Where did this ‘Wrong’ idea of quantum theory implying consciousness come from? Quantum physicists.

There has been much angst in the cybersphere recently about purported hijackings of solid, rational physical theory in service of ‘unprincipled New Age fantasies’ about ‘Consciousness’ being implied by quantum theory. The purpose of this post is to set the record straight about where these allegedly  ‘Crazy’, ‘Wrong’ ideas came from: distinguished pioneering quantum physicists. In fact, this is all ancient history for students of foundations of physics. It can be found in the comprehensive historical record of the pioneering discussions of the implications of quantum theory, Quantum Theory and Measurement (a collection of essays edited by Wojciech Zurek and Nobel Laureate John A. Wheeler), which I’ll abbreviate here as QTM.

Before I get into that, however, a caveat: my proposed interpretation of quantum theory, the ‘Possibilist Transactional Interpretation’ (PTI), (account for the general reader here) provides an observer-independent account of quantum measurement. PTI accounts for the measurement process without any necessary reference to an ‘outside conscious observer.‘ (This was of course also true of the original Transactional Interpretation (TI) of John Cramer; my work is just an extension of TI.) The issue of how to account for conscious experience then returns to the realm of metaphysics (and philosophy of mind and  psychology) where it belongs. In saying that, however, I do not disparage metaphysics; I recognize it as a legitimate realm of inquiry. And quantum theory can be interpreted as having some bearing on such questions, even though consciousness is not an absolute requirement for describing the process of measurement itself, as shown by the TI formulation which takes absorption into account.

Now let’s look at the history of the development of quantum mechanics, which was thoroughly saturated with discussions of consciousness and the mind. First,  celebrated mathematical genius and quantum theory pioneer John von Neumann stated in 1955 that “N. Bohr, Naturwiss. 17 (1929)…was the first to point out that the dual description…necessitated by the formalism of the quantum mechanical description of nature is fullly justified by the physical nature of things [and] that it may be connected with the principle of psycho-physical parallelism.” (Footnote 207, QTM)

This “psycho-physical parallelism” is a purely metaphysical doctrine saying that a physical process in the body is accompanied by a subjective psychological experience in the mind without any causal connection between them. Does this sound ‘New Age-y’ to you? It does to me. Yet Von Neumann not only reports Bohr’s use of this term but explicitly invokes it in his account of ‘measurement’ in quantum theory:

“..we must always divide the world into two parts, the one being the observed system, the other the observer. In the former, we can follow up all the physical processes…arbitrarily precisely. In the latter. this is meaningless. ..that this boundary can be pushed arbitrarily deeply into the interior of the body of the observer is the content of the principle of the psycho-physical parallelism.”  Von Neumann goes on to refer to the ‘ego’ of the observer as that which experiences a single outcome of the measurement, even though the physical system is described only be a set of outcomes. Connecting the two is the mysterious ‘collapse’, for which Von Neumann gives a formal representation but which he explicitly says lies outside any physically describable system.

So there you have it: the ‘ego’ of the conscious observer, in a process of ‘psycho-physical parallelism’, is seen by Quantum Physics Guru John Von Neumann as what leads to ‘collapse of the wavefunction’. This identification of the mind as a purportedly essential component of quantum phenomenology did not come from ‘New Age charlatans’; it came from the original quantum physicists.

Von Neumann was certainly not the only one. Our next visit in the trip down Quantum Memory Lane is with Nobel Laureate John Wheeler, who asserted: “no phenomenon is a real phenomenon until it is an observed phenomenon.” (“Law Without Law,” QTM, p. 183)  Wheeler coined the term ‘Participatory Anthropic Principle” (PAP), the notion that the universe is brought into existence by the participation of observers. Now, the article linked above in connection with PAP notes that Wheeler left some ambiguity about what constitutes an ‘observer’ and whether consciousness was necessary for wave function ‘collapse’. But it  also notes that Stanford University physicist Andrei Linde answers that question–whether consciousness is required–with a decisive ‘yes’. This is no so-called “New Age quack”. It is a Stanford physics professor speaking. In 2002.

