Random Thoughts on
Quantum Randomness, Consciousness
and the Mind/Body Problem

When I was in college, I sometimes played the psychic testing machines at the Rhine Research Center Institute for Parapsychology, across the street from the Duke campus. One of the devices generated random numbers, based on radioactive decay. The participant's goal was to mentally influence the virtual coin-flipper to get more heads than tails.

Generally I got more or less chance results, but one time I decided to take the tests under the influence of Hawaiian baby woodrose seeds, reputed to be mildly psychoactive. On this occasion I scored significantly better than expected from random guessing; supposedly there was only about one chance in 100 of scoring that high. I don't necessarily regard this as proof of the existence of psychic abilities, but the experience triggered a meditation on the relationship between randomness and consciousness.

Since then, it has seemed to me that if our mental activity is non-deterministic, and if, momentarily, we take a dualistic view of mind and body, then consciousness must include an element of quantum randomness; otherwise our thoughts and decisions would be predetermined.

I don't have an articulate argument against mental activity being deterministic — just a strong, though possibly predetermined, opposition to the idea.

As for the dualistic view of mind and body, Sir James Jeans argued that the world is starting to look less like a giant machine and more like a giant thought. However, viewing one as primary and the other as some kind of artifact lacks the elegant symmetry that we find between mass and energy, particle and wave, electric current and magnetic field, etc. I think mind/body is a big enough issue to deserve that kind of symmetry. Nevertheless, even if mind and body are in fact two aspects of the same phenomenon, I think the physical side of the equation has to be able to stand on its own; i.e., brain activity must obey all the physical laws.

Quantum mechanics allows the requisite randomness to creep in so that mental thought events can affect physical brain events, allowing non-deterministic brain activity while preserving the necessary plausible deniability. Since there is no physical law against a random quantum state reduction, if such an event happens at one instant instead of another, we can't point to anything it did wrong. (Thus, it may be impossible to prove that the mind did anything at all, because that set of random numbers could have come up by pure chance.)

Quantum randomness provides an opening by which nothingness can affect somethingness — a peephole through which the void can look back. Quantum randomness is the mind's way of playing dice with the universe, and vice versa.

Some physicists believe that consciousness plays a crucial role in "collapsing the wave function." This is illustrated by the paradox of Shrödinger's cat. If you put a hypothetical cat in a box, along with a canister of poisonous gas triggered by a radioactive device, the cat has a 50-50 chance of being alive, depending on whether an atom has randomly decayed, thereby opening the canister. The Copenhagen interpretation is that the cat is neither alive nor dead until the box is opened. There is no reality until it is observed, at which time the act of measurement collapses the wave function. Some physicists go further and claim that this act of measurement must involve consciousness.

The plight of Shrödinger's cat sounds absurd, and it may well be. But whether or not consciousness is required in order to make quantum probabilities become determinate, I suspect that quantum indeterminacy is required for the existence of non-predetermined consciousness. Brain structures such as neurons (or, perhaps, Penrose's microtubules) may serve as entropy amplifiers linking mind and body.

How can I move my little finger just by thinking about it? If thought is some etherial, insubstantial mind-stuff, how can it trigger the physical changes in the brain that are ultimately responsible for the movement of my finger? If mind isn't allowed to forcibly move particles around in the brain, then by process of elimination, the associated physical events must be events that could have happened on their own without violating physical laws such as conservation of energy.

The only leverage the mind-field has is the ability to trigger a "random" quantum state reduction, ultimately causing neurons to fire and eventually leading to larger-scale electro-chemical changes.There is no transfer of energy between the mind and body sides of the equation, just a transfer of information.

We know that under certain circumstances the eye can perceive a flash of light triggered by a single photon of light, which bounces a single electron into a higher orbit. It is not inconceivable that the brain could perceive a seemingly random change of electron state, or that one or more seemingly random changes of electron state could get amplified to cause larger physical changes. Perhaps chaos theory's butterfly effect amplifies some of these minute quantum events until brain wave eddies and ripples lead to a cyclone of brain activity, and milliseconds later I move my pinky.

What if our neural transducers are not only the connection between mind and body, but also the antennae that allow us to tap into the cosmic radiation background noise and read the collective consciousness, or even the mind of god? The Global Consciousness Project, http://noosphere.princeton.edu/ , combines the results of dozens of physical, non-pseudo-random number generators from around the world and looks for correlations to world events. Some researchers have identified anomolies during and shortly before the attacks of 9/11; others dispute this interpretation. (I lean toward the view of the skeptics.)

Australian physicists Reginald Cahill and Christopher Klinger contend that reality itself may consist of nothing but random noise. According to their theory, derived from Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem, randomness is not merely associated with quantum measurements, it is at the very heart of reality. Their theory also explains why we perceive the 4D universe as 3D space, and why we experience one specific present moment out of an omnipresent 4D spacetime.


A better-informed look at the subject of quantum theory and consciousness is available at http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/qt-consciousness/ .

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