Relationship between Consciousness and Matter
In a talk given at the Eindhoven University of Technology, Thompson discusses accounting for consciousness within the framework of a mechanistic paradigm. After considering the solutions offered by Walter Elsasser, Eugene Wigner, and David Bohm, Thompson introduces the concept from the Vedic tradition of jiva and Paramatma, as part of an explanatory framework. A lively Question & Answer session explores some of the insights that can be gained from this approach.
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TRANSCRIPT: Relationship between Consciousness and Matter. Presentation to Scientists: Eindhoven, Holland – August 8, 1985 / (102)
Announcer: I would like to welcome, of course, our speaker Dr. Thompson . . . [unclear]. . . then I would kindly like to ask you to start…
Thompson: Thank you very much. Well, today I’m just planning to say a few words about the relationship between consciousness and matter, and I want to give a report on some investigations that I’ve done recently in connection with the quantum theory and show how this ties in with Vedic philosophy. So I’ll begin by saying a few words about consciousness. This actually is an illustration in my book [MNS figure 4], if you can see the projection here. One may ask what is the nature of the relationship between states of consciousness and material systems. In modern science of course, the idea has been very widely disseminated that consciousness is a product of the action of the brain. Generally people think in terms of the computer model in which various interactions involving nerve impulses and so forth generate the functions of the mind. However it is also been observed, that there is such a thing as consciousness, in and of itself. This is of course a whole subject of discussion of philosophy – known basically as the mind-body problem – and of course many volumes have been written on this subject. So I’m not going to try and review the discussions of the mind-body problem here, but I wanted to make a brief observation concerning the kind of relationship that must exist between consciousness and physical states of the brain if we accept consciousness as an actually existing reality. So the basic point here is that in analyzing the brain, one can look at it in terms of a hierarchy of levels of abstraction. At the lowest level, as shown in this chart, you have the brain hardware – this is indicated here by some drawings of nerve cells. So within this brain hardware elementary physical events occur which supposedly should add up to generate all the different phenomena that are produced by the brain. For example, nerve impulses can travel along different axons and dendrites of the neurons and synapses, and different chemical reactions can take place, and so on. So, these are basic neural operations.
So to try and understand how the brain could represent the mind, the general approach which is used is to organize conceptually basic operations into larger units which can be referred to by symbols in a higher order language of some kind. Now of course this hasn’t been really done yet for the brain, but this is the approach people use when they deal with computers. For example, I’ll just share one illustration here from a book on artificial intelligence, this is probably quite small, but in the series of levels here – the lowest one says transistors, as in an old fashioned transistorized computer – and then from the level of flip flops and gates; now flip flops and gates are actually combinations of transistors, so that represents a level of abstraction above the transistor level. Then you come to registers and data pads, machine instructions – this is the level of machine language, a compiler or interpreter; and then LISP – that’s a kind of programming language.
So at the level, say of LISP, you’ll have statements in a language, but they refer to complicated combinations of the lower order entities in this hierarchy. And ultimately they refer to actual physical processes in a machine. And finally, according to this artificial intelligence scheme, you get up to intelligent programs at the top. Of course this hasn’t really been really realized yet, but that’s the idea of how one could represent mind in terms of the operation of a machine. So going back to this picture, let us suppose you can do this for the brain Then at a lower level you’d have basic neural operations and you can work your way up some kind of hierarchy until at the upper level you’d have things corresponding to thoughts, feelings, perceptions, and so forth. So if we regard consciousness as being actually something that really exists, that is we have states of consciousness – for example I’m now perceiving people here in this room and also perceiving what I’m feeling and so on – so the question comes: What is the relationship between consciousness and the material system? So one can say that whatever the nature of that relationship is, it can only be a direct relationship between the states of consciousness – thoughts, feelings and so on – and the higher order patterns within this material system. There’s no direct one-to-one correlation between the states of consciousness and, say, nerve impulses. So this leads to the idea that the relation between the states of consciousness and the material system is in some way what the physicists would call nonlocal.
So I’ll mention briefly what this concept is. In physics there is the idea that material entities can either interact with one another in their immediate vicinity, that is with no spatial separation, or they might interact with one another across a distance. Of course, when Newton introduced his law of gravitation, it was very controversial because he was proposing that gravitational force acts instantly over a large distance. So that’s an example of a nonlocal interaction. An example of a local interaction would be given by, say, the laws of electromagnetism. If you have an electric and magnetic field, then according to Maxwell’s equations, at each point they’re interacting with each other with no spatial separation. So in present day physics the basic idea is that all interactions should be understood as local interactions. This is actually required by the, Einstein’s special theory of relativity, for example, and so physicists are very uncomfortable about nonlocal interactions. So in particular, of course, a local theory of gravitation was introduced by Einstein, that’s his general theory of relativity. So the point I wanted to introduce here about consciousness is that if you accept consciousness as something real, it seems to interact with matter in a nonlocal fashion. And so I’m going to return to that point later on in the discussion.
Now, before going further with consciousness, I want to introduce another basic theme which I would like to discuss and that is the theme of biological complexity. So here we have . . . [unclear} . . . mechanical arrangements within the bodies. For example the eye has many highly complicated systems; I was told by one medical student that I knew that there is a certain membrane here called Descemet’s membrane, just one little layer of cells; somebody wrote a three hundred page doctoral dissertation, just on that. So actually these biological structures can be highly complex, and the question is: How does such structures originate? So, of course this has been a subject of much discussion and the basic idea of how they originate, which has been adopted by modern day science, is the Darwinian theory of evolution and the various forms of that. So it is a fact, however, that this theory has not provided explicit explanations of how highly complex forms come into being.
Actually all of the examples in which one can give a plausible explanation of how biological form comes into being through an evolutionary process involve very simple aspects of biological form. Of course, one can say that a complex form is difficult to deal with simply because it is complex, and indeed that is true; but it remains a fact that it is a somewhat of a mystery still at the present time how these complex forms come into being. This is another interesting example right here: It seems that there are certain butterflies which have iridescent wings, and if you magnify the wings you’ll see they’re made of little scales, like shingles of a roof, and if you magnify them further you’ll find that there are very tiny diffraction gratings mounted on raised platforms along the lengths of these scales. So somehow or the other, nature has created diffraction gratings there. So one may wonder just how this comes about.
Some indication of what is involved in the origin of biological form is given by the study of biological form on the molecular level. For example, this is a structural diagram of a transfer RNA molecule – that’s one of the molecules that exist within living cells – and it is a very complex and precisely constructed molecule. And in fact, on the molecular level, within cells, one finds a very high level of complexity Here is an example of a bacteriophage – this is a simple diagram of a kind of virus that infects bacteria – and I can show briefly here how the bacteriophage works. This is interesting because it’s an example of a fairly simple biological system, in fact one of the simplest in existence. This device consists of a hollow shell containing the DNA of the bacteriophage, and a kind of syringe mechanism. What happens here is that the bacteriophage will come in contact with a wall of a bacterium, and it recognizes the surface as being that of the right kind of bacterium. And then a spring-like arrangement contracts and drives this hollow syringe through the wall of the bacterium. And then the DNA which is coiled up inside this capsule, goes through the tube into the bacterium. And once that happens, the bacterium begins to follow the instructions in the viral DNA, and it begins to manufacture viruses through a process of assembly of different parts.
So, just for the fun of it, here is an example of a very simple simulation of such a process; this is a very super-simplified bacteriophage. We have rectangles with bond sites and these represent molecules – protein molecules – which can bond together according to certain rules. And these are so designed that once they are allowed to move about at random, they can actually bond together to form a completed structure like this. So the process of this bonding together is shown here in a computer simulation. We start [unclear] . . . This is a time sequence in which you start out with a random arrangement of these molecules, and gradually they begin to assemble together to form a completed structure by engaging in a random walk process. So this is a simulation of this, on a very simple level, of what’s going on with this bacteriophage. But the interesting point to make about this is that you can ask, ”What happens if you vary the parameters which are involved in specifying these different bond values and the different distances, and so forth?” What you find is, that there are only certain combinations of the parameters which will produce a system that works and assembles itself. Most combinations do not do so, and in fact just varying two of the parameters we find a situation like this, in which – in this particular graph – two parameters are applied on the horizontal axes here, and the vertical axis represents the degree of effectiveness with which the system functions and assembles together. And one can see that you have a series of peaks that tend to be separated from one another. This turns out to be a general property of such systems: There will be many different parameters, and only for certain very precisely specified combinations will the system function properly. If you vary them very slightly, then the system ceases to function properly. So you can imagine a multi-dimensional space with many different parameters representing all the different properties of the system; and there’ll be many isolated islands or peaks within that space representing viable systems, and a very large volume of space representing systems that don’t work.
