Jan 12, 2018 | By

Speculations on Consciousness: A Quantum, Cosmic, Spiritual Phenomenon – Part 2

The natural and the spiritual appear to be two different, but intersecting planes of existence. The nature of this intersection is a mystery – but perhaps an answer lies in the phenomenon that David Chalmers famously labeled the “hard problem of consciousness.” This post, the second of two (see Part 1), follows PJ Buehler and George Gantz into the curious world of consciousness theory.

PJ: An Introduction to the ORCH OR Theory of Consciousness

In 1994, Sir Roger Penrose published a book entitled Shadows of the Mind (Oxford Univ. Press, New York, 1994), in which he outlines his ideas about a possible mechanism for consciousness. He noted that the molecular structures of neuron cells include many long filaments known as microtubules, polymer structures that give strength, shape and mobility to cells. He speculated that the microtubules intimately associated with every neuron in the brain might actually function as sub-microscopic quantum computers that communicate with each other. He also suggested that these complex structures might serve as the physical basis for consciousness, in a process he named “orchestrated objective reduction.” Imagine the quantum activity in the dense networks of microtubules cascading through the neurons and across the various regions of the brain in sophisticated, swirling patterns, responding to, modifying and stimulating neuronal sensory, emotional, cognitive and attentional processes within the brain. That is consciousness, under the “ORCH-OR” theory.

In the past 25 years, this idea has picked up steam, capturing the attention of the anesthesiologist Stuart Hameroff, among others. Anesthesiologists are interested in the subject because, whereas they may know how to administer anesthetics, without knowing what consciousness is they don’t really know how they actually work! In 2014, Penrose and Hameroff co-authored a revised paper on ORCH-OR entitled Consciousness in the universe: A review of the ‘Orch OR Theory’. You can find a video of Hameroff explaining how the theory works at https://youtu.be/LXFFbxoHp3s.

GG: Objective Reduction Enables Free Will

Yes, ORCH-OR is certainly an interesting theory, and Roger Penrose is a personal hero of mine for his groundbreaking works in mathematics and philosophy. The Orch OR theory was discussed previously on this site in the article Towards a TOE Explaining Consciousness and Free Will.

In addition to the concept discussed by PJ above, there is another fascinating feature to the theory that delves into key mysteries in quantum physics. As we noted in the prior article, “A quantum state (the location or spin of a particle, for example) involves a superposition of possible outcomes – the outcome is indeterminate until an observation is made, at which point the quantum state has collapsed into a single physical outcome. This indeterminate state is essentially non-comprehensible, as it conflicts with the physical reality we experience and with the accepted findings of classical physics.”

Quantum physics has struggled with indeterminacy for more than 100 years without a solution to the inconsistencies and paradoxes it leads to. Many physicists would say that in the case of a quantum superposition with two possible outcomes, those possibilities are not physically real – they only become real when an observation is made. In an observation, one of the possibilities becomes real and the other simple ceases to be a possibility. The superposition collapses, or is reduced. So what if an observation is never made – how does reality come into being?

The Penrose Orch OR Theory tackles this issue by postulating that the alternative outcomes of a quantum superposition are both real. At the point a superposition is initiated, two physical realities are created, but their trajectories quickly begin to diverge. This divergence creates a stress in the gravitational structure of the universe, and when the gravitational force to keep the two realities exceeds the force that created the superposition, the universe forces the superposition to collapse – potentially without an observer. Penrose calls this “objective reduction.”

Objective reduction events are the basis of physical reality at the finest scale. But since they are indeterminate, they introduce what the authors refer to as “proto-consciousness.” This suggests that each objective reduction event can be characterized as a potential choice point.   Consider the highly structured environment of the human brain, where objective reduction events are occurring innumerably many times every instant in the neuronal microtubules throughout the brain. Now add the capacity for orchestrating this complex process and, at key points in the process, for influencing the choices being made in any given objective reduction event. This is what Penrose and Hameroff are talking about – free will (a non-physical attribute of conscious experience) having a direct effect in the physical world. In their more circumspect wording:

The Orch OR proposal suggests conscious experience is intrinsically connected to the fine-scale structure of space–time geometry, and that consciousness could be deeply related to the operation of the laws of the universe.  From Consciousness in the Universe.

