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Quantum Approaches to Consciousness (2015) (stanford.edu)
48 points by lainon on June 1, 2017 | hide | past | favorite | 74 comments

Philosophers latched onto the idea of QM in consciousness bc they thought the randomness aspect left room for free will. Of course it doesn't, any more than hooking up an axe over your head that will only drop if a certain atom decays means that you can now choose the time of your death. The point being we don't control the randomness, it evolves according to the laws of QM and therefore there is no role at all for "choice" to play. Also observe that a rock has the same level of access to the underlying randomness of QM and we don't say it has free will. Even if the human brain propagates the randomness upwards to larger systems, there is still no choice in how that is done. Theoretically, it is possible for a rock to exhibit crazy quantum behavior every once in awhile as well.

Of course, free will is an inconsistent notion predicated on the idea that there is a "you" separate from "your chemicals" that would do something different if only that dang physics would let it. But separate yourself from your chemicals and you don't get free will, you get literally nothing. People don't realize the implicit dualism in all of this free will stuff

The "randomness" of QM is merely an aspect of the discipline humans have designed, in order to digest the predictable parts of the systems examined.

We know, that due to differences of scale, and due to the fact that we must make predictions about systems in motion, as they exist, we must divorce ourselves from the concept of control.

But, the "randomness" is not assuredly an innate component of reality. It is simply how we deal with the circumstances as they have happened to confront us.

We have a tool that we use, in order to inspect reality. The information that the tool provides to us is practical and useful, but still represents only an estimate of unknowable facts.

You seem to be expounding the idea of local realism a la Albert Einstein

> "God does not play dice with the universe."

So you're in good company. However, it's more complicated than it appears and most physicists do not agree.

The randomness in QM is different and deeper than that which appears classically. For example, a coin flip isn't really random: if we can measure the coin's weight and the imparted momentum precisely enough we can predict the result. In QM this is fundamentally impossible, a measurement of a superposition state produces a random outcome. It's not merely and expression of our lack of knowledge of the underlying facts. Experimental violations of Bell's inequality demonstrate that there are no underlying facts in QM (called 'hidden variables'). https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bell%27s_theorem

Unless you accept one of:

A) There is no free will: we are all enacting a clockwork fate. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Superdeterminism

B) Non-locality (faster than light interactions between distant systems)

It sound like you may already accept A, in which case fair enough!

My statement was written in such a way, so as to deliberately avoid this part of the conversation, forcing you're use of the word "seem" to be injected into your conclusion.

I am aware of the charged concepts of Bell's Theorem, Fate and Determinism and the interplay of Quantum Entanglement and that unique quirk of particle spins seeming to solidify into concrete realities, only after observation.

Basically, I'm taking the position of the agnostic, and concluding nothing. I am aware of the conflicts and debates you've enumerated, and eliciting no opinion or stance.

What I am saying, is that all of these things I've avoided are human interpretations of observed realities for now, and remain mostly unresolved, with neither side really giving in, regardless of numbers and head count on either side.

I think you make an important point, which if I understand correctly is that it's easy for lay persons to overlook the interpretive nature of QM (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Interpretations_of_quantum_mec...). Do most people know that QM or new theories that describe nature more comprehensively may not even require randomness at all? I know this starts to stray off the mainstream path but the point is nothing is set in stone and in fact, we can already be certain there's more to the story.

I think pop science is so important when done well, not withstanding the problems and pitfalls that come with it. But it seems damn hard to get across some of these subtleties in an easy to understand but still meaningful way. Maybe when the next generation of science does a better job of unifying things it will be somehow easier to grok for all of us.

Your views sound outdated. There is a "you" separate from "your chemicals". In the same way a character in a video game is in fact very separate from the transistors that power the computer that the game runs on. They live in different worlds, by different rules and both have very different implications for life.

There is a perfectly valid and functional world model that incorporates both the science and it's atoms and spirituality. Functional in a sense that people having this view can both apply their knowledge to the scientific domain (building new mechanical machines) and also to the spiritual domain, that is be truly happy and enlightened in the way the experience their own life. (Seeing yourself (factually incorrectly) as ONLY a chemical machine does not produce happiness, mission, love, etc. (nor good health for that matter, because health is affected by psychological wellbeing a lot) without a solid spiritual foundation.) Jordan Peterson has a very good video about this, something about reconciling science and religion.

The point is, "Free Will" is not a scientific concept, it's a concept from spirituality. And can very well fit with all of the science that is known to humanity today. Free will comes not from the randomness of quantum mechanics, but from implications of the chaos theory (which has basically killed determinism as a means of understanding the human life experience).

You can't really define Free Will as something different and then claim it exists. Free Will has an agreed upon definition.

Free Will is the capacity to have done differently given the same situation.

Free Will is completely absent in a enormous number of circumstances. Are you free to stop understanding English? Are you free to not be persuaded by a logical argument you comprehend? When presented with a donut while on a diet are you free to determine your level of will power to resist?

