Friday, 16 June 2017

Is Roger Penrose's Science of Consciousness Spooky? (1)

First things first. When the word “spooky” is used to refer to Roger Penrose's scientific and philosophical ideas about consciousness, I'm not being overly critical or even critical at all. That may sound odd or self-contradictory at first. However, I use the word “spooky” simply because it's so damn convenient. If I were being entirely critical of Penrose's scientific views on consciousness, I'd probably use RationalWiki's favourite word - “woo” (i.e. pseudoscience); or some such equivalent. In any case, one phrase, “spooky action at a distance”, became commonplace in the 20th century and that's about a scientific phenomenon which just about all scientists accept.

So I don't think that Penrose's work on consciousness is woo/pseudoscience. Certainly not! Having said that, I do have problems with it, as we shall see.

Despite all the above, I'm not scientifically qualified to class his physics as either “spookery” or “woo”. Then again, I do think I have various philosophical angles on his scientific claims. And they've led me to the word “spooky”; though not to the word “woo”.

Stuard Hameroff and Penrose

The obvious thing to say about Roger Penrose – in this context - is that he's neither a neuroscientist nor a (professional) philosopher: he's a (mathematical) physicist and a mathematician. In certain senses that's a disadvantage. In other senses it will be an advantage. In any case, it's not surprising that Penrose has worked with, amongst others, the anaesthesiologist Stuart Hameroff.

As a non-scientist myself, it's hard to find a secure entry into the scientific positions of Penrose. Then again, not all of Penrose's position are themselves scientific. Some are philosophical; others are derived from (pure) mathematics. Nonetheless, it can't be said that only experts can have anything constructive to say about the findings of neuroscience because Penrose himself – as just stated - isn't a neuroscientist. Not only that: many neuroscientists themselves may be philosophically, conceptually or argumentatively illiterate. That may be one reason why there's sometimes a lack of progress in “consciousness studies”.

I mentioned Penrose's non-scientific position and it's strange how many areas outside science (or at least outside of physics) have motivated Penrose's position on consciousness.

For example, we have his interest in a "Platonic reality", “mathematical insight” and creativity generally; as well as in Gödel's incompleteness theorem. All these things can arguably be seen to take consciousness beyond the realm of the physical and therefore beyond science itself. Nonetheless, Penrose himself wouldn't stress this aspect of his work. He is, after all, a committed and notable physicist and mathematician.

Technically, Penrose's main motivation is that there are elements of the brain - and therefore consciousness - which are nonalgorithmic and noncomputable. Prima facie, it may be wondered what the strong connection is between noncomputability and consciousness.

Anti-Reductionism and Spookery

Marvin Minsky graphically captures one aspect of Roger Penrose's (possibly) spooky science of consciousness: his anti-reductionism. Minsky said that Penrose "tries to show, in chapter after chapter, that human thought cannot be based on any known scientific principle”. Moreover, Minsky ties Penrose's spookery to his search for “new basic principles”. He continued by saying that

"one can carry that quest [for scientific explanation] too far by only seeking new basic principles instead of attacking the real detail”.

Finally Minsky says that “[t]his is what I see in Penrose's quest for a new basic principle of physics that will account for consciousness”. This is exactly what David Chalmers is also doing; though his (possible) First Principles are certainly not the same as Penrose's.

Thus could Roger Penrose's position be entirely motivated by scientific anti-reductionism? Doctor Susan Blackmore certainly thinks that this is an important motivation. Or at least the programme maker in the following quote does. She writes:

Finally they got to consciousness. With clever computer graphics and Horizonesque hype they explained that brave scientists, going against the reductionist grain, can now explain the power of the mind to transcend death. It all comes down to quantum coherence in the microtubules. And to make sure the viewer knows that this is 'real science' the ponderous voice-over declared 'Their theory is based on a well established field of science; the laws of general relativity, as discovered by Einstein.'...”

Sure, Blackmore's talking here about “near-death experiences” (NDEs). Yet those who believe in this – or at least some of them - have found succour in “quantum coherence in the microtubules”. Now don't those things sound very scientific? Of course we'll now need to know what quantum coherence is. (Or is it really a case of needing to know whether or not the believers in NDEs actually have any idea of what quantum coherence is?)

Of course Penrose and Stuart Hameroff can't personally be blamed for spook-lovers quoting their work. However, a psychologist or philosopher may tell us that these two fellows – both scientists - are motivated by very similar things. After all, Hameroff himself has talked about NDEs.

Specifically, Hameroff has said that when the brain dies (or stops functioning), the information within that brain's microtubules remains alive (as it were) or intact. Moreover, the information of the microtubules leaks out into the world (or, well, into the universe). Not only that: this microtubular information remains intact and bound together because of the power of quantum coherence.

