Can Quantum Gravity Explain Free Will?

A few months back I shared videos from the CERN physicist Dr. Russell Stannard, who did not seem to feel free will or consciousness could be explained by quantum physics.  However, not all physicists agree with him, so I want to share another side of the story.

Before we get started, you may be wondering what quantum physics has to do with free will and consciousness.  Well, quantum physics describes the world as a superposition of possibilities governed by these wave functions.  All these different things are possible, but we can calculate that some outcomes are more likely to happen than others.  If you’re controlling your thoughts and mind within your brain, somehow “you” are involved in making the quantum wave function collapse, leading to certain outcomes as to opposed to others.

I’d like to introduce you to the renowned physicist Dr. Roger Penrose of Oxford.   He is a mathematical physicist famous for his contributions to general relativity and cosmology.

In his 1989 book The Emperor’s New Mind, Penrose offers a proposal to modify the laws of physics so that we can better explain consciousness.  He says that we must bridge classical mechanics and quantum mechanics with what he calls “correct quantum gravity”.  In later works he’s argued that consciousness may be the result of quantum gravity effects within the brain’s microtubules.  An interesting idea, but has anyone actually got in there and done the physics, modeling the neurons to see if the idea is plausible?

MIT physicist Dr. Max Tegmark responded in a paper in the Physical Review E, working through the calculations and reported the following.

Based on a calculation of neural decoherence rates, we argue that that the degrees of freedom of the human brain that relate to cognitive processes should be thought of as a classical rather than quantum system, i.e., that there is nothing fundamentally wrong with the current classical approach to neural network simulations. We find that the decoherence timescales (∼ 10^−13 − 10^−20 seconds) are typically much shorter than the relevant dynamical timescales (∼ 10^−3 − 10^−1 seconds), both for regular neuron firing and for kink-like polarization excitations in microtubules. This conclusion disagrees with suggestions by Penrose and others that the brain acts as a quantum computer, and that quantum coherence is related to consciousness in a fundamental way.

– MIT physicist Max Tegmark, The Importance of Quantum Decoherence In Brain Processes

What does all that mean, in English?  Basically he’s saying that considering all the noise within the system, the conclusion is that it’s very unlikely the brain is doing quantum computations.  For instance, say you went to build a computer that did its calculations on individual atoms.  To do that, you’d need to use quantum physics, but here’s the problem.  Unless you can keep the insides of that computer at pretty much absolute zero, random vibrations, heat, and other “noise” will destroy the information that’s being used to do your calculation.  Memory would always be corrupted with random garbage.  You’d ask the computer to calculate 10 times 5 and you’d get random answers.  Random noise would jiggle all the atoms and the calculation method would fail.

The noise destroys the information in a way that’s similar to an old radio getting noise as you’re trying to listen to your favorite station.  If something obscures or destroys your radio signal, you just hear fuzz.  Thoughts require information to hold onto itself within the brain, but it doesn’t seem that “thought” information is being stored down at a quantum level, which deals with matter at nanometer scales.  It’s too noisy and chaotic down there and the physics just doesn’t seem to work out.

To say that we can model all the brain’s processes with classical physics means that all that quantum weirdness doesn’t apply at the scales we’re dealing with.  Like if you’re in the lab doing an electrical experiment with wires, resistors, and batteries, you can always use Ohms law to calculate the currents.  There’s no “free will” in the circuit.  Electrical currents don’t just randomly jump around and do whatever.  Tegmark is saying the same applies to our brain.  It’s deterministic.  No free will.  And if you try to bring in quantum physics to give us “freedom”, there’s no way that could work because all the information is destroyed at those small scales.  You’d “will” to move your arm but the information you “injected” into the system is immediately destroyed by random noise.  Your brain would have to be at absolute zero, made of completely different stuff in order for that to work.

So, I tend to agree with Dr. Tegmark.  I don’t think it works out, but Penrose is a fascinating man to listen to.  I really enjoyed this next interview with Robert Kuhn.

If you follow my blog carefully, you’ll hear him discussing the same sorts of things I’ve been talking about on here for quite a while.  Most physical processes in the universe do not create consciousness.  In fact, we’re not conscious of most of the activity going on within our own brains!  Consciousness, that subjective feeling of seeing colors, tasting things, hearing sounds, perceiving the flow of time, the feeling that you’re within a body, etc, all happens within the outer “bark” of your brain, a thin layer of neurons on the outside of the brain.  This is called the neocortex.  So the question is why are those neurons special?  What are they doing?

Posted in Philosophy, Physics, Psychology | Leave a comment

Are You Happy?

I propose that we don’t know what we want and one of the worst things that could ever happen to us is to actually get what we desire.