So, the question is: By what process do you manage to find your way to a peak, or an island representing a viable form? By an evolutionary optimization process, once you are on a given peak you can climb up to the top moving in the immediate vicinity. But the question is: How do you get to such a peak? So this is a general question in biology. So, of course, the, what I wanted to discuss was some alternative ideas to the standard explanation of how this comes about. So one example of such an idea is the theory propounded by a man named Walter Elsasser at Johns Hopkins University. This Walter Elsasser was a physicist who later turned to biology, and so he proposed a rather interesting theory as to how complicated organic form could come into being; and this theory is based on some of the unique features of the quantum theory. Briefly, the nature of the quantum theory is that it does not determine exactly what is going to happen in a physical system. You’re no doubt familiar with quantum phenomena such as radioactive decay in which the particular time in which a radioactive atom, say, emits an alpha particle, is not determined by any physical law – it’s a completely random event. Well, random events as treated by quantum mechanics can be dealt with statistically, as long as the probabilities for these events are fairly high. For example, if you have something with a probability of one out of a thousand, then if you repeat the circumstances in which that event can arise several thousand times and the event happens several times, then you have evidence that it’s happening with a probability of about one out of a thousand. If you could only repeat it a hundred times, and say it occurred once, then you’d have no basis for saying that it had a probability of one out of a thousand. So, to talk about probabilities of events you need to have repetitions commensurate with the reciprocal of the probability (that is, one divided by the probability). So in quantum mechanics it turns out that probabilities or possibilities are there for very large numbers of distinct events, so that these have nearly equal probability. The numbers can be so large that they are what Elsasser called “immense.” He used the term “immense” to refer to any number larger than about 10 to the 100th power. So if you have a situation in which there are more than 10 to the 100th power alternatives, and one of them comes up, then you cannot say that that is happening by chance, because it is impossible to reproduce the situation enough times to measure such probabilities. So Elsasser used this idea as a means of introducing new laws into physics which are compatible with the laws of quantum mechanics, but which are independent of those laws. Actually Elsasser proposed that the laws of quantum mechanics as they stand, are quite correct, but he said though, that one could have additional laws. So this was his basic idea, and he referred to these laws by the term that he called “creative selection”. That is, he said that there can be a process in nature which simply selects highly complex forms. This process does not depend on laws of physics – it cannot be deduced from them. But also it does not contradict them; it is an independent aspect of nature or of reality which you can add the existing framework of quantum mechanics. So I would like to say a little bit about quantum mechanics, because what I’m going to do is elaborate a little bit on Elsasser’s idea and show how that ties up with other interesting ideas.
