Wigner's Friend, the existence of the immaterial soul and death of materialism


What I am presenting here is just philosophy. It isn’t hard but it is based on quantum mechanics but no math below. Christians, however, have missed one of the most amazing arguments for our world view by ignoring this area.

I had toyed with this idea for years but it wasn’t until a week after my cancer reached my bones, and I was a wee bit depressed that I read the passage in a Scientific American article which confirmed that there is indeed strong evidence for the existence of the soul and there was no escape from the argument. . I viewed this as a divine cheer up message to me. This issue destroys materialism so even though it is not the easiest reading, it is well worth the effort. Nobel Laureate Steven Weinberg wrote:

Fundamentally, I have an ideal of what a physical theory should be. It should be something that doesn’t refer in any specific way to human beings. It should be something from which everything else–including anything you can say systematically about chemistry, or biology, or human affairs–can be derived. It shouldn’t have human beings at the beginning in the laws of nature. And yet, I don’t see any way of formulating quantum mechanics without an interpretative postulate that refers to what happens when people choose to measure one thing or another.” Steven Weinberg cited by Tim Folger, How Does the Quantum World Cross Over?, Scientific American, July 2018, p. 32

If this is true, and no one can doubt Weinberg;s expertise in this field, then humans are something integral to quantum mechanics. Humans make choices that affect the material world. When we observe a quantum system, we obtain one answer for, say, where the electron is in space. But the math of quantum says that the electron is in all possible places at once, prior to the observation. This state is called superposition. While the system is in superposition, the electron is everywhere at once. Our observations, however, will see the electron at only one spot; we see the electron in one place, not everywhere at once. This difference between what quantum math says is happening and what we see is called the collapse of the wavefunction to one of the possible answers. It happens when we observe the system according to the still quite popular Copenhagen interpretation.

In order to understand it, one first needs to understand the von Neumann chain. Rosenblum and Kuttner explain:

"In his rigourous 1932 treatment, The Mathematical Foundations of Quantum Mechannics, John von Neumann showed that quantum theory makes physics’ encounter with consciousness inevitable. He considered a measuring apparatus, a Geiger counter, for example. It is isolated from the rest of the world but makes contact with a quantum system, say, an atom simultaneously in two boxes. This Geiger counter is set to fire if the atom is in the top box and to remain unfired if the atom is in the bottom box. Von Neumann showed that if the Geiger counter is a physical system governed by quantum mechanics, it would enter a superposition state with the atom and be, simultaneously, in a fired and an un fired state. (We saw this situation in the case of Schrodinger’s cat.)"

“Should a second isolated measuring apparatus come into contact with the Geiger counter-for example, an electronic device recording whether the Geiger counter has fired-it joins the superposition state and records both situations existing simultaneously. This so-called “von Neumann chain” can continue indefinitely. Von Neumann showed that no physical system obeying the laws of physics (i.e., quantum theory) could collapse a superposition state wavefunction to yield a particular result.”
However, when we look at the Geiger counter, we will always see a particular result, not a superposition. Von Neumann concluded that only a conscious observer doing something that is not presently encompassed by physics can collapse a wavefunction. Though for all practical purposes one can consider the wavefunction collapsed at any macroscopic stage of the von Neumann chain, von Neumann concluded that only a conscious observer can actually make an observation.” Bruce Rosenblum and Fred Kuttner, Quantum Enigma, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), p. 184

Von Neumann showed that anything subject to the laws of quantum will go into superposition with the quantum system it interacts with. Wigner’s friend paradox asks what happens when one uses a friend to observe a quantum system and you are eagerly awaiting the answer? Does the friend go into superposition with the quantum system? If it does, it creates a paradox.

Wigner’s friend is a paradox which got its name from Nobel Laureate Eugene Wigner who presented it in the early 1960s, but the first appearance of this paradox in the literature is found in Hugh Everett’s dissertation in 1957. A friend looks to see if Schrodinger’s cat is alive or dead. He has observed the system. For him the wavefunction has collapsed to a particular state or answer. But Wigner, not having observed the cat doesn’t know whether the cat is alive or dead. This gives rise to a paradox. Two observers describing the same event (the friend’s observation of the cat), describe it differently. They don’t see the same thing using a rigorous application of quantum mathematics. Remember, according to von Neumann, anything subject to the laws of quantum will go into superposition when it interacts with a quantum system. This is important for IF the laws of quantum mechanics apply to his friend’s consciousness, then before Wigner’s friend tells him whether the cat is alive or dead, the friend is in a superposition state of friend knows cat alive plus friend knows cat dead. Wigner doesn’t know whether the cat is alive or dead so Wigner is forced to use quantum math to describe his friend in this superpositional state. But to the friend, he sees no superposition at all. He sees either a cat that is alive or a cat that is dead. ONLY when the friend gives an answer to Wigner does the quantum math collapse to one state or another–cat is alive or cat is dead, and the observers then can describe the event in similar terms.

