Perhaps the last place you’d expect to find an 87-year-old physicist with a controversial theory of quantum consciousness is on the podcast of an MMA commentator with a huge audience largely made up of young men, but that’s the beauty of the internet.
Sir Roger Penrose – a decorated physicist considered one of the finest minds on the planet, and still very sharp despite his advanced age – sat down for a 96 minute chat with Joe Rogan, ranging over subjects that included quantum mechanics, neurophysiology, dark matter, Big Bangs and the possibility of advanced aliens transmitting themselves from a previous eon ‘through’ the Big Bang into ours.
Yup, things got pretty deep – and Penrose goes on extended discussions of rather complex cosmological ideas at times – so we can perhaps be thankful that Joe did not share a joint with Roger Penrose like he did in his controversial interview with Elon Musk, or who knows how weird things might have got.
Regular readers of the Grail will no doubt be particularly interested in hearing Penrose’s view on the question of quantum consciousness, given he is Stuart Hameroff’s ‘partner in research’ on that topic, and we’ve interviewed Stuart here on the Grail about that before (Roger is a lot more skeptical about the ‘woo’ aspects than Stuart is).
Here’s the YouTube embed of the interview – below it I’ve logged some of the more interesting moments and quotable quotes.
0:20 – Joe: I’m a big fan of your work, I’ve read much of your work, I’ve seen many of your interviews and videos online, and one of the things I really wanted to talk to you about, that I find quite interesting, is consciousness – and your belief that consciousness is not simply calculation, but that there’s something more to it, and what you think this ‘more’ could possibly be…from a scientific perspective, which is unusual because a lot of people have theories about consciousness, but they’re usually crazy people like myself.
1:00 – Roger talks about how he accidentally came into the subject while doing graduate work in mathematics at Cambridge University (a bit long-winded until toward the end).
11:15 – Roger: “The view I’ve held for a long time, is that there is something beyond computation involved in our understanding of things.”
“I didn’t do much with it “until there was a radio talk between Marvin Minsky and Edward Fredkin and they were explaining about what computers can do, and they were talking about ‘ok you have two computers talking to each other over there…and by the time you have walked up to the computers they have communicated with each other more thoughts than the human race has ever done’. And I thought “I see where you’re coming from, but I don’t think that’s what’s happening…human communication and human understanding is something different from what computers do, and consciousness is the key thing….consciousness is something different from computation”.
12:30 – “As a result, wrote the book The Emperor’s New Mind. I wrote this book thinking that, by the time I got to the end of the book – you see it was mostly about physics and mathematics…but I was really aiming for this thing about what’s going on in conscious thinking – and I thought I’ll learn a bit about neurophysiology and so on, and by the time I get to the end of the book I’ll know pretty well what it could be. I didn’t.”
“I’d hoped that this book would stimulate young people to get interested in science and mathematics, but when the book was published I didn’t get letters from young kids, I got letters from old retired people…the ones who had the time to read my book.”
“But I [also] got a letter from Stuart Hameroff…pointing out these little things called microtubules. He’d built up a theory that microtubules were absolutely fundamental to consciousness. I’d never heard of them at that time – I get lots of letters from people who maybe don’t make sense sometimes, and this one I thought ‘well is this another one?’ – but then I realized these microtubules looked like just the kind of thing that could well be supporting the kind of level of quantum mechanics where you could expect the quantum state to collapse”.
15:15 – Joe asks for more details on microtubules. RP replies.
17:00 – Roger extends his discussion into why various parts of the brain have different amounts of consciousness – for example, the cerebrum vs the cerebellum.
20:25 – Joe: “Are you convinced microtubules are responsible for consciousness?”
Roger: “I think they’re one of the best candidates. I don’t think it’s only microtubules. I’m not sure what Stuart Hameroff’s view on this is – he certainly thinks microtubules are exceedingly important in consciousness, and I think he’s right.”
“One of the important ways you can tell something about consciousness is what turns it off in a reversible way. And Stuart’s job, he’s an anaesthesiologist.”
23:00 – Joe: “Consciousness becomes…as a subject, it’s very susceptible to woo, right?”
Joe: “It’s one of those weird ones, where people want to start talking about souls, and universal consciousness, and…”
Roger: “It’s a murky area, and there’s no clear borderline.”
Discussion continues in this vein – including both voicing their displeasure with the movie What the Bleep Do We Know? – until Joe turns things around somewhat with the following question.
24:20 – Joe: “But this is something that everyone contemplates – what makes you conscious, what is the soul, is it a real thing, what is your consciousness…is it just simply your own biology trying to calculate your environment, looking out for it’s best interests…or is it something almost mystical? Or far more complicated maybe even…the word mystical might be tainted, maybe something far more complex than we’re currently able to understand.”