Nobel Laureate Eugene Wigner also embraced consciousness as a supposedly inescapable implication of quantum theory:

“When the province of physical theory was extended to encompass microscopic phenomena, through the creation of quantum mechanics, the concept of consciousness came to the fore again: it was not possible to formulate the laws of quantum mechanics in a fully consistent way without reference to the consciousness. All that quantum mechanics purports to provide are probability connections between subsequent impressions (also called “apperceptions”) of the consciousness, and even though the dividing line between the observer, whose consciousness is being affected, and the observed physical object can be shifted towards the one or the other to a considerable degree, it cannot be eliminated. It may be premature to believe that the present philosophy of quantum mechanics will remain a permanent feature of future physical theories; it will remain remarkable, in whatever way our future concepts may develop, that the very study of the external world led to the conclusion that the content of the consciousness is an ultimate reality”  (Wigner, “Remarks on the Mind-Body Question,” Symmetries and Reflections. Indiana University Press, Bloomington, Indiana, 1967, pp.171-184.)(My emphasis)

Of course, as noted above, John Cramer and I disagree with this characterization, since TI shows that once the physical process of absorption is taken into account, there is no ‘shifty split’ of the line from physical system to consciousness of an observer. But the question as to why and how we are conscious beings is an important one that should not be disparaged, even though purely physicalist theories and approaches have a hard time accounting for it. Recent attempts to dismiss ‘metaphysics’ and ‘philosophy’ are unwarranted and unworthy of the quest for understanding of ourselves and our place in the universe. They are also basically just a repeat of the mid-20th century ‘positivist’ movement, which tried to argue that any ‘nonverifiable’ statement was ‘meaningless’. That turned out to be a fruitless and unsupportable misconception that was disposed of not long after it arose. A nice discussion of the obsoleteness of this anti-metaphysics view is given here. Responsible scientists now acknowledge that all observation is ‘laden’ with theoretical constructs including metaphysical and epistemological assumptions, and that there is no such thing as ‘objective data’ that is uncolored by such assumptions. It is simply naive to try to portray science as free of ‘philosophical musings’.

In conclusion, I’ve attempted to point out that so-called  ‘New Age Quacks’ came by their beliefs that quantum theory involves consciousness honestly: they were told this by the founders of quantum theory and they continue to hear this from highly credentialed quantum physicists. I happen to disagree that ‘consciousness’ is required to account for ‘collapse–TI shows why this is unnecessary (and see my new book for a detailed account for the general reader of why this is so). But the questions surrounding the nature of consciousness and mental processes are important ones. They should not be disparaged just because science (understood in physicalist, mechanistic terms) does not seem to have an answer.

27 thoughts on “Where did this ‘Wrong’ idea of quantum theory implying consciousness come from? Quantum physicists.

  1. How do you relate your Transactional interpretation of quantum mechanics to the alternative Bayesian interpretation which makes the clear assumption of the existence of both a physical world and a world of observers with their subjective account of degrees of belief about outcomes of measurements. In other words, how could a subjective judgement of the oberver be incorporated in the TI ?

    1. Thanks Emile–the “Qbist” interp. treats QM as a recipe for predicting the subjective experiences of observers. That is, it is completely observer-dependent and says nothing about any underlying quantum reality, viewing that as impossible to talk about. In contrast, PTI shows how QM can be understood as a theory about physical reality (even though that reality is not a spacetime reality). It explains why we have to use the Born Rule to get the probabiities of results–the latter being concrete spacetime events. So of course we can’t talk about quantum reality in ‘classical language’, but that doesn’t mean we can’t describe it–QM is the theory that describes it. And the Born Rule is the feature of QM that describes the emergence of phenomena from ‘hidden’ quantum reality. PTI it is completely consistent with the determinacy of experienced reality since it provides an account of spacetime events as we normally experience them. Now, if you want a theory of the observer, that gets into philosophy of mind. The point is that one need not appeal to the ‘consciousness of an observer’ in order to get ‘collapse’ in PTI. But PTI in no way precludes consciousness. In fact the way is open to posit that consciousness is a fundamental property of all matter/energy including quantum objects, and that human consciousness is just a special case of that.