Wigner states:

However, even in this case, in which the observation was carried out by someone else, the typical change in the wave function occurred only when some information the yes or no of my friend) entered my consciousness. It follows that the quantum description of objects is influenced by impressions entering my consciousness.” Eugene Wigner, Remarks on the Mind-Body Question , Eugene Wigner, in John Wheeler and Wojciech Hubert Zurek,Quantum Theory and Measurement, , (Princeton: Princeton University Press 1983), p. 176

After mathematically proving his position, Wigner states:

It follows that the being with a consciousness must have a different role in quantum mechanics than the inanimate measuring device.” Eugene Wigner, Remarks on the Mind-Body Question , Eugene Wigner, in John Wheeler and Wojciech Hubert Zurek, Quantum Theory and Measurement, , (Princeton: Princeton University Press 1983), p. 180

Wigner goes on to make two very important points about his friend paradox. First, materialism is false. he says:

The principal argument against materialism is not that illustrated in the last two sections: that it is incompatible with quantum theory. The principal argument is that thought processes and consciousness are the primary concepts, that our knowledge of the external world is the content of our consciousness and that the consciousness, therefore, cannot be denied.” Eugene Wigner, Remarks on the Mind-Body Question , Eugene Wigner, in John Wheeler and Wojciech Hubert Zurek,Quantum Theory and Measurement, , (Princeton: Princeton University Press 1983), p. 176

Secondly he states that consciousness is a fundamental aspect of reality.

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” Eugene Wigner, Remarks on the Mind-Body Question, in Eugene Wigner, Philosophical Reflections and Syntheses, Springer, 2012, p. 172

In my next post, in a day or two, I will discuss an extension of Wigner’s friend paradox that has been tested experimentally. Further the experiment shows a fundamental logical paradox which, if you believe in the multiverse, requires a privileged observer for its solution–that is, a God.

My friend Gordon Simons and I have written up a comprehensive and understandable (we have tested it) paper which I have placed on my blog. http://themigrantmind.blogspot.com/2019/05/quantum-soul.html

(Mitchell W McKain) #2

Consciousness is irrelevant to quantum measurement. Decoherence is something that happens in the measuring device as a rapidly increasing number of particles become entangled with each other. This holds regardless of what quantum interpretation you employ, settling both the Schodinger’s cat and Wigner’s friend dilemmas once and for all.

Science cannot and never will be able to establish the existence of something spiritual, immaterial, non-physical, or whatever you want to call it. THAT is the difference between something which is physical/material and something which is spiritual/immaterial. Physical things are a part of the mathematical space-time structure of the universe and spiritual things are not, and it is ONLY those space-time relationships which make scientific measurements possible.

The death of materialism was the discovery by science that everything is not matter, but rather that everything is energy. Thus there are no materialists anymore. What we have instead are naturalists, who believe that the scientific worldview is the limits of reality itself – that the only real knowledge is scientific knowledge.

I found only 2 Scientific American articles about the soul.
We have a Soul, and so do crows by John Horgan December 21, 2017
Physics and the Immortality of the Soul by Sean Carroll May 23, 2011

The first article is about the continuity of human (and animal) personality even when we have both lost our memories and our ability to make new memories is gone. It establishes that who we are is not reducible to memory alone. Even identical bacteria (easy to obtain since they divide into genetically identical copies) do not behave identically To be sure this does not even come close to establishing that anything immaterial is involved or that there is anything which is going to survive the death of the cell or body.

The second article by famous atheist scientist Sean Carroll addresses the claims of Adam Frank, who made this argument about the moon and green cheese which frankly shows a profound misunderstanding of science. By explaining this I can do a lot better than Sean Carroll’s treatment which is simply to call this “obviously absolutely crazy.” Way to go Sean, the only thing you establish with that remark is your prejudice. The way science works is that we make the hypothesis that the moon is made of green cheese and then we test it. Sending men to the moon accomplishes this and the test gives a negative result. We now have a procedure that anyone can perform to get the same result. And the test keeps coming back negative. The point is not that there is no possibility that such a test will ever be positive, but only that it is most reasonable to conform our belief to what the evidence shows which is always that the moon is not made of green cheese.

To be sure there are no spirit particles (as Sean entertained) interacting with the particles of matter to connect the physical measurable reality to something eternal. But any particles discovered will only alter the mathematical laws to include them and thus extend our awareness of the physical universe to include these also. Belief in an immaterial soul thus simply rejects the overall premise of Sean Carroll that what science discovers and even can discover is the limit of reality itself. But what can we say to Sean Carroll? Well we can ask him if there is evidence that the laws of physics are not a causally closed system? And that is where Carroll will fall flat on his face because the answer to the great chagrin and confusion of a great many physicists, is yes. In fact it is an an open and shut case that there are are no hidden variables allowed within the scientific worldview to determine some events or to determine the results of some measurements which can be made.

The result is that Sean Carroll can only hold his premise of naturalism by an act of faith alone that nothing (outside the limits of the scientific worldview) ever determines any of these events or measurements. The explanation that works on the moon made of green cheese argument completely fails here because there never will or could be any tests of an hypothesis like that. The most that Sean Carroll can say is that there will never be any objective evidence for such a cause from outside the limits of the scientific worldview and thus never any objective means to settle disagreements about such causes.


I would suggest you read what we say about decoherence in our paper. We specifically covered that topic because we know many people think decoherence solves the observer problem. Even the founders of decoherence, like Zeh and Joos state categorically that decoherence doesn’t solve that problem. And I would point out that if Weinberg is correct that there is no way to formulate quantum without running into consciousness, then that would also include the decoherence interpretation. Unless you are claiming Steven Weinberg doesn’t know about decoherence.

