Consciousness and quantum physics

There are very few more interesting and dfficult subjects than the nature of mind and consciousness. It doesn’t seem to resemble anything else in the universe. What is it? What is it made of? Is it distinct from physical processes (as in Descartes’ dualism), or is it just what the electrical and chemical activity of the brain feels like from the inside? The latter is my view, and there is more and more scientific evidence showing firm links between activity in areas of the brain and types of thought.

But this leaves some problems. If certain inputs provoke certain processes in the physical brain, which in turn cause certain reactions, where does consciousness fit into this? Some people have suggested it is just an accidental byproduct of brain activity, with no productive role to play – the smoke from an old train, contributing nothing to the actions of the train. Where does consciousness and will come in? Some of the more bonkers thinkers postulate the apparent link between thought and the real world as coincidence, or some trick played by God to fool us into imagining that our thoughts do anything.

One intriguing point at the other end of the bonkers scale (I mean superscientific wildness, not religious) that I’d like to mention goes back to Schrodinger’s Cat, that beautiful illustration of the collapse of quantum wave functions only happening when a conscious observer looks at the result (though even this is an arguable interpretation of this thought experiment). So is the function of consciousness to collapse these things, and give us a universe with a narrative, a single sequence of events? That does seem to offer an evolutionary advantage compared to the unimaginable (though not therefore necessarily untrue) alternative. This might sound bonkers, but it is the view held by some brilliant people, including Roger Penrose (see his book Shadows Of The Mind). He thinks that this may be linked to cytoskeletal microtubules, tiny protein structures in the brain that are at least on the right kind of scale for quantum effects. I should add that I mention this (so far?) poorly founded idea not because I think it is right, but because it strikes me as daring and interesting and original – as I’m not a scientist, this means more to me in many ways than whether it turns out to be true or not.

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