Consciousness, Causality, and
Reprinted with permission from Journal of Scientific Exploration,
11:1, pp. 69-78, Spring 1997
Journal of Scientific Exploration
Allen Press, 810 East 10th St., Lawrence, KS 66044, USA
Phone: 800-627-0932, ext. 284
Abstract -- Quantum theory is open to different
interpretations, and this paper reviews some of the points of contention. The
standard interpretation of quantum physics assumes that the quantum world is
characterized by absolute indeterminism and that quantum systems exist
objectively only when they are being measured or observed. David Bohm's
ontological interpretation of quantum theory rejects both these assumptions.
Bohm's theory that quantum events are party determined by subtler forces
operating at deeper levels of reality ties in with John Eccles' theory that
our minds exist outside the material world and interact with our brains at the
quantum level. Paranormal phenomena indicate that our minds can communicate
with other minds and affect distant physical systems by nonordinary means.
Whether such phenomena can be adequately explained in terms of nonlocality and
the quantum vacuum or whether they involve superphysical forces and states of
matter as yet unknown to science is still an open question, and one which
merits further experimental study.
Quantum theory is generally
regarded as one of the most successful scientific theories ever formulated.
But while the mathematical description of the quantum world allows the
probabilities of experimental results to be calculated with a high degree of
accuracy, there is no consensus on what it means in conceptual terms. Some of
the issues involved are explored below.
According to the uncertainty
principle, the position and momentum of a subatomic particle cannot be
measured simultaneously with an accuracy greater than that set by Planck's
constant. This is because in any measurement a particle must interact with at
least one photon, or quantum of energy, which acts both like a particle and
like a wave, and disturbs it in an unpredictable and uncontrollable manner. An
accurate measurement of the position of an orbiting electron by means of a
microscope, for example, requires the use of light of short wavelengths, with
the result that a large but unpredictable momentum is transferred to the
electron. An accurate measurement of the electron's momentum, on the other
hand, requires light quanta of very low momentum (and therefore long
wavelength), which leads to a large angle of diffraction in the lens and a
poor definition of the position.
According to the conventional
interpretation of quantum physics, however, not only is it impossible for us
to measure a particle's position and momentum simultaneously with equal
precision, a particle does not possess well-defined properties when it
is not interacting with a measuring instrument. Furthermore, the uncertainty
principle implies that a particle can never be at rest, but is subject to
constant fluctuations even when no measurement is taking place, and these
fluctuations are assumed to have no causes at all. In other words, the quantum
world is believed to be characterized by absolute indeterminism, intrinsic
ambiguity, and irreducible lawlessness. As the late physicist David Bohm
(1984, p. 87) put it: "it is assumed that in any particular experiment,
the precise result that will be obtained is completely arbitrary
in the sense that it has no relationship whatever to anything else that exists
in the world or that ever has existed."
Bohm (ibid., p. 95) took the view
that the abandonment of causality had been too hasty: "it is quite
possible that while the quantum theory, and with it the indeterminacy
principle, are valid to a very high degree of approximation in a certain
domain, they both cease to have relevance in new domains below that in which
the current theory is applicable. Thus, the conclusion that there is no deeper
level of causally determined motion is just a piece of circular reasoning,
since it will follow only if we assume beforehand that no such level
exists." Most physicists, however, are content to accept the assumption
of absolute chance. We shall return to this issue later in connection with
Collapsing the wave function
A quantum system is represented
mathematically by a wave function, which is derived from Schrödinger's
equation. The wave function can be used to calculate the probability of
finding a particle at any particular point in space. When a measurement is
made, the particle is of course found in only one place, but if the wave
function is assumed to provide a complete and literal description of
the state of a quantum system -- as it is in the conventional interpretation
-- it would mean that in between measurements the particle dissolves into a
"superposition of probability waves" and is potentially present in
many different places at once. Then, when the next measurement is made, this
wave packet is supposed to instantaneously "collapse," in some
random and mysterious manner, into a localized particle again. This sudden and
discontinuous "collapse" violates the Schrödinger equation, and is
not further explained in the conventional interpretation.
