Well it's the weekend and this blog has been covering some arcane ground in the debate about science and faith. So here's an email exchange prompted by this blog between Stuart Hameroff from the University of Arizona and Sam Harris. It's long and if you're uninterested, skip to the next post. But I find it fascinating to observe two minds engaging each other on these fundamental issues. Hameroff emailed me first about Sam's comments about the Big Wow theory I posted about here. Here's Stuart's email:
I am writing because my work was mentioned in the 'Big Wow' post by James Greer in the context of your discussion with Sam Harris. The controversial theory of consciousness I developed with Sir Roger Penrose (called Orch OR for orchestrated objective reduction) can potentially bridge the gap between science and soul.
Granted, there are still many gaps in neuroscience into which a soul might still be inserted, just as there are gaps in our understanding of the cosmos into which the faithful eagerly insert God, but such maneuvers are utterly without intellectual merit.
I strongly disagree that Orch OR is without intellectual merit and challenge Sam to show that it is.
First, by soul I mean that consciousness (and/or unconscious processes) may be accompanied by: 1) nonlocal interconnectedness among living beings, 2) interaction with a Platonic wisdom, or cosmic intelligence inherent in the universe, and 3) existence outside the body.
I am not claiming proof of the soul, but of a scientifically plausible explanation for it based on these three factors. The potential explanation involves quantum theory, a poorly understood but indisputably accurate field of science. Orch OR proposes that consciousness is a sequence of momentary frames, or conscious events occurring in the brain roughly 40 times per second (faster or slower depending on arousal etc), coupled to high frequency EEG brain waves called gamma synchrony.
Each conscious moment is a quantum event – a coalescence of unconscious quantum possibilities to definite values … a collapse of the wave function, or quantum state reduction. The particular values selected in each reduction define conscious experience and control behavior.
Roger Penrose suggested such events are reconfigurations at the most basic, irreducible level of Einstein's spacetime continuum, called the Planck scale (describable by quantum gravity, string theory etc). Infinitesimally smaller than atoms or quarks, the Planck scale is quantized and nonrandom – it has specific geometry, information and logic.
Plato had suggested an abstract world of pure truth, form, aesthetic and ethical values. Beginning with mathematical laws, Penrose placed Plato’s world in patterns of Planck scale geometry. So the fundamental Planck scale may encode the cosmic blueprint … Platonic information embedded (perhaps evolving) since the Big Bang (Big Wow?) in nonlocal patterns in quantum logic repeating at varying scales…like a hologram throughout the universe. Call it quantum logic of the universe (QLU).
In his 1989 book The Emperor's New Mind, Penrose suggested that such information/logic could influence our conscious perceptions and choices. Although Penrose avoided any reference to religion or spirituality, others were struck by potential analogies to divine guidance, the way of the Tao, may the force be with you, etc.
Penrose didn't have a good neurobiological structure for quantum computation in the brain, but I did. Since 1972 I had studied computing capabilities of microtubules – structural lattices inside neurons which organize their activities. I also knew that anesthetic gases selectively erase consciousness solely through very weak quantum forces. Roger and I teamed up and put forth our Orch OR model based on quantum computing in microtubules in 1994.
Neuroscience and mainstream philosophy attacked our theory even before it was published, and continue to do so. Nonetheless Orch OR remains viable, completely consistent with known neuroscience and can also account for aspects of the soul.
1) Interconnectedness among living beings can be accounted for by nonlocal quantum entanglement. 2) Interaction with cosmic intelligence may be influence by Penrose noncomputable Platonic wisdom embedded in Planck scale geometry. 3) Existence outside the body: According to Orch OR, consciousness occurs at the fundamental level of Planck scale geometry, normally in and around microtubules between our ears. But when brain coherence is lost, quantum information related to consciousness and the unconscious mind remain in the universe, distributed but still entangled.
So I believe that science can in principle accommodate the soul through the application of quantum mechanics to neuroscience.
In a strange twist, atheist scientists and philosophers (Sam Harris – whom I met at the Beyond Belief conference in La Jolla – is actually one of the more reasonable ones) have become “holier-than-thou”. However the neurocomputational model on which they base their case for how the brain produces consciousness is flawed, as I show in a forthcoming paper in the journal Cognitive Science.
I would like to hear Sam’s comments on this paper, and would be happy to debate him or anyone else on whether science can provide a plausible explanation for the soul. I say yes.
One final comment. Sam also said
"While I spend a fair amount of time thinking about the brain (as I am finishing my doctorate in neuroscience), I do not think that the utter reducibility of consciousness to matter has been established. It may be that the very concepts of mind and matter are fundamentally misleading us."
I agree. Although Descartes separated mind and matter, it is logical to assume they both derive from a common underlying entity, e.g. the doctrine of neutral monism, put forth by Spinoza whose common underlying entity was a God responsible for the scientific laws and harmony of the universe. Modern physics indicates both matter and mind derive from Planck scale geometry.
Sam replied to Stuart as follows, and Stuart responded. Here's the exchange in a fisk-like dialogue. Sam's response is in italics.
I'm not sure what I wrote that got construed as an attack upon Orch OR. There is nothing about my criticism of religious faith that entails materialism. Whenever I get the chance, I am very quick to say that I do not know what the relationship between consciousness and matter is. While I have never understood how your microtubule account solves "the hard problem" or closes the "explanatory gap," this is a very different criticism than I have leveled at religion. And I have never said (or thought) that what you and Penrose are doing is "without intellectual merit."
Thanks … as I said in my post to Andrew, you are among the more reasonable of the people I met at the La Jolla conference. I could only stay there one day but Paul Davies said that after I left you endorsed what might be construed as a secular Buddhist position. Is that true? Comparisons between Buddhism and quantum physics go way back.
I do not rule out the possibility of our finding some sound, scientific reasons to believe in things that appear very spooky to most scientists at present–from telepathy to mathematical idealism. And the fact that I do not rule such things out has made many atheists uncomfortable.
Good for you.
I do not foresee, however, our finding good reasons to believe that the Bible was dictated by an omniscient being who disapproves of sodomy but occasionally fancies human sacrifice. These claims really do strike me as being "without intellectual merit." Of course, on this and all fronts, I remain open to compelling evidence.
I agree with you. My take is that there exists a fundamental Platonic wisdom embedded in the Planck scale (along with qualia, spin, charge etc) which has inspired mankind to write the great books and act 'in the name of God'….but man being man, many such efforts are misdirected, coopted and perverted.
I defined the soul in such a way to be agnostic…(which is what you are sounding like rather than atheist) But I was responding to your comment
Granted, there are still many gaps in neuroscience into which a soul might still be inserted, … but such maneuvers are utterly without intellectual merit.
By implication at least, Orch OR is one such maneuver "utterly without merit". Are there any others based on sound science?
But lets talk about faith vs reason. In my article in press in Cognitive Science (on my website – have a look please, since you are a neuroscientist – I argue that the faith of neuroscientists (based on brain=mind=computer) that conventional neurocomputation accounts for consciousness is illogical and refuted by evidence. Reason is NOT on the side of the neuroscientists.
I'll continue my own debate with Sam next week. The last two posts in our blogalogue are here and here. But this has been for me at least a fascinating diversion. I also found out that Stuart Hameroff is Bob Kaplan's cousin – yes the Bob Kaplan who writes for the Atlantic and whose book was the focus of our book club a few years ago. Small world.