Sunday, May 8, 2016
The Quantum Mechanical World and the Nature of Consciousness
My friend and favorite scientist, Rupert Sheldrake recently gave a talk at the Royal Geological Society in London called, "Is the Sun Conscious?" This is a wonderful topic and I hope you get a chance to listen to it. In it he speaks about the work of Alfred North Whitehead, an English mathematician and philosopher from the last century. Rupert explained that Whitehead proposed a "philosophy of organisms," seeing the whole universe as an organism and stars and planets as organisms, including Gaia, our own planet, as an organism. This is of course an idea that has gained considerable popularity in our time, following the work of James Lovelock, during the 1960's.
Rupert explained that Alfred Whitehead also saw crystals, atoms and molecules along with, of course, plants and animals as organisms. This holistic philosophy of nature treated organisms as self organizing systems with their own goals or purposes. This is one of the properties of consciousness, having a goal or a purpose. Rupert went on to say that living organisms or any organism has goals and purposes. Then he showed how Whitehead used quantum theory to point out how this might work. I've transcribed this part of Rupert's talk and would like to share it with you now, as my blog this week, because it is such a lovely and simple primer in some of the basics of quantum theory and also of consciousness. So, here we go.
"Whitehead then went on to point out how this might work using quantum theory, where matter is no longer just stuff, matter is a process. An electron is a wave, everything in quantum theory is made of waves and waves take time to wave. You can't have waves in an instant. Think of a wave in the sea, if you take an infinitesimally thin slice of a wave, it is no longer a wave, it's impossible in terms of a wave. This is the ultimate reason for the Uncertainty Principle in Quantum physics, because you can't localize waves in space or time. They are spread out in both.
Because they are spread out in time, it means that every material thing is a process, and that a material process has a past and a future, because it is spread out in time, and it has a direction in time. And whitehead used this as a way of approaching the mind body problem. Normally people think of the mind as the inside and the body as the outside, in the external world. People talk of the inner life, the mind is within, using spacial metaphors.
But Whitehead thought that the best way of thinking of mind and body was in time. The mind is the future pole of the organism, the body is the past pole. The future pole is concerned with possible actions. And this is true even with electrons, the spread of the wave equation tells us all the possible things an electron could do. And when it interacts with something is what people call "the collapse of the wave function." Of all these possibilities, only one is actually realized. That's a measurable observable fact, but it is immediately in the past. It's now a physical fact, and immediately a whole new set of possibilities opens up, in the new wave equation, which are in the future, or the virtual future. And when the electron decides, or the wave function collapses to one of these things, again, you get something in the past, a material body, like a measurable fact.
Now, he (Whitehead) thought our minds worked the same way, our minds are principally concerned with possibilities. Consciousness is an arena of possibility. And the function of our consciousness is to choose among possibilities. We all had many possibilities for this afternoon. And we chose to come here and to be here out of all of the possible things we could have done. We made that decision. We brought it into actuality by coming here. It's now a measurable fact that we are all in this room. We can be photographed, weighed, measured etc. And our minds are now opening to new possibilities.
Now, our habits are generally unconscious and don't require the consideration of possibilities. Consciousness is about consideration of possibilities in this model. It gives us a way of thinking about consciousness and what it does."
Isn't that a lovely description? To me, with this, Rupert harmonizes the quantum mechanical world with the material world. And he does it through a brief peek into the world of consciousness.
© Josephine Laing, 2016