Since the measuring device that
is supposed to collapse a particle's wave function is itself made up of
subatomic particles, it seems that its own wave function would have to be
collapsed by another measuring device (which might be the eye and brain of a
human observer), which would in turn need to be collapsed by a further
measuring device, and so on, leading to an infinite regress. In fact, the
standard interpretation of quantum theory implies that all the macroscopic
objects we see around us exist in an objective, unambiguous state only when
they are being measured or observed. Schrödinger devised a famous
thought-experiment to expose the absurd implications of this interpretation. A
cat is placed in a box containing a radioactive substance, so that there is a
fifty-fifty chance of an atom decaying in one hour. If an atom decays, it
triggers the release of a poison gas, which kills the cat. After one hour the
cat is supposedly both dead and alive (and everything in between) until
someone opens the box and instantly collapses its wave function into a dead or
Various solutions to the
"measurement problem" associated with wave-function collapse have
been proposed. Some physicists maintain that the classical or macro-world does
not suffer from quantum ambiguity because it can store information and is
subject to an "arrow of time", whereas the quantum or micro-world is
alleged to be unable to store information and time-reversible (Pagels, 1983).
A more extravagant approach is the many-worlds hypothesis, which claims that
the universe splits each time a measurement (or measurement-like interaction)
takes place, so that all the possibilities represented by the wave function
(e.g. a dead cat and a living cat) exist objectively but in different
universes. Our own consciousness, too, is supposed to be constantly splitting
into different selves, which inhabit these proliferating, non-communicating
Other theorists speculate that it
is consciousness that collapses the wave function and thereby creates reality.
In this view, a subatomic particle does not assume definite properties when it
interacts with a measuring device, but only when the reading of the measuring
device is registered in the mind of an observer (which may of course be long
after the measurement has taken place). According to the most extreme,
anthropocentric version of this theory, only selfconscious beings such as
ourselves can collapse wave functions. This means that the whole universe must
have existed originally as "potentia" in some transcendental realm
of quantum probabilities until selfconscious beings evolved and collapsed
themselves and the rest of their branch of reality into the material world,
and that objects remain in a state of actuality only so long as they are being
observed by humans (Goswami, 1993). Other theorists, however, believe that
nonselfconscious entities, including cats and possibly even electrons, may be
able to collapse their own wave functions (Herbert, 1993).
The theory of wave-function
collapse (or state-vector collapse, as it is sometimes called) raises the
question of how the "probability waves" that the wave function is
thought to represent can collapse into a particle if they are no more than
abstract mathematical constructs. Since the very idea of wave packets
spreading out and collapsing is not based on hard experimental evidence but
only on a particular interpretation of the wave equation, it is worth taking a
look at one of the main alternative interpretations, that of David Bohm and
his associates, which provides an intelligible account of what may be taking
place at the quantum level.
The implicate order
Bohm's ontological interpretation
of quantum physics rejects the assumption that the wave function gives the
most complete description of reality possible, and thereby avoids the need to
introduce the ill-defined and unsatisfactory notion of wave-function collapse
(and all the paradoxes that go with it). Instead, it assumes the real
existence of particles and fields: particles have a complex inner structure
and are always accompanied by a quantum wave field; they are acted upon not
only by classical electromagnetic forces but also by a subtler force, the
quantum potential, determined by their quantum field, which obeys Schrödinger's
equation. (Bohm & Hiley, 1993; Bohm & Peat, 1989; Hiley & Peat,
The quantum potential carries
information from the whole environment and provides direct, nonlocal
connections between quantum systems. It guides particles in the same way that
radio waves guide a ship on automatic pilot -- not by its intensity but by its
form. It is extremely sensitive and complex, so that particle trajectories
appear chaotic. It corresponds to what Bohm calls the implicate order, which
can be thought of as a vast ocean of energy on which the physical, or
explicate, world is just a ripple. Bohm points out that the existence of an
energy pool of this kind is recognized, but given little consideration, by
standard quantum theory, which postulates a universal quantum field -- the
quantum vacuum or zero-point field -- underlying the material world. Very
little is known about the quantum vacuum at present, but its energy density is
estimated to be an astronomical 10^108 J/cm³ (Forward, 1996, pp. 328-37).