Free will conditioned on chaos theory is just jargon and ventures into "not even wrong" territory. If free will is sensitive to initial conditions then actors evolving in time are not free to choose their trajectories.

If your happiness is conditioned on incorrect beliefs about your essential nature and capacities then you should reconcile your beliefs with reality, not argue that the understanding of essential nature is incomplete or wrong.

Your response may not be as productive as you intended, it sounds a little dismissive.

>>Free Will has an agreed upon definition

It may have definitions, but used in isolation it's actually ambiguous as hell. Even between science and philosophy the discussions can be pretty divergent.

>>you should reconcile your beliefs with reality, not argue that the understanding of essential nature is incomplete or wrong

Quite wrong I would say. Our common goal is to interpret our existence in a way that provides the best life possible for us, and hopefully for those around us.

If a person can lead a happier life and do the most good for others only by not accepting a scientific principle then I would not discourage them from that.

In fact, if I could somehow unbelieve some science and be guaranteed my family would be happier I might consider it.

Some of us are just made in a way we can only worship at the alter of objective truth no matter what the cost or the pain. I don't think there's any way to change that, but I certainly don't want anyone to join the club at the expense of the most important goal we have.

>if I could somehow unbelieve some science and be guaranteed my family would be happier I might consider it

I don't see how this can be defended. It commits you potentially dangerous and unethical behavior.

Suppose you were to unbelieve, "africans are humans." By not holding this belief you might be quite able to happily own and mistreat slaves.

This example is extreme, but the point I'm making still stands. If ones happiness is contingent on holding false beliefs then what value is the happiness. How can self-deception through pleasure seeking mental states be elevated in opposition to engaging with objective reality?

Seeking pleasure certainly does not ensure ethical behavior and in many cases explicitly conflicts with acting ethically.

>Our common goal is to interpret our existence in a way that provides the best life possible for us

I'm very wary of interpretation motivated for pleasure as opposed to clarity and truth.

Your stance is completely true. In theory.

In practice the situation is very different, because noone knows (or has any way of knowing) what objective reality is, and whether one's beliefs are "false" or not. Yes, we do have the scientific method and some ways of trying to figure things out, but ultimately it's a question of choice of right mindset. The right framework. An experiment might get some data within a framework. It cannot give you a framework.

With the belief "africans are humans" example, we might all agree on that. However on the beliefs like "if it feels hard to learn this skill, it just means I'm not cut out for this" versus "I can learn anything, universe is friendly and will ultimately give me what I need, I'll keep trying to learn this" - something like that will give you hard time if you're doing solely by scientific method and if you think that you can even know whether the belief is truthful to some "objective reality" or not. Both of the stances can be shown to be "truth" or "false", and they they will yield so different results in the personal life of a human that chooses to acquire them. Is believing one of them is self-deception? Maybe it's believing the other that is self-deception?

>> I'm very wary of interpretation motivated for pleasure as opposed to clarity and truth.

And it's very interesting how that has been working out for you? In most people that I've studied it does not lead to a particularly happy life. (Not just stable, but happy.)

I think the core issue here is that in the internal world of humans' souls, there is no such thing as "clarity and truth". It does not work that way. Something like pleasure (but concepts of love, compassion, greatfulness, and others can give even better results) are just better suited. Because in the areas where they are used (the happiness and enlightenment) those things are just easier to find. Concepts of "truths" on the other hand are notoriously elusive and in many ways simply non-existant. What is your life, a tragedy of stoicism? A pointless nihilistic movie? An enlightened miracle? Which one is the "truth"?

Ignorance is not a commitment to unethical behavior. Ignorance has certainly been used to justify evil but it's arguable how much of that justification was merely a means to an end.

For thousands of years there have been people who choose good and people who choose evil. I believe quite a bit of the people who have chosen evil did so while knowing at some level it was wrong, regardless of how much scientific knowledge the had.

There is a lot of discussion about definitions of Free Will. If you define which one of them you are operating upon, then perhaps we can continue discussion. So far I'm not sure what you're trying to debate :/.

I am assuming your full definition is not "Free Will is the capacity to have done differently given the same situation.", because that definition has a lot of problems: How do you define "same" situation? In our life there are no two cases which can be called "same situation". There are no 2 same humans, there are no 2 same time instants, there are no two same life situations, etc.? So what is the point of having this definition? At the very least, it's very non-scientific?

On the contrary, I find that seeing myself as only a chemical machine is a very freeing experience that leads to greater happiness and contentment.

I find it strange that you can talk about concepts of 'you' being 'factually' correct or incorrect when there are very few established facts about consciousness or self - it all seems like mostly open philosophical debate from what I've seen.

I don't think you are necessarily in disagreement with him.

The fact we are machines doesn't mean the circuits to video game analogy is incorrect, in fact I think it's apt.

If physics is about understanding the fundamental nature of matter and energy then why do we study chemistry? Because they are different abstractions that yield different insights.