Hameroff goes even further. He's stated that this phenomenon explains why the subject can experience – see? - himself hovering over his own body. That is, Hameroff seems to endorse near-death experiences. Yet even if “information” (P.M.S. Hacker would have a field day with this word – see here) did leak out into the universe, how would that make it the case that the body which hovers above also has a body and sensory experiences? Microtubular information in the air doesn't a physical person make. And without a physical body, there are no sensory experiences or anything else for that matter. Thus this is like claiming that if you turn the computer off and then smash it up so violently that its material structure shatters into dust, then the "information" inside would still be intact and would simply float in the air above it. In other words, the soul of the computer would still exist. Unless Hameroff is simply telling us about what he thinks people imagine (or hallucinate) when they're having a NDE. Though if that's the case, why all this stuff about microtubular information leaking into the air or even into the universe?

This spooky anti-reductionist motivation is further explained by the philosopher and materialist Patricia Churchland and also the philosopher Rick Grush. According to Blackmore,

they suggest, it is because some people find the idea of explaining consciousness by neuronal activity somehow degrading or scary, whereas 'explaining' it by quantum effects retains some of the mystery”.

Churchland is even more dismissive when she says (as quoted by Blackmore):

Quantum coherence in the microtubules is about as explanatorily powerful as pixie dust in the synapses.”

To put it more philosophically and simply, Penrose and Hameroff's position appears to be a defence of traditional dualism. Or, at the very least, the belief in NDEs certainly backs up traditional dualism. And, as we've just seen, Hameroff has defended NDEs.

Dualism, Intuition and Free Will

Traditional philosophical dualism has just been mentioned. Here again we can tie Hameroff and Penrose to the concerns (or obsessions) of traditional philosophy. That is, Hameroff hints that his and Penrose's positions may solve the traditional problems of free will, “the unitary sense of self” and the source and nature of intuition/insight. More specifically, all these philosophical conundrums can be explained by quantum coherence in the microtubules. In terms of simply-put examples, free will is down to quantum indeterminacy; non-locality is responsible for “the unity of consciousness”; and quantum computing (i.e., non-algorithmic processing) is the baby of “quantum superposition”.

In the technical terms of mind-brain interaction, and as a result of accepting mind-body dualism, the brain and mind can be mutually involved in quantum “entanglement” which is “non-local”. Thus, put simply, we can have mind-to-brain causation. Though this would of course depend on seeing the mind as not being the brain or not even being physical (in a strict or non-strict sense). This would put both the mind and brain in the same holistic package and that would help all of us explain.... just about everything!

Another example of Penrose going beyond science/neuroscience is his reliance on Kurt Gödel's incompleteness theorem. These show him that the brain can (or could) perform that which no computer could perform. From that, Penrose concludes that consciousness may be non-algorithmic. And, as a further consequence, it will be the case that the brain and consciousness can't be accounted for in terms of a Turing-machine computers. And if this were the case, it would take Penrose beyond Artificial Intelligence and perhaps beyond all physicalist notions of mind and consciousness.

Now for free will.

As many philosophical commentators on free will have stated, how would quantum randomness give us free will? (That's a question from those philosophers who accept the words “free will” in the first place.) Indeed how would it give us any kind of coherent consciousness or cognitive activity? Having said that, it's not the case (or not necessarily the case) that something's being non-algorithmic (or non-computable) is also a case of its being random in nature. Penrose, for one, doesn't square his own version of “state reduction” with randomness. 

Despite just attempting to save Penrose's position from accusations of randomness, his “objective state reduction” can still be explained in terms of stochastic processes. Such processes would also be indeterministic; as well as probabilistic. However, does the stochastic, indeterministic or probabilistic give us something better than (pure) randomness when it comes to the brain, mind and consciousness? Surely free will, for one, can't be any of these things. (Though that would depend on definitions and a whole host of other things.) And how would consciousness - as well as cognitive activity generally - fair when it comes to stochastic, indeterministic or probabilistic processes? Nonetheless, computers fair well with these things. That is, indeterministic, probabilistic or stochastic processes can be implemented in computers. In other words, such processes are computable! Thus that must also mean that they can be found in brains too. However, does that automatically answer the question as to whether or not these strange things can give us free will, systematic cognitive activity and consciousness; as well as the (phenomenological) unity of consciousness or the self?



1 The Hard Problem of Consciousness (to use Germanic capitals) isn't answered by anything that Penrose has to say. Or at least that's often the accusation. Whatever it is that Penrose has to say about microtubules, intuition and quantum this, that and the other, none of it will tell us why we have subjective experience; or why the experience of a red rose is the way it is.

Quantum mechanics may be at the heart of the nature of consciousness; though it doesn't (as yet) answer the hard question. It doesn't tell us why quantum x gives rise to non-quantum experience y or why experience y feels the way it feels.

In terms of subjective experience, Penrose's quantum business doesn't explain to us why we experience “the unitary sense of self” either. A philosopher like Daniel Dennett - and I tend to agree - would say that we don't actually have an experience of the unitary sense of self... though, if we do....Having said all that, these hard questions may be entirely bogus.

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