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: