Morality at the Planck Scale: A Chat with Stuart Hameroff

Morality at the Planck Scale: A Chat with Stuart Hameroff

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“Assume consciousness is indeed occurring at the level of fundamental spacetime geometry at the Planck scale,” says Stuart Hameroff, a professor in the departments of anesthesiology and psychology at the University of Arizona, “connected to our brains by quantum processes in microtubules. Then if the brain stops working the quantum information at the Planck scale could persist and remain coherent because of quantum entanglement, leaking out into spacetime geometry outside the head. It’s possible that the soul could be a particular distributed pattern in fundamental spacetime geometry at the Planck scale.”

Now, this, if true, could create interesting problems and possibilities. Consider a future debate in medical ethics about brain death occurring at the quantum level, for instance. Or the notions of personal responsibility, as Hameroff notes:

“Either evil is implicit at the Planck scale along with good, or evil people are wired differently biologically for whatever reason and are influenced in an aberrant way. But even so-called good people must allow themselves to be influenced by Platonic values rather than ignoring or over-riding them due to some needs or gratification.”

Today’s interview is part of an ongoing discussion with serious thinkers about life, the universe, and everything conducted by New York based writer and editor Jill Neimark. Previous interviewees include physicists ChrisIsham, Antony Valentini, and Marcelo Gleiser; cosmologist Lee Smolin; theoretical biologist Stuart Kauffman; Catholic theologian Mariano Artigas; and philosopher of science Sherrilyn Roush.

-Stacey E. Ake


Dr. Stuart R. Hameroff is a Professor in the Departments of Anesthesiologyand of Psychology, and Associate Director of the Center for Consciousness Studies at the University of Arizona in Tucson. He divides his time between clinical practice and teaching of anesthesiology in the surgical operating rooms at University of Arizona Medical Center, and research into the mechanism of consciousness.

Q: You’re an anesthesiologist who’s exploring the frontiers of consciousness research. What are the links between the two?

A: In medical school I became interested in how the brain produced consciousness, and thought I’d go into a specialty like neurology or psychiatry. But in 1975 the Chairman of Anesthesiology at the University of Arizona—a renaissance clinician/scientist named Burnell Brown—suggested that to understand consciousness I should study how general anesthetics work. Anesthesia is a tangible physical process acting on an otherwise unmeasurable phenomenon, and the mechanism was, and still is, largely unknown. Anesthesia is powerful but subtle. The right amount of anesthesia erases consciousness while other brain functions continue. The gas anesthetics are the most interesting because they work by very weak, purely physical, quantum-mechanical interactions. They don’t form chemical or ionic bonds of any kind, they’re not polar molecules, they don’t bind to receptors and they can be inert. For example the inert gas xenon is an anesthetic. Anesthetics are very soluble in lipid environments, and in fact their potency directly correlates with their lipid solubility. So for many years it was assumed that since neural membranes are mostly lipids, gas anesthetics worked by getting into lipid portions of neural membranes and impairing their function. But in the 1980s it was realized that anesthetics work directly on proteins which account for the dynamic actions of membranes, for example protein receptors and ion channels. Within proteins are specific tiny pockets that are lipid-like and it turned out that anesthetic gas molecules were sucked into these little pockets. Once there, the anesthetic molecules didn’t form chemical bonds like other drugs, but bound only by very weak quantum forces known as van der Waals London forces. One or two anesthetic molecules per protein were enough to do the trick. The question is, why would such very, very weak quantum mechanical forces in such tiny regions of certain proteins have such profound effects? The answer seems to be that proteins normally dance back and forth between different forms and shapes to perform their functions and what controls the dancing are quantum mechanical forces in these pockets—the pockets are like the tiny brain within each protein. What choreographs them all together is quantum coherence. It seems that brain proteins dance synchronously due to coherence among quantum actions in the pockets throughout wide regions of the brain. So by forming their own quantum interactions in the pockets, anesthetics inhibit normally occurring quantum mechanical forces necessary for consciousness.

Q: You speculate that there has to be a certain biological complexity in order to actually give rise to genuine consciousness. If I recall correctly, you suggest that consciousness probably arises once we get to the evolutionary complexity of a nematode worm. That sounds like emergence to me, although your view of emergence is richer and more complex than a simple brain-as-neuronal-network paradigm.

A: The standard answer to how we get consciousness is definitely emergence, the idea that sufficiently complex computation among the brain’s neurons produces consciousness. The basic idea that a critical level of complexity in a hierarchical system gives rise to new novel properties is important in nature, for example wetness out of water, and hurricanes out of dust and gas molecules. A candle flame is an emergent phenomenon—emergence is real. But on the other hand none of these recognized emergent phenomena are conscious, though there are equations which predict the onset of their emergence. There’s no equation or prediction for how many neurons interacting in any particular way will produce consciousness. Artificial intelligence people would like there to be such an equation so that sufficiently complex computers can be conscious, but there isn’t. Just saying consciousness emerges from complexity is like waving a magic wand and trying to pull a rabbit out of a hat. Emergence may be part of the story but I think consciousness must be related to something irreducible, or fundamental.