  2. A few points (of little worth)
    1) Von Neumann didn’t say that at about Bohr in 1955, but 1932. The footnote is from 1955, because it was translated into English than.
    2) In the same work, von Neumann rather clearly distinguishes, at least in name, his understanding of psychophysical parallelism from any “new age” philosophy/spirituality/etc.: Trotzdem ist es aber eine für die naturwissenschaftliche Weltanschauung fundamentale Forderung, das sog. Prinzip vom psychophysikalischen Parallelismus, daß es möglich sein muß, den in Wahrheit außerphysikalischen Vorgang der subjektiven Apperzeption so zu beschreiben, als ob er in der physikalischen Welt stattfände – d.h. ihren Teilen physikalische Vorgänge in der objektiven Umwelt, im gewohnlichen Raume, zuzuordnen.”
    The key part is that the von Neumann describes psycho-physical paralleism as “a fundamental requirement for the scientific worldview.” That and his description don’t sound particularly “new age-y” to me, but rather part of a rejection of dualism that dates back to Spinoza but didn’t arise in this form until c. the mid-19th century. Also note that “[a] widespread misconception pervading pertinent English literature confuses this type of parallelism [psycho-physical] with forms of Cartesian doctrine of two noninteracting substances, such as doctrines of occasionalism or preestablished harmony. Psychophysical parallelism means the exact opposite: It denies the Cartesian division of the world into extended substance (matter) and nonextended substance (mind).” P. 169
    Heidelberger, M. (2004). Nature from within: Gustav Theodor Fechner and his psychophysical worldview. University of Pittsburgh Press.

    3) Despite their rather fundamentally incompatible views on everything from metaphysics to the nature of science, on this matter Einstein and Bohr were actually in agreement. Also, Bohr’s psychophysical parallelism came from Fechner (via Høffding).
    4) Regardless of whether von Neumann or Bohr’s metaphysical perspectives here similar to those found among the new age “quantum holism” and “quantum consciousness” crowd, neither Bohr nor von Neumann really proposed anything like quantum consciousness (Bohr was especially, even notoriously, reluctant to make much of any ontological commitment), although I would agree that they certainly not only left the door open but put out a welcome matt and “come right in!” sign for later thinkers who would make the rather small leap from “observation causes collapse” to CONSCIOUS observation causes collapse or is somehow at least special here. Wigner certainly did made the connection and was quite clear about the importance of consciousness.
    5) I absolutely agree that, while I don’t find quantum theories of consciousness to be tenable, many eminent and respected physicists have and continue to support this view.
    6) I loved your book and look forward to reading the new one.

  3. I’m reading your book – it’s quite good. In the end, though, I think
    I’ll still be with Wheeler: it’s the conscious observer that makes
    anything “happen”. I can see how PTI sheds light on wave function collapse, HUP or entanglement, by proposing a conceptually larger quantum reality outside of spacetime. But if time itself is quantized, and generated by these quantum transactions, I’m hearing a new version of “something happens, and then time results”, with the obvious circularity.

    I think any such theory struggles to bootstrap itself to the point where an event occurs in an apparently moving present; we’re invariably left wondering about the source of “now”. (And I believe John Wheeler once said something to that effect, but I’ve never been able to find the quote.)

    I appreciate the knitting metaphor, with spacetime being assembled and extruded into the past; but it seems to me to imply a meta-time, a higher order “now” and “then” in Quantumland. Actually I think that’s inevitable because experiential time – the moving present – is an attribute of a conscious observer. Space-time is another matter. The word “time” can refer to either, but they’re really different things.

    I’ve only made a first pass through the book, no doubt there’s much more to PTI than I’ve manage to grasp so far.

    1. Thanks Jim for your comments.
      Actually, according to PTI, the present is not moving anywhere. Transactions are always actualized in the (timeless) present, and then event are extruded from that. In particular the actualization of an absorption event in spacetime defines the local ‘Now’ for that absorber, and the emitter is always actualized in that absorber’s past. So I don’t see any real circularity here. Perhaps what might seem circular is the idea of a process that does not occur in spacetime. But this is not really a new idea; Whitehead proposed this concept, and I believe it is indeed non-circular.

      1. By “moving present” I’m referring to our subjective experience of time. That seems to be an intrinsic feature of our consciousness; so much so that I suspect they’re in some sense the same thing.

        The idea of a “process that does not occur in spacetime” is something I’ll have to think about because initially I can’t attach any concept to it; the word “process” implies time. I agree that this is what seems circular to me: doesn’t defining time as the result of another “process” lead to an infinite regress?