So first I’ll introduce the idea of the quantum mechanical wave function. In quantum mechanics one does not specify exact positions and velocities of particles; one specifies something called a wave function, which is spread out in space. So here if we have a particle, in quantum mechanics it can be spread out. Now this spreading is a rather interesting phenomenon. If it occurs just on an atomic or microscopic level there’s no problem; but it is possible for this spreading to occur on a macroscopic level. This is exemplified by the famous Schrodinger cat paradox. This is perhaps the basic example of this. In this paradox – well it’s called a paradox – you have some radioactive atoms, a Geiger counter, and then some apparatus which will kill a cat which is within a box if a radioactive atom decays within a certain time period. And on the other hand if the atom doesn’t decay within that time period, then the cat is not killed, So according to quantum mechanics, the state of the radio active atom is actually indeterminate. It’s described by a wave function like this, which spreads out not over the position exactly, but over the state of the atom being decayed or not decayed. So the state of the atom in being partly decayed and partly not decayed, the wave function can represent both alternatives at once. So what happens then is that such an atom is interacting with a Geiger counter. Then according to quantum mechanics, you come to a state of affairs in which the Geiger counter is triggered and not triggered. It’s a superposition of two states of affairs: one in which the Geiger counter is triggered, and one in which it is not. And if the Geiger counter is linked up to this apparatus affecting the cat, then you wind up with a state of affairs in which the cat has been killed and not killed. That is, it’s a superposition of two states: one representing a live cat and one representing a dead cat. So this seemed to be a somewhat strange state of affairs. You can ask, ”But what happens if you look at the cat?” According to the mathematics of the quantum theory, what happens there is that you wind up with an observer who is in many states: He becomes the superposition of an observer seeing a live cat and an observer seeing a dead cat. This is a little diagram, which sort of represents the state of the observer. He’s not looking at a machine that kills cats in this case, but it’s a Wilson cloud chamber that he’s supposedly looking at, but a similar thing can happen there. The point is that as far as the theory goes, the observer becomes a superposition of many different observers with different experiences. So this is the, what is actually predicted by the mathematics of the quantum theory. And so one can ask, ”Well, what does that mean, seems to be a somewhat strange state of affairs? So over the years people have had many different approaches to dealing with this. I’ll just indicate a few of them. One of these is to, actually this is the Copenhagen interpretation of Niels Bohr. According to this, you divide reality into classical and quantum realms; and you restrict quantum mechanics to microscopic entities like atoms and you use classical physics for macroscopic entities. And at a certain point you just switch over, from one theory to the next. You do that at a point when you make a measurement with some macroscopic instrument. So this works operationally, but it seems to have this dichotomy between two completely different ways of describing nature. So it doesn’t seem to provide a unified picture of what is there. Another one is the theory that consciousness collapses the wave function. This is an idea developed by, well, first von Neumann discussed this, and then Eugene Wigner introduced this idea. So according to this idea, as soon as an observer becomes conscious of a certain state of affairs – that is, let’s say if you have a human observer looking at the cat – as soon as the human observer looks and sees that the cat is living, let us say, then you take all these different alternatives, like the alternative of the live cat and the alternative of the dead cat, and erase all of them but one. And you do that at random according to the probabilities generated by quantum mechanics. So that is one concept. This leads to the idea that consciousness is affecting the states of matter in nature.
Another idea is that there exist many coexisting parallel universes. According to this scheme, you accept all the different alternatives as being real and you just say that, in effect, the universe is constantly splitting into many universes in which all the different alternative possibilities actually take place. So in one universe there’s a live cat and an observer seeing a live cat, and in another universe there is a dead cat and an observer seeing a dead cat, and so forth. So, of course this leads to some very amazing considerations, because it turns out that the, this process of splitting universes continuously goes on according to the quantum theory. So, let’s see, actually this is a very controversial area, and I can hardly even begin to discuss all the different points. But the basic idea here is that in quantum mechanics the basic physical, or the basic mathematical description of physical reality tends to spread out in a higher dimensional space and represent many different mutually contradictory states of affairs. It can also represent many different combinations of events. Here is a simple example: Suppose you let decay of radioactive atoms control the typing out of letters by a computer so that they’re typed at random according to the decay of those atoms. And let us say, you let it type out a 100 letters, and there are 26 letters in your alphabet. And let us say you choose it so that the probability for any one letter should be the same. Well in that case, for the 100 letters, there are 10 to the 26th power possibilities. So the wave function split, as it were, into 10 to the 26th power. No, 26, excuse me, 26 to the 100th power, 26 to the 100th power different branches, each one of which represents a different alternative. So this is where Elsasser’s idea came in, because he was saying that you can have a law in nature which makes a selection of one of these 10 to the 26th power alternatives. That law is independent of the laws of quantum mechanics because you cannot in any way measure a probability as small as 1 over 10 to the 26th power. And thus new principles independent of quantum mechanics, but not contradictory to it, can be introduced. This was his idea. Now as far as it goes, that is interesting, what I wanted to discuss, was some further developments that one can arrive at by examining this idea a little bit further. The best way to approach these ideas is to consider a simple example from classical physics. This is a, say, a potential well that is in two dimensions. These contours represent lines of equal potential and the lowest point is in the centre. So you can imagine here a sort of triangular basin. And you can imagine taking a ball bearing and having it roll within this triangular basin, which acts as a force field. Or you can imagine a magnetic field, which has just these lines of equal potential. So it turns out that a simple classical system like this generates something that is called deterministic chaos, which is something that has been studied quite a bit recently. The idea there is that the path of the ball cannot be predicted for very far into the future, even in classical physics. The reason for this is that even very tiny changes in the direction of the ball will result in very large changes in its motion in a very short time. So, for example, these diagrams represent computer simulations showing how the trajectory of the ball goes through a certain surface. So each point represents a measure of what the ball is doing as it passes a certain surface – actually this is done in what is called phase space. The interesting point is that these points just move at random across this diagram.
