Consciousness at a quantum level

Warning: this post contains hypothethical speculations, and is not substantiated by any teachings of the Buddha, so you may wish to skip reading if you do not want to be corrupted by quite possibly wrong views.

Some time ago, I half jokingly postulated that our sense of “self” or consciousness may be related to quantum probability theory.

Specifically, this is what I said:

I pretty much dismissed this speculation soon afterwards, as I did not think our mind operated at a quantum level. However, I recently discovered that some scientists, notably Roger Penrose, have in fact been speculating this:

Even more recently, scientists are speculating that “consciousness is a quantum process facilitated by microtubules in the brain’s nerve cells”:

Anyway, interesting speculations. On balance, I am still rating this idea as pure speculation, but it will be interesting to keep track of developments.

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The term is “Hilbert space” - not Hubert space. And more precisely in QM what is dealt with are “rigged Hilbert spaces.” One more thing: instead of vectors in Hilbert spaces, what are really the fundamental objects are “rays” in Hilbert space; and finally, even these are not the most fundamental, but instead what is fundamental are the relations of observables dictated by the structure of the squared modulus of the vectors.

The “projection function” has a well defined mathematical meaning, and I do not think it really make sense to say that a lifetime could be this projection function. I think you meant something besides this.

If you want to call the self a vector (ray) in the (rigged) Hilbert space, then this begs the question: which ray? In ordinary classical mechanics, you could say that your “self” is the atoms in your body, but which atoms? Are the atoms making up your urine “you” or not? Changing the substance to quantum stuff does not change this issue.

One of the biggest mysteries in QM is what is called the “measurement problem.” And there are some theories that consciousness relates to measurement and collapse of a wave function Von Neumann–Wigner interpretation - Wikipedia .

Roger Penrose talks more about QM and his theory of consciousness in his book The Emperor’s New Mind.


Thanks - its been years since I studied physics, and my memory must be playing tricks on me.

I agree. In the original post that I quoted from, it was meant to be half joking. I wasn’t actually saying that a life is a projection function, but that it may be analogous to a projection function, with karma acting as the parameters of that function.

I read The Emperor’s New Mind a long time ago - I don’t recall it specifically postulating this, but I am happy to entertain the notion our consciousness “is” (or can be analogous) to a specific quantum state or collapse of a wave function.

I have to state that I don’t actually believe any of this is true, and I can’t emphasize that strongly enough. Wave-particle duality does not operate at a macro level (then again, perhaps it does - I would hesitate to claim it though). It works better if you think of it as an analogy, rather than a physical explanation. I was actually shocked that some people apparently believe this could be true.

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I still am not sure if a projection function is applicable here. Maybe though what you could say is that QM is indeterministic (yet probabilistic), but kamma can influence how wave functions collapse? For example, the person who draws the balls for the lottery has wave function collapse in a certain way in his/her brain that cause them to pick specific balls influencing who wins the lottery in such a way that the person with the good karma wins? :sweat_smile:

I should have been more clear. Here is what I remember: the Von Neumann-Wigner interpretation supposes that consciousness is necessary for wave function collapse, and perhaps it influences wavefunction collapse. It can slide into a type of panpsychism, too.

Roger Penroses’s theory is something different: quantum effects in the brain are where consciousness “lives” so to speak. So, the brain is analogous to a quantum computer. One of the points he was trying to make in his book is that it just might not be possible to simulate consciousness with a classical computer.

It’s a good book, but I last read it a few years ago. Another famous book which is in the same ballpark, though not about QM, is the classic Godel, Escher, Bach. The author talks about Zen Buddhism in it. It is a little dense for the layperson* though.

*Not a Buddhist layperson :laughing:

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I can’t recall my specific hypothesis, as it was meant semi-seriously, but I think I was considering consciousness as a vector traversing through time, described by a probability function that was shaped by karma. This does raise questions about determinism which I am not prepared to answer :slight_smile:

Are you trying to say consciousness is acting as the “observer” and hence “measurer” and therefore causes the collapse of the wave function (in a Schrödinger sense)? In a way, I suppose that is literally true.

I did read Godel, Escher and Bach in high school and remember being fascinated by it. A university professor then criticised me reading it and said that the author was a “charlatan.” But I still admire it for aesthetic reasons, its beautifully constructed.

One thing that occurred to me is that if we do believe consciousness operate at a quantum level, then it is raises further thoughts:

  1. Quantum coherence and entanglement may imply our minds theoretically have infinite scope and may be entangled with other minds. Therefore this may validate Vedic philosophy of a universal atta that we are all connected to, which the Buddha has refuted.
  2. It then validates the Mahayana belief that individual release is a “lesser vehicle” - it represents the specific extinguishment of one particular “quantum state” (or collapse of wave function) but says nothing about other possible quantum states. True release is only possible with “universal liberation” - when ALL beings attain nibbana.
  3. Presumably the Buddha would have also realised this, and it may have driven his “desire” to liberate others. He may have deliberately withheld talking about the concept of universal soteriology in order not to discourage others (it’s hard enough to achieve individual release, let alone universal release). At the end of the day individual soteriology is still a worthwhile goal.
  4. If we also conflate the idea of a “one electron universe” (that everything we see is simply the manifestation of a single electron travelling forwards and backwards in time) then the universe is deterministic. It may also imply that universal release is not possible, since that would imply the collapse of the existence of the physical universe, but since that has not already happened, therefore it will never happen.

I think that’s enough speculation for one day! Maybe I should really explore Mahayana philosophy further to answer these questions.