Quantum Mechanics and Consciousness

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I’ve just finished a draft of a new paper, exploring whether reflection on consciousness can help us make progress on foundational questions in quantum mechanics. You can access it here: http://www.philipgoffphilosophy.com/uploads/1/4/4/4/14443634/quantum_mechanics_and_the_consciousness_constraint1.pdf

It’s going to come out with a volume called ‘Quantum Mechanics and Consciousness,’ which will be published with Oxford University Press (edited by Shan Gao). All comments welcome! It’s not incredible accessible, I’m afraid. Below is the first section, which gives the big picture.

Quantum mechanics is one of the best predictive machines humankind has ever produced. Much of our modern technology, from computers to smart phones to GPS, is reliant on its predictive power. The trouble is nobody knows what quantum mechanics is telling us about reality. There are numerous proposals but no consensus on which is most probable. As things stand, the empirical data seems to underdetermine the theory.

In this kind of situation, philosophy has an important role to play, helping us to evaluate the evidential situation with respect to the various hypotheses. But it is generally assumed in this context that philosophy is not able to offer us new data, over and above the scientific data of observation and experiment. The usual expectation is that the philosopher of physics will contribute conceptual clarity and perhaps a cost-benefit analysis of the various interpretations of quantum mechanics in terms of theoretical virtues, such as simplicity, parsimony, non ad-hocness, etc.

In contrast to this standard assumption, I’m inclined to think that philosophy does have new data to offer, and that this data might have bearing on the ontology of quantum mechanics. What I have in mind is data pertaining to the reality of consciousness. Consciousness is not something that we know about through observation and experiment. If we were just going off the data of third person observation and experiment, we would have no need to postulate subjective experiences, as Daniel Dennett (2007) has argued very effectively. Nonetheless, contra Dennett, we do know that consciousness is real: we know that it’s real in virtue of the immediate awareness each of us of our own feelings and experiences. Any theory of reality unable to account for the reality of consciousness is at best incomplete. In this sense, the reality of consciousness is a datum in its own right. I call the theoretical obligation to account for this datum ‘the consciousness constraint.’

I believe that scientists and philosophers of the future will be baffled by the fact that their late twentieth century/early twenty first century ancestors did not make more use of the consciousness constraint. There is a certain phenomenon known to be real with something close to certainty, and yet the ontological implications of that phenomenon are completely ignored by most theoretical scientists, and even most metaphysicians. It is true that the problem of consciousness, broadly understood as the challenge of understanding ‘how brains produce consciousness,’ is now taken to be a serious scientific problem. However, this is generally assumed to be a problem that will go away with a bit more neuroscience. But the problem of consciousness is radically unlike any other scientific problem, not least because the fundamental datum that needs to be accounted for does not come from observation or experiment. Consciousness is something we know about independently of third-person empirical science; as such it is a valuable source of information to be added to the data of observation and experiment.

The bearing of consciousness on quantum mechanics has been very little explored. Of course, a small number of heterodox thinkers have tried to make sense of the old idea that consciousness might have a role at the heart of quantum mechanics (see Chalmers and McQueen this volume). But this has never been articulated as part of a general approach of working out how the reality of consciousness constrains theory choice in this area. This paper will take a first step in rectifying this, by tentatively exploring the question of whether wave function monism – a popular interpretation of the ontology of quantum mechanics – is able to satisfy the consciousness constraint.

The Author

I am a philosopher and consciousness researcher at Durham University, UK. My research focuses on how to integrate consciousness into our scientific worldview.


  1. I will just say that there is no wave function or Hilbert space in the basis of what is called the (path-integral) “quantum measure theory” approach (or QMT).

    Quantum mechanics is formulated as a “theory of quantal histories, without ever needing to call on state-vectors, [the wave function,] measurements,or external agents as fundamental notions”
    (references at Rafael Sorkin)

    Adrian Kent* (mentioned in your references) also is involved in this approach, along with Fay Dowker (who has debated Many Worlds advocates), and others.

    Supposing (with QMT) that the basic constituents of quantum reality are histories (there is no wave function of the universe, but here could be a sum over spacetime histories) might lead to some other ideas.