One thing not in our paper is the claim by the 2003 Nobel Laureate, A. J. Leggett who said:

“_Let us now try to assess the decoherence argument. Actually, the most economical _
tactic at this point would be to go directly to the results of the next section, namely that it is experimentally refuted!” A. J. Leggett, Testing the Limits of Quantum Mechanics: Motivation, state of Play, Prospects," J. Phys.: Condens. Matter 14 (2002) R415–R451, R429

He discussed several experiments in the section of his paper he refers to in the above quote but the most easily understandable experiment is the one where buckeyballs (fullerenes C60 and C70) produce an interference pattern. https://www.nature.com/articles/44348?error=cookies_not_supported&code=2d90e5c5-8adc-4660-8df9-8c70e02af762

Decoherence says environmental interactions cause loss of coherence and thus loss of the ability for things like interference patterns to be formed. Leggett points out that in order to carry out this experiment the Buckeyballs must be heated to high temperatures. If we observe an electron as it is going through a slit, no interference pattern is produced. But with the buckeyball experiment, each molecule interacts between 6-8 times with the thermal radiation field, meaning each molecule has had loads of thermal interaction and environmental interaction both before and at the slits. He raises the question of why this much interaction with the environment doesn’t cause the coherence to leak away. He says:

"Secondly, the molecules of the beam are by no means in their ground state with respect to their internal degrees of freedom; indeed, it is estimated that the average energy associated with these is approximately 5.8 eV, distributed over the 174 degrees of freedom of vibration of the C60 molecule. Moreover, four of these modes are infrared active, i.e. couple strongly to the black-body radiation field, and from the known Einstein coefficients it is estimated that three or four quanta are emitted (and absorbed) during the passage of a molecule through the apparatus. Thus, the interaction of the system with its ‘environment’ is by no means ‘weak’!
"Why, nevertheless, does decoherence not destroy all possibility of observing QIMDS in this experiment? The main reason, of course, is that in free space the motion of the centre of mass is not directly coupled to the internal degrees of freedom (the ‘diver’s theorem’; cf section 4). However, this observation does not in itself eliminate the problem, since there is an indirect coupling via the interaction of the infrared-active vibrational modes with the blackbody radiation field; if the final state of the radiation field is appreciably different depending on which slit the molecule passed through, this should be enough to decohere the superposition and thus destroy the diffraction pattern." A. J. Leggett, Testing the Limits of Quantum Mechanics: Motivation, state of Play, Prospects," J. Phys.: Condens. Matter 14 (2002) R415–R451, R434

As you know, decoherence says that if something has a large number of degrees of freedom it will decohere rapidly. Buckey balls have 174 degrees of freedom which is quite sufficient for the theory, yet it didn’t decohere.

When we wrote our paper, I was very insistent that we cover decoherence because we knew your objection would arise. Decoherence tries to ‘collapse’ the wavelet without any conscious being needed. But as I pointed out, even the founders of decoherence don’t believe they succeeded at that. Go look as Schlosshauer’s long quotation in our paper. http://themigrantmind.blogspot.com/2019/05/quantum-soul.html

(Mitchell W McKain) #4

No thank you. I never let people read things like physics or the Bible for me so they can tell me what they say. I read them for myself. So what I did instead is read the writing of Weinberg and Leggett from which you took your quotes out of context to see for myself what they were actually talking about.

There are so many many things wrong with this I will have to make a list…

  1. Stephen Weinberg did not say this. Eugene Wigner did. And it is true that a few quantum physicist have gone off the deep end with this consciousness connection idea. But the consensus of the scientific community rejects this idea that consciousness has anything to do with it.
  2. Stephen Weinberg quoted this, not to agree with it, but as part of an argument against instrumentalism and certainly not in any way connected to decoherence.
  3. I don’t need to rely on someone like Stephen Weinberg to understand decoherence because I am a physicist and understand it just fine on my own.
  4. And most important of all, NONE of the formulations of quantum physics has consciousness represented anywhere in any of them. That would be impossible for the simple reason that we didn’t and still don’t understand consciousness well enough to do any such thing.

This is another quote you have misused… confusing a particular “decoherence argument” with decoherence itself. “Decoherence” simply refers to the process previously called “wave collapse” in order to remove the assumption that it is not a continuous process. I certainly agree that it is the same thing and in no way invalidates the Copenhagen interpretation. Neither does it invalidate the Everett interpretation – it is part of it. So what “decoherence argument” was Leggett referring to? It was an argument that an experimental program to distinguish between QM and macrorealism is “unrealistic to the point of impossibility.” The central issue of the paper is about where the divide is between QM and macrorealism and the key paragraph is as follows:

Thus, in the present author’s view, of the three major classes of ‘resolution’ of the quantum
measurement paradox, the ‘orthodox’ one involves a major logical fallacy and the ‘manyworlds’
interpretation is simply a meaningless collage of words. The ‘statistical’ interpretation,
if taken to its logical conclusion, is internally consistent but conflicts rather violently with the
‘realistic’ intuitions which most practising physicists probably find not only philosophically
congenial, but almost essential, psychologically, in their everyday work. Thus, one is led to
consider the possibility that the fundamental premise of the argument is wrong: that is, that
the linear formalism of QM does not apply in unmodified form to macroscopic systems in
the same way as it does to their microscopic constituents. In the next section I consider this
proposition, and in section 4 go on to whether it is experimentally testable.

I quite agree with his assessment of the ‘manyworld’ and ‘statistical’ categories but think his own proposition is, except for a little rhetoric, essentially in the orthodox category. Regardless, Leggett was in no way supporting the involvement of consciousness in quantum measurement. That idea of the involvement of consciousness represents a profound misunderstanding of quantum physics.

This has nothing whatsoever to do with the measuring process itself which very clearly must result in decoherence or wave collapse because only one result is observed (even in the Everett interpretation, just in a different way). And it is an unavoidable fact that the measuring process MUST involve the interaction of the object measured with trillions of trillions of other particles (thus entangling their states) in order for an observer to read anything from the measuring device.