Q: You’ve suggested that consciousness arises when the quantum wave function collapses in structures in the brain’s neurons called microtubules. Are you saying that collapse is an emergent phenomenon?

A: That depends on what type of collapse, or reduction, you’re talking about, and few people agree on this. If you have a quantum wave function—a quantum superposition of multiple coexisting possibilities for example—which interacts with its classical environment it is said to decohere, a type of collapse. Interaction with a classical, non-quantum system destroys the quantum state. But if a quantum system remains isolated and avoids environmental decoherence, then what? This is the enigma of Schrodinger’s cat in a box which remains in quantum superposition of both dead and alive until the box is opened. Roger Penrose’s idea is that any quantum superposition will eventually reach a specific, objective threshold for collapse, or reduction, thus objective reduction, or OR. His rationale is that quantum superposition is actually a separation in underlying reality—the universe shreds at its most basic level. This is something like the multiple worlds hypothesis in which every superposition branches off to form a new universe. However in Roger’s view these separations are unstable and after a specific time will reduce and choose one reality or the other.

Q: How did you and Penrose get together?

A: Roger had proposed that quantum computation which reduced by this type of OR self-collapse was the essential feature in consciousness, so you could say that consciousness emerged when OR occurred. Initially Roger didn’t have a good structural candidate in the brain for such occurrences. I had been studying the microtubules within neurons and thought they acted like some type of computational device because their structure and functions resembled computers. I suggested to Roger that microtubules might be performing the quantum computation with OR he was looking for. So we teamed up and developed a model of consciousness in which the microtubule quantum processes were orchestrated by inputs from the synapses and we called it orchestrated objective reduction, now known as Orch OR.

Q: So what constitutes a conscious event?

A: Each Orch OR is essentially a conscious event, and a sequence of these events is our stream of consciousness. From the indeterminacy principle we could predict, for example, how many microtubules and how many neurons would be involved in conscious events which occur on a time scale matching physiological events known to occur in the brain. So for example we can have conscious events forty times per second. Looking at evolution, very simple organisms have fewer microtubules and so would require a long time until reaching threshold for a conscious event. Even a single electron in isolated superposition would eventually have an OR conscious event, but not for ten million years.

Q: Then where does consciousness begin?

A: A single cell organism would require a few minutes of quantum isolation which seems unlikely although single cell paramecia are absolutely still during sex, so maybe primitive sexual experience was the first form of consciousness. It turns out that at the level of roughly 300 neurons the time scale becomes reasonable to maintain quantum coherent superposition. That’s about one tenth of a second. This is the level of small urchins and worms such as the nematode you mentioned, organisms similar to those present at the beginning of the Cambrian evolutionary explosion. This was the period about 540 million years ago when all the animal phyla appeared on the scene. So maybe that’s when consciousness emerged and accelerated evolution.

Q: I’ve come to think of myself as an aspectist, in the tradition of Spinoza. He believed that mind and body were just two aspects of an underlying, absolute reality. How would you classify yourself?

A: I don’t disagree with that but I’d call myself a panprotopsychist—the notion that whatever gives rise to consciousness is implicit and exists inherently everywhere in the universe. Protoconsciousness is an irreducible, fundamental feature of the universe like spin or charge waiting to be acted upon to produce consciousness. One philosopher who took a comparable view was Whitehead. He said the precursor of conscious experience was everywhere in the universe, and also that the universe is a process, made up of events rather than things. He viewed consciousness as a sequence of events, occasions of experience, occurring in a wider field of protoconscious experience. Whitehead’s occasions of experience are compatible with and perhaps equivalent to quantum state reductions, for example Roger Penrose’s OR events. Here we finally have a connection between philosophy and science.

Q: So you believe the universe is, in part, built of protoconsciousness.

A: Roger’s OR is based on the idea that quantum superpositions are separations at the most basic level of the universe at the Planck scale. So you ask yourself, what is this basic level? What is the universe made of? Even mass is not fundamental according to Einstein. Atoms are mostly empty space as is most of the universe. So what is the universe made of? This argument has been going on since the Greeks. Is there a background fabric, or just an empty void? In the last few decades there’s been a lot of intense work trying to understand the background pattern of the universe. It turns out that as we go down in scale, well below the size of atoms, things are smooth and featureless until we get to the apparent basement level of the universe known as the Planck scale, some 25 orders of magnitude smaller than atoms. Empty space seems smooth but at the Planck scale things get coarse and irregular, with a vast amount of information and energy. It’s kind of like viewing the surface of the ocean from an airplane at 33,000 feet. The ocean seems smooth but if you were on the surface in a small boat you’d be tossed about by waves. How can we describe the Planck scale, basically quantum gravity? String theory has tried, but others, for example Lee Smolin, argue for spin networks, based on Roger Penrose’s original idea that at this level everything is spin. The universe is made of spiderwebs of spin which define ultrasmall Planck volumes, or pixels of reality.

