Friday, 10 March 2017

Coincidence, consciousness and quantum physics

Lent 2017 - Day 9

Arriving at Warsaw's Okęcie airport yesterday on the lunchtime BA flight, I crossed from the plane to the terminal building over the passenger boarding bridge. As I stepped on to it, I was suddenly minded of the disaster at Ramsgate harbour in 1994 when six people died as a result of a walkway collapse. "An unusual thought," I thought. As a frequent flyer I'm not often beset by thoughts of disasters, but here I was ruminating on collapsing bridges. I was still thinking about it on the other side of passport control, walking down the stairs towards the railway station. "The fact I've consciously thought about collapsing bridges means one thing is certain - a bridge won't collapse today," I thought.

So imagine my shock when, on the train, I swiped my phone and saw the BBC Breaking News headline: "Italy motorway bridge collapse kills two".

The tragedy occurred on the A14 motorway between Ancona and Loreto, the two victims, a husband and wife in a Nissan Qashqai were in precisely the wrong place at the wrong time. Behind them stopped short several vehicles whose occupants suddenly realised how close they were to an untimely death. A slightly faster burst of speed a bit earlier on...

Time.. the time of the accident? This is crucial to me. I checked a number of Italian news websites (Google and Google Translate are invaluable) and found it happened just before 14:00. I had my thought at around 14:45.

Cause, effect, coincidence?

There are some coincidences that are utterly meaningless, such as the time when Eddie got three tickets all with the same number - seat 12 in carriage 12 - for the same train from Warsaw to Łódź on three consecutive trips. What did this coincidence, with the odds against it being many thousands to one - mean? Nothing, as it happened.

But in this case? Maybe I'd have dismissed it as coincidence, forgotten it eventually, had not - by further coincidence, I not come across this article on the BBC website this morning. It is a long, and by no means easy, read. Is there some science between thoughts making their way across space and time?

I shall try to abridge it. But first, what's it about?
The perennial puzzle of consciousness has led some researchers to invoke quantum physics to explain it. That notion has always been met with scepticism, which is not surprising: it does not sound wise to explain one mystery with another. But such ideas are not obviously absurd, and neither are they arbitrary. 
For one thing, the mind seemed, to the great discomfort of physicists, to force its way into early quantum theory. What's more, quantum computers are predicted to be capable of accomplishing things ordinary computers cannot, which reminds us of how our brains can achieve things that are still beyond artificial intelligence. "Quantum consciousness" is widely derided as mystical woo, but it just will not go away.
So here we all are, conscious beings (some of us anyway), balancing constantly on the edge of chaos, aware that disaster can strike out of the blue; can we will it away by applying consciousness at it?

Can our thoughts actually - even in small measures - affect the course of events? Or can events beyond our field of vision affect the course of our thoughts?
Perhaps the most renowned of [quantum mechanics'] mysteries is the fact that the outcome of a quantum experiment can change depending on whether or not we choose to measure some property of the particles involved. 
When this "observer effect" was first noticed by the early pioneers of quantum theory, they were deeply troubled. It seemed to undermine the basic assumption behind all science: that there is an objective world out there, irrespective of us. If the way the world behaves depends on how – or if – we look at it, what can "reality" really mean?
Schrodinger's famous thought-experiment concerning the cat in the box with the decaying radioactive particle, leads up to the supposition that the cat is both alive and dead until the observer opens the box to check, The importance of the conscious observer into the outcome of a quantum experiment is then thus:
It is as if nature "knows" not just if we are looking, but if we are planning to look.
American theoretical physicist John Wheeler (1911-2008) took this further:
[He] even entertained the thought that the presence of living beings capable of "noticing" has transformed what was previously a multitude of possible quantum pasts into one concrete history. In this sense, Wheeler said, we become participants in the evolution of the Universe since its very beginning. In his words, we live in a "participatory universe."
Wow. The role of consciousness in the actual course of the unfolding of the Universe - mind-blowing stuff. The physical 'how' of what mechanisms are at work here are still a matter of conjecture (a number of them - which I cannot pretend to begin to understand - are expounded in this article).

So which is it? Orchestrated objective reduction? Quantum cognition that involve vibrations in  microtubules - protein strands found in the neurons in our brains? Quantum positions in the nuclei of phosphorous ions within our cells? Lithium isotopes? Different theories are at play here. But the conclusion is difficult even to the most sceptical of scientists to dismiss:
To this day, physicists do not agree on the best way to interpret these quantum experiments, and to some extent what you make of them is (at the moment) up to you. But one way or another, it is hard to avoid the implication that consciousness and quantum mechanics are somehow linked.
So - science suspects there is something going on. It's weak, hard to detect, hard to reproduce in the lab, still harder to find in the human brain. I certainly believe it's there, the deeper questions are what does this mean, and how can we use these effects? I doubt if I'll find out in this lifetime...

This time two years ago, Warsaw's M2 metro line opened:
It's been 19 years, 11 months and 1 day...

This time four years ago:
A selfless faith

This time five years ago:
Ul. Profesorska after the remont

This time six years ago:
Lent kicks off again, for the 20th year in a row for me

This time seven years ago:
Half way through Lent

This time nine years ago:
Spring much closer


Mat said...

Just a bit more food for thought - the idea that only observer can make the wave function collapse is actually an interpretation of quantum mechanics. This is what we're getting from Copenhagen interpretation of QM. My favourite interpretation is a Transactional Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics. Quoting Wikipedia:
In TIQM, the source emits a usual (retarded) wave forward in time, but it also emits an advanced wave backward in time; furthermore, the receiver, who is later in time, also emits an advanced wave backward in time and a retarded wave forward in time. A quantum event occurs when a "handshake" exchange of advanced and retarded waves triggers the formation of a transaction in which energy, momentum, angular momentum, etc. are transferred. The quantum mechanism behind transaction formation has been demonstrated explicitly for the case of a photon transfer between atoms in Sect. 5.4 of Carver Mead's book Collective Electrodynamics. In this interpretation, the collapse of the wavefunction does not happen at any specific point in time, but is "atemporal" and occurs along the whole transaction, and the emission/absorption process is time-symmetric. The waves are seen as physically real, rather than a mere mathematical device to record the observer's knowledge as in some other interpretations of quantum mechanics.
If brain can be sensitive to quantum states, then this interpretation can help us understand how this may work.

Michael Dembinski said...

@ Mat

Many thanks - good to know this is neither flaky woo nor New Age twaddle, but that there's some real science behind it.

Be interesting to come back to the subject next Lent to see how far science has advanced in the areas of consciousness and quantum mechanics.