I am well aware that there is considerable investment in connecting quantum physics with consciousness by those who want to uses quantum physics to support religious & philosophical claims. But this is nothing but pseudoscience replacing the methods of science with that of pure rhetoric, where you try to twist/interpret quotations of scientists to your ends in the same way that theologians twist/interpret quotations of the Bible.


We will have to disagree on whether I took them out of context, which is an easy charge but one hard to prove. Ah, both Steven Weinberg AND Eugene Wigner said what I claimed and the reference is out there. Both quotes are in our paper, which apparently you chose not to read.

None of the formulations of quantum has consciousness represented in any of them? I don’t know how you can say that, and then say there is considerable effort to use connect quantum with consciousness. That seems contradictory. Every quote in our paper comes from quantum physicists. It isn’t Gordie and I saying the things they say, we just quote them as they discuss consciousness. Writing “NONE of the formulations of quantum physics has consciousness represented anywhere in any of them” is quite a statement given all the discussion in the physics literature about the observer, who is described as conscious. It would be nice to see a physicist in print agreeing with you. Saying consciousness advocates are wrong is one thing; saying they don’t exist seems to be a totally unsupported statement by just reading the literature. Even a decoherence advocate like Wojiech Zurek acknowledges that there are formulations of quantum involving consciousness.

“von Neumann (1932), London and Bauer (1939), and Wigner (1963) have all appealed to the special role of the conscious observer. Consciousness was absolved from following unitary evolution, and thus, could collapse the wave packet.” Wojciech Hubert Zurek: Decoherence, einselection, and the quantum origins of the classical REVIEWS OF MODERN PHYSICS, VOLUME 75, JULY 2003, p 762

London and Bauer’s position is in our paper, I believe, they held that conscious observers had something that no inanimate object had–introspection, and thus only consciousness could know its own state and thus collapse the wavelet. In the quote below, I changed the greek Psi to the word wavefunction cause I don’t know how to get greek letters here or subscripts. I also bolded the words consciousness and observer and the pronounsr referring to the observer, since London and Bauer specifically designate the observer is conscious. They say:

"So far we have only coupled one apparatus with one object. But a coupling, even with a measuring device, is not yet a measurement. A measurement is achieved only when the position of the pointer has been observed . It is precisely this increase of knowledge, acquired by observation, that gives the observer the right to choose among the different components of the mixture predicted by theory, to reject those which are not observed, and to attribute thenceforth to the object a new wave function, that of the pure case which he has found."

“We note the essential role played by the consciousness of the observer in this transition from the mixture to the pure case. Without his effective intervention, one would never obtain a new function. In order to see this point clearly, let us consider the ensemble of three systems, (object x) + (apparatus y) + (observer z) as a combined unique system.”

“…the situation seems little changed compared to what we just met when we were considering only the apparatus and object. We now have three mixtures, one for each system with those statistical correlations between them that are tied to a pure case for the combined system. The [wavefunction–grm,gs] represents a maximal description of the combined ‘object’, consisting of the actual object x, the apparatus y, and the observer z; and nevertheless we do not know what stat the object x is in.”

“The observer has a completely different impression. For him it is only the object x and the apparatus y that belong to the external world, to what he calls ‘objectivity.’ By contrast he has with himself relations of a very special character. He possesses a characteristic and quite familiar faculty which we can call the ‘faculty of introspection.’ He can keep track from moment to moment of his own state. By virtue of this ‘immanent knowledge’ he attributes to himself the right to create his own objectivity–that is, to cut the chain of statistical correlations summarized in [the wavefunction=grm,gs] by declaring, 'I am in the state wk…”

Accordingly, we will label this creative action as ‘making objective.’ By it the observer establishes his own framework of objectivity and acquires a new piece of information about the object in question."

"Thus it is not a mysterious interaction between the apparatus and the object that produces a new [state-grm,gs] for the system during the measurement. It is only the consciousness of an ‘I’ who can separate himself from the former [wavefunction-grm,gs] and, by virtue of his observation, set up a new objectivity in attributing to the object henceforward a new function."

(Fritz London and Edmond Bauer, The Theory of Observation in Quantum Mechanics , Fritz London and Edmond Bauer, in John Wheeler and Wojciech Hubert Zurek,Quantum Theory and Measurement, , (Princeton: Princeton University Press 1983) p.251-252

The above certainly LOOKS like someone formulating quantum with consciousness involved in it. And it is in a physics book. If it isn’t as I say, it is a fine imitation of it.

I think we will end our back and forth here and agree to disagree. I do not wish this to get disagreeable. When you declined to read the paper I suggested, by stating “No thank you. I never let people read things like physics or the Bible”, it would appear to me that your mind is made up before you look at the information. If you are a physicist, I am not sure why you don’t let people read things like physics. I kinda might understand not wanting to read the Bible, because I had my own struggles about that prior to settling them and settling in favor of Christianity. God bless you and maybe we can find someday a topic upon which we agree.

(Dominik Kowalski) #6

Mitchell, do you have any thoughts on physicalism?

(Mitchell W McKain) #7

Yes, I do.

Physicalism is a position on the mind-body problem. I am a physicalist. Or to be more precise… I believe the mind is just as physical as the body. I do not believe however that the mind is just a function of the body. You could say that I am an effective dualist despite being a physicalist, because I think there is considerable duality as a result of the mind being a living organism in its own right, with its own needs, desires, and completely separate inheritance system via human communication including language. It is an example of the process of life in a different medium, the medium of concepts and ideas encoded in the electrochemical communications of the human nervous system rather than the medium of biochemistry – meme life rather than gene life.