Roger: “I think to some extent I would agree, because it’s certainly different to have some internal perception of the external world, and lets you think abstractly…it’s surely different from the way a baseball moves through the air, and what makes it spin.”
Joe: “And different than every other conscious animal.”
Roger: “I’m not so sure about that. I remember seeing [a nature movie] about elephants…and they were trying to go from A to B. But then at a certain point they made a detour, and they went off to a place where the leader of the elephant herd, her sister had died. And the bones and tusks were there, and the elephants picked them up and handed them around, and seemed to caress them. And then they went back to join the route they were on before. So what does that tell us? There’s something going on that’s not just some machine behaving like a robot. There some feelings that we can appreciate.”
27:30 – Roger: “There’s no clear dividing line [for consciousness vs non-consciousness]. It pretty continuous.”
28:30 – Discussion of octopuses.
30:45 – Joe: “What do you think that consciousness is?”
Roger notes that he is intrigued by various functions in the brain, but ultimately “I don’t know, there’s a lot to learn.”
35:00 – Joe: “The phrase ‘quantum’ is another one that’s fraught with woo, and some people like Deepak Chopra and the like, they love to use that word, because as soon as you use that word you can kinda get away with almost anything after that.”
Roger: “Yes, I have to agree. Quantum mechanics is a strange thing, and I sort of blame it for certain things.”
Discussion of how it’s difficult as a layman to properly understand quantum mechanics follows.
Roger says it’s the collapse of the wave function where the problems lie in quantum mechanics. “It doesn’t make logical sense, because it’s not the right theory yet. That’s my view, I’m a minority saying this.”
40:45 – Joe asks if Roger is open to ideas linking quantum ideas to exceptional human capabilities.
Roger: “I mean if it comes to things like entanglement, quantum states can spread to long distances, does that mean human minds can stretch to long distances? I don’t think so myself, I think that’s pretty far-fetched. But, you know, could it be that some quantum state which is shared between different individuals? It’s hard to see how that could be unless they were identical twins, I suppose they were once one cell, but you’d have to preserve that information all the way through, and I just don’t see how that could happen. So I’m not a fan of trying to use quantum ideas directly in human behaviour…I think those analogies are pretty far-fetched.”
43:00 – Change of discussion to Penrose’s “normal” research work: cosmology, black holes, relativity. Penrose goes through the history leading up to the development of his own research on black holes. Extended discussion of dark matter and Big Bang theories follows for the next half hour or so.
1:12:45 – Joe: “What are your thoughts on multiverses…the possibility of independent universes?”
Roger: “There are two reasons for believing in multiverses. One of them is the quantum reason, that where you have Schrodinger’s dead cat and live cat, they’re in separate universes. I don’t believe that argument, I don’t think that’s the right way to look at quantum mechanics – but many people do. The other many worlds view, which comes from a different reason: there seem to be a lot of little ‘accidents’ [in the physical laws], that if they were a little different, then life as we know it couldn’t happen. And so how do you explain this? Well some people say all these universes with different values in the constants all co-exist, it’s just that we only see the one that we’re in because the numbers come out right for us. That’s what’s called an anthropic argument. I can see the argument…but I don’t like it much. But that one makes more sense to me then the other one.”
1:20:55 – Joe: “When you discuss the cosmos, maybe the single most intriguing possibility to us as human beings, is what other intelligent life, if any, is out there. How interesting is that to you?”
Roger: “There’s the SETI program…the problem there, from my perspective, is that although they might be out there, they’ve got to have had a real head-start on us before you would see them. [A colleague and I] wrote a paper in which we speculated on beings from the previous eon communicating with us. And the advantage there is that you’re looking at the really advanced civilizations, right at the very end.”
Some “ridiculous speculation” (Penroses’s words) follows on whether an advanced civilization could have ‘got through’ from the previous eon, past the Big Bang, into ours, along with some discussion of ‘Oumuamua.
1:29:55 – Joe: “From the outside looking in, to me, it’s so fascinating to watch intellectuals like yourself that are bouncing these ideas around that are possible but not mainstream. And it seems like a precarious sort of tightrope walk – like you don’t want to say anything ridiculous that’s not true, but you would love to say something that seems to be ridiculous but turns out to be in fact accurate and provable.
Roger: “I absolutely agree. And of course, you’ve got to play with ideas that are sort of on the edge of what we know, otherwise you’re stuck with what we know. And these things will simply get channeled down the old routes, and you need to be able to break free of those from time to time. But not in a way that is too crazy to be examined.”
A short but interesting discussion follows in which Penrose talks about the lack of responses to his more recent research.