In his treatment of quantum field
theory, Bohm proposes that the quantum field (the implicate order) is subject
to the formative and organizing influence of a superquantum potential, which
expresses the activity of a superimplicate order. The superquantum potential
causes waves to converge and diverge again and again, producing a kind of
average particlelike behavior. The apparently separate forms that we see
around us are therefore only relatively stable and independent patterns,
generated and sustained by a ceaseless underlying movement of enfoldment and
unfoldment, with particles constantly dissolving into the implicate order and
then recrystallizing. This process takes place incessantly, and with
incredible rapidity, and is not dependent upon a measurement being
In Bohm's model, then, the
quantum world exists even when it is not being observed and measured. He
rejects the positivist view that something that cannot be measured or known
precisely cannot be said to exist. In other words, he does not confuse
epistemology with ontology, the map with the territory. For Bohm, the
probabilities calculated from the wave function indicate the chances of a
particle being at different positions regardless of whether a measurement
is made, whereas in the conventional interpretation they indicate the
chances of a particle coming into existence at different positions when
a measurement is made. The universe is constantly defining itself through its
ceaseless interactions -- of which measurement is only a particular instance
-- and absurd situations such as dead-and-alive cats therefore cannot arise.
Thus, although Bohm rejects the
view that human consciousness brings quantum systems into existence, and does
not believe that our minds normally have a significant effect on the outcome
of a measurement (except in the sense that we choose the experimental setup),
his interpretation opens the way for the operation of deeper, subtler, more
mindlike levels of reality. He argues that consciousness is rooted deep in the
implicate order, and is therefore present to some degree in all material
forms. He suggests that there may be an infinite series of implicate orders,
each having both a matter aspect and a consciousness aspect: "everything
material is also mental and everything mental is also material, but there are
many more infinitely subtle levels of matter than we are aware of"
(Weber, 1990, p. 151). The concept of the implicate domain could be seen as an
extended form of materialism, but, he says, "it could equally well be
called idealism, spirit, consciousness. The separation of the two -- matter
and spirit -- is an abstraction. The ground is always one." (Weber, 1990,
Mind and free will
Quantum indeterminism is clearly
open to interpretation: it either means hidden (to us) causes, or a complete
absence of causes. The position that some events "just happen" for
no reason at all is impossible to prove, for our inability to identify a cause
does not necessarily mean that there is no cause. The notion of
absolute chance implies that quantum systems can act absolutely spontaneously,
totally isolated from, and uninfluenced by, anything else in the universe. The
opposing standpoint is that all systems are continuously participating in an
intricate network of causal interactions and interconnections at many
different levels. Individual quantum systems certainly behave unpredictably,
but if they were not subject to any causal factors whatsoever, it would be
difficult to understand why their collective behavior displays statistical
The position that everything has
a cause, or rather many causes, does not necessarily imply that all events,
including our own acts and choices, are rigidly predetermined by purely
physical processes -- a standpoint sometimes called "hard
determinism" (Thornton, 1989). The indeterminism at the quantum level
provides an opening for creativity and free will. But if this indeterminism is
interpreted to mean absolute chance, it would mean that our choices and
actions just "pop up" in a totally random and arbitrary way, in
which case they could hardly be said to be our choices and the
expression of our own free will. Alternatively, quantum indeterminism could be
interpreted as causation from subtler, nonphysical levels, so that our acts of
free will are caused -- but by our own selfconscious minds. From this
point of view -- sometimes called "soft determinism" -- free will
involves active, selfconscious self-determination.
According to orthodox scientific
materialism, mental states are identical with brain states; our thoughts and
feelings, and our sense of self, are generated by electrochemical activity in
the brain. This would mean either that one part of the brain activates another
part, which then activates another part, etc., or that a particular region of
the brain is activated spontaneously, without any cause, and it is hard to see
how either alternative would provide a basis for a conscious self and free
will. Francis Crick (1994), for example, who believes that consciousness is
basically a pack of neurons, says that the main seat of free will is probably
in or near a part of the cerebral cortex known as the anterior cingulate
sulcus, but he implies that our feeling of being free is largely, if not
entirely, an illusion.
Those who reduce consciousness to
a by-product of the brain disagree on the relevance of the quantum-mechanical
aspects of neural networks: for example, Francis Crick, the late Roger Sperry
(1994), and Daniel Dennett (1991) tend to ignore quantum physics, while Stuart
Hameroff (1994) believes that consciousness arises from quantum coherence in
microtubules within the brain's neurons. Some researchers see a connection
between consciousness and the quantum vacuum: for example, Charles Laughlin
(1996) argues that the neural structures that mediate consciousness may
interact nonlocally with the vacuum (or quantum sea), while Edgar Mitchell
(1996) believes that both matter and consciousness arise out of the energy
potential of the vacuum.