Nor do I believe that everything is physical. I am a substance monist for the simple reason that science shows that monism has the greater explanatory efficacy – explaining differences between things by the same explanatory principles. So I would propose that everything is made of the same stuff – a pre-energy or the pure potentiality of being itself, and that leaves us free to seek explanations for why different things are different. So for example, I believe the difference between physical things and spiritual (or non-physical things) is that all physical things are part of a single system of space-time mathematical relationship… and thereby all part of one dynamic entity. Spiritual things are not part of any such singular system of relationship but are what they are by their own nature alone (perhaps the physical universe as a whole could even be included as one of these things).

(Mark D.) #8

I’m not a believer but I’m also not a pure physicalist. I have room in my cosmology for souls and consciousness which, though they do seem to be dependent on minds and brains, are not reducible to them. These emergent phenomenon are more than the sum of their parts and are not entirely determined by their physical underpinnings. In fact, I would go so far as to say that intentionality as an alternative to mindless determinism only emerges along with the products of consciousness.

I’m curious about the article you’ve offered but real life expects too much from me for the next week to give it a look. Hopefully you’ll still be around to discuss it with when I’ve had a look at it.

(Mitchell W McKain) #9

On re-examining my reply, I realize I left open the parallel question to the mind-body problem of what is the relationship between the physical and spiritual – and this connects directly to the issues addressed in the title and OP of the thread regarding an immaterial “soul.” Substance monism of course doesn’t suffer from the same logical problems as dualism, but I still haven’t addressed the question directly. My answer to this connects to the more general question of relationships between spiritual things. If spiritual things are what they are by their own nature alone then there is no system of relationships to put one thing into relationship with another. The result is that all relationships have to come from within themselves as a product of their own nature.

This general principle can be applied to the relationship between spiritual and physical. The nature of the physical is the mathematical space-time relationships which severely limits the ways in which anything spiritual can affect it. My hypothesis is that the human spirit, however, derives its nature from choices made by a living human being. I believe this explains a great deal of the claims made in religion. It also means that the relationship between the physical and spiritual is largely but not completely an epi-phenomenal one – i.e. mostly a matter of the physical influencing the spiritual and only a very small window through which the spiritual can influence the physical (which I propose isn’t too much of an obstacle to a omnipotent omniscient God, so there is no support for Deism in this).

(Dominik Kowalski) #10

I see, thank you for your reply. I will comment on it later, though I want to add, that your system sounds very similar to Aristotelian hylomorphism (I won´t link the Wiki article, it is incomplete). It is especially strong, because it doesn´t propose any mind-body-problem.

(Mitchell W McKain) #11

You are 100% correct. I read Aristotle and was very much impressed and influenced by him. He did make a few mistakes in various areas like gravity though. Nobody is immune to error and criticism.

But… in addition to hylomorphism, I frequently refer to Aristotle’s four causes and his virtue ethics.

(Mitchell W McKain) #12

I am a great believer in emergent properties. I think one of the prime examples is how chemistry emerges from physics, and biology emerges from chemistry. But I think there is limit to this paradigm. For example, while extending this to say that psychology emerges from biology also explains a lot, it should be obvious from the above that I don’t think it explains everything. I think the mind is a real living organism in its own right and thus putting it all down to emergence is kind of like saying that the contents of a book emerges from the paper and ink – which is clearly rather wrong. There is another agent involved.

This is not to say that mind is as far apart from the biology of the body as the content of a book is from the paper and ink – far from it. I am particularly reminded of how much Jordan Peterson connects human psychology to its biological roots. But I still think that is only telling half the story. I think that biology is just part of the fertilizer in which the mind grows as a self-organizing living entity in its own right, building its idea constructs and beliefs which are also part of both our perceptual process and identity, from both the example of others and our own choices…


MarkD, I should be around when you are ready. I didn’t give my qualifications. I think it was assumed in some replies that I am not a physicist. I don’t think qualifications matter to truth at all. Physicists disagree about a whole lot of things, like is there a firewall around black holes, is it MOND or dark matter and all their qualifications mean nothing to what actually exists. Only data can answer the questions, not a proclamation that one is a physicist therefore…whatever conclusion one wants to stake out. But someone should realize that few nonphysicists read the articles I have been reading and quoting.

I believe strongly now that consciousness is a very special thing, and quite different from what is normally assumed, that it arose as an epiphenomenon of the brain–which is just a word for we don’t know. Consider our attempts to create artificial intelligence which can translate for us. Anyone who has used these translators knows how flawed they are and that tells us something about the difference between computers and consciousness. Consider Searles objection to artificial intelligence:

Consider yourself locked in a room and people are slipping to you strings of Chinese characters. You have a big look up table that tells you if I get this symbol, I need to output those Chinese symbols. Searles says:

“I get small bunches of Chinese symbols passed to me (questions in Chinese), and I look up in a rule book (the program) what I am supposed to do. I perform certain operations on the symbols in accordance with the rules (that is, I carry out the steps in the program) and give back small bunches of symbols (answers to the questions) to those outside the room. I am the computer implementing a program for answering questions in Chinese, but all the same I do not understand a word of Chinese. And this is the point: if I do not understand Chinese solely on the basis of implementing a computer program for understanding Chinese, then neither does any other digital computer solely on that basis, because no digital computer has anything I do not have.” John R. Searles, “Consciousness as a Biological Problem,” in John R. Searles, The Mystery of Consciousness, (New York: A New York Review Book, 1997), p.11

I speak Mandarin (badly but can get by). I have an understanding of the language that a computer can’t have. And I can listen to a sentence and occasionally determine the meaning of an unknown word by its context in the Chinese sentence.

