One of the largest mysteries of science is that humans have conscious awareness of their complex subjective experiences – or what we call “qualia” – such as being aware of what it’s like to delight in the color of a flower, melt into the comfort of a bed, or to feel sharp pain. Why and how qualia could emerge from physical matter and be a part of the human experience is unknown, and this is called the ‘hard problem’ of consciousness. Related to qualia is the mystery of why humans feel like they have free will, or the ability to intentionally choose and execute actions.
The ‘easy’ problem of consciousness is mapping these mind states to brain states, such as identifying which brain regions are active during a certain experience, such as smelling a flower. Despite advances in classical physics and neuroscience, many aspects of the mind-brain relationship, such as qualia, remain unresolved. New theories of mind are required to address this perennial mystery.
In a new paper, we propose that some aspects of mind are quantum and can play an active role in the physical world, explaining some of the unexplainable.
Theories of Mind
First, we need to briefly review some older theories of mind that have kept philosophers in debate for centuries.
Physicalism, also called materialism, proposes that all of reality is physical and that mind is somehow an expression of physical matter. Physicalism is the foundation of modern-day science and proposes that neural activity, such as action potentials, is the physical foundation from which mind and consciousness spontaneously emerge — but this brings us right back to the ‘hard problem’ of consciousness because it is not obvious how subjective awareness can emerge from physical matter, which is presumably not aware. Dual-Aspect Monism proposes that reality is composed of a single, holistic substance, from which mind and matter emerge. Another theory, Idealism, proposes that reality consists fundamentally of mind, and that physical matter is a form of “solidified mind.”
In 1640, Descartes proposed that reality is actually composed of two substances: Res cogitans, a mental substance, and Res extensa, a physical substance. But this view leads us to the classic mind-body problem, where if we view the brain as a machine that is driven by classical physics where all causes are already determined, then there is no room for free will, or for mind.
So, how do we link the mental and physical aspects of the world?
Quantum Mechanics Could be the Missing Link
Quantum mechanics gives us a new possibility because it has flipped our understanding of reality. From quantum mechanics, we have the concept of the superposition of the quantum state, where a physical system exists only in potential states of being until it is measured or observed by something non-physical, after which it then “collapses” into one of many possible actual states. Werner Heisenberg, one of the founders of quantum theory, described this state as “potentia, ghost-like, between an idea and a reality.”
What does that mean? Let’s take the famous Schrödinger’s cat example to explain. In this thought experiment, while the cat is unobserved inside a closed box with a bottle of poison that may or may not have been opened, it may be considered simultaneously both alive and dead. However, the statement “The cat is simultaneously alive and dead” is illogical because both cases cannot be true in the real world. But, if the statement is changed to, “The cat is simultaneously possibly alive and possibly dead,” then it is not a contradiction. This form of logical possibility is analogous to a superposed quantum state. So, it helps to think of quantum states as Possibles, or Possibilities. After we open the box and observe whether the cat is alive or dead (i.e. observation), the Possibilities become an actual reality.
We take these findings from quantum mechanics and propose a non-substance dualism model whereby the world consists of two elements: Possibles (Res potentia) and Actuals (Res extensa). In this partially quantum mind-body system, the act of observing – the observer’s mind – converts a superposition of possible states (Possibles) into one specific state (Actuals). Before observation by the mind, the Possibles are in a state of “becoming.” Similar proposals have been made by many of the founders of quantum theory and continue to be discussed as a viable interpretation of what quantum theory means by contemporary physicists and philosophers.
What would we expect with a Partially Quantum Mind-Body System?
If the mind-body system is partially quantum, then we might expect to see quantum-like effects in subjective experience, such as the mind having the capacity to extend beyond the mind-brain system, minds interacting with other minds, or minds perceiving hidden or distant objects. Also, the act of mentally observing a distant physical system would, to some small degree, influence the behavior of that system.
Although that might sound like science fiction to some, in fact, such experiences have been recorded in every culture throughout history. A survey conducted by IONS even found that 90% of contemporary scientists and engineers reported having these kinds of experiences.
Of greater importance, these aren’t just anecdotal stories. These experiences suggest that the mind can interact directly with matter and transcend the everyday constraints of space and time, and they have been systematically studied with increasingly rigorous experimental methods since the late 1800s.
Experimental Evidence for Quantum Mind
What is the empirical evidence for quantum-like experiences? A few examples of experiments designed to capture these experiences are listed below, but there exist many, many more. A recent review of meta-analyses of many classes of experiments found strong cumulative support for the reality of nonlocal consciousness effects. It showed that these studies had been replicated from dozens to hundreds of times and were carefully controlled for potential bias, variations in experimental quality, and repeatability.
In one experimental technique used to study nonlocal connections between minds, researchers found correlations between the brain waves of pairs of people isolated by distance and/or shielding when one of them was exposed to audio tones, light flashes, or some other stimulus known to evoke brain responses.
In another class of experiments designed to test perception-through-time, participants selected one target from a limited set of randomly determined future targets (e.g. colored lamps). Participants successfully chose the correct future target at levels significantly above chance.
Studies have also looked at mind-matter interactions, finding that one’s focused mind can influence the outcomes of thrown dice or random number generators at levels above chance.
Our proposal that the mind is at least partially quantum and converts Possibles into Actuals through observation helps explain subjective human experiences that are deemed impossible according to classical (i.e., Newtonian) physical theories.
The implications are enormous. It suggests that we are all far more interconnected than we perceive in our normal, everyday state of awareness. It also suggests that a human can not only “try” to alter the outcome of a physical system by intentionally altering the probabilities of the outcomes, but that their will can actually accomplish their desire. This may explain why humans feel they have free will – because in some way, their will is directly tied to outcomes in the physical world.
Mind, in short, may have had – and still have – an active role in the evolution of the world, and we are all participants in this co-creation.