Comments on
STAR WAVE by Fred Alan Wolf

Comments by Ben Best

Penrose has recognized expertise in some area of physics (gravitational physics). His expertise is not in quantum mechanics or neurophysiology. Although Wolf has a physics degree, he is not a recognized expert in any area of physics. That in itself would not necessarily disqualify him if he were a careful thinker and a scrupulous reporter of facts.

The tone of Wolf's analysis can be represented by some quotes: Page 124: "When observation ceases, according to quantum physics, the universal quiff becomes purified with no further increase in entropy. Observation is the cause of all disorder." Page 153: "...the human body-mind is that automatically functioning aspect of spirit, or 'quiffness,' which is ultimately the form and body of God. The quiff [quantum wave function] and God are one." For Wolf, "God" is a hidden variable. For him, matter and spirit are united at the quantum level — but if spirit is purely identified with matter, it becomes a superfluous concept. If it is not superfluous, it can be the basis of "will", ie, it is a "hidden variable".

Chapter 5 of STAR WAVE deals with entropy. An analogy that regards entropy as information is a very strained analogy — and to claim that a reduction of entropy is equivalent to an increase in consciousness strains the analogy well past the breaking point. Books are full of information, but they are not conscious. If entropy is reduced by electrons being brought into an atom and attaining correlated spins — and if this is the origin of consciousness — why would it happen specifically in a human brain, rather than a glass of water? What biological mechanisms could extract free electrons (from where?) and attach them to atoms containing empty orbitals? (And where do those atoms come from?) These speculations are so wild, and based on such flimsy associations, that I can hardly seriously answer them.

Two electrons become correlated when they share the same orbital (the Pauli Exclusion Principle). Wolf contrasts correlated electrons with uncorrelated electrons — I took the latter to be free electrons, not in an atom. Within an atom, electrons change orbitals by emitting or absorbing photons. But I think it is very rare that these photons are exchanged between electrons within the same atom (I could be wrong). However, as a postulated basis for human consciousness, I don't think it holds water.

Concerning water, if photon exchanges between electrons are happening in water molecules, as Wolf suggests, they might as well be in a glass as in a brain. Yes, a brain is better designed than a water glass, but water molecules in brains and water glasses have such a wide leeway for movement and Brownian jostling that I deny there is any material difference. I deny that water molecules in brains are sufficiently anchored to hold information of the kind Wolf suggests.

Nonlocality and parallel universes are extreme attempts to avoid interpretations of physics that deny causality or the non-objectivity of reality. Yet Wolf enthusiastically embraces every one of these beliefs — blithely ignoring their mutually exclusive nature. He believes in nonlocality, consciousness-created reality, noncausality and parallel universes with little regard to the thinking that inspired these suggestions. His enthusiasm is for weirdness for its own sake, and logic is the least of his talents.

I have attempted to get the gist of Roger Penrose's book THE EMPEROR'S NEW MIND by reading the first 40 pages and the last 100 pages. Penrose is vastly superior to Wolf as a scientist and as a serious thinker. Penrose's book, unlike Wolf's, does not contain page-after-page of hare-brained non sequiturs or references to "spirits". Penrose makes speculations which seem only slightly plausible to me, but which do have some possibility. And Penrose clearly states where he is speculating (unlike Wolf, who makes wild-ass statements as if they were fact).

In Chapter One, Penrose states, "I should make clear that my point of view is an unconventional one among physicists and is consequently one which is unlikely to be adopted, at present, by computer scientists or physiologists. Most physicists would claim that the fundamental laws operative at the scale of a human brain are indeed all perfectly well known."

In the Introduction, Martin Gardner states that "Penrose is one of an increasingly large band of physicists who think Einstein was not being stubborn or muddle-headed when he said his 'little finger' told him that quantum mechanics is incomplete". And, indeed, Penrose refers to a "new procedure" which "would contain an essentially non-algorithmic element. This would imply that the future would not be computable from the present, even though it might be determined by it. I have tried to be clear in distinguishing the issue of computability from that of determinism."

Penrose believes that "there might be an essentially non-algorithmic ingredient in the action of consciousness." He carries this further by saying, "I believe consciousness to be closely associated with the sensing of necessary truths — and thereby achieving a direct contact with Plato's world of mathematical concepts".

According to Penrose, the deterministic non-computability of his interpretation of quantum theory can enter the picture by virtue of the fact that "Experiments with toads have shown that under suitable conditions, a single photon impinging on the dark-adapted retina can be sufficient to trigger a macroscopic nerve signal". Penrose goes on to say, "Since there are neurons in the human body that can be triggered by single quantum events, is it not reasonable to ask whether cells of this kind might be found somewhere in the main part of the human brain? As far as I am aware, there is no evidence for this. The types of cell that have been examined all require a threshold to be reached, and a very large number of quanta are needed in order that the cell will fire. One might speculate, however, that somewhere deep in the brain, cells are to be found of single quantum sensitivity. If this proves to be the case, then quantum mechanics will be significantly involved in brain activity."

I think Penrose makes a wild leap of speculation in these remarks — much wilder than he acknowledges. The role of photons in vision are quite far-removed from the quantum weirdness of wave-particle duality. In vision, photons act like high-energy particles that are absorbed by the protein rhodopsin to initiate twisting of a covalent bond. On the basis of this phenomenon, Penrose proposes neurons "deep in the brain" which are sensitive enough to "quantum linear superposition" to allow superimposed different computations — "perhaps even an infinitely large number",he says, of parallel computations. The mechanism of action he is proposing for his "quantum computer" neurons is so far removed from the action of rhodopsin that the comparison to vision is virtually irrelevant. There is really no evidence that quantum-wave sensitive neurons exist.

The essential question in Penrose's book corresponds to the title of his first chapter: "Can a Computer Have a Mind?" By requiring that consciousness be "nonalgorithmic" and invoking his own interpretation of quantum theory (and the role he speculates it plays in consciousness), Penrose says NO!, a computer can't have a mind. If Penrose is right in his analysis, he may have excluded Turing machines, but his conclusion doesn't follow. A machine sensitive to quantum waves (as he claims some brain cells are) could be built.

I am both a determinist and a cryonicist. These two "ists" are related insofar as it will only be possible to reconstruct a frozen brain if the brain is the anatomical basis of mind — ie, if the reconstruction of brain tissue damaged by freezing can restore the mind (although there is hope that vitrification can eliminate freezing damage in cryonics).

I think there may be a role for randomness in the operation of the mind — and this could, by some remote possibility, involve a quantum influence — although I am highly skeptical of the idea of quantum influences allowing direct contact with "Plato's world" of "necessary truths". It seems to me that the aspects of consciousness that I most want to preserve — memory and identity — are the most likely to be found in stable biological structures. And for this reason I believe that the most likely quantum influences (which I do not think are very likely) are the least likely to interfere with cryonics working.