Then there is the qualia problem. Called the hard problem. Why do we feel?

Even for a system of whose qualia I have near-perfect knowledge, myself for example, the problem of qualia is serious. It is this: How is it possible for physical, objective, quantitatively describable neuron firings to cause qualitative, private, subjective experiences? How, to put it naively, does the brain get us over the hump from electrochemistry to feeling? That is the hard part of the mind-body problem that is left over after we see that consciousness must be caused by brain processes and is itself a feature of the brain.” John R. Searles, “Francis Crick, the Binding Problem, and the Hypothesis of Forty Hertz,” in John R. Searles, The Mystery of Consciousness, (New York: A New York Review Book, 1997), p. 28

And then there is consciousness which pops up in quantum, in unexpected ways and in unexpected places.

Consciousness is admittedly hard to define objectively, but each of us has a clear intuitive understanding of what he means by being conscious. One can compare the human brain with a very sophisticated computer, and indeed a computer can perform many of the functions of the brain, but it does not seem easy to imagine a computer being conscious. This problem is far from physics, but it does connect with the argument to which we have been led, because knowing that a measurement has disclosed a certain event is the same thing as becoming conscious of the fact, and this is precisely what makes us contract the state function.” Rudolf Ernst Peierls, Surpises in theoretical Physics, Princeton University Press, 1979, p. 33-34

This is another physicist formulating quantum with consciousness. Peierls view is that quantum is about knowledge and that requires someone who knows:

The moment at which you can throw away one possibilitiy and keep only the other is when you finally become conscious of the fact that the experiment has given one result…You see, the quantum mechanical description is in terms of knowledge, and knowledge requires somebody who knows”; Sir Rudolf Peierls, The Ghost in the Machine, p. 73-74

All this hubbub arises from one simple fact. The Schrodinger equation is unitary–it doesn’t have a mechanism for collapse contained in it. In physics we have equations for how electrons move in magnetic fields, how balls fall, or roll down a ramp with friction, how pendulums move, but we have no equation for collapse. The Schrodinger equation just pumps out the continued evolution of the wavefunction. Thus the mechanism of collapse is quite different. I will end with what Rosenblum and Kuttner say about this, which I find interesting even if other don’t.

which-box experiment brief description. Send a particle down through a half silvered mirror which splits the particle and sends half to one box and half to another box. See which box contains the particle by slitting a slot in one of the boxes and waiting to see what comes out. If nothing does, slit the second box. Then take a pair of which-boxes and slit them simultaneously and see if the particle is in both boxes. In these, it is in both boxes. The choice of how to examine each pair of boxes determines what is found and no reference to quantum collapse, interference or whatever is referred to with these boxes.
The most common argument that consciousness is not involved in the quantum experiment is that a not-conscious robot could do the experiment. However, for any experiment to be meaningful, a human must eventually evaluate it. A programmed robot sees no enigma. Consider the human evaluation of the robot’s experiment:
“The robot presents a printout to the human experimenter. It shows that with some sets of box pairs the robot chose a which-box experiment, establishing that the objects were wholly in a single box. With other sets of box pairs, choosing the interference experiment, it established that the objects were not wholly in a single box.”
“On the basis of this data, the human experimenter could conclude that certain box-pair sets actually contained objects wholly in a single box, while others contained objects not wholly in a single box. However, a question arises in the mind of the experimenter: How did the robot choose the appropriate experiment with each box pair set? What if, for example, the robot chose a which-box experiment with objects not wholly in a single box? A partial object was never reported.
“Without free will, the non-conscious robot must use some ‘mechanical’ choice procedure. Investigating, the experimenter finds, for example, that it flips a coin. Heads, a which-box experiment: tails interference. The experimenter is troubled by the mysterious correlation between the landing of the coin and what was presumably actually in a particular box-pair set.”
'To avoid that inexplicable correlation, the experimenter replaces the robot’s coin flipping with one choice method she is most sure is not correlated with the contents of a box-pair set: her own free choice. … In the end, the robot argument establishes nothing.” Fred Kuttner and Bruce Rosenblum, The Conscious Observer in the Quantum Experiment, in Lana Tao, ed., Quantum Physics of Consciousness, (Cambridge: Cosmology Science Publishers, 2011), p.160-161

I stand by the view that consciousness is something special. As physicist Stephen Barr says:

“But this was only one of the remarkable reversals produced by the quantum revolution. In the opinion of many physicists-including such great figures in twentieth-century physics as Eugene Wigner and Rudolf Peierls-the fundamental principles of quantum theory are inconsistent with the materialist view of the human mind. Quantum theory, in its traditional, or “standard,” or “orthodox” formulation, treats “observers” as being on a different plane from the physical systems that they observe. A careful analysis of the logical structure of quantum theory suggests that for quantum theory to make sense it has to posit the existence of observers who lie, at least in part, outside of the description provided by physics. This claim is controversial. There have been various attempts made to avoid this conclusion, either by radical reinterpretations of quantum theory (such as the so-called “many-worlds interpretation”) or by changing quantum theory in some way. But the argument against materialism based on quantum theory is a strong one, and has certainly not been refuted. The line" of argument is rather subtle. It is also not well- known, even among most practicing physicists. But, if it is correct, it would be the most important philosophical implication to come from any scientific discovery.” Stephen M. Barr, Modern Physics and Ancient Faith, (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2003), p. 27-28

(Mark D.) #14

Well I’ve stopped long enough to make a quick sandwich so this will be quick. BTW, I’m not working on the cure for cancer or anything else fine and noble. I’m just prepping our too-big garden for two events next weekend, and we can’t afford to pay to have it done. So my old body needs a break.