Answer: Yeah, strange attractors are there. In general it’s this whole subject of deterministic chaos. One observes that the trajectory becomes as unpredictable as a completely random process. So there are many interesting examples of this; one example that is quite interesting is turbulence. This is just a computer simulation of turbulent flow of a fluid. This also has this property of deterministic chaos, which means that even though it’s a classical system, you cannot predict what’s going to happen very far into the future. So it turns out that this inability to predict has implications concerning the quantum theory, because in the quantum theory there is uncertainty in the physical state of affairs of about the order of magnitude of a number called the Planck constant [h]. This is about 10 to the 27th power in, well, erg/sec, in those particular physical units. So very tiny changes in position or momentum of the order of h can be amplified within a fairly short time to produce changes that are so large that you can easily see them. And the result then is, that this quantum mechanical spreading out of the system into many mutually contradictory alternatives, will even occur for regular classical systems, like this fluid for example, fluid flow. This predicts, this indicates that for example, you can never really hope to predict the weather – if the weather is an example of fluid flow like this – because quantum mechanical uncertainties can actually have a large effect on the weather over short periods of time. So it’s also the case that in classical examples you can show how it is possible to add laws to the existing classical physical laws in such a way that you don’t violate those laws, and at the same time you’ve introduced new principles which are not predicted by those laws. This is somewhat of a strange idea, if you consider the idea that classical physics is supposed to be deterministic.
This is a simple example that shows how that is possible: If you have a series of sealed pins as in a pin ball, old fashioned pin ball machine, and you have one ball bouncing against them, it is possible – and we assume no friction and ideal elastic collisions and all that sort of thing – then it is possible for the classical trajectory to follow any path whatsoever you might like. For example, you can say, ”Let’s spell out Shakespeare’s plays in some particular handwriting.” Well, it’s possible for the classical trajectory to do that. So there’s a fairly simple mathematical proof of that, but I won’t go into it, but this leads to an interesting way of looking at the laws of physics. The way to, what I think perhaps is the easiest way to think of this is to go back to this example of this simple potential that I was talking about before. This is a particular trajectory, or path, followed within this potential, just one example of such a thing. You can imagine a trajectory, or path to be an object in spacetime. And you can regard the laws of physics as describing the local connections between the different parts of this object. In the case of a simple trajectory like this, it’s just the points as you go along the trajectory viewed as being in space and time. So the implication of these observations concerning deterministic chaos is that if you look at the trajectory locally, in any small part of it, you’ll see that it follows the classical laws of physics very closely. But if you look at it over a longer period of time, you can see that what it does is completely unpredictable. So this suggests that one can look at the laws of physics as applying to the local situation, but as not specifying what happens globally, or over a longer span of time. So, one can then regard the entire trajectory, say, of a physical system, as a kind of continuum which can be, so to speak, flexed into any different particular configuration that you may like.
