubules, which are cellular structures inside neurons, enter into a quantum superposition – becoming like the cat inside the unopened box in the Schrödinger’s cat thought-experiment. The superposition is then forced to collapse (‘the box is opened’) in favour of one state by gravity. This is taken to be the moment when consciousness comes ‘on’. One scheme of the hypothesis says that when the superposition collapses, the process should release some electromagnetic radiation – a testable prediction.

Experiments looking for this radiation have come up empty. One experiment whose results were published in May 2022 found that the brain would have to have 1,000-times more of the cells that make up microtubules than it actually does, disfavouring the hypothesis in a range of space- and time-scales, albeit not entirely. The hypothesis is also largely controversial and doesn’t find favour among most physicists, who have been critical of Penrose’s calculations of how the gravity-mediated superposition collapse happens.

To be sure, there has been some evidence that quantum phenomena might be going on in the human brain; what we don’t have evidence for is sophisticated hypotheses like Orch-OR that claim a precise origin of consciousness.

So Hameroff’s statement at IIT Mandi that the concept of the ‘Brahman’ “is actually very consistent with what we’re learning about how consciousness may be produced in our brain due to quantum effects” is at best disingenuous. What we are learning is that Orch-OR is quite unlikely to be a valid explanation of the emergence of consciousness in the brain; and we are certainly not finding support for Orch-OR by shoehorning the concept of the ‘Brahman’ and spiritual ideas of consciousness into gravity’s effects on hypothetical forms of spacetime.

But his talk gets worse. A few minutes later, Hameroff says that consciousness appears to straddle the shared border between the quantum and the classical worlds, that the phenomenon of quantum state reduction (a.k.a. superposition collapse) is akin to the emergence of the “Atman from the Brahman”, and that he wondered “whether the many faces of Krishna were a quantum superposition”. He continues:

Under normal circumstances, the people back then didn’t see Krishna in superposition but as one, but knew in different ways that there could be this apparent superposition of many possible faces of Krishna.

So here we have a scientist who once helped develop and support a difficult hypothesis to explain a famously intractable problem using the methods of science, but who has now gone so far as to claim that a) a Hindu deity was a real person, b) he had many heads, and c) people didn’t see these heads but d) knew that he could have many faces, and e) understood them to be in an “apparent superposition”. What are we to make of this waterfall of nonsense?

His claims aren’t false because they’re unfalsifiable. Consider just one: Hameroff is postulating that macroscopic superposition could have been real (regarding the face of a human being, but let’s set that aside).

Quantum computers work by manipulating qubits, the smallest units of information in these machines, using quantum phenomena like superposition and entanglement. The computer’s result is the state to which the qubits’ superposition collapses. But unlike classical bits, which are made of semiconductors, qubits are very fragile systems and must be protected against external disturbances, even small amounts of electromagnetic radiation. If a qubit is disturbed, it will lose the ability to participate in the quantum computer in a process called decoherence.

To date, despite researchers’ best efforts, they haven’t built a quantum computer that completely eliminates errors arising out of decoherence. They also haven’t built quantum computers that can solve practical problems, like modelling stresses on a bridge or synthesising a drug with certain components either, meaning more complex machines will present more significant decoherence barriers. And quantum computers use subatomic (microscopic) particles as qubits.

There is no evidence to date of macroscopic objects being in perfect superposition, forget an entity as complicated and ‘noisy’ as a human face or body. Hameroff’s other claims require less explanation as to their absurdity.

There is a good chance he was invited to IIT Mandi with full knowledge of his views. Since 1994, Hameroff has been conducting a conference every year called ‘Science of Consciousness’, where some consciousness researchers present some notable ideas and results while others… Let me quote Tom Bartlett writing for The Guardian in 2018:

While the Science of Consciousness event has, technically, three programme chairs and an advisory committee, it is more or less The Stuart Show. He decides who will and who will not present. And, to put it nicely, not everyone is in love with the choices he makes. To put it less nicely: some consciousness researchers believe that the whole shindig has gone off the rails, that it is seriously damaging the field of consciousness studies, and that it should be shut down.

