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.