So the point is thinking about consciousness may be more useful that thinking about chemicals even if we understand some of the low level mechanics.

Yes, "factual" was not the best word choice. "Factual" in that context was something like "having obvious empirical and experiential basis".

I like the optimistic and practical approach of your response, and agree on the you separate from chemicals abstraction idea. However:

>>"Free Will" is not a scientific concept, it's a concept from spirituality.

It is a scientific concept! I agree it's not always about science, and the concept has different implications depending on context. But it has it's place: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Free_will#Scientific_approache...

>>can very well fit with all of the science that is known

Let's be clear here. There is no scientific consensus that free will exists, however you want to define it. Aliens landing in my backyard last night could also fit with all of the science that is known. So you may be technically correct but the claim is so weak as to be nearly meaningless.

>>[good video by Jordan Peterson reconciling science and religion]

I may take a look if I can build up the courage to be disappointed, but it seems strange to try and reconcile the natural with the supernatural.

What's wrong with keeping them separate? Science is falsifiable and religion is not. One sometimes advances the knowledge of humanity and one sometimes allows us be happier humans.

>> So you may be technically correct but the claim is so weak as to be nearly meaningless. My claim was referring to the following: many "science" people have a hard time developing their spiritual side, because of what they learn about the scientific models of the universe. Lacking proper guidance to place those models in proper places in their mind, they often end up believing (even subconsciously) that believing in "science" collides with with having a spiritual experience. I was pointing out that there are very good ways to combine the two. But yes you have a point and I get it.

>> What's wrong with keeping them separate? Science is falsifiable and religion is not. One sometimes advances the knowledge of humanity and one sometimes allows us be happier humans. There is nothing wrong with anything ;). But seriously, I think that reconciling some parts of those just leads to a deeper and more profound understanding of life. Not only being able to see either a particle or a wave, but even the deeper underlying phenomena combining the both.

"There is no free will!" is also used by some radical neurologists to suggest questionable changes to society, some seriously close to human rights abuses. So to counter that other areas of science (or gaps therein) are searched for what seems like free will, but as you said this won't change anything.

I think the concept of free will is needed, and not as a necessary lie to hold society together. I think of it as the number of paths open to you and the likelihood of every one. With every decision you will then randomly fall into one (aided by QM or not). So every person can and should be encouraged to cultivate their pathway network, which is what an open society based on discussions and science already does. Yes, all this is not "free will" in the strictest sense and should probably get a hipper name, but this will serve humanity and humanism more than the alternative of what in the end is just fatalism.

With every decision you will then randomly fall into one (aided by QM or not).

»Making a decision« is not a coherent concept. Your actions can either be a function of the current state of the universe or they can be independent of the current state of the universe, they can be either deterministic or random. Or some combination of the two.

»Making a decision«, at least that is the way I understand it, means choosing one of several different possible actions and this choice is neither random nor determined by the current state of the universe. As far as I can tell such a thing can not exist, random means not a function of the current state, a function of the current state means not random, there is no room for a third option.

And if you think carefully about it, you will notice that »making a decisions« really makes no sense despite the fact that we use the phrase all the time. Just think a bit about a thing that is neither a function of the current state nor random, it just makes no sense. If it existence, then we are currently missing something extremely fundamental about the world.

So every person can and should be encouraged to cultivate their pathway network, which is what an open society based on discussions and science already does.

We will probably do this but it is fundamentally an illusion without free will and as I just said I am pretty certain it is. Without free will things like encouraging people are meaningless, things just happen, whether deterministically or randomly. I am as stuck as everyone else with the belief that I can make decisions and go down one path or another, but it is an illusion.

We will probably keep talking as it were not for the foreseeable future, we will encourage people to do this or that, we will decide to do one thing instead of a different thing, we will be happy or disappointed or angry that someone decided to a specific thing. We will continue to ignore that all this is not in my or your or anyone's control. Not that we could change it, outside of our control, too.

Indeed, Making a decision« is not a coherent concept., I should have written the quoted sentence as "making a 'decision' means you will then randomly (but weighted) fall into one outcome". Whether that source of randomness is QM or just deterministic chaos* (say, it depends on being somewhere a second early or any other butterfly-factor). The point is, some decisions might always have a p=1.0, others only a p=.8. And in the not-QM case that is decided by other factors in advance, so the closer you get to the point-in-time itself, the closer it gets to 1.0.

The point is that these different probability values are there, and could be a faux-will. E.g., no matter how bad your commute was, you will be kind to your coworkers (high p), or if your mind encounters new information, you might change your mind (p ~ .5).

Concrete example:

like encouraging people are meaningless

Person has an exam in a week, nobody cheers, and depending how good the coffee is over a week, the weather, etc., p_passing_the_exam is 0.6. So, rolling back time and playing it again 40:60, QM outside the mind, maybe someone making decisions with a geiger counter could be the randomness source. But with some encouraging, p might climb to 0.7 because they outweigh some negative factors. The fact that you cheered someone on, is of course also just a certain probability, but one which you could shape.