    * “The ultimate vision of those who take path integral [sum-over-histories] quantum theory as fundamental to all of physics is a path integral formulation of quantum gravity and quantum cosmology.”
    Adrain Kent (arXiv:1305.6565)

  2. After Berkeley, Hume, Kant, and Husserl it is a waste of time to explain at great length the obvious — that the only reality which is ever given to us directly is phenomenal, i.e., it is phenomena of consciousness, everything else we imagine to explain this reality is explanatory abstractions.

    “There is no quantum world. There is only an abstract quantum physical description. It is wrong to think that the task of physics is to find out what nature is. Physics concerns what we can say about nature.” (Niels Bohr)

    It can be equally said that there is no physical world; there is only an abstract physical description. It is wrong to think that the task of physics is to find out what nature is; physics concerns what we can say about nature in the language of mathematical formalism.

    “In modern quantum theory there is hardly any doubt that elementary particles are ultimately mathematical forms… For a physicist the thing-in-itself, if he uses this concept, is ultimately a mathematical structure.” (Werner Heisenberg)

    Hence, “physical reality” aka “matter” exists only in one’s imagination as an explanatory abstraction and a mathematical idealization which, from the point of view of the most conceptually parsimonious ontology of idealism, points to the processes of transcendental consciousness — the processes of transcendental intersubjectivity.

    “In spite of the fact that the physical events in the brain belong to the psychic phenomena, we do not expect that these could be sufficient to explain them” (Werner Heisenberg)

    “Consciousness cannot be accounted for in physical terms. For consciousness is absolutely fundamental. It cannot be accounted for in terms of anything else” (Erwin Schrodinger)

    “I regard consciousness as fundamental. I regard matter as derivative from consciousness. We cannot get behind consciousness. Everything that we talk about, everything that we regard as existing, postulates consciousness” (Max Planck)

    To see the truth, one should give up his naive self-assurance and habitual stubbornness, and surrender to the beauty of simplicity. The world is nothing but consciousness. This is the truth. Simple. Beautiful.

    But what is “consciousness”? What is consciousness in itself behind its phenomenal and transcendental aspects of our individual existence?

    “The true nature of [consciousness in itself] is the true nature of all [phenomena], because, remaining as it is at all times, it is [Transcendence].” (Vasubandhu)

    There is a phenomenal “spoon” (colorforms, sounds and sensations), Neo, but its substance is transcendent*, for it is consciousness-in-itself — divine Transcendence. Tat tvam asi.

    Wake up.

    *) Never confuse transcendent with transcendental in Kantian and Husserlian sense.

    • “Hence, “physical reality” aka “matter” exists only in one’s imagination as an explanatory abstraction”

      Explanatory abstraction of what?

  3. Peter Hiett says

    The quantum mechanics is beyond my comprehension, but I am interested in your consciousness constraint, though I’m not sure I understand it. Suppose that wave function monism had passed your 3D test, or another theory had, and indeed gone on to be shown to be an adequate theory of reality. How would we see the consciousness constraint satisfied?

    To take your example, pain is a thing in the real world. The adequate theory must therefore entail with a plausible starting state some set of symbols which we take to mean pain. But you’ve just “insulated from empirical refutation” the pain in the real world, so how are you going to map it to the relevant symbols in the theory? Haven’t you insulated the pain from everything? How will you know that the symbols which mean pain actually map to pain in the real world?

  4. Steven Evans says

    Jesus Christ! More complete drivel. You have no idea whether neuroscience will eventually explain consciousness or not. You are second guessing possibly hundreds of years of neuroscience research. And what Daniel Dennett thinks about the topic is irrelevant unless he has a complete description of the physical brain and explanations of all its possible functions, which he doesn’t. Also, there is no suggestion from the *observed physical record* that quantum effects are constrained by “consciousness”, and assuming so has led you yet again to claiming to have a fundamental theory of the physical world which doesn’t actually provide any facts verifiable by observation.
    Interpretations of quantum theory can only be judged on the empirical evidence. Observation is the only arbiter. You have not understood this as you don’t even know what natural science *is*, which is why you keep churning out these crank theories with no empirical support. The Many-Worlds interpretation, for example, is pure speculation as multiple branches of the world have not been observed. Again, you don’t understand this as you don’t know what natural science *is*.

    This is just more random, lunatic-level speculation from you that unsurprisingly leads nowhere. You have about as much idea what consciousness is as my dog does. When will you end this crankery and actually produce a “single piece of knowledge* about the world? Never. Because you’re a fraud.

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