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Morality at the Planck Scale:
A Chat with Stuart Hameroff
by Jill Neimark
Metanexus: Views. 2002.12.13. 2898 words

"Assume consciousness is indeed occurring at the level of fundamental space-time geometry at the
Planck scale," says Stuart Hameroff, Professor in the Departments of Anesthesiology and of Psychology
at the University of Arizona, "connected to our brains by quantum processes in microtubules. Then if
the brain stops working, the quantum information at the Planck scale could persist and remain coherent
because of quantum entanglement, leaking out into space-time geometry outside the head. It's possible
that the soul could be a particular distributed pattern in fundamental space-time geometry at the Planck

Now this, if true, could create interesting problems and possibilities. Consider a future debate in
medical ethics about brain death occurring at the quantum level, for instance. Or the notions of personal
responsibility as Hameroff notes:

"Either Evil is implicit at the Planck scale along with Good. Or evil people are wired differently
biologically for whatever reason and are influenced in an aberrant way. But even so-called 'good' people
must allow themselves to be influenced by Platonic values rather than ignoring or overriding them due
to some needs or gratification."

Today's interview is part of an ongoing discussion with serious thinkers about Life, the Universe,
and everything conducted by New York-based writer and editor Jill Neimark. Previous interviewees
include physicists Chris Isham, Antony Valentini, and Marcelo Gleiser (Metanexus: Views: 2002.11.01,
2002.10.18, and 2002.07.12 respectively); cosmologist Lee Smolin (Metanexus: Views, 2001.12.24);
theoretical biologist Stuart Kauffman (Metanexus: Views, 2002.02.18); Catholic theologian Mariano
Artigas (Metanexus: Views, 2002.04.29); and philosopher of science Sherrilyn Roush (Metanexus:
Views, 2002.05.03).
-Stacey E. Ake


They don't form chemical or ionic bonds of any kind. very weak Quantum Mechanical forces in such tiny regions of certain proteins have such profound effects? The answer seems to be that proteins normally dance back-and-forth between different forms and shapes to perform their functions. 2 . I thought that I'd go into a specialty like neurology or psychiatry.suggested that to understand consciousness. So by forming their own quantum interactions in the pockets. their potency directly correlates with their lipid> Stuart R. the Chairman of Anesthesiology at the University of Arizona -. It seems that brain proteins dance synchronously due to coherence among quantum actions in the pockets throughout wide regions of the brain. They don't bind to receptors. Anesthetics are very soluble in lipid environments and. and Associate Director of the Center for Consciousness Studies at the University of Arizona in Tucson. I became interested in how the brain produced consciousness. is Professor in the Departments of Anesthesiology and of Psychology. and research into the mechanism of consciousness. protein receptors and ion channels).a renaissance clinician/scientist named Burnell Brown -. But in the 1980s. in fact.Subject: Good and Evil at the Planck Scale: An Interview with Stuart Hameroff from Jill Neimark Email: <hameroff@u. anesthetics inhibit normally-occurring Quantum Mechanical forces necessary for consciousness. The right amount of anesthesia erases consciousness while other brain functions continue. He divides his time between clinical practice and teaching of anesthesiology in the surgical operating rooms at University of Arizona Medical Center. Anesthesia is a tangible physical process acting on an otherwise unmeasurable phenomenon. For example.and still is -. 1-or-2 anesthetic molecules per protein were enough to do the trick. Within proteins are specific tiny pockets that are lipid-like. Quantum Mechanical interactions. Anesthesia is a tangible physical process acting on an otherwise study how general anesthetics work. purely physical. And the mechanism was -. But in 1975.largely unknown. it was assumed that since neural membranes are mostly lipids.arizona. And what controls this "dancing" are Quantum Mechanical forces in these pockets. Once there. They're not polar molecules. gas anesthetics worked by getting into lipid portions of neural membranes and impairing their function. the anesthetic molecules didn't form chemical bonds like other drugs but bound only by very weak quantum forces known as van der Waals London forces. The pockets are like the tiny brain within each protein. M.D. The question is why would such very. I should study how general anesthetics work. [Jill]: You're an anesthesiologist who's exploring the frontiers of consciousness research. Anesthesia is powerful but subtle. the inert gas Xenon is an anesthetic. Hameroff. The gas anesthetics are the most interesting because they work by very weak. What choreographs them all together is quantum coherence. It turned out that anesthetic gas molecules were sucked into these little pockets. So for many years. And they can be inert. What are the links between the two? [Stuart]: In medical school. it was realized that anesthetics work directly on proteins which account for the dynamic actions of membranes (for example.