* if it is all deterministic chaos and QM is a big lie, then Maxwells daemon could compute it all, but nobody in this universe will every have access to all that data, so it is the same.

> As far as I can tell such a thing can not exist, random means not a function of the current state, a function of the current state means not random, there is no room for a third option.

That's an very good and intuitive point, thanks. Winner in the "shut down the old, silly, unproductive discussion in the least amount of sentences" category.

> »Making a decision« is not a coherent concept.

You might "believe" that, but I doubt that you believe it "in your heart of hearts" (I.e. that you alieve it).

Choice is fundamental to the human experience. Regardless of its objective existence, disbelieving it's existence doesn't allow for making better choices.

Choice is presupposed.

Choose well.

"there is no free will" is used by all neuroscientists I have ever worked with, and I have been a neuroscientist for 10 years. Those are not radicals. Moreover, I have never heard of a scientist who would suggest human right abuses except maybe in Nazi germany or other totalitarian regime. Questionnable changes to society, that depends on your view of the world, if you are a climate change denier then a scientist would be perceived as trying to change society in a questionable way I suppose.

Interestingly I wrote an essay about morality that essentially follows your logic of maximizing the number of paths a person has open to them, although I used different terminology.


That QM is random to us is no more correct on its face than a dice roll being random. A dice roll follows rules of classical physics and given enough information about the state of the system we can accurately predict /exactly/ how the die will land. It ceases to be random as we increase knowledge.

That QM has a limit to the knowledge we can acquire within the confines of our observations does not indicate some philosophical "true randomness."

John Conway and Simon Kochen would like to have a word with you: https://arxiv.org/abs/quant-ph/0604079

Beware that in professional physics Rogers Penrose's view on QM and consciousness are not considered mainstream (to put it mildly). I had a great pleasure of talking him in person, and he falls into the Platonic trap. The best antidote is to talk with some actual neurobiologists, or read philosophy of mind (e.g. Daniel Dennett with Consciousness Explained).

At the same time I recommend reading "How the Hippies Saved Physics: Science, Counterculture, and the Quantum Revival" by David Kaiser (http://www.hippiessavedphysics.com/) - a general reading on the beginnings of quantum information (also, why quantum metaphysics is tempting but does not work); bear in mind it overvalues hippies - this field has also different, Soviet roots - vide Holevo’s theorem.

Or even better - start actually interacting with some quantum mechanics, rather than considering it mystical or esoteric. As Griffiths put it in his Introduction to Quantum Mechanics (Chapter 4.4.1, https://archive.org/details/IntroductionToQuantumMechanics_7...):

"To the layman, the philosopher, or the classical physicist, a statement of the form “this particle doesn’t have a well-defined position” [...] sounds vague, incompetent, or (worst of all) profound. It is none of these."

...an of course, play http://quantumgame.io/ :) (a recent submit: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=14432176)

> Platonic trap.

i.e. is a believer in the mind & body dualism, an idea first put forth by Aristotle and Plato, and later famously championed by Descartes. Though the "quantum" variant is not as far out as the "soul" one. However neither are supported by science, but the knowledge gap regarding consciousness is still large enough that something might still hide in it.

Though Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle fell into many traps, this is probably the relevant one.

Well, once you start believing that mathematical objects (or any other concepts) exist in some abstract sense (rather than are some kind of emergent property of our bodies, minds and social interactions) it's an easy path to get to ridiculous conclusions. (Cf. a very naturalistic vision of science itself by Ludwick Fleck.)

Sure, we don't understand consciousness yet (or maybe we never will). Still, it doesn't mean that it is good to fall into some plausible, and comforting, mental trap. Vide Feynman's "I think it's much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers which might be wrong".

Is there an name for this "reality first" or "reality triumphs" concept? The closest I can think of is The Talos Principle, it is the name of a game, but in its context the meaning is, paraphrasing: "At the end of the day, even the mightiest thinkers and philosophers are made of flesh and bone".

On the other end, there is a Greg Egan (science fiction) novel where exactly this does not hold and pure maths can create virtual worlds in some abstract math universe, i.e. not running on a physical computer (though I think one was needed to bootstrap this into perpetual existence). The name escapes me at the moment.

You might be able to weave the consciousness problem into there by following the simulation hypothesis and claiming that the brain (of humans or some smart enough ancestor?) was either created with a shortcut to the underlying compute power or that over the course of evolution (think the FPGA + evolutionary algorithm story) this link developed, possibly independently multiple times. And since most concepts underlying biology are understood, "Quantum-woo" is the last holdout (see Penroses microtubuli idea).

> pure maths can create virtual worlds in some abstract math universe

Sounds like Max Tegmark's Mathematical Universe Hypothesis.


> "At the end of the day, even the mightiest thinkers and philosophers are made of flesh and bone".