In 2012, Hameroff said,

“Let’s say the heart stops beating, the blood stops flowing, the microtubules lose their quantum state. The quantum information within the microtubules is not destroyed, it can’t be destroyed, it just distributes and dissipates to the universe at large. … If the patient is resuscitated, revived, this quantum information can go back into the microtubules and the patient says ‘I had a near death experience’. If they’re not revived, and the patient dies, it’s possible that this quantum information can exist outside the body, perhaps indefinitely, as a soul.”

In the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics, a superposition of states collapses into a single state when an observation is made on the system. What counts as an act of observation has been refined over the years: today, physicists understand that the collapse happens when the information required to describe the superposition is no longer locally available. In this sense, Hameroff’s delineation above seems to hew close to reality – but we have absolutely no way of saying that quantum information is the same as a soul!

As Jim Al-Khalili, an expert in quantum biology, said in 2020 about Orch-OR:

“There was some brief excitement about this idea initially, but I think very quickly most scientists said: ‘No, hang on a minute, just because quantum mechanics is mysterious and we don’t understand it and consciousness is mysterious and we don’t understand it, it doesn’t mean that the two have to be connected’.”

So Hameroff has been making dubious claims for a long time, including claims for at least a decade that overlook the differences between a knowledge system concerned with verifiable truths and the elimination of bias and one that is concerned with harmonising reality and perception regardless of tests – and the pitfalls of claiming that a ‘fact’ in one system could be wholly equivalent to a ‘fact’ in the other. To quote philosophy scholar S.K. Arun Murthi:

While [ancient Indian] systems of thought are called philosophical systems, they are unified in their aim: salvation and liberation of the soul. One question that has frequently been the topic of discussion in scholarly circles is whether Indian culture and civilisation really recognised an independent discipline called ‘philosophy’ as a discursive analytic tradition. The question arises because all its schools have been restricted to theological and soteriological concerns.

Surendranath Dasgupta even begins his aforementioned book with a note of caution, that Indian thought always manifested itself “in an yearning after the Infinite” and that “Hindus never busied themselves about the investigation of the laws of nature except in so far as it was connected with the general philosophical speculations”.

The other knowledge system, science, requires evidence, but Hameroff has none. Yet in May 2022 Hameroff again wrote:

“Light is the part of the electromagnetic spectrum that can be seen by the eyes of humans and animals – visible light. … Ancient traditions characterized consciousness as light. Religious figures were often depicted with luminous ‘halos’, and/or auras. Hindu deities are portrayed with luminous blue skin. And people who have ‘near death’ and ‘out of body’ experiences described being attracted toward a ‘white light’. In many cultures, those who have ‘awakened to the truth about reality’ are ‘enlightened’.”

(A few months earlier, Laxmidhar Behera, the director of IIT Mandi, had expressed belief and experience in exorcisms and that students should rid their friends’ parents of evil spirits using chants.)

Armchair logicians and social-media loudmouths will now interpret Hameroff’s talk as ‘evidence’ of ancient India’s intellectual supremacy and as his tacit endorsement of the physical reality of Hindu deities and the sophisticated ideas that sages and scholars of the time contemplated. Hameroff also says that “therapies aimed at microtubule resonance e.g. with painless, safe and pleasant brain ultrasound can treat mental and cognitive disorders”, extending a handle to many quacks already using quantum-physics gobbledygook to con unsuspecting care-seekers.

There may be some who truly believe such statements while others will wield it to further an agenda while knowing well that the claims are less than flimsy. Either way, the task in front of the debunker is much more devious: to set out not just the laws of nature and the methods of science but also the work of Hameroff and Penrose, the criticism against it, why expertise is not a carte blanche, the incommensurability of the knowledge systems involved, and the fine line between ‘absence of evidence’ and ‘evidence of absence’.