Saturday, July 19, 2014

Quantum Consciousness?

The demarcation problem in science meets New Age tech talk.

What is science and what is not science? The difference is not terribly clear, an issue called the demarcation problem. Is theology a science of the supernatural realm? Is psi research on extrasensory perception science, as it uses scientific methods? Is string theory in physics science, even though its chances of empirical validation seem rather slim?

It isn't very clear. Science tends to be whatever scientists do and view as valid in their expert communities. Whacky ideas may migrate in from fringe areas, (atoms, endosymbiosis, plate tectonics, ulcer-causing bacteria), turning from non-science into science once evidence appears. Conversely, long-hallowed ideas within science may turn out to be complete rubbish, like space-ethers, geocentrism, and the medical humors. There is fringe - mainstream traffic, though it tends to be rather light these days, since mainstream scientists generally know what they are doing.

Unfortunately the fringe areas are enormous, populated by people highly motivated to push pet theories that tend to have some psychological motivator. Psi research is a good example, which responds to our hopeful magical thinking that somehow, some way, even though those darn materialists don't have a drop of imagination in their brains, humans can indeed sense the emotions of others far away, levitate objects, detect water through dousing rods, and see behind playing cards. At least a little, right?

The scientific fringe is part of a broader cultural miasma of misinformation, from Fox news to Herbalife to Koch political subversion to mundane political campaigns and commercial advertisements. We live in a flurry of BS coming at us from all directions, and typically, following the motivation and the funding source is a critical tool to gauge the truthiness of claims. Russia's shameless campaign of lying about Ukraine is perhaps the moment's most egregious and deadly example. So science is far from alone in living in a perilous epistemological swamp. It just tries to do a better job by way of disinterested institutions, public practices, empirical adjudication, and all the other standards that come under the so-called scientific method. Can we deploy such methods on interesting topics, or are they intrinsically confined to uninteresting ones?

The mother of all demarcation nightmares has been creationism. Otherwise known as creation science, or intelligent design. The motivation is obvious: support traditional intuitions (and some scriptural readings) to deny that humans are animals. Credentialed scientists have been deployed, glossy textbooks written, museums established, articles and books written, evidence cherry-picked, school boards subverted, all to push a theory that the scientific community dimissed many decades ago. But given enough science-y paraphernalia, they could make a decent case, at least in the popular media, that they were engaging in science. A spineless political system was reduced to mouthing the mantra that schools should "teach the controversy".

Thankfully that controversy has died down in recent years, and the professional community feels less threatened by cultural bulldozing. Nevertheless, the needle has hardly budged in the population at large, of which 42% believe in creationism outright, and 31% more believe that evolution was guided by god, which is pretty much the opposite of the whole point of evolutionary theory as currently understood. And abroad, the Islamic world is almost uniformly creationist. It is a testament to the strength of psychological intuitions and archetypes, as well as media echo chambers.

Some recent discussions have gotten me interested in another area of motivated science, which is quantum consciousness. Here, it is obvious that our intuition (and a great deal of theology) militates against a materialist view of the brain and mind. The mind-body "problem" has been perennial fodder for philosophy. Could our minds be the subjective product of nerve firings in our brains? No way! Despite the rather obvious empirical parameters that show just that, intuitionally-driven models have always looked elsewhere, invoking souls of various sorts, which typically have the added bonus of immortality, another intuited archetype. The latest version of this is the movement among philosophers to posit a cosmic consciousness (Nagel, Chalmers), which in hand-waving fashion hypothesizes that somehow, consciousness is a basic property of the cosmos, with Jain-ist particles of consciousness in every object, implying that such things as plants, and even rocks, may be conscious. It seems like a total surrender to obfuscation and mysticism, descending from the grandiose premise that, because they have been unable to figure out how it all works, no one else can either. Einstein may be able to get away with such foundational cosmic speculations, but even for him, it took more than handwaving about how no one could explain the speed of light.

One science-y form of this is quantum consciousness, where the mystery of consciousness is creatively linked to the very hard-science-y paradoxes of quantum mechanics to come up with .. something again quite vague, but the idea is that since quantum entanglement can allow instant communication of a sort at great distances, and perform outrageous computations, that this resolves those amazing capacities of our minds. Quantum mechanics has been drafted into numerous pseudoscience fields of this sort, actually.

The specific example of this field that is most advanced, in its quotient of science-y tech-talk and academic paraphernalia, is the Orch-OR theories propounded by Stuart Hameroff and Roger Penrose. Penrose is a Sir, and an eminent physicist and mathematician. Hameroff is a professor of anesthesiology and psychology at the University of Arizona. Their output of papers has been prodigious, and they host an annual conference on the topic, funded by Deepak Chopra's foundations among other interested parties. They are not charlatans, really, but I think they have totally lost the thread in this case. They present a magisterial review of their own theory in 2014.