PJ: Spiritual Influx Flows Into Human Consciousness

In Potts’ Swedenborg Concordance a full thirty-three double-columned pages are devoted to instances of Swedenborg’s use of the word ‘influx’ in his theological writings.  Here is a quotation drawn from the very first of these, in which ‘influx’ is used in the sense of an ‘inflow’:

[T]here is both an internal and an external man, and … truths and goods flow in from, or through, the internal man to the external, from the Lord, although it does not so appear, then those truths and goods, or the knowledges of the true and the good in the regenerating man, are stored up in his memory, and are classed among its knowledges [scientifica]; for whatsoever is insinuated into the memory of the external man, whether it be natural, or spiritual, or celestial, abides there as memory-knowledge, and is brought forth thence by the Lord. Arcana Coelestia, # 27

In Divine Love and Wisdom Swedenborg repeatedly states (well, anything Swedenborg says he says repeatedly) that “we are life-receivers, not life”, and the nature of what is received depends on the individual receiver:

Man is a recipient, and the recipient or receptacle is what varies. A wise man is a recipient of Divine love and Divine wisdom more adequately, and therefore more fully, than a simple man; and an old man who is also wise, more than a little child or boy; yet the Divine is the same in the one as in the other. DLW #6

Now fast forward a few years to the publication of The Doors of Perception, by Aldous Huxley in 1954.  Few people realize how profoundly Swedenborgian this book is. Most readers connecting it with William Blake for the obvious reason that the title ‘doors of perception’ comes from Blake’s poem, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. But Huxley’s essay is usually bound with a sequel that is, itself, titled Heaven and Hell.  Furthermore, Huxley mentions Swedenborg on page 3 of the first essay and in the penultimate paragraph of the sequel. It can be said that Swedenborg brackets the entirety of the two essays.  In a quote that sounds an awful lot like a mental or psychic analog to David Bohm’s ‘Implicate Order’ (this is a topic for another day), Huxley says:

Each person is at each moment capable of remembering all that has ever happened to him and of perceiving everything that is happening everywhere in the universe.

To rescue us from this embarrassment of information riches, Huxley says there must be something within us that reduces this influx to a manageable level, something in the brain that acts as a ‘reducing valve.’

I would suggest that Penrose’s microtubule conjecture would satisfy both Swedenborg and Huxley if we make one modification that, semantically at least, does not contravene anything that Penrose says in formulating his theory. That is, instead of generating consciousness, the microtubules receive consciousness from the Spiritual plane, and, through their intimate association with the neurons within the brain, integrate it with the physical body. The microtubules, the neurons, the brain and the physical body all exist in the Natural plane.  The intersection of the two planes, the spiritual and the physical, occurs at the quantum level in the microtubules.

In Divine Providence, #129, (George F. Dole translation), Swedenborg writes, ”Our spirit or mind has complete freedom to think, intend, believe, and love.  This freedom comes to us by an inflow from the spiritual world, which does not compel us.  Our spirit or mind is actually in that world.”  [Emphasis mine.] This ‘inflow’ enters us through Huxley’s ‘doors of perception,’ and is integrated into our physical being by the neuronal brain (the ‘reducing valve’). However, I happen to think that some people are endowed with a greater openness to spiritual inflow than others.  History is replete with such figures and I would only point to the Indian mathematician, Srinavasa Ramanujan, as an example – or Swedenborg himself.

GG: The Need for Free Will, and a Leap of Faith

While I’m sympathetic to the concept of universal consciousness as the source for our spiritual understanding, I think there are some questions. For me, one critical factor in the whole puzzle is free will. We experience the process of making a choice, and that choice has efficacy in the physical world. We are conscious, intentional agents.

If our consciousness is simply a receptivity to a divine universal influx, then where is the space, and the activating mechanism, for individual choice? Consciousness places a fundamental demand on each of us to make choices — we are, at least in part, responsible for the course of our lives and of the universe with which we are consciously engaged. How does that work if we are just a receiving vessel?

There is another interesting thread on this issue, however. There is an interpretation of OR (objective reduction) that counters the argument that the purposeful orchestration of OR is the activating feature of consciousness (whether from a resonance with spiritual inflow or the operation of free will). The argument is that since each and every discrete (OR) quantum event of which our universe is comprised is indeterminate, we could choose to believe that the proto-conscious behavior in each quantum reduction event is not the consequence of a conscious choice. Rather, each OR event is, essentially, non-conscious, and the outcomes of these events are entirely random and purposeless. This is, I would maintain, largely consistent with the prevailing materialist view in the scientific community.

However, since OR repudiates the many worlds hypothesis (two universes cannot exist for very long due to the gravitational stresses imposed), one can no longer appeal to a vast number of alternate universes in answering the “fine-tuning problem” ) or the “unreasonable effectiveness” puzzle. (For explanations, see: Towards a TOE.) The materialist is left with an entirely unsatisfactory formulation of what is known as the anthropic principle: The conclusion is that we are conscious observers in a universe that accidentally displays the precise characteristics necessary for the existence of conscious observers.

It seem much more useful to make a choice to believe that the universe we are in is an intentional one, and that the proto-consciousness we observe under Orch OR serves a universal divine purpose, the nature of which we are unable to observe directly. Such a belief is no more speculative, and no more falsifiable, than the many worlds hypothesis, but in the context of Orch OR, it is a far more powerful and consistent hypothesis.

I suggest that it is rational, and wise, to put our faith in it.

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