I like how words referring to abstract properties are used to dismiss the whole notion of abstract properties.

> The name escapes me at the moment.

You're referencing Greg Egan's "Permutation City", I think? http://www.gregegan.net/PERMUTATION/Permutation.html

Exactly that one, thank you two walnut-shaped minds, both thinking alike.

Greg Egan calls this concept (see the linked FAQ there) the Dust Theory, and again

> > How seriously do you take the Dust Theory yourself?

> Not very seriously, although I have yet to hear a convincing refutation of it on purely logical grounds.

it juuuust might maybe true (however unlikely).

I tried to read Griffiths once, but I couldn't learn that way. I wish there were a path to learn quantum mechanics from a programmer's point of view, with "how to" knowledge rather than only the declarative language of mathematical equations. When I look at a differential equation like the wave function in the first pages of the Griffiths book, I don't see it. But when I look at the code to compute a derivative or integral, and can build up pieces and see it plotted on the screen, it starts to make sense. If anyone knows a good set of books to take this approach, please post.

You mean something in this line? http://nbviewer.jupyter.org/github/jrjohansson/qutip-lecture...

For QM my strong suggestion is to start with 2-level states anyway (vide http://p.migdal.pl/2016/08/15/quantum-mechanics-for-high-sch...).

Thanks! Those links give me a lot to explore. I'm trying the game... level 4 just taught me something.

As it turns out, tools from quantum mechanics just so happen to be very useful in modeling stuff from the human realm, like decision making in surveys, word/concept associations, game theory, and more.


This is mildly controversial to people hung up on classical rationality or uninformed "skeptics", in spite of the fact that the research is pretty mainstream and doesn't make many philosophical assumptions about the 'reality' of quantum theory.

There has been a yearly conference called the Quantum Interaction conference where people have presented research using quantum theory outside of physics. I don't know what's up with the 2017 edition, but it's been held for quite a few years.


Well, big controversy is that it uses word "quantum" (to sound it sexy and attractive; any imply, even if implicitly, that mind has anything to do with QM) rather than "linear algebra".

And linear algebra is a very powerful framework for describing phenomena (including things related to cognition like word2vec, vide http://p.migdal.pl/2017/01/06/king-man-woman-queen-why.html). Also: it is the language of Deep Learning.

The research is more centered around a specific use of Kolmogorov's classical probability theory, which takes context into consideration. This realization has allowed "classical probability theory" to be used in a characteristically "quantum" way, by paying attention to higher dimensional probability distributions, and how "observation" tends to draw these probability distributions through lower dimensional subspaces. Some people doing this research also employ fancier probability theories, but to me it is profound that classical probability theory can be used in the same basic way.

So yeah, the research relies on linear algebra, sure, but specifically in the same way quantum theory relies on linear algebra: as a way of projecting probability distributions into different subspaces during measurement ("collapsing the wavefunction").


The research doesn't sound crazy ab initio but calling it "mainstream" makes it sound like everyone is working on it. Skimming the Wikipedia article and its citations, it's a field that a half dozen researchers have been working in for less than 10 years. It's "mainstream" in that it's the sort of work that mainstream cognitive scientists do, but it's not a particularly dominant or well known methodology; it's just one of a hundred "what if we modeled decision making this way?" paradigms currently being pursued. Time will tell if it ends up being a useful explanation of broad swaths of cognition, or just an interesting footnote.

It's mainstream in the sense that they are using mainstream tools and are publishing dozens of books with mainstream publishers like Springer. It comes out of mainstream institutions.

I'm just saying it's not merely some wacky fringe shit that orthodox scientists like to marginalize.

Fair enough; I'm just exceedingly full of caution when it comes to warning laymen off taking any contemporary work without a giant grain of salt.

On-going research - individual papers or lines of research from a small number of working groups - can be interesting, and it can give you a new direction to attack other problems from. It's also just fun to see what the cutting edge of the future might look like.

But until the work is digested by the larger body of researchers and you see what comes of it, there's also a bit of a cognitive risk to it. Half of us on HN have a favorite Grand Unified Theory of physics, an explanation of dark matter we assume is correct. Every other paper on the subject of nutrition spawns a fad diet. We regularly purge our lives of particular chemicals on any hint they're the next lead. We're all staring really hard at different quantum computers trying to figure out if they're really quantum or if they are if they're actually useful. It's really hard, once you've bought into a line of research, to let it go if it's later discredited.

There's a lot of great research going on right now that's going to be the foundation our understanding of the universe for the next century. There's also a lot of research going on right now that will ultimately end up being wrong or just uninteresting. It's really exciting to learn about it right now but the closer to the cutting edge you get the more prepared you have to be for the really cool stuff to later end up being really wrong.

Your caution is understandable.

The research I posted is quite different from many of the theories in the article above. It's not something that needs quantum mechanical microtubules in neurons. "Quantum", in this field is something that comes along with probability theory itself, for free, regardless of physical, spiritual or philosophical interpretation.