Penrose starts off by laying the premise of their case- that due to Kurt Gödels' work, the human ability to be certain about things is mathematically impossible, which necessitates a non-conventional solution to consciousness.
"Critical of the viewpoint of ‘strong artificial intelligence’ (‘strong AI’), according to which all mental processes are entirely computational, both books [by Penrose] argued, by appealing to Gödel's theorem and other considerations, that certain aspects of human consciousness, such as understanding, must be beyond the scope of any computational system, i.e. ‘non-computable’. ...  The non-computable ingredient required for human consciousness and understanding, Penrose suggested, would have to lie in an area where our current physical theories are fundamentally incomplete, though of important relevance to the scales that are pertinent to the operation of our brains." 
"As shown by Gödel's theorem, Penrose described how the mental quality of ‘understanding’ cannot be encapsulated by any computational system and must derive from some ‘non-computable’ effect. Moreover, the neurocomputational approach to volition, where algorithmic computation completely determines all thought processes, appears to preclude any possibility for independent causal agency, or free will. Something else is needed. What non-computable factor may occur in the brain?"

Well, the fact is that humans are not that certain about things. Religions may be, but that is an emotional, not a formal, issue. We operate by Bayesian statistics, where new evidence alters our beliefs, which are always tentative and evolving as we gain experience, at least for those who are empirically engaged at all. We are not operating from a tight set of axioms, per the Gödellian system, which we transcend to understand novel or paradoxical truths in some inexplicable way (it only seems that way on LSD!). So this premise seems rather nonsensical, and the whole project starts off on a very sour note. Not only that, but the authors then go on to propose a solution (with quantum qubits migrating in microtubules) that, first, is physically impossible in the brain, and second, doesn't evade Gödel's theory anyhow, being just another form of computation. In Gödel's terms, we are very incomplete systems, whether quantum or not, but seem to get by despite that.

Hameroff's part is to focus on microtubules, which he has identified as the locus of consciousness by way of his studies of anesthesia. In mainstream science, microtubules are cytoskeletal structures, play a central role in orchestrating mitosis and cell shape, and serve as roads for the transport of cargo, which is particularly relevant in neurons, where the distance between the cell nucleus / body and its far projections can be measured in feet. These cells need constant traffic of cargoes over the microtubule network to maintain function.

His proposal is that general anesthetics work by destabilizing microtubules in the brain, or at least their quantum computations. This is itself, apart from its implications in quantum consciousness, a fringe hypothesis. Current thinking in the field is very focused on ion channels and neurotransmitter receptors as the targets, though it has been difficult to pin down the specifics. General anesthetics tend to be membrane-soluble, which leads to hypotheses about their having very broad effects on membranes (not a strong theory on its own anymore) or on proteins embedded in membranes which would naturally bind to hydrophobic chemicals as they do to membrane lipids. It doesn't help one fringe hypothesis to be dependent another one like this, for even if consciousness is not solved soon, the target of anesthesia is likely to be, by normal progress in the mainstream of neuroscience / molecular biology.

One mainstream review states:
"Anesthetics are pharmacological agents that target specific central nervous system receptors. Once they bind to their brain receptors, anesthetics modulate remote brain areas and end up interfering with global neuronal networks, leading to a controlled and reversible loss of consciousness."

It is worth noting that Penrose and Hameroff's review is extensively referenced, with citations to some work that shows, for instance, that microtubules can bind anesthetics. But this was done at such high concentrations, and found among so many other proteins that also bind, that it looks like clutching at straws. They even resort to a little bit of lying, towards the end where they enumerate predictions of their theory:
"Actions of psychoactive drugs, including antidepressants, involve neuronal microtubules. This [prediction] indeed appears to be the case. Fluoxitene (Prozac) acts through microtubules [167]; anesthetics also act through MTs [86]."

The anesthetic cited here is anthracene, which is more a poison and general chemical than an anesthetic. It is not used in medicine at all. There are plenty of chemicals that will knock out frogs (which were the subject here) without telling us much about anesthetics as a specific class. The Prozac reference is highly problematic as well, since Prozac is called an SSRI for a reason. It binds to and inhibits serotonin uptake pumps, and that is thought to be its primary mode of action. If it binds (at again, very high concentrations) to microtubules as cited, that would be a side-effect, not the primary mode of action. Additionally, if microtubule dynamics are altered to some degree by this drug, why do all the other SSRIs with different structures work? The only thing they have in common is their binding and inhibition of the serotonin transporter. This kind of highly selective, indeed misleading, citing is a big red flag, to add to the red flag of psychological motivation.

At the core of the vast enterprise is the propostion that somehow, gravitation, quantum mechanics, and microtubules hosting qubits impinge somehow on their host neurons help their computations escape the Gödellian trap ... and simultaneously constitute atoms of consciousness:
"The Orch-OR [orchestrated objective reduction] scheme adopts DP [Diósi–Penrose objective reduction, which is a version of a quantum gravity theory] as a physical proposal, but it goes further than this by attempting to relate this particular version of OR to the phenomenon of consciousness. Accordingly, the ‘choice’ involved in any quantum state-reduction process would be accompanied by a (miniscule) proto-element of experience, which we refer to as a moment of proto-consciousness, but we do not necessarily refer to this as actual consciousness for reasons to be described."