Neuroscientist Sir John Eccles
dismisses the materialistic standpoint as a "superstition", and
advocates dualist interactionism: he argues that there is a mental world in
addition to the material world, and that our mind or self acts on the brain
(particularly the supplementary motor area of the neocortex) at the quantum
level by increasing the probability of the firing of selected neurons (Eccles,
1994; Giroldini, 1991). He argues that the mind is not only nonphysical but
absolutely nonmaterial and nonsubstantial. However, if it were not associated
with any form of energy-substance whatsoever, it would be a pure abstraction
and therefore unable to exert any influence on the physical world. This
objection also applies to antireductionists who shun the word
"dualist" and describe matter and consciousness as complementary or
dyadic aspects of reality, yet deny consciousness any energetic or substantial
nature, thereby implying that it is fundamentally different from matter and in
fact a mere abstraction.
An alternative position is that
which is echoed in many mystical and spiritual traditions: that physical
matter is just one "octave" in an infinite spectrum of
matter-energy, or consciousness-substance, and that just as the physical world
is largely organized and coordinated by inner worlds (astral, mental, and
spiritual), so the physical body is largely energized and controlled by
subtler bodies or energy-fields, including an astral model-body and a mind or
soul (see Purucker, 1973). According to this view, nature in general, and all
the entities that compose it, are formed and organized mainly from within
outwards, from deeper levels of their constitution. This inner guidance is
sometimes automatic and passive, giving rise to our automatic bodily functions
and habitual and instinctual behavior, and to the regular, lawlike operations
of nature in general, and sometimes it is active and selfconscious, as in our
acts of intention and volition. A physical system subjected to such subtler
influences is not so much acted upon from without as guided from within.
As well as influencing our own brains and bodies, our minds also appear to be
able to affect other minds and bodies and other physical objects at a
distance, as seen in paranormal phenomena.
EPR and ESP
It was David Bohm and one of his
supporters, John Bell of CERN, who laid most of the theoretical groundwork for
the EPR experiments performed by Alain Aspect in 1982 (the original
thought-experiment was proposed by Einstein, Podolsky, and Rosen in 1935).
These experiments demonstrated that if two quantum systems interact and then
move apart, their behavior is correlated in a way that cannot be explained in
terms of signals traveling between them at or slower than the speed of light.
This phenomenon is known as nonlocality, and is open to two main
interpretations: either it involves unmediated, instantaneous action at a
distance, or it involves faster-than-light signaling.
If nonlocal correlations are
literally instantaneous, they would effectively be noncausal; if two events
occur absolutely simultaneously, "cause" and "effect"
would be indistinguishable, and one of the events could not be said to cause
the other through the transfer of force or energy, for no such transfer could
take place infinitely fast. There would therefore be no causal transmission
mechanism to be explained, and any investigations would be confined to the
conditions that allow correlated events to occur at different places.
It is interesting to note that
light and other electromagnetic effects were also once thought to be
transmitted instantaneously, until observational evidence proved otherwise.
The hypothesis that nonlocal connections are absolutely instantaneous is
impossible to verify, as it would require two perfectly simultaneous
measurements, which would demand an infinite degree of accuracy. However, as
David Bohm and Basil Hiley (1993, pp. 293-4, 347) have pointed out, it could
be experimentally falsified. For if nonlocal connections are propagated not at
infinite speeds but at speeds greater than that of light through a
"quantum ether" -- a subquantum domain where current quantum theory
and relativity theory break down -- then the correlations predicted by quantum
theory would vanish if measurements were made in periods shorter than those
required for the transmission of quantum connections between particles. Such
experiments are beyond the capabilities of present technology but might be
possible in the future. If superluminal interactions exist, they would be
"nonlocal" only in the sense of nonphysical.