Calling it "quantum" is an acceptance of what quantum physicists have learned about scientific experimentation, about applications of probability theory in general.

I see the name of this research as more of an embrace, and a pointer to the profound, simple realizations of quantum theorists in their applications of basic probability theory.

And I see it as a scientific window into worldviews that have been neglected/rejected by proud, hard core rationalists, but that are common sense to people who rely on poetry to make sense of the world.

Specifically, it is about the slipperiness of inquiry itself, experimental or otherwise. It's about quantifying the potentially disruptive quality of asking.

Any tactful 4-year old will tell you that sometimes you need to prime adults before asking them for what you want, whether that's a toy, ice cream, whatever. Successfully manipulative children get a good sense of the likelihood that their parents will say yes or no based on the context. Are they in a bad mood? Better not ask at the moment. If they say no now, they'll be less likely to change their mind until later. Nagging will only make them irritated. The wave function is collapsed.

Yet somehow this kind of nuance is often lost on very smart adult scientists.

Take for example the Nate Silverman debacle. There is well established evidence that when opinion polling, each question, each prompt influences the probabilistic setup of the next one. Someone might not like Donald Trump at all, but in the context of even mentioning Hillary Clinton, they have just decided with conviction that they will be voting for him anyway, out of anger, spite, jaded frustration, poor sense of humor, self identity as rebellious, who knows. Whereas if you'd reversed the order, they might have aimed that same anger in the opposite direction. They point being that these effects can be taken into consideration, even if we don't know all the factors, we might as well try switching the order, changing the prompt, trying to understand them... But at the very least acknowledging their existence! The ignorant discussions of the last US political cycle focused on determining if people were inherently "trump supporters" or "Clinton supporters". As though there were even such things, objectively. The polling process was unscientific enough, but the voting process is even worse... There has been absolutely no discussion of the mechanics of the voting system, how different kinds of "experimental setups" like IRV or score voting compare to FPTP. These things absolutely make huge differences in real social and political outcomes, yet there is mainstream ignorance about them, even in self proclaimed "scientifically minded" people.

IMO, it's imperative that the basic realizations of quantum theory be integrated with the rest of science as soon as possible.

The point is that the measurement is entwined with outcomes. There don't seem to be objective, predetermined, absolutely stable variables, not even in the world of particles, but certainly not in the human world. Just like the rest of us, all science has is the ability to inquire, and the chance to make sense of what is discovered.

"The original motivation in the early 20th century for relating quantum theory to consciousness was essentially philosophical. It is fairly plausible that conscious free decisions (“free will”) are problematic in a perfectly deterministic world,[2] so quantum randomness might indeed open up novel possibilities for free will. (On the other hand, randomness is problematic for volition!)"

This is an aspect of this debate that utterly fascinates me. Many people reading this have probably heard the argument that free will does not exist because the human brain is just a molecular computer. If we could measure it's state perfectly at a given moment, have knowledge of future inputs, and possess adequate classical computational power, we could perfectly predict the future decisions made by your brain. Hence, you are a deterministic creature with no free will.

Quantum processes underlie all classical processes, not unlike how the physics of individual water molecules underlie the behaviour of a river. While individual molecules or even drops of water can do bizarre things, the course of a river is easy to predict. A coin toss or weather patterns may seem random, but they're classical systems that would be utterly predictable if we had a perfect measurement of their current state, knowledge of input from outside the system in question, and the computational resources to work out their future evolution. As with a river, the weather, or a coin toss, quantum weirdness should average out on the scale of a human brain, leaving only classical predictability behind.

Or does it?

One aspect of this quantum weirdness I'm referring to is truly random behaviour. Single quanta (e.g. photons or atoms) can be manipulated to produce measurements with truly random results that are, according to quantum theory and every experiment conducted to date, impossible to predict, even with perfect knowledge of the system, knowledge of all inputs, and infinite computational resources. Free will and being unpredictable are intrinsically linked. If your brain is just a classical machine behaving according to the laws of chemistry and physics, you are predictable and have no free will. If your brain amplifies the results of quantum outcomes to a macroscopic level, your brain may be inherently unpredictable and thus you may possess free will.

Fascinating stuff!

> Free will and being unpredictable are intrinsically linked. If your brain is just a classical machine behaving according to the laws of chemistry and physics, you are predictable and have no free will. If your brain amplifies the results of quantum outcomes to a macroscopic level, your brain may be inherently unpredictable and thus you may possess free will.

But how do you address the last part of the quote you lead with ("randomness is problematic for volition")? How is your will any more free if it depends on random physical processes rather than deterministic ones?

The type of free will people often talk about is the type where if you rewind time to give you a second chance there is a potential for you to chose differently.

But whatever decision you want to make will ultimately be a function of your state of mind. How can you will something that isn't a result of your experiences? What else informs your will? The type of counter-causal free will people think they want probably doesn't exist.

