Thursday, 1 March 2018

Linking subatomic physics to consciousness, via biology and the brain

Lent 2018: Day 16

My grasp of quantum mechanics is sketchy, but the basic notions of uncertainty and superposition  - defined only at the moment of conscious observation - I can just about understand. But how do we get from the electron to the human brain? Stuart A. Kauffman's Humanity in a Creative Universe promises to make that jump, but in the chapter in which he set out the main theory - that of the Poised Realm - I find myself out of my depths with the physics.

We are being asked to visualise a graph in which the x-axis goes from order, via criticality, to chaos. Wow! This I get. But then there's the y-axis... This goes from quantum coherence, via quantum decoherence, to quantum recoherence. Here I am lost. But this we must get if we are to understand Kauffman's Poised Realm concept, the world he proposes between the classic physics of Isaac Newton and the strange quantum world within the atom. This - he states - is nothing less than consciousness. A grand statement, but is it one I will accept? Or indeed an intellectually capable of accepting?

But how Kauffman got here is beyond me. I can only assume that the maths is right, that quantum coherence and decoherence, being proven phenomena (both of which I entirely fail to grasp), can be somehow related to the x-axis, or order sliding into chaos via criticality... This now needs to be taken to the point where practical experiments and further calculations are needed to see whether Kauffman is barking up the wrong tree, exhibiting some cognitive bias such as wishful thinking, or is indeed breaking new ground in philosophy and science.

Science has a habit of moving forward. "Until a decade ago, physicists had calculated that at a body temperature of 300K, that is [300 degrees centigrade] above absolute zero, [ie. +27C], decoherence would occur rapidly, and coherence would decay with a half-life of a femtosecond [10 to the power of minus 15]. All physicists agreed that important quantum effects could not happen within the warm, wet environment of a living body," notes Kauffman.

That was then. But in 2007, a group at University of California Berkeley measured quantum coherence in chlorophyll, the light-harvesting molecule crucial for photosynthesis. They found the electron was quantum-coherent for a thousand times longer than expected.This has been tested again since and it is now established that light-harvesting molecules demonstrate long-lived quantum coherence [whatever that means!].

The upshot of that 2007 experiment is that the field of quantum biology is taking off, says Kauffman. The search for the seat of human consciousness, which began in philosophy before spreading into neuroscience, is now extending further into the quantum world.

As science pushes its boundaries forward, old certainties are challenged, new frontiers uncovered, our understanding broadened. But where we are in regards to consciousness is utterly fundamental to our sense of self. Are we indeed just meat robots, automatons, who at best have the ability to witness, but not alter, the universe unfolding around us? "The Poised Realm," Kauffman tells us, "may transform our thinking in biology, mind/brain and beyond". The implications for organised religions are massive, by the way.

The crucial question in all this revolves around whether consciousness and will can have an effect on the physical world around us; if so, how - and to what extent. Kauffman's level-headed, scientific approach based on repeatable experiments and peer review keeps us away from New Age mysticism and spoon-bending. This is getting wobbly; it's not like he's either right or wrong - it may be that he's both right and wrong at the same time, neither and both, until someone opens the box.

More to follow.

This time last year:
Lent begins - the Big Questions

This time three years ago:
How does God speak to us? 

This time four years ago:
Spring makes itself felt in Ealing

This time five years ago:
Waiting for the warmth to return to Warsaw

This time six years ago:
Remembering Poland's 'Accursed Soldiers'

This time seven years ago:
Getting the balance right between work and play 

This time nine years ago:
Sublime Jeziorki sunset

This time ten years ago:
Sunrise getting earlier

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