Afterlife in the Quantum Realm?

The enigmas of quantum physics always provide fertile ground for fascinating science stories, as well as a good springboard into ontological and epistemological speculation. In recent weeks we've had interesting news about quantum coherence in biological systems and also yesterday's headline of quantum effects being seen in a visible object for the first time (RPJ also linked to a wonderful summary of recent 'quantum science' by Alan Boyle on his Cosmic Log).

Most physicists though are very careful not to be seen departing from the strange concepts inherent in the quantum world, into the (seemingly extended) area of metaphysics. Henry Stapp though is not one of those - a physicist with a distinguished history (having studied/worked under Pauli, Heisenberg, and other luminaries), Stapp disagrees with a purely materialist view of the cosmos, instead seeing consciousness as being of extreme importance via its role in the collapse of the wave-function. And, while reading a recent interview he did with EnlightenNext Magazine (PDF download), I was very interested to see the following comments:

[R]espectable theorists hold a wide variety of views as to how to understand quantum mechanics. That theory accommodates a large variety of phenomena that are not allowed by classical mechanics. The key point here is this: If something like [William] James’ fantastic laws of clinging do exist, and they are sufficiently strong, then aspects of a personality might be able to survive bodily death and persist for a while as an enduring mental entity, existing somewhere in Descartes’ world of mental things, but capable on rare occasions of reconnecting with the physical world. I do not see any compelling theoretical reason why this idea could not be reconciled with the precepts of quantum mechanics. Such an elaboration of quantum mechanics would both allow our conscious efforts to influence our own bodily actions, and also allow certain purported phenomena such as “possession”, “mediumship”, and “reincarnation” to be reconciled with the basic precepts of contemporary physics.

These considerations are, I think, sufficient to show that any claim that postmortem personality survival is impossible that is based solely on the belief that it is incompatible with the contemporary laws of physics is not rationally supportable. Rational science-based opinion on this question must be based on the content and quality of the empirical data, not on the presumption that such a phenomenon would be strictly incompatible with our current scientific knowledge of how nature works.

You can read more about Stapp's ideas on this in his paper "Compatibility of Contemporary Physical Theory with Personality Survival" (downloadable Word document), and for a more comprehensive overview see his book Mindful Universe. For video of Henry Stapp explaining some of his ideas, make sure you head over to the 'Closer to Truth' website (one of the greatest websites I've ever had the good fortune to find) and search through the videos for his intriguing interviews with Robert Lawrence Kuhn.

Previously on TDG:

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dustincole's picture
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It's good to see a mainstream physicist going after human consciousness with a detachment from the typical scientific dogmatic rigor. For those of you interested in theories of consciousness, religious thought, kabbalah, etc and how they relate to quantum physics, check out Dr. Fred Alan Wolf. He's not only a very respected physicist, but he has also been initiated into the psychedelic world of ayahuasca by a practicing south American shaman. He combines kabbalah and quantum physics in a refreshingly succinct way...plus he's hilarious. He's like the mad scientist of kabbalah!

grthink's picture
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This is a really interesting article... I've often wonderded why quantum physics hasn't been used more often to help explain anomalous phenomena, and always supposed it came down to:
1. Most people don't undertand quantum physicss at a level deep enough to really use it to properly explain things (I certainly don't), and that those that do are chasing their own leads, rather than picking up ones identified on 'our' side of the scientific argument.
2. Both researchers/proponents of anomalous phenomena and the skeptical movement are desperate for hard, rational results and verifiable evidence for their point of view, and so haven't gone down the quantum route. Getting evidence based on quantum theories is both difficult, and expensive, right?

red pill junkie's picture
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Getting evidence based on quantum theories is both difficult, and expensive, right?

Which is ironic because, like Relativity, most of the foundation of quantum mechanics was based on thought experiments —I'm really hoping Schrödinger didn't actually put a live cat on a box along with poison gas and a decaying isotope! ;)

It's not the depth of the rabbit hole that bugs me...
It's all the rabbit SH*T you stumble over on your way down!!!