the idea that sufficiently complex computation among the brain's neurons produces consciousness. objective threshold for collapse (or reduction). although your view of emergence is richer and more complex than a simple brain-as- neuronal-network paradigm. That sounds like emergence to me. If I recall correctly. Are you saying that collapse is an emergent phenomenon? [Stuart]: That depends on what type of collapse -. For example. If you have a quantum wave function -. these separations are unstable and -. for example. However in Roger's view. Interaction with a classical. But on the other hand.or reduction -. So you could say that consciousness emerged when 'OR' occurred. Few people agree on this. A candle flame is an emergent phenomenon .emergence is real.will reduce and choose one reality or the other. But there isn't any. [Jill]: You've suggested that consciousness arises when the quantum wave function collapses in structures in the brain's neurons called microtubules. His rationale is that quantum superposition is actually a separation in underlying reality the Universe shreds at its most basic level. Just saying that consciousness emerges from complexity is like waving a magic wand and trying to pull a rabbit out of a hat. I suggested to Roger that microtubules might be performing the quantum computation with 'OR' that he was looking for. So we teamed up and developed a 3 . And hurricanes out of dust and gas molecules.after a specific time -. Emergence may be part of the story. Artificial Intelligence (AI) people would like there to be such an equation so that sufficiently complex computers can be conscious. Initially. The basic idea that a critical level of complexity in a hierarchical system gives rise to new novel properties is important in Nature. Thus Objective Reduction (or 'OR'). wetness out of water. but I think consciousness must be related to something irreducible or fundamental. I had been studying the microtubules within neurons and thought that they acted like some type of computational device because their structure and functions resembled computers. There is no equation or prediction for how many neurons interacting in any particular way will produce consciousness.[Jill]: You speculate that there has to be a certain biological complexity in order to actually give rise to genuine consciousness. non-quantum system destroys the quantum state.a quantum superposition of multiple coexisting possibilities. [Jill]: How did you and Penrose get together? [Stuart]: Roger had proposed that quantum computation which reduced by this type of 'OR' self- collapse was the essential feature in consciousness. though there are equations which predict the onset of their emergence. you suggest that consciousness probably arises once we get to the evolutionary complexity of a nematode worm. Roger Penrose's idea is that any quantum superposition will eventually reach a specific. Roger didn't have a good structural candidate in the brain for such occurrences. But if a quantum system remains isolated and avoids environmental decoherence. none of these recognized emergent phenomena are're talking about. then what? This is the enigma of Schrodinger's Cat in-a-box which remains in quantum superposition of both dead and alive until the box is opened. [Stuart]: The standard answer to how we get consciousness is definitely emergence is said to decohere (a type of collapse). This is something like the Everett-Wheeler "Many Worlds" hypothesis in which every superposition branches off to form a new universe. which interacts with its classical environment -.