I’m not sure how to phrase this, but when I look back on my life as a younger man, I had all these desires of who I wanted to be and what I wanted out of life, and it’s all so comical and ridiculous.  I’m grateful that I didn’t get what I was after.  The world has led me to a much deeper and interesting place, but I had to learn to open up and stop telling it what to be.  The world is much more interesting than any of the ideas I’ve had of it.

When I’ve felt most alive, I was only vaguely pursing anything.  In my case, there has been this opening up to the universe, studying and learning, eventually leading me to physics.  I look at it and just marvel at the complexity and the mystery.  The more I immerse myself in it, it sort of engulfs me and it carries me to some new place.  Opportunities present themselves which I never would have imagined for myself ten years ago.  I simply keep observing and follow the cues, letting it unravel this bizarre story of its own making.

Change is magical.  I look back on my past and all the hard work, writing boring business software, living like the guys in Office Space, and wonder why I didn’t do all of this earlier.  What is that saying?  Hindsight is 20/20?  I guess I was always hoping to earn enough money to escape the normal 9/5 drudgery most people get trapped in, but you know what?  I didn’t need to escape.   I needed to change.  But I was so sure I knew the best road for me.  After all, I had sat down and thought about it very carefully, and after due consideration, I decided that that was the best road to be on.  In truth, I had no idea what would make me happy.  I had no idea what the world even had to offer.

Maybe I can try to define what I think of happiness.  Since we can never leave the world, to be fulfilled in this life, we have to learn to love the world with all its faults, stupidities, and ugliness, just as true lovers learn to accept the faults in their partners.  We have to commit to this world.  We must attach to it, emotionally, physically, and intellectually.  It’s all about being here and now in this life.  We’re attached to the people in our lives, our families, our friends, our communities.  That seems to me to be the path to happiness in this life.

I don’t think this is necessarily an emotional feeling of joy, because as Slavoj Zizek points out, we oftentimes have to experience pain during this process.  It’s about being genuine, living by your ideas and ideals.  Something to that effect.

Posted in Philosophy, Psychology | 1 Comment

I Enjoyed Sam Harris’ Q&A

I’ve always liked Sam Harris.  He recently asked his twitter followers for questions and I’d like to repost some of his answers.  I deeply agree with them.

If the self is an illusion, who or what is witnessing that illusion?


What’s your opinion of panpsychism? A technically valid theory or scientifically impossible?

Possibly true, but probably unfalsifiable—and, therefore, probably vacuous in scientific terms. Is the sun conscious? There’s no reason to think so, but would I expect the sun to behave differently if its processes of nuclear fusion were associated with subjectivity? No. So, even if panpsychism were true, I would expect it to be undetectable.

Do you think that truth has value in and of itself or is its value derived from its affect on well-being?

This is actually a very subtle question—and my answer is pretty easy to misconstrue. But I think that (ultimately, when we get very clear about what we mean by these terms) truth is a slave to well-being. Which is to say that anything you can say about the value of knowing the truth (e.g. it’s so interesting, so useful, so beautiful, etc.) translates into a claim about the well-being of conscious creatures.

Does your stance regarding free will affect your actions from day to day, or are its implications strictly societal?

My view about the illusoriness of free will makes it easy to let go of anger/hatred. I occasionally get angry, of course. There are people who behave in ways that I find despicable. But I can (ultimately) see their behavior as impersonal—even when it is directed at me personally. That doesn’t mean that I suddenly become trusting of everyone. I know that certain people can be counted upon to misbehave. But so can grizzly bears. We can fear grizzly bears and take steps to protect ourselves from them, but it makes no sense to hate them.

How do you define the secular spirituality?

Self-transcendence without divisive bullshit.

If, as you say, science is to be the main arbiter of morality, do you still see a useful role for philosophy in this area?

I wouldn’t separate them. Our truth claims should be guided by reason and evidence. There is no clear line between (good) philosophy and science.

Anyways, you can read his entire Q&A here.

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I’m More Of A Beta-Male

Though I hate to admit it, I actually have a confession to make.  I, Jason Summers, am not exactly an alpha-male.  In fact, you might refer to me as a beta-male.  Who are we beta-males?

We’re not exactly known for ostentatious displays of valor.  My knowledge of all that’s “macho” consists of an image of Randy Savage snapping into a Slim Jim exclaiming, “Oooohhhhhhh yyyeeaaaahhhhhh.”  If war were to break out, I’m more like Archimedes.  I just sort of look around, try to stay out of the way, and work on geometric proofs in the sand.

I rarely take my shirt off, and all my sleeves remain intact.  I have no tattoos, I’ve never smoked a cigarette, and I can hardly even think of pointing a gun at another human being.  However, I’m pretty epic with fireworks!  We can tie G.I. Joes to 12 oz rockets and launch them across the neighborhood!   Take that alpha-males!  Jerks!