Red Pill Junkie
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grthink's picture
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Yeah, but can you imagine the looks on the faces of any animal rights guys if he did?
"MISTER SHRODINGER, HOW LONG HAS THIS CAT BEEN IN HERE?!"
"It doesn't matter too much, actually... Hang, on, you didn't open that box, did you?"
"Yes, it has a dead cat in it!"
"Hey, you opened the box, you killed the cat. Don't come crying to me."

red pill junkie's picture
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Good one :)

It's not the depth of the rabbit hole that bugs me...
It's all the rabbit SH*T you stumble over on your way down!!!

Red Pill Junkie
_______________
@red_pill_junkie

daydreamer's picture
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I read recently that interpretations are never disproven, they are just disfavoured . The quote you picked is right from the sound of it, there are indeed a wide variety of views on how to understand quantum mechanics.

This is why i am a bit confused by Henry Stapp's document here. I am not sure whether this is written for other scientists or for other believers. The document is structured scientifically, but not written so. The language is funny - the repetition of the Copenhagen Interpretation not as the Copenhagen Interpretation, but as Modern Orthodox QM was a little like being slapped with his feelings, rather than with fact. The Copenhagen Interpretation is disproven in the sense of having evidence conflicting with its predictions, or at the least disfavoured. The constant reference to orthodoxy doesn't seem accurate, given the state of the theory next to the evidence and relative to other ideas.

His logic seems to go a little like this: if you take a particular view of quantum mechanics, then take a particular feature of it, then squint at it just right and bend your neck just like this then assuming these things and this and this then there is no conflict so long as you again squint just like this.

Well what about the rest of quantum mechanics. And what about the evidence for what he is saying.

Ontologically construed orthodox quantum mechanics. Psycho-physical Events. Biocentricity in the waveform collapse? Perfect biocentricity? Shared roles to wavefuntion collapse? Squint just like this and this is what i can see, can you see it too?.

So with this squint 'physical objects are persisting societies of sequences of physical events, while personalities are persisting societies of mental events'. Er, wait a minute. The personality and society of [clinging] mental events is the end product of the thought sequence and the input? So if we assume the difference between personality and physicality then the assumption can be carried into quantum mechanics, and look, a white rabbit, the assumption carries through to the output as well - personality must be separate to physicality. Well, wait a minute. To me in the audience it looks like you've just pulled off a magic trick. So you've inserted an assumption into the hypothesis, squinted in such a way that it does not drop out of the middle, and it is still at the end. Then we are asked to see this as evidence for something?

Well what if the universe reacts to itself? We set up the experiment and the output is such that the experiment itself (designed by a conscious observer - in this instance) interferes with the output. But is it really consciousness? A computer isn't conscious, but if we setup a program to design experiments are we saying the waveform will no longer collapse? Or is it just the setup of the experiment (the position of matter and energy) that affects how other matter and energy behave? Surely that is also not beyond possibility? We have the power to move matter and energy into specific places. This matter then affects other matter. We have chosen to set it up that way, but perhaps that is not so important to the universe. Perhaps that is how things happen anyway - even without us moving the matter from left to right, or up and down.

When we say we look at the cat to see if it is dead or alive and this collapses the waveform we really mean we interact with it in some way. Could a computer not do that - or another atom or photon floating through space. Is it ego to say that it is us when really it is the photon we are using that has collapsed the function? And in this way is the whole universe not self existing even without biocentricity - with everything in it interacting with its neighbour, jostling the wavefunction into collapse and into reality.

What does it say of this idea if instead of psycho-physicality we just have physical interactions collapsing wavefunctions (matter and energy interacting). The argument evaporates and we are left with physicality and Henry Stapp has proven materialism!? I don't think he would be so happy with that interpretation of his own idea, even if it is little different apart from the squint you use.

Besides, there are other interpretations of quantum mechanics that do not cause so many headaches. Ones better fitting evidence, apparently. So why pick this one? Why focus only on the bits that glint just right, and ignore the others?