        One thing I definitely agree with is that somehow we have to envision a larger theater, outside of conventional time – and a new class of entity acting in that theater – in order to move ahead conceptually. PTI seems to be a serious attempt to do that. What we may disagree on is the assertion that experiential time – our conscious experience of “now” – remains outside such models.

        I hadn’t heard of PTI before now and it’s going to take me a while to even begin to absorb your book. :-)

      2. I should add that in some sense, yes I do get your point about our experience being not that of a ‘moving present’ but rather a receding, continually extruded past. It’s a subtle but perhaps powerful distinction.

  4. OK thanks. Yes I think if you look at some of Whitehead’s work, you’ll see that the idea of process can be defined without reference to any sort of infinite regress of times. The basic reason that I see is that such pre-spacetime, sub-empirical processes do not have (and need not have) any well-defined rate. If you think of the knitter, he/she can make another stitch whenever he/she chooses; we can think of the knitter as wearing a ‘watch’ if we like, but that watch need not have any relation to the knitting process. The knitter could do two stitches, wait 2 whole years (by her time) and then knit 2 entire rows in a minute or so. The spacetime observers/events would not perceive any difference, because their times are defined *only* by the temporal intervals applying to the spacetime fabric–their local clocks, which are composed of actualized transactions.

    1. I had to think about that idea for a while.

      The analogy that occurs to me is a computer’s CPU, which executes one instruction at time, while the time interval between steps is irrelevant to the logic of the program. The output of the program, as displayed on a screen, has temporal and physical dimensions. But to achieve this, the CPU is ‘clocked’ at an appropriate rate.

      I’d expect a reductionist explanation of time to meet some of the same objections as reductionist explanations of consciousness: the main one being that for some people there will always remain an ‘explanatory gap’ between what the theory can give us, and the subjective experience.

      In this case, I still see an ordered series of meta-events which somehow have to be actualized in a context of now-and-then. And to me, ‘actualized’ is synonymous with ‘experienced’. But if a meaningful quantization of time’s dimensional ‘extension’ (in our reality) really does emerge from the math, obviously that’s a major conceptual step.

      1. Thanks–the analogy with a CPU process is interesting and I think pretty apt (although I’m not at all expert in the processes involved so I can’t really evaluate it fully). Whether or not ‘actualized’ should be defined as synonymous with ‘experienced’ depends a lot on one’s metaphysical/epistemological viewpoint. PTI does not venture into explaining or accounting for conscious experience — I don’t see that as strictly required for the coherence of the interpretation, but of course the origin of conscious experience is an important and fascinating question.

  5. I have written about this area quite extensively on my website Infinite Quantum Zen – be welcome to learn more there, I will begin my comment with a statement: Western science bases its assumptions of the nature of reality in an unliving universe, so also people at large are used to thinking in terms of machinery instead of Living Life (Universe) – this leads people to learn more and more about less and less.

    Now, to the point of my comment: In this science-driven worldview, people tend to see the whole World as mechanical and machine-like, including animals, plants, and also ourselves as nothing more than just “biological computers”. There is a huge dilemma in this view…

    Currently, the scientific community holds a view that out of nowhere, for no apparent reason, nothing spontaneously became everything, without any intelligent design whatsoever; it also holds that human species is nothing special in the context of the cosmos – as if the Earth and its inhabitants were just a big ‘cosmic accident’ of some sort. Because of this widely accepted worldview, we, as a collective human species see ourselves as separate from the rest of Living Life – meaningless, purposeless, insignificant biological accident that just happened to evolve from monkeys; an intelligent being – sophisticated version of a monkey, without any greater purpose than just to birth, grow, re-produce and eventually die. Are people really so narrow-minded that they believe this?

    Scientifically oriented people often think that consciousness is an emergent biological phenomena, making no difference to physical systems, and yet consciousness is only real thing that we could ever know of when we delve deeper into the matter itself. We as people of Earth, seem to think that we exist in a World of separation, duality, and division with separate objects; we also believe that we are separate from other people. Yet, the Quantum World says otherwise – we are inherently interconnected, and communicate beyond time, space and speech.

    Interestingly, when science goes down to the very core of even the most solid-looking object – separateness dissolves; all that remains are a set of relationships, revealing a deeper level of reality – Interconnectedness of Everything; meaning that everything connects to everything else and nothing is separate from the whole.