So a choice made by qubits in this scheme is instantaneous, solving the timing issues that makes free will impossible in a normal materialist theory. It also reflects the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics where an observer must be invoked to collapse (reduce) the wave function of quantum entities like electrons. The tiny observers apparently add up, in the end, to what we experience as consciousness.
"Consciousness results from discrete physical events; such events have always existed in the universe as non-cognitive, proto-conscious events, these acting as part of precise physical laws not yet fully understood. Biology evolved a mechanism to orchestrate such events and to couple them to neuronal activity, resulting in meaningful, cognitive, conscious moments and thence also to causal control of behavior. These events are proposed specifically to be moments of quantum state reduction (intrinsic quantum “self-measurement”)."

One problem, among very many, is that this sets up another mind-body conundrum. In the religious soul theories, the soul is immaterial, so it is hard to explain how it receives perceptions from the brain and injects its decisions back into that brain, which is at least acknowledged as the conduit for human behavior and sensation, if not its computational processor. Some interface is required, like the pineal gland in the system of Descarte. But in such an interface, how are physical atoms moved by immaterial, supernatural entities? There is no easy way to deal with this, other than waving it away with assertions of pan-soul-ism, where there is no localized interface, and the soul pervades everthing in some magical way.

With the microtubules, the authors claim that they might communicate with each other across the brain via gap junctions, which are small portals leading directly from one cell to another. But not only does normal nerve conduction show little effect from these junctions, indicating that they are typically not highly connected with other cells, but microtubules from one cell do not enter other cells through such junctions, (they stop at the border), so there really can't be a direct network. So the authors back up and say that the microtubules might affect their host nerve function, which then makes the whole theory nearly pointless, since a mere potentiation of normal nerve function gets us back into normal neurobiology and whatever that can accomplish in generating consciousness.
"The most logical strategic site for coherent microtubule Orch OR and consciousness is in post-synaptic dendrites and soma (in which microtubules are uniquely arrayed and stabilized) during integration phases in integrate-and-fire brain neurons. Synaptic inputs could ‘orchestrate’ tubulin states governed by quantum dipoles, leading to tubulin superposition in vast numbers of microtubules all involved quantum-coherently together in a large-scale quantum state, where entanglement and quantum computation takes place during integration. The termination, by OR, of this orchestrated quantum computation at the end of integration phases would select microtubule states which could then influence and regulate axonal firings, thus controlling conscious behavior."

One might also note in passing that the superposition of vast numbers of coherent entangled quantum entities in the brain is judged impossible by experts in the relevant fields. They have been laboring mightily to set up qubit computers in vacuums near absolute zero with handfuls of electrons. The idea that this could be done easily on a massive scale in the liquid, warm brain would cause some surprise and shock.

In the end, despite the intense New Age interest in this kind of speculation, and its extensive scholarly apparatus, it is at the far-out fringe of brain studies. At a regular neuroscience conference, Hameroff attends, but the issue of quantum consciousness is nowhere else in sight. A physicist comes with a stray poster that also invokes quantum computation, but the session devoted to mechanisms of consciousness is cleanly and clearly mainstream. They are not interested. In demarcation terms, Hameroff and colleagues have academic positions and publish their thoughts, but these are not fruitful thoughts, as they use heavily cherry-picked data for support, and sponsor no evident empirical progress in their program, which thus remains an edifice of rather wild speculation.

I am knowledgeable, but not an expert, and to me, it looks like a big snow job more than a serious scientific theory, from premises through the elaborate contents, to the conclusions. At its heart, there is a -magic happens here- kind of quality to the invocations of quantum effects that are supposed to solve non-problems like free will, or significant problems like subjective consciousness that are best left as single problems rather than compounded with significant mysteries from radically separate fields like quantum gravity.

There is also an unwillingness to recognize the great deal of mainstream work that undermines the theory. For instance, consciousness is quite well timed in its occurrence relative to other brain events like perception and willed action. There is no reason to demand instantaneous action / computation when it is well known that consciousness trails perceptions by hundreds of milliseconds, and also trails various types of reflex actions and even the opening phenomena of willed actions by similar amounts. It has a function of global integration and monitoring, rest assured. But intuition is, as usual, a poor guide to what is really going on.

Another issue is the localization of consciousness. Is your liver conscious? Are your toe nails? I don't think so, which speaks to the plausibility of cosmic consciousness theories implying the consciousness of rocks, plants, etc. Indeed, most processes in the brain are unconscious. Yet all neurons have microtubules in profusion, indeed all cells do, so theories connecting their cosmic capabilities with consciousness turn on their specific arrangement or augmentation, which ends up little better, indeed far worse, than mainstream theories about the arrangement, connectivity, and other properties of nerve cells whose relationship to thought is rather more plausible.


  1. Supplementary note on anesthetics- in model systems, ion channels are even more closely associated with anesthetic action. This paper on halothane in C. elegans is an example.

  2. Here is a recent review of the field of anesthetics.

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