Quote:

It solves a problem that has plagued both science and philosophy for centuries---the imagined science-mandated need either to equate mind with brain, or to make the brain dynamically independent of the mind

Well ok, it does if you make the exact same assumptions and ignore the same problems. Really though, this piece is peppered with assumptions made in personal favour, apparent certainty of principles and ideas that are still uncertain (the imagined science-mandated need), plus other little personal slants to achieve what he wants - any pathway through his subject to his required destination. And all this before we even try and square his ideas against other interpretations and subjects.

Anyway...

This makes for an interesting read

http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg20...

Separating consciousness into the hard and soft/easy problem it looks like the objective side, spotting brain activity correlating with consciousness is progressing (am i allowed to place a bet of good/major progress in the next 5-10 years?). The subjective side - the hard problem of how we scientifically account for our personal experience of consciousness is another matter entirely though.

I do wonder what it would be like if you were given a computer plugged into a monitor with a 3D game running, but without a mouse or keyboard, and asked to explain it having never seen one before.

Perhaps after time you would be able to explain how it was divided with a central motherboard and peripheral devices for sound, video etc. Then how the motherboard was constructed and divided. How the memory registers worked and how the chips were constructed - how many connections they had and how they were connected. But what of the software running? How would you plug in and transfer your measurements of the electric currents running through the circuit-board into knowledge of the command structure and of the program running on the machine.

I don't know whether the hard consciousness problem is like this, though i suspect the soft consciousness problem is. Our understanding of the human body seems to me to have progressed on very much the same lines as i would expect if we were just shown a computer for the first time. We have mapped the anatomy and now even the anatomy of the brain, but grasping the software is still something we don't have.

earthling's picture
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I wrote this before, so forgive me for being repetitive.

It is interesting how the really difficult problems of an age often attract explanations using the most advanced, and poorly understood, scientific (or magical) new concepts of that age.

Horsedrawn war wagons, gears and levers, electricity, nuclear processes, and today quantum effects.

----
We are the cat.

Greg's picture
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daydreamer wrote:

This is why i am a bit confused by Henry Stapp's document here. I am not sure whether this is written for other scientists or for other believers. The document is structured scientifically, but not written so.

As with a lot of the documents added to Stapp's site, I think the simple answer is that it's a thought experiment of sorts. The summary of the document sets out fairly clearly that Stapp is not saying "this is how it is", but instead "this [personality survival] is actually explainable within the laws of physics".

In summary, the central point of this paper is merely to point out that the elaboration of orthodox quantum mechanics that achieves the most commonsensical solution to the biocentrism problem parallels an elaboration that naturally accommodates personality survival. Neither of these elaborations appears to require any basic change in the orthodox theory. But both require a relaxing of the idea that physical and mental events occur only when paired together.

In light of these considerations, strong doubts about personality survival based solely on the belief that postmortem survival is incompatible with the laws of physics are unfounded.

Quote:

But is it really consciousness? A computer isn't conscious, but if we setup a program to design experiments are we saying the waveform will no longer collapse? Or is it just the setup of the experiment (the position of matter and energy) that affects how other matter and energy behave? Surely that is also not beyond possibility? We have the power to move matter and energy into specific places. This matter then affects other matter. We have chosen to set it up that way, but perhaps that is not so important to the universe. Perhaps that is how things happen anyway - even without us moving the matter from left to right, or up and down.

That would be taking us right back to the original, unanswered question of determinism vs free will. Stapp says some theories of quantum mechanics (notably, evolved Copenhagen via Wigner and von Neumann) suggest that consciousness causes collapse. Others (e.g. Everett and the Many Worlds) might say that 'consciousness causes collapse' is an illusion caused by decoherence splitting realities off into an almost infinite number of universes, all of which is deterministic (we just see our 'own' reality and therefore retroactively ascribe our decision-making to 'free will'). Your paragraph above is inclined to this latter version (to me, with Many Worlds there remains an ineffable mystery as to why 'I' am 'I'). However, I would hardly say the debate is settled either way.

(Incidentally, it's interesting that your computer example above requires the statement "we setup a program".)

Quote:

Besides, there are other interpretations of quantum mechanics that do not cause so many headaches. Ones better fitting evidence, apparently.