    Quantum World opens up a totally new level to our understanding of the World, than we are used to with our five senses – our senses can only perceive a representation of reality, not the reality itself. All spiritual teachings throughout the World know that reality is unity – everything is one and the same; If we investigate deeper into the very nature of consciousness itself, we find out that it is independent of time and space – it has no shape or size, but yet it contains the whole Universe. The big question is: what does these two different and opposing worldviews tell about us and who we are?

    So to conclude: If something really is strange, it is most definitely the very fact that somewhere along the way scientifically oriented people wanted to ignore the most important factor altogether – that of consciousness, and continue to focus on finding the answers from the “material world”, although the scientific figures like Max Planck, Von Neumann, Eugene Wigner and Niels Bohr emphasized the importance of consciousness

  6. I agree with John Smith on a lot of points. Many cultures throughout history and still to this day believe in unity and that we are all connected. A lot more research needs to be done to clarify if it’s possible for one person to receive energy, thoughts, feelings and so on from another person that is either there with them or in another country. This questions time I know with the “now” theory. However it’s time for it to be challenged.

  7. Basically quantum physics is so mythical that people can ‘twist’ it in any manner that they want and that is the reason why people rely on quantum physics to explain the metaphysical concepts like consciousness, mind etc.

    As long as people religiously believe in scientists and ignore their rational mind, nonmaterial concepts would remain as mythical and elusive as our cutting edge physics. http://debunkingrelativity.com/2013/12/08/explaining-the-double-slit-experiment/

  8. I have a ‘theory’ about how consciousness is ‘generated’ by QM, with as most likely candidate TI. I thought quite a bit about it, but it may be entirely mistaking of course. As soon as I completely understand my ‘theory’ myself, I will update this comment. I felt I had an obligation to put this comment under this article. Hope you don’t mind. (BTW don’t take this too seriously ;) )

    Thanks!

  9. Quantum Mechanics has serious implications on the foundations of consciousness. The most serious, in my mind, is if consciousness is something we possess or simply put experienced. Lost in this author’s argument, us the implication that existence is consciousness, because quantum mechanics has definitely killed the probability of the “outside” independent observer.

    1. Which argument are you referring to in which you feel something is ‘lost’?
      Also, can you clarify what you mean by ” quantum mechanics has definitely killed the probability of the “outside” independent observer.” Thanks!
      The Hard Problem of Consciousness lends support to the idea that consciousness must be the foundation of everything. However, this is not implied by QM itself in any interpretation-independent way. TI allows for defining the process of measurement independently of an ‘external conscious observer.’ It is then a separate issue to ascertain where consciousness comes in. Classical physics has no account for consciousness either, but presupposes it. So we need to disentangle the issues of (1) the availability of determinate results from (2) consciousness. This is something that originally got muddled by people like Bohr who could not address the issue of determinate outcomes from within the theory itself. TI does that.

    1. I must confess i am more metaphysical than into deciphering the 10+ interpretations of QM. So what made an Einstein different. He was a pacifist, humble, non duality, referred to a Cosmic meditative state, maybe like a Superposition. When asked if he believed in Religion he referred to Spinoza. Wikipedia on Psychophysical refers to Spinoza as Monistic Parallelism. Einstein had a problem with entanglement but did not totally reject the possibility.
      My point is, that possibly, Psychophysical does not necessarily bring the baggage of the requirement for a conscious observer. For my “table”, it exists and participates in a transaction whether a conscious observer/human looks at it or not. My horse will recognize it as an obstacle and my dog will sniff it for meaningful odors and may urinate on a leg. My table has a copy of Flat Land, Rucker’s 4th dimension, your two books and others on QM, some of Ouspensky’s books, etc. on the surface. People ask me why I read this stuff! I feel I have enough Free Will to get the gist of how beautiful and rarefied life is but subject to major changes by Nature and by anthropogentic climate disruption and anthropocentricity.
      At this point it is difficult to prove thru measurement the non relative aspect of the Transaction, but miracles happen. Right or wrong, time will tell, pTIQM is an ingenious contribution to the state of the art.

  10. Thanks. And Einstein was right that light is emitted and absorbed in a directed, particle-like (as opposed to wave-like) state. See my latest paper with John Cramer (in latest blog post on this site).

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