You have free will, but it is determined. It's a result of physical processes. How we think may be difficult to computationally reduce, so it still might not be predictable. Counter-causal free will would force you to look outside the universe for causes. You get duality. Quantum randomness is not an escape for this.

Agreed. I would be no more assured that I had free will if you convinced me that there's a truly random factor in my decision making.

It seems kind of paradoxical. Either the universe is completely deterministic, in which case my decisions are already set in stone; or there's a truly random element, in which case my decisions might be probabilistic. Neither of these feels like free will.

I'm inclined to think of free will as a concept that is only meaningful in the context of higher-order abstractions. It's a facet of our internal monologue and interactions with other people. Asking whether humans fundamentally have free will seems like asking whether computers fundamentally have cursors.

At some point in the future, I could have a quantum random number generator implanted in my skull and defer many of my decisions to its outcomes. I wouldn't be predictable, but would I have free will? Probably not.

How our brains use quantum processes really is the heart of the debate, but we don't even know if they use quantum processes in a way that isn't averaged out at the level of neurons or our entire brain. If our brains do make use of quantum processes in a way that manifests at a macroscopic scale, that alone doesn't guarantee that we have free will, but it does open up that possibility. If our brains are classical, chemical computers, that possibility doesn't even exist.

This going pretty far out there in terms of imagination, but it seems possible something appearing random in our universe may not be random from another.

Yea it's crazy, but we already have theories from reputable physicists talking about stuff from other universes interacting with ours. I.E. of dark matter being the gravitational interaction of stuff from other dimensions.

So that's how it's theoretically possible randomness could sneak some free will into our universe. Far fetched, but I don't believe it's ruled out?

> If we could measure it's state perfectly at a given moment, have knowledge of future inputs, and possess adequate classical computational power, we could perfectly predict the future decisions made by your brain

This is not true even in principle.

Are you saying that with the assumption of a classical universe, or without?

I'm saying that with the assumption of a real universe, which doesn't behave classically.

I don't think OP was actually espousing that argument, just laying it out as context. I think most people in the thread are aware that we live in a universe that is fundamentally stochastic rather than deterministic.

Supposing you decide to buy a small coffee, but if some tiny probabilistic quantum interaction in your brain had gone another way, you'd have bought a medium sized coffee instead. Do you seriously believe a scenario like this constitutes free will? In a philosophically interesting sense?

I just don't see how randomness gains you the kind of "ghost in the shell" decision making that people usually mean when they're talking about this stuff. It's still just physical interactions, it just happens that these ones are fundamentally unpredictable.

I'm currently on the Free Will chapter of Aaronson's Quantum Computing Since Democritus [0], where he treats this question directly in the context of computational complexity theory. Highly recommended to anyone interested in this stuff!

[0] https://smile.amazon.com/Quantum-Computing-since-Democritus-...

Would it be difficult to to use this start a religious cult? Something like:

1) Lead with content that for some people mixes science and spirituality: Quantum Approaches to Consciousness

2) Add context using sources here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quantum_mysticism

3) Add self-serving message (give me your money, I am the messiah, etc)

2) Coup de grâce: Hold up domain from an institution of high reputation: stanford.edu

For me the best way to think about consciousness is that it's a function of the brain, one of the organs of the body (that's pretty much a fact as far as we can test it).

If some statement seems profound when it refers to consciousness it's best to replace it with another function of another organ, for example digestion.

Suddenly "Quantum Approaches to Digestion" and "What happens to your digestion when you die?" sound way less profound.

>the best way to think about consciousness is that it's a function of the brain, one of the organs of the body (that's pretty much a fact as far as we can test it).

Using consciousness to determine the nature of consciousness...how is that not fallacious? Like trying to see if fire burns things by burning fire with fire.

Using physics to investigate physics. Fallacy!

wow, working in the field, i must say this is the best written piece of bs I have ever encountered.

"The most discussed counterarguments against the validity of such strong reductionist approaches are qualia arguments, which emphasize the impossibility for materialist accounts to properly incorporate the quality of the subjective experience of a mental state, the “what it is like” (Nagel 1974) to be in that state"

If that is the most discussed counterargument you probably could have stopped there, it is not a counter argument at all. The apparent immediateness and reflexive nature of consciousness is in no way proof of its immaterial or "quantic" nature. Consciousness is a seemingly unitary process, a monade, an indivisible phenomena, but it is not. It is partial, biased, composed of continuous unconscious preprocessing steps, of attentional, memory retrieval, reflective post-processing that can be measured, deconstructed, and tempered with through experimentation. Their argument is that a qualia appears to be more than the sum of its parts. All evidences would actually favor the opposite, consciousness, and the information it holds is less than the sum of its part. I will not delve into the details, because I am depressed/frustrated by the fact HN comments disappear so fast in the abyss, and time is precious, but i will give an example.