Which are?

Quote:

Well ok, it does if you make the exact same assumptions and ignore the same problems. Really though, this piece is peppered with assumptions made in personal favour, apparent certainty of principles and ideas that are still uncertain (the imagined science-mandated need), plus other little personal slants to achieve what he wants - any pathway through his subject to his required destination. And all this before we even try and square his ideas against other interpretations and subjects.

Again, I think you're getting antagonistic towards something under the assumption that it's claiming to prove something, whereas it is distinctly stating that it is showing how something is not disproved.

Quote:

I do wonder what it would be like if you were given a computer plugged into a monitor with a 3D game running, but without a mouse or keyboard, and asked to explain it having never seen one before.

Perhaps after time you would be able to explain how it was divided with a central motherboard and peripheral devices for sound, video etc. Then how the motherboard was constructed and divided. How the memory registers worked and how the chips were constructed - how many connections they had and how they were connected.

Although then you'd still be left with the more difficult problem of "who made this thing?!" and for what purpose...
;P

Kind regards,
Greg
-------------------------------------------
You monkeys only think you're running things
@DailyGrail

daydreamer's picture
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Hi Greg,

Thanks for the reply,

As you say, Everett is one answer that removes some headache's of this interpretation - while adding it's own admittedly, but its own in different directions as far as the thought exercise goes.

Quote:

The summary of the document sets out fairly clearly that Stapp is not saying "this is how it is", but instead "this [personality survival] is actually explainable within the laws of physics"

That seems a little like the magic trick to me though, even if it is watered down. It isn't 'how it is', but it is 'explainable under'. The identification of 'not how it is' or it as a possibility requests and acknowledges the freedom of expression in a pure thought experiment, which is fine. The claim 'it is explainable under' is more specific. We are being asked to believe that under certain circumstances there is compatibility, which is fine, but those circumstances are specific and based on unproven assumptions.

So the question becomes 'Is this a work of fantasy, or something based in reality?'. This is what i try to address. After all Lord of the Rings is real if we just allow for a couple of assumptions, that Mordor, Gondor and the Shire are real and that the rings of power are compatible with some aspects of quantum mechanics.

The same is being done here. If we assume that consciousness is quantum, that the Copenhagen Interpretation is correct (or call it the modern orthodox QM if we want), that psycho-physical interactions are correct, that physical clinging is correct and that the extension of any rules behind physical clinging can be extended to the idea of mental clinging so that mental clining is correct, then yes - quantum mechanics allows for personality survival.

As a thought experiment this is fine, but i can do it too - as can anyone. We can even do it without quantum mechanics. If we assume that a soul energy exists, that it binds to the complexity of the brain, and that after death it remains tangible in its own form within other dimensions, then personality survival is possible and we have shown compatibility with physics and biology.

Did i actually achieve anything by saying that though? What if i didn't just write it out like that, but wrote it in the format of a science paper, with abstract, main body, conclusion, references. Would i increase its gravitas to the reader? Would i increase the power of the argument?

If we intend not to prove something, but just speculate, such that we form a hypothesis, but then go further and say that my hypothesis shows compatibility with X or even the watered down version my hypothesis shows the possibility of compatibility with X then we are performing a trick on the public.

A hypothesis should not be used to show anything, especially if it has this many assumptions.

If everybody recognises this with this document then i take no issue. I honestly don't think that it is being that clear though.

Hypothesising (or conducting thought experiments) is fine, but claiming them as answers or showing compatibility with answers is a little too much like magic. Its the end product of a series of work that should do that, not the start - else it really would be very easy to show anything, or even compatibility with anything.

I would tend to go along with Earthling on this one. Quantum mechanics is being heavily used in this way. My cousins spiritual church had even come up with its own version!

Perhaps there is no problem with the paper as just pure speculation. But comments such as 'it is good to see a physicist investigating non-orthodox ideas' cause my worry if this is the output of that investigation. Expectation is a personal matter, but personally i would expect better. After all competing ideas of consciousness are down to attempts at pinning down its location, testing its speed and testing of inputs to it.