Q: Pixels of reality. That’s a fetching image.

A: I’m oversimplifying it, but the number of possible shapes and edges and spins for each pixel is huge, and the number of pixels for example in the volume of our brains is incredibly vast. So the amount of information at the Planck scale is absolutely mind-boggling, and its also nonlocal—that is distributed, something like a hologram.

Q: So how do you tie this into panpsychism?

A: Everything—matter, energy, you name it—comes from curvatures, patterns and other properties originating at the Planck scale. If consciousness does have some fundamental, irreducible precursor it must originate as some sort of pattern at the same basic level of the universe. Philosophers call the raw components of conscious experience qualia. We’re suggesting that qualia are specific patterns or properties at the Planck scale. Why not? If there’s something fundamental and irreducible about consciousness or its precursors, as Spinoza and Whitehead said, then it has to exist somewhere. The Planck scale is all there is.

Q: But you usually don’t translate from that level to this one we’re living in. There isn’t a direct correlation.

A: Ah but there is. That’s the beauty of Roger’s objective reduction. It’s a bridge between the Planck scale and our everyday world, described by one simple equation—the uncertainty principle. Our brains, and our microtubules, make the connection. If our conscious experience is a compilation of fundamental qualia, then we’re like a painter with a palette. All the individual colors are on the palette, and the artist takes a little of this, a little of that, and gets a Mona Lisa. So the colors are like the patterns of fundamental spacetime geometry from which processes in our brain select particular sets for each conscious moment. And if qualia are fundamental and exist at the Planck scale, then why not Platonic values like truth and beauty, good and evil.

Q: But you can already explain things like ethics, for instance, with Darwinian evolution. You don’t need this explanation.

A: Ideas about beauty, for example, may change, for various cultural reasons if nothing else. But mathematical truth is constant as far as we can tell. In any case, as Smolin points out, even the Planck scale structure of spin networks has a dynamic evolution.

Q: Then you’re a Platonist!

A: A Platonic naturalist I’d say, implying that Platonic values exist in a physical sense. That’s what makes sense to me.

Q: What about near death experiences? You’ve said you may have an explanation for them that has to do with the quantum effects in the microtubules.

A: Assume consciousness is indeed occurring at the level of fundamental spacetime geometry at the Planck scale, connected to our brains by quantum processes in microtubules. Then if the brain stops working the quantum information at the Planck scale could persist and remain coherent because of quantum entanglement, leaking out into spacetime geometry outside the head. It’s possible that the soul could be a particular distributed pattern in fundamental spacetime geometry at the Planck scale. I’d like to think that, anyway. It’s sort of reassuring.

Q: How has all this theorizing affected your life?

A: It’s enhanced my spiritual nature. I more or less rejected organized religion a long time ago. I like the idea that spirituality and God and consciousness could be part of the universe in a scientific way. I’m not saying we’ve explained these concepts because the more we learn the more we realize we don’t know. It’s very humbling to peel off one layer and find out how much more there is. Just consider the vastness at the Planck scale. If you take the sum total of this nonlocal, interconnected information and the idea of embedded Platonic values, that’s pretty consistent with the idea of an omniscient, omnipresent, beneficent being.

Q: So is evil at the Planck scale?

A: Either evil is implicit at the Planck scale along with good, or evil people are wired differently biologically for whatever reason and are influenced in an aberrant way. But even so-called good people must allow themselves to be influenced by Platonic values rather than ignoring or over-riding them due to some needs or gratification.

Q: You’ve got a conference coming up this spring that discusses quantum mind.

A: Yes, it’s called “Quantum Mind 2003: Consciousness, quantum physics and the brain” and it will be held in Tucson March 15-19, 2003. Consciousness has played a role in quantum mechanics all the way back to the question of the observer effect. Quantum information technology including quantum computers are coming along very rapidly and will bring these ideas to the forefront soon. In every historical era we’ve compared our brains and minds to the vanguard information processing technologies so it will soon seem more natural to believe we have quantum computers in our heads. Critics point out that quantum computers need extreme cold to avoid decoherence, but we suspect evolution has solved that problem and we think we know how. In any case the decoherence debate will be one of the topics to be discussed. Information about the conference is Thanks for asking.