Nonlocality has been invoked as
an explanation for telepathy and clairvoyance, though some investigators
believe that they might involve a deeper level of nonlocality, or what Bohm
calls "super-nonlocality" (similar perhaps to Sheldrake's "morphic
resonance" (1989)). As already pointed out, if nonlocality is interpreted
to mean instantaneous connectedness, it would imply that information could be
"received" at a distance at exactly the same moment as it is
generated, without undergoing any form of transmission. At most, one could
then try to understand the conditions that allow the instant appearance of
The alternative position is that
information -- which is basically a pattern of energy -- always takes time to
travel from its source to another location, that information is stored at some
paraphysical level, and that we can access this information, or exchange
information with other minds, if the necessary conditions of "sympathetic
resonance" exist. As with EPR, the hypothesis that telepathy is
absolutely instantaneous is unprovable, but it might be possible to devise
experiments that could falsify it. For if ESP phenomena do involve
subtler forms of energy traveling at finite but perhaps superluminal speeds
through superphysical realms, it might be possible to detect a delay between
transmission and reception, and also some weakening of the effect over very
long distances, though it is already evident that any attenuation must be far
less than that experienced by electromagnetic energy, which is subject to the
As for precognition, the third
main category of ESP, one possible explanation is that it involves direct,
"nonlocal" access to the actual future. Alternatively, it may
involve clairvoyant perception of a probable future scenario that is beginning
to take shape on the basis of current tendencies and intentions, in accordance
with the traditional idea that coming events cast their shadows before them.
Bohm says that such foreshadowing takes place "deep in the implicate
order" (Talbot, 1992, p. 212) -- which some mystical traditions would
call the astral or akashic realms.
Psychokinesis and the unseen
Micro-psychokinesis involves the
influence of consciousness on atomic particles. In certain micro-PK
experiments conducted by Helmut Schmidt, groups of subjects were typically
able to alter the probabilities of quantum events from 50% to between 51 and
52%, and a few individuals managed over 54% (Broughton, 1991, p. 177).
Experiments at the PEAR lab at Princeton University have yielded a smaller
shift of 1 part in 10,000 (Jahn & Dunne, 1987). Some researchers have
invoked the theory of the collapse of wave functions by consciousness in order
to explain such effects. It is argued that in micro-PK, in contrast to
ordinary perception, the observing subject helps to specify what the outcome
of the collapse of the wave function will be, perhaps by some sort of
informational process (Broughton, 1991, pp. 177-81). Eccles follows a similar
approach in explaining how our minds act on our own brains. However, the
concept of wave-function collapse is not essential to explaining mind-matter
interaction. We could equally well adopt the standpoint that subatomic
particles are ceaselessly flickering into and out of physical existence, and
that the outcome of the process is modifiable by our will -- a psychic force.
Macro-PK involves the movement of
stable, normally unmoving objects by mental effort. Related phenomena include
poltergeist activity, materializations and dematerializations, teleportation,
and levitation. Although an impressive amount of evidence for such phenomena
has been gathered by investigators over the past one hundred and fifty years (Inglis,
1984, 1992; Milton, 1994), macro-PK is a taboo area, and attracts little
interest, despite -- or perhaps because of -- its potential to overthrow the
current materialistic paradigm and revolutionize science. Such phenomena
clearly involve far more than altering the probabilistic behavior of atomic
particles, and could be regarded as evidence for forces, states of matter, and
nonphysical living entities currently unknown to science. Confirmation that
such things exist would provide a further indication that within the
all-embracing unity of nature there is endless diversity.
The possible existence of subtler
planes interpenetrating the physical plane is at any rate open to
investigation (see Tiller, 1993), and this is more than can be said for the
hypothetical extra dimensions postulated by superstring theory, which are said
to be curled up in an area a billion-trillion-trillionth of a centimeter
across and therefore completely inaccessible, or the hypothetical "baby
universes" and "bubble universes" postulated by some
cosmologists, which are said to exist in some equally inaccessible
The hypothesis of superphysical
realms does not seem to be favored by many researchers. Edgar Mitchell (1996),
for example, believes that all psychic phenomena involve nonlocal resonance
between the brain and the quantum vacuum, and consequent access to
holographic, nonlocal information. In his view, this hypothesis could explain
not only PK and ESP, but also out-of-body and near-death experiences, visions
and apparitions, and evidence usually cited in favor of a reincarnating soul.
He admits that this theory is speculative, unvalidated, and may require new
Further experimental studies of
consciousness-related phenomena, both normal and paranormal, will hopefully
allow the merits of the various contending theories to be tested. Such
investigations could deepen our knowledge of the workings of both the quantum
realm and our minds, and the relationship between them, and indicate whether
the quantum vacuum really is the bottom level of all existence, or whether
there are deeper realms of nature waiting to be explored.
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