I’m the antithesis of macho.  Late one night I was out walking and I saw my cat, Mama-Boo get run over.  She didn’t die and her two back legs were broken.  She slowly crawled off of the road into my driveway under my car and moaned for a while.  I got out my .22 rifle and aimed it at her head, knowing she was suffering and was surely going to die, but even in those circumstances, I wasn’t able to shoot a mere animal. She stopped breathing soon after the accident and I buried her the following morning.

I found myself building a little memorial out by the creek, reflecting on the memories we shared. She was an old stray who had been abused by someone who lived nearby.  She was terrified of people and always ran away.  But she eventually got to know me because I oftentimes sit on the front porch at 3 AM and stare up at the stars.  I actually got to a point where I could pet her.  I took care of her for several years.

I also have a relationship with a raccoon from the creek.  I leave food out on the porch late at night and it comes to eat.  It’s figured out that I’m the source of these wonderful delights and has gotten a little too comfortable around me.  I’ll be sitting in my chair on the porch and it’ll come right up to the side and put its paws on the chair’s arm.  It then lifts itself just six inches away from me and looks me in the face, almost like it’s asking, “Do you have anymore of that stuff?”

Yep.  I’m a beta-male.  While Fonzie may snap his fingers and the women come running, about all I can do is help you with your math homework.  Even still, if you text that you need me, I’ll come running, though I’ll likely be just as intimidated by the spider in the shower as you are, especially if it’s a big one that jumps.  Do big spiders jump?  I think they do.  On second thought… *shivers*  “You can do this Jason, you can do this!”  After thirty minutes of intense planning and deliberation, I’ll end up trapping it in a glass and release it outside in the backyard.

Thinking about it, I don’t think I’ve ever talked to a woman in the imperative tone of voice.  The only time I snap my fingers is when I’m cooking in the kitchen.  Do my little dancing jig as I make stir-fry!  Shake the pan, “Whoooo”, place the pan down on the burner, spin in place, then snap the fingers.  You hungry?

I do actually lift weights and exercise, but I’m not known for my huge muscles.  I can just barely bench-press my own body weight, yet, even still, I am aware of all the current political events, the state of the economy, and other social issues.   That counts for something.

I’ve never grilled a big steak dinner as I don’t like to eat red meat.  It’s not good for the old heart and I kinda feel bad killing other sentient life.  I tend to stick with a vegetarian diet.

I do have a weakness for nice cars and Harley motorcycles.  No lie.  I couldn’t work on them to save my life, but I’ll gladly go riding cross country with you on a road-trip!  Hop on the back babe, I’ll take you anywhere you like!  How could anyone not like motorcycles?


These are just a few of the beta-male qualities.   Actually, I think I’m the only beta-male.

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How To Be An Alpha Male

HuffPost blogger Emma Johnson is telling us men that women really want an aggressive, manly man, able to make decisions, and strong in this world.

“When you are an independent woman with lots of responsibilities, many men assume that we want to carry out that strong role all the time. But I need to feel like a woman, and times I enjoy that most are when I am with a man,” Johnson wrote. “If I am being honest with myself, being a woman means — to a degree — being passive. And that requires a man who is — to a degree — the alpha.”

“We feel so afraid to acknowledge that we have this inherent need to be with manly men. We fear that we’re going to give up some of our power,” she said. “I like to be with agressive men, alpha men who are strong in this world and strong with me one on one, but that doesn’t mean I want to give up my right to vote or that I choose to earn less than a man in the workplace. “

So guys, listen up!  You need some role models or the ladies will pass you by every time.  Here’s your first lesson.  If you’re going to be an alpha male, you need to learn how to hold your own, protect your woman, and protect your children — like a boss!

Could you ever picture that man unemployed, depending on a woman to support him?  Are you kidding me?  The same goes with you, alpha-male in the making!  Hoodlums giving you trouble?  You have to whip sense into them, call up your buddies at the construction site and find them all jobs.  You’re not only a provider, you also help other young men become providers as well.  Something breaks, you’re there to fix it.  Grass getting a little high?  Never!  The lawn’s always mowed, flower-beds well kept.  Car needs tuned?  You’re all over it.  Taking notes?

Next you need lessons in loyalty.  When your friend’s in trouble, do you cry in your little corner, “The world’s so hard!  Why are people so mean!”  No!  You own the situation, like the Fonz.

When trouble strikes, you’re there.  You’re there for your friends, there for your children, there for your woman.  And see what he did there?  Snap the fingers, the woman comes.  That’s aggressive, that’s an alpha male.  Strong women worry they’ll be giving up their power when dating wuss-balls.  But what about the Fonz?  He’s glowing with power and authority.

Now you need to learn confidence.  Even if you can barely speak English, own yourself and never back down.  You’ve had so many children, you’re everyone’s father.  Remember that.

And when the forces of evil attack from the shadows, who’s going to protect the weak?  The family?  Who fights for freedom and liberty?  Obviously it’s got to be you, alpha-male, honor-bound protector of the innocent!

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