Greg's picture
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daydreamer wrote:

So the question becomes 'Is this a work of fantasy, or something based in reality?'. This is what i try to address. After all Lord of the Rings is real if we just allow for a couple of assumptions, that Mordor, Gondor and the Shire are real and that the rings of power are compatible with some aspects of quantum mechanics.

The difference though is that we don't have regular testimony from the public that they just took a vacation in the Shire and shook hands with Frodo. Stapp is addressing the fact that we have this collection of evidence suggesting that the mind may be a separate thing to the brain. He then tries to address these anomalies via his field of expertise, quantum mechanics.

So in some ways you're portraying this a little disingenuously. Stapp is quite clear at the start of his paper that he was (and is) skeptical of the survivalist interpretation, but that he found the documentation (of 'mind without brain') in Irreducible Mind to be "arresting"...as such, he thought it reasonable to "undertake the task" of seeing whether "the phenomena in question, if assumed to be veridical, could be reconciled with contemporary physical theory in a natural and reasonable way."

Quote:

As a thought experiment this is fine, but i can do it too - as can anyone. We can even do it without quantum mechanics. If we assume that a soul energy exists, that it binds to the complexity of the brain, and that after death it remains tangible in its own form within other dimensions, then personality survival is possible and we have shown compatibility with physics and biology.

Or how about this one - perhaps every time we make a decision, it's not actually a decision but just a branching of reality into another universe? Everett's theory has some parsimony going for it, but not a lot of evidence - yet people are willing to propose the theory, debate it, etc.

(On a side note, I do find it kinda funny that survival of consciousness is a "woo" subject, but the infinite branching of reality into new universes is orthodox physics.)

Quote:

Did i actually achieve anything by saying that though? What if i didn't just write it out like that, but wrote it in the format of a science paper, with abstract, main body, conclusion, references. Would i increase its gravitas to the reader? Would i increase the power of the argument?

Again, I feel you're overstating Stapp's intentions. He has maintained an archive of his papers (some published, some not) on the web for around a decade (as far as I know). Some of them are highly academic. This one to me reads about as 'pop' as Stapp has ever done. Given his decades in the upper echelons of a discipline like quantum mechanics, I'd imagine that most of his papers are written with some sort of rigor (abstract, references), whether thought experiment or submission to a top journal.

From the conclusion:

"In summary, the central point of this paper is merely to point out that the elaboration of orthodox quantum mechanics that achieves the most commonsensical solution to the biocentrism problem parallels an elaboration that naturally accommodates personality survival." (my emphasis)

Quote:

If we intend not to prove something, but just speculate, such that we form a hypothesis, but then go further and say that my hypothesis shows compatibility with X or even the watered down version my hypothesis shows the possibility of compatibility with X then we are performing a trick on the public.

Having said what I have above, I do want to note that I don't think Stapp is just throwing out unsupported speculations. I do understand that his conception of quantum mechanics is one particular (controversial) interpretation, among a number. At the same time, he is not a hack...he knows a lot more about the subject of quantum mechanics than you or I (okay, assumption on my part for the former). This isn't Deepak Chopra throwing lingo against the wall - Stapp starts from von Neumann's formulation of Copehagen, in which something outside of the 'grand superposition state' (ie. all of physical reality) is needed to collapse the wave function. He posits two realities - physical and mental. He has worked through these ideas in a number of papers on his site, which are not part of this particular paper. Yes, it's controversial and could well be wrong. But I have no problem at all with scientists taking on deep issues like this.

Quote:

I would tend to go along with Earthling on this one. Quantum mechanics is being heavily used in this way. My cousins spiritual church had even come up with its own version!

Again though, you're conflating a New Age 'woo' embrace of the mysteries of quantum mechanics with the very knowledgable theorising of a respected quantum physicist.

Thanks for the conversation, though - some worthwhile doubts raised about mental clinging and so on - discussions like this help solidify some thoughts and raises questions in some of my blind spots. I appreciate that (although it also causes all the housework to pile up!).
:)

Kind regards,
Greg
-------------------------------------------
You monkeys only think you're running things
@DailyGrail