Taking a simple psychophysical GO task, let's say click on a button every time you see a dog in a series of fast pace images appearing on the screen. While performing the task sometime a dog will appear and not produce a conscious recognition nor a motor response, but recording the brain using EEG, you would usually be able on those trial to detect error signals. Those signal appears for rare events of interest -here the dog. Although this error information is present at a subconscious level, and implied already a load of preprocessing steps (proportional of the delay between stimulus and the error signal), it did not reach full consciousness to produce the motor response. A machine then, trained to recognize such error signals on both correct trials and errors of omission will be able to detect the dog, when the human did not, using the signal of the human's brain. This is proof that consciousness is less than the sum of its part, it is using a final filtered hyper relevant representation of your inner and environmental reality. Not to talk about the monadic indivisible view of consciousness which is even more absurd: just look at heminegligence. Functions is lost, but the brain even forgets it had ever access to this function, it forgets it had a left side, that there is a side side in the room. This is not an isolated syndrome, focal neurological deficits are often associated with some degree of negligence of the loss functions. Wernicke's Aphasia for example produce a syndrome in which patient do not realize they are saying or hearing non-sense, what could be there qualia then ? If you believe your consciousness is more that the sum of its part, and monadic, just take an LSD trip and you will see what your brain has in store for you, what it filters out, what it can enhance or produce by itself - but also what is your consciousness then, is it not different above and beyond any information processing? But maybe then you will say LSD molecules are in resonance with a central string of the universe, it is the gateway to the quantic perception !

The brain has nothing to do with qualia, it works at the opposite of what a monade or a qualia is supposed to represent. The brain use distributed computation, distributed representation, multiple neurons for one concept, and each neurons participating in various concepts. Multiple brain regions for a function, and each brain region participating to a function. Conscious experience arise from these distributed networks interaction, make the mental experiment of killing one neuron one by one (leave the pons and medulla alone) and you will not see the qualia disappear abruptly, but you will see part of the experience, part of the function, of what constitute the notion of self first slightly disfunction then progressively disappear at different unpredictable pace with complex interactions between functions.

"As a consequence, it is inessential whether a detector or the human brain is ultimately referred to as the “observer”"

From a dualistic view arise false premises. The brain is not an observer, you are not observing the state of your brain, or collapsing any function. You are your brain, living in an illusion created by the interaction of systems inside your brain. It is all well packaged with your sense of self, which is an illusion, a function that can be altered: depersonalization, derealization.

And I wonder, in their view, which animal nervous networks have access to such quantic wonders? The worm ? the ant ? The squid ? The dog ? The chimp ? Or just us ?

You do not need anything but distributed computation to explain everything about the brain.

But I guess everybody needs to believe in something, at least he is not teaching creationism, and seems open to debate.

> This is proof that consciousness is less than the sum of its part, it is using a final filtered hyper relevant representation of your inner and environmental reality.

I don't really see how this experiment "proves" that consciousness is not an "indivisible phenomenon", just that it relies on lower-level functions to exist. Some preprocessing clearly goes on in the brain before making it to "consciousness" level, but I don't think that the existence of non-conscious processes really show consciousness is divisible - any more than the processing of information in the eye does.

This example was to illustrate that consciousness is less than the sum of its parts.

The other examples were taken to illustrate the illusion of indivisibility.

the universe is deterministic. it might not seem like that because of the massive scale, but it is therefore free will is an illusion


>I, for one, knew that trees and plants were conscious (from both personal experience and books)

Please elaborate this. What are your personal experiences regarding this...

Sure, though it's hard to find words. Something most people can relate to is the feeling of being watched. I think this is a type of ESP. Sometimes you might feel you're being watched from a specific direction, and turn your head and you do indeed find someone there looking at you. So, without going into too much detail, I'll just say that I've had a similar feeling around trees.

As for books, I highly recommend "A Language Older Than Words" by Derrick Jensen.

Why did the parent post get flagged? I thought it was creative. Now I want to read it again!

>There were some of us who thought water itself was conscious

I really want to try LSD now..

Absolutely. Going throughout life without a breakthrough psychedelic experience is like going throughout life without having been in love.

As for water being conscious, we're 99% water by molecule count, or about 70% by molecular weight, and we're conscious. It seems rather odd to me to think that the main constituent of our bodies wouldn't be taking part in our consciousness. From there it isn't such a far leap to think that there may be something that it is like to "be" water when it isn't part of a human being.

Quoting Dan Dennett:

"Yes, eyes are for seeing, but these and all the other purposes in the natural world can be generated by processes that are themselves without purposes and without intelligence. This is hard to understand, but so is the idea that colored objects in the world are composed of atoms that are not themselves colored, and that heat is not made of tiny hot things."


The emergent theory of consciousness is the gordian knot of modern thinking. The people espousing it basically don't understand emergence, which explains their willingness to attribute magical powers to it.

The boundary of one's body seems like an arbitrary place to draw the line. Why not say that a sphere of radius 5 meters contains your consciousness? Then the air can be conscious too!

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