I can make an analogy here of, say, taking a piece of flexible metal like a spring. You can bend the spring into various shapes in such a way that locally it almost exactly follows the path determined by the physical properties of the tendency to resist bending and so forth – the elasticity of the spring. But yet over a long distance you can curve it so as to produce, say, some modern abstract sculpture, according to your particular desire. Of course one would say that in the case of the spring, it really, no matter how you bend it, it will really bend quite a bit as you go along the length of it. Thus it won’t really be following its free, desired path, which would be a straight line. But the nature of the laws of physics is such that if you view the entire spacetime history of the physical system as being a kind of elastic spring, as it were, that can be bent into many different desired shapes, and still locally it almost exactly follows the laws of physics. So this leads to an approach to quantum mechanics, and also classical physics, which is another alternative to these different approaches that I outlined. Essentially what you can do, you see in quantum mechanics the problem, or the situation that arises, is that the system is not determined precisely. There is, certain things are determined, certain aspects of things are determined, but there is a lot of freedom in the system. So one way of looking at it is to regard the spacetime history of the physical system as a sort of flexible entity in which the laws of physics, or of quantum mechanics, determine what happens from moment to moment fairly closely, but with some freedom. And the freedom is such that the overall pattern can be chosen more or less at will. So . . . yes?
Q: Would a naïve analogy be something like, I’d say the differential equations, [unclear] . . . only the first derivation needs be determined, the rest is free . . . I mean I am just trying to understand it.
A: Well, let us see. In terms of classical physics, the simplest way to understand it, well hmmm, I don’t want to get into technical details, but, there is the idea of, instead of using differential equations to describe the trajectory of the system, using the idea of finding a stationary point of the action. This action for a trajectory is a global description of the trajectory, it involves an integral of local events over the total length of the trajectory. And there is a classical principle, I guess originally developed by de Maupertuis (I’m probably not pronouncing that correctly), but it’s similar, it’s similar to Fermat’s principle in optics also, according to which the path of a light ray through a series of lenses can be determined by considering the refraction of each lens, or you can consider the total time it takes for the light beam to go through and take that path which minimizes the time. So let’s just take that light beam example – it might turn out that as you vary the path which will minimize the time of passage you find that you are in a very steep valley. That is, as you vary this path in this multi-dimensional space of all the different parameters that you can vary, varying it slightly takes you way off from minimum. If that’s true, then the path is very well defined – its very exactly determined. But on the other hand, suppose as you vary the path you’re in a very broad valley in this multi-dimensional space, it’s almost flat. In that case, it could be that you could have many different paths which look almost equally good. So the main implication of these findings in deterministic chaos and so on is that in many physical systems, it is like that. The valley, so to speak, in this multi-dimensional space determining what is the proper path is so flat that all kinds of different paths are possible. And quantum mechanics makes this situation even more the case. It actually, you can say it makes the valley even flatter. So we can then think of this idea of the total spacetime history of the physical system as being very freely adjustable, and yet, the laws of physics are locally obeyed. So if you do experiments you’ll always see that the laws of physics work out, as you would expect.
So to go back to this idea of Elsasser, this is a specific way of introducing his concept of the creative selection. The idea here is, that you can take this spacetime continuum, and so to speak, working on it from a vantage point that is transcendental to time – that is, that you are taking the whole history at once, and molding it – and you can get it to produce all kinds of different forms, for example structures of organisms and so on and so forth. And at the same time, this whole bending and flexing procedure produces a pattern that’s completely consistent with the laws of physics. So this is a possible model which can be applied to Elsasser’s idea, and I would like now to go back to this concept of consciousness that I mentioned before. I’ll mention in particular an interesting experiment in parapsychology which has been reported in recent years. This is, well the original work was done by a man named Helmut Schmidt, a physicist. He had a radioactive source which controlled a random number generator and determined whether . . . well, he had a circle of lights and only one light would be on; and the light that was on could either shift to the right or the left, with a 50-50 chance depending on the radioactive decay. So when you looked at it, you’d see a light that would sort of be random, moving around in a circle back and forth. Now according to quantum physics, with a 50-50 chance, this light should just do a random walk. So, all the statistical properties of a random walk should be there. But he then would ask a person, to look at this light, and try to will it to go around clockwise. And he found that at least with some subjects over a period of, say an hour or so, they could consistently make it tend to go around clockwise. It’s not that they could just make it march, directly in a clockwise direction and keep going back and forth; but on the average you could keep going around clockwise. So also there were some people in which they wanted to go clockwise, but on the average it would go around counter-clock wise – things seemed to be happening in a perverse fashion for them. So this experiment is interesting. This is an example of a parapsychological experiment involving psychokinesis and of course, that’s a whole subject to go into.