Past week: beach, walking, talking, thinking together. Pure bliss. Evening reading/study: a further dive in to quantum biology. Quantum mind, life on the edge, Alexander Wendt, Feynman, Penrose and Hameroff, McFadden….and the pioneers of quantum physics such as Planck, Bohr, Schrödinger, Pauli (and others).
Some physicists suspect that, whether or not consciousness influences quantum mechanics, it might in fact arise because of it. Quantum theory might be needed to fully understand how the brain works. Rethinking from mainstream physics and toward the controversial and notoriously messy interface of biology, chemistry, neuroscience and quantum physics.
Taking the quantum revolution in physics seriously.
Until the early twentieth century, physicists subscribed to the Newtonian idea that all objects possess a mutually independent existence from one another, that each object is subject to the general causal laws of the material universe; and that, therefore, objects can only influence one another through direct contact mediated by material constraints. Quantum physics overturned these classic Newtonian assumptions. Work by Planck and Einstein revealed that light is a photon which sometimes behaves like waves and sometimes like particles. But photons did not behave as normal particles of matter were supposed to. Instead, their behavior depended upon the state of the field of which they were part. Stranger still, photons in the same field could be said to be in two contradictory positions at once, a phenomenon known as superposition. Within a few years, the French scientist Louis de Broglie realized that Einstein’s hypothesis had implications for matter too—that matter at the subatomic level of protons and electrons also acted with a similar wave-particle duality, and thus was prone to the same weird properties of superposition, nonseparability, and spontaneity. In short, quantum physics confounded the commonsense view of the basic building blocks of the universe—that brute matter is simple and separable all the way down. Another important ontological insight from quantum mechanics is the idea of entanglement. Entanglement is perhaps the keyword of quantum theory today. It refers to how particles continue to influence one another even after they have interacted with one another and moved apart. That non-local forms of connection exist and ‘travel faster than the speed of light is one of the best-confirmed findings of modern physics. More vexing still, space and time appear not to exist inside the atom, raising the intriguing possibility of retroactive influence or correlation. For the past century, therefore, modern physics has been grappling with the profound and disconcerting fact that the ontology of matter is far less obvious or lifeless than it once appeared to be.
Quantum theory introduced an element of randomness standing out against the previous deterministic worldview, in which randomness, if it occurred at all, simply indicated our ignorance of a more detailed description (as in statistical physics). In sharp contrast to such epistemic randomness, quantum randomness in processes such as spontaneous emission of light, radioactive decay, or other examples of state reduction was considered a fundamental feature of nature, independent of our ignorance or knowledge. To be precise, this feature refers to individual quantum events, whereas the behavior of ensembles of such events is statistically determined. The indeterminism of individual quantum events is constrained by statistical laws.
Other features of quantum theory, which were found attractive in discussing issues of consciousness, were the concepts of complementarity and entanglement. Pioneers of quantum physics such as Planck, Bohr, Schrödinger, Pauli (and others) emphasized the various possible roles of quantum theory in reconsidering the old conflict between physical determinism and conscious free will.
Might it be that, just as quantum objects can apparently be in two places at once, so a quantum brain can hold onto two mutually-exclusive ideas at the same time? These ideas are speculative, and it may turn out that quantum physics has no fundamental role either for or in the workings of the mind. But if nothing else, these possibilities show just how strangely quantum theory forces us to think.
Over the past decade growing evidence suggests that certain biological systems might employ quantum mechanics. In photosynthesis, for example, quantum effects help plants turn sunlight into fuel. Scientists have also proposed that migratory birds have a ‘quantum compass’ enabling them to exploit Earth’s magnetic fields for navigation, or that the human sense of smell could be rooted in quantum mechanics. From the intriguing hypothesis to actually demonstrating that quantum processing plays a role in the brain is a daunting challenge. The brain would need some mechanism for storing quantum information in qubits for sufficiently long times. There must be a mechanism for entangling multiple qubits, and that entanglement must then have some chemically feasible means of influencing how neurons fire in some way. There must also be some means of transporting quantum information stored in the qubits throughout the brain.
Life is the most extraordinary phenomenon in the known universe; but how does it work? Even in this age of cloning and synthetic biology, the remarkable truth remains: nobody has ever made anything living entirely out of dead material. What if indeed life exists at the boundary between quantum and classical physics? After diving in the latest research the past week my excitement has grown of this explosive new field of quantum biology, with its potentially revolutionary applications, and also offer insights into the biggest puzzle of all: what is life?