I imagine being a physicist matters a great deal in questions regarding physics, though of course occasionally an outsider in any field might notice things just because they haven’t had their attention railed in the way the trained practitioner’s will have been. But I don’t think that matters where consciousness is concerned. Whether physics can be applied to improving our understanding of consciousness has yet to be shown. Pretty much the only evidence for the existence of consciousness is our first hand experience of ‘it’. Defining what we mean by ‘it’ is still a work in progress and it doesn’t seem that any field has the inside track at this point.

My undergrad degree is in philosophy and I’m very familiar with Searl’s Chinese room argument. In fact I took a graduate seminar from him and heard it first from him in lecture. Not everyone is convinced by it, but I am, that there is no incontrovertible external ‘evidence’ for consciousness. So regarding AI, there is no effect to be achieved which will establish artificial consciousness - not that that is or should be a goal of AI. But so many people seem to have in mind a self-conscious artificial life-form like that TNG Star Trek character Data.

Anyhow as far as our form of consciousness goes, I wonder if we agree on these points:

  1. It is essentially about our subjective apprehension of our sensory-cognitive* processes.

  2. It is entirely grounded in biological processes, that there isn’t any extra-biological substance which instantiates consciousness.

  3. While our subjective experience is underpinned by our body’s biological processes and those are underpinned by the underlying chemistry which in themselves are underpinned by physics … nonetheless, none of those underpinning processes predetermine the course of the consciousness which we experience because we are genuinely participants in that.

  4. As an emergent phenomenon, consciousness is actually where intentionality as a real alternative to the interplay of cause and effect first appears.

Not sure when I can check back in next but for now duty calls. But I always enjoy learning more about what others think about consciousness.

*Edited to acknowledge that sensory-cognitive leaves out the role our emotions. But that belongs here too.


MarkD. I am a physicist, but I also did grad work in philosophy of science, which I think helped tremendously, because every physical theory begins with an assumption that says, “what if nature is like this” and then that assumption is put into mathematical terms in physics. So, I have read loads of philosophy but I spent my 45 year career doing a branch of physics and the last 8 years of it owning my own company doing math related to that used by quantum so it was a great refresher course. (my business partner and I invented some novel processes, coded them and made some good money–not as much as we would have wished, but I guess that is always the case. lol)

I have seen too many things in science where someone saw something and the ‘experts’ didn’t believe it, Like the meteorologist Wegner discovering continental drift and geologists called him ever name under the book. The data finally, after 50 years of so, won out. Or what about Faraday himself, never attending college and not having the qualifications requisite for that day and age becoming one of the greatest physicists in the 19th century. His papers don’t do math, he describes rates of change with words. It worked. Others could put his words into mathematical terms and did. Or Julius Robert Mayer, who frankly had some weird mystical ideas that made him a pariah to science but Clausius used his ideas of heat to develop thermodynamics and gave full credit to Mayer for the ideas. Mayer ended up as a member of the French Academy of Sciences–in spite of his weird appendages to his valid view of heat. So, no, facts should be the only thing that matters in science. Enjoy that gardening work.

I need to answer your questions. You asked:

  1. It is essentially about our subjective apprehension of our sensory-cognitive* processes.

Gbob: I do agree that conscious involves the subjective. I have direct experience with my consciousness but not anyone else’s. Of course this too gives rise to the solipsism problem.

  1. It is entirely grounded in biological processes, that there isn’t any extra-biological substance which instantiates consciousness.

Gbob: as a Christian, there are indications in Scripture that spirit of humans can exist apart from the body, although it might be that we are meant to be in bodies (I think of the mount of Transfiguration). I view the consciousness-brain like a pianist-piano. Consciousness exists apart from matter, but to impact or influence this world, must use our bodies.

  1. While our subjective experience is underpinned by our body’s biological processes and those are underpinned by the underlying chemistry which in themselves are underpinned by physics … nonetheless, none of those underpinning processes predetermine the course of the consciousness which we experience because we are genuinely participants in that.

Gbob, I think I would agree with that. But basically via my piano-pianist analogy. Some of those who had bad brain damage for years and then came back would say they were aware but couldn’t get anything to work. That is like a great pianist playing a broken piano–bad music comes out.

  1. As an emergent phenomenon, consciousness is actually where intentionality as a real alternative to the interplay of cause and effect first appears.

Gbob, I don’t see it as an emergent phenomenon–that is incompatible with the Christian concept of the soul. I struggled long and hard about whether to become an atheist, and having consciousness as an emergent phenomenon leads directly to atheism I believe. If it is emergent from the brain only, then when the brain is cooked in a tesla fire, there is no soul left either. And quantum seems to require something apart from matter, at least apart from matter to some degree. While a nonchristian won’t find this persuasive, if there is no soul, what exactly IS the point of Christianity?

(Matthew Pevarnik) #16

Where are you finding all these random quotes of various physicists? The role of the observer in QM has essential been hijacked by many, from the new age to Buddhists and apparently some Christians. It reminds me of this XKCD comic:

What does this mean exactly? I’m not quite following here.



I read loads of literature and have for my entire life. I find the quotes merely by reading a lot. The need for something that is apart from matter has been apparent to many of the great physicists, and they wrote about it. Today Fred Kuttner and Bruce Rosenblum have written extensively on the issue of consciousness.