made up of events rather than things. model of consciousness in which the microtubule quantum processes were orchestrated by inputs from the synapses. He viewed consciousness as a sequence of events -. [Jill]: So what constitutes a "conscious event"? [Stuart]: Each 'Orch OR' is essentially a conscious event.organisms similar to those present at the beginning of the Cambrian evolutionary explosion. This is the level of small urchins and worms such as the nematode you mentioned -. built of protoconsciousness. very simple organisms have fewer microtubules and so would require a long time until reaching threshold for a conscious event. Even a single electron in isolated superposition would eventually have an OR conscious event. We called it Orchestrated Objective Reduction (now known as Orch OR). Roger Penrose's 'OR' events). how many microtubules and how many neurons would be involved in conscious events which occur on a time scale matching physiological events known to occur in the brain So for example. Looking at evolution. we can have conscious events 40 times per second. for example. And also that the Universe is a process. One philosopher who took a comparable view was Whitehead. How would you classify yourself? [Stuart]: I don't disagree with that. the time scale becomes reasonable to maintain quantum coherent superposition. [Jill]: Then where does consciousness begin? [Stuart]: A single-cell organism would require a few minutes of quantum isolation which seems unlikely. But I'd call myself a "panprotopsychist" -. in part. That's about 1/10th of a second. absolute reality. we could predict. [Jill]: So you believe the universe is. Although single-cell paramecia are absolutely still during sex. Protoconsciousness is an irreducible. He believed that mind and body were just 2 aspects of an underlying. [Jill]: I've come to think of myself as an "aspectist" in the tradition of Spinoza. But not for 10 million years. And a sequence of these events is our stream of consciousness. It turns out that at the level of roughly 300 neurons. we finally have a connection between Philosophy and Science. Here. what is this basic level? What is the Universe made of? 4 .occasions of experience -.and perhaps equivalent to -- quantum state reductions (for example. fundamental feature of the Universe like spin or charge waiting to be acted upon to produce consciousness. So maybe that's when consciousness emerged and accelerated evolution. He said the precursor of conscious experience was everywhere in the Universe. [Stuart]: Roger's 'OR' is based on the idea that quantum superpositions are separations at the most basic level of the Universe at the Planck scale. Whitehead's occasions of experience are compatible with -.occurring in a wider field of protoconscious experience.the notion that whatever gives rise to consciousness is implicit and exists inherently everywhere in the Universe. So you ask yourself. so maybe primitive sexual experience was the first form of consciousness. This was the period about 540 million years ago when all the animal phyla appeared on the scene. From the indeterminacy principle.

patterns. The Universe is made of spiderwebs of spin which define ultra-small Planck volumes or pixels of reality. a little of that. Even mass is not fundamental according to Einstein. So the amount of information at the Planck scale is absolutely mind-boggling! And it is also non-local. But if you were on the surface in a small boat. That is. Our brains and our microtubules make the connection. [Stuart]: Ah. Why not? If there's something fundamental and irreducible about consciousness or its precursors as Spinoza and Whitehead said. But at the Planck scale. things are smooth and featureless until we get to the apparent basement level of the Universe known as the Planck scale (some 25 orders of magnitude smaller than atoms). And the Planck scale is all there is. in the volume of our brains is incredibly vast.something like a hologram.argue for spin networks (i.000 feet. Philosophers call the raw components of conscious experience qualia. you'd be tossed about by waves. you name it -. Atoms are mostly empty space as is most of the Universe. [Jill]: But you usually don't translate from that level to this one we're living in. and other properties originating at the Planck scale. And the artist takes a little of this. and gets a Mona Lisa. The ocean seems smooth. [Stuart]: I'm oversimplifying it. If our conscious experience is a compilation of fundamental qualia. but there is! That's the beauty of Roger's objective reduction 'OR'. We're suggesting that qualia are specific patterns or properties at the Planck scale.. It's a bridge between the Planck scale and our everyday world.e. then it has to exist somewhere. [Jill]: "Pixels of reality" -. But others -. And if qualia are 5 . How can we describe the Planck scale (basically quantum gravity)? String theory has tried. Loop Quantum Gravity) based on Roger Penrose's original idea that at this level everything is spin. it must originate as some sort of pattern at the same basic level of the Universe. All the individual colors are on the palette. And the number of pixels. it is distributed -. there's been a lot of intense work trying to understand the background pattern of the Universe. Empty space seems smooth. Is there a background fabric or just an empty void? In the last few decades.matter. things get coarse and irregular with a vast amount of information and energy. then we're like a painter with a palette. It turns out that as we go down in scale (well below the size of atoms). If consciousness does have some fundamental irreducible precursor.the Uncertainty Principle. energy.for example.comes from curvatures. Lee Smolin -. There isn't a direct correlation. for example. described by one simple equation -. But the number of possible shapes and edges and spins for each pixel is huge.that's a fetching image. So what is the Universe made of? This argument has been going on since the Greeks. So the colors are like the patterns of fundamental space-time geometry from which processes in our brain select particular sets for each conscious moment. [Jill]: So how do you tie this into panpsychism? [Stuart]: Everything -. It's kind of like viewing the surface of the ocean from an airplane at 33.

for example. that's pretty consistent with the idea of an Omniscient. It will be held in Tucson March 15-19. Just consider the vastness at the Planck scale. I more-or-less rejected organized religion a long time ago. fundamental and exist at the Planck scale. [Jill]: What about Near-Death Experiences? You've said you may have an explanation for them that has to do with the quantum effects in the microtubules. It's called "Quantum Mind 2003: Consciousness. Quantum information 6 . [Jill]: You've got a conference coming up this spring that discusses quantum mind. anyway. the more we realize we don't know. I'm not saying we've explained these concepts because the more we learn. [Jill]: How has all this theorizing affected your life? [Stuart]: It's enhanced my spiritual nature. Consciousness has played a role in Quantum Mechanics all the way back to the question of the observer effect. may change for various cultural reasons if nothing else. [Jill]: But you can already explain things like Ethics. [Stuart]: Yes. I'd like to think that. [Jill]: So is Evil at the Planck scale? [Stuart]: Either Evil is implicit at the Planck scale along with Good. [Stuart]: Ideas about Beauty. the quantum information at the Planck scale could persist and remain coherent because of quantum entanglement. It's sort of reassuring. for instance. Omnipresent. interconnected information and the idea of embedded Platonic values. But even so-called "good" people must allow themselves to be influenced by Platonic values rather than ignoring or overriding them due to some needs or gratification. Good and Evil. Or evil people are wired differently biologically (for whatever reason) and are influenced in an aberrant way. leaking out into space-time geometry outside the head. [Stuart]: Assume consciousness is indeed occurring at the level of fundamental space-time geometry at the Planck scale. even the Planck scale structure of spin networks has a dynamic evolution. Beneficent Being. Then if the brain stops working. and the Brain". with Darwinian evolution. [Jill]: Then you're a Platonist! [Stuart]: A Platonic naturalist. then why not Platonic values like Truth and Beauty. That's what makes sense to me. Quantum Physics. It's possible that the soul could be a particular distributed pattern in fundamental space-time geometry at the Planck scale. implying that Platonic values exist in a physical sense. I'd say. If you take the sum total of this non- local. connected to our brains by quantum processes in microtubules. I like the idea that spirituality and God and consciousness could be part of the Universe in a scientific way. In any case as Smolin points out. 2003. It's very humbling to peel off one layer and find out how much more there is. You don't need this explanation. But mathematical Truth is constant as far as we can tell.

2002 by William Grassie. So it will soon seem more natural to believe we have quantum computers in our heads. Stacey>". go to the browser-based forum at the bottom of all postings in the magazine section of our else if accessing these files from the CD in a MS-Word session. 1999. 2000. Associate Editor of Metanexus at <ake@metanexus. 2001. Copyright notice: Columns may be forwarded. But we suspect evolution has solved that problem and we think we know how. To comment on this message. In any case. Please send all inquiries and submissions to Dr.metanexus. press <BACK> on your browser to return to the previous page (or go to www. if on the Thanks for asking. Republication for commercial purposes in print or electronic format requires the permission of the author. =================================================== This publication is hosted by Metanexus Online <http://www.arizona.metanexus. Critics point out that quantum computers need extreme cold to avoid decoherence. Metanexus welcomes submissions between 1000-3000 words of essays and book reviews that seek to explore and interpret Science and Religion in original and insightful ways for a general educated audience. Previous columns give a good indication of the topical range and tone for acceptable essays. Information about the conference is at www. we've compared our brains and minds to the vanguard information processing technologies. the previous window-session should still remain 'active' 7 .net>. technology including quantum computers are coming along very rapidly and will bring these ideas to the forefront soon. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of Metanexus or its sponsors. Copyright 1998.stealthskater.>. or republished in full with attribution to the author of the column and "Metanexus: The Online Forum on Religion and Science <http://www.consciousness. In every historical era. simply <CLOSE> this file's window-session. the decoherence debate will be one of the topics to be discussed.