The theological implications of an immaterial soul are distasteful to modern secular society and for philosophical reasons many would prefer to avoid the issue. As to it being hijacked, the mere existence of an immaterial soul does not tell you if it is a universal soul, as in eastern religions, or an individual soul as in Christianity. I believe that Christians have been quite slow on the uptake with regard to this issue. I would suggest this, if there were no ‘fire’ in quantum there wouldn’t be the ‘smoke’ of lots of people seeing consciousness as an important thing in quantum. I always suggest that one can’t make something out of nothing and with quantum there is lots of something to work with regard to the soul/consciousness.

You asked about my paragraph on physicists disagreeing. I was referring to a claim that was made that because a person was a physicist he was correct in his view (very shortened version of this and doesn’t capture the event). My point with this is that when physics discovered that stars far from the galactic center don’t move as required by general relativity, they decided that there is a halo of dark matter surrounding the galaxies causing the deviation. Mordehai Milgrom on the other hand said the deviation is due to a quantization of acceleration not dark matter. Dark matter has never been observed so as far as the data is concerned at this point it could be either. The point is that just because a qualified guy disagrees with something, neither makes him right or wrong. Data makes something correct. In the case of the firewall around a black hole, very recently some physicists have claimed that if you fall into a black hole you burn up first with concentrated energy on the horizon. Others disagree. in this disagreement, no one’s qualifications weigh even an ounce on what nature has done–only facts. So, when someone says there are no quantum interpretations which involve consciousness, all I have to do is show that there are some and I have.

I realy didn’t want to say I was a physicist in the last sentence you quote because again, it neither makes me correct nor makes me wrong. it is irrelevant to the discussion of whether or not a soul in indicated by quantum.

Edited to add: I did like your cartoon, and I will be proud to agree with Eugene Wigner when he said:

“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.” Eugene Wigner, Remarks on the Mind-Body Question, in Eugene Wigner, Philosophical Reflections and Syntheses, Springer, 2012, p. 172

maybe Wigner is a hijacker as well. lol if you don’t know who Wigner is, and some might not, go look him up on Wiki

(Matthew Pevarnik) #18

I think one of the problems is what physicists mean when they talk about something necessary vs. what that means to someone who isn’t a physicist. Here for example is a recent discussion among four physicists:

I see, thanks for clarifying.

There are always going to be interpretations of quantum mechanics that people say involves consciousness, but this is very different from saying that experiments on QM actually establish anything about consciousness. The only way to get consciousness to play a special role is to try and phrase the role of taking a measurement (i.e. the ‘observation’) in a particular way that sounds spooky and mysterious.

Not exactly. I would hope that if you were a physicist like myself and @mitchellmckain you would not make certain mistakes that are easy to make when reading quotes from particular physicists. There is no soul indicated by quantum mechanics. Its not implied or even any part of experiments. That is going far beyond what such experiments can tell you that follow the Schrodinger equation. For the ‘soul’ to be included, you’d have to specify how the Schrodinger equation is wrong or how the equations of motion for electrons have missing terms. The only challenge is that there is not experimental evidence from physics for such a thing.

(Mark D.) #19

Certainty isn’t an option but accepting that is the way things stand is an option and should be taken. One can still choose faith and I do, but I prefer to leave that which is greater unspecified. Respected and important but not spelled out. Whatever it is, I don’t think it seeks subservience. It seems to serve and guide us toward our best, it doesn’t want dominion. It wants us to stand up, not kneel - except to acknowledge our reliance on that help.

(Mitchell W McKain) #20

Time to clear up some things…

  1. gbob and I have a disagreement. There is no mistake about that. I go with the consensus of physicists that consciousness has nothing whatsoever to do with the measurement problem in quantum physics. And there is a very good reason for this. Numerous experiments have shown that a presence of a conscious observer for a particular measuring device makes no difference whatsoever. We have run complex experiments with multiple measuring devices and wave collapse effects which enables us to isolate the cause for a particular wave collapse in an unobserved measuring device which can be remotely switched on or off. The irrefutable conclusion is that the only thing that changes with conscious observation of a result is not any kind of wave collapse but only the knowledge of the observer and nothing else.

  2. But despite this disagreement we (gbob and I) also have a great deal in common. Rejecting both materialism and naturalism, we believe in a non-physical or spiritual aspect of reality and that there is a part of us which continues after death. And despite my disagreement with him on number 1, this doesn’t mean I think that quantum physics has nothing whatsoever to do with consciousness. So this is really a matter of the validity of an argument he is making for something we both believe in. As I am frequently required to explain to other Christians, just because what you are arguing for is correct, doesn’t mean the argument itself is valid. Indeed, I think there have been many distortions in Christianity that derives from shifting ones faith from the truths of Christianity to the arguments Christians make for those beliefs.

  3. There is also some significant differences in the understanding of consciousness between myself, @gbob and @MarkD , where the issue of AI and future possibilities for machine consciousness may be particularly relevant.
    gbob: looks for consciousness in quantum physics as a link to something nonphysical. He therefore doesn’t expect consciousness to come about by imitating the human brain, let alone by anything which works by carrying out the instructions of a computer program.
    MarkD: looks for consciousness in the emergent subjective experience of biological processes. He doubts that there is any such thing as consciousness apart from this for an AI to achieve.
    myself: locate consciousness as a quantitative/additive property of a mathematically describable process of life itself. Therefore I think that the principle flaw in the idea of conscious AI is that consciousness has nothing whatsoever to do with human intelligence and so imitating that will never acquire consciousness. However, this doesn’t exclude the possibility of machine consciousness if we